Three Heroes of Emergency
The final hours of 25 June were detrimental for our country as the then PM Indira Gandhi decided that it was better to put our sacred democracy in comatose than fighting honourably. As we mourn the momentary demise of India’s democracy, it is extremely essential that we also honour the heroes who braved all the hardships and raised their voice against the brutal internment of India’s freedom.
Their action and courage inspired millions of Indians to be vigilant against any tampering of their democratic rights. Although it’s impossible to list all the heroes here, we present three outstanding warriors against Indira-imposed tyranny.
1. George Fernandes- A year before the Emergency, George Fernandes as the president of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, organized the All India Railway strike of 1974, as a response to over two decades of grievances plaguing the Indian Railways. In Mumbai, electricity and transport workers and taxi drivers also joined the protests, and in Chennai more than 10,000 workers of the Integral Coach Factory marched to the Southern Railway headquarters to express their solidarity with the strike. Similar protests erupted across the country. The strike was called off unilaterally on 27 May 1974 by the Action Committee. Many historians believe that it was this strike which made Indira Gandhi feel insecure and threatened leading her to impose the Emergency in 1975.
When Fernandes opposed this blatant misuse of power, the government issued an arrest warrant in Fernandes’ name, who then went underground to escape arrest and prosecution. On failing to capture George, the police arrested and tortured his brothers, Michael and Lawrence Fernandes, as well as his friend Snehalata Reddy, a chronic asthmatic who died soon after her release as she was not given proper medical care in the prison.
But George continued to dodge the authorities and tried to take on the suppressive administration through violent means. In July 1975, Fernandes arrived in Baroda and met Kirit Bhatt, the president of the Baroda Union of Journalists, and Vikram Rao, a staff correspondent of The Times of India at Baroda to discuss what could be done to topple the autocratic Indira Gandhi Government.
An industrialist friend, Viren J. Shah, managing director of Mukand Ltd., helped them find contacts for procuring dynamite. George and his team intended to cause explosions near the venue of public meetings which were supposed to be addressed by the PM. The idea was not to injure anybody, as the explosions were to be carried out hours before the public meeting was to begin.
As recounted later by Bhatt, Fernandes also wanted to rob a train used to carry weapons from Pimpri to Mumbai. The weapons were to be used to blast government offices. One is reminded of famed rebels of yore like Guy Fawkes, Pancho Villa and our own Chandrasekhar Azad.
However, like those rebels, even George was nabbed by the authorities on 10 June 1976 in Calcutta on charges of smuggling dynamite to blow up government establishments, in what came to be known as the Baroda Dynamite Case. After his arrest, world leaders from Germany, Norway, and Austria were believed to have cabled Indira Gandhi cautioning her against harming Fernandes.
After Indira Gandhi lifted the emergency on 21 March 1977 and called for fresh general elections, Fernandes won the Muzaffarpur seat in Bihar by over a 300,000 vote margin in 1977 from jail where he was lodged in connection with the Baroda dynamite case. He managed this spectacular feat without even visiting the constituency. This was the kind of reputation he enjoyed.
2. Subramanian Swamy- We now know Subramanian Swamy as a relentless litigator, economist and advocate of Hindu nationalist causes. But he also has a feather in his cap as a crusader against the Emergency.
Already an opponent of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government due to his acerbic attacks on the government’s socialist economic policies, Swamy was sure to face arrest and prosecution had he not planned his escape. Using his contacts in and outside India, Swamy was able to go to the United States via Sri Lanka, where he was swiftly offered a visiting professorship at Harvard. Besides teaching, he set up an organization called Friends of India to crusade against the Emergency overseas. He spent some time prior to his escape allegedly in Gujarat where he received help from a RSS worker named Narendra Modi.
On realizing that unbroken absence of more than two months from Parliament might strip him of his Rajya Sabha seat, Swamy decided to return back home. Here, he used his shrewdness and contacts to evade arrest.On 10 August 1976, after signing the attendance book, Swamy went inside the Rajya Sabha. When the last name in a list of obituaries was being read out, he told rose up and stated “Mr Speaker, you’ve left out democracy, which has also died.” Before anybody could realize what had happened, Swamy quickly got out of Parliament and taking the help of the RSS, found his way to Nepal and returned to America.
So, how popular was Swamy after the Emergency was lifted? In the words of Congress loyalist and journalist Kumar Ketkar- ‘In the 1977 election, he was a hero—young, suave, handsome, very articulate and willing to take on Mrs Indira Gandhi totally. If Shahrukh Khan had been a film hero then, and the two had held parallel meetings, Swamy would still have had bigger crowds at his meetings….’ Naturally Swamy won his first Lok Sabha seat, from the Mumbai North-East constituency.
3. Ramnath Goenka- The man whose newspaper roared when asked to bend, Ramnath Goenka was one of those visionaries who embodied the principles of freedom of press. During the Emergency, Finance Minister C. Subramaniam asked Goenka to sell his papers to the Congress party and when Goenka declined to do so, the government decided to examine irregularities in the newspaper together with pressurizing it through the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission and slapping hundreds of cases against Ramnath Goenka. Goenka decided to approach his friend K.K. Birla, the owner of the Hindustan Times and Congress supporter for help. Goenka finally agreed to set up an editorial trust which would guide the editor on broad policy matters, with Birla as chairperson.
In March 1976, Goenka had a heart attack and went to Chennai for rest. In his absence, the board met on 9 April 1976 and extended its powers thereby making V.K. Narasimhan from Financial Express the editor. From that time on, Birla and Narsimhan clashed swords over control of the paper till Goenka recovered. After returning to Delhi, Goenka turned up in one of the meetings and reprimanded Birla and dismissed the board on the grounds that government directors’ and chairmen’s names had to be ratified by the shareholders within a stipulated period, and this had not been done.
The government responded through the withdrawal of all government and public sector undertaking advertisements from the newspaper and pressurizing private advertisers to avoid the Express group. Official agencies launched more than three hundred prosecutions all over India against Goenka making him constantly move around several courts. That did not dissuade Ramnath Goenka as a series of reports were carried by the Indian Express from the end of January 1977 narrating the true situation during the Emergency days. Mr. Goenka had a spine of steel which refused to bend no matter what the pressure was.