The Constitution of India provides for certain Emergency provisions that ought to be invoked in certain special circumstances. The provisions are enshrined in Article 352 to Article 360 which provide for three kinds of Emergencies that can be proclaimed by the government subject to certain special conditions. The three kinds of Emergencies are National Emergency, State Emergency, Financial Emergency. India has so far seen numerous State Emergencies (usually imposed when there is a breakdown of Constitutional Machinery in a particular state), one National Emergency and not a single Financial Emergency till date. The most contentious of them all was the National Emergency imposed on 26th June 1975 by the then Indian President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed on the advice of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It is a well-known fact that during the emergency period there was flagrant violation of fundamental rights of the citizens. Press censorship was officially imposed by the government. Political rivals of the Congress party were incarcerated. Electricity supply of various newspapers was halted and only a few newspapers were able to make it to the public. The suddenness of the move was of such an extent that even the cabinet ministers of Indira Gandhi were unaware of the move until a few hours before the imposition and the official address of the Prime Minister to the nation.
Reasons for Imposition of Emergency
Although there were various different reasons for the imposition of emergency ranging from economic problems to internal disturbance and growing political chaos, the prime reasons for the imposition of Emergency were:
- The Navnirman movement.
- The JP Movement.
- The nationwide Railway protests.
- The Raj Narain electoral dispute.
1) Navnirman Andolan in Gujarat
In the fall of 1973, there were large scale protests in Gujrat by students against the fee hike issue in universities across the state and some days later there were call for the dismissal of the State Government by the students. A full-fledged movement was launched and it was called the ‘Navnirman movement’ or the movement for regeneration. At this point of time the congress party ruled Gujrat and the chief minister was Chiman Bhai Patel.
The student protests against the government escalated and soon factory workers and people from other sectors of society joined in. Clashes with the police, burning of buses and government office and attacks on ration shops became an everyday occurrence. By February 1974, the Central Government was forced to act upon the protest. It suspended the Assembly and imposed President’s rule upon the state. “The last act of the Gujarat drama was played in March 1975 when, faced with continuing agitation and fast unto death by Morarji Desai, Indira Gandhi dissolved the assembly and announced fresh elections to it in June,” writes historian Bipin Chandra in his book, ‘India since Independence.’”
2) The JP movement
The success of the Gujarat Navnirman movement by dissolution of assembly by Indira Gandhi led to State of Bihar to launch a similar agitation which was led by a famous former freedom fighter Jayprakash Narayan popularly known as JP. This movement was primarily a student agitation. Although the movement was inspired by the Gujarat movement but in the case of Bihar, Indira Gandhi did not concede to the demand of the protestors to suspend the Assembly and order fresh elections. However, the JP or the Bihar movement was significant in prodding Indira Gandhi to declare a state of internal emergency.
Jayprakash Narayan was a well-known freedom fighter and in the instant case of Gujarat he was leading the protests at war front and had called for the students to boycott exams, classe assessments and rather participate in the protests. Jayprakash Narayan had given a clarion call for Sampoorna Kranti or Total revolution. There were large scale street movements that led to the culmination of the total revolution call. He urged the dissenters to put pressure on the existing legislators to resign, so as to be able to pull down the Congress government. He even went on to say that if government officials believe that any order given to them is not right then they should listen to their inner conscience and should not hesitate in defying those orders. Such statements further led to the strengthening of the case for declaration of emergency on the grounds of internal disturbance. The JP movement was gaining groundswell of support from various sections of the society and from every class of people. There was a growing perception of political threat to the ruling congress party which cannot be overlooked. The decline in the popularity of Indira Gandhi was quite conspicuous and people started viewing JP as an alternative to Indira Gandhi.
“Indira Gandhi denounced the JP movement as being extra-parliamentary and challenged him to face her in the general elections of March 1976. While JP accepted the challenge and formed the National Coordination Committee for the purpose, Gandhi soon imposed the Emergency.”
3) The Railways’ Protest
The railway strike was called in order to demand the introduction of certain changes in the terms and conditions of employment of the locomotive staff workers. The primary condition of the workers was the introduction of an eight-hour day regime. Ever since the British era the rail workers had to work in long hour shifts and this led to their exploitation. Apart from change in working hours the railway workers also demanded a rise in their pay scale which also was stagnant for quite a long time period. Railway strike was a strong reason for the imposition of emergency.
Lasting for three weeks, in May 1974, the strike resulted in the halt of the movement of goods and people. Ramchandra Guha, in his book, notes that as many as a million railwaymen participated in the movement. “There were militant demonstrations in many towns and cities- in several places, the army was called out to maintain the peace,” he writes. Gandhi’s government came down heavily on the protesters. Thousands of employees were arrested and their families were driven out of their quarters.”
4) The Raj Narain verdict
The already mounting tension reached a tipping point when Indira Gandhi was faced with another challenge to her power in the form of a court case challenging her election as prime minister by an opposition leader known as Raj Narain. The main contention in the case was that Indira Gandhi had won from her Parliamentary seat of Raebareli because she indulged in corrupt practices. The petition filed by Raj Narain accused Indira Gandhi of having won the elections through misuse of office. It was alleged that she had spent more money than was allowed by the rules prescribed by the election commission for the purpose of her election campaign. The petitioner further alleged that Gandhi furthered her electoral campaign wherein the campaign was carried out by government officials such as her Personal Assistant. On 12th June 1975, the Allahabad High Court decided to set aside Indira Gandhi’s election as prime minister and barred her from contesting elections for a period of 6 years. Indira Gandhi was however, allowed to appeal in the Apex court within a time period of 20 days from the date of the verdict of the high court. Indira Gandhi appealed against the judgement of Allahabad High Court in the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court to Indira Gandhi’s exhilaration provided a great relief and granted a conditional stay on the Allahabad high court verdict. The Supreme Court said that Gandhi could attend the Parliament and remain the prime minister for the time being but she was prohibited from voting in the parliament until the court decided on her appeal. There was this growing sentiment within the party as well as the in the general public’s mind that Gandhi should resign from her post. Such verdicts also gave a push to the movements that were being led by Jayprakash Narayan. The demand for Gandhi’s resignation was increasing but Indira Gandhi was in no mood to succumb to the demands of the opposition.
In an unexpected and unprecedented move Indira Gandhi just a day after the Apex court judgement advised the President that a state of National Emergency should be imposed citing imminent threat to the internal security of India due to the rising chaotic atmosphere. President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed the Proclamation of Emergency. Indira Gandhi made the announcement of the Proclamation of the Emergency from All India Radio on 26th June 1975.
Constitutional aspects of Emergency
a) The proclamation-
The proclamation of an emergency can be issued by the president if he or she is satisfied that some grave and imminent danger exists to the security or sovereignty of India. The President can proclaim Emergency under article 352 of the Constitution.
b) The procedure-
The President can only impose emergency if he or she is provided with a written decision of the Union Cabinet to issue such a proclamation. This condition was attached to the emergency clause by the constitution 44th amendment. This was done keeping in mind that Indira Gandhi was alleged to have done the same thing when she invoked Emergency in 1975. She was alleged to have declared the Emergency without consulting her Cabinet of Ministers. In order to keep a check on the Prime Minister so that he or she does not unilaterally take a decision of such major consequences, 44th Amendment to the Constitution attached the condition for a written communication of the Cabinet Ministers.
c) The duration-
The proclamation of emergency needs to be ratified by both the houses of parliament. This process needs to be completed before the expiration of one month from the date from which such proclamation has been issued. Such a ratified proclamation will then be operative for a period of six months.
d)The suspension of civil liberties-
The constitution provides for provisions that can suspend the civil liberties of the citizens when emergency is in force. The Constitutions Article 358 provides for suspension of fundamental liberties guaranteed under Article 19 of the constitution. However, it must be noted that any law or executive action passed with respect to these special powers conferred under Article 358 will cease to be in force or exist once the proclamation for emergency has expired. Suspension of such liberties means that there can be press censorship in the nation. Apart from this the centre also has powers to make laws on subjects that are not on Union list and the central government can also send executive orders to states to run the administration.
Emergency provisions provide extraordinary powers to the central government and we must not tend to forget our unpleasant experiences with the use of these provisions in the past. Emergency powers can turn the government nearly autocratic and allows them to control the whole nation as it wants. Since the potential of these provisions is too high and they are prone to misuse, it was deemed fit by the lawmakers to make these provisions a bit more rigid by the 44th amendment of the constitution which was unambiguously an adulation worthy act by the legislature.
It has been said that with great power comes great responsibility. Any government who decides to use these provisions in the future must remember that once they invoke the emergency provisions, they would be armed with great powers and hence their responsibilities would increase. Any government must only use these provisions when extremely necessary and should not cede to the allurement that these powers carry with themselves. Any attempt to misuse these provisions would turn the government despotic. Thus having said that every prime minister must learn from the mistakes of Indira Gandhi and should never cede to the allurement the powers of emergency.
- V.N. Shukla’s Constitution of India by Prof (Dr.) Mahendra Pal Singh, 13th Edition, Eastern Law Book
Frequently Asked Questions
- Briefly write about the four factors that prompted Indira Gandhi to declare Emergency?
- Which movement gave the call for Sampoorna Kranti?
- Which provision prevents arbitrariness in declaring national Emergency under article 352 of the constitution?
- What were the main demands of the railway workers during the railway strike of 1974?
- Discuss briefly the Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain (1975 AIR 1590, 1975 SCC (2) 159) verdict that granted stay to the nullification of Indira Gandhi’s election as prime minister and how it acted as the tipping point for the declaration of emergency?
 Adrija Roychowdhury, “Four reasons why Indira Gandhi declared Emergency” The Indian Express, June 25, 2018
 Adrija Roychowdhury, “Four reasons why Indira Gandhi declared Emergency” The Indian Express, June 25, 2018
 1975 AIR 865, 1975 SCR (3) 333).
 Appeal (civil) 887 of 1975.