In search of the judgement that led to the Emergency

The Allahabad high court. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In an era when information is available at the click of a button, a high-profile verdict from 40 years ago remains strangely elusive

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The problem of growing up in the digital age is that you truly believe everything is out there on the World Wide Web.
When I volunteered to collect and cull out portions of a judgement from the Allahabad high court passed 40 years ago, in the mildly cocky spirit of “I can find everything on the Internet”, little did I know what I had signed up for.
For context, a judge, specifically Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad high court, on 12 June 1975, sent the country into a tailspin by nullifying the then all-powerful prime minister Indira Gandhi’s election to Parliament for electoral malpractice in the 1971 general election.
Inevitably, the case went to the Supreme Court, which on 24 June stayed the judgement in part. On 25 June, Gandhi declared a national emergency.
Step 1: Check the usual sources
Any legal reporter worth her salt will tell you how to find a judgement. You check for it on Google, which will mostly lead you to (a free online database for judgements). Better still, you can go to that particular court’s official website and with some information, such as the date of the judgement or the name of the judge, locate the verdict.
The critical date was 12 June 1975. The verdict was given by the Allahabad high court. Jagmohan Lal Sinha was the judge who gave the ruling. I even knew that the cause title (legalese for the name of the case) would include Raj Narain.
Exactly 40 years later, 12 June 2015, I first fed this information into the search engine. But it came to naught.
I headed to the Allahabad high court website to check, only to find that they have records only from 1980 and not before.
I was beginning to sweat.
Step 2: Go pro
Next, I tried paid online databases that lawyers have access to (because they usually have the money to burn). I checked both Manupatra and SCC Online. No luck.
I stumbled upon other judgements, such as the Supreme Court verdict from November 1975, which set aside the 12 June ruling, but there was nothing on the Allahabad high court verdict. In fact, there was no reference link to the Allahabad high court ruling either.
Was this a conspiracy?
I then decided to look for the case in Law Reporters (books that contain judgements of previous cases; for the uninitiated, these are the books in various hues of brown that line the shelves of lawyers). One colleague accessed the libraries at the Indian Law Institute (ILI), New Delhi, and the Supreme Court. As luck would have it, the 1975 All India Reporter copy of the Allahabad high court was missing from the ILI library.
The Supreme Court library books also did not have any reference to the judgement.
I was beginning to panic.
Step 3: Desperate measures
I called Arvind Datar, who has written extensively about the judgement, to know if he had a copy of the verdict.
Being an election petition, the Allahabad high court was functioning in its original jurisdiction of a trial court, with evidence and testimonies of all the people involved, and this probably would not have been reported, he told me. I could get the order from the court itself, he said. Prashant Bhushan may have a copy, he added.
Bhushan’s father, Shanti Bhushan, had argued for Raj Narain in the case. I was almost berating myself for not thinking of it. While Bhushan (junior) was most gracious, he did say that their own documents, kept in Allahabad, had vanished. He helped me get a copy of his book—The Case that Shook India—which makes copious references to the verdict and testimonies of both Gandhi and her aide, Yashpal Kapur.
When I briefed my boss, though, he heard only what he wanted to—that I could get a copy of the judgement from the court itself.
“I want you out of here by the first flight,” he told me. “I don’t want to see you here tomorrow!” It was 17 June.
Yes, boss.
Step 4: Going places
You would think that a Delhi-Allahabad flight would take not more than a couple of hours.
Unfortunately, the only flight I got on 18 June started at 6am, and reached Mumbai (yes, you read that right) at 9.35am via Bhopal (again, still reading it right). Being an Air India flight, I was mildly worried that I would miss my connecting flight to Allahabad, but since the connecting flight was late (Mumbai weather), I was comfortable.
So, I sat in one of the smaller jets to Allahabad and after a choppy flight reached my destination.
Reaching the high court was easy enough. I had also gotten a meeting with a “babu”, thanks to a clerk I had spoken with. So far, so good. It was 2.15pm. I had about two hours before the court closed.
Step 5: There and back again
The “babu” turned out to be a section officer with the high court, who deals with records. There were four men sitting in the room. All four of them looked at me like I was asking for the moon.
Basically, I was told that they were bound by rules and while they had the judgement, they couldn’t show it to me, unless I applied for it either by way of a request for inspection (in which case I would have to sit there and read it) or by way of a certified copy (in which case I would have an actual copy of the judgement).
“How long till I get the certified copy?” I asked.
Two to three days, maybe a week, I was told.
When I asked if I could go to the museum to see the copy, I was told I couldn’t. And then I realized that my time with them was up.
As I stepped out of the court, I asked the clerk how much I would have to pay for the certified copy of the judgement. Rs8,000-10,000, he said.
It seemed a tad much, so I decided to ask my lawyer friends. One such friend, in his inimitable style, told me to go ask someone in the court registry. Fair enough, I thought. As I was getting into court, I asked three guards sitting at the entrance for directions. That’s also where I heard that “patrakaar court mein allow nahi hain (journalists are not allowed inside the court)”.
I looked ready to burst into tears, so they let me in at least.
I stumbled across a mild-mannered, elderly lawyer, who was finishing her work. She directed me to the museum and showed me the way.
The museum, brainchild of justice S.N. Katju (Markandey Katju’s father), is a repository of several landmark judgements of the Allahabad high court. The Chauri Chaura violence, farmans written in Arabic/Persian, even orders from Akbar are kept there. The “guide” at the museum, A.A. Khan, was gracious enough to show me around and give me a brief history of the museum and the high court. Old and rare documents related to the judiciary alone. The museum was gifted by Lord Denning, Khan saab told me.
And there, a sight for sore eyes, were three, exactly three, pages from the fateful 258-page verdict I was searching for. The first and the last two pages. Put up for public viewing.
I still haven’t applied for the certified copy, because another section officer, much kinder, told me that it was work that would happen for around Rs1,000 (although the time taken would still be at least a week or more).
I still haven’t seen a copy of the judgement. But I have seen three key pages.