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Image: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing a (female) audience in Delhi, 1 March 1977 (Socialist India, March 5 1977)

More than forty years on from India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), we are beginning to understand the many ways in which women supported, resisted and experienced this critical period in India’s history.

Forty-two years ago today, on 21 March 1977, India’s State of Emergency collapsed. The Janata Party, a coalition of anti-Emergency opposition groups, defeated Indira Gandhi’s Congress Government at the polls. Gandhi imposed this Emergency in June 1975, responding to rising opposition and a legal challenge to her position. Government censored the press, arrested opposition party members and activists, suspended elections and undertook controversial socioeconomic programmes, including coercive sterilisation and aggressive slum clearance. This is now a well traversed history. Recently, there has been a burgeoning of scholarship analysing these events. But the role of women in relation to all aspects of the regime has not commanded sufficient attention.

This is particularly striking for several reasons. A female leader who drew heavily on gendered narratives like Bharat Mata (Mother India) presided over this regime, mobilising such imagery to defend the Emergency’s legitimacy. In one instance, Gandhi stated:

We felt that the country had developed a disease and if it is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure… Now, when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus we were not very pleased to take this step. But we see it worked (Socialist India 15 November 1975).

In 1975 India participated in the UN’s International Women’s Year (IWY) celebrations and the government’s Committee on the Status of Women in India published its report Towards Equality. One of the Emergency’s most infamous policies, coercive sterilisation in the name of family planning, is an issue that has been at the fore of feminist activism and scholarship. Although the Emergency is widely acknowledged as a catalyst for the contemporary women’s movement in India, there has been little attention to women’s activism or experiences during it.

My doctoral research revealed the myriad ways in which women were key to the articulation and implementation of Emergency measures. Depictions of women’s support for the regime were integral to pro-Emergency propaganda. The Congress Party used women dominated photographs to represent support for the regime, even describing the Emergency as akin to the IWY, as ‘yet another significant event for the welfare of women in this country’ because of its imposition of ‘law and order’ (Socialist India 21 August 1976). Contrary to such claims, and despite perceptions of the Emergency’s sterilisation policies as a vasectomy programme, my research revealed the negative implications of these policies for women, particularly the impact of the focus on sterilisation on the Mother and Child Health programme. Women were often at the forefront of families’ attempts to negotiate the Emergency’s many coercive measures. As one man put it, because of the financial pressures authorities placed on his family ‘my wife had to get sterilised.’

Women were not simply victims of the Emergency’s repressive measures, nor symbols utilised by the Congress’s pro-Emergency narratives. Women were active in resistance and organised protests against the Emergency. Underground literature reveals glimpses of this recording how in December 1975, Jayawantiben Mehta, Ahilya Rangnekar and Kamal Desai led groups of women protestors in Mumbai as part of an organised Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaign. Documentation from Maharashtra’s prisons shows that state authorities there arrested over 500 women during this period for such activities. Once in prison, women cultivated lively cultures of resistance, continuing to protest and maintaining connections with the underground resistance movement. Those who escaped arrest, such as teacher and later Janata Party Secretary Pushpa Bhave, continued to organise protests and shelter those participating in underground resistance in their own homes.

The Janata Government that took office in March 1977 had the lowest number of women in parliament. As feminist activist and scholar Dr Ranjana Kumari, who was active in underground activism as a student in Delhi, told me in an interview, ‘there were a lot of women who were very, very active’, but ‘they were all pushed aside post-Emergency… so many of them not even recognised, not even written about, it is sad’. This marginalisation of women in post-Emergency politics has contributed to the absence of their voices and stories from this history. My doctoral research begins to address this gap, but forty-two years on, there is still much work to be done.

Gemma Scott completed an AHRC funded PhD at Keele University in 2018. Her research examines the history of India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), focusing particularly on women’s activism during this period and women’s experiences of Emergency measures. In 2015, she was an AHRC International Placement Scheme Fellow at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, and in 2016/17 she held a Scouloudi Foundation Doctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. She is currently working as Engagement, Partnerships and Impact Development Officer at Keele University.

Gemma Scott

The author Gemma Scott

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