ON THE EVENING of June 25, 1975, Jayaprakash Narayan stood on a high platform above a massive crowed in New Delhi and appealed to India's police and armed forces to disobey what he termed "illegal" orders.

Narayan's appeal was intended as a climax to a concerted effort by the ragtag political opposition to force Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to step down from office. Gandhi had been found guilty 13 days earlier of malpractice in her previous election campaingn.

Had she abided by precedent in India's Britishstyle parliamentary government, Gandhi would have resigned while her lawyers sought a reversal by the supreme court. But Gandhi, acting under the influence of her younger son, Sanjay, had decided not to budge.

Indeed, she had decided to impose a state of emergency on India, arrest all her political opponents and establish what was to be nearly two years of dictatorial rule in the world's largest democracy.

All she needed was an excuse, a critical moment, to take this extreme step. And Narayan's appeal was ideal. How ironic that when Gandhi's grandfather, Motilal Nehru, adopted a similar stand for the Congress Party in the 1930s, calling on police to disobey illegal orders, the judges of the imperialistic British raj had accepted this appeal as just.

Gandhi and her son worked swiftly and with remarkable efficiency, proving once again her extraordinary capacity to respond to what she perceived as crisis. In the predawn hours of June 26 police began arresting hundreds of her political foes. Among them was the frail and aging Narayan, known to educated Indians as "J.P." and to the masses as loknayak , "the people's hero."

Respected, revered, a watchdog of Indian politics though never a seeker after public office, Narayan wore with undisputed grace the mantle of nearsaintliness left by his mentor Mohandas K. Gandhi.

When the police came for him, Narayan recited a Sankrit couplet which he felt applied to the beleaguered prime minister: Vinasha kale viperita buddhi ("when a person falls on bad days, he loses his head").

It was nearly a month later, on July 21, that Narayan wrote the first entry in what became this slim volume, Prison Diary . "My world lies in a shambles all round me. I am afraid I shall not see it put together in my lifetime.... Here was I trying to widen the horizon of our democracy.... And here am I ending up with the death of democracy."

Narayan was to spend 139 days in detention, some of it in solitary confinement, some under medical care for his already advanced diabetes. He was 73 when he was arrested; still alive today, he must undergo regular dialysis treatment.

Prison Diary is not likely to appeal to the general reader. Its American publishers have hardly tampered with the sketchy and underedited original version, printed in small bits at night and first published, under conditions of official censorship, in Poona, Indis, in January 1977. But the book is essential to anyone seeking to understand the fragility of Westernstyle democracy in India. Those who have attempted to interpret the imposition of the emergency, the acquiescence of the population to the most extreme repression, the remarkable defeat of Gandhi and her Congress Party in March, 1977, and, now, her seeming resurgence, can gain some penetration from Narayan.

"I went wrong in assuming that a prime minister in a democracy would use all the normal and abnormal laws to defeat a peaceful democratic movement, but would not destroy democracy itself and substitute for it a totalitarian system," Narayan wrote.

Appalled, he relates his view of Gandhi's actions to the classic explanation of the U.S. role in Vietnam: "She is saving democracy by murdering it with her own hands and burying the corpse deep down in the grave."

But what of the lack of struggle with which India's 600 million people seemed to accept the emergency? Narayan's explanation is that Indians, poor and downtrodden for centuries, respond to new repression pragmatically. "But Mrs. Gandhi should know that discipline born of fear is nothing to be happy about," he insightfully warned.

As to the future of democracy in India, though he was writing at a time when he had no way of knowing that elections would be held, let alone how they'd turn out, Narayan already questioned the ability of the Morarji Desai-led opposition to improve upon the Gandhi regime's record of corruption and inefficiency.

"Hopefully, if the opposition wins the next parliamentary elections, the present constitution and the electoral laws, rules, etc., might be improved," he wrote. "But the 'type' of democracy will not change much."