The 1970s were a shaky period. While the 1971 victory over Pakistan appeared glossy, the many crises it engendered soon removed the sheen: over 10 million Bangladeshi refugees; widespread food scarcity; galloping inflation; high unemployment; industrial unrest fanned by labour militancy and political obduracy in equal measure; and an unimaginable increase in corruption.
Gujarat was one of the worst-hit States, but a Congress government drunk on power—it won 140 of the 168 seats in the 1972 Assembly election—did not seem to care. Students in Ahmedabad began a protest against the increase in hostel mess fees and soon all sections of society joined in. Chimanbhai Patel, who had become Chief Minister in July 1973 replacing Ghanshyam Oza, faced their wrath. It was the start of the Nav Nirman movement, whose aim was threefold: resignation of the Chief Minister, dissolution of the Assembly, and fresh elections.
Students, under the banner of the Nav Nirman Samiti, with the support of the ABVP, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and the Congress (O), organised bandhs and strikes until Patel stepped down on February 9, 1974.
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The students had a visitor two days later: freedom fighter and anti-corruption crusader Jayaprakash Narayan. He had come to support the protests and understand how students in his home State Bihar could gain from the experience. The Bihar Rajya Sangarsh Samiti, with Lalu Prasad as president and comprising the ABVP, the Samajwadi Yuva Jana Sabha (SYJS), and the Bihar Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti (BCSS), was at the vanguard of protests there, and came to be called the Bihar Movement or JP Movement, formed to fight the excesses of the Abdul Ghafoor-led Congress government.
On March 18, 1974, an important date in the JP Movement, students gheraoed the Bihar Assembly. Clashes erupted and three students died in police firing. Protests erupted across Bihar, demanding the exit of Ghafoor. When eight more students were killed in police firing on April 12, JP expanded the protests, calling for electoral reforms and probity in public life.
Simultaneously, unrest was brewing among railway workers over demands for pay revision and eight-hour shifts. Indira Gandhi was in no mood to relent but neither were the railway unions. This agitation birthed George Fernandes, who became leader of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation. When Fernandes called for an all India strike on May 8, he and other leaders were arrested, but on the day, at least 70 per cent of workers did strike, bringing the country to a standstill. The retribution was swift, with the Centre resorting to brutal repression through paramiltary forces. Draconian laws such as MISA were used against protesters. On May 28 the strike was called off, with most leaders jailed.
On June 5, JP called for Sampoorna Kranti (Total Revolution) at a rally in Patna, where it was also decided to hold a satyagraha on the Assembly premises every day. Around 1,600 protesters were arrested, many detained under MISA. Students were asked to boycott classes and join the movement.
Meanwhile, in Gujarat, the Assembly had been dissolved after Morarji Desai went on an indefinite fast and President’s rule imposed. In June 1975, elections were held after Desai went on a fast again and they brought the first non-Congress government to power in the State. Results were announced on June 12. This was also the day when the Allahabad High Court, in a petition filed by Raj Narain, set aside Indira Gandhi’s election in the 1971 general election on the grounds of electoral malpractice. But she refused to resign her Raebareli seat.
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As JP began traversing India to unite anti-Congress parties and the protests intensified, Indira imposed the Emergency on June 25, 1975, clamping down on basic freedoms for 21 months. She called elections in March 1977, which, much to her surprise, the Janata Party won. As the decade ended, the Janata experiment too ended in disarray, with the socialist stalwarts going their own ways.