Indira Gandhi (1917-1984)

Indira Gandhi was not related to Mahatma Gandhi, India's beloved father. Yet she had political blood aplenty - she was the only daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru and his wife Kamla. While her father became the first prime minister of independent India, she became the first female leader of the country. She was a charismatic speaker with strong ideals, and functioned almost like a dictator during parts of her reign. Altogether, she held power for 15 years, until she was assassinated. Today, different people view her alternately as a great woman and a dirty player who deserved what she got. Must be something about these female politicians, huh?

The young Indira early took part in the struggle for independence. She lived through frequent arrests and absences of her parents. As a twelve-year-old, she was the leader of the so-called Monkey Brigade - a group of children who warned leaders of the independence movement of their impending arrest by the British. She also met Gandhi himself several times. In a famous photograph, she sits by his bedside as the Mahatma is recovering from one of his harsh fasts.

Her childhood was spent part in Allahabad, part in Switzerland, where her mother spent much time to convalesce from a periodic illness. She received her further education at the Visva-Bharati University in Bengal and at Somerville College in Oxford. In 1938, Indira returned to India where she joined the National Congress Party. Now many great and tragic things happened: her mother died, Indira married Feroze Gandhi, India became independent, Mahatma Gandhi was shot, her father became prime minister.

Her marriage was disliked both by her father and the Hindu community, as she was a Brahmin and her husband a Parsi, another religion altogether. Their first years together they must have been close, arrested together and going to jail for the cause of independence, and getting two sons. Yet later on they drifted apart, and for many years before Feroze's death in 1960 they did not live together.

Indira had assumed the role as trusted aide and hostess for Nehru ever since her mother died. She had his confidence and followed him on foreign trips. At the same time she was making a name for herself in politics. When her father died in 1964, the new prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appointed her Minister of Information and Broadcasting. In this position she extended broadcasting time, liberalised censorship policies, and encouraged the production of cheaper radios. She was also involved in an education programme on family planning, which in later years, as we shall see, she followed up with great efficiency.

Shastri died from a heart attack in 1966, and Indira Gandhi was chosen as his successor, maybe with the hope that she would be easy to manipulate, a dumb doll in the hands of grey eminences. Not so. In 1967, was elected prime minister. She skilfully maneuvered her competitors out of power and won popularity among the people, particularly the nationalistic middle class, for her 1971 victory against Pakistan, the launching of India's first satellite and the explosion of the country's first nuclear device.

Economy, however, would be the beast that felled her. In the second election campaign her slogan had been Garibi Hatao, abolish poverty. Instead inflation and corruption rose and the people stayed poor. In 1973, massive demonstrations were taking place throughout the north of India. In 1975, Indira Gandhi was found guilty of using illegal practices during the last election campaign, and she was ordered to leave her office.

Instead, Indira Gandhi declared a national state of emergency, which she upheld even though the Supreme Court overturned her conviction. Overnight, India became a totalitarian state. Opposition leaders were arrested, many of whom died in custody; the press was put under strict censorship; and the constitutional rights of the citizens were suspended. Together with her elder son Sanjay Gandhi she ruled India with an iron hand for two years. They initiated what they saw as the final solution to India's slum problems - remove the dwellings and forcefully sterilise those who live there.

Secure in her position and wanting to demonstrate that the country was still a democracy, Indira Gandhi called for a general election in 1977. She and her party lost by a landslide. However, in 1980 she was reelected prime minister and was able to form a majority government. That same year, Sanjay died in a plane crash, and instead of him she started preparing her other son Rajiv to take up the political heritage.

In the 1980s, several nationalistic and religious movements wanted independence from India. The fiercest of these were the Sikhs. In June 1984, the prime minister sent troops to drive Sikh guerrillas out of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, their most holy shrine. Over 600 people were killed. In October the same year, Indira Gandhi was shot by her Sikh body guards while walking in her garden. She became one in a chain of the many political assassinations of India - Mahatma Gandhi, killed by a fundamentalist Hindu, herself, killed by extreme Sikhs, and her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi, killed by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

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