On 4 October 1977, a day after she was dramatically placed under arrest on charges of political corruption by the Janata Party government, Congress leader Indira Gandhi was released unconditionally by a judicial magistrate, marking the beginning of the road that would take her back to the prime minister’s chair.
The daughter and only surviving child of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira was born on 19 November 1917 in Allahabad, reportedly not an altogether joyous moment for some members of the Nehru clan. Indira would later remark that her family regarded the male child “a privilege and necessity”. For her rational-minded and progressive father, however, her timing of birth was significant as it coincided with the month in which the Russian Revolution took place.
One of her earlier memories as a child was making the heart-breaking decision to set alight her beloved foreign-made doll, in support of the the swadeshi (home-grown) movement.
After being taught at home, Indira was sent to Europe for further studies. Ill health was a recurrent feature during her stay there.
In Britain, Indira became close to Feroze Gandhi, a young Parsi from Allahabad, who was now a student in London. After a long courtship, they married in Allahabad in 1942. Indira Nehru was now Indira Gandhi. Though she assisted him as an unofficial secretary, Indira remained largely in her charismatic father’s shadow till his death in 1964, after which she became a member of the Rajya Sabha and minister of information and broadcasting in the union cabinet. When Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri died suddenly in 1966, Indira became prime minister. But she had to deal with a divided Congress party, and because of her supposed inexperience and lack of confidence, she was called ‘gungi gudiya' (speechless doll). But the label would not stick for long.
Though her party won the next general elections in 1967, its seat count decreased. The divisions within the party finally caused a split, Indira leading one faction. One of her major policy decisions during her initial years as prime minister was to nationalise banks, a popular move during that time.
It was, however, during the December 1971 war of Bangladesh, also known as the War of Liberation, that her reputation as a tough nationalist leader came to the fore. Pakistan was split into two, Bangladesh was born, and Indira’s popularity in India soared. “Dacca,” she told the Indian Parliament on 16 December, an announcement greeted with wild cheers inside and outside the House, “is now the free capital of a free country.”
Taking advantage of India’s domination in the sub-continent, she signed an accord with Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah, in which he agreed to give up the demand for a plebiscite for the state. In 1974, she gave the go-ahead to detonate a nuclear device at Pokharan, Rajasthan. As a result, India’s relations with Pakistan continued to be strained.
Meanwhile, there were allegations of corruption against the government; the Congress had committed electoral fraud during the 1971 elections, its opponents claimed. The activist Jayaprakash Narayan became the pivot around which anti-Indira forces gathered. Raj Narain, who had been defeated in parliamentary election by Indira, lodged cases of election fraud and use of state machinery for election purposes against the prime minister in the Allahabad High Court.
On 12 June 1975, the high court found Indira guilty of misusing government machinery for her election campaign, and declared her election null, but she was acquitted on more serious charges. She did not quit, and the protests led by Narayan and other leaders such as Narain and Morarji Desai intensified and spread.
In the morning of 25 June 1975, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the Congress chief minister of West Bengal, was summoned to the prime minister’s residence. The meeting was essentially to discuss the imposition of emergency in the country. The plan included thousands of arrests that were to be carried out under provisions of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and censorship of the press. The first act of media censorship was to cut the power supplies to newspapers in Delhi.
As night fell on 25 June, R.K. Dhawan, one of Indira’s most trusted aides, went to the Rashtrapati Bhawan to seek President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s official approval (the president had already been briefed about the ‘Emergency Order Proclamation’). In her letter to the president, Indira said that she would have liked to take this to the cabinet but “unfortunately this is not possible tonight”, and the situation was extremely urgent.
Two days after the imposition of emergency, Indira in a radio broadcast explained her actions to the people of India thus: “The opposition parties had chalked out a programme of countrywide ghearaos, agitation, disruption and incitement to industrial workers, police and defence forces in attempt to paralyse totally the central government.”
When Indira finally called off the Emergency in 1977 and called for elections — possibly misreading the mood of the people — the Congress was defeated, with Indira and her son Sanjay Gandhi both losing their seats. But the new Janata Party government was internally too divided to offer a coherent alternative to the Congress.
Even as the Shah Commission started its hearings into excesses committed during the emergency, the police reached Indira’s house to arrest her On 3 October 1977. The arrest, not unexpected, provided Indira, always a sharp political mind, with more than a few photo opportunities. The most memorable of them has her sitting on the ground, defiant but dignified, surrounded by supporters, media persons and policemen.
The next day, on 4 October, a magistrate released her unconditionally, and said the specific charges against her were not well founded. These included: that vehicles donated to the Congress during the elections were later sold to the army; and that when she was prime minister her government had undertaken a shady financial contract with a French oil firm.
The Janata experiment did not last. Indira returned to power in 1980. But this would be her last tenure as prime minister. On 31 October 1984, when she stepped out of her house, her two Sikh bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, shot her repeatedly, an apparent act of revenge against her order of July that year to allow troops pursuing militant Sikh separatists to storm the Sikhs' holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, in Amritsar. As Indira was rushed to Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences in a white Ambassador, she lay limp in the back seat, her head in the lap of her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi. Though it was a lost cause, doctors at AIIMS operated on her for four hours. A little after 2:20 p.m., Indira Gandhi was declared dead.
People have strong opinions on Indira and her legacy. It is clear, however, that after her death no prime minister has occupied the imagination of the Indian people as much as Indira Gandhi did.
Also on this day:
2012 — K.C. Nanjunde Gowda, Kannada film producer and exhibitor, dies.