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Indira Gandhi biography

Indira Gandhi

(1917-1984)

biography

     Indira Priyadarshini was born on 19 November 1917 at Allahabad. She was the only child of Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. A son was born to Kamala in 1924 but unfortunately he died after a few days, leaving Indira without any sibling. Indira later described her childhood as lonely" and insecure." Soon after Indira’s birth, her mother became sick. Later the sickness was diagnosed as tuberculosis and the family was engrossed with her treatment for the rest of her life.
Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi


At the same time, Indira’s grandfather, Motilal Nehru, and her father Jawaharlal, joined the Congress party and were greatly involved in the freedom movement led by Gandhi. Both of them were often in and out of prison. As a result, Indira’s formal education was peripatetic and unsystematic. When she was six years old, she was admitted to Cecilia High School at Allahabad, but because of the protestation of Jawaharlal, who was against Anglo-Indian education as prevalent in India, she did not continue her studies there for any length of time. In March 1926, Indira accompanied her parents to Europe, where Kamala had to undergo treatment for tuberculosis. Indira was admitted to L'Ecole Nouvelle at Bex, Switzerland, where she picked up French and learnt to speak fluently. Later, she studied at the International School in Geneva. In December 1927, the family returned to India as Kamala’s health had improved, as a result of which Indira’s education in Europe was interrupted. In 1931, she was admitted to Pupils Own School at Poona run by a devoted couple, Coonverbai J. Vakil and her husband Jehangir, an Oxford educated confirmed socialist. It was a school with a difference and gave full scope to students to develop individual thinking at their own pace. At the age of sixteen, Indira passed the matriculation examination of the Bombay University. Soon after, she was admitted to Shantiniketan as a student of Siksha Bhawan and carne under the benign influence of Rabindranath Tagore. But in April 1935, Indira had to leave Shantiniketan as her mother‘s health had worsened and she had toaccompany her to Europe. Dr. Madan Atal, a cousin of Kamala, had accompanied them. Jawaharlal was in Almora jail at the time and could not go but was released on 4 September 1935 and joined his wife and daughter at Badenweiler, Germany, where Kamala was admitted in a Sanatorium. In January 1936, Kamala was shifted to a Sanatorium near Lausanne in Switzerland. Indira was admitted to her old school at Bexnearby but had come to Lausanne to be with her mother during her last days. Feroze, who had been a family friend, also joined them, uninvited. Kamala died on 28 February 1936with Indira, Jawaharlal, Dr. Madan Atal and Feroze Gandhi at her bedside. After studying for sometime at Bex, Indira left for London and got herself admitted to Badminton School in Bristol to appear for the matriculation examination of London University. Feroze Gandhi was also in London, as a student at the London School of Economics. Indira often met Feroze and together they used to sightsee or go to the theatre. A recent biography of Indira Gandhi, in which the author has described their relationship during their stay in London, has raised quite a controversy. Indira was in London for one year. After finishing studies at Bristol, Indira went to Oxford and joined Somerville College on the recommendation of Prof. Harold Laski, a friend of Nehru. At Oxford, she fell ill and had to go to Switzerland for treatment of pleurisy. When she recovered, she went back to Oxford but had to leave for India soon after as war clouds gathered over Europe. She sailed in a steamer via Cape of Good Hope, along with Feroze Gandhi. After a long and tortuous journey, they reached Bombay in June 1941. Soon after, Indira announced that she wanted to marry Feroze. Kamala had been very much against Indira marrying Feroze. Before her death Kamala had told Nehru that “she was worried about Indira’s relationship with Feroze because she was sure he was unstable”. Nor did she think Feroze would enter any profession and be in a position to support Indira. It is not certain if Kamala knew that Feroze came from a doubtful parentage. After an initial reluctance, the Nehru family agreed and Indira and Feroze got married on 26 March 1942 at Allahabad. She changed her name to Indira Gandhi. The couple went to Bombay to attend the historic Congress session on 9 August 1942, where the ‘Quit India’ resolution was passed. After some time both of them were arrested. Indira was sent to Naini jail, and was given A’ class in prison. On 13 May 1943, nine months after her arrest, Indira was released. Three months later Feroze was also released from Faizabad jail. They set up home in Allahabad, in a small house on Fort Road. Rajiv was born on 20 August 1944. The second son, Sanjay, was born on 14 December 1946 in New Delhi, where Nehru was heading the interim government at the time. Feroze was appointed managing editor of National Herald, Lucknow, English daily founded by Jawaharlal Nehru. He moved to Lucknow while Indira lived with her father in New Delhi, in the prime minister’s official residence. She not only looked after her father but accompanied him on foreign tours, taking on the responsibilities of a hostess. She also started taking active interest in the Congress affairs and was nominated a member of the Congress Working Committee (1955) and of Central Parliamentary Board (1958). In 1959, she was elected president of the Indian National Congress, and held this office till January 1960. Obviously she was being groomed by Nehru as his successor.
    Indira’s domestic life during the years of Nehru’s prime ministershipwas not a happy one. Feroze did not relish being referred to as Nehru's son-in-law, which phrase was acquiring the overtones of' a taunt. He found the whole business of protocol galling, because it relegated him to a humble position at social functions. In course of time, he was elected a member of Parliament. Resigning his post of managing editor of the National Herald, he moved from Lucknow to Delhi, where he was allotted a house as a member of the Parliament. But Indira did not stay with him. She continued staying with her father along with her two sons in Teen Murti House, as his official hostess. There were rumours that the relations between Feroze and Indira had reached a breaking point. Indira denied the rumours unconvincingly. “When Indira assumed office as Congress president (1959), they were hardly on talking terms. He often used to write letters to her addressing sarcastically as ‘Comrade Congress president’ and ending with ‘Yours fraternally." Feroze led a lonely and reckless life though he had emerged as a very successful parliamentarian, embarrassing Nehru in the Parliament, exposing some serious corruption cases. But due to strain of public life and an unhappy married life leading to indulgences, his health deteriorated and he died on 8 September 1960. He was only forty-seven.
The war with China in 1962 affected the prestige of Nehru as well as his health. He died in May 1964. Though he had groomed Indira for the prime ministership through the Congress Working Committee and Congress presidentship1 and tried to compensate her lack of formal education by writing over two hundred odd letters, mainly on history (which did not interest her), the time was not ripe for her to head the government. She was only forty-seven when Nehru died. Lal Bahadur Shastri was elected ‘unanimously’ as Prime Minister, Kamraj playing a leading role in this decision. Indira was inducted by Shastri in his cabinet as information and broadcasting minister. In August 1964, she was elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha. The sudden demise of Shastri in January 1966 necessitated the selection of a prime minister once again. The weighty Congress leadership, known as ‘the Syndicate’, backed her candidacy as the successor to Shastri, reportedly because they considered her pliable ‘goongi gudia’ (dumb doll). As Morarji Desai was also an aspirant, an election ensued. Indira won by 355 to 169 votes. She was sworn in as prime minister on 24 January 1966. Mrs. Gandhi received a challenging inheritance. The country had to face two Wars in four years and an insurgency in the northeast. On the economic front successive monsoon failures had affected food grain production, resulting in scarcity. She was handicapped by her own administrative inexperience and awkwardness in Parliament. Her decision to devalue the rupee in 1966 by a whopping 57.7 per cent, without adequate preparation at home and financial assistance from abroad had disastrous consequences. The prestige of the Congress was on the wane. When the election to Parliament was held in 1967, the party won only 283 seats of the 520 seats of the Lok Sabha and lost power in eight states. Many Congress stalwarts including Kamraj and several ministers were defeated. However, she herself won from the Rae Bareli constituency and was sworn in as prime minister for the second time in March 1967 without opposition. As an act of prudence and as a gesture of goodwill, she invited Morarji Desai to become deputy prime minister holding the Finance portfolio. She herself took over the External Affairs portfolio in September and made an extensive tour of East European countries and Russia in October 1967 and of South America and Caribbean countries in 1968. She addressed the UN General Assembly on 14 October 1968. She was trying to emerge on the international scene as the prime minister of the largest democracy in the world.
In India, she also toured extensively, first as Congress president and later as prime minister and became quite popular among the masses, earning the sobriquet Mother India." She directly appealed to the people to look to her for their emancipation from poverty and hunger over the heads of the party bosses. Her penchant for populism deepened as her dislike grew for the pressures put on her by the party bosses. The Syndicate had been weakened as many of the leaders had been humbled in the 1967 election. After the death of President Zakir Hussain in May 1969, she came in direct confrontation with the Syndicate over the choice of the new president. VV. Giri won with the support of Indira Gandhi, defeating the Syndicate candidate Sanjiva Reddy and the Congress party split into two. The majority of members of Parliament joined the Indira camp and the rump called them Congress Old (O). Morarji had opted for Congress (O) and resigned, to the delight of Indira Gandhi. The former "meek and shy' young lady was transformed into a great political strategist.
She had won the battle against the Syndicate but she did not have a majority in the Parliament, which irked her and she felt that she was vulnerable. By now, she had learnt the art of being popular with the masses. To everyone surprise, she put on the garb of a socialist, though as late as 1962 she had told an interviewer. I really don't have a political philosophy I can't say I believe in any ism." She was forty-five then and had never evinced interest in socialism, never talked of it, until the expediency of office forced her to.4 She initiated several populist (leftist) measures like nationalisation of fourteen major banks (July 1969), abolition of privy purses of the princes (November 1969) which Sardar Patel had certified at the time of the Independence. Such measures had transformed her personal fight into an ideological one. Her ten point programme aimed at a ‘socialist pattern of society’. She thus acquired an image of a leader who felt deeply for the poor. Armed with such an image, she decided to hold the election in February 1971 instead of 1972, which would have been the normal course. The battle at the hustings was fought under the slogans Indira hatao (remove Indira) by the opposition against Garibi hatao (remove poverty) by her party. Throughout January and February, Indira Gandhi campaigned even more strenuously and relentlessly than she had done in 1967. She won a landslide victory; her Congress winning 325 seats, a two-third majority in the Lok Sabha. It was her personal victory she was sworn in as prime minister for the third time in March 1971 and ‘she became the most powerful Indian prime minister since independence’. While Nehru first gained power and then office Indira Gandhi first gained office, then power. Her socialist agenda now encompassed several other spheres: she constituted a commission to regulate future expansion of industry and trade, abolished the old managing agency system, nationalised general insurance.
The year 1971 was one which threw up immense problems for lndira’s government and ultimately brought unrivalled glory to her. Trouble had been brewing in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from the very birth of Pakistan because of the cultural differences between the Eastern and Western wings. Early in 1971, elections were held in Pakistan and Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League won with an overwhelming majority in the state assembly and a majority in the national assembly. But he was not allowed to head the government and was arrested. The army let loose a reign of terror in East Pakistan. Ten million refugees from there entered India, which affected India, politically and economically. For India, it was no more a domestic matter of Pakistan. Indira Gandhi’s government signed a Treaty of Peace, Cooperation and Friendship with the Soviet Union in August 1971. This treaty strengthened India’s position the Bengali guerilla force, named Mukti Bahini (freedom force). Pakistan retaliated by bombing Indian airfields. There is a view that Pakistan offered a lifetime opportunity to India to dismember Pakistan. On 4 December, India declared war on Pakistan and the Indian Army, supported by the Air Force, entered East Pakistan and Pakistan army surrendered on 16 December. Bangladesh was born. Indira had become Goddess Durga for the masses, to the chagrin of her enemies. Her popularity was confirmed in the March 1972 state assembly elections, in which the Congress captured seventy per cent of the seats contested. The president conferred the Bharat Ratna on her on 26 January 1972. On 2 July 1972 the Simla Agreement was signed by Mrs. Gandhi and the Pakistan president, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, India agreeing to return the conquered territories and to release ninety one thousand Pakistani Prisoners of War. Her prestige and popularity was further enhanced when India conducted a nuclear explosion for peaceful purposes on 18 May 1974. By now, Mrs. Gandhi had established complete dominance over the party, parliament and the country. When the Supreme Court invalidated the nationalisation of banks and abolition of privy purses of the princes, she tampered with the independence of the judiciary, making it subordinate to the Parliament. She started depending on the advice of her younger son Sanjay, a school dropout. He was issued a license to produce a small car and got allotted a huge plot of land near Delhi for the factory, bypassing all bureaucratic norms. Gradually, he became as powerful as Mrs. Gandhi herself and was surrounded by a score of young sycophants. The mother-son duo was now destroying the very pillars of democratic government. In 1973, she appointed A.N. Ray as chief justice of India, super ceding three judges senior to him. A new slogan was concocted, that the country required a committed judiciary" and committed bureaucracy. It was argued that these were essential for the progress of the country and for implementing the progressive policies of the government. Actually, it was to snuff out any opposition and to get away with illegal and corrupt dealings. Nationalisation of banks and general insurance had enlarged the scope of corruption by Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay. The episode of Nagarwala, a bizarre scandal involving sixty lakhs rupees in 1972, was only a tip of the iceberg. The government treasury was no longer safe.
         In 1975, came a bombshell. Justice jagmohan Sinha of the Allahabad High Court set aside Mrs. Gandhi’s election to Lok Sabha on grounds of corruption and debarred her from contesting polls for six years. While she consulted her lawyers to appeal to the Supreme Court she encouraged her son Sanjay and his associates to organise mass rallies by hired hoodlums in her favour. To add to her woes, her party lost elections in Gujarat. She was also confronted by jayaprakash Narayan's mass rallies, which were swelling in number by the day. The fact of Congress (I) losing the support of the people, rankled in her mind. Moreover, the decision of the Supreme Court regarding her appeal did not help her either - a stay order against depriving her right to vote was all she got. She did not want to lose power and took a drastic step of proclaiming internal emergency and made President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed sign the proclamation on 26 1975, in the dead of the night. All the opposition leaders, including jayaprakash and Morarji, were arrested; censorship of the worst type was enforced and courts were closed. Indians did not get newspapers on that day. According to Amnesty International, during the first year of Emergency more than 1, 10,000 people were arrested and detained without trial. Some were tortured and a few defiant ones were even killed. TheConstitution was tampered with Presidential orders were issued suspending articles 14, 21 and 22 of the Constitution. Sanjay Gandhi became the de facto ruler of the country, an extra-constitutional authority. He aggressively tried to implement his ‘five point programme’ which included Forced Sterilisation and slum clearance, along with his mother’s twenty point programme. The rule of law was being replaced by the rule of' Sanjay Gandhi. Everything was being done to save their rule. Election to Lok Sabha was postponed, which was due in 1976. However, there were some advantages of Emergency for the common man: trains were running on time, offices were working punctually and efficiently, there was less of crime on the streets. Emergency; at least outwardly, seemed to be a success. But on the whole there was fear and disgust among the people.
On 18 January 1977 Indira did a U-turn and announced the general election to be held in March of the following year. Most of the detainees were released and press censorship was relaxed. The opposition parties joined hands and formed the Janta Party. The results of the election stunned Indira and Sanjay. Both of them lost. The Congress (I) could win only 153 as against 299 by Janta including jagjivan Ram’s Congress for Democracy. The Janta Party formed a government, headed by Morarji Desai. The Janta Party had come to power on a negative vote a protest vote against the Emergency. It had neither a history nor an organisation; neither an ideology nor a programme of its own. The Janta conglomerate had several inner contradictions and the leaders did not work as a team.Their clumsy efforts to punish Indira Gandhi for Emergency excesses, especially arresting her twice, proved counter-productive. It did not come as a surprise to the nation when the Janta government fell in July 1979. Fresh election was held for the Lok Sabha and Indira Gandhi became theprime minister again, for the fourth time, on l4january 1980. Her party had won 351 seats in a house of 542, trouncing all other parties. She herself had won the Rai Bareli Seat with a record margin. Sanjay Gandhi won from neighboring Amethi. Using undemocratic methods, she dismissed nine Janta state governments, imposing President’s Rule. Fresh elections were held. Indira’s party won all but one of them. Sanjay once again came to his own element along with his coterie, most of whom were now members of Parliament. However, Sanjay died in an air crash on 23 1980 in Delhi. Indira was heart-broken but regained her balance and started working almost immediately. Many people felt that Sanjay’s death was ‘the best thing that could happen to India’.
The concentration of power, almost dictatorial, at the centre had resulted in the neglect of' the states. The Congress lost in Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. There was trouble in Assam, Kashmir and above all in Punjab, Where the Akali Dal was challenging the supremacy of the Congress and had wrested power in the 1977 election. To meet their challenge, Sanjay Gandhi when alive, with a nod from his mother, had cultivated a demagogue named Bhindrawala. Bhindrawala, who was a fundamentalist at heart, soon gained a large following, which was armedby the Pakistan secret service. As his strength grew, Bhindrawala began to demand a separate, autonomous Sikh state Khalistan. He moved into the Golden Temple, made the Akal Takht his headquarters and converted it into a fortress. His military adviser, a retired major general Subheg Singh, who had trained the Mukti Bahini in Bangladesh, gave regular training in arms to the followers of Bhindrawala. They had become terrorists and had spread all over Punjab, killing people at will, mostly Hindus. Even the police was afraid of them. Indira Gandhi watched the tragic drama for some time with patience but then decided to strike. On June 1984, the army entered the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple).  It was called ‘Operation Blue Star’. There was fierce fighting between the Indian Army and well-entrenched Bhindrawala and his armed followers. Tanks and artillery had to be used. The Akal Takht, where Bhindrawala was hiding with his men, was heavily damaged and had to be rebuilt later. More than three hundred army men had died in the confrontation. That was the end of Bhindrawala along with many of his followers who had become a terror in Punjab.
Indira Gandhi now feared het assassination, and even wrote out instructions for her funeral. Her security was beefed up. But she refused to be protected by the army. She was assassinated by two of her own Sikh security guards, on the morning of31 October 1984 in her own residence, 1 Safdarjung Road.
Indira Gandhi did not aspire to be a world leader as her father did but she was active in the Non-Alignment Movement, founded at the initiative of Nehru at Belgrade in 1961. She attended the fourth Non-Aligned Conference at Algiers and in March 1983 chaired the seventh Non-Aligned Conference held at New Delhi. Mrs. Gandhi was not an intellectual like Jawaharlal Nehru and did not write much. Her speeches and reminiscences have been published in several volumes by the Publications Division, Government of India. Some other volumes have been published by the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust.
     Indira’s character was summed up by her father, Jawaharlal Nehru in a letter to his sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, in 1934, which is in the nature of a complaint. He wrote: ‘She (Indira) scarcely writes to her parents, she ignores us completely her behavior is extraordinarily self-centered, remarkably selfish.’ In another letter, he complained that “she is remarkably casual and indifferent to others. Indu revolves around herself. Self-centered, she hardly thinks of others”. In the light of her behavior as prime minister, it seemed as if Indira never lost her sense of solitariness in a hostile world, always sought security in ways that made her intolerant of criticism and identified herself so completely with India that she made little distinction between her person, her family and her government. There was always lurking authoritarianism behind her cultivated charisma.

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