Born in 1917, Indira Priyadarshini was referred to as ‘a child of revolution’ by her father Jawaharlal Nehru. Brought up in a tumultuous era of Indian nationalism, she was destined for a life in politics.
Indira, a shy, reclusive girl, called ‘Ghungi Gudiya’ (dumb doll) by her opponents, went on to become the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy and a leader in global politics.
My public life started at the age of three. I have no recollection of playing with other children. My favourite occupation as a child was to deliver thunderous speeches to the servants while standing on a high table. All my games were political ones. I was like Joan of Arc, perpetually being burned at the stake.
She presided over some of the most controversial policies and historic moments since India’s independence; the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, India’s first nuclear tests in Pokhran, the one-family-one-child policy, the declaration of Emergency, the re-organisation of the state of Punjab and Operation Blue Star among others. She came to be known as a ruthless politician who wrested control of her party and centralised power.
To paraphrase the Financial Time’s South Asia correspondent, John Elliott:
“If Nehru was greater than his deeds, as many people say, Indira was not as great as she should have been, and her deeds were more damaging than she probably intended”.
Indira acknowledged this in her own words:
“My father was a statesman, I am a political woman. My father was a saint. I am not”.
“Administration is not an end,” she said in an impassioned speech.
It is not for those who run it but for the people. Its purpose is the welfare of common man attained through programmes of the Government which are approved by Parliament.
She presided over government programmes and policies that increased socialist economic controls, nationalized banks and oil companies, and helped make India self-sufficient in food production – to name a few. These programmes were conducted with the aim of empowering the poor and marginalized. ‘Garibi Hatao’, meaning ‘Vanquish Poverty’ was the catch phrase that captured the imagination of the masses, especially those who felt marginalized and disempowered. However, it also gave ministers and bureaucrats in her administration enormous power to open the floodgates of corruption. Acting upon the advice of her son Sanjay Gandhi, she imposed a state of emergency for two years. This curtailed democratic rights in the country and gave extraordinary powers to the Prime Minister’s office.
The Constitution (Forty-second amendment) Act, 1976 was enacted on 3rd January 1977 – with certain provisions coming into effect a few months later. This amended the Preamble and changed the description of India from a “sovereign democratic republic” to a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic”. Many hail this as a step that shaped India’s future by guaranteeing religious minorities their rights in India’s secular democracy, yet some continue to find it controversial.
As Prime Minister, she focused on protecting the environment while balancing the economic needs of a developing nation. Speaking at the Stockholm Conference in 1972, she championed the cause of the Global South.
We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further, and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?
A quarter of a century later, India’s policy stance in major international conventions on the environment and climate change remains consistent with her vision.
As Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy, she was a strong voice of the Global South. “On the one hand, the rich look askance at our continuing poverty”, she said, “on the other, they warn us against their own methods”.
Speaking at a conference in Delhi, she did not mince words:
We would like to hear about Africa from Africans. You should similarly be able to get an Indian explanation of events in India. It is astonishing that we know so little about leading poets, novelists, historians, and editors of various Asian, African, and Latin American countries while we are familiar with minor authors and columnists of Europe and America.
Expressing solidarity with African leaders and building bridges with them, she emphasized, in no uncertain terms, that “humankind cannot be totally liberated until the last vestiges of colonialism, racism, and apartheid are swept off the scene in Africa”.
On the one hand, she approved and presided over India’s first nuclear bomb tests in Pokhran army range and on the other, she championed the cause of the global south in their fight their identity. Through strategic diplomatic thinking, tact and well-timed displays of strength, Indira increased India’s hegemonic power.
But, as the saying goes, “every story has an ending”. In Indira’s case, it was a bloody and violent one. Perhaps Indira Gandhi saw it coming. On the 30th October 1984, a day before her death, speaking at Bhubhaneshwar, she said:
I am here today, I may not be here tomorrow… I do not care whether I live or die. I have lived a long life and I am proud that I spent the whole of my life in the service of my people. I am only proud of this and nothing else. I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say, that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.
She died the next day. Her immediate past had come back to haunt her. Her death was a consequence of Operation Blue Star, which she ordered against Jarnail Singh Bindranwale and pro-Khalistani separatists. Led by Kuldeep Singh Brar, the Indian Army stormed into the revered Golden Temple, a place of worship for the Sikhs. Lives were lost, and the temple damaged in the process. This was the beginning of her end.
Her Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, who guarded her for ten years, assassinated her as she walked into her lawns to give a television interview to an Irish journalist. Beant Singh fired three rounds into her abdomen. Satwant Singh emptied a full magazine of 30 rounds into her. She was declared dead at 14:20 on October 31, 1984. To paraphrase Katherine Frank, “she had died as she had lived, surrounded by men, yet isolated. It was a violent end to a life of epic drama”.
Unfortunately, as she envisaged, the drops of her blood would not invigorate India. Instead, her supporters saw through a State-complicit pogrom against Sikhs, primarily in Delhi. Up to 3000 were killed across the country. The secularism she championed was buried in the books. As a Delhi High Court Judge observed in 2009:
Even though we boast of being the world’s largest democracy… the sheer mention of the incidents of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in general and the role played by the Delhi police and State machinery in particular makes our heads hang in shame in the eyes of the world polity.
As Katherine Frank puts it, “Indira was India.” It is difficult to talk about her in a singular sense without contradiction. On the one hand, she was a ruthless, authoritarian leader who ruled with on iron glove. On the other, she was a charismatic leader who deeply cared for her country. Indira was no saint. But she was a leader who had to make her own way through harsh political realities. Her legacy is etched into India’s political history and resonates to this day.
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