Hours before the cabinet meeting on the morning of 26 June, senior officials throughout the country had been asked to begin the formalities for the arrest of political leaders and activists. Delhi’s district magistrate (DM) and deputy commissioner, Sushil Kumar, was visibly disturbed and ‘trembling like a leaf’ when he met the city’s five additional district magistrates (ADMs) at his residence past midnight, recalls Pradipto Ghosh, then ADM (South).

Sushil Kumar had just returned from the prime minister’s house after meeting the PM’s close aide R.K. Dhawan, to try to explain that it would not be possible to detain prominent political leaders from the opposition parties under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in the limited time available that night.

It made more sense to make the arrests under the preventive sections of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

He had already met the Delhi lt governor Kishan Chand and DIG Bhinder at Chand’s residence, but both men were adamant that the arrests be made only under MISA, since that way the courts could be bypassed ­– under its draconian provisions, those arrested could be held without trial and judicial review for as long as the Emergency lasted.

Dhawan’s manner and tone when Kumar pointed out the problem were aggressive and threatening. ‘I certainly got a clear impression that any further resistance or delay on my part in issuing the warrants would be fraught with danger to me personally,’ recalled Kumar before the Shah Commission. He felt that Dhawan was giving him orders so authoritatively because he was doing so at the behest of the PM herself. ADM (North) S.L. Arora, who had accompanied Kumar to the PM’s house, confirmed that he found the DM quite upset when he came out of Dhawan’s office.

The Lt Governor insisted that Sushil Kumar process the arrest warrants without waiting for incriminating evidence on the earmarked MISA detainees to come from the police stations. All the arrests were to be made simultaneously so that there was an element of surprise, and those on the list could not be forewarned and thus evade arrest. Dhawan was highly critical of the delay in Delhi compared to the arrests in other states, and ordered Kumar to hand over the warrants to the police without insisting on ‘technical requirements’.

Dhawan was also furious with the Delhi Police. He summoned Delhi’s IG, Bhawani Mal, around midnight, and asked him whether the Delhi Police was developing cold feet. Bhawani Mal assured him that the arrests would be carried out speedily, after the warrants were received from the ADMs.

When some of the ADMs repeated the same argument that Kumar had made to Dhawan, that they first needed to be supplied with the grounds for detention, Kumar threw up his hands, ‘The job has to be done. The grounds will come subsequently. You merely give detention orders and coordinate with the SPs. They will take out our blood if we don’t issue the order,’ he remonstrated.

Apart from being forced to ignore both the spirit and the letter of the law, the DM and his team had another problem on their hands. Each detention required a set of around five MISA warrant slips. Since there were around 100 persons to be arrested, 500 slips were required. Ghosh, ADM (South), was instructed to rush to the Tis Hazari offices (where the Delhi district courts were housed) and cyclostyle the MISA warrants using an old MISA slip as the sample. Six persons worked frantically at the machine. After around 100 slips were printed the machine broke down. The first lot was sent post-haste to Sushil Kumar while they tried their luck with a second machine. The second machine did not just break down, it tore the stencil paper so that the stencil had to be retyped. Finally, the slips were printed on a hand-cranked machine.

It was 4 a.m. on the early morning of 26 June by the time the detention slips reached Kumar’s residence.

There was no time to fill in names, particularly as the full quota of 500 MISA warrant slips was not yet ready.

Each ADM was sent to a major police station and it was decided that the police would first arrest the person and only then would the form be filled out. ‘Ironically, at the time we were filling out the forms, nobody told us that a state of Emergency was in place. That we got to know only when we reached home at around 8 a.m. We were implementing a procedure without even knowing the constitutional position,’ admits Pradipto Ghosh.

The operation was planned and carried out in so secretive a manner that the IB chief, S.N. Mathur, claimed he came to know about the Emergency only on the morning of 26 June. Home Secretary S.L. Khurana got a phone call late on the night of 25 June, informing him that arrests were being made, but he had no clue what the arrests were about.

At the Defence Colony police station, policemen were bustling around, getting ready to round up politicians on the arrest list. Ghosh recalls, ‘Someone came to me, said he had phoned Subramanian Swamy’s house, and his wife had informed them that he was not in Delhi. Swamy was my professor at IIT [Indian Institute of Technology], Delhi, and I had seen him hours earlier at the JP rally and waved to him. But I kept quiet and said, “Let’s move on to the next name on the list.”’

Lt Governor Kishan Chand later testified that the list of persons proposed to be detained was prepared in the PM’s house. It had been an ongoing process since 12 June. K.S. Bajwa, SP (CID), Special Branch, Om Mehta and R.K. Dhawan were the key decision makers.

Names were constantly being added and dropped from the list.

Ram Dhan’s name was not there in the beginning but was added later. The petroleum minister K.D. Malaviya’s name figured at one stage, as did that of George Verghese, former editor of the Hindustan Times. But their names were deleted in the final list. (Sanjay seems to have suggested their names as he had a grouse against both of them because of their criticism of the Maruti project.) Kishan Chand confirmed that every single name on the list was seen and approved by Mrs Gandhi, and the detentions made on the night of 25 June were with the express approval of the PM.

Within four days of the declaration of the Emergency, an amendment came into effect in the MISA rules, doing away with the obligation to communicate the grounds for detention to all those detained on 25 June and the following days.

The first person to be arrested in Delhi was my former boss K.R. Malkani, editor of the Jana Sangh–RSS–controlled Motherland newspaper, whose bold, sometimes sensational reports and stridently anti-Gandhi line had personally infuriated the PM. The newspaper’s controversial articles included the charge that there was a political conspiracy in the murder of the railway minister Lalit Narayan Mishra in a bomb explosion in Samastipur.

It dug deeper than other publications into the infamous Rustom Nagarwala case in which Nagarwala, a retired army man, was accused of swindling the State Bank of India of Rs 60 lakh by mimicking Mrs Gandhi’s voice and ordering the head cashier to deliver the money to Nagarwala. The article claimed that Nagarwala was an agent of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), with insider knowledge of RAW’s secret bank accounts, which were at the disposal of the country’s first family. The Motherland also raised many embarrassing questions about Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti factory, which were taken up in Parliament.

As far back as 30 January 1975, the Motherland had carried a report claiming that there was a plan afoot to arrest JP, ban the RSS and seal the Motherland. The tip-off was reportedly given to the newspaper by Indian Express owner Ramnath Goenka, whose own newspaper did not carry the news since it could not be verified. The Motherland report about the impending arrests, which was dismissed as far-fetched and unsubstantiated by most in the media at that time, in retrospect appears to have been based on solid evidence.

Malkani was woken up before 1 a.m. on 26 June by a group of policemen who banged on the gate of his Rajendra Nagar bungalow and told him he was wanted at the police station. His house was surrounded on all sides, his small garden swarming with policemen. His alarmed wife, Sundari, asked what it was all about, but the response was simply, ‘Malkani sahib knows.’

The policemen were not able to produce any warrant of arrest.

Fearing for his life, Malkani finally reached an agreement with the police: he would be accompanied to the police station by a friendly neighbour who could act as witness to make sure he was not being kidnapped. Malkani also made a call to the Motherland office to pass on the news and told them to inform the RSS, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Press Trust of India (PTI) and United News of India (UNI) immediately.

His message served as a timely warning for several people, who thereby managed to escape the police dragnet. News of his arrest was also carried in a small box on the front page of the Hindustan Times. This was the only Emergency news that made it to the next day’s newspapers.

When Malkani reached the New Rajendra Nagar police station, it was empty except for one police officer. Around 2.30 am Dr Bhai Mahavir, vice president of the Jana Sangh, was brought in and Malkani felt reassured that he was not being singled out. Both men were driven to the Defence Colony police station where they found other detainees. Most of them were from the Jana Sangh and Anand Marg. There was also one Marxist, Major Jaipal Singh. Around 4.30 am they were finally served with arrest warrants under MISA.

At the Civil Lines police headquarters in Old Delhi, many new detainees arrived, including Biju Patnaik, Piloo Mody, Raj Narain, Chandra Shekhar, Samar Guha and Ram Dhan. The prisoners were taken in police vans without being informed of their destination. Raj Narain, a veteran who had been jailed dozens of time both during British rule and later by the Congress government, was the coolest of them all. He stretched himself out on three long planks in the police van and, using his holdall as a pillow, went to sleep.

The final destination was Rohtak jail where the prisoners were escorted into the main community hall. The prisoners started speculating about Indira Gandhi’s intentions. Somebody suggested they would be in jail for a week, someone else felt a month was more likely. Patnaik talked gloomily of spending the rest of their lives in jail. When several expressed shock at the prospect, he amended it to suggest, ‘You can make it ten years.’ He explained, ‘I know how ruthless she can be.’ Soon they were joined by Congress(O) leaders Asoka Mehta and Sikander Bakht. Shortly afterwards, there was a radio announcement that a national Emergency had been declared.

Excerpted with permission from: The Emergency, A Personal History, Coomi Kapoor, Penguin Viking.