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South Asian politics in the 1970s: Part IV

In the previous part of this essay published yesterday, we had looked at politics in Bangladesh and Pakistan from 1975 to 1977. Here we start with India and see how the imposition of the state of emergency in June 1975 led to Indira Gandhi’s downfall within two years.

In August 1975, Indira Gandhi embarked on a journey of rapid constitutional overhaul with the 39th Amendment to the constitution of India. This amendment placed the election of the president, vice president, prime minister and the speaker of the Lok Sabha (National Assembly) beyond the scrutiny of courts, irrespective of electoral malpractice – and that too retrospectively.

The Supreme Court was supposed to start hearing the case concerning the setting aside of Gandhi’s election on the grounds of corrupt electoral practices. The defeated candidate, Raj Narayan, had challenged her election. The Allahabad High Court had found her guilty and barred her from contesting in future elections. Her removal from the Lok Sabha was imminent when the emergency was declared and she began her rule by decree. When the 39th Amendment secured Indira’s position and prevented her removal from Indian politics, in the next couple of months, the government suspended seven freedoms guaranteed by the constitution of India.

Lok Sabha’s tenure was extended by one year, allowing Indira to rule for another year without facing the people; just like Mujib had done in Bangladesh by extending the tenure of the Jatiya Sangsad. Then Indira introduced three more amendments. The 41st Amendment prohibited any case, civil or criminal, being filed against the president, vice president, prime minister, or governors, not only during their term of office, but forever. That meant if somebody was governor just for a day, they acquired immunity from legal proceedings for life.

But perhaps the most far-reaching was the 42nd Amendment. It extended the initial duration of state emergency from six months to one year and declared India a socialist and secular republic. Nothing wrong with that, but it also removed all restrictions regarding the amendment powers of parliament. Thenceforth, no amendment could be contested in any court of law in India. Later this provision was removed by the famous Minerva Case in 1980, which reinforced the Basic Structure Doctrine from the Keshavananda Bharti Case (1973). During all this mutilation of the Indian constitution and imprisonment of over 50, 000 people, Chief Justice Ajit Nath Ray (1912 – 2010) proved to be the right-hand man of Indira Gandhi.

The same had been done by Chief Justice Abu Sayem of Bangladesh and chief justices Hamoodur Rahman and Yaqub Ali in Pakistan. In India, Justice A N Ray’s appointment in 1973 had superseded three senior judges of the Supreme Court and was viewed as an attack on the independence of the judiciary. This unprecedented promotion in the legal history of India had introduced an adulatory attitude towards the PM and the then chief justice made himself amenable to her influence. This was only to be reversed under the Morarji government. The famous Habeas Corpus case was a major decision during A N Ray’s tenure as chief justice.

In Jabalpur vs Shukla, popularly known as the Habeas Corpus Case in April 1976, led by A N Ray, four of the five senior-most judges struck a severe blow to the rights enshrined in the Indian constitution. Habeas corpus literally means ‘you may have the body’ and is a recourse in law whereby a person can report an unlawful detention before a court. The Supreme Court declared that ‘no person has any locus to move any writ petition before a high court for habeas corpus’. Thus nobody could challenge the legality of an order of detention.

Prior to this, nine high courts in India had upheld this right, but not the Supreme Court. Interestingly, all four judges who supported the government became chief justices of the Supreme Court barring just one dissenter, Justice H R Khanna, who remained steadfast in that trying time and who was next in line to become the chief justice. He disagreed with the majority and ultimately was deprived of his right to lead the Supreme Court of India. He resigned when his junior, Justice Mirza Hameedullah Beg (1913 – 1988) superseded him to become chief justice for just one year before he retired.

Through this decision, the Supreme Court of India in effect ordered the high courts to shut their doors to people. The lone dissenting voice of Justice Khanna to this day resonates in the halls of the Indian judiciary. Finally, the next general elections were held in March 1977, and emergency was lifted. Indira Gandhi lost miserably and had to hand over power to her nemesis, Morarji Desai who had led the Janata Party to a resounding victory. The new government introduced the 44th Amendment that was passed unanimously in both houses in 1978.

In Pakistan, general elections were held on March 7, 1977 and the PPP won a landslide. The opposition, Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) alleged massive rigging and refused to accept the election results. After mass protests Z A Bhutto agreed to negotiate with the opposition. A draft agreement was ready to be signed but on July 5 1977, General Ziaul Haq imposed martial law and arrested all political leaders. The army chief and CMLA promised election within three months, but just like his counterpart in Bangladesh, the promise was

not fulfilled.

As General Ziaur Rahman in Bangladesh had kept a civilian Justice Abu Sayem as president of Bangladesh for 17 months from November 1975 to April 1977; General Ziaul Haq in Pakistan retained a civilian president, Fazl Ilahi Chaudhary, for 14 months from July 1977 to September 1978. President Chaudhary completed his five-year term in August 1978. When General Ziaul Haq appointed himself president of Pakistan, both in Bangladesh and in Pakistan the army chief was CMLA as well as president. General Ziaul Haq was 12 years older than General Ziaur Rahman, but now the senior Zia was following in the footsteps of the junior Zia.

In Bangladesh, when Gen Ziaur Rahman got himself elected in a sham referendum in 1978, he removed restrictions on political parties and freed the press. He abandoned the socialist policies of Mujib and reintroduced market economy, signalling a wider international hand in these developments. In a way, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan were driven away from whatever meagre socialism they had introduced. The removal of Bhutto, Indira, and Mujib was also seen as a right-wing triumph over a relatively left-wing politics. Though all of them were ousted by internal forces, an external hand cannot be ruled out, as Z A Bhutto clearly mentions in his book ‘If I am Assassinated’.

If you want to read about India of that period, I can recommend: ‘Indira Gandhi Returns’ (1979) by Khushwant Singh; ‘The Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story’ (1997) by Jad Adams and Philip Whitehead; and just focusing on emergency, ‘Reason Wounded: A Personal Account of India’s Emergency’ by Primila Lewis first published in Pakistan by Vanguard Books in 1979. You may also find useful the chapter ‘Dynastic Democracy’ in Mark Tully and Zareer Masani’s book ‘India: Forty Years of Independence’ (1988). Covering the whole of South Asia, Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal’s book, ‘Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy’ (1998) is perhaps the best short account.

In Bangladesh, parliamentary elections were held in February, 1979; and Gen Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party won 207 of the 300 elected seats. As expected, he moved on to amend the constitution and replaced secularism with increasing Islamisation. A policy that Gen Ziaul Haq in Pakistan was also inspired to follow.

Thus both the dictators embarked on a journey of Islamisation that would have far-reaching ramifications not only for their respective countries but also for South Asia and the world at large.

To be continued

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "South Asian politics in the 1970s: Part IV," The news. 2019-07-30.
Keywords: Political science , Electoral practices , General elections , Decision making , Market economy , Social policies , International issue , Parliamentary elections , Secularism , Islamisation , India , Pakistan