Gandhi, Indira (1917–1984)

views updated

Gandhi, Indira (1917–1984)

First woman prime minister of independent India who fought against political regionalism, casteism, and religious conservatism to advance her nation to a leading position in Asia. Name variations: Indira Nehru Gandhi; (nickname) Indu. Pronunciation: EEN-dee-raa GAAN-dee. Born Indira Priyadarshini Nehru, nicknamed Indu, on November 19, 1917, in Allahabad, in northern India; assassinated in New Delhi by two Sikhs on October 31, 1984; daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964, first prime minister of independent India) and Kamala Nehru (1899–1936); granddaughter of Motilal Nehru (Indian nationalist leader); attended International School, Geneva; St. Mary's Convent, Allahabad; Pupil's Own School, Poona; Somerville College, Oxford (did not complete degree); married Feroze Gandhi, on March 26, 1941 (died, September 1960); children: two sons, Rajiv (b. 1944, prime minister of India who was also assassinated on May 21, 1991); Sanjay (1946–1980).

Joined the Indian National Congress Party (1938); became a member of the Working Committee of the ruling Congress Party (1955); elected Congress Party president (1959); on father's death, became minister of information and broadcasting (1964); became prime minister of India as a compromise candidate between the right and left wings of the Congress Party (1966); saw a decisive military victory over Pakistan, helped create Bangladesh from East Pakistan, and received Bharat Ratna Award (1971); deprived of seat in Parliament by the High Court of Allahabad; declared emergency to establish authoritarian rule (1975); lost in general elections (1977); saw her supporters split from the Congress Party and form the Congress Party-I (I for Indira); imprisoned in December for one week (1978); won general elections to become prime minister again; son Sanjay Gandhi won a seat in Parliament (1980); elected chair of the Non-Aligned movement (1983); assassinated in New Delhi by two Sikh security guards (1984).

Invoke the words "20th-century heads of state" and, with the notable exception of seven or eight, rarely does the image of a woman flash into consciousness. The reason, of course, is that

most heads of state have been, and still are, men. It does not discount the fact that in this century the world has seen a few exceptional women who defied the conventionalities of their societies, and that of the nation-state at large, to lead their nations. Despite their astounding capabilities, aptitude, education, and general competence when it comes to leadership of a democratic state, women have been denied equal status and opportunity. The issue is not an imponderable one: leadership of the nation-state remains the last bastion of most patriarchal structures. Indira Gandhi, who keeps company with Golda Meir, Gro Harlem Bruntland, Corazon Aquino, Benazir Bhutto , and Margaret Thatcher , led her nation for over two decades as prime minister of India. She demolished the twin forts of patriarchal control—the command over the nation-state and the male-dominated Indian society—to become Independent India's first woman leader.

Indira Gandhi's life began in British India and concluded in independent India. Since 1858, the Imperial Majesty of Great Britain was the ruler of India; the subcontinent was the acclaimed jewel in England's colonial crown. For 250 years, that Crown considered Indians incapable of independent rule, and English presence and policies had all but broken the spirit of India. By the early decades of the 20th century, however, Indians had organized and were galvanizing for what was to become a protracted and acrimonious battle for independence. The movement was led by the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, which counted among its members, B.G. Tilak, Annie Besant , and Indira's grandfather Motilal Nehru, and later, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sardar Patel, Mohandas Gandhi (no relation to Indira), and Indira's father Jawaharlal Nehru. The Indian National Congress, with Mohandas Gandhi at its helm, was transformed from a forum of intellectual discussion for urban gentry into a mass movement by the early years of the 20th century.

Indira Priyadarshini Nehru was born to Jawaharlal Nehru (who would be independent India's first prime minister) and Kamala Nehru on November 19, 1917, at Anand Bhavan (Abode of Joy) in the holy city of Allahabad; her grandfather Motilal Nehru, a freedom fighter, predicted that "this daughter of Jawahar… may prove better than a thousand sons." When Jawaharlal Nehru, a Harrow-Cambridge educated ardent nationalist, discarded his urban Westernized suits to don the hand-spun Indian cotton (a symbolic gesture with far-reaching consequences), it marked the end of four-year-old Indira's carefree childhood. The transformation from Westernized affluence to nationalist asceticism was carried out with the symbolic burning of all foreign clothes in her household: "I can still feel the excitement of the day and see the large terrace covered with piles of clothes," she wrote.

The life of the young girl was closely woven with the youthful struggle for India's independence; the chronic disturbances of the freedom movement deprived her of a normal childhood. Her parents were frequently in jail—arrested for seditious acts against the Crown. "At that time I did resent the fact, perhaps, that my parents were not with me, as other children had their parents," she recalled. Indira was lonely during those years, not quite understanding the gravity of circumstances surrounding her, only aware that they deprived her of the security provided by the constant presence of her family. When her parents were not in jail, they were immersed in political activism outside the household and incessant political discussions within. She may not have understood the complexity of the arguments, but Indira did "imbibe something, even though not consciously.… It has an effect on one's thinking and development." Thus, the small child, dressed in the uniform of a young Congress volunteer, with close-cropped hair tucked under a Gandhian cap, was circulating among politically eminent visitors while absorbing the conversations of self-rule, independence, self-determination, and human rights. She rarely gave in to arguments with her scholarly father or lawyer-grandfather, and she re-enacted with her servants, sometimes even with dolls, scenes of police confrontations with freedom fighters; the freedom fighters always won. Having a flair for the dramatic, she would climb onto tables and give speeches to her servants, using language overheard from adults.

Though Indira's formal education began in 1924 at St. Cecilia's School, under Roman Catholic nuns, she received more valuable instruction through study at home. She roved freely through her father's well-stocked library, reading Shakespeare and Shaw. It was here that she first read about Joan of Arc which fostered her sense of nationalism.

In March 1926, Indira accompanied her parents to Europe and attended the International School in Geneva where she learned French. Upon her return, she was enrolled at St. Mary's Convent School in Allahabad and learned Hindi at home. When her father was released from a British jail in 1933, Indira was sent to Rabindranath Tagore's Bisva-Bharati University at Santiniketan in Bengal. There she felt at peace with the world. She wrote of Tagore: "We had a glimpse of the universality of his spirit, the broadness of his vision and his strong sense of purpose." For further education, she was given a choice of studies in the United States or Britain. She opted for Britain.

Indira grew up in surroundings that could have easily subsumed her individuality. To some extent as a young adult, she had pressured herself into conforming to what was expected of her as a Nehru daughter. Her life would be consumed with being a Nehru and all that it entailed. Yet she developed a strong will of her own which first became apparent in the choice she made for a husband—journalist Feroze Gandhi, a young Parsi student she had met while in England. Feroze, who was studying at the London School of Economics, was a great admirer of Kamala Nehru, who inspired him to join the nationalist movement.

The Nehrus were an exclusive aristocratic family, and Feroze came from the lower-middle class (an origin for which he never apologized). For a caste-conscious society in which marriages were arranged between "equal" families, Indira's independent stance and determination were a surprise, at best. She held firm to her decision, despite the numerous reservations that her family expressed regarding Feroze's origins. "If I know what I want, it doesn't bother me if somebody opposes it," she said. "I go my way. And once I had made up my mind, there it was." According to a close relative, Indira actually reveled in the opposition confronting her. The fact that it was the issue of marriage on which she stood resolute is also remarkable, as she was extremely concerned about the emancipation of women in general, an idea that she extrapolated from the nation's subverted condition. Despite the lack of enthusiasm from both the Nehru family and the Parsi community to which Feroze belonged, the wedding took place on March 26, 1941. Indira Gandhi had won the first round in her personal life, but before the couple could settle down to ironing out the wrinkles of domestic politics, national politics intruded. In 1942, the world was at war, and India was asking for its freedom even more loudly and vociferously.

Like Indira, Feroze belonged to the radical wing of the Congress Party, and he was a modernizer. Because the newlyweds actively chose to put their nation's struggle foremost, contributing to Britain's escalating problems, the year 1942 proved to be a trying one. They were both arrested and put in jail. Indira accepted incarceration with characteristic stoicism. Experiencing firsthand the foul living conditions of the inmates, she set about demanding changes and improvements. She also commenced impromptu literacy classes for the women and learned childcare from those whose children had been jailed with them. Finally released in 1943, she was reunited with Feroze.

Nehru, Kamala (1899–1936)

Indian leader. Born Kamala Kaul in 1899; died on February 28, 1936; daughter of prosperous entrepreneurs in Delhi; married Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964, first prime minister of independent India), in February 1916; children: Indira Gandhi (1917–1984).

Kamala Nehru was called "gentle and unobtrusive" when, at age 17, she entered into an arranged marriage with 26-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru. Unsophisticated, provincial, she endured the ridicule of her more Westernized in-laws by withdrawing into herself, until the birth of her daughter and the Nationalist movement. "Kamala Nehru, indeed, was far more at home with the asceticism and austerity of Gandhism than with the Westernized affluence of the Nehrus," wrote Zareer Masani, "and she had vigorously led the nationalist transformation of the Nehru household."

"Many people know the part which was played by my grandfather and my father," Indira Gandhi once said of her mother. "But in my opinion, a more important part was played by my mother. When my father wanted to join Gandhiji and to change the whole way of life, to change our luxurious living, to give up his practice, the whole family was against it. It was only my mother's courageous and persistent support and encouragement which enabled him to take this big step which made such a difference not only to our family but to the history of modern India."

In 1925, Kamala was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Despite this, she worked tirelessly as president of the Allahabad Congress Committee and later as a substitute member of the Congress Working Committee, the high command of the Nationalist movement. She was arrested on January 1, 1931, and spent six months in Lucknow Central Jail. When her husband Jawaharlal Nehru spent all but a few months of the period from the end of 1931 to September 1935 in jail, Kamala's health deteriorated throughout. His freedom in 1935 was brought about by her continued ill-health, and she finally succumbed to tuberculosis in February 1936. She was 37.


Masani, Zareer. Indira Gandhi: A Biography. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.

When India gained independence on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru became its first prime minister. Since Kamala had passed away a few years earlier, the task of being the first lady was handed to Indira Gandhi. It was a task that exacted payment; she had grown up a shy, diffident child, and now it was her responsibility to be the perfect host and suave socialite in her father's household at No. 3 Teen Murti Marg, New Delhi. The role held no appeal: "I hated the thought of housekeeping, and what I hated most was to be hostess at a party, as I always dislike parties and having to smile when one doesn't want to. But if one has to do a thing, one might as well do it well, so I grew into it."

The charming host who entertained foreign dignitaries and heads of state was also the mother of two growing boys (her first son Rajiv Gandhi had been born in 1944, her second son Sanjay in 1946). The prime minister's residence took on the appearance of a zoo, with the introduction of pandas, squirrels, parrots, pigeons, dogs, and tiger cubs. "Whatever other experiences we [various first ladies] might share," she observed, "I wonder how many of those ladies have had to chase a panda through their living rooms or to sit up nights with a sick tiger?"

Indira Gandhi's life was not restricted to the drawing room's gracious role playing. She traveled around the country, working hard to establish charity and welfare organizations in which she invested vast amounts of money and time. But for Gandhi, there was sacrifice; she subordinated her family life and personal aspirations to play an important, but backstage role, in not just her father's but also her country's interest. As a result, her relationship with Feroze suffered. The strains between husband and wife became fodder for unpleasant rumors until his death in 1960. Indira remained focused in her role as first lady, fascinated with the intricacies of factionalism and politics, involved in the complexities of political processes and lobbying. To say that Nehru was consciously molding her as his political successor is at best debatable. It is apparent, however, that the trajectory of her life was inevitably leading her towards increased participation in politics, if not a high-profile position in the political arena.

In 1955, she was asked by Congress Party president U.N. Dhebar to join the Congress Working Committee, the highest authority within the Congress Party. Once she accepted, her rise to the top was rapid. In 1959, she was elected party president, though many party leaders were unhappy at the notion that a dynasty was being formed. Concluding a disarmingly simple acceptance speech, she quoted from a Hindi song: "We are the women of India/ Don't think of us flower-maidens/ We are the sparks in the fire." Besides being committed to literacy and anti-poverty programs, Gandhi boldly made anticolonial statements, challenging various nations' strongholds in Africa and Asia, and assisting indigenous movements in colonized nations. From 1960 on, she was recognized as a political powerhouse in India and abroad. Among other honors, she received Yale University's Howland Memorial Prize for distinction in the field of government and was elected to the executive board of UNESCO.

While Gandhi was coming into her own, there were rumblings within the party that challenged her fast rise to prominence. It was widely rumored that her time was up, that, without her father who died in May 1964, she could not survive. Her opponents, the conservative wing of the party, believed that because she was a woman, Indians of every caste and creed would not readily accept her as the political leader. Besides, she had not inherited her father's magnetic personality. Or so it seemed.

Nehru's successor was Lal Bahadur Shastri, whose term was short-lived and largely unremarkable. In 1965, several crises arose. A minister was trying to impose the Hindi language on the south, about which the state of Madras was particularly unhappy. She flew to Madras and met with the Madrasi, who was charmed by her, believing her promise of "no imposition of Hindi." Then she flew to Kashmir, a city resentful of the central government's rigid control, and the Kashmiris were attentive to her advocacy for calm. In fact, she showed a quality of initiative and authority which no one dreamed she possessed. Gandhi then strengthened her position when Prime Minister Shastri sent her to London to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.

Shastri's sudden death left the position of the prime minister vacant, and Indira Gandhi was a forceful and ambitious contender. Her political rival publicly claimed that he would politically slay "this mere slip of a girl." As the votes were counted on a sunny January day in 1966, it became abundantly clear that Indira Gandhi was to be India's new prime minister. "The lonely adolescent with her dreams of leadership had arrived."

Being the prime minister of the most populous democracy in the world was not an easy task. Gandhi was confronted with factional politics played out on a personal level. Not yet versed in realpolitik in the Machiavellian sense, she had to face constant challenges from within her own party. Though she was committed to their cause, the literacy and anti-poverty movements in the nation were only partially successful, not because of her ineptitude but because of the complex nature of a postcolonial democracy that was struggling to define its nationhood. But Indira soon remade the party in her own image and managed to silence opposition. In 1971, she called a general election a year ahead of schedule with the slogan garibi hatao (abolish poverty).

That same year, Bengali-speaking East Pakistan fought for its independence from Urdu-speaking Pakistan. The atrocities committed by the Pakistanis and the pitiful condition of the Bengali refugees forced Gandhi to the conclusion that East Pakistan had to be separated from Pakistan for the benefit of both the Bengalis and the Indian state. In October, she visited Russia and Western capitals and acted as an intercessor for the new country that would be known as Bangladesh. Gandhi was prepared for war against Pakistan if circumstances demanded. Remarking, "We got involved, first of all, for purely humanitarian reasons," she decided to help the Mukti Fauj (freedom fighters) of Bangladesh. Her performance in 1971 was brilliant, her decisions perfectly timed, as they had been when she came to power in 1966. Her triumph in Bangladesh and her election victory made 1971 a tremendous year for her. She defeated her principal opponent Raj Narain, a socialist, by a huge majority.

But in 1975 the High Court in Allahabad found that she had misused her official position during elections. Instead of stepping down, she declared a state of national emergency on June 25, giving her government supreme authority. On one hand, the declaration of emergency was deemed an unprincipled power grab motivated by her desire to prop up a weakened political position. On the other hand, the Jay Prakash movement and the activities of the opposition parties amounted to organized efforts to effect a coup d'état by paralyzing the government. Several critics and supporters alike disparaged her declaration of emergency when several excesses were committed in its name. Though these excesses have been associated with Gandhi, evidence indicates that she was not aware of each incident of political opportunism. But the emergency reflected her ambiguities. With tens of thousands of citizens jailed without charges or trials and her critics outlawed and silenced, she would calmly repeat to the astonishment of the opposition, "I am a democrat." Even so, the general public came to believe that she stood for them.

As a result of the Emergency, in 1977, she lost her seat in the next parliamentary elections only to gain it back in 1980. Though her son Sanjay's conduct during the Emergency had contributed to his mother's defeat, he was directly responsible for Indira's triumphant return to power. After Sanjay's tragic death in a plane crash in 1980, Indira planned to induct her son Rajiv into politics, but Rajiv Gandhi was reluctant to give up a career as an Indian Airlines pilot where he enjoyed high professional standing. Gradually, she induced him to participate in election campaigns. When Rajiv was elected to the Indian Parliament from Uttar Pradesh, he filled the gap created by Sanjay's death. Indira hoped to offer him more responsible jobs in the party.

India had joined the community of nations as the tenth most industrialized power with nuclear capabilities; however, the battle for nationhood was not totally won. The early part of the 1980s were troublesome for the prime minister. To enhance her image, she involved herself with the international scene. In 1982, she visited both Moscow and Washington to demonstrate her nonalignment. The following year, she hosted a meeting of 101 nonaligned nations. But at home, she lost support in two states—Andhra Pradesh and Karanatak—and had to contend with escalating riots between the Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh religious sects. Sikh separatists assembled weapons within their sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar in the hope that the government would not enter the temple premises. But Gandhi was a secular-minded leader. After a long hesitation, she ordered the army to flush out the extremists from the Golden Temple. Since many Hindus and Sikhs were killed in the operation, this was to be her undoing.

With characteristic gusto, Indira Gandhi had returned to power intent on pursuing far-reaching programs that would take India into the next century. Her vision, however, was still in its conceptual stages when, in October 1984, four months after the incident in the Golden Temple, Indira Gandhi was assassinated on the grounds of the prime minister's residence and office by her Sikh security guards. Immediately following the shootings, her son Rajiv was sworn in as India's new prime minister, thereby keeping the Nehru dynasty in power. (Rajiv Gandhi would also be assassinated on May 21, 1991, but the dynasty would live on through his wife Sonia Gandhi who was elected president of India's Congress Party in 1998.)

Indira Gandhi is revered as a remarkable political leader and one of the most accessible in the history of India, who led her country with integrity and fortitude. To her political opponents, she was a ruthless autocrat bent on perpetuating a family dynasty. To the vast Indian masses, she was Mataji (revered mother). A compulsive reader with an incisive mind, she was always a pioneer in reform and became a role model for many Indian women. More than anyone else, she was acutely aware of her paradoxical position as a woman leading a male-dominated country. She admitted that the advantages of her family background and education gave her opportunities not available to most Indian women. While her example has been a stimulus that has encouraged numerous urban, educated women to discard the traditional yolks, it also produced a tendency to deify her. Indira Gandhi, always the pragmatist, pointed out to her sisters that aspirations could be achieved: "We have thought—our society has thought—that if you call a woman a goddess, you have done everything necessary, even if she is suppressed and has no rights.… I would like our women to be treated as human beings. They do not want to be goddesses, but they must have every opportunity to develop their talent, their capabilities, and to use those talents and capabilities in the service of the community." Though she totally dominated her country's political life, Indira Gandhi's service to the cause of India's modernization was immense, and she continues to be revered by Indians at home and abroad.


Carras, Mary C. Indira Gandhi: The Crucible of Leadership. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1979.

Garnett, Emmeline. Madame Prime Minister. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1967.

Masani, Zareer. Indira Gandhi: A Biography. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.

Sahgal, Nayantara. Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1982.

suggested reading:

Jayakar, Pupul. Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography. NY: Pantheon, 1993.

Brahmjyot K. Grewal , Assistant Professor of History, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa

About this article

Gandhi, Indira (1917–1984)

Updated About content Print Article