Indira Gandhi

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Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi

3rd Prime Minister of India
In office
14 January 1980 – 31 October 1984
President N. Sanjiva Reddy
Zail Singh
Preceded by Charan Singh
Succeeded by Rajiv Gandhi
In office
24 January 1966 – 24 March 1977
Deputy Morarji Desai
President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
Zakir Husain
V. V. Giri
Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed
Preceded by Gulzarilal Nanda (Acting)
Succeeded by Morarji Desai

Minister of External Affairs
In office
9 March 1984 – 31 October 1984
Preceded by P. V. Narasimha Rao
Succeeded by Rajiv Gandhi
In office
22 August 1967 – 14 March 1969
Preceded by M. C. Chagla
Succeeded by Dinesh Singh

Minister of Defence
In office
14 January 1980 – 15 January 1982
Preceded by Chidambaram Subramaniam
Succeeded by R. Venkataraman
In office
30 November 1975 – 20 December 1975
Preceded by Swaran Singh
Succeeded by Bansi Lal

Minister of Home Affairs
In office
27 June 1970 – 4 February 1973
Preceded by Yashwantrao Chavan
Succeeded by Uma Shankar Dikshit

Minister of Finance
In office
27 June 1970 – 27 June 1970
Preceded by Morarji Desai
Succeeded by Yashwantrao Chavan

Minister of Information and Broadcasting
In office
9 June 1964 – 24 January 1966
Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri
Preceded by Satya Narayan Sinha
Succeeded by Kodardas Kalidas Shah

Born November 19 1917(1917-11-19)
Allahabad, United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, British India
(present-day Prayagraj, India)
Died 31 October 1984 (aged 66)
New Delhi, India
Political party Indian National Congress
Spouse Feroze Gandhi
(m. 1942; died 1960)
Relations See Nehru–Gandhi family
Children Rajiv Gandhi
Sanjay Gandhi
Alma mater Visva-Bharati University (dropped out)
Somerville College, Oxford (dropped out)[1]
Signature Indira Gandhi's signature

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (November 19, 1917 – October 31, 1984) nee Nehru) was Prime Minister of India from January 19, 1966 to March 24, 1977, and again from January 14, 1980 until her assassination on October 31, 1984.

Daughter of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and mother of another, Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Nehru born into a family legacy of political leadership. The Nehru family manifested dynastic succession that is highly unusual in a democracy. Her sense of duty toward service to her country was a central part of her identity and more familiar to her than having friends or a normal family life. Long before India was independent of Britain, her grandfather authored a framework for post-colonial government. While her father served as Prime Minister, she was by his side as an aide, assistant and hostess in his household. She may well have viewed herself as matriarch of her nation and in many ways, indeed she was just that.

Indira Gandhi was one of India's most notable and controversial political leaders. She wanted to take her country into the modern world and oversaw it becoming a nuclear power. She wanted to eradicate poverty and realized that population reduction was an essential part of this. Her eagerness for change sometimes saw her act in ways that seemed to compromise democracy. Speed was of the essence for her. She wanted 'less talk' and 'more work'. There is little doubt that she wanted what she believed was best for her people. Her assassination by one of her own Sikh bodyguards was a tragic act. However, while her government had traditionally stood for equality across India's communitarian divides, Sikhs were becoming increasingly discontent. Communitarianism remains a challenge for India to overcome.

Early years

The Nehru family can trace their ancestry to the Brahmins of Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi. Indira's grandfather Motilal Nehru was a wealthy barrister of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. Nehru was one of the most prominent members of the Indian National Congress of his generation. He was author of the Nehru Report, the people's choice for a future Indian system of government to replace the British system.

Indira's father, Jawaharlal Nehru was a well-educated lawyer and a popular leader of the Indian Independence Movement. Indira was the only child born to Nehru and his young wife Kamala.

When Indira was about two years old, her father and mother entered the independence movement with Mohandas K. Gandhi. The Nehru home was often a meeting place for those involved in the independence movement, creating an atypical environment for an only child.

Gandhi fasting in 1924, with the young Indira

Indira grew up in India and Switzerland, largely cared for by her mother. Her mother Kamala was sickly and alienated from the Nehru household, influencing her daughter to develop strong protective instincts and a loner personality. Her grandfather and father were enmeshed in national politics. This also made mixing with her peers difficult. Young Indira never really experienced stable family life or a normal childhood.

Leadership ability appeared early for Indira Nehru. She was about twelve years old when she created the Vanara Sena (literally: Army of Monkeys) movement for young girls and boys. The group played a small but notable role in the Indian Independence Movement. The children conducted protests and flag marches, and helped Congress politicians circulate sensitive publications and banned materials. In an often-told story, Indira smuggled an important document that outlined plans for a major revolutionary initiative, out of her father's house in her schoolbag in the early 1930s. Her father's house was under police surveillance at the time.

In 1934, her mother Kamala Nehru finally succumbed to tuberculosis after a long struggle. Indira Nehru was 17 at the time.

She received her education at prominent Indian, European and British schools including Rabindranath Tagore's Santiniketan and Oxford.

In her years in continental Europe and the UK, she met Feroze Gandhi, a young Parsee Congress activist and journalist, whom she married in 1942 (Feroze was not related to Mohandas K. Gandhi). The marriage occurred just before the beginning of the Quit India Movement, the final, all out national revolt launched by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party against the British colonists. Shortly after their marriage, the couple were arrested and detained on charges of subversion. They were jailed from September 11, 1942 until May 13, 1943 for their involvement in the independence movement.

In 1944, having married Feroze Gandhi, Indira Nehru became known as Indira Gandhi. She gave birth to a son, Rajiv Gandhi, followed by her second son, Sanjay Gandhi two years later.

During the chaotic Partition of India in 1947, Indira helped organize refugee camps and provide medical care for the millions of refugees from Pakistan. This was her first exercise in major public service, and it was a valuable experience for the tumult of the coming years.

The couple settled in Allahabad where Feroze worked for a Congress Party newspaper and an insurance company. Their marriage started out well, but deteriorated later when Mrs. Gandhi moved to Delhi to be at the side of her father, who was living alone in a high pressure environment. He had become Prime Minister upon India's independence from Britain, in 1947. She became his confidante, secretary and nurse. Her sons lived with her in Delhi.

When India's first general election approached in 1952, Gandhi managed the campaigns of both her father and her husband, who was contesting the constituency of Rae Bareilly. Feroze had not consulted Nehru on his decision to run. Even though he was elected, Feroze opted to live in a separate house in Delhi, continuing the marital separation. Feroze developed a reputation for taking a stand against corruption by exposing a major scandal in the nationalized insurance industry. This resulted in the resignation of the Finance Minister, a Nehru aide. The tension of the scandal only amplified the tension in the Gandhi marriage. The separation continued.

In 1957, shortly after re-election, Feroze suffered a heart attack, which dramatically healed the broken marriage between Indira and Feroze. At his side to help him recuperate in Kashmir, the family grew closer. But Feroze died on September 8, 1960, while Indira was abroad with Nehru.

Rise to Power

During 1959 and 1960, Indira Gandhi ran for and was elected the President of the Indian National Congress. She was only the fourth woman to be duly elected. During this time she also acted as her father's chief of staff. Interestingly, Nehru was known as a vocal opponent of nepotism even though his daughter often served either officially or unofficially as a part of his staff. Indira did not pursue a seat in the 1962 elections.

Nehru died on May 24, 1964. At the urgings of the new Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Gandhi contested elections and joined the Government. She was immediately appointed Minister for Information and Broadcasting, the fourth highest cabinet rank.

Gandhi went to Madras when the riots over Hindi becoming the national language broke out in non-Hindi speaking states of the south. She spoke to government officials there, soothed the anger of community leaders and supervised reconstruction efforts for the affected areas. Shastri and senior Ministers were embarrassed, owing to their lack of such initiative. At the same time, Gandhi's ability in diplomacy and calm in the face of a storm emerged.

Minister Gandhi's actions may not have been directly aimed at Shastri or her own political elevation. But she was known to be media savvy and adept at the art of politics and image making. She reportedly lacked interest in the minutiae of day to day functioning of her Ministry.

During her tenure as Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, many Indians were illiterate and relied on radio and TV for information. Gandhi encouraged distribution of inexpensive radios. She also introduced a program about family planning.[2]

When the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 broke out, Gandhi was vacationing in the border region of Srinagar. She was warned by the Army that Pakistani insurgents had penetrated very close to the city. But she refused to relocate to Jammu or Delhi. Demonstrating her courage and resolve, she rallied local government and welcomed media attention, in effect reassuring the nation.

Shastri died in Tashkent in 1966, hours after signing the peace agreement with Pakistan's Ayub Khan, mediated by the Soviets. Shastri had been a candidate of consensus, bridging the left-right gap and staving off the popular conservative Morarji Desai.

Various candidates for the Prime Minister position could not agree on who should replace Shastri. Finally, Indira Gandhi was put forth as the compromise candidate, partly because she was considered to be easily manipulated. In fact, she demonstrated extraordinary political skills and tenacity. She was both tough and shrewd, cultured but with an authoritarian streak. Searching for explanations for this disastrous miscalculation many years later, the then Congress President Kumaraswami Kamaraj made the strange claim that he had made a personal vow to Nehru to make Gandhi Prime Minister 'at any cost'. At the time, however, he and others had dismissed her as a gungi gudiya - literally, a "dumb doll."

In a vote of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Gandhi beat Morarji Desai by 355 votes to 169 to become the third Prime Minister of India and the first woman to hold that position as well as the first woman ever to be elected to lead a democracy. As Prime Minister, Gandhi was ambitious to modernize. She strongly promoted science and technology. She also worked to improve the lives of the citizens of India and improve relations with neighbors China and Soviet Union. Her leadership impacted India's destiny as it became one of the fasted growing economies in the world. Gandhi's ascension to leadership in a nation where women were traditionally subservient to men took tremendous courage and was an inspiration not only to Indian women but to women of the third world.

Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi in 1971

In 1971, Gandhi was re-elected using the slogan, "Abolish Poverty."

Nuclear Security

During the 1971 War, the United States sent the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal as a warning to India against the reported use of genocide in East Pakistan as a pretext to launch a wider attack against West Pakistan, especially over the disputed territory of Kashmir. This move further alienated India from the Western World.

As a result, Prime Minister Gandhi began accelerating a previously cautious new direction in national security and foreign policy. India and the USSR had signed the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Cooperation earlier. The resulting political and military support that USSR supplied, contributed substantially to India's victory in the 1971 war.

Gandhi believed that the nuclear threat from China and the intrusive interest of the two major superpowers were not conducive to India's stability and security, so she accelerated the national nuclear program. She also invited the new Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Shimla for a week long summit. After near failure of the talks, the two heads of state eventually signed the Shimla Agreement, which bound the two countries to resolve the Kashmir dispute by negotiations and peaceful means. It was Gandhi's stubbornness in large measure which made the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister sign the accord according to India's terms.

Indira Gandhi was heavily criticized for not extracting the Pakistan occupied portion of Kashmir from a humiliated Pakistan, whose 93,000 prisoners of war were under Indian control. But the agreement did remove immediate United Nations and third party interference, and greatly reduced the likelihood of Pakistan launching a major attack in the near future. By not demanding total capitulation from Bhutto on a sensitive issue, she allowed Pakistan to stabilize and normalize. Gandhi's stance showed wisdom and no small degree of compassion for Pakistan's plight. Trade relations were also normalized, though much contact remained frozen for years.

In 1974, India successfully conducted an underground nuclear test, unofficially code named "Smiling Buddha," near the desert village of Pokhran in Rajasthan. Describing the test as being "for peaceful purposes," India nevertheless became the world's youngest nuclear power.

The Green Revolution

Special agricultural innovation programs and extra government support launched in the 1960s finally resulted in India's chronic food shortages gradually being transformed into surplus production of wheat, rice, cotton and milk. The country became a food exporter, and diversified its commercial crop production as well, in what has become known as the Green Revolution. At the same time, the "White Revolution" was an expansion in milk production which helped to combat malnutrition, especially among young children. Gandhi's economic policies, while socialistic, brought major industrialization as well.

Personal Life

Indira Gandhi was considered a heroine and icon by her country in 1971. As is often true of those living life as a public figure, she was more emotionally isolated than ever. The instability of her childhood had prevented her from developing her own independent personal interests and lifestyle. Gandhi's sense of duty toward and pride in her father and the family legacy is what brought her into politics. The world of politics is where she felt most at home. Unfortunately this did not make for a particularly healthy and well rounded life. Through the 1950s and 1960s, she corresponded with Dorothy Norman, a New York-based journalist and artist, who became a very close friend via correspondence. But apart from political associates, she had no personal friends.

Her sons were studying in England, although neither obtained a formal degree from any university. Gandhi grew closer to her younger son, Sanjay, whom she viewed as her heir in the world of politics.

Gandhi may have seen traits of Feroze in Sanjay and was anxious to please him. She perceived that Sanjay blamed her for his father's death. While Rajiv developed as an independent young man free from politics, Sanjay's reckless youth induced a need in his mother to take care of her son under all circumstances. Sanjay is accused by many historians of misusing his mother's emotional dependence. The outcome of their relationship was a political partnership that eventually resulted in abrogation of democracy, corruption and abuse of power.


Gandhi's government faced major problems following her tremendous mandate of 1971. The internal structure of the Congress Party had withered under numerous splits, leaving it entirely dependent on Gandhi's leadership for its election fortunes. The Green Revolution was transforming the lives of India's vast under classes, but not with the speed or in the manner promised under Garibi Hatao. Job growth did not keep pace to curb the widespread unemployment that followed the worldwide economic slowdown caused by the OPEC oil shocks.

Gandhi had already been accused of tendencies towards authoritarianism. Using her strong parliamentary majority, she amended the Indian Constitution, stripping power from the states granted under the federal system. The central government had twice imposed President's Rule under Article 356 of the Constitution by deeming states ruled by opposition parties as "lawless and chaotic," thereby winning administrative control of those states.

Sanjay Gandhi had become Indira Gandhi's close political advisor at the expense of men like P. N. Haksar, Gandhi's chosen strategist during her rise to power. Elected officials and the administrative services resented Sanjay's growing influence. Renowned public figures and former freedom fighters like Jaya Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Acharya Jivatram Kripalani toured Northern India, speaking actively against her government.

In June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad found Prime Minister Gandhi guilty of employing a government servant in her election campaign and Congress Party work. Technically, this constituted election fraud. Accordingly, the court ordered her removed from her seat in Parliament and banned her from running in elections for six years.

Gandhi appealed the decision. The opposition parties rallied en masse, calling for her resignation. Strikes by unions and protest rallies paralyzed life in many states. J. P. Narayan's Janata coalition even called upon the police to disobey orders if asked to fire on an unarmed public. Public disenchantment combined with hard economic times and an unresponsive government. A huge rally surrounded the Parliament building and Gandhi's residence in Delhi, demanding her to behave responsibly and resign.

Prime Minister Gandhi advised President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of emergency, claiming that the strikes and rallies were creating a state of "internal disturbance." Ahmed was an old political ally. In India the President acts upon the advice of an elected Prime Minister alone. Accordingly, a State of Emergency because of internal disorder, under Article 352 of the Constitution, was declared on June 26, 1975.

Even before the Emergency Proclamation was ratified by Parliament, Gandhi called out the police and army to break up the strikes and protests. She ordered the arrest of all opposition leaders that very night. Many were men who had first been jailed by the British in the 1930s and 1940s. The power to impose curfews and unlimited powers of detention were granted to police. All publications were directly censored by the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting. Elections were indefinitely postponed, and non-Congress state governments were dismissed.

Gandhi further utilized President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, to issue ordinances that did not need to be debated in Parliament, allowing her (and Sanjay) to rule by decree. Inder Kumar Gujral, a future Prime Minister but then Gandhi's Minister for Information and Broadcasting, resigned to protest Sanjay's interference in his Ministry's work.

The Prime Minister's emergency rule lasted 19 months. During this time, in spite of the controversy involved, the country made significant economic and industrial progress. This was primarily due to policies against strikes in factories, colleges, and universities as well as the disciplining of trade and student unions. In line with the slogan on billboards everywhere Baatein kam, kaam zyada ("Less talk, more work"), productivity increased and administration was streamlined.

Tax evasion was reduced by zealous government officials, although corruption remained. Agricultural and industrial production expanded considerably under Gandhi's 20-point program. Revenues increased, as did India's financial standing in the international community. Much of the urban middle class found it worth their while to contain their dissatisfaction with the state of affairs.

Simultaneously, a draconian campaign to stamp out dissent included the arrest and torture of thousands of political activists ensued. The slums around Delhi's Jama Masjid (Mosque) were ruthless cleared as ordered by Sanjay and carried out by Jagmohan. This action left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and thousands more killed. This also led to the permanent ghettoizing of the nation's capital. A family planning program was forcibly imposed vasectomy on thousands of fathers and was often poorly administered, nurturing a public anger against family planning that persists into the twenty-first century.

Indira Gandhi on March 21, 1977

In 1977, greatly misjudging her own popularity, Gandhi called elections and was roundly defeated by the BJP/Janata Party. Janata was led by her longtime rival Desai. He claimed the elections were the last chance for India to choose between "democracy and dictatorship." Following defeat of Gandhi's party, she agreed to step down.

Ouster, Arrest and Return

Desai became Prime Minister and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the establishment choice of 1969, became President of the Republic. Gandhi had lost her seat and found herself without work, income or residence. The Congress Party split, and veteran Gandhi supporters like Jagjivan Ram abandoned her for Janata. The Congress (Gandhi) Party was now a much smaller group in Parliament, although the official opposition.

Unable to govern owing to fractious coalition warfare, the Janata government's Home Minister, Choudhary Charan Singh, ordered the arrest of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi on a number of charges. The move backfired because her arrest and long trial projected the image of a helpless woman being victimized by the Government. This triggered Gandhi's political rebirth.

The Janata coalition was only united by its hatred of Gandhi. Although freedom returned, the government was so bogged down by infighting that almost no attention was paid to basic needs. Gandhi was able to use the situation to her advantage. She began giving public speeches again, tacitly apologizing for "mistakes" made during the Emergency, and garnering support from icons like Vinoba Bhave. Desai resigned in June 1979, and Singh was appointed Prime Minister by the President.

Singh attempted to form a government with his Janata (Secular) coalition but lacked a majority. Charan Singh bargained with Gandhi for the support of Congress MPs, causing uproar by his unhesitant coddling of his biggest political opponent. After a short interval, she withdrew her initial support. President Reddy dissolved Parliament and called fresh elections in 1980. Gandhi's Congress Party returned to power with a landslide majority.

Operation Blue Star and Assassination

Gandhi's later years were bedeviled with problems in Punjab. A local religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was first set up by the local Congress as an alternative to the regional Akali Dal party. Once his activities turned violent he was excoriated as an extremist and a separatist. In September 1981, Bhindranwale was arrested in Amritsar for 25 days, and then released because of lack of evidence. After his release, he relocated his headquarters at Mehta Chowk to Guru Nanak Niwas within the Golden Temple precincts.[3]

Disturbed by the militancy of Bhindranwale's group, Gandhi gave the Army permission to storm the Golden Temple to flush out Bhindranwale and his followers What was called "Operation Blue Star" took place on June 3, 1984. Many Sikhs were outraged at what they considered desecration of their holiest shrine. This action remains controversial to this day. Over 20,000 innocent Sikh civilians were killed in this attack.

On October 31, 1984, two of Indira Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, assassinated her in the garden of the Prime Minister's Residence at No. 1, Safdarjung Road in New Delhi. As she was walking to be interviewed by the British actor Peter Ustinov, she passed a wicket gate, guarded by Satwant and Beant. When she bent down to greet them in traditional Indian style, they opened fire with their semiautomatic machine pistols. She died on her way to hospital in her official car. Indira Gandhi was not declared dead until many hours later.

Indira Gandhi was cremated on November 3, near Raj Ghat. After her death, anti-Sikh pogroms engulfed New Delhi and spread across the country, killing thousands and leaving tens of thousands homeless. [4] Many leaders of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, long accused by neutral observers of a hand in the violence, were tried for incitement to murder and arson some years later. But the cases were all dismissed for lack of evidence as in the case of Bhindranwale.

The Nehru-Gandhi Family

Initially Sanjay Gandhi had been Indira Gandhi's chosen heir in public life. After Sanjay's death in a flying accident, his mother persuaded a reluctant Rajiv Gandhi to quit his job as an airline pilot and enter politics in February 1981. He became Prime Minister following her death. In May 1991, he too was assassinated, at the hands of Tamil Tiger militants. Rajiv's widow, Sonia Gandhi, a native Italian, led a novel Congressional coalition to a surprise electoral victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, ousting Atal Behari Vajpayee and his National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from power.

Sonia Gandhi made the controversial decision to decline the opportunity to assume the office of Prime Minister but remains in control of the Congress political apparatus. Dr. Manmohan Singh, a Sikh and a Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist, took the lead of the nation. Rajiv's children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, also entered politics.

Sanjay Gandhi's widow, Maneka Gandhi, who fell out with Indira Gandhi after Sanjay's death, is an active member of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party. Sanjay's son, Varun Gandhi works side by side with his mother.

Though frequently called The Nehru-Gandhi Family, Indira Gandhi was in no way related to Mohandas Gandhi. Mahatma was a family friend. The Gandhi in her name comes from her marriage to Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi.


  1. Shyam Bhatia, Rahul first in three generations with a world university degree The Tribune, February 18, 2014. Retrieved October 29, 2020.
  2. Maria Ulicny, Indira Gandhi Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Site, 1998, revised November 16, 2004. Retrieved October 29, 2020.
  3. Harnik Deol, Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab (London: Routledge, 2000), 105.
  4. 1984: Violence follows Gandhi killing BBC On This Day, November 1. Retrieved October 29, 2020.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Deol, Harnik. Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Frank, Katherine. Indira: the life of Indira Nehru Gandhi. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002. ISBN 039573097X
  • Mehta, Ved. A Family Affair: India Under Three Prime Ministers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. ISBN 0195031180

External links

All links retrieved October 29, 2020.


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