Indira Gandhi : Assassination
The only daughter of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi was destined for politics. First appointed prime minister in 1966, she garnered widespread public support for agricultural improvements that led to India’s self-sufficiency in food grain production as well as for her success in the Pakistan war, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. After serving three terms, Gandhi was voted out of office for her increasingly authoritarian policies, including a 21-month state of emergency in which Indians’ constitutional rights were restricted. In 1980, however, she was reelected to a fourth term. Following a deadly confrontation at the Sikh’s holiest temple in Punjab four years later, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards on October 31, 1984, ushering her son Rajiv into power and igniting extensive anti-Sikh riots.
Indira Gandhi: Early Life and Family
Born on November 19, 1917, in Allahabad, India, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was the sole child of Kamala and Jawaharlal Nehru. As a member of the Indian National Congress, Nehru had been influenced by party leader Mahatma Gandhi, and dedicated himself to India’s fight for independence. The struggle resulted in years of imprisonment for Jawaharlal and a lonely childhood for Indira, who attended a Swiss boarding school for a few years, and later studied history at Somerville College, Oxford. Her mother passed away in 1936 of tuberculosis.
Did you know? One of Indira Gandhi’s most unpopular policies during her time in office was government-enforced sterilization as a form of population control.
In March 1942, despite the disapproval of her family, Indira married Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi lawyer (unrelated to Mahatma Gandhi), and the couple soon had two sons: Rajiv and Sanjay.
Indira Gandhi: Political Career and Accomplishments
In 1947, Nehru became the newly independent nation’s first prime minister, and Gandhi agreed to go to New Delhi to serve as his hostess, welcoming diplomats and world leaders at home and traveling with her father throughout India and abroad. She was elected to the prominent 21-member working committee of the Congress Party in 1955 and, four years later, was named its president. Upon Nehru’s death in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the new prime minister, and Indira took on the role of Minister of Information and Broadcasting. But Shastri’s leadership was short-lived; just two years later he abruptly died and Indira was appointed by Congress Party leaders to be prime minister.
Within a few years Gandhi gained enormous popularity for introducing successful programs that transformed India into a country self-sufficient in food grains—an achievement known as the Green Revolution.
In 1971, she threw her support behind the Bengali movement to separate East from West Pakistan, providing refuge for the ten million Pakistani civilians who fled to India in order to escape the marauding Pakistan army and eventually offering troops and arms. India’s decisive victory over Pakistan in December led to the creation of Bangladesh, for which Gandhi was posthumously awarded Bangladesh’s highest state honor 40 years later.
Indira Gandhi : Autocratic Leadership
Following the 1972 national elections, Gandhi was accused of misconduct by her political opponent and, in 1975, was convicted of electoral corruption by the High Court of Allahabad and prohibited from running in another election for six years. Instead of resigning as expected, she responded by declaring a state of emergency on June 25, whereby citizens’ civil liberties were suspended, the press was acutely censored and the majority of her opposition was detained without trial. Throughout what became referred to as the “Reign of Terror,” thousands of dissidents were imprisoned without due process.
Anticipating that her former popularity would assure her reelection, Gandhi finally eased the emergency restrictions and called for the next general election in March 1977. Riled by their limited liberties, however, the people overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Janata Party and Morarji Desai assumed the role of prime minister.
Within the next few years, democracy was restored, but the Janata Party had little success in resolving the nation’s severe poverty crisis. In 1980, Gandhi campaigned under a new party—Congress (I)—and was elected into her fourth term as prime minister.
Indira Gandhi: Assassination
In 1984, the holy Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, was taken over by Sikh extremists seeking an autonomous state. In response, Gandhi sent Indian troops to regain the temple by force. In the barrage of gunfire that ensued, hundreds of Sikhs were killed, igniting an uprising within the Sikh community.
On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated outside her home by two of her trusted bodyguards, seeking retribution for the events at the temple.
The Iron Lady of India : Celebrating the legacy of India’s first woman Prime Minister
By – Sanjana Ray
“Have a bias toward action – let’s see something happen now. You can break that big plan into small steps and take the first step right away.”
At a time when women hadn’t officially strayed into the arena of active politics, Indira Gandhi managed to battle her way to the very top. The first and only female Prime Minister of our diverse and largely patriarchal society, Gandhi was on the receiving end of some of the most derogatory, misogynist comments from the old-schoolers and even the public at large. On her 99th birthday, we would like to remember her unflinching legacy.
As the only daughter to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamala Nehru, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi watched her father declare India independent on 15 August, 1947 and then work his way into fulfilling his dream of realising a ‘modern India’. With an ancestry that lived, breathed, and spoke politics, Gandhi’s interest in the same was sparked from an extremely early age. However, keeping to the dominant male atmosphere in the Parliament at the time, she played more hostess than activist in all of her father’s diplomatic meetings and travels abroad. After receiving a stellar education in Swiss Schools and Somerville College, Oxford, Gandhi returned to her father’s side as his trusted right hand in all matters.
In the short period following her homecoming, she met Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi lawyer. The couple married, and a few years later, Indira Gandhi gave birth to two sons – Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi. Even in the midst of adjusting to married life, she was sure to never fail her father whenever he requested her presence or assistance in matters of Parliament. However, her first notable active contribution to the realm of Indian politics occurred with her nomination into a prominent 21-member working committee of the Congress Party, in 1955. From here, she worked her way up, securing connections with the right people. Four years later, she’d made an impression enough to be appointed the Congress President. Meanwhile, Lal Bahadur Shastri had been appointed Prime Minister of the nation following Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964.
Challenging gender stereotypes
Although Shastri was greatly respected throughout the nation, his tenure was cut short by a sudden heart attack two years later, leaving the hot-seat of India empty. At the time, many believed that the senior and highly respected minister, Morarji Desai, would set up camp in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. But a certain section of the Congress leaders had their sights set on Gandhi, who at the time was the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Shastri’s Cabinet. This extremely powerful branch of the Congress, under the guidance of Congress veteran K. Kamaraj, helped secure a massive win for Gandhi, who assumed the Prime Minister’s Office in 1966.
Although the upper sections of the Indian society welcomed her accession, there were many who were not ready to see a woman calling the shots for the country. Thus, in the first few years, Gandhi had quite a task winning over the masses. She also started some re-constructions inside the government, endorsing new trends and values, and expelling many older officials from the Parliament. Some of them were her father’s closest friends. For these ‘radical’ measures, she was expelled from the party by the Congress old guard, for gross “indiscipline”.
Undeterred, she launched a new branch of the Congress called Congress (I) and managed to recruit most of the senior MPs to her divide. Simultaneously, she worked towards changing the face of agriculture in the country and spent some years structuring and implementing new programmes. These included increasing crop diversification and food exports, which worked towards making the country self-sufficient in food grains and also helped in the creation of more job opportunities. This marked the beginning of the revolutionary ‘Green Revolution’.
Amid her soaring popularity due to a rapid improvement in the agricultural sector following her measures, Gandhi was faced with an international conflict. Several thousand refugees were clamouring into India from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to escape a deadly fate at the hands of the West Pakistani forces. At this point, Gandhi was faced with the diplomatic challenge of not offending the major powers of the UN, but at the same time providing support to the East Pakistanis. Their prolonged stay in India was an unsustainable option for the country. She thus declared war on the West Pakistani forces, and after an overwhelming Indian victory, she managed to negotiate the creation of Bangladesh as we know it today.
However, Gandhi had made her fair share of blunders, the devaluation of the rupee being one of them. The economy had suffered greatly and she was also accused of “illegal handling” in the 1975 elections, thus resulting in her opponents calling for her immediate resignation. However, Gandhi refused to be subdued into resignation. Instead of stepping down, she persuaded the then President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, to declare a state of National Emergency on 25 June, 1975.
Although Gandhi has been largely criticised for declaring the Emergency, one cannot deny that the country witnessed some major improvements under it. The elite Central Reserve Police Force was ordered to arrest Morarji Desai and the ailing and aged Jayaprakash Narayan, while she introduced press censorship and curtailed several civic liberties. To alleviate a growing agitation across the country in response to the Emergency, she introduced her famous Twenty-Point Program, with its primary goals aimed at reducing inflation and energising the economy by punishing tax evaders, black marketers, smugglers, and other criminals. Surprisingly, prices reduced, production indexes rose dramatically, and even the monsoon proved cooperative by bringing abundant rains on time for two years in a row.
However, the repressive theme of the Emergency did not sit well with majority of the masses. When she called it off and started preparing for the next General Elections, sure enough her party lost by a considerably wide margin. Morarji Desai was quick to secure the seat of Prime Minister for himself. However, under his reign, India witnessed laissez-faire capitalism in all its worst forms, causing a rapid rise in inflation. Smuggling, black-marketing, and every form of corruption endemic to any poor country with underpaid bureaucrats and undereducated police also reared its ugly head. It wasn’t too long before the public began to grow in dissent against him.
At the same time, he made the mistake of placing all blame on Gandhi and briefly imprisoning her, making her a martyr in the eyes of the public and gaining her sympathy for the same. Desai resigned mid-term, and soon after, the President dissolved the Parliament. The next General Elections, held in 1980, saw Congress (I) winning 351 of the 525 contested Lok Sabha seats, as against 31 for Janata. Gandhi was back to the Prime Minister’s chair and the continued to occupy it till her assassination in 1984 by two of her trusted Sikh body-guards, due to her decision to counter the Punjabi insurgency.
Indira Gandhi’s reign saw its share of highs and lows. But her bold spirit and the strength she exhibited in executing necessary, if sometimes unpopular, measures make her worthy of being called the Iron Lady of India.
Indira Gandhi, the environmentalist
A first detailed study of the former Indian prime minister, infamous for imposing the Emergency, as a naturalist
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
– William Shakespeare
While reading the “unconventional” biography of Indira Gandhi — Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature — one cannot help but wonder if the mantle of her father and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was thrust upon her after all. For, in more than one instance, the author of the yet-to-be-released book, Congress leader and former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh presents private correspondences of Mrs. Gandhi with her friends to show how the ‘Iron Lady of India’ had a softer side to her personality that yearned for the mountains and proximity to nature.
“I get a tremendous urge to leave everything and retire to a far far place high in the mountains.” Mrs. Gandhi is quoted as writing to her friend American photographer Dorothy Norman in 1958. In 1959, when she became Congress President, she is quoted as writing to a friend: “This heavy responsibility and hard work has descended on me just when I was planning for a quiet and peaceful year…”
Ramesh defends his decision to singularly portray the environmentalist in Indira Gandhi in his book scheduled to release on June 10: “A naturalist is who Indira Gandhi really was, who she thought she was. She got sucked into the whirlpool of politics but the real Indira Gandhi was the person who loved the mountains, cared deeply for wildlife, was passionate about birds, stones, trees and forests, and was worried deeply about the environmental consequences of urbanization and industrialization.”
The year 2017 marks the centenary of Mrs. Gandhi’s birth (November 19, 1917). It also marks 40 years since the Emergency was lifted in India (March 21, 1977), two years after the Congress government under Mrs. Gandhi imposed it on June 25, 1975. To have chosen this year, thus, to release a book on the former Prime Minister’s environmental legacy comes across as an effort to redeem her image from that of a “dictator” who trampled upon the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights of Indians. And Ramesh does that convincingly, quoting amply from private correspondences, public speeches and forewords to books that she wrote. The author sources several of his references from the recently declassified files available at the National Archives, New Delhi. He also blames Mrs. Gandhi’s nemesis Jayaprakash Narayan for provoking her to impose the Emergency by urging the army and the police to disregard orders of her ‘illegal government’.
Indira Gandhi, the environmentalist
India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests itself is housed in a building called the ‘Indira Paryavaran Bhavan’ — an energy efficient structure that was inaugurated in 2014 — the construction for which began when Ramesh held the Environment and Forests Minister portfolio in 2011. During the 2009 Copenhagen UN climate summit, Ramesh had emphasised that India couldn’t continue on the path of unfettered economic growth ignoring environmental concerns, taking inspiration from Mrs. Gandhi on the matter. It is only fitting then that he executed the biography documenting Mrs. Gandhi’s love for nature and the key decisions she took during her time paving the way for environmental governance in India. The book contains rare images showing her communing with nature.
The Rajya Sabha member documents how Mrs. Gandhi was the only head of government, other than the host prime minister, to speak at the first-ever United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972. The date on which the conference had opened — June 5 — was marked to be celebrated every year as World Environment Day.
The author also notes how she was singularly responsible not only for the tiger conservation programme —Project Tiger— but also for less high-profile initiatives for the protection of crocodiles, lions, hanguls, cranes, Bustards, flamingos, deer and other endangered species. He also acknowledges how she pushed through two laws — Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The laws for dealing with water and air pollution — The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 — were also enacted during her tenure. Mrs. Gandhi used her political authority to protect ecologically sensitive areas such as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the entire Northeast and the rainforests in the Western Ghats.
She was also the patron of the Bombay Natural History Society, being a close friend of its associate and ornithologist Salim Ali, and helped found the Delhi Bird Watching Society. The ban on hunting tigers was imposed four years after Mrs. Gandhi became PM. She also opposed diplomats and royal family members violating the game laws imposing a ban of hunting of wild animals.
Most biographies of political leaders when written by party affiliates have a tendency to become hagiographical. Ramesh tries not to succumb to that impulse by objectively surveying the limitations imposed by the nature of her office on Mrs. Gandhi’s ability to govern on environmental matters, especially when it clashed with matters economic. For instance, he points to how Mrs. Gandhi gave a go-ahead for the Indian Oil Corporation’s Mathura refinery to be constructed despite its known threats to the Taj Mahal and the Bharatpur bird sanctuary.
However, Ramesh broad brushes controversies that some of her statements on environment evoked. In her 1972 Stockholm speech, Mrs. Gandhi had said: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”. Ramesh makes note of Karl Mathiesen’s 2014 article in The Guardian which problematises this statement – as a way to blame poor countries and their populations for climate change – but doesn’t engage with the matter.
In the 1960s, the dominant view in the global environmental discourse was that ecological imbalances were caused by the population explosion in developing countries. “The number of sterilizations [during Mrs. Gandhi’s regime] went up almost three-fold in 1976-77 — from a previous peak of 3.1 million to almost 8.3 million,” Ramesh notes. He admits that this contributed heavily to her 1977 electoral debacle.
But a redeeming factor for Mrs. Gandhi could well be how she called into question work on some big dams, which could have caused environmental destruction and widespread displacement of adivasi people, unlike her father Nehru who famously held big dams to be the “temples of modern India”. Her intervention helped stall further work in the Tehri Dam area during her time; in 1983 she abandoned the hydroelectric project planned in the Silent Valley forests and declared it as a National Park. In the end, history might have judged Indira Gandhi harshly for her political errors, but as her own words reveal, she may well not have bothered:
“We have a peepul in our yard, a tree which, had it depended on human praise and approbation, would have withered away long since.”