Indian political leader
"If I die a violent death as some fear and a few are plotting, I know the violence will be in the thought and the action of the assassin, not in my dying...."
When the first prime minister of India after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, died of a stroke in 1964, his daughter Indira was not seriously considered as a successor. However, when two years later the new prime minister Lal Shastri also died suddenly, Gandhi was chosen to fill the leadership void in India. Overnight she became the leader of the world's largest democracy and perhaps the most powerful woman in the world.
Gandhi was born November 19, 1917, in Allahabad, India, to Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. Her life was drastically changed in 1919 when her wealthy and prominent family was visited by Mohandas Gandhi, the pacifist leader of the Indian freedom movement. Recently returned from exile in South Africa, he converted her parents to the cause of Indian independence. The Nehrus gave up all their Western possessions to join in the struggle, and their home became a hub of the movement. Constant meetings and the frequent absence of Gandhi's parents deprived her of a normal childhood. Though she was spoiled by her grandfather Motilal, Gandhi later recalled she felt "insecure." She was four years old when her father and grandfather were first jailed for their activities, then the jailings, which also included her mother, became frequent.
Because of the insecurities of her childhood Gandhi hardened herself and resolved not to be hurt, as her mother had been, by Indian social customs that repressed women. She grew up as a solemn, precocious child whose games were related to the fight against Britain. For example, at age 11 she organized the Monkey Brigade. Imitating the Monkey army in the epic Indian story Ramayana, she and her friends took part in the struggle by writing and delivering notices, making flags, cooking food, and spying on the police. While she was in school in Poona in the 1930s she often visited Mohandas Gandhi while he was in prison. She once commented that Gandhi "was always present in my life; he played an enormous role in my development."
When Gandhi was 17 her mother died of cancer. Devastated by her loss, Gandhi began five years of studying in Europe and India seemingly without direction. Although Gandhi had vowed to remain single, she decided to marry Feroze Gandhi, a family friend. He was a Parsee, a member of a small cultural group that had fled from Persia centuries earlier to escape Muslim persecution. Since the Nehrus were of the Brahmin or priestly class of India, Gandhi was criticized for her choice of a husband not only by her father but also from the public. Despite these protests the couple were married in 1942.
Shortly after her wedding Gandhi was jailed for nine months, an event she described as being crucial in her life. Following her release she became increasingly involved in politics. During this time she also gave birth to two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay. When India achieved independence in 1947, Gandhi's father became the nation's first prime minister. Because Nehru was a widower he needed Gandhi to act as hostess at official government functions. Gradually she and her husband drifted apart and although they were never divorced they lived separately until his death in 1960. Gandhi lived in Nehru's shadow for years, but she eventually began to speak out during her own campaigns and at functions her father could not attend. By 1959 she was president of the India National Congress. Influenced by Nehru's socialist leanings, she brought a fresh perspective to the party and sought to increase women's participation in politics.
Upon Prime Minister Shastri's sudden death in 1966, Gandhi became the leader of the Congress Party and then prime minister of India. Gandhi paid a high price for her achievement, however, because problems arose almost immediately after she took office. Her leadership was continually challenged by the right wing of the party, led by former minister of finance Moraji Desai. In the 1967 election she won by such a narrow majority that she had to accept Desai as deputy prime minister. Gandhi's own personality also contributed to her difficulties. An intensely private person who seemed nervous around other people, she lived a quiet, simple life. Her mistrust of the manipulations of politicians further removed her from those around her, leading to what some described as a paranoid attitude that would cause her downfall in the 1970s.
In the 1971 election Gandhi won by a substantial margin over conservative opponents. During her tenure as prime minister India began to make great strides in the areas of food production and development of an industrial base. Yet it was a politically tumultuous time. In late 1971 Gandhi gave military support to a successful attempt by East Bengal to secede from Pakistan, which resulted in the creation of the state of Bangladesh. Following the Pakistan conflict Gandhi won the 1972 election, again by a large majority, but her defeated opponent charged that she had violated election laws. The high court of Allahabad ruled against her in 1975, posing the prospect of her being removed from parliament and being barred from politics for six years.
Instead of accepting the court's decision, Gandhi declared a state of emergency, imprisoned her opponents, and suspended civil liberties. Over the next several years her political fortunes rose and fell dramatically, and in 1977 her party was swept from power. In 1978, after her supporters formed the Congress (I) "I" for Indira 151 Party, she regained her parliamentary seat and two years later was re-elected to her fourth term as prime minister. Her son Sanjay became her principal political adviser, and all legal cases against both Gandhis were withdrawn. After Sanjay died in an airplane crash in 1980, she began grooming her son Rajiv for leadership of the party.
During the 1980s several Indian states sought independence from the central government, the most violent among the dissidents being Sikh (a religion that rejects class distinctions and idol worship) extremists in the Punjab province. In June 1984 Gandhi sent the Indian army to the Punjab to drive Sikh guerrillas out of the Golden Temple of Armistar, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Over 600 people died in the conflict. On October 31, 1984, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her own Sikh security guards while she walked through her garden.Upon his mother's death Rajiv became prime minister. He was assassinated in 1991 at a re-election campaign rally.
India had been ruled by England for over a century prior to its independence in 1947. While the British had built many roads, schools, and hospitals, they had also acted as a superior colonial power. The Indians greatly resented British control. The organized struggle for freedom began early in this century and grew until after World War II, which ended in 1945, when the British finally realized they could no longer hold India. The ascension of a woman, Indira Gandhi, to the highest position in the world's most populous democracy was especially significant for Indian women, who had traditionally been subservient to men. In addition, she was also an inspiration to people in other Third World nations.
Butler, Francelia, Indira Gandhi, Chelsea House,
Currimbhoy, Nayana, Indira Gandhi, Franklin Watts, 1985.
Gandhi, Indira, My Truth, Grove Press, 1980.
Greene, Carol, Indira Gandhi: Ruler of India, Childrens Press, 1985.