An island of democracy

Not only did Karunanidhi lead the anti-Emergency struggle from the front but he also played a crucial role in forging a political front against the Indira Gandhi regime which eventually brought down the government in the general election of 1977.

Published : Aug 17, 2018 11:00 IST

December 26, 1973: At his residence in Madras with Jayaprakash Narayan, who launched the movement for Total Revolution.

December 26, 1973: At his residence in Madras with Jayaprakash Narayan, who launched the movement for Total Revolution.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that M. Karunanidhi faced as the leader of a government and a political party was the state of internal emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on June 25-26, 1975. He defied it with courage, knowing full well what the price of that act would be. He lost his government, and his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), suffered extensive damage under the Emergency regime. For about seven months he refused to allow the dark shadows of the Emergency to fall on Tamil Nadu, that is, until his government was dismissed on January 31, 1976. Tamil Nadu remained an island of democracy where many leaders fleeing the Emergency regime’s police in northern India took refuge and leaders of political parties that opposed the Emergency, mainly those from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), freely went about doing their political work. In fact, the speech made by CPI(M) veteran A.K. Gopalan in Parliament on July 21, 1975, opposing the Emergency was believed to be typewritten and cyclostyled in Tamil Nadu for distribution among the party cadre in other States as the press, under a heavy censorship regime then, would not publish even a word against the Emergency.

The events leading up to the Emergency show that the groundwork for overthrowing his government started about two years before that eventuality and, more important, Karunanidhi, the shrewd politician he was, was acutely aware of the fate that would befall his regime. Among the reasons that he cited in many of his speeches and writings were his party’s demand for State autonomy, the resonance it had in other parts of India and his relationship with leaders, including Jayaprakash Narayan, who were at the forefront of opposing the increasing authoritarian tendencies of the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi, an ally of the DMK in the general election that was held a few years earlier.

It all started with Indira Gandhi losing the legal battle in the Allahabad High Court in a petition filed by the Opposition candidate, Raj Narain, challenging her election in 1971 from Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh. The historic judgment declared her election void and disqualified her for a period of six years. The Opposition parties were quick to demand her resignation. Asked for his response on the judgment, Karunanidhi, who was then touring Thanjavur district, told mediapersons: “The ruling Congress is the biggest political party in India. India is a big country that enjoys the respect in the comity of nations around the world. The decision taken by those ruling at the Centre, taking into consideration these factors, will set a precedent for the future politics of India. Objective observers must think of the hue and cry that the Congress and other opposition parties in Tamil Nadu would have made if the DMK had faced a similar situation.” To a question whether he thought Indira Gandhi should have resigned he said, “Had she resigned we would have appreciated the decision.”

Even at this point, it was evident that he did not want to be uncharitable to his electoral ally of 1971. The defendants went on appeal to the Supreme Court on June 23. The apex court stayed the Allahabad High Court judgment with some conditions and allowed her to continue to be a Member of Parliament without the right to vote in certain cases and to continue as Prime Minister. Raj Narain demanded her resignation citing the fact that the interim stay was conditional. Indira Gandhi refused to yield to the demand of Raj Narain and other opposition parties. They convened a meeting to plan for a nationwide protest on June 29. The DMK participated in the meeting along with the Congress faction led by Morarji Desai, the Jana Sangh, the Bharatiya Lok Dal (led by Charan Singh), the Socialist Party and the CPI(M).

Indira Gandhi’s response was the declaration of the Emergency, a decision she took without even consulting her Cabinet. She followed it up with a series of constitutional amendments and laws prohibiting a judicial review of the Emergency, preventing any challenge to the elections of President, Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha in a court of law, suspending a citizen’s right to move a court for enforcement of fundamental rights conferred by Article 19 of the Constitution, suspending the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press, and so on.

Only two State governments stood up to Indira Gandhi’s emergency regime. It had to, in the words of David Selbourne in his book, An Eye to India: The Unmasking of a Tyranny , “to bring to an end, in order to ‘create a strong and stable Centre, the federal system of government, by ridding itself of—or replacing, in the name of good governance and order—the remaining non-Congress governments opposing it in the States of the Indian Union; that is, the DMK government in Tamil Nadu and the coalition front in Gujarat [led by Babubhai J. Patel of the Congress-O]” (Page 169).

Accusations against the DMK government

To do this the Congress made a series of accusations against the two governments. The Congress, which lost power to the DMK in 1967, had just 15 seats in the State Assembly where the party it sought to remove from power had 160 of the 234 seats. With its intent clear, the Congress at the Centre came up with a series of allegations against the DMK government. The Gujarat government was dismissed within a few months.

The charges against the DMK included poor economic growth of the State and the DMK’s “efforts to mislead the public”. The national party had to “step in if the people are to be saved from the misrule of regional parties”. Indira Gandhi, who saw a personal threat from the DMK, went a step further and told the Lok Sabha on January 9, 1976, about three weeks before the dismissal of the Karunanidhi government: ‘I have been getting from Tamil Nadu Congressmen reports of slanderous personal attacks on me…’”

“…[p]er capita development expenditure under the Fifth Plan in Tamil Nadu has fallen below the national average,” she told the Lok Sabha. Then came the punchline: “It is not my habit to run down any government but I have to do so in Tamil Nadu, because, to escape from their own acts of omission and commission they are blaming the Central government” (Page 172).

Karunanidhi was unmoved. “I have no plan to resign before the expiry of my term of office.” The term was to end on March 15, 1976, that is about 45 days from the date of the actual dismissal.

The dismissal came on January 31, 1976. It was followed by a litany of charges from Union Ministers and Congress leaders. The charges, as recorded by David Selbourne, were: the DMK was getting substantial financial help from some foreign sources; for partisan ends it was grossly abusing power; the State of Tamil Nadu had become a sanctuary for all underground people (read opposition leaders from the other States); the State’s economic health had sunk totally; it was a hotbed of institutional corruption; the DMK had ignored the prevalent feelings in the country and brought about its downfall; its dismissal was a natural outcome of its misdeeds and was welcomed by the very great majority of people, and so on.

Congress president D.K. Barooah (of India-is-Indira-Indira-is-India fame) called upon Congress members to deal with the DMK not just as a mere political rival. “We should fight to eliminate them as a political party.”

What followed proved what Barooah meant.

In its report, the Justice J.C. Shah Commission, appointed by the Morarji Desai government on May 28, 1977, to probe the excesses of the Emergency, had this to say: “The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was the subject of a concentrated onslaught in Tamil Nadu where more than 400 of its members were detained under the MISA [Maintenance of Internal Security Act] out of a total number of 570 political detentions in the State.” (The voluminous report, which meticulously recorded the Emergency excesses, “disappeared” after Indira Gandhi came to power. It was “regained” by the veteran Parliamentarian Era Sezhiyan, who had it excellently reproduced by S. Senthilnathan’s Aazhi Publishers, Chennai, in 2010.)

Shah Commission Report

The report says:

“In Tamil Nadu, a large number of persons were detained simply by mentioning the general and vague ground that they belonged to or were associated with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and were rowdies, without mentioning a single incident or fact to denote any prejudicial activity on the part of the persons detained…

“It was stated that the person was an active worker or associate or sympathiser of a particular party and rowdy elements in his control. He wielded considerable influence in his locality and after the fall of the DMK Ministry, he was active in contacting his party cadre and was likely to indulge in prejudicial acts…. In several cases, it was also mentioned that he was critical of the Emergency and the President’s Rule…. In many cases, the grounds of detention mentioned that the detenu had been making anti-government and secessionist speeches but no place, time and date of the alleged speeches was given.”

More shocking was the report of the Justice M.M. Ismail Commission of Inquiry set up in 1977 by the Governor of Tamil Nadu to inquire into the allegations of torture of detenus jailed under MISA from February 1976 to February 1977. An unsigned article published in the April 22, 1978, issue of Economic & Political Weekly records the details of the report. It says:

“The substantive conclusion of the report is that MISA prisoners—mostly belonging to DMK, including one MP, several MLAs, former Mayors, and a former Minister… were deliberately set upon by the Assistant Jailor and warders on the night of February 2, in the presence of the Jailor and the Superintendent of the Jail and beaten up severely and thereafter such beating up went on regularly.

“The ill-treatment of the prisoners started right from the time they entered the prison gates when they were thoroughly searched, brusquely ordered about and abused. They were then lodged five or six to a cell in the worst block available in the jail which, a few hours earlier, had been vacated of its leper occupants; the detenus found blood stained cotton and bandages in the cells. They were given no food, no water, no bedding, not even their own belongings… the beating that night was carried out by warders and convicts who were lined outside the cells and the inmates were dragged out, called by name, for the special treatment. In addition to lathis, booted legs were freely used, both to kick as well as trample and jump on.”

The commission also recorded that Dravidar Kazhagam leader K. Veeramani, who was advised radium therapy for 10 days to treat a swelling under the eye caused by the beating, was given the treatment only for two days. More gruesome was the treatment meted out to Chittibabu, a DMK member of the Lok Sabha. The EPW article noted: “He was operated on November 22, 1976, and January 3, 1977, to relieve anal and urethral constrictions, a condition acquired, according to the commission, in the jail due to beating and kicking in the lower abdomen. He was a known heart patient and diabetic and so the operations were performed at great risk, being unavoidable. One day after the second operation, the patient died of a heart attack.”

The jail officials also pressured DMK detenus to state in writing that they would resign from the party. “They were handed writing paper with the warning that they would not see their homes and families again otherwise,” the article said. “Only after the resignation letters were collected after February 9—all stereotyped, resigning from the DMK and requesting to be admitted to Indira Congress—were the beddings and suitcases of the detenus restored to them.”

Deposing before the commission, Karunanidhi’s son M.K. Stalin, another detenu, said he heard cries from other cells and gathered that it was due to beating of the inmates by the staff. He said he was “himself beaten, slapped and was kicked in the stomach and was transferred to a special quarantine later” ( The Hindu , July 21, 1977).

It is the resoluteness with which Karunanidhi faced the vicious attacks at the personal and political levels during this ordeal by fire that marked him out as a politician with a difference.

Speech at a rally in Allahabad

Karunanidhi cited a few reasons for the Congress’ new-found hostility towards the DMK. The first was his participation in a conference on the welfare of the backward classes and the Scheduled Castes in Allahabad on October 14, 1973. Among the organisers was Indira Gandhi’s bête noire Raj Narain. This, according to him, must have angered Indira Gandhi. Also, he writes in his autobiography, “My acquaintance with Jayaprakash Narayan, who had launched his movement for Total Revolution, also irritated New Delhi.” On the same evening he addressed a massive rally in Allahabad. The city walls had posters depicting Karunanidhi as “the enemy of Rama”. Raj Narain asked Karunanidhi to speak about the posters.

Karunanidhi said: “Ravana was the enemy of Rama, not me! It is a matter of surprise that there are people here who do not even understand. It is regrettable that Uttar Pradesh does not have a democratically elected government now. … Not only UP; even Andhra, Orissa and Manipur are under President’s Rule…. Tamil Nadu remains one of the States in India that has not come under President’s Rule. Some people are worried that it has not come to Tamil Nadu so far. Who are they? They are the Congressmen. When I say Congressmen, I mean those belonging to the ruling Congress also [After the Congress split, one faction opposed to Indira Gandhi was the main opposition in Tamil Nadu]. You can’t blame them. They have the whole of India in their hold. They are unable to tolerate Tamil Nadu being in the hands of the Opposition…. Even two days ago some Congress MP who visited Tamil Nadu spoke of removing the DMK government. Their anger stems from the DMK’s demand for State autonomy. The autonomy we are demanding is not only for Tamil Nadu. It is for Uttar Pradesh too.”

In his speech, Karunanidhi made it clear that the DMK’s demand for autonomy was not a demand for a separate State. In fact, he said, it was to prevent India’s disintegration that his party demanded autonomy. “We demand autonomy in order to prevent the Centre from interfering in the States’ affairs and delaying their projects…. Even to dig one foot on the national highway to install a water supply pipe we have to seek the Centre’s permission. For many subjects there are two departments like this. The Centre has concentrated powers in its hands. The States struggle for more powers.”

The DMK’s State autonomy resolution, which was passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly on April 20, 1974, stated:

“The State Assembly resolves that the Indian Constitution should be immediately amended to protect the unity and integrity of India, which is home to multiple languages, cultures and civilisations, to develop its economy, to ensure that State governments that have a close relationship with the people function freely and to create a genuinely federal form of government based on the principle of ‘Collective rule at the Centre, Self-rule in the State’ taking into account the recommendations made by State government on the basis of the Rajamannar Committee appointed by it in 1969 to look into the issue of Centre-State relations.”

Even as the whole country was in turmoil in late 1974, Karunanidhi was raising the demand for State autonomy in various meetings in which he highlighted the views expressed by many veteran national leaders, including Jayaprakash Narayan, the bugbear of the Congress then, in support of the demand. The Congress saw the DMK’s autonomy demand as a euphemism for separatism, ironically after the DMK had formally given up a decade earlier the demand for a separate State, stood by the Congress after the 1969 split, saved its minority government with the support of its 25 Lok Sabha members, backed Indira Gandhi’s move for bank nationalisation and successfully contested the general election in 1971 in alliance with the Congress.

Karunanidhi anticipated the dismissal of his government any time after the declaration of the Emergency and was prepared to sacrifice his government to defend democracy. He writes in his autobiography: “On the morning of July 4 Education Minister Naavalar (Nedunchezhiyan) and I met him [Kamaraj] at his residence. Tears welled up in his eye as I sat near him. I slowly touched him. He hugged me. His eyes became a waterfall. ‘The country is gone, the country is gone,’ he screamed…. I told him: ‘Ayya, you tell me now. We will resign immediately. To protect democracy and dethrone dictatorship, you lead a movement. We are prepared to rally behind you.’”

Kamaraj replied: “Be patient. Don’t be in a hurry. Only in Tamil Nadu democracy exists. If you resign now, even that will be lost.”

The DMK organised a massive rally on the Marina on July 6 in which “over five lakh people participated emotionally”. In his speech, Karunanidhi said: “Had Rajaji been alive he would have asked us to pray for the protection of democracy. Had Periyar been alive he would have asked us to make this opportunity to organise a revolution. Had Quaid-e-Milleth been alive, he would have said the Emergency was unnecessary. I will tell you now what Anna would have told us.” After saying this he exhorted the crowd to repeat a pledge after him. The pledge went like this: “Under any circumstances we will not hesitate to protect people rule in India. This massive rally of the people of Tamil Nadu asks the Prime Minister to release national leaders [arrested under the Emergency laws] and protect the rightful freedom of the press.”

Incidentally, it was from the same venue that the battle cry of Dravida Nadu rang out about four decades earlier.

The government’s dismissal and after

Two days before his government’s dismissal some friends told him that the dismissal was imminent. Karunanidhi wrote a letter to his cadre in Murasoli with the title: “Let the brave follow me.”

On January 31, Karunanidhi had to attend Don Bosco Matriculation School’s (Egmore, Chennai) annual day function at 5 p.m., hours before he lost the government. In his speech he said: “Most probably this will be my last public function as Chief Minister.”

He describes, with characteristic nonchalance, what happened after that event.

“The function got over around 6.30 p.m. I and Durai Murugan got into a car to go home. At my residence, even before I climbed the staircase leading to my room my nephews Amirtham and Selvam said with a laugh, “They’ve dismissed the government”, and handed to me a piece of paper from the teleprinter carrying the ‘flash news’. I said, “Oof, the suspense is over”, turned my head towards the street, asked the driver of my official car to take the vehicle immediately to the State Secretariat, and reached my room upstairs. My personal staff were crying inconsolably. I asked them to be brave and lifted the telephone receiver to convey the good news to my friends. Surprise, my telephone line had been disconnected.”

Around 8 p.m. the policemen in charge of his security took leave of him. A few police officials were waiting outside. Writes Karunanidhi:

“Anything special? Do you want to arrest me?”

“No, not you,” one of them said, crying.

“Whom do you want to arrest?”

“Your son Stalin,” they said, fumbling for words.

“He is not in town. He will come home only tomorrow.”

“We have been ordered to search the house for him.”

“Of course. Please do the search.”

“They did their duty. Stalin was not at home. I felt bad to send them back empty-handed. ‘If you want, arrest me and take me into custody instead of doing it tomorrow.’”

Stalin returned home the next day. Karunanidhi told him to prepare for jail life and called up the Inspector General of Police to inform him of Stalin’s arrival. What gave Karunanidhi the strength was the thought that “many brave sons like Stalin” would have been taken to different jails in the State. On the same night, writes Karunanidhi, “Policemen came in many vans and laid siege to my house. I thought they had come to arrest me. They said, ‘We have come to arrest your nephew Maran.’ Would they spare him? It was he who [as the Editor of Murasoli ] published a cartoon with a caption: ‘Indira becomes Hitler’.”

Maran was not at home. He too was arrested the next day on his return from Delhi. After the dismissal of the DMK government, 25,000 party men were arrested from all over the State along with the cadres of the Dravidar Kazhagam, the CPI(M) and the Congress (O).

After a month, Karunanidhi’s family members visited Stalin in the Central Jail, Madras. Writes Karunanidhi: “Stalin was surrounded by two prison officials and four Special Branch CID officers. He was wearing a full sleeves shirt. In fact he was asked to wear it so that the wounds of police beating could not be seen by us. I asked him, ‘Did they beat you up?’ He shook his head indicating a ‘no’. But his eyes glistened. Had he said yes, all the prisoners would have been beaten up again. We heard that Chittibabu was on the throes of death, Arcot Veerasamy’s hearing was impaired and Neelanarayanan could not even walk.”

Chittibabu died later. Another victim of torture in the Madurai jail was the Dravidian Movement veteran Sathur Balakrishnan.

The DMK president did something dramatic on June 2, a day before his birthday. Karunanidhi wrote out a birthday message to be published in Murasoli . The press censor officials, who used to sit in newspaper offices in the line of duty, objected to one sentence in the letter, which read: “Anna showered more affection on me than my parents did.” They wanted the sentence to be edited out before publication. Karunanidhi’s arguments with the officials for retaining the sentence were in vain. He decided to protest and wrote out a pamphlet calling for a democratic protest to save the freedom of expression. With the help of his sons M.K. Azhagiri and M.K. Thamizharasu, he spent a full night preparing over a thousand copies of the pamphlet secretly. Karunanidhi describes what followed:

“I asked my driver to go to Anna Salai. My sons followed me in another car. After we crossed Thousand Lights, we got down from the car. I started distributing the pamphlet among people walking on Anna Salai. People started following me with a sense of surprise. Vehicular traffic came to a complete halt. I reached the pedestal of Anna statue on Anna Salai. Somehow, hundreds of young party men converged on that point. I shouted, ‘Dictatorship’. Others responded: ‘Down down’. I shouted, ‘Democracy’. Others responded: ‘Long live’. The slogans shook the skies.”

The protesters were arrested and released in the evening. Karunanidhi was disappointed. “My dream of celebrating my birthday in jail along with MISA detenus of the party did not come true.”

Not only did Karunanidhi lead the anti-Emergency struggle from the front but also played a crucial role in forging a political front against the Indira Gandhi regime which eventually brought down the government in the general election of 1977. It was through a valiant struggle for democracy that he emerged as a national leader of consequence.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment