Muslims through the Emergency: Recalling black months of history


Abdul Rashid Agwan
Abdul Rashid Agwan

By Abdul Rashid Agwan

While India is refreshing its haunting memories of the 1975 Emergency on the occasion of its 41stanniversary falling on 25 June, two unthought-of soothsayers warned the country that it may face another eventuality of the sort anytime in future. The chairman of Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, revealed his hunch in his 7 January blog early this year whereas the senior BJP leader, Lal Krishna Advani, warned the nation in this regard through his 18 June interview to The Indian Express. Perhaps, recalling those dire days may give some insight to deal with any testing time in future.

One particular section which suffered a great deal during the 19 month long Emergency comprised the Muslims. There were five reasons for them to feel shocked at that time. Firstly, one of their leading organizations was banned and its rank and file was put behind the bar. Secondly, along with others Muslims were subjected to forced sterilization en mass. Thirdly, in the name of beautification of Delhi thousands of Muslim families were displaced and hundreds of the resisting people were shot dead by police. Fourthly, many newspapers and periodicals brought out by Muslims were restricted from publication. Lastly, it was a Muslim president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, who imposed Emergency in the country on the behest of Indira Gandhi and became the cause of woes for millions of citizens including his own co-religionists.

As soon as the Emergency was proclaimed, a few local leaders of Jamat-e-Islami Hind from Delhi and Rampur were arrested the next day. The Jamat held its apex consultative meeting on 28 June and decided to oppose the Emergency and forced sterilization policy. The proceedings of this meeting were bugged from a 5 km away place by some latest spying gadgets of the time. Jamat’s negative stand on the government policy enraged the ruling class and many of its national leaders were forthwith detained on charges of subversion. On 4 July, the organization was proscribed and more than one thousand of its leaders, members and sympathizers were detained in various parts of the country. Its offices were closed and press and publications were confiscated. Besides, a few other Muslim leaders were also selectively arrested, particularly those who opposed sterilization. A number of Jamat members denied parole in spite of their sever illness and some of them even died under custody. A well known Urdu poet Hafeez Merathi was arrested and released but rearrested when he composed and read out in public his famous poem on the Emergency, tiled ‘Chains’ (Janzeeren).

Many newspapers and periodicals published by the Jamat and other Muslim organizations were disallowed circulation. DawatRadiance and Hujoom published from Delhi were glaring examples. Then as an RSS activist, Narendra Modi wrote in his book Aapatkal mein Gujarat, “The Shaheen edited by Iqbal Varakhwaala and published by the Jamaat-e-Islami was one of the first causalities of the Emergency, having been shut down by the Government early on. The printing press of the Shaheenhad been seized by the Government while cases were filed under the draconian D.I.R. against Mr. Iqbal Varakhwaala and the many trustees of the Jamaat-e-Islami.”

In the early 1970s, Indira Gandhi, the erstwhile Prime Minister of India, had implemented a forced sterilization programme, but she failed due public resistance. However, the Emergency was used for compulsory castration of parents having more than two children. Different states used different tactics. Government officers were given targets of sterilization, failing  which their job would go. People in Rajasthan with more than three children were banned from holding any government job unless and until they had been sterilized. In Madhya Pradesh, irrigation water was withheld from village fields until sterilization quotas were met. It has been reported that during the entire period of Emergency, an estimated 11 million men and women were sterilized in the country. A large number of Muslims also suffered as a consequence. The Indian Express published one typical story in this regard.

It says, “The villagers of Uttawar (in Haryana) were shaken from their sleep by loudspeakers ordering the menfolk—all above 15—to assemble at the bus-stop on the main Nuh-Hodol road. When they emerged, the found the whole village surrounded by the police. With the menfolk on the road, the police went into the village to see if anyone was hiding…as the villagers tell it, the men on the road were sorted into eligible cases. . . and they were taken from there to clinics to be sterilized.”

Old Delhi became a hotspot of Emergency due to unthought-of persecutions of the local residents. In the name of beautification of the national capital, many houses in Turkman Gate, Dujana House and Jama Masjid areas of the walled city were bulldozed. Turkman Gate became a ‘national symbol’ of the coercive nature of the Indian state during the Emergency, which was ultimately turned into rubble and thrown somewhere. More than 1,200 resisting individuals were shot dead by police and around 700,000 persons from the walled city were displaced at that time. There was also bloodshed on the stairs of Jama Masjid when more than one hundred demonstrators were killed. On displaced people’s demand from the then vice-president of DDA Jagmohan to settle them at one place, he remarked, “Do you think that we are mad to destroy one Pakistan to create another Pakistan.” This was how Muslim concentration localities were targeted by communally charged bureaucrats as ‘Pakistan’ and treated like ‘enemy’ settlements.

The chronicler David Selbourne gives an eye-witness account of the Turkman Gate incident like this, “In clouds of dust, and with children weeping beside their smashed and bulldozed hovels, as I saw myself, trucks now drive the displaced away and dump them without food, sanitation, water or building materials for settlement in the name of new politics of discipline and development.” People used to equate Old Delhi massacres with Jallianwala Bagh tragedy of 1919.

However, there are some positive stories of the Emergency too. When leaders of Jamat-e-Islami, RSS, Socialist Party and Akali Dal were put together in jails for a long period they had an opportunity to talk about their distinct ideologies and develop a better understanding on controversial issues. Their mutual relations extended even after the trialing times. This ideological reconciliation affected the future course of Indian politics to a great extent and perhaps it was the biggest outcome of the dark months. K.R. Malkani, then the editor of the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, told me in 1983, “After the Emergency, I never published any article on Islam in my periodical without its clearance from the editor of Radiance, Mr Yusuf Siddiqui.” I happened to know that Girdharilal Bhargav, the erstwhile Rajasthan home minister and BJP leader, used to touch feet of Maulana Mohammad Ismail, a Jamat leader from Jaipur. There are many such incidences quoted by leaders of these organizations who were forced to share roof of their barracks.

Another post-Emergency development was that Muslims broke their shackles of Congress loyalty and voted Janta Party to power. Many Muslim organizations including Jamat-e-Islami Hind and All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat and leaders like Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Sayed Abdullah Bukhari mobilized Muslim masses to strengthen democracy and take revenge of their persecution during the Emergency. An old Congressman told a journalist during the 1977 election campaign, “…these damned vasectomies have become something like the greased cartridge of 1857.”

The Emergency has also tested many kinds of leadership in the country. The Jamat’s leadership remained steadfast during the entire period whereas many RSS leaders including its chief extended apologies to the regime. The Jamat leadership did not seek pardon for opposing the repressions. Then the president of Jamat, Yusuf Siddiqui, wrote a letter to Mrs Indira Gandhi while justifying Jamat’s position and at the end of his letter he clarified that “his explanations should not be treated as any kind of apology.” Many of the members who were underground cared for the affected families and kept on touring different parts of the country for boosting the spirits of its rank and file and their families during the whole stretch of the dark period.

Imam Bukahri was another strong voice against the persecutions. He opposed ban on the Jamat and also sterilizations and demolitions in the Old Delhi area. He challenged the Emergency junta to arrest him but it dared not. On 15 August 1976, when Mrs Indira Gandhi was addressing the nation on the occasion of Independence Day from the pulpit of Red Fort, Imam Bukhari repeatedly announced from a loudspeaker of Jama Masjid “this woman is telling lies.” This is a rare example of audacity.

All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat had also opposed the Emergency, forced sterilization and the ban on Jamat. The rector of Jamia Azhar, who graced some celebration of Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow, met the President of India and conveyed his sentiments regarding the sufferings of Indian people due to subversion of democracy in the country.

The government’s policy of forced sterilization became so much notorious that it has to change name of the concerning department from ‘Family Planning” to “Family Welfare”. The later experience has shown that forced birth control was uncalled for as people went on voluntarily adopting contraceptive measures in the country depending on the prevailing awareness. It is noted that “Contraceptive usage has been rising gradually in India. In 1970, 13% of married women used modern contraceptive methods, which rose to 35% by 1997 and 48% by 2009.”

Unfortunately, the talks of both Emergency and forced sterilization of Muslims have become frequent after the formation of BJP government at the center. Shiva Sena leaders and some less known BJP leaders have occasionally demanded forced sterilization of Muslims in recent days for curbing their population. All India Hindu Maha Sabha leader Sadhvi Deva Thakur called two months back for the imposition of Emergency and sterilization of Muslims and Christians. The fear of Cultural Emergency is very much looming large and none less than Justice Katju and the veteran BJP leader Advani expressed their apprehensions in this regard. The former predicted it after one year whereas the later did not specified any time for this but said in his interview, “At the present point of time, the forces that can crush democracy, notwithstanding the constitutional and legal safeguards, are stronger.”

No doubt some dark clouds are emerging on the horizon and there are also signs that Muslims may suffer as badly as 40 years ago or even worse. However, people of India seem hardly prepared to surrender their freedom. They will surely fight back as previously. The only hope in anticipation is that the incumbent Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi is himself a victim and witness of those dark months of mid 1970s and most likely he will overcome any pressure to impose Emergency in the country even though the situation may go beyond his political control. Thousands of the surviving victims, out of around 25,000 RSS workers detained during the Emergency, should rise against any demand of subverting democracy and human rights as the seasoned leader L.K. Advani has already done. Muslim organizations and leaders should also join hands with others in preserving the largest democracy.

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