Emergency (1962)-: India

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26 October 1962 to 21 November 1962

A backgrounder

Sugata Srinivasaraju, July 4, 2023: The Times of India

Jawaharlal Nehru’s Emergency in the early 1960s after the Chinese aggression.

The socialists of the time — Ram Manohar Lohia, Raj Narain, Madhu Limaye and George Fernandes — had spoken about it in as harsh terms as we speak about the 1975 Emergency.
Paradoxically, Fernandes, the greatest symbol of state repression during both Nehru’s Emergency in the 1960s and Indira’s Emergency in the 1970s, never made a comparative study of the two — their similarities and severities.

External aggression

One rarely discusses the 1960s’ Emergency and perhaps there is a good reason for it. It had the backdrop of a gloomy war in which India had been caught by surprise and humbled by China. The country was facing external aggression. But in 1975, facing a personal crisis, Indira had seen enemies in her fellow citizens.
Whatever the differences and rationale between the two official emergencies clamped by the father and daughter, in their respective times they were discussed in exactly the same terms.
A recent well-rounded and meticulously researched biography of Fernandes by Rahul Ramagundam gives us a glimpse of the 1960s’ Emergency. Of course, this happens through the life, word and context of Fernandes, the incarcerated trade unionist, and his hell-raising socialist mates in Bombay (now Mumbai).

When Fernandes was arrested in April 1963 and held for eight months under the draconian Defence of India Act and Rules (DIR) in the prisons of Maharashtra, the threat at the borders had subsided. A ceasefire had been announced. Yet, the Emergency provisions were kept in place by the Nehru-led government and were being apparently misused to repress citizens for innocuous and unconnected acts after labelling them as ‘anti-nationals’.
Fernandes became one such ‘anti-national’ and a shining example of Nehru’s repression, exactly the same way he became a threat to the nation for his daughter 13 years later.

When Fernandes was arrested on the intervening night of April 4 and 5, 1963, The Times of India ran a small item in its city page: “Fernandes is Arrested: Anti-National Work”. Fernandes was by then an elected Bombay municipal ward member representing Umerkhadi and his ‘anti-national’ act was to threaten to unilaterally revise the taxi fare structure in Bombay if the government did not meet his deadline.

Taxis were little over a decade old in Bombay and he was the union leader of a small group of 15,000 taxi men in a city of 5mn — not exactly an army to compromise the nation.

Misusing the law

Ramagundam writes: “During the China conflict, it [DIR] was re-enacted with wide powers given to the state. Whether it was scared or not because of the conflict over the border, Nehru’s state was in a perpetual state of fear-mongering and did become severe in dealing with its people. The law came in handy to serve the partisan ends of the ruling Congress party and to wreak vengeance against its critics. In Parliament as well as in the streets, as much among politicians as among the lay citizens, misuse of the DIR became a cause of concern.”

A month before his arrest, in March 1963, Fernandes on behalf of the Socialist Party had led a demonstration seeking the rollback of harsh measures under the DIR.

He had submitted a memorandum to Nehru’s sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the then governor of Bombay, and had said: “You have no right to tax the poor if you don’t stop pilferage, luxury, tax swindling…the people are greatly perturbed over the mounting cost of living…when there is no actual fighting with the Chinese, why is this Emergency continuing?” After Fernandes’ arrest, he was characterised as someone “more dangerous than the communists” and was an “American-style gangster”. Ramagundam writes that this had scared the woman who had rented out a flat to Fernandes. She, of course, wanted him to vacate it.

Initially after his arrest, Fernandes’ whereabouts were kept a secret. Only a week later was it known that he had been lodged in an isolated ward of the Nashik prison. He was given low-quality food, which made him ill, and was not allowed any visitors.
Fernandes filed a habeas corpus petition on April 22, 1963 in the Bombay high court stating that his arrest was the result of inter-trade-union rivalry. Expectedly, the government favoured the Congress-controlled Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), which was envious of his rising stock among the city’s labour class.

‘Anti-national’ tag

In his petition, the biography informs us, Fernandes had accused the Nehru-led government of not doing enough to fight the Chinese, and this was “hardly an act prejudicial to the defence of India, public safety and maintenance of public order for which he had been detained”.

The Supreme Court also did not offer relief to Fernandes because it held, like other constitutional courts, that a prisoner under the DIR did not have a remedy. The government was anyway clear that detention under DIR could not be questioned in a court of law. All through this battle, Limaye stood by Fernandes, and the biographer tells us that forged a lifetime of friendship.
Ironically, when the war was on, Fernandes had asked trade unions under his control to contribute to the defence fund and the government itself had made him a member of the Citizens’ Defence Committee. Given his popularity and reach, he was even taken around by ministers to address the people.

“Socialists were at the forefront to arouse mass sentiment against the Chinese aggression,” writes Ramagundam. Yet, as soon as the war ended, Fernandes had become an ‘anti-national’ with unmissable seditious intent.

Anyway, Fernandes’ release in December was a result of a sustained effort from various trade unions he led, and the absolute last straw was the strike declared by the Bombay municipal and transport workers — the Bombay Bandh.

The precarious situation in Bombay even led firebrand parliamentarian Lohia to move the first-ever no-confidence motion against the Nehru-led government on the very first day of his taking oath as a Lok Sabha member after winning a bypoll. Fernandes had also turned lucky, if there was anything called luck after such an ordeal. MS Kannamwar, the chief minister of the Bombay state who nursed a grudge against him, died suddenly of cerebral thrombosis. New chief minister VP Naik had taken office on December 7, 1963 and Fernandes was released a week later on December 13.

The next time Fernandes was arrested under same and similar laws, and similar circumstances, was on June 10, 1976. At that time, he being chained and handcuffed produced an iconic image that came to haunt the Indira-led government forever.

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