Lessons from the National Emergency declared 45 years ago

The “democratic” Indian Republic is a tool of Monopoly Capitalist Dictate

Aim of declaring Emergency was to crush the struggles of working people
It exposed that political power is concentrated in very few hands

On 25th June, 1975, the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi advised President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of Emergency, by invoking Article 352 of the Constitution.  The threat of internal disturbances was cited as justification. At one stroke, people were deprived of all the fundamental rights listed in the Constitution, including the right to free speech and assembly.  The state of Emergency lasted for a year and nine months, ending on 21st March, 1977.

Workers’ strikes were banned. Trade union leaders and student activists were jailed. Lakhs of slum dwellers in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities were forcibly evicted.  Their houses were razed to the ground.  Millions of workers and peasants were forcibly sterilized under a program for “population control”.  Press censorship was imposed. All criticism of the government was banned. Thousands of political activists were jailed under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act.  State governments run by opposition parties were dismissed and President’s Rule imposed, as in Gujarat and Tamilnadu.

It was a time when the whole country was being shaken by mass protests of workers, peasants, youth and students against their miserable conditions.  The all-India strike of railway workers in 1974 had brought the entire economy to a grinding halt.  Peasant agitations were growing in Punjab, Tamilnadu, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal and other regions.  Students were out on the streets in Bihar, Gujarat and other places, protesting against unemployment, corruption and unaffordable food prices.

The promise of building a “socialistic pattern of society” had been exposed as a big lie.  People could see that only a tiny minority of big capitalists and landlords, corrupt ministers and officials had amassed wealth at the expense of the toiling majority of people.

The ruling class felt threatened by the widespread discontent and mass protests all over the country.  This was the real meaning of the “threat of internal disturbances” cited as the reason for declaring a National Emergency.

It was a time when conflicts had sharpened, both between the exploiters and the exploited, and within the exploiters.  The Green Revolution and the spread of capitalist agriculture had led to the strengthening of centrifugal forces. Regional propertied groups were demanding a greater share of power, leading to the sharpening of centre-state conflicts. There was acute rivalry between the two superpowers, each seeking to establish its domination over South Asia.  The signing of an Indo-Soviet military treaty and the subsequent breaking up of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh had strengthened the influence of the Soviet social-imperialists.  The US imperialists responded by covertly supporting various opposition parties to topple the Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi.

In such conditions, the imposition of a National Emergency served to unleash brutal repression and terror to crush the people’s struggles and criminalize all forms of dissent.  All those who were out on the streets in protest were branded as anti-national forces backed by a “foreign hand”.  They were accused of posing a threat to national unity and territorial integrity of India.  The declaration of Emergency was presented as being a “fight against right reaction”.  The Preamble to the Constitution was amended to add the words “secular” and “socialist” before “democratic Republic”.

The struggle of the people against the Emergency regime and in defence of their democratic rights was manipulated by one section of the capitalist class by advancing the call for “restoration of democracy”.

The defeat of the Congress Party in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections, and the formation of a coalition government headed by Morarji Desai, was proclaimed as a victory for democracy.  However, all the developments since that time show that there has been no respite in brutal repression to suppress all forms of dissent. State terrorism, including state-organised communal violence, has become the preferred method of imposing the dictate of the capitalist monopoly houses over the workers, peasants and other oppressed people.

At the present time, the Central Government has virtually assumed emergency powers in the name of dealing with the Corona virus pandemic.  It has invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the Disaster Management Act, 2005. All decisions are being taken by the National Disaster Management Authority, whose Chairman is the Prime Minister.  Elected members of Parliament and state assemblies have no say whatsoever.

People are being deprived of their democratic rights in the name of the “war against corona virus”. Political meetings and rallies have been banned.  Political activists who participated in mass protests in recent months are being arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

An important lesson to be drawn from the experience of the 1975 Emergency and from all the developments since then is that the existing system of democracy and its Constitution do not guarantee democratic rights.

The declaration of Emergency was not in violation of the Constitution.  The Constitution permits the central executive to take such a decision and deprive people of their “fundamental rights” (see box on Constitutional Provisions for Declaration of Emergency).

We, the people, are not sovereign, as proclaimed in the Preamble of the Constitution.  Decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny clique.  The capitalist monopoly houses use their dominant influence over the central Cabinet to impose their dictate on the entire society.

An important lesson from the entire historical experience of the past 45 years is that those who fight in defence of people’s rights must not be fooled by slogans such as “Save Democracy” and “Defend the Constitution”.  We must wage the struggle with the aim of establishing a new system of democracy, a system which enables workers and peasants to rule.

The Constitution must vest sovereignty in the people and not in the President, Cabinet or Parliament.  The executive must be accountable to the elected legislative body, and those elected must be accountable to the electorate.  The Constitution must guarantee that human rights and democratic rights cannot be violated under any pretext.

Constitutional Provisions for Declaration of Emergency

Article 352 of the 1950 Constitution empowers the President to declare a state of emergency throughout the country or in any part of it, if he or she is advised by the central Cabinet that there is a threat of war, external aggression, or internal disturbances. The decision to declare an emergency needs to be subsequently approved by Parliament within a month. Article 352 was amended only slightly in 1978, to replace “internal disturbances” by “armed rebellion” and to require the Cabinet to convey its advice in writing to the President.

There are also other emergency provisions in the Constitution. Article 356 empowers the President to declare emergency in different states of the Indian Union, to dissolve elected state legislative assemblies and impose President’s Rule. It allows the Center to take over powers of the state government.

Article 360 allows the President to declare a state of financial emergency throughout the country.

Article 352 and Article 360 allow the Central Government to deprive people of democratic rights and civil liberties. They also allow the Center to take over the powers of state governments.

It is thus constitutional for the central executive to deprive people of their rights and to dismiss elected state governments whenever it pleases, as long as it commands a majority in Parliament.



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