Close to midnight on June 25, 1975, the President proclaimed an internal Emergency, suspending civil liberties and meetings in open spaces, and introducing press censorship. Hundreds of Opposition leaders, including JP and over 1,10,000 others, were detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and Defense and Security of India Rules. Rajaji’s words had come true. On June 12, the Allahabad High Court struck down Indira Gandhi’s election to Parliament for electoral irregularities.

On the 26th and well through the next morning, Karunanidhi was closeted with Nedunchezhian, Anbazhagan and a few others on the DMK’s response. On 27 June, the executive took up the Karunanidhi-crafted resolution. Describing the Emergency as the “inauguration of dictatorship”, the resolution sought its immediate withdrawal, the release of leaders and the lifting of press censorship. It was adopted unanimously by 63 of the 75 members present. Murasoli carried the headline “Indira Gandhi becomes a dictator” in a cartoon depicting her transformation into a Nazi dictator.

There was no going back now. Later, in 1994, Karunanidhi claimed a Union minister came home to advise that he retract the resolution and, in return, promised his government’s extension, as in Kerala. Karunanidhi says he chose not to bend. But the relationship was beyond mending, and the Emergency was just the last straw. That MGR and the CPI hastily welcomed the move further narrowed Karunanidhi’s options. Cho Ramaswamy describes Karunanidhi as “a reluctant opponent…[who] later on,…put on the mantle of a great fighter against the Emergency”.

Karunanidhi took care to show that the opposition was not from his administration. Besides, he even used the Emergency and the dreaded MISA provisions to suppress opposition and blank out criticism. The party and not the government had adopted the resolution. But these nuances were lost on Indira Gandhi, who was under a siege mentality. On October 30, when ADMK’s P Srinivasan wondered why he had not moved an official resolution, Karunanidhi famously replied, “A warrior would know which hand should hold the sword and which the shield.” The speech issued as a booklet titled Sword and Shield was banned in February of the following year.

On 1 July, the prime minister announced the twenty-point programme to rein in prices, alleviate rural indebtedness and increase production. Karunanidhi promptly welcomed it, hoping for further “progressive measures”, including nationalising major industries. However, on July 4, Maran told the US consul general that the DMK was prepared for the long haul, that Indira Gandhi was wooing Kamaraj, for with him beside her, she would feel emboldened to strike at the DMK. On the other hand, if the DMK and Kamaraj were to join forces, she “will not be able to control the situation in Tamil Nadu”. That day, Kamaraj fretted to Karunanidhi and Nedunchezhian that “The country is lost!” However, he counselled patience when Karunanidhi offered to quit and join the resistance under his leadership. Sanjiva Reddy, too, counselled patience. Karunanidhi recorded that both leaders had pointed out that the “breeze of independence” still wafted in Tamil Nadu.

Two days later, promoted only by their party titles, the DMK’s top three addressed a gathering at the Marina where Karunanidhi clarified the rally’s purpose was to “safeguard democracy” and not to criticise Indira Gandhi. However, carried away by the enormity of the moment, Karunanidhi’s speech was laced with biting sarcasm and pluck. Pointing out that the “great change” of 1969 would have gone astray if not for the DMK, Karunanidhi crowed: “VV Giri was elected President! Indira madam could continue in office!” because of the DMK. If the DMK had chosen to hold back then, “What would have happened to India?” he posed rhetorically. He meant Indira. “The DMK is accused of treason. We gave six crores for the [1971] war fund. Is that treason?” he asked.

Karunanidhi said that his administration had launched and implemented 15 items of the twenty-point programme years ago and sought funds for the rest. He noted that 30,000 houses for Adi Dravidas and plans for 5000 houses for fishermen were underway. He said the twenty-point programme fell short when compared to the vision of the DMK administration and its programmes.

Where is all this in the twenty-point programme? Should we not ask how many industries were nationalised following the banks? What happened to nationalization after that? Is there a scheme such as Tamil Nadu’s housing scheme for Adi Dravidas elsewhere? [Is there a] Slum Clearance Board?…

How long will this situation last?
A week, a month, a year, or longer – it is not clear!
What is our situation – unclear!
But we are not stuck – nor concerned!

A year later, however, he would claim “with heartfelt sincerity” that his party felt “heartfelt love” for the twenty-point programme compared to other parties and “no one could match the DMK to propagate” it. Then, Karunanidhi said he had asked his colleagues to walk to the podium, leaving behind their cars as a dress rehearsal for the day when they would no longer be ministers. He said this was how they were once; hence, it would make no difference if they were out of power.

Nedunchezhian wondered who was in danger because of the Allahabad verdict: Indira Gandhi or democracy. In the end, Karunanidhi administered a solemn pledge in Anna’s name to the assembled:

This gathering at the sands hereby pledges to protect Indian democracy under any circumstances and in any eventuality. We will see that nothing happens to Indian democracy. We endorse the DMK executive’s resolution. We appeal to the prime minister to release the arrested leaders and to ensure reasonable freedom of the press. Long live Indian democracy.

The US consul general noted, “They appeared to be deeply touched with this solemn ending.” The Congress (I) expectedly found no solemnness and derided Karunanidhi’s speech as the “most disgraceful political perfunctoriness”.

Excerpted with permission from The DMK Years: Ascent, Descent, Survival, R Kannan, Penguin India.