It may sound strange but one of the important reasons behind the imposition of Emergency can be traced to the Sinai desert in Egypt and Golan Heights in Syria. Yet in the last 42 years, one has hardly come across any discussion on the external factors influencing its imposition.
The problem is that posterity has come to know about Emergency more from its victims and far less from objective researchers. Those who imposed it later became apologetic about it. So, an independent assessment of the months before Emergency could not be made.
No doubt thousands of people were stuffed into jails, Press censorship was imposed and several major Constitutional amendments were made, which went against the spirit of democracy. There is no denying the fact that Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency after a series of developments starting from Nav Nirman Andolan (from December 1973) in Gujarat; JP movement (from March 1974) in Bihar; 20-day long strike by 17 lakh Railwaymen in May 1974 and the Allahabad High Court verdict against Mrs Gandhi’s election less than a fortnight before the imposition of Emergency on June 25, 1975.
Ironically, all these challenges came up when the situation had started improving. After winning the Lok Sabha election in 1971 and later the same year the Bangladesh Liberation War, the then ruling Congress won Assembly elections in several key states in 1972. There was sign of political stability, especially in Bengal and Bihar. Green Revolution in Punjab, Haryana and in some districts of western UP, had started yielding results. Curiously, it was at the height of the Railway strike that on May 18,1974, India conducted its first nuclear test in Pokhran in Rajasthan.
Yet in 1973 prices of foodgrains rose. Some local factors, like poor monsoon in 1972, and global developments, especially related to the US economy, started having its impact on India. In spite of these adversities it was hoped that the government would overcome momentary challenges.
But that was not to be. On October 6, 1973 the Yom Kippur War, also known as Ramadan War, started. In a quick and surprise military action the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and entered Sinai Desert. Syrians took back Golan Heights. These territories had been captured by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967.
Though Israel soon recovered most of its lost ground in this 17-day war, Shah Faisal of Saudi Arabia, as part of Arab unity, announced oil embargo against countries supporting Israel. In a matter of days its prices rose four times––from $ three per barrel to $12 per barrel. Stock markets across the world crashed and many booming economies collapsed.
India, which was trying to fight the odds, suddenly found itself in deep trouble. Prices of all commodities shot up. Hoarding by traders became quite rampant.
Those were not the days of remittance money, especially from Gulf countries. Unemployment grew, so did restlessness. Two months later at the fag end of 1973, the Nav Nirman Andolan started in Gujarat, apparently in protest against hike in hostel fees. Even the students’ movement in Bihar initially confined itself to the demands related to hostels and education, but later turned into a full-fledged political movement, first against the state government led by Abdul Ghafoor and later against the Centre.
The Railway strike further aggravated the situation. Forty-two years later India is again witnessing a summer of discontent. Farmers are up in arms, mostly in BJP ruled states. Dalits, particularly in UP and Gujarat, are restive. Unemployment has risen sharply and the GDP has shown a decline in the last quarter of the 2016-17 financial year.
Some comparison can be made with the pre-Emergency days. But the present Narendra Modi government has had dame luck on its side. Unlike in 1973, no one is using oil as a weapon, though there is turmoil in the Arab world. Instead of the fourfold increase as experienced in 1973, the global oil prices today are a third of what they were three years back. But imagine what would have happened had a 1973-like oil crisis had hit India after the demonetization of currency on November 8 last year.