In popular narrative, the declaration of Emergency on June 25, 1975, is often linked directly to the Allahabad High Court judgment of June 12, 1975, setting aside Prime Minister Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha over trivial albeit illegal “electoral malpractices” during the general election campaign of 1971. That is, however, a reductionist view, and the Emergency must be studied against a broader framework of history, geopolitics and economics.
It is also fair to say that the Emergency has not been adequately studied from a dispassionate, purely historical perspective. Most accounts of it remain personal narratives. However, It isn’t just history but also the state of contemporary India that makes a recollection of the infamous Emergency so relevant. While there are many ways to look at that episode of Indian history, here are seven books – non-fiction as well as fiction – about those turbulent years, that re-emphasise the value of the democracy India needs to protect.
The Emergency: An Unpopular History by Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
A slim, rigorously researched recent book, The Emergency: an Unpopular History (2017) is one of the few serious non-fiction accounts of the Emergency that does not draw from a personal point of view but relies entirely on a study of parliamentary debates and speeches, as well as other critical documents pertaining to that period, whether it is the railway budgets or the IMF’s annual reports. Focusing deeply on certain specific questions, it shines light on those aspects of the Emergency years which, while not the subject of hotly contested debates, make for fascinating reading. In his slender Introduction, too, Rao provides a balanced – and entirely non-sensational – reconstruction of the complicated times.
Unforeseen Desires, Anil Chopra
A gentle, unhurried novel published very recently, Unforeseen Desires is the coming-of-age story of a young doctor, Arun, who is an intern in Dehra Dun in the years of the Emergency. While politics provides only the backdrop, with significant but brief interventions in the narrative arc, Chopra’s strength is in bringing alive a forgotten era redolent in its piquant details and conversational tics. The internal logic of the characters might confound (Arun falls in love with all the women he encounters) but the author’s recasting of the times will reward your reading.
Durbar, Tavleen Singh
Tavleen Singh began her journalistic career in India – after a stint in Slough in the UK – with The Statesman almost exactly around the time the Emergency was declared. Part memoir, part analysis, Durbar begins with the Emergency and ends with the tragic assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Its account of the events from 1975 to Mrs Gandhi’s announcement of elections at the Kumbha Mela in January 1977 is deeply interesting, not only because Singh remembers the days of being a fledgling political correspondent with a certain flair but also perhaps because her access as a Lutyens insider to the very circles that comprised the “durbar” paints a compelling portrait of the times, in both significant and mundane details. Whatever you might make of Singh’s current politics, Durbar is an eminently readable book.
Rich Like Us, Nayantara Sahgal
Nayantara Sahgal, the daughter of Vijaylakshmi Pandit and Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, was a fierce critic of the Emergency and of her cousin Mrs Gandhi (she wrote a rather unkind biography of her too, Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power). Her sixth novel, Rich Like Us, which won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1980, tells the story of two interlinked families in Delhi in the Emergency years, chiefly, of Rose, a true original in Indian writing in English, the Cockney second-wife of a rich businessman, whose spoilt stepson, Dev, is about to import a cola factory into the country, and Sonali, an idealistic bureaucrat who has fallen out of favour with the new dispensation. (Rose’s husband, Ram, and Sonali’s father, Keshav, are old friends from Lahore.) Dev’s father-in-law, a sometime Jana Sanghi and former scholar whose life was overturned by the Partition, finds himself thrown into prison on flimsy charges, and refuses to leave when Rose and Nishi – Dev’s wife – bring his release orders. Though the structure is a bit baggy and the obsession with Sati somewhat discordant, Rich Like Us is a novel that emphasises the writer’s role as a conscientious dissenter.
Indira Gandhi, the “Emergency” and Indian Democracy, PN Dhar
Published in the year 2000, the memoirs of economist PN Dhar, who headed Indira Gandhi’s secretariat in the Emergency years, is a fascinating account of his life and times, and is rich with anecdotes – whether of his Kashmiri childhood or of the 1971 war, the Sikkim episode, and the tumultuous events leading up to the declaration of Emergency on 26 June 1975. Deputed by Mrs Gandhi to be in touch with JP Narayan both before and during the Emergency, Dhar offers up close and personal accounts of the chief players in those years, outlining with clarity and honesty the peculiar difficulties and challenges of running the government in light of daily differences that would emerge between the PMH (Prime Minister’s House where Sanjay Gandhi presided over a coterie) and the PMS (the Prime Minister’s Secretariat which, naturally, reported to the Prime Minister). Published long years after the Emergency, the book’s honesty and heft provides a nuanced picture of a complicated time.
Delhi Calm, Vishwajyoti Ghosh
An acclaimed graphic novel that tells in bold sepia tones the story of a group of young people who are old friends – the idealistic poet “VP”, the scholarly “Master”, and the pragmatic Parvez, first class first in history – whose paths cross again in Delhi during the Emergency. Dripping with irony at “Mother Moon” and the “Prince”, as well as at India’s general political structure and political stereotypes, Delhi Calm will remind you, in a good way, of the voices and characters of the angry, young films of the seventies.
The Emergency: a Personal History, Coomi Kapoor
A young journalist with the Indian Express at the time of the Emergency, Coomi Kapoor had a view of the Emergency was not merely from a journalist’s perspective. Her brother-in-law Subramaniam Swamy was a Jana Sangh MP at the time and she and her husband, Virendra Kapoor, had both begun their careers at the RSS-owned newspaper Motherland. When Virendra Kapoor was arrested after a fracas with Ambika Soni under the draconian Defence of India Act, a dark phase began for the couple, complicated further by the events overtaking the nation. One of the more recent book on those years The Emergency: A Personal History, published in 2015, begins with an interesting Foreword written by Arun Jaitley, who was then the President of the Delhi University Students Union, a member of the Sangharsh Samiti, and who subsequently spent nineteen months in prison.