On 26 June 1975 the President declared a State of Emergency on the advice of the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, heading a Congress Government.

During the following two years, India witnessed a denial of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties on a scale unprecedented since Independence. Amnesty International estimated that, throughout the period of Emergency, at least 40,000 and perhaps as many as 100,000 people became political prisoners, including members of both right- and left-wing opposition parties, even including members of the Congress Party itself. The vast majority were prisoners of conscience detained without trial under laws amended during the Emergency to deny Indian citizens the right of access to the courts and even to know the grounds for their detention.

An excerpt from an Amnesty International Report released during Emergency period
An excerpt from an Amnesty International Report released during Emergency period

Amnesty International adopted 236 of these as prisoners of conscience and made frequent appeals for their release, in addition to other activities which have been described in Amnesty International’s annual reports for 1975, 1976 and 1977. Government statistics subsequently published confirm that, during the period of Emergency, 36,039 political prisoners were held in preventive detention under the provisions of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act alone. Besides these, according to official statistics provided by the Home Ministry, 77,297 political prisoners were held under the Defence of India Rules (DIR). All important fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution were suspended and could no longer be enforced; the right of habeas corpus ceased to exist. Numerous incidents were reported to Amnesty International of arbitrary action taken by officials who had been given unlimited powers during the period of Emergency. Most disturbing were reports, subsequently confirmed, that political prisoners had died as a result of torture during interrogation or in staged “encounters”.

Amnesty International took action on behalf of some political prisoners threatened with torture during the Emergency, but many more allegations that political prisoners had been tortured during this period emerged in the Indian press after censorship (which had been in force during the Emergency) had been lifted and the new Government had assumed office in March 1977. There were also many reports that political prisoners had been ill-treated in jail and denied even the most basic facilities as well as the right to see their relatives regularly.

George Fernandez. Pic courtesy: Livemint
George Fernandez. Pic courtesy: Livemint

On assuming office in March 1977, the present Janata (People’s) Government took a number of important steps for the restoration of the rule of law in India. The new Government released nearly all prisoners of conscience who had been arrested under the provisions of the two main preventive detention laws in force during the Emergency: the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and the Defence of India Rules (DIR). According to Government statistics, 17,754 political prisoners were still held under the MISA when the present Government took over (out of a total of 36,039 detained during the Emergency). The government also released the remaining political prisoners still held under the detention provisions of the DIR. However, on 1 July 1978, more than a year after the new Government took over, 86 political prisoners were still held for political reasons without trial under the MISA provisions (73 of them foreign nationals and 13 Indians held for “reasons connected with the Security of the State or the maintenance of public order”). Amnesty International considers these prisoners to be prisoners of conscience and has, on several occasions, urged that they be released forthwith. Amnesty International has not taken up their cases on an individual basis because it received an assurance from the Government, in a letterof 6 April 1978, that all these prisoners would be released at the same time as the MISA was repealed.

During their visit, the Amnesty International delegates also discussed with the Ministers of Home Affairs and Law a Bill for preventive detention then before Parliament and meant to replace the MISA, which was to be incorporated in the Code of Criminal Procedure. The Bill had been introduced despite the Government’s election commitment to repeal the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. In the face of vocal opposition from civil liberties organizations and the press, the Government on 23 March 1978 announced its intention to withdraw the Bill and the Lok Sabha (Lower House) subsequently repealed the MISA unconditionally on 19 July 1978. Amnesty International has in this report commented on this Bill and the remaining provisions for preventive detention in Indian law in view of its long-standing concern about the use of preventive detention for political purposes and, more particularly, the large-scale and indiscriminate use of such detention during the recent Emergency period. Preventive detention was first introduced under British colonial rule, when prominent Indian political leaders suffered imprisonment without trial under its provisions. In India, the Constitution itself continues to permit preventive detention and at least one state Government (the state of Jammu and Kashmir) at present retains very wide powers to detain political opponents without trial).

ALSO READ the full version of a report from Amnesty International mission to India post Emergency period, 31 December 1977 - 18 January 1978