The impact of the Emergency forty years ago was a paradox of sorts in Tamil Nadu. What was thrown out by people across the country in 1977 was embraced in the southern state, despite some of the most vociferous protests against Emergency taking place in Tamil Nadu.
The Emergency years, for most Tamilians, were wonderful years when the government machinery functioned with precision – trains ran on time and everything moved like clockwork.
“Ordinary people were not affected during Emergency, unlike in the northern states,” said Gnani Sankaran, a political critic who was then a young reporter in The Indian Express.
“In Tamil Nadu the political parties and organisations that opposed Emergency suffered – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) all faced violence. The media too was affected. Every midnight I had to go to the censor office so the morning paper could be published.”
High drama had been brewing in Tamil Nadu politics for some time as India, unaware, headed towards the Emergency years.
In 1971, DMK chief M Karunanidhi would become the state’s chief minister for the second time, capturing 184 of the 234 seats in the assembly. Karunanidhi had allied with the Indira Gandhi's Congress, spurning the warnings of an opposition alliance comprising senior Congress leaders Rajaji and Kamaraj.
In 1972, popular cine actor and DMK leader MG Ramachandran would break away, accusing Karunanidhi of corruption and taking a large chunk of the party with him. The Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK, now the All India ADMK) would be formed soon thereafter.
As Karunanidhi fought pitched political battles at home, dark clouds were hovering over the rest of the country. At midnight on June 25, 1975, Emergency was imposed on an unsuspecting nation.
Karunanidhi and his DMK would become one of the most vocal and staunch opponents of Emergency. In 1976, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would dismiss in Tamil Nadu’s DMK government and impose President’s Rule in the state.
Recalling those turbulent years, DMK heir apparent and Karunanidhi’s son, MK Stalin, told Hindustan Times about the terror unleashed on himself and party leaders.
“The MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) was brought into force in 1975 as soon as Emergency was declared,” said Stalin.
“Leaders like (LK) Advani and George Fernandes were arrested and Jayprakash Narayan started a large movement opposing the Emergency. At that time Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent two messengers to Chennai (then called Madras) to meet our leader Kalaignar (a term used for Karunanidhi),” he reminisced.
Stalin, who was 23 at the time, recollects that Gandhi’s messengers informed Karunanidhi he did not need to support the Emergency but that he must not oppose it openly.
“If you do not oppose it, your regime shall continue in Tamil Nadu but if you do oppose it, we will have to dismiss your government – this was the message from Mrs Gandhi,” said Stalin. “Our leader told them categorically that he was a student of Periyar and Annadurai (former Tamil Nadu chief minister) and that under no circumstances would he ever support dictatorship. He told them that the DMK would always stand for democracy and sent them away.”
Following this, Karunanidhi met Congress leader Kamaraj, a strong opponent of Indira Gandhi, to discuss the political scenario at the Centre and whether his government should resign in protest.
“Kamaraj told Kalaignar that the country is finished,” said Stalin. “In the whole of India it is only in Tamil Nadu that one can still breathe the air of democracy. Kamaraj told our leader not to resign under any pretext.”
The DMK went on to hold a massive rally at the Marina beach in Chennai, protesting against the imposition of Emergency and demanding political prisoners be released immediately.
“The very next day, on January 31, 1976, the DMK government was dismissed by the Centre,” said Stalin. “The police came the same day to Kalaignar’s house and asked for Murasoli Maran (a prominent political leader and nephew of Karunanidhi) and for myself.
“Kalaignar told police that Maran was in Delhi and that I was campaigning in Madurantakam and that he would hand us both over to police when we returned. The next day both Maran and I went to the police in Chennai and were arrested.”
Brutality followed, with violence being unleashed on 500-odd DMK leaders who were arrested with Maran and Stalin.
“Under MISA we could not approach the courts for relief, it was a draconian act,” said Stalin. “Maran, former state Electricity Minister Arcot Veerasamy and I were all lodged in Chennai jail. Many were forced to sign letters stating that they were not DMK members anymore. When we resisted, we were attacked brutally. The life convicts were made to beat all of us badly – this went on for three months,” said Stalin.
DMK MP Chitti Babu died in that attack within the walls of Chennai prison. Arcot Veerasamy lost his hearing in one ear and Maran sustained a back injury that would never heal completely.
Stalin pointed to a scar on his right arm. “This is one injury that I got when in jail,” he smiled. “Whenever anyone asks me how I got that, I tell them it is a MISA scar.”
“Kalaignar has been criticised several times by his political rivals for bringing me, his son, into politics,” added Stalin. “But Kalaignar always replied – I may have brought Stalin into politics but the person who made him a real politician was Indira Gandhi,” he laughed.
Political critic Gnani Sankaran agreed. “Stalin was barely out of his teenage years at that time,” he said. “It kind of made him attuned to politics.”
Stalin said Indira Gandhi finally apologised for imposing MISA and the brutality unleashed on DMK leaders at a public meeting at Marina beach in later years.
Though political leaders don’t recall the Emergency very fondly, common people remember the era in a different way.
KV Pasupathy, a 79-year-old retired businessman in Chennai, said he had welcomed the Emergency. "There was discipline on the roads, people were going to office on time, trains were running on time. Law and order was under control and fewer thefts were reported. Life got better for us here briefly," he reminesced.
CP Sundareswaran, a 76-year-old resident of Chennai, agreed. "There was no effect on our lives. Officers functioned more carefully so we felt more safe during that time. There was not even a curfew at that time," he said.
Despite the high voltage drama playing out in jails across the state, the Tamil Nadu electorate was mesmerised by the phenomenon of MG Ramachandran, actor and founder of the other Dravidian behemoth, the ADMK. Once the Emergency was lifted in 1977, the country went to polls.
In Tamil Nadu, assembly elections too were held, with the Indira Congress aligning with the newly formed ADMK. While Indira Gandhi faced a humiliating defeat in the rest of the country, Tamil Nadu voted the MGR-Indira alliance in with a thumping majority.
S Thirunavukkarasar, who worked closely with MGR in those years, said the star’s popularity overrode any vague negative sentiment over the Emergency.
“MGR’s popularity overrode the negative impact of Emergency and they won all MP seats except two,” said Thirunavukkarasar, now a secretary of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee.
“The Indira Congress wanted an alliance with MGR and he agreed. The DMK criticised Indira Gandhi beyond a limit, something that the people themselves did not like,” he said. “At that time, during the Emergency, what Madam Gandhi did was correct. People voted her back to power didn’t they?”
Gnani Sankaran said: “In the initial days of Emergency, the DMK was in power – fortunately they did not indulge in the kinds of activities that happened up north. Once the DMK was thrown out of power, the Congress focused more on the north and did not bother with Tamil Nadu much. Which is why, despite the Emergency and despite the AIADMK supporting Congress after Emergency was lifted, they managed to come to power.”
MK Stalin refused to be drawn into a political war of words over recent comments by senior BJP leader LK Advani on not ruling out another Emergency in future. “I do not know what he was referring to when he said that,” said Stalin. “But my wish is that such a terrible fate should never befall India again.”
(The writer is a Chennai-based freelance journalist. She tweets as @sandhyaravishan)