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The Emergency & The Sikhs

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The Emergency & The Sikhs

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The Emergency & The Sikhs

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On 25 June 1975, Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi imposed ‘Internal Emergency’ on India. Civil liberties were suspended, prominent opposition leaders were arrested, press was censored, and several human rights violations were reported including a forced mass-sterilization campaign.

President’s Rule

The Economist observed:  “Under Article 356 of Part 18 of the Indian constitution … provided Indira Gandhi with her excuse for imposing the Emergency of 1975 which briefly turned India into a dictatorship.”

In India, “President's Rule” refers to the State that comes under the direct control of the central government or “under President's Rule.”  Subsequently, executive authority is exercised through the centrally appointed Governor, who has the authority to appoint retired civil servants or other administrators to assist him.

Since India became a nation in 1947, the President’s Rule has been declared more than 100 times; it was used excessively by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s.  

In 1971, Raj Narain lost the parliamentary election against Indira Gandhi.  Narain took Gandhi to the Allahabad High Court over election fraud and use of state machinery for election purposes.  

On 12 June 1975, Gandhi was found guilty. Her election was declared null and void and the Court unseated her from Lok Sabha (lower house of Indian parliament).  She was banned from contesting any election for six years.  However, more serious charges such as bribing voters and election malpractices were dropped.  Strikes in trade, student and government unions swept India. Gandhi challenged the High Court's decision in the Supreme Court.

On 24 June 1975, Supreme Court upheld the High Court judgement and stopped all Member of Parliament privileges for Gandhi, debarred her from voting, but allowed her to continue as PM.  The Opposition organized a rally in Delhi under the leadership of Jaya Prakash Narain who openly asked the police to defy government orders.  

Siddhartha Shankar Ray, then Chief Minister of West Bengal (1972-77), drafted a letter for the President to proclaim Emergency because “there is an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances.”  Ray masterminded procedural matters to suspend democratic freedom within constitutional means.  The same day, Gandhi asked ceremonial Indian President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to issue a proclamation of a state of Emergency.

On 25 June 1975, the Emergency was declared and Indira Gandhi assumed an "extra-constitutional authority.”  Within three hours, electricity to all major newspapers was cut and political opposition was arrested.  The next morning the Union Cabinet ratified it without discussion.  Gandhi and Ahmed continued approving the Emergency every six-month period for 21 months till 21 March 1977.

The Sikh Response

On 30 June 1975, Shiromani Akali Dal (Akalis) in a special executive meeting held at Sri Harimandir Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib (Golden Temple Complex) resolved to oppose ‘the fascist tendency of the Congress.’  

Why did Sikhs choose to do that?

On 14 December 1920, Akalis as a political organization was born to free the Gurduaras (Sikh place of learning, worship, and training) from the corrupt Mahants (priest-like custodians antithetical to Sikhi) under the British colonial rule.  Akalis employed both non-violence of the strong and militant strategies.  Sardul Singh Kavishar, an Akali ideologue wrote:

The Sikh knows that if his religion is safe, he can certainly regain the lost liberty of his country; but if his religion is not safe, even if his country be free, there is no guarantee that he shall be able to maintain that freedom.  In fact it is the freedom of his religion that is the best safeguard for the freedom of his country.

Since its inception, Akalis first commitment was to safeguard the Sikh culture and to represent the political interests of the Sikhs.  To do so, Akalis launched Morcha, a campaign or movement which Sikhs pioneered in the early 20thcentury at Akal Takht Sahib for either freedom for Sikhs or humanity at large.  

While doing so, Akalis fought to free India and Pakistan from British imperialism.  Akalis also collaborated with the Indian National Congress (later became Congress party which PM Gandhi headed) for some civil-disobedience marches and protests.

Akalis have been contesting elections since 1937 and led the Panjabi Suba Morcha for almost two decades to secure statehood for Panjab under independent India in 1966.  Since then, Akalis have been the regional political power ruling Panjab alone or in coalition primarily with the right-wing Hindu national parties (Bharaiya Jana Sangh and Bharatiya Janta Party).  When not ruling, Akalis have been the Opposition against the Indian National Congress party.  Delhi and Panjab political dynamics via Aklais have been very complex.

Back to the Emergency!

On 7 July 1975, Akalis launched ‘Save Democracy Morcha’ from the Akal Takht Sahib offering daily voluntary arrests.  Throughout the period of Emergency, Morcha was organized and conducted from the precincts of Akal Takht Sahib.  In expressing the implications for India’s democracy in a climate of fear when the slogan was “Indira is India, and India is Indira,” the Sikhs from Amritsar voiced:

The question before us is not whether Indira Gandhi should continue to be prime minister or not.  The point is whether democracy in this country is to survive or not.  The democratic structure stands on three pillars, namely a strong opposition, independent judiciary, and a free press.  The Emergency has destroyed all these essentials.


J. S. Grewal in The Sikhs of Punjab further observed:  “They were unhappy with the Congress over the delay in starting work on the Thein Dam, discrimination in the allocation of heavy industry, and unremunerative prices for farm produce.  The Morcha continued throughout the period of the Emergency, and nearly 40,000 Akalis courted arrest.”  According to Amnesty International, 140,000 people were detained without trial during Gandhi’s Emergency.

2% population of Sikhs in India comprised 29% Indian political prisoners who opposed the dictatorial Gandhi during the Emergency!

Grewal also cites the river water disputes of Panjab as well:  “Indira Gandhi had decided during the Emergency in 1976 that out of the 7.20 maf [million acre feet] of the Punjab share, 0.20 be given to Delhi for drinking purposes and the round figure of 7.00 maf be equally divided between the Punjab and Haryana.”

Akalis organized the most effective mass mobilization against the Emergency.   They were the most sustained opposition to the Emergency.  And the anti-Emergency leaders like Jaya Prakash Narayan, George Fernandes, and Chandra Shekhar noticed and remained Akali sympathizers.

My father was a union leader of the Workshop Clerical Association, Central Railways, Jhansi, U.P.  He was underground for several months.  I asked him why?  He replied: “When I spent four months at the Workers Education training in Kanpur to fight for rights, the most important thing I learned was that strike must be successful. And that is only possible if we remained united and must not get arrested.”  Eventually my father’s union, Sangharsh Samiti, and several other unions became part of National Railway Mazdoor Union led by George Fernandes.  Indira Gandhi created a parallel union to cause confusion.  

The Sikhs are always present to redress discrimination and injustice.  In 1975, when all candles of liberty were blown off and India was plunged into darkness, Akalis kept the torch of liberty ablaze.  Gandhi approached Akalis to support her stand, in lieu of solving their problems and conceding their demands.  But the Sikhs declined to bargain for the fight was for all Indians’ fundamental rights.

“The vanguard of the Freedom Movement in the country” when the iron fist became too much for rest of India, Akalis continued the arrests alone on massia (night of new moon) symbolizing diminishing freedom as reveled by Guru Nanak Sahib in Guru Granth Sahib (145):  

Dark era is sword-like,
Kings are butchers,
Religion winged and fled.
Lies are the new moon,
Truth-Moon isn’t visible,
Where has it risen?
Searching, I am bewildered,
No path is visible in darkness.
Ego-centric humanity cries in pain.
O’ Nanak!  How can they be freed?

The then political opposition, including Sangh Parivar which includes today’s ruling party of India under Modi administration, took refuge at the Golden Temple complex.

Akal Takht Sahib as a center for the political movement was never questionable by Indians until 1984!

Indira Gandhi never forgave the Sikhs for their incessant and active opposition to the Emergency.

An Indian Politician and Diplomat Vijay Laxmi Pandit was aunt of Indira Gandhi.  In 1945, Sikh-Americans gave Pandit the dais at the first Gurudara in Stockton, United States to champion freedom where she articulated:  “We are rejoicing today in the defeat of Fascism, but we forget the cause of Fascism — Imperialism.”  

In 1977 while speaking at a rally in Chandigarh, Pandit acknowledged the Sikh opposition was the most principled, brave, and courageous resistance to the Emergency as reported in The Tribune:

Punjab which had always been in the forefront of resistance to oppression, kept its colours flying during the Emergency also.  It was in Punjab and Punjab alone that a large scale resistance was organised against it.  The worst thing that happened during the Emergency was that a brave nation was frightened into submission and nobody spoke except in hushed tones.  In Dehra Dun, where I was, I hung my head in shame and wondered if this was the Bharat for which we, the freedom fighters, had suffered.  Even those, not actually in prison, were no less than in jail.  Only in Punjab the Akalis organised a Morcha against this.  Punjab's lead against such matters should continue.

Panjab & 1984

In 1951, the President’s Rule was first imposed on then Panjab for almost 10 months to “help the state Congress government get its act together.”

In 1953, the “President’s Rule” was first imposed in India for a little over a year in the now defunct state of Patiala and East Punjab States union (PEPSU) by dismissing Akali government led by Gian Singh Rarewale.

Between 1966-1993, current state of Panjab was under the President’s Rule seven times to bifurcate Panjab, break its coalition, re-election, dissolving majority governments in Panjab Legislative Assembly, and “insurgencies and breakdown of law and order.”

On Vaisakhi Day 1973, the Working Committee of Akalis adopted the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR).  ASR was more of the Akalis political manifesto on political, economic, religious, cultural, and social issues.  The very first resolution demanded “a real federal shape” for the Indian constitution “to enable the states to play a useful role for the progress and prosperity of the Indian people in their respective areas by the meaningful exercise of their power.”

An astute observer, researcher, and documenter of Sikh and Indian leader dynamics for last 70 years, Gurmit Singh in Failure of Akali Leadership observed the new alignments in India:

During the Emergency Indira Gandhi had become a captive Prime Minister in the hands of the caucus and all the excesses that were committed during Emergency were well-planned with a view to alienate the various sections of society from the Congress Party.  Central leadership watched it like a helpless spectator.  What were the forces controlling the destiny of this nation during that crucial period have not been named or unmasked so far and those who are being named are only the puppets who danced at the movement of strings held by those forces.  The result was a “democratic revolution” a new experiment indeed in these days of military coups.  The poll results showed political polarisation on geographical basis i.e., north supporting Janta and south going with the Congress.  This is a new feature in the Indian political system.

Pritam Singh in Class, Nation & Religion:  Changing Nature of Akai Dal Politics in Punjab, India presents the Sikh foresight in middle of the Emergency:  “In this phase the view was that to protect the Sikhs as a minority in a Hindu-majority country from a long-term view required protection of democracy and democratic institutions.  The impulse was protection of religious and cultural rights of Sikhs but the articulation of that impulse was as a struggle against undemocratic rule.”

In 1977, right after the successful anti-Emergency electoral victory for Akalis in Panjab, Gurmit Singh opined on the compromised foresight after the sacrifices:

One rarely finds an article making critical analysis of the present day problems facing the community.  Sikhs have no English daily of their own and the Punjabis are busy with criticism of personal lives of the leaders, nay not even leaders but second rate editors of contemporaries … Sikh leadership continues to befool the public with empty slogans and resolutions.  I am informed by a very reliable source that no draft of All-India Gurdwara Bill been prepared so far by the committee constituted for the purpose.  Not only that, but the aforesaid committee has never met for any serious deliberations.  Recently, a resolution was passed by the Shiromani Akali Dal for the enactment of separate personal law for the Sikhs to regulate matters such as succession, marriage etc.  But may I ask: Has anyone cared to do even some spade work in this regard?

During the Emergency, the Sikh demonstrations were peaceful and effective.  Yet, the Sikhs in India for the first time were labelled “anti-national” and the term is still invoked, but now not just by the ruling party.

In the Emergency-era, police detained people as political prisoners without charge or notification to families; they were abused and tortured as well.  The public media institutions such as the national television network Doordarshan was used for government propaganda.  The government enacted large-scale and illegal laws including modifications to the Constitution.

The same was repeated against the Sikhs in Panjab, 1980s onwards.

On 2 July 1984, Time “In The Roots of Violence:  Sikh Deaths Fit the Sad Pattern of Troubled Land” recorded Gandhi’s reason for invading Golden Temple complex:

Like her 1975 declaration of a state of Emergency and her detention of thousands of political opponents, her latest moves have had the effect of reinforcing her position as the head of India's strong central government.  The conventional wisdom for the moment is that though she has alienated the Sikhs by the events of the past month, her action has strengthened her popularity among India's Hindu majority.  It also has removed whatever doubt there may have been that she will win the election campaign that she must call by January 1985.  It will be her fifth race for national leadership.  She stoutly denies any suggestion of a political motive behind her latest actions. "Elections come and go," she said recently, but the unity of the country is much more important." She has used this very criterion to put down unrest ever since she first came to power in 1966.

Gurtej Singh in Bharat in Bhasmasur Mode provides a counter narrative to Chandan Mitra’s “The Suicidal Missionary” in India Today (Bhasmasur in Hindu mythology was a demon who was granted the power to burn up and immediately turn into ashes anyone whose head he touched with his hand):

The unlimited fund of intense hatred that is ever available with the permanent cultural majority [PCM] helped Indira Gandhi in dealing with Bhinderanwale and all those who like him defied the illegal diktats of the authorities and talked of religious freedom, rule of law, true federalism, liberty, justice, inalienable rights, people’s sovereignty and democracy. They were to be projected as patrons of terrorism and separatism.  It was done very efficiently by the loyal Press notwithstanding the well-known fact that the Sant always kept a copy of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of the Akali Dal under his pillow to place political limits on his enthusiastic supporters.  He never had a political party and no independent political programme.  Nevertheless the Darbar was attacked to kill him and in the bargain to destroy Sikh institutions.  The only rationale sold to the gullible Indian audience was that all violent activity would end with his elimination and the destruction of the Akal Takhat.  It soon became apparent to the neutral observer that PCM had been wrongly briefed. Despite her authoritative propagation of the theory, the violence had escalated a thousand fold after the June 1984 army attack.

No Ray

Siddhartha Shankar Ray who acknowledged that “Indira and I were very close” and “I had known Indira since childhood,” proposed to Gandhi to impose an “Internal Emergency” on 8 January 1975.  Coomi Kapoor in Darkness at Dawn shows the “actual execution of the Emergency followed Ray’s proposed plan of action to the letter” where “the plan was to be put on operation” on 24-hour notice.    

The same Ray was appointed Governor of Panjab from 1986-89 when Rajiv Gandhi was the PM.  He was forced to quit the governorship because he alienated the Sikhs in civil matters and implemented ruthless police atrocities.  Ray admitted that the police had turned sadistic.  In his last week as governor, he closed the case against notorious Senior Superintendent of Police Gobind Ram.


According to official police records, although a large number of militants were killed during Ray’s tenure, the number of hardcore and other militants increased from 90 and 225 to 150 and 550.  Isn’t that the historical Sikh response against unjust state?  Recall Mir Mannu’s atrocities during 18th century and the pre-Akali Khalsa verse in Panjabi:

Mannu is our sickle,
We the fodder for him to mow,
The more he cuts,
The more we grow.

The same Ray was awarded the Ambassadorship to the United States from 1992-96 under PM PV Narasimha Rao administration; Rao was the Home Minister in charge of the security under PM Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in 1984.  In 1995, Associated Press highlighted Sikhs protesting against Ray in Washington, DC:  “This murderer, this ambassador of India here is an accessory.”

According to the letter to the World Sikh Organization in the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra, Ray on behalf of the Indian Government said that the kidnappers were merely “masquerading as policemen.”

In 2010, Ray admitted the following to Dola Mitra in Outlook:  “It was not so much the Constitution’s overarching ideals that attracted me, but rather, its potential usefulness in solving societal problems.  I was always a pragmatist about the law.  I believed in using the law to reach just outcomes, even if that meant applying it in a way that was not necessarily intended by the framers of the Constitution.”


The Emergency years were the biggest challenge to India's commitment to democracy, which proved vulnerable to the manipulation of powerful leaders and hegemonic Parliamentary majorities.

In 1994, declaring President’s Rule dropped off after the Indian Supreme Court brought it under judicial review.  In 2016, President’s Rule was back as modus operandi when it was imposed on Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh under Prime Minister Modi.

The document Sikhs demanded be implemented throughout 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s was Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR).  The present-day Akalis while claiming to be the oldest regional political party in India, replaced its constituents from “Sikhs” to “Panjabis” in 1995 Moga Conference.  Since then, ASR is not part of the Akali demands.  Panjab now elects Congress or not-so-Sikh-like Akalis.  And while Akalis represent the Panjabis, they in 2017 control the two largest Sikh institutions:  Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) and Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC).

Now, when the Morcha’s brew, they are suppressed by the State via force or infiltration.  Sikhs were warned by Sirdar Kapur Singh in 1980s about how Akalis (time-less, implying constantly ethical) have become A-kalis (time-bound, implying opportunistic).

Will it take another Indian Emergency for Sikhs to reclaim Akali origins?  Perhaps, then, Sikhs will free their institutions as well as the disenfranchised Indians of ethnic, religious or gender minorities.

I end with historian Hari Ram Gupta’s observation:

Sikhs who placed themselves at the head of the nation; who showed themselves as interpreters of the rights of the people; who maintained the struggle between good and evil, between the sovereign will of the people and the divine right of kings, and the opposition of liberty to despotism; who avenged the insults, the outrages and slavery of many generations of the past; who liberated their mother country from the yoke of the foreign oppressor; who displayed all that was great and noble; who left to the children of this province a heritage unsullied by the presence of any foreign soldier; who won for the Punjab the envied title of "the land of soldiers"; who alone can boast of having erected a "bulwark of defence against foreign aggression," the tide of which had run its prosperous course for the preceding eight hundred years and to whom all other people of Northern India in general and the Punjab in particular, owe a deep debt of gratitude.

This Content has been made available for educational purposes only. SikhRI does not make any representation concerning the completeness of the Content. This Content is not intended to substitute research or a deeper understanding of the topic. SikhRI encourages readers to read multiple authors to gain a complete understanding of the topic.

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