Courtesy photo from Wikipedia: President Nixon with Indira Gandhi in 1971
(March is the Women’s History Month. I have chosen former and the first Prime Minister of India – Indira Gandhi. This article is also published by the Woman’s Club, in New Jersey.)
Back in 60’s my older sister Shail was graduating from Bachelor of Art. She went to attend the graduation ceremony and found out that there was police all over on the streets, around the University of Lucknow campus, and inside the campus. The girls couldn’t figure out what was happening. After the long wait for the opening ceremony all of sudden the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi appeared on the stage wearing a lavender color silk sari. People couldn’t stop clapping and cheering, some had tears in their eyes, some were sobbing, and some thought their dreams came through. My sister described her, “Indira Gandhi was very pretty, she looked almost like a fresh flower.”
Not only to women but to all Indian Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was a symbol of hope, appreciation, kindness, a leader, and above all the future of India. She was the daughter of first Prime Minister, freedom fighter Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. She was born on Nov. 19, 1917, Prayagraj, India. Her father was the leading figure in the Independence movement. Indira lived mostly with her mother Kamala Nehru ( from Lucknow, India) at the Anand Bhavan, Allahabad, at her family estate. She was an Oxford graduate where she met her husband Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi). They were married 1942. He passed away in 1960. They had two children Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. Sanjay the youngest was killed in a flying accident. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991.
She served as a first female Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977. Lost the election as a Indian National Congress Party and again won in 1980 and became the Prime Minister until her assassination on Oct. 31, 1984. After her father Nehru, she was the second longest-serving Prime Minister of India.
Indira Gandhi’s life was sewn into politics almost from the birth. Her father Nehru was fighting for India’s Independence from British rule, and boycotted foreign especially British goods. Indira joined her father’s struggle. At the age of 5 she burnt her British made doll. At the age of 12 she started the movement of self-determination and led the school children to Vanar Sena (the Monkey Brigade) based on religious movement (epic Ramayana) when Lord Rama’s wife Sita was kidnapped by the Ravan, the Moneys Army got together and help her release. This Monkey Brigade grew over 60,000 participants helped her movement by making flags, addressing envelopes, sending out notices of demonstration, and carried out messages.
One of her biggest achievement came when she helped East Pakistan (n/k/a: Bangaladesh) in 1971, against the wishes of West Pakistan. Gandhi fought for freedom fighters of East Pakistan and eventually helped them escape from the violence and harsh treatment and helped millions of refugees take shelter into India. That led to new Bangladesh Liberation War and formation of independent Bangladesh. Gandhi was hailed as a Goddess Durga. That led the Congress Party to swept the power away all across the India.
She fought several wars with West Pakistan. Even today the relations between India and Pakistan remain strained. Each elected Prime Minister has his own war of words and on going animosity. Mostly, about the beautiful Kashmir territory, the home of both Muslims and Hindu.
In 1971 the war came to a halt and Indo-Iranian ties grew. It was hard to get the support from middle-eastern countries. In 1974 India-Iranian agreement led to Iran supplying nearly 75% of crude oil to India.
In 1967 in response to People Republic of China, Test No. 6, Gandhi approved the development of Nuclear weapons. By 1974 the program was developed and India successfully conducted an underground nuclear test code “Smiling Buddha.” That upset Pakistan and other Asian countries. The P.M. Bhutto of Pakistan promised, “We will eat grass or leaves or even go hungry, but we will get nuclear power.” Gandhi explained in a letter to Bhutto and the world that the test was for peaceful purpose, and a part of India’s industrial and scientific use.
India’s strong relations with USSR resulted the Soviet Union to become the main supplier of the arms. They also accommodated India in cheap credit, and rupees transactions rather in dollars. Thus by 1980 the Soviets had become the main trading partner.
In 1975 she was focusing on the population control, eradicate poverty, give a better life to children and families she started the Sterilization program. They gave incentives giving people money, flour, sugar and oil, the family needed most, and lured men to sterilization program. Things got out of hand, she declared Emergency rule, and she eventually lost the election. Gandhi returned to power again in 1980. Being a daughter of the 1st Prime Minister and a Freedom Fighter, she had inherited the leadership of the Congress Party. She also stood firm in destroying internal part democracy in her Congress Party.
Gandhi played an active role in setting up the Congress Party’s Women’s Section. One of the historian wrote, “Indira developed a fascination for Joan of Arc, telling her aunt, ‘Someday I am going to lead my people to freedom just as Joan of Arc did!” One writer said, “The Indian people were her children; members of her family were the only people capable of leading them.”
Earlier in 1966, the U.S. president Lyndon Johnson helped India with Wheat crisis and food shortage. Gandhi did not want to be pressured to use food aid as a tool to force India into American policies and sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). She had to look out India’s future. While President Nixon favoring Pakistan during the formation of Bangladesh didn’t get along with Gandhi. She stood firm in the face of American pressure to defeat Pakistan that turned East Pakistan into an Independent Bangladesh.
President Regan attended the North-South Summit and discussed global poverty. Some described Gandhi as an: Ogre.” But President Regan found Gandhi charming and easy to work with, and they became good friends in 1980.
In 1977 the Sikh-majority Akali Dal leader came in power in Northern Indian State of Punjab, and operation Blue Star started. They demanded a greater autonomy – their own state. Their movement against the government became very strong. They stored weapons in the Golden Temple, recruited people to assassinate Gandhi. After receiving the report of excessive arms pile up and man power build up at the Golden Temple (the biggest Sikh Temple) she took action and stormed the Golden Temple. That alienated the Sikhs. Later on two of Gandhi’s own Sikh bodyguards assassinated her and took her life.
The day before her death, Oct. 30, 1984 at Odisha, Gandhi gave her last speech: “I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow…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…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.”
She had a very good friend – Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher came close to getting killed herself by an IRA bomb in Oct. 1984. A few weeks later when Indira Gandhi was assassinated Thatcher sent a note of condolence to Rajiv Gandhi, “I cannot describe to you my feelings at the news of the loss of your mother, except to say that it was like losing a member of my own family. Our many talks together had a closeness and mutual understanding which will always remain with me. She was not just a great statesman but a warm and caring person.”
In 1991 her son Rajiv succeeded her as a Prime Minister. He was also assassinated later on. The family heritage continued and his son Rahul and widow Sonia joined the Congress Party.
During her administration Gandhi started the principle of equal pay for equal work, and made it a part of the Indian Constitution.
Gandhi established an official bilingual policy, and satisfied millions of Non-English speaking Indian states. She already had a very strong support in northern states. By her bilingual policy she gained a strong support in the southern states as well.
She also questioned the existence of “Privy Purse,” the attempt to end the royal privileges. To help the government with revenue she started a Presidential proclamation. She started de-recognizing the ;princes. The motion was passed as the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India.
Besides the Reserve Bank of India’s strong rules and regulations most of the banks in India were privately owned. Some of the owners of the banks were accused of channeling the money into their own companies. Gandhi decided to Nationalize the banks to remove poverty. She started in a news paper “Stray Thoughts on Bank Nationalization.” In 1969 she nationalized fourteen major commercial banks. That resulted in higher bank deposits and overwhelming growth, almost 800%.
She received several awards: Bharat Ratna (Indian Jewel), Lenin Peace Prize, Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. She was given a title by Rabindranath Tagore, a Noble prize winner Poet, Priyadarshini “looking at everything with kindness” in Sanskrit.
In 1999, BBC on line poll, Indira Gandhi was named “Woman of the Millennium.”
In 2020 Time magazine named Gandhi World’s 100 powerful women who defined the last century.
- Bangladesh Freedom Honour: Highest civilian honor for non-nationals.
- Indira Point: The southern most point is named after her.
- The Indira Gandhi National Open University: the biggest university in the world.
- Indira Gandhi International Airport: is named after her in Delhi.
- Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration: established by Indian National Congress.
- Indira Gandhi Prize: established by the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust.
The Hindustan Times columnist, Pankaj Vohra, described her as “Arguably the greatest mass leader of the last century. Her campaign slogan, Garibi Hatao (Remove Poverty), has become an often used motto of the India National Congress Party. To the rural and urban poor, untouchables, minorities and women in India, Gandhi was “Indira Amma or Mother Indira.”