Shanti Bhushan, the Lawyer Who Got Indira Gandhi Disbarred

The lawyer who fought the case that led Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency in 1975. 

Updated
Politics
5 min read

Video Editor: Kunal Mehra

(This story was first published on 24 June 2017. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Shanti Bhushan’s birthday.)

Indira Gandhi won the Rae Bareilly seat in the 1971 General Election with a two-to-one margin of the popular vote and went on to become Prime Minister. But was it a fair victory? Her opponent, Raj Narain of the Jan Sangh, thought not.

He filed a case in the Allahabad High Court accusing the Prime Minister of winning her seat through electoral malpractices. He accused Mrs Gandhi of bribery and using government machinery, which was at her disposal, to win the election.

Fighting the case for Raj Narain was Shanti Bhushan. Already a hot shot in legal circles, Bhushan won the case in the Allahabad High Court.

Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha disbarred Indira Gandhi as a Member of Parliament and disallowed her from contesting elections for the next six years.

Although she got a breather from the Supreme Court a few days later, it was enough of a jolt for the Prime Minister, who was losing her grip on a country in economic turmoil.

On the 42nd anniversary of the 1975 Emergency, we caught up with the lawyer who stood up to the Iron Lady of India. Here are excerpts of our conversation with Mr Shanti Bhushan.

You were Raj Narain’s lawyer, the Jan Sangh leader who contested Indira Gandhi’s election from Rae Bareilly. You were essentially making an argument to unseat the Prime Minister of the country. Could you recount the crux of your case?

On 12 June 1975, the Allahabad High Court gave its verdict. I was at that time, at the Taj Hotel in Bombay conducting a conference with the lawyers for the Backbay Reclamation case.

Just a couple of minutes after 10 o’clock, I got a call from Delhi, from my brother Vijay Kumar, who informed me that he had just heard on All India Radio that the High Court had set aside Mrs Gandhi’s election and had also disqualified her for six years.

So, at that time, when I told this to the gathered lawyers at the conference, they said we will not hold the conference today, we will adjourn and celebrate this victory instead.

Thereafter, in her appeal, the stay application came up for hearing before the vacation Judge Justice Krishna Iyer. So I flew from Bombay to Delhi to fight the case. (Nanabhoy) Palkhiwala had represented Mrs Gandhi. He was saying that there would be a lot of instability if you (the Supreme Court Justice Krishna Iyer) don’t grant a clear stay order and halt the Allahabad High court judgement.

Shanti Bhushan, the Lawyer Who Got Indira Gandhi Disbarred
(Graphic: The Quint/Harsh Sahani)

I, on the other hand argued that Mrs Gandhi had been found guilty of perjury in the judgement of Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha, because he had clearly recorded a finding that all her answers were not truthful. And therefore, how could a person who had lied in a court in her own country, be allowed to continue as Prime Minister and therefore, no stay order should be granted. What was to happen if in an international fora, where somebody was speaking on behalf of India and another country said, “Well India is ruled by a Prime Minister who lies in her own high court, so why should the word of an Indian representative be accepted on face value?” That is what I had argued.

I had also argued before Justice Krishnna Iyer that India has lots of leaders and therefore nobody was indispensable as Prime Minister. When Jawaharlal was Prime Minister, people used to say, “What will happen after Jawaharlal?” But after Jawaharlal, another successful Prime Minister was there. Now after Indira Gandhi, it is being said, there would be chaos. I said India is a country consisting of millions of leaders. Can’t we find another person to replace Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister, who should quit on account of the Allahabad High Court order.

Anyhow, Justice Krishna Iyer took a middle view and did not grant her an absolute stay, but granted her a partial stay in any case.

This was the situation in which Jayaprakash Narayan addressed the Indian people and said such a Prime Minister should not be allowed to continue.

Shanti Bhushan, the Lawyer Who Got Indira Gandhi Disbarred
(Graphic: The Quint/Harsh Sahani)

Did you have a idea that it could precipitate the political situation to such an extent that the country would be brought under a state of internal emergency?

It was one of the worst stages of democracy in this country. After all, there can’t be democracy if the entire people are terrified. The people had supported Mrs Gandhi in the 1971 election on account her slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’, which had come soon after banks were nationalised and privy purses were abolished. Therefore the poor people felt that the government had secured all the wealth of the rich people who were putting their money in the banks and that the government would soon distribute this money among the poor and they would become reasonably rich. This worked in the 1971 Election.

Shanti Bhushan, the Lawyer Who Got Indira Gandhi Disbarred
(Graphic: The Quint/Harsh Sahani)

And therefore, this Emergency was thought as the only step which would curb the democratic aspirations of the people and prevent them from rising in revolt against the government.

Do you think our politicians, the judiciary and the media has learnt its lessons from the 1975 Emergency?

Yes, I think we have learnt our lesson. Because the first non-Congress government at the Centre in which I became Law Minister, one of the first important things we did was amend the Constitution, so that even during a period of Emergency, the fundamental right of liberty under Article 21 and other fundamental rights of association, of free speech, etc cannot be suspended even during Emergency.

That ensured that after the 44th amendment of the constitution, no government was in a position to silence the people. And that is why, during the Anna andolan, when the government of the day became very nervous in 2011, they could not curb it. That I believe was the direct outcome of the 44th Constitutional Amendment.

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