Global Authoritarianism and Anti-Muslim Violence: India’s Emergency (1975-7) in Comparative Historical Perspective

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Kristin Plys

Donald Trump has an ongoing love affair with India’s Hindu right. In a 2016 campaign ad targeting Hindu voters in the United States, Trump echoes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign slogan by proclaiming “Ab ki baar Trump sarkar” (This time we’ll have a Trump government). The ad ends with Trump proclaiming, “We love the Hindus!” The ties between Trump and Modi were further cemented during ‘Howdy Modi,’ a 2019 event in Houston, Texas that attracted over 500,000. On the surface, Hindu voters’ affinity for Trump may seem like an existential contradiction, as hate crimes against Indian-Americans have risen sharply after the Trump election, but White nationalists in the United States and India’s Hindu Right are united in their hatred against Muslims. Both Trump and Modi administrations have, as one of the cornerstones of their political strategy, explicitly targeted Muslim citizens in order to ingratiate these administrations to their core supporters and to eliminate a significant block of voters who fail to support their religious fundamentalism and ethno-nationalist agendas. Let’s remember that Trump didn’t say in his campaign ad, ‘We love Indians’, he said, “We love the Hindus!”

Trump’s targeting of Muslims is well known, from the Muslim Ban, to his pledge to create a Muslim registry, support for Uighur internment camps in China, and his links to anti-Muslim hate groups in the US, such as ACT for America and anti-Muslim hate groups in Britain such as  Britain First. Americans are, perhaps, less familiar with Modi’s long history of persecuting Muslims. When Modi was Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, he stoked communal tensions that culminated in the 2002 genocide. For his role in the Gujarat Genocide he has been denied a US visa. Modi’s persecution of Indian Muslims continued after he was elected Prime Minister in 2014. Lynchings of Muslims and Dalits have become increasingly common across India since Modi’s election and then became an even more frequent occurrence during Modi’s second term. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in December 2019 and has subsequently been used to disenfranchise and revoke Indian citizenship of Muslims. Non-violent protests against the CAA led by students at Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Milia Islamia University were brutally suppressed by the police. In February 2020, Hindu mobs shot, stabbed, and assaulted Muslims in North East Delhi while Delhi Police not only failed to intervene, but even encouraged the violence. For these reasons, and others, commentators have termed the current political situation in India as an ‘undeclared Emergency’.

Theorists of authoritarianism generally concur that declaring Emergency, or a ‘State of Exception’, is the establishment of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination of not only political adversaries but entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system (see Agamben 2003). The Modi administration certainly exemplifies this logic, both through its repression of adversaries, such as its brutal repression of the student movement, and through the physical elimination of Muslims in India through lynchings, disenfranchisement, revocation of citizenship, and extra-legal detention camps. Modi’s persecution of Muslim citizens is one of many reasons why observers have termed this period in Indian politics as an undeclared Emergency but many commentators have also argued that the current situation is worse because the Emergency state of the 1970s did not explicitly target Muslims, unlike the contemporary state.  Contrary to this popular view of the Emergency, in researching my book, Brewing Resistance: Indian Coffee House and the Emergency in Postcolonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2020), I found significant evidence that during The Emergency (1975-7) Muslims and Dalits were, in fact, explicitly targeted by Indira Gandhi’s administration for physical elimination. 

Forced Sterilizations of Muslims during the Emergency

Rooted in a Malthusian logic, one of the cornerstones of developmental policy during the Emergency was providing increased access to vasectomy and tubectomy while also encouraging these procedures, in order to limit population growth. Among North Indians the Emergency is colloquially referred to as nasbandi ki vaqt (the time of sterilization), reflecting just how pervasive this practice was. By way of example, I’ll illustrate two instances of how sterilization drives were implemented in rural North India.

Muzzafarnagar, Uttar Pradesh — which was also the location of communal riots during the lead up to elections for Prime Minster in 2013 and the setting for the controversial documentary film, Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hai (Muzzafarnagar Once Again)— was also the scene of a particularly violent episode of state violence against Muslims during the Emergency. After the Emergency was declared in June 1975, sterilization camps were opened across North India. In the state of Uttar Pradesh alone, the sterilization programme averaged 331 vasectomies per day in June 1975, 1,578 per day in July 1975, and 5,644 per day in August 1975. Police in Uttar Pradesh were ordered by district officials to round up peasants for forced sterilization in order to help officials meet targets set by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi. In Muzaffarnagar, a mob threw stones at a family planning clinic, outraged that unmarried young people with no children were being forcibly sterilized alongside older, married people with children. In suppressing protest against the family planning programme in Muzaffarnagar, police killed 25 Muslim villagers. Police then also entered a mosque near the family planning camp where they shot and killed an additional 3 people inside the mosque. They then threw all of the victims of the police shootings into a nearby river to conceal the fatalities.

In Uttawar, Haryana, a raid was orchestrated by Haryana state officials because it had become a point of opposition to the family planning programme. Villagers had blocked family planning officials from entering the village, and, in retaliation, the Haryana State Electricity Board cut power supplies to the entire village from 12th through 29th October 1976 and again from 5th through 13th November, 1976. In November 1976, 700 police entered the village armed with rifles and tear gas and forced villagers into trucks. They were then taken to a nearby police station where they were interrogated, and 180 of the 550 detained Uttawar residents were placed under arrest and taken to family planning camps where they were forced to undergo sterilization. The Inspector General of Police told an inquiry commission that it was believed by the Haryana State Police that these villagers had smuggled weapons from Pakistan that they were intending to use in armed insurrection against the state, but according to several official reports, no weapons were ever recovered from the raid. One villager, who was 70 years old when the village was raided, was one of the men forced to undergo vasectomy. He recounted that when the police brought him to the family planning camp, doctors initially refused to perform a vasectomy because of his age but then did so after the police and state revenue officials threatened the doctors. Abdul Rehman, who was 25 years old at the time of the raid, also pleaded with doctors not to perform vasectomy surgery on him as he and his wife had only one child and wanted to have more. He stated that doctors initially refused to operate because of his pleas but then did perform a vasectomy under police threat.

P.N. Haksar, Indira Gandhi’s most trusted political advisor, informed her that Muslims and Dalits were explicitly targeted by the sterilization programme for compulsory vasectomy and tubectomy. He expressed to her that this policy should be rethought in order to prevent civil unrest. In one confidential report Haksar writes,

Officials in UP and to a minor extent in Bengal have used compulsions to get people sterilised. I shall give instances of these compulsions later. These compulsions are creating a very unfavourable situation for the Government, at places leading to resistance against the Government and clashes with its law and order forces. The element of compulsion has to be eliminated if the Government decides to go in for elections because at least in UP the opposition parties can make this compulsion in sterilisation as their main plank of election propaganda and with its help obtain support from the poor and backward who are the victims mainly of such compulsions…. some of the villagers sterilised developed sepsis or got infected by tetanus in the environment in which they live. This results in deaths. The rumour of deaths from family planning operations spread very fast … Such reports and rumours have made the sterilisation programme quite unpopular in rural areas, often leading to organised resistance from villagers and ending in violent actions…. UP must be the state where the largest number of incidents have taken place over the villagers opposition to the sterilisation programme. Muslims as a whole have come out in opposition of sterilisation. …  It is mostly the poor who have been affected by the compulsion used by revenue officials in getting people sterilised and most of the poor are either Harijans [a demeaning term for Dalits] or Muslims. The compulsion, which they have been subjected to, has led to resistance among them towards the family planning programme…. This opposition led to a number of violent actions. On 27th August, the villagers of Rankedih in Sultanpur resisted the police, which wanted to enter the village to investigate a case of some family planning workers being beaten up some days earlier. Villagers not only prevented police from entering the village, but also threw bricks at them. This led to police opening fire on the villagers, in which 9 persons were killed … In Aligarh one heard yet another kind of story about the compulsion used in the family planning drive. It was said that in July some people were arrested at the railway station for ticketless travelling. Then, all of them who were over 18 years of age were sent in for sterilisation while still under detention. As I stated earlier, in a rush operations are not performed properly and due to lack of after-care some people die as a result of sterilisation operations. A number of women have died after tubectomy operations. The deaths as a result of lack of after-care in family planning operations must at least be in a hundred in UP. This method of family planning is causing a very unfavourable situation for the Congress and the Government among the poorest sections of the people…. I cannot help repeating myself by saying that the family planning drive in UP is alienating a large number of poor people. If this goes on, the Congress runs the danger of losing support of Muslims, Harijans, and poor people.

While Haksar’s objective in writing this confidential memo was to minimize the political fallout from these unpopular family planning policies and, as such, may understate the human toll of Indira Gandhi’s family planning programme, it is proof that Indira Gandhi was aware that the sterilization programme was targeting Muslims and Dalits but it nonetheless continued. This report also demonstrates that compulsory vasectomy and tubectomy coupled with poor sanitation in rural areas, communalism, and casteism created conditions under which forced sterilization of Muslims and Dalits became prevalent.

The Turkman Gate Uprising

In the historic Jama Masjid neighbourhood of Old Delhi, built by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the seventeenth century, socialite Rukhsana Sultana oversaw the sterilization programme. Concern grew among neighbourhood residents as rumours began circulating of beggars entering the family planing camp and never returning. Sultana arranged police escorts for men going to and from the camp and enlisted police officers to recruit men for vasectomy. Many of these men when later interviewed by The Fact Finding Committee on Slum Clearance Demolitions, Etc., and Firing in Turkman Gate said that because the police visibly supported the Family Planning Camp in their neighbourhood, they felt they had no choice but to undergo vasectomy. Three police officers—Jugrah Chand, Om Vir Singh and Mohammad Naqi— were responsible for most of the coerced sterilization in the neighbourhood and received 10 rupees for each neighbourhood resident they ‘motivated’ to undergo sterilization. Thirty-five men came forward to an inquiry commission naming one of these three officers as having coerced him into getting a vasectomy, and there are perhaps many more who failed to come forward.

Less than a week after the family planning camp opened in Turkman Gate, demolition squads, led by Sanjay Gandhi and the Delhi Municipal Corporation, came to bulldoze the neighbourhood for redevelopment and to relocate residents to the Eastern border of Delhi, on the other side of the Yamuna River. Women, along with their children, stood in front of the bulldozers in order to prevent the destruction of their homes. Neighbourhood men later joined women and children in the protests. The Central Reserve Police Force was then called in to disperse the crowd, and when protesters conducted their midday prayers, the police began to charge with lathis (bamboo police batons) and tear gas. Protesters fought back, throwing stones at the police. When the crowd failed to disperse, police retaliated with bullets, killing protestors without repercussion. It was later revealed that Sanjay Gandhi himself had initiated the order to fire on the crowds.

While inquiry commission reports found discrepancies among witness statements as to exactly when curfew was imposed, according to both Emma Tarlo’s account and the account given by John Dayal and Ajoy Bose, at 5:30 p.m. that evening, the police instated a curfew, and after cutting power supplies to the neighbourhood, police forcibly entered homes, beat and arrested men, and raped women, often stealing their jewellery after assaulting them. Police resumed firing on the crowd at 5:45 p.m. Three areas were targeted by police to fire into the crowd: behind the Hamdard Dawakhana, from a by-lane where ‘fierce stone throwing was going on’, and in front of the Turkman Gate police post. Later on, a group of police officers went to the Jama Masjid (the mosque built by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan from 1650-1656), tried to force their way into the mosque, and began firing at a group of about 150 young men who were throwing stones at the police. While Delhi Police reports show that 14 rounds of ammunition were fired that day, one inquiry commission concluded that up to 45 rounds were fired.

Many protestors were killed and 453 were arrested. Delhi Jail’s Superintendent, S. K. Batra, told an inquiry commission that Muslim protestors who were detained for their involvement in the Turkman Gate Uprising were intentionally given worse treatment in jail compared to other political prisoners. They were placed in cells lined with asbestos so that the cells would become unbearably hot in the Delhi summer, while others were placed in the paagal chuki (lunatic ward) as a form of psychological torture. Many of those arrested for protesting at Turkman Gate died in Tihar Jail. After police had suppressed the uprising, bulldozers then worked through the night, reducing the neighbourhood to rubble by morning. 800–900 houses were demolished overnight, and some people were crushed to death in the rubble. The estimated death toll of this short-lived uprising ranges from 12 to 1,200 neighbourhood residents. A journalist I conducted an oral history interview with told me that in the days after the uprising, “We actually saw some funeral processions coming to the graveyard which was directly behind the Indian Express building. It was a Muslim graveyard and most of them were shot and killed. So you would notice things like that but it was very frustrating that you saw things but you couldn’t actually report on it [because of media censorship].” In countless documents, police, city officials, and others, repeated over and over again, that the fervent sterilization drives, the demolition operations, and police violence in the Muslim areas of Delhi’s walled city had been taken up with political motives and “with a view to teach the Muslims”.


When we compare violence against Muslims in contemporary India to India during the Emergency, there are far more similarities than commentators often acknowledge. Collective memory in India has largely forgotten just how brutal the Emergency truly was, especially for Muslims and Dalits. For example, today we hear stories in the wake of the CAA of government officials being fired for not revoking the citizenship of a sufficient number of Muslims, but during the Emergency as well, officials were fired or faced other consequences for not ‘motivating’ enough Muslims to undergo vasectomy. In 2019 into 2020 we watched the Delhi Police violently suppress student protests against the CAA in Jamia Milia Islamia University. The attack on Jamia is reminiscent of the police violence at Turkman Gate in 1976. Both uprisings were led by Delhi’s Muslims to resist their elimination at the hands of the Indian state and both were violently suppressed by the Delhi Police. These are movements for survival against an authoritarian state that aims to eliminate Indian Muslims.

The lessons of the Emergency are not solely for India to learn, however. Across the globe we are witnessing a resurgence in authoritarian rule that targets political adversaries and categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system. Modi’s alignment with Trump’s white nationalist agenda and Trump’s alignment with Hindu nationalism shows how each of the leaders of contemporary authoritarian states are working together and learning from each other how to effectively suppress their domestic adversaries and target marginalized groups in order to stoke their base and maintain power. This is not an Indian story, unfortunately, it is a global one. The lessons of India’s Emergency, and the movement against it as detailed and analyzed in my new book, therefore, offer important strategies and tactics for movements against authoritarian states across the globe to resist the persecution of members of groups targeted by contemporary articulations of authoritarianism.

Kristin Plys is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto with a particular interest in Marxist political economy, social protest against authoritarianism in the 1970s Global South, avant-garde visual art as left politics in the Global South, labour history, histories of café culture, and historical method. She is the author of Brewing Resistance: Indian Coffee House and the Emergency in Postcolonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *