Arun Jaitley, president of the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) and convener for JP’s student- and youth-wing organisations, was sleeping at the back of his open courtyard in Naraina on the night of 25 June when he heard someone climbing over his wall. He peeped out and saw his father arguing with some policemen at the gate.

His father told them that his son had not returned home that night. The policemen took his father to the local thana and let him off with a warning that if Jaitley returned home he should report to them. Jaitley presumed the policemen were making preventive arrests for the planned national satyagraha on 29 June.

He quietly made his way out from the back entrance of his house and into the service lane, and spent the night at a friend’s house in the same colony. In the morning, some boys from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s student wing, picked him up from his friend’s and escorted him to the university.

It was around 10.30 am but they managed to gather some 200 students, mostly ABVP members, a sizeable number considering that Delhi University was closed since the process for new admissions had begun. Jaitley was unaware that an Emergency had been imposed, but he knew that several senior leaders had been arrested.

The students gathered outside the vice chancellor’s office and Jaitley, as DUSU president, made a speech. An effigy of Mrs Gandhi was burnt. Some lecturers and others had arrived to see what the commotion was about.

Jaitley later recalled what happened at the university that morning:

“We learnt that there was a huge police force led by PS Bhinder, DIG (Range), surrounding the whole place, waiting to take us into custody. I asked my companions Vijay Goel [now a Delhi BJP leader] and Rajat Sharma [now a well-known TV anchor] to disappear and announced that I would court arrest. However, on the off chance that I would manage to escape, I requested Prabhu Chawla [now a prominent journalist], another ABVP colleague, to meet me with his scooter at a little-known side entrance of a university building. I did manage to temporarily evade the police, but when I reached the assigned spot I found that Chawla was not there. He had ditched me. Later we learnt that he, Balbir Punj [former BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha] and Shriram Khanna had signed the Twenty Point Programme.” 

(Pledging support to Mrs Gandhi’s Twenty Point Programme during the Emergency was a way to declare that you had disassociated yourself from oppositional activity and now supported the government.)

Jaitley was caught by the police and taken to the Alipur police station where they filled out a blank MISA warrant form in his name. He was bundled into a police van and taken to Tihar jail.

While in the police station, he and the others who had been rounded up heard the news about the imposition of the Emergency on a transistor radio. They also came to know that censorship of the press had been imposed, because when one of the ABVP boys had telephoned the Evening News to request coverage of the rally, he was told that censorship laws were in place.

Jaitley was put in Ward No. 2 of Tihar jail along with many other political prisoners. Charti Lal Goel, a local politician, was the oldest. He asked expectantly if there was a bandh all over the city to protest against the large-scale arrests. Jaitley had to explain that there was a fear psychosis in the capital and that Delhi was quiet.

The conditions in most jails were appalling. They were overcrowded, the sanitary arrangements were practically non-existent, there was an acute shortage of water, the food was nearly inedible, medical arrangements were inadequate and the whole atmosphere was oppressive.

Delhi’s Tihar central jail could accommodate 1273 prisoners. But on 26 June 1975 there were already 2669.21 The number of inmates would rise to 4250 by March 1976. Water and sewage services were sufficient for only 750 people. The water pipes had corroded and were leaking. All water tanks, WCs and cisterns were broken and no major repairs had been carried out in the past eighteen years.

[Naveen] Chawla, who walked in and out of the prison with impunity, had even suggested that some new cells could be constructed with asbestos roofs so that the prisoners would bake in the heat. Chawla also proposed that certain troublesome detainees should be kept with the “lunatics”.

Kuldip Nayar, the editor of the Express News Service, who had been arrested on 24 July and put in Tihar jail, later described the experience in his book In Jail: “The dal was watery and the chappatis half made” and flies would float on the surface. But, over a period of time, like other prisoners, he too got used to fishing the flies out and eating without a qualm.

In the barracks twenty-eight prisoners were accommodated with just one fan and only three dry latrines for which they had to queue up in the morning. The stench was overpowering, and could not be masked even by burning incense. Prisoners bathed in the open. There was only one water tap which was shut off at 9 am and most of the prisoners depended on handpumps. It needed hard work just to release a trickle.

Jyotirmoy Basu, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) – MP from Diamond Harbour (not to be confused with the late West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu) filed a writ before the Delhi High Court stating that since 9 July he had been kept in solitary confinement in Hissar jail. The building where he was confined was also used for prisoners awaiting execution.

Throughout the day the condemned prisoners let out blood-curdling cries. His cell had no window, although near the roof there was a small ventilator, which allowed drain water and dust to enter the cell. The impact of such harsh conditions was to wreck the detainees physically and mentally and force them to write humiliating letters of apology to the authorities.

Jaitley recalls that although hardships abounded in prison, over time some concessions were made. Periodic protests helped to improve the conditions in jail. The prisoners managed to get the right to use heating rods for bathing water in winter. Later they were even allowed a transistor and a black-and-white TV.

The amount spent on food for the convicts was increased. The jail staff were usually sympathetic. Doctors and dispensing staff came daily to distribute medicine, and they often prescribed a more palatable “medical diet” apart from the regular badly prepared fare. Families on weekly visits were also allowed to bring food for the inmates.

“Jail is a state of mind. If you are too upset about your position you would get depressed and demoralised and have hair loss and other traumatic experiences. If you were young and thinking of fighting the Emergency you felt fine,” Jaitley reminisces.

“You could create your own world inside the prison walls. Listen to the early-morning BBC news on transistors, take tea and play on the badminton court every morning. Convicts oversaw your breakfast. There were things to look forward to like oil massages, taking books from the jail library, reading underground literature including good foreign articles.”

Around 4 pm the detainees would gather together and one person would speak on a subject, usually politics. In the evenings the prisoners played volleyball. Some played cards; Charan Singh was very fond of sweep.

Despite the Emergency, corruption in jail was rampant. The jail manual introduced by the British is a very precise document, which lays down exactly the amount of calories a prisoner is entitled to, the quantity of firewood to use, the protein count in the food and the amount of hair oil to be doled out.

Some political activists were demoralised, especially those who believed they would be incarcerated forever. But more traumatised than the political prisoners were the ordinary people who had been picked up at random. For instance, 150 lawyers who protested the demolition of their chambers were brought to jail. Some of the lawyers wept frequently.

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