The Legacy Of Indira Gandhi

By Ali Hassnain

No two families have impacted the lives of people in the sub-continent more than Bhutto-Zardari dynasty and Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Especially the Nehru Gandhi dynasty, their personal likes, dislikes and choices have had serious impacts on the region. This article would focus on Indira who along with her father ruled India. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was from a family of Kashmiri Pundits (Shudh Brahmin) who had moved to India a few generations earlier. His personal wish to include Kashmir in India is attributed to shape the Indian policy on Kashmir. His attitude towards Communism and Soviet Union brought cold war to the sub-continent.

British India was divided and Pakistan was created on 14th of August 1947. Quaid e Azam took oath and then Lord Mountbatten left for Delhi to administer oath of Prime Minister of India on the 15th of August 1947. Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru became the Indian Prime Minister. Up till 1989 Nehru, his daughter and his maternal grandson had ruled India for around 38 years out of the total 42 years of independence when his grandson Rajiv was assassinated in 1989. Rajiv’s children were too young to rule, and his wife was an Italian named Sonia. She became active in politics during the mid 1990s and ruled India through her proxy Manmohan Singh for another 10 years. Nehru’s great grandson was the candidate of Congress Party in the last Indian general elections. At age 46 he probably decided it was time for claiming the throne.

To study India one must study this family and understand them.  Except a handful of years, decision making in Indian power houses was surrounded by their personal choices, likes and dislikes. Indira Gandhi was a bit of a rebel aristocrat. She grew up under the shadow of Nehru and had frequent interaction with figures like Tagore and Gandhi. She left India without completing her studies. Her childhood was fairly complicated, mostly homeschooled, joining college but leaving for Europe to care for her ailing mother.  She went to Oxford. She herself had to visit doctor frequently. She was in Europe when the Second World War broke out. She managed to get to Portugal from a neutral Switzerland and to England.

Indira had met Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi from British India in England. She knew her from Allahabad. She decided to marry him. Nehru was against the wedding and went as far to ask Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Father of the Indian nation) to convince her otherwise. She didn’t listen. She changed her name to Indira Gandhi after marriage.

Please note that Feroze Gandhi was not related to M.K. Gandhi AKA “Mahatma Gandhi”. It is a sheer co-incidence that he shared the last name. That’s why this family is known as Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

She started working as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s assistant as early as 1950. When Pandit Nehru died in 1964 she had already been groomed to head India. She was appointed to the indirectly elected upper house (Rajya Sabha) and made minister for information and broadcasting. India’s decision to cross ceasefire line and then the international border in 1965 war with Pakistan was heavily influenced by her.

Indian Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri died on the eve of ceasefire with Pakistan in Tashkent. Indira was put ahead of pro-peace Moraji Desai and she became Prime Minister of India, a decision which would mean India and Pakistan rivalry would only get bitter.

Indira leaned further to Soviet side than Nehru ever did. She inherited the Kashmir and Soviet policy of India and enhanced it. She lobbied with a Soviet Union which was looking to expand to dismember East Pakistan. After years of supporting insurgency in East Pakistan and signing the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, a treaty signed between India and the Soviet Union in August 1971, she ordered the invasion of East Pakistan. Due to certain factors she could not invade West Pakistan. It was politically and militarily not feasible. In retrospect that would have led to the US siding with Pakistan and the Soviets on Indian side. Both powers did not want it; Americans were already unhappy with a stand-off with Soviets on East Pakistan. Indian invasion of East Pakistan was one of the rare occasions where a hotline between Washington and Moscow was used. West Pakistan, unlike East Pakistan, was well defended and had a population ready to defend itself at all costs.

1971 war is another topic and that’s another story for another time.

After a victory against Pakistan, Indira was hailed as Goddess Durga by Atal Vihari Vajpaee (later PM of India).  Her economic policies had mixed outcomes. Indira’s Gharibi hatao program ran parallel to Indiria hatao campaign of the opposition. She won the elections in 1971.

Her heir apparent Sanjay Gandhi is said to have a dominant personality. He was also the de facto prime minister. He constantly interfered in ministries and many ministers, including Indar Kumar Gujral (Later PM), resigned as minister for information and broadcast.

With the help of Soviets she decided to test nuclear weapons in 1974, a decision which started a nuclear arms race in the sub-continent. Ironically, she named these tests “Smiling Budha”.

In 1975 Indira was disqualified from her seat in Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) over election irregularities. Prime Minister of India has to be a member of upper house or lower house. She refused to vacate the post of Prime Minister. Instead she declared a state of emergency to crush opposition. It is said her son Sanjay Gandhi practically ran the country during emergency.

She eventually lifted the state of emergency, and misjudging her popularity she went to polls. Both Indira and Sanjay lost their seats. Morarji Desai came to power. He tried to make peace with Pakistan. However a lot had happened since 1967 and he had limited success. Opposition had promised a lot to public and couldn’t deliver. There was a lot of infighting within the opposition.

Indira won the 1980 elections and became Prime Minister of India again. Her son Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash in 1980 and she started grooming her other son Rajeev, a pilot by profession, for leadership.

In the 1977 elections, Sikh majority Akali Dal had come to power in the Indian state of Punjab. Sikh community had major grievances from Indian Central Government. In 1947 they were used by Hindu militants to carry out mass murders, looting, rape and plunder of Muslim population. In return when they demanded a relatively autonomous province of their own, they were only given a part of Punjab. In 1966 Punjab had been divided into Himachal Pardesh, Haryana and Punjab. There was resentment in Sikhs and they felt betrayed. They had been loyal servants of India, taking on Pakistan in wars and contributing more than expected to economy.

They protested and many turned to militancy under the leader of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Indira’s response was to use brutal tactics to suppress the movement, going as far to raid the holiest site in the Sikh religion, the “Golden Temple”.  Unprecedented atrocities were committed against Sikhs, including rape, murder, extra-judicial killings and atrocities too graphic to mention.

In her last term she supported the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and is remembered for violence in Punjab. On 31st October 1984 she was killed by her Sikh body guards for revenge against attack on the Golden Temple.  Her son Rajiv angrily commented “my mother died and nothing happened”.  A systematic, state sponsored violence against Sikhs was engineered by Congress after that. Rajiv Gandhi replaced her mother and when asked about the riots his comments were “For a few days people thought Bharat is shaking, whenever a big tree falls earth shakes”. With that comment he swept the criminal acts under the rug.

Her life and decisions are a good exposition of her personality. Like Nehru, she never accepted Pakistan and worked on occupying or destroying it. It appears she dreamt of an Akhand Bharat. It is clear she had a grudge against Muslims. She had a dominant personality and was a master of manipulating international powers. Deception and lies were her modus operandi. It appears Modi has picked up where she left off.

Despotic rule, corruption, nepotism, anti-Muslim feeling, wars, suppression, fuelling the dispute with Pakistan, supporting the rich and doing little for poor, starting a nuclear arms race are among legacies left by Indira Gandhi. She could have used the resources at her disposal to support and uplift the poor. Instead she preferred to maintain the status quo on caste system and poverty. 3 years after her death, Kashmir rebelled. Most of what Modi is doing today is a continuation of her policies. Deception and lying, taking the world to the brink of destruction are the policies Bharat Sarkaar continues to follow.