Seldom does a court verdict change the course of history of a country. The June 12, 1975 verdict of the Allahabad high court convicting then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of electoral malpractices and debarring her from holding any elected post falls in this category.
The verdict delivered by Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha, it is widely believed, led to imposition of Emergency in India on June 25, 1975.
Indira Gandhi had won the 1971 Lok Sabha election from Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh convincingly defeating socialist leader Raj Narain, who later challenged her election alleging electoral malpractices and violation of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. It was alleged that her election agent Yashpal Kapoor was a government servant and that she used government officials for personal election related work.
While convicting Indira Gandhi of electoral malpractices, Justice Sinha disqualified her from parliament and imposed a six-year ban on her holding any elected post.
“The respondent no. I (Indira Gandhi) was thus guilty of a corrupt practice under section 123(7) of the Act.....accordingly stands disqualified for a period of six years from the date of this order...,” Justice Sinha pronounced to an stunned Indira Gandhi who was present in person in the court.
But on an appeal filed by Indira Gandhi, Justice VR Kirshnaiyer – a vacation judge of the Supreme Court - on June 24, 1975 granted a conditional stay on Justice Sinha’s verdict allowing her to continue as Prime Minister. However, she was debarred from taking part in parliamentary proceedings and draw salary as an MP.
Interestingly, the very next day she imposed the Emergency suspending all fundamental rights, putting opposition leaders in jails and imposing censorship on the media.
While the Emergency was in force, the Supreme Court later overturned her conviction on November 7, 1975.
Asked if Justice Sinha’s verdict changed the course of India’s history, senior advocate Shanti Bhushan - who represented Raj Narain – said: “Yes indeed the emergency as well as Indira losing the 1977 election was the direct result of Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha’s judgment.”
“Justice Sinha was a very able honest and God fearing judge. Before the judgment an attempt was made to influence him by the then Chief Justice of Allahabad high court DS Mathur who visited him at his residence along with his wife for the first and only one time to convey to him that he had been informed by Dr Mathur who was related to him and was the personal physician of Mrs Gandhi that she had decided to elevate Justice Sinha to the Supreme Court after he had decided the case. However Justice Sinha’s strong conscience did not permit him to take the bait. This was conveyed to me long after the judgment by Justice Sinha himself when we both were playing golf in Allahabad.
“His judgment was unassailable and Mrs Gandhi had to change the law retrospectively to get over his judgment. His judgment was hailed all over the democratic world as a great triumph of an independent judiciary in India”, Bhushan – a former law minister – said.