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Kalaignar Karunanidhi: Defending Democracy during Emergency

Sarvodaya leader Jayaprakash Narayan called on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi at the latter's residence, in Madras on December 26, 1973. Photo: The Hindu Archives

One of the high points in the political life of the late former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, was his opposition to the Emergency. The challenge was much more for Karunanidhi who held office as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. In this article, M.G. Devasahayam, former Army and Indian Administrative Service officer, recalls Karunanidhi's "passion for freedom and democracy, and the willingness to make sacrifices to defend and protect these precious gifts".

With the demise of Kalaignar Karunanidhi, an epoch-making chapter in the history and politics of Tamil Nadu has come to an end. Having belonged to a cadre of Indian Administrative Service (Haryana) other than Tamil Nadu, I have neither worked with him nor under him. But, hailing from Tamil Nadu I kept a close watch on the happenings in my home State when he was Chief Minister.

My acquaintance with Kalaignar commenced only in 1990 when Chaudhary Devi Lal (former Chief Minister, Haryana) was Deputy Prime Minister of India. This was brief but revived when he became Chief Minister again in 1996. From then up to 2006 we used to meet quite often and exchanged ideas on various aspects including politics, development and governance. I also played a small, but significant role in forging the Congress-DMK Alliance in the 2004 Parliament election which led them to a sweeping victory of 40-0 in Tamil Nadu/Pondichery. But that is another story.  And there are quite a few of them!  

Many facets of Kalaignar Karunanidhi, the senior most political leader in India when he passed away, have been spoken and written about. But one important aspect-—his passion for freedom and democracy and the willingness to make sacrifices to defend and protect these precious gifts—has not received adequate attention.

Kalaignar Karunanidhi was among these leaders who sacrificed his Chief Ministership in this noble effort.

Most of today’s generation do not know or remember the dark days of Emergency in the mid-seventies that extinguished freedom and democracy in this country. It commenced in June 1975 and ended in February 1977. Due to the daring and defiance of freedom-loving people and leaders of calibre, Emergency was defeated and democracy restored within such a short time. Kalaignar Karunanidhi was among these leaders who sacrificed his Chief Ministership in this noble effort.

During about 20 months of active Emergency imposed on the night of 25/26 June 1975 freedom and fundamental rights stood suspended. Press freedom was severely curtailed. People moved in hushed silence, stunned and traumatised by the draconian goings on. Bulk of the Civil Service crawled when asked to bend. Higher echelons of judiciary bowed to the dust and decreed that under Emergency regime, citizens did not even have the ‘right to life’. Politicians of all hue and colour, barring honourable exceptions, lay supine and prostrate.

This defiant, indomitable spirit in the person of Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan dared the might of Emergency dictatorship and defeated it.

There was gloom all around and it looked as if everything was over and the world’s largest democracy was slowly but surely drifting into dictatorship. But through this all, one single soul, one lonely spirit continued to stir in anguish and agony. Yet, this defiant, indomitable spirit in the person of Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan dared the might of Emergency dictatorship and defeated it, thereby restoring India back to freedom and democracy. This he did despite being in the frailest of health and living on borrowed time. And I have been a witness to this.


Jayaprakash Narayan declared open the Rajaji Memorial at Guindy (Sardar Patel Road), on May 5, 1975, under the presidentship of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives.


Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as JP, was among the greatest revolutionaries of modern times. He was the ‘fire brand’ of India’s Freedom struggle and inflamed the ‘Quit India Movement’ launched by Mahatma Gandhi on August 8, 1942 by his daring escapade from the high security Hazaribagh Jail that was followed by a massive manhunt launched by the British regime to capture him ‘dead or live’. This eventually paved the way for the collapse of the colonial empire and India achieving Independence.

JP’s passion for Freedom was legendary. On being provoked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during Emergency that ‘bread is more important than freedom’ this is what he thundered: “Freedom became one of the beacon lights of my life and it has remained so ever since. … Above all it meant freedom of the human personality, freedom of the mind, freedom of the spirit. This freedom has become a passion of my life and I shall not see it compromised for bread, for security, for prosperity, for the glory of the state or for anything else”.

The vanguard of this struggle was Kalaignar Karunanidhi, who was then the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

It was this man who led the movement against Emergency in defence of democracy and in the vanguard of this struggle was Kalaignar Karunanidhi, who was then the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. As a result, the relationship between the Centre and State government strained and subsequently, DMK government was dismissed. DMK frontline leaders, district secretaries, former MLAs and MPs were detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in various prisons. The detainees were ill-treated and tortured.


Jayaprakash Narayan with M.G. Devasahayam. Photo: By Special Arrangement. Copyright: M.G. Devasahayam

Kalaignar’s son MK Stalin still bears the brutal marks of Emergency torture. His nephew, Murasoli Maran’s health was shattered. Prominent party functionaries like C. Chittibabu, MP, and Sattur Balakrishnan even lost their lives. This was very heavy price to pay. But Kalaignar was unfazed. His writing skills and speeches that kept the cadre alive to the situation made the party survive and live to fight another day.

During the Emergency, when JP was imprisoned at Chandigarh, I was the District Collector/Magistrate of the Union Territory and was as such JP’s custodian. During this time, I did come to know him very closely. And having understood the nobility of his struggles and the intensity of his commitment, partook in all matters concerning him and the State, shared his intimate thoughts and feelings, discussed political events and happenings in the country and played ‘Devil’s Advocate’. Some of these discussions concerned DMK and its leader Kalaignar Karunanidhi.

The first conversation about Tamil Nadu was in the third week of July 1975 when I told JP that Government of Tamil Nadu under Chief Minister Karunanidhi was not implementing most of the Emergency laws and directions on MISA arrests and censoring of the press, which has been taken over by the Centre. He was happy to hear that.

Mrs. Gandhi would have been happy to have Kamaraj in jail under MISA. But Chief Minister Karunanidhi refused to oblige.

I also informed JP about Kamaraj’s anguish on proclamation of Emergency and extinction of democracy by Indira Gandhi whom he had brought to power. Kamaraj had wept bitterly and said in Tamil, “ellam pochu, en thappu” (all is finished, my blunder). With one stroke Kamaraj had become a strong adversary of Mrs. Gandhi, and she would have been happy to have him in jail under MISA like all the tall opposition leaders. But Chief Minister Karunanidhi refused to oblige.


Jayaprakash Narayan with K. Kamaraj. Photo: Special Arrangement, M.G. Devasahayam.

After declaring Emergency, the Constitution of India was amended by a pliable Parliament by a vote of 164-0 to make the proclamation of Emergency non-justiciable and 18 State Assemblies ratified the same. This news extremely distressed JP and he was greatly demoralised. But when I told him that Tamil Nadu and Gujarat assemblies have refused to ratify the amendment, he was thrilled and said: “I am happy. Very happy. The DMK is standing up to it. As soon as I am released, I will ask Kamaraj to talk to Mr Karunanidhi and patch up with DMK because that was the only way to combat authoritarianism and defeat Emergency”.

I was touched by one event of that time. In August 1975, Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu enjoying all powers and authority. JP was a prisoner of the Emergency regime detained under MISA and the ‘Enemy No: 1 of the Central Government’. Yet, despite all the risks, Karunanidhi sent a special invitation to JP for the wedding of his son M.K. Stalin. The invitation letter was received on August 20, the day of the wedding. When I gave the letter personally to JP that very day, he was deeply moved and responded with very warm greetings.

Despite all the risks, Karunanidhi sent a special invitation to JP for the wedding of his son M.K. Stalin.

Much more on JP’s thoughts about Karunanidhi emerged in the wake of Kamaraj’s death on 2 October, 1975 the Gandhi Jayanti day. When I went to JP next morning, he was sad and with a deep sigh, lamented that we have lost Kamaraj at this critical juncture exclaiming: ‘Fate seems to be harsh on India’. JP said Kamaraj was a good man, simple and sincere.

On 3 October, JP went on to record his thoughts on Kamaraj in his diary, which was a candid analysis of Tamil Nadu politics and his estimation of Kalaignar Karunanidhi. This deserves to be reproduced in full:

“Kamaraj died yesterday in Madras of a massive heart attack. A great and even heroic figure of Indian politics is no more. His life’s work was not complete yet. The last time he met me in Delhi, he said something like this: ‘What you are doing is the only hope for the country’. But when I toured Tamil Nadu later, he was not pleased with my speeches. I could not condemn the DMK and call for a struggle against the DMK government. The reason was that Mr Karunanidhi, unlike the Congress Chief Ministers, offered to meet the Opposition and discuss with them their criticism of the DMK government. He said he was prepared even for an impartial enquiry into their faults, charges of corruption or of any other kind. In fact, he mentioned that in one case, he had actually appointed a High Court judge as a commission of enquiry. He also pointed out the Public Men’s Conduct of Enquiry Act he had already enacted and expressed his preparedness to discuss either with me or Opposition leaders any faults that the Act might be found to possess, but such as the deterrent punishment provided in it for anyone for whom the due process of law, as laid down in the Act, found to have wilfully made false charges. Under these circumstances, a responsible Opposition was expected to take the DMK leader at his word and make a serious attempt to take the obvious steps. In fact, in one of my speeches in Tamil Nadu, I urged Kamaraj to take up this therapeutic line and clean up the murky political climate in the State…
…. I am not suggesting that whatever Rajaram and Sezhian told me in Madras or Delhi had to be taken at face value, or I took it that way. But, in the absence of any response from Kamaraj and the Opposition it did not seem fair, at least for me, to attack the DMK government and give a call for a people’s movement against it. A people’s movement could still be developed (because, as I have endeavoured to show, it need not in every case be against the government; the latter may honestly cooperate with the movement because its objectives are far wider - a total revolution) but naturally Opposition leaders in Tamil Nadu, including Kamaraj, were not interested in any movement unless at least its immediate political aim coincided with the Opposition aim.”
JP had confided in me that he considered Kamaraj the most suitable person to head the united political party he was contemplating and become Prime Minister.

Kamaraj’s death came as a major setback for JP’s Grand Alliance plan to defeat the Emergency rule as and when election came. JP had confided in me that he considered Kamaraj the most suitable person to head the united political party he was contemplating and become Prime Minister in the event of an election and victory of such party. JP also wanted Kamaraj and Karunanidhi to come together so that Tamil Nadu could get into the national mainstream and a powerful regional opposition spearheaded by DMK could be put together. JP said that Kamaraj had agreed to this in principle and was looking for the opportune time.

This thinking process by JP was based on his evaluation of the political scenario in Tamil Nadu, which was later described by Nayanatara Sahgal in her book, Indira Gandhi’s Emergence and Style (Vikas):

“In Tamil Nadu DMK was firmly established as the dominant political force in the State. On July 12 1975, Chief Minister Karunanidhi had addressed a mass meeting on the Marina Beach in Madras, declaring there was neither an internal nor external threat to India and calling upon the vast concourse to take a pledge to defend their freedoms. His public speeches caustically directed at the Emergency were laced with Tamil folk humour.”
Indira Gandhi wanted to take over Tamil Nadu, but found Karunanidhi and Kamaraj as big obstacles, though in different ways.

Indira Gandhi wanted to take over Tamil Nadu, but found Karunanidhi and Kamaraj as big obstacles, though in different ways. JP had planned to bring about rapprochement between these two stalwarts personally when Emergency was over and normalcy restored. But that was not to be! Fate intervened and while Kamaraj passed away during Emergency Indira Gandhi got Karunanidhi government dismissed!

In the run up to the General Election to Parliament in 1977, JP merged Congress (O), Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal and Socialist Party into the new Janata Party and along with DMK, Akali Dal and CPM forged a common front to give a straight fight to Congress and its allies, the CPI and AIADMK in the elections to the Lok Sabha. This Janata Front won a stunning victory, sweeping the entire Indo-Gangetic belt. The rest is history…

Even decades after the Emergency era, Karunanidhi’s passion for freedom had not diminished as would be evident from the DMK manifesto for Parliamentary elections 2004 demanding the repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA):

“In spite of being victim of Emergency DMK fought fervently against MISA in 1976. It has always been a crusader against oppressive and undemocratic Acts. It is well-known fact that POTA, which was introduced with the intention of curtailing terrorist activities, was used as a political tool to settle scores. The abuse of such Acts will continue to remain as long as such Acts are in force. Hence DMK demands the repeal of POTA immediately.”

I have heard people say that Kalaignar has done enough for Tamil Nadu and should make contribution at the national level. As if he has not done it already! What could be greater contribution than standing up to despotism and autocracy in defence of democracy and freedom in this ancient land of ours wherein live one-sixth of the human race? And in the process sacrificing the Chief Ministership of one of the major States of India!

Bravo Kalaignar Karunanidhi! You have lived your life to the full….

Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine, et lux perpetua luceat. Requiescat in pace.

[Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May Rest in Peace].

( M.G. Devasahayam , a former Army and Indian Administrative Service officer, is an economist, soldier, and administrator, with a distinguished career spanning over five decades and direct and first-hand experience in the working and ethos of the Indian Army, the IAS, the public and private sectors, the political system, and Non-Government Organisations. He can be contacted at [email protected] ).


( Correction: A typographical error in the spelling of 'Kalaignar' was corrected in the headline and the first paragraph of the article on August 10, 2018. The error is regretted.)

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