The Bold Voice of J&K

Defending dictatorship in a vibrant democracy

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A Surya Prakash

The Shah Commission report supports Pranab Mukherjee’s assessment of SS Ray’s role in the declaration of Emergency, but one can’t swallow the line that Indira Gandhi was led up the garden path by a coterie member
President Pranab Mukherjee’s The Dramatic Decade – The Indira Gandhi Years has once again revived the debate on the dreaded Emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June 1975, which turned a vibrant democracy into a dictatorship for 19 months. Mukherjee paints Siddhartha Shankar Ray, then Chief Minister of West Bengal and a Congress leader, as the villain-in-chief for planting this obnoxious idea in the mind of the then Prime Minister but tends to underplay the latter’s responsibility in this regard.
Ray, who was part of Indira Gandhi’s inner circle, was credited with much political cunning and great legal acumen. That was why Indira Gandhi sought his help to find some ingenious ‘constitutional’ mechanism to continue in office.
The First Interim Report of the Shah Commission of Inquiry dealt with the circumstances leading to the imposition of the Emergency. Ray told the commission that he was summoned to meet Indira Gandhi on the morning of June 25, 1975. At that meeting the Prime Minister read out from reports that indicated lawlessness in north India. She told him that there was “all-round indiscipline and lawlessness” and that she wanted “something to be done”.
Ray told the commission that that on two or three occasions in the past, Indira Gandhi had told him that “something had to be done and some sort of emergent power or drastic power was necessary”. She had even said this before the fateful Allahabad High Court judgement of June 12 that year which had unseated her. Ray sought time, returned that evening and told her that she could impose an Internal Emergency under Article 352. Indira Gandhi asked him to accompany her to the President’s House. She informed President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed of her reasoning for invoking Article 352. Thereafter, the President asked Ray to explain the constitutional provision.
Ray told the commission that, as they returned from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he told Indira Gandhi that “she should involve other leaders in that decision”. However, Indira Gandhi was in no mood to listen, and although the decision was a momentous one, she did not want to get the consent of her Cabinet before making the recommendation to the President. She asked Ray whether she could circumvent the Cabinet, and if so, how? Ray suggested a way out in the Rules of Business of Government.
Thereafter, there was much drama in the Prime Minister’s House. That night, he heard that “orders had been issued” to lock up all High Courts and cut off electricity to all newspapers. When he protested, Sanjay Gandhi walked in, “in a highly excited and infuriated state of mind”, and told Ray that he did not know how to rule the country. However, Ray stayed back and insisted on meeting Indira Gandhi yet again, in order to lodge his protest over such moves.
In short, Ray provided grist to the argument that Indira Gandhi was contemplating some drastic action (“shock treatment”) even before the Allahabad High Court judgement; that despite his advice, she did not want to consult the Union Cabinet before going to the President, and finally, that some crazy moves were on that night to even lock up High Courts and cut off electricity supply to newspapers. As a result, Ray’s deposition played a crucial role in the conclusions arrived at by the Shah Commission in regard to the factors leading to the imposition of the Emergency.
In its Third and Final Report, the Shah Commission concluded that the decision to take “certain drastic steps”, including the declaration of Emergency, was contemplated even before 22nd June, 1975.
Second, when an Emergency was imposed in 1975, in view of an external threat, the President issued the proclamation after it was cleared by a regular meeting of the Council of Ministers. Thus, the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules, 1961 was circumvented this time around. Even the Home Minister, who ought to have been the nodal Minister, was not consulted. Thus, the Shah Commission said there was “little room for doubt” that the decision to impose the Emergency “was exclusively the decision of the Prime Minister”.
According to the President, who draws his facts from the Shah Commission, Ray “played an important role in the decision to declare the Emergency”. He says that Indira Gandhi later told him (Mukherjee) that she was not even aware of the constitutional provisions allowing for the declaration of a State of Emergency, on grounds of internal disturbance; particularly since a state of Emergency had already been proclaimed as a consequence of the India-Pakistan conflict of 1972.
The President says that when the Emergency was imposed, there was “a whole host of people” claiming authorship, but when the Shah Commission was set up, these very people took a sharp about-turn. “Not only did they disown their involvement, they pinned all the blame on Indira Gandhi, pleading their own innocence. Siddhartha babu was no exception”.

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