The year was 1975. It was mid-June, and the scene had shifted to the city of Allahabad, more famously known as the place of confluence of the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna.
On this occasion, however, the city was to emerge as the place of convergence of at least three pillars of Indian polity — politics, judiciary, and the media.
It was a rare occasion in India, when a political battle was being fought in the courts, and an increasingly belligerent media was looking toward the legislative arena, anticipating yet another opportunity to corner the government.
Raj Narain, a popular figure in the wrestling pits of Benares (as Varanasi was then called), and who is credited to have brought akhara politics (street politics) to the Indian political scene, had challenged the election of Indira Gandhi in the Allahabad High Court. Contemporary records describe Raj Narain as a person with the “heart of a lion and the practices of (Mahatma) Gandhi”.
Raj Narain had decided to confront Indira’s brand of politics with his own brand of akhara politics. His first move was in the political ring when he fought an electoral battle against the sitting prime minister.
While he was associated with the royal family of Benares, he decided to move east to launch his political battle in Rae Bareli, which is located in the alluvial Gangetic plains of the Avadh region.
Since India’s independence, the ruling Indian National Congress had never lost an election from Rae Bareli. Indira Gandhi’s husband Feroze Gandhi had won that seat in India’s first election in 1951-52, and he had repeated his performance five years later.
It was now Indira’s turn to nurture the constituency and Raj Narain, despite his larger-than-life persona, was hardly a match. Raj Narain lost at the hustings, garnering only a quarter of the total votes polled, while Indira Gandhi outscored him with nearly two-thirds of the votes cast.
Undeterred by the political loss, Raj Narain changed tracks, and decided to shift the bout to the legal arena as he filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court, alleging electoral malpractices by the sitting prime minister.
Four years had gone by since his loss in 1971, and the case was now heading toward closure. Suddenly, it was not Lucknow, the administrative capital of Uttar Pradesh; but Allahabad, the judicial capital of the state, that would create one of the biggest political upheavals of post-independence India.
On 12 June 1975, Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court declared the Rae Bareli election “null and void” on account of electoral malpractices, and debarred Indira Gandhi from holding elected office for six years. The ruling party was given a time of 20 days to find a replacement for Indira Gandhi.
Significantly, Indira Gandhi was cleared of major charges of electoral malpractices, but she was unseated and debarred on two relatively minor charges — using the services of a government servant for electoral purposes (Yashpal Kapoor was a government servant who had resigned to work for Indira Gandhi, though his resignation had not yet been approved by the president); and erection of a dias by police officials and use of electricity for relaying her election speech.
She was acquitted of more serious charges of bribery, illegal solicitation of votes, and the use of religious symbols for electioneering. The two offences for which Indira Gandhi was unseated were regarded as standard administrative and security practices. The judgement was, and even today, is often criticised in various quarters as “unseating a prime minister for a traffic offence.”
The political fallout of the judgement was phenomenal as it electrified Indian politics. Raj Narain emerged as a national hero to all those opposed to Indira Gandhi. Having failed to dislodge the Congress party from political power for almost three decades, the judgement provided ammunition for an opposition onslaught.
The galvanised opposition led by Jayaprakash Narain called for the ouster of Indira Gandhi, and announced a campaign of civil disobedience. Both Jayaprakash Narain and Raj Narain were socialists, but in their campaign to oust the Congress, they forged an alliance with the right (though the communist parties largely stayed away).
Though the initial shot had been fired by the socialist parties, the right wing would quickly move centre stage as the contours of the agitation unfolded themselves. The events that followed would help the right wing gain a later-day unprecedented ascendancy over Indian politics.
The beleaguered prime minister smelled a conspiracy. She quickly approached the Supreme Court, but to a vast majority of the Indian populace, Indira Gandhi had already lost the moral authority to rule. Editorials asked for her resignation, the judiciary had already announced their verdict, and street politics was on the verge of launching the final push.
Contemporary accounts reveal that Indira Gandhi toyed with the idea of resignation, but decided against it. If she was no longer the prime minister, and her party was to face the electorate the next year, would the party be able to counter the narrative of a united opposition, was the reasoning offered by her supporters.
Less than a fortnight later, on 25 June 1975, Jayaprakash Narain organised a rally in Delhi, stating that the police should stop accepting orders of an immoral and unethical government. Through his movement, he was seeking a total elimination of corruption, strengthening of democracy, and eyeing what he called “total revolution.”
Indira Gandhi was now convinced of an underlying agenda, and conspiracies, coteries and a possible conflagration made for a heady cocktail. The die had been cast.
Later that day, Indira Gandhi requested a compliant president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, to sign an order declaring emergency in India.
As civil liberties were quashed, political activists were imprisoned, and censorship was imposed, India entered one of its darkest phases after independence.
India was never the same again.
Were you part of or have you witnessed the beginning of a distinctive period in Pakistan's history? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org