Gujarat and Bihar Unrest

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Home | Gujarat & Bihar unrest | Emergency Proclaimed | Popular Discontent

A major upheaval occurred in Gujarat in January 1974 when popular anger over the rise in the prices of foodgrains, cooking oil and other essential commodities exploded in the cities and towns of the state in the form of a student movement which was soon joined by the opposition parties. For more than ten weeks the state faced virtual anarchy with strikes, looting, rioting and arson, and efforts to force MLAs to resign. By February, the central government was forced to ask the state government to resign, suspend the assembly and impose President's Rule in the state. The last act of the Gujarat drama was played in March 1975 when, faced with continuing agitation and a fast unto death by Morarji Desai, Indira Gandhi dissolved the assembly and announced fresh elections to it in June.

On the heels of the Gujarat agitation and inspired by its success, a similar agitation was started by students in Bihar in March 1974. The students, starting with the gherao of the assembly on 18 March, repeatedly clashed with the overactive police, leading to the death of 27 people in one week. The Bihar movement was, however, characterised by two new features. Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as JP, came out from political retirement, took over its leadership, and gave a call for ‘Total Revolution’. Demanding resignation of the Congress government in Bihar and dissolution of the assembly, he asked the students and the people to put pressure on the existing legislators to resign, paralyze the government, gherao the state assembly and government offices, set up parallel people’s governments all over the state, and pay no taxes.

JP also decided to go beyond Bihar and organize a country-wide movement against widespread corruption and for the removal of Congress and Indira Gandhi. JP now repeatedly toured the entire country and drew large crowds especially in Delhi and other parts of North India that were Jan Sangh or Socialist strongholds. The JP Movement attracted wide support especially from students, middle classes, traders and a section of the intelligentsia.

Denouncing the JP Movement for its extra-parliamentary approach, Indira Gandhi challenged JP to test their respective popularity in Bihar as also the country as a whole in the coming general elections, due in February-March 1976. JP accepted the challenge and his supporting parties decided to form a National Coordination Committee for the purpose.

It appeared at this stage that the issue as to who actually represented the Indian people would be resolved through the democratic electoral process. However, this was not to be. A sudden twist to Indian politics was given by a judgement on 12 June 1975 by Justice Sinha of the Allahabad High Court, on an election petition by Raj Narain, convicting Mrs Gandhi for having indulged in corrupt campaign practices and declaring her election invalid. The conviction also meant that she could not seek election to parliament or hold office for six years and therefore continue as prime minister.

Mrs Gandhi refused to resign and appealed to the Supreme Court. Whilethe Supreme Court would hear her appeal on 14 July, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, the vacation Judge of the Supreme Court, created further confusion when he decided on 24 June that, till the final disposal of her appeal by the full bench of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Gandhi could stay in office and speak in parliament but could not vote in it.

In the meanwhile, Mrs. Gandhi suffered another political blow when the Gujarat assembly election results came on 13 June. The opposition Janata front won 87 seats and the Congress 75 seats in a house of 182. Surprisingly, the Janata front succeeded in forming a government in alliance with the same Chimanbhai Patel against whose corruption and mal-administration the popular movement had been initiated.

In a rally in Delhi on 25 June JP announced that a nation-wide one-week campaign of mass mobilization and civil disobedience to force Mrs. Gandhi to resign would be initiated on 29 June. The campaign would end with the gherao of the prime minister’s house by hundreds of thousands of volunteers. In his speech at the rally, JP asked the people to make it impossible for the government to function and once again appealed to the armed forces, the police and the bureaucracy to refuse to obey any orders they regarded as ‘illegal’ and ‘unconstitutional’. Mrs. Gandhi’s lightening response was to declare a state of Internal Emergency on 26 June.

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