The Emergency and Me

Jun 26, 2023
By Gita Aravamudan

Originally published in NVM India Website –

In 1975, everyone lived in a state of suspended fear and this was truer of government employees who could lose their jobs or get punished for minor misdemeanours. I got my first taste of this when I visited my gynaecologist at the Trivandrum Medical College hospital to get an NOC for me to travel by air to Bangalore where I was planning to have my baby.  She and I were on excellent terms and we often discussed whatever article I was writing at the moment.  She knew I was an active journalist.  On that particular day in November 1975, I happened to go for my appointment 15 minutes late. I was in for a shock.

Not only did my gynaecologist refuse to see me or give me that NOC, she also shamed me in front of all her staff and students.  She said it was women like me who “have nothing else to do” who create problems for her during the Emergency. I was totally puzzled and taken aback by her words.  But had no time to rue over them as I had to rush to another doctor and get that essential NOC as I was very, very pregnant!

* * *

I had taken a sabbatical from writing when the Emergency was declared in 1975. With an active two-year-old to care for and one more on the way, I was wrapped in my own bubble of domesticity and blissful motherhood. It took one year and the shocking murder of a student named Rajan to wake me up from my slumber and take cognisance of the real world around me once more.

I was 28 years old and had already worked for 7 years as a journalist.  I had worked as a reporter with Indian Express in Bangalore and I was the only woman reporter in the city then. In 1970, I had moved to Trivandrum after marrying a rocket scientist who worked at Thumba.  Those were the days when there were zero opportunities for a woman journalist in Trivandrum.  Especially for one writing in English.  And so, I had started freelancing.  By 1975, over half a dozen years I had built up a good network of journalist friends as well as contacts in national publications and more importantly, picked up a working knowledge of Malayalam.

And now, I was on a break as my domestic commitments had increased.  Trivandrum was far away from Delhi and in the beginning, we didn’t feel the turbulent impact of The Emergency.  On the other hand, there was a sense of uneasy peace.  The vociferous and omnipresent labour unions had quietened down. There were no placard holding protestors outside every business establishment.  The road in front of the Secretariat in Trivandrum which was always blocked with jathas, was now surprisingly empty.

These were pre-TV days. The only news we got was from the highly censored newspapers.  My un-doctored news sometimes came from my active journalist colleagues who were close enough to me to speak freely. Later, I heard about the atrocities of the forced family planning programme and the gagging of dissenters and many of the worst Emergency horror stories, after it was lifted.

When I came back from Bangalore three months later with two kids in tow, Achutha Menon, the popular CPI leader who was Chief Minister for the second term, was still in office.  He continued to stay in this post till the Emergency ended in 1977.  This proved to be beneficial as during his 7-year long stint he implemented important development projects, introduced laws which were beneficial to workers, enunciated a science policy and established several centres of excellence like The Chitra Thirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Keltron.

I was by now getting lulled into thinking the Emergency was what we needed to get trains running on time and government offices functioning smoothly.  Since I got only trickle-down news, I did not fully realise the horror of what was happening not just around the country, but right in the very state where I lived.  Beneath that peaceful façade, hidden comfortably from public view, people were getting arrested after being falsely accused of being terrorists or Naxalites. They were subjected to inhuman torture to make them “confess” and sometimes they disappeared without trace.

It took the most sensational and infamous Rajan case to shake the whole of Kerala and wake us all up.

P Rajan

P Rajan was a brilliant student at the Regional Engineering College in Kozhikode.  Though he lived in a politically volatile state like Kerala, he had no specific political affiliations. He was a good singer and an actor and a popular student. On March 1, 1976, when he had just returned to college after participating in an inter-collegiate Arts Festival, a group of policemen raided his hostel and took him away. That was the last time his friends saw Rajan.

Soon, the word went round that Rajan was arrested because he was a Naxalite and involved in a murder case. Those were the days when people were arbitrarily dubbed Naxalites and arrested.  Especially if they were dissidents who opposed the Emergency.

Rajan’s father, Eachara Warrier, who was a Hindi teacher, tried desperately to locate his only son — but it was all in vain. He appealed to the Chief Minister Achutha Menon who referred him to the veteran Congress leader Karunakaran, who was then the Home Minister. Since Karunakaran represented Mala, which was Rajan’s family’s constituency, Warrier was hopeful that he would help him. But this was the Emergency when the police were arresting people secretly.  So, they were tight lipped. No one could or would help the desperate father.

Eachara Warrier. Photo courtesy: Asianet News

That was when my dear friend and veteran journalist the late Sam Rajappa got into the picture. He somehow managed to get himself lodged in the same jail where Rajan’s best friend was incarcerated. From him, he got the details of Rajan’s gruesome torture which resulted in his death. Sam’s article in the The Statesman was clinching evidence which Rajan’s father used subsequently in his quest for justice.

But the case was never resolved as Rajan’s body which was allegedly dumped in a reservoir was never found. The courts reopened after the emergency was lifted and Karunakaran who had become Chief Minster by then, was forced to resign after an adverse judgement.  Jayaram Padikkal, who was the DIG Crime Branch then, was alleged to have ordered and supervised the inhuman torture of Rajan in a tourist bungalow at Kakkayam.   Although Padikkal was convicted for this, not only was his conviction later overthrown, but he was also promoted over the years allegedly due to his closeness to Karunakaran.

We do not have an Emergency in our country right now. Neither do we have draconian press censorship.  And we definitely don’t have a problem of paucity of information. On the other hand, we have a problem of over information. Myriad communication channels have opened up and information, both fake and real, leaks out of our very pores. There are no filters any more. Pictures can be morphed, information twisted and troll armies can be released to play havoc with our minds.

Dissidents continue to be arrested. Instead of being labelled Naxalites, they are now called terrorists or anti nationals.  The underbelly of law enforcement has always depended on “encounter specialists” and they continue to act usually at the behest of the powers that be.

As in the past, false arrests are still being made and custodial torture continues, though perhaps not as blatantly as before.  Forced sterilization is not an issue now as it was in the past.  But new words like love jihad and land jihad have been coined to fan the flames of communal hatred.  Today, like never before, secularism has also become a hate word. This generation has not even heard of democratic socialism which was a buzz word once upon a time nor do they know that the communist governments in our country were actually democratically elected.

So, everything has changed yet nothing has changed!  But the good news is that despite everything that has happened, is happening and will happen, we survive as a democracy…and that I think is our biggest victory as a nation!

Gita Aravamudan started her professional writing career with Hindustan Times, Delhi in 1967. Currently an independent journalist, she has authored and published seven books.