Indira Gandhi’s chilling press releases from 1976—and why women still haven’t escaped her brutal state of Emergency

The Emergency lives on.
The Emergency lives on.
Image: AP Photo
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In a country where state and terrorist violence, man-made and natural disasters seem to numb sensibilities and sensitivities, there can still be incidents of human deaths that shock the nation out of its stupor. Dr. R. K. Gupta, on the staff of the government of Chhattisgarh, in the very centre of India, was arrested early this week and charged with the death of  at least 11 women who underwent tubectomies to limit their families.

It was not just that the doctor was deliberately negligent, though that too is the subject of an inquiry by a peer group sent from New Delhi. Rather, the state government seems to have set targets which doctors and their staff had to fulfill to help reduce the population and raise the standards of living especially in rural and semi-urban areas, which is part of the development goals of the government.

This reminds many of us of times when the state went berserk in pursuit of political goals. This is precisely the carrot-and-stick that was offered to government doctors and others almost 40 years ago, in what is called the Indian Emergency. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi lost a court challenge to her election to Parliament, faced an upsurge of public anger, and promptly suspended constitutional rights, including freedoms of expression and assembly.

Alleging a threat to the state and charging political adversaries of trying to goad the armed forces against her, she jailed thousands of politicians, activists and journalists. From June 25, 1975 till she lifted the state of Emergency on Mar. 21, 1977 and called for a general election, her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, who became an extra-constitutional centre of political and administrative power, was arguably running the country. He was surrounded by a coterie of political cronies and a bunch of senior bureaucrats who quite willingly did his bidding. Ironically, Sanjay Gandhi’s wife, Maneka Gandhi, is today the minister for women and child welfare, and his son, Varun Gandhi, is a member of parliament, and a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party which rules India.

The most high profile part of the work of this 1975 Sanjay-led group was to rid metropolitan cities, especially Delhi, of the slums that scarred its aesthetic appeal.

The second brainwave of Sanjay Gandhi and his team of advisers was to focus on India’s development by containing its population through sterilization.

Population control had failed when it was left to the people as a voluntary measure. It was then that someone thought of pressing government employees, and workers in para-government organisations, to muster people and bring them over for sterilizations. These were supposed to be both vasectomies for men, and tubectomies for women. Camps were set up in all sorts of places. One was in Dujana House within sight of the historic Jama Masjid in Delhi. Others were in tents, school buildings and the compounds of hospitals. This reporter has in his archives a copy of the emergency manual, which was hastily printed to train medical and paramedical staff on how to carry out a vasectomy, a Do-It-Yourself set of instructions as it were.

There was nothing polite in the coercion. Employees and officers could lose their jobs if they refused. However, the promised “gift” of a tin of hydrogenated vegetable oil for cooking and a cash dole was not enough to persuade men to come forward for a vasectomy. In the patriarchal society that India is, most would send their wives. But if one was a lowly municipal employee who had two children, there was no escaping the scalpel. In some town near Delhi, people did protest, and faced police action. Many were killed when police opened fire on angry mobs. There has never been a real accounting of such cases.

I have dug out from my archives, documents that we had collected during the Emergency and kept safe, a few official orders and at least one official press statement:

1. Press note on the special camp in Kasturba Hospital, inaugurated on Dec. 26, 1975 (pdf);

In a special Camp held in September 1975 as many as 425 operations had been performed within a fortnight. This was considered a record. A second camp was organized in the same area from December 26, 1975. In a fortnight about 1000 operations were performed.


Entrepreneurs having two children coming forward for establishment of a small scale industry will be entitled to loan only if they get themselves sterilized and produce a sterilization certificate from the authority prescribed.

Read the full document

2. Press note on the application of incentives to sterilization, Apr. 19, 1976 (pdf);

Family planning constitutes the core of national re-construction on which the nation has embarked. It is the duty of every citizen to give full co-operation in this stupendous task.


I want to make it clear beyond doubt that if any obstruction is caused to the doctors, the nurses or the personnel and the workers engaged in promoting the family planning programme, very drastic action will be taken against the offending persons.

Read the full document

3. Office order on measures to be taken to ensure officers comply with sterilization laws, Apr. 15, 1976, with sterilisation targets for Apr. 14 to 30, 1976;

A municipal employee will be entitled to get municipal accommodation only if he/she produces sterilization certificate in case he/she has more than two children.


No loans or advances from provident fund etc. be sanctioned to any employee till sterilization certificate is produced if he/she has more than two children.

Read the full document

4. Request of sterilization certificate made to all Civil Line Municipal Corporation’s eligible employees, Apr. 26, 1976 (pdf).

It has been ordered by the Commissioner that all Muster Roll Employees as well as temporary employees eligible for sterilization Should produce a certificate of sterilization by 30th April, 1976 or else they will loose (sic) their job in the corporation.

Read the full document

Like any artifact dug up by an anthropologist, they show the urgency, the political desperation and the subservience of government officials who were all too willing to obey the most bizarre of political commands, sometimes out of fear, and often for a share in the glory of power.

Such human stupidity is, unfortunately, still on display.

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Also read: India’s sterilization deaths are “medical homicide,” says the country’s most famous doctor