The Emergency Rule in India

Your great-grandmother, my father’s mother, lived in Derwa, a village in Uttar Pradesh in Northern India. I remember her with white hair, a white sari and very fair skin. She spoke Purbi, a dialect which I could understand. She worked hard grinding wheat, and she knew intricate weaving techniques that she taught my elder sister. I still have some of the things she made.

She and my grandfather had seven children, six that survived. There is my eldest uncle, Rahmatulla, then Amanatulla, then a brother who died in infancy, after whom is my father, Barkatulla, then Habibulla, Aziz and the youngest, a girl, Muni who everyone says I resemble. When the children were young, my grandmother and grandfather moved from Derwa to a small industrial Muslim town close to Mumbai called Bhiwandi. Here, they invested in electric looms, as weaving had become more commercialised. Our family textile tradition came into the modern age.

However, the political landscape was hostile at the time, and the resulting policies affected their lives forever.

It started with Emergency Rule, that was declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi:

“Opposition leaders threatened a civil disobedience campaign to force the prime minister to resign, and many of her oldest cabinet colleagues and Congress Party advisers urged her to step down pending an appeal to India’s Supreme Court. Following instead the advice of her ambitious and energetic younger son, Sanjay, on June 26, 1975, Gandhi persuaded President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a national emergency, which empowered her to do whatever she considered best for the country for at least six months. The elite Central Reserve Police force, the prime minister’s palace guard, was ordered to arrest Desai and the ailing and aged Narayan, as well as hundreds of others who had worked with her father and Mohandas Gandhi in helping India to win its freedom from British rule. She then blacked out the entire region of Delhi in which the press was published and appointed Sanjay as her trusted personal censor of all future news leaders and editorials.” (

The Prime Minister had listened to her son Sanjay Gandhi, the politician that, according to the civil servant Anand Sarup:

“negated everything Jawaharlal Nehru had wrought for the running of a democratic India, and destroyed the old culture of the Congress party”. (

Sanjay Ghandi was a member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, and he proved a disaster for Muslims in India. My father told me of the sterilisation campaign that was secretly taking place on Muslim men, that was an attempt to control the Muslim population. I didn’t believe it until I found evidence, which Sarup clearly provides when he describes his fraught relationship with Sanjay Gandhi:

“I got into real trouble with him over the target-driven vasectomy programme, which was widely known as Sanjay Gandhi’s pet project. Government officials were made responsible for ‘recruiting’ large numbers of ‘volunteers’ who would undergo vasectomy in return for some monetary payment. Besides the District Medical Officers, District Magistrates, Superintendents of Police, Excise Officers and almost all the officers who had some powers to put pressure on field level functionaries were told that if they expected the government to show them any consideration, they must ensure that the vasectomy target for their district was met.

As a result, anyone who went to see a government officer for any official work was likely to be asked to bring some people for vasectomy. What mattered to the government was the magic number they had to achieve. How this was achieved was immaterial. I am sorry that I have to say that during the Emergency officials indulged in the worst kind of torture to achieve their targets. While all communities suffered, the brunt of this approach to population control was borne by the Muslims. Perhaps the officials were carried away by the propaganda that the unwillingness of the Muslims to limit the number of their children was adding too many people to our already burgeoning population.”

As a result of Emergency Rule, an aggressive and oppressive Indian regime made lives intolerable. A McCarthyite paranoia was underway, only this one distrusted the poor and vulnerable.  This was the decade of the 70s, when your father’s white, working class English family in Britain witnessed Miners’ strikes and the world’s first test-tube baby in a Conservative Britain.

This was also the age when Britain joined the EEC and began borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, the same Fund that sought to curb the large Indian population:

“Sterilisation camps are not new to India; they have been part of the struggle to contain its population for more than forty years. At one point they weren’t even voluntary. In 1976, Sanjay Gandhi, the son of Indira and grandson of founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, initiated a widespread compulsory sterilisation programme. The IMF and World Bank were demanding action to curb India’s population. If numbers were not brought under control, the fledgling nation risked losing vital funds just as it was getting on its feet (after the Raj and partition).” (

My father, a privately educated young man in his early 20’s that spoke fluent Arabic and Farsi, was sent by a committee in Bhiwandi to go to Saudi Arabia and meet with journalists to publicise the plight of Indian Muslims to the rest of the Muslim world. he had recently married my mother, and they exchanged letters in this bittersweet moment of their history.


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