The Hindu announces the Emergency

It was Mythili Varadarajan’s post on Fb that triggered this memory that today marked the 44th anniversary of the Emergency. I was just nine and yet I have some very vivid recollections of the Emergency. It was probably because the 19 months that it lasted saw a great change in my life – at the beginning I was happily in Madras, studying in Vidya Mandir and by the time it ended, I was in Calcutta, struggling with a new city, a new school and an entirely new environment.

When it was imposed, the circles in which I moved largely welcomed it. There was a feeling that India had lurched towards lawlessness and this was much-needed correction. Being in Madras, we hardly realised what was happening up north. The AIR broadcast carefully worded bulletins that showcased the Prime Minister. By way of entertainment we had songs praising the 20 Point Programme – I can still sing a few lines and you can listen to the opening lines of one here –

Then came the first indications of trouble – our newspapers began appearing with large blanks in them. These were the censored portions. Defying this, Cho Ramaswami brought out an issue of Tughlaq in which he had cartoons lampooning the Central Government. One of them featured DK Barooah (of India is Indira fame) caricatured as a young girl telling the story of how Indira the goddess vanquished the rakshasa Morarji. Cho was arrested I think immediately after this and the next issue of Tughlaq had a completely black cover.

The South Indian middle class world rejoiced in the Emergency, at least for a while. The Karunanidhi Government was dismissed at around this time and he faced charges of corruption – “nicely wanted” cried his detractors in Tamil. “Trains come and go on time,” said many and above all, there were no strikes, no protests, which latter aspect led even JRD Tata to praise the Emergency. There was some visceral love for law and order over personal liberties that in hindsight appears somewhat puzzling, but I guess these were people who were groping for a balance between rights and responsibilities, and the latter in their view had clearly taken a beating in the pre-Emergency days.

How far the Emergency could reach became manifest to us when my father, then a middle-level officer in a nationalised bank, received a letter asking to explain why he received letters from foreign banks, especially those in Switzerland. The poor man had to spend hours drafting replies clarifying that he had a passion for international finance and so liked to keep abreast of what was happening in banking across the world.

Early in 1976 my father was posted to Calcutta, as part of the International Banking Division of his bank – whether it was because someone read his explanation or whether it was just chance we would never know. It was only when we reached there did the true nature of the Emergency burst forth on us – the tales of murder in prison, Rajan, a student of REC Calicut whose body was never recovered, arrest and torture of political leaders, the enforced family planning scheme (RK Narayan wrote a hilarious short story and a moving novel – The Painter of Signs, based on this theme), the brave fight by the Indian Express (others crawled when asked to bend), the suppression of fundamental rights and the horrors inflicted by VC Shukla and others of the Sanjay Gandhi coterie.

The Emergency was lifted late in 1976 and we then had elections. Our first experience of voting in Bengal was when on Election Day a lock hung at the gate of our building – someone else would cast the votes of people who lived there! The Communist Party won in Calcutta and we suffered them for years afterwards. It was the beginning of the long decline of the Congress though it was not apparent then, as it would come back to power repeatedly. In the midst of the campaign, Jayaprakash Narayan arrived in Calcutta. A young woman threw herself on his car bonnet and clung on to it, shouting abuse at him. That was the first time we got to know about Mamata Banerjee.

You may also want to read

George Fernandes and the Madras Connection
The Indian Express fights the Emergency