Indira Gandhi

To date she is the world’s longest serving female Prime Minister.  She was no relation to Mahatma Gandhi.  She got the name when she married Feroze Jehangir Gandhi, an Indian politician and journalist, and publisher of the The National Herald and The Navjivan newspapers from Lucknow. 

Indira was the daughter of  Jawaharlal Nehru, a pivotal figure in the Indian independence movement and the first Prime Minister of Independent India and Kamala Nehru.  It seemed like politics ran in Indira’s family.  Her mother, Kamala was active in the India Freedom Movement.  She organized groups of women in Allahabad and picketed shops selling foreign cloth and liquor.  She was arrested twice by the British authorities.  A number of institutions in India, such as Kamla Nehru College, University of Delhi, Kamla Nehru Park, Kamla Nehru Hospital are named after her.  Indira’s grandfather,  Motilal Nehru, was a prominent Indian nationalist leader. 

Indira went to England where she studied.  She sat for the University of Oxford entrance examination, but she failed, and spent a few months at Badminton School in Bristol, before passing the exam in 1937 and enrolling at Somerville College, Oxford. It was at this time that she frequently met her future husband Feroze Gandhi.  The two knew each other from Allahabad.  Feroze was studying at the London School of Economics. They married in 1942.  Indira returned to India in 1941. 

In the 1950s, she served her father unofficially as a personal assistant during his tenure as the first Prime Minister of India. After her father’s death in 1964 she was appointed as a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and became a member of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting.  It was the The then Congress Party President K. Kamaraj who was instrumental in making Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister after the sudden demise of Shastri.

Indira soon showed that she was capable of winning elections and outwitting her opponents. She introduced more left-wing economic policies and promoted agricultural productivity. She led India as Prime Minister during the decisive victory of East Pakistan over Pakistan in 1971 war and creation of an independent Bangladesh. She imposed a state of emergency in 1975. For the first time in 1977, Congress Party and Indira Gandhi herself lost the next general election.  However, in 1980, three years later, Indira led the Congress back to victory in the elections and she resumed the office of the Prime Minister.

Indira was the third Prime Minister of the Republic of India for three consecutive terms from 1966 to 1977 and for a fourth term from 1980 until her assassination in 1984, a total of fifteen years.  She was also the only Indian Prime Minister to have declared a state of emergency in order to ‘rule by decree’ and the only Indian Prime Minister to have been imprisoned after holding that office.  Indira was noted for her charismatic authority and political astuteness.

In June 1984, she gave the order and the Indian army  forcefully entered the Golden Temple, the most sacred Sikh Gurdwara, to remove armed insurgents present inside the temple.  Unfortunately, the temple was damaged and this sparked the hatred of the Sikhs against Indira.  They  bitterly resented her action in their sacred space.  On October 31, 1984, she was assassinated in the garden at her residence by her bodyguards.  They were paying her back for the insult she had heaped upon the Sikh nation.

She was walking past a wicket gate  guarded by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh when they opened fire on her.  Both men dropped their weapons and surrendered.  Other guards took them away and held them in a closed room where where Beant Singh was shot dead as he tried to capture one of the guard’s weapons.  Kehar Singh was later arrested for conspiracy in the assassination.  He and Satwant Singh was sentenced to death and hanged in Tihar jail in Delhi.

Indira died on her way to the hospital.  She was cremated on 3 November near Raj Ghat.  Her funeral was televised live on domestic and international stations including the BBC.   Her blood-stained sari and her belongings at the time of her assassination are preserved at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum in New Delhi. Her death led to violence across India. Over a 1000 people died, many of them were Sikhs.  Following her death, her second son, Rajiv Gandhi, was sworn in as head of the Congress party and Prime Minister.

There were some things that Indira did which drew criticism of her and her administration.   She was found guilty of violating election laws. However, this conviction was later overturned by the Supreme Court of India.  In an attempt to control population growth, Indira implemented a voluntary sterilization program.  To secure her power and because of escalating riots, on June 26, 1975, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency which limited the personal freedom of Indians.  She also ordered the arrests of the main opposition leaders.  She believed that this kind of dictatorship was for the good of India.  Dictatorship is never for the good of a country.  People need to exercise their  freedom of choice–they need democracy.  A government that addresses their needs instead of trying to control them.  Indira may have had a change of heart.  In 1977, she allowed free elections but unfortunately for her, the Indian people voted her out of office.

Notes to Women salute Indira Gandhi, a woman who quickly rose to power and took on the challenge of leading a country despite the overwhelming problems and challenges she encountered.  As Prime Minister, she tried to improve the lives of Indians and managed to improve relations with the Soviet Union and China.  She promoted science and technology and in 1971, India sent its first satellite into space. She led India into becoming one of the fastest growing economies in the world toward the end of her time as prime minister.

All my games were political games; I was, like Joan of Arc, perpetually being burned at the stake.

Even if I died in the service of the nation, I would be proud of it. Every drop of my blood… will contribute to the growth of this nation and to make it strong and dynamic.

If I die a violent death, as some fear and a few are plotting, I know that the violence will be in the thought and the action of the assassins, not in my dying.

My father was a statesman, I am a political woman. My father was a saint. I am not.

My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.

People tend to forget their duties but remember their rights.



One response to “Indira Gandhi

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