Indira Priyadarsini Gandhi (November 19, 1917 – October 31, 1984) 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 Gandhi was one of India’s most remarkable political leaders after independence. She took the surname Gandhi when she married Feroze Gandhi.
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 in pre-Gandhi times and would go on to author the Nehru Report, the people’s choice for a future Indian system of government as opposed to the British system. Her father Jawaharlal Nehru was a well-educated lawyer and was a popular leader of the Indian Independence Movement. Indira was born on the 19 November 1917 to Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru and his young wife Kamala Nehru; at this juncture, Nehru entered the independence movement with Mahatma Gandhi.
Growing up in the sole care of her mother, who was sick and alienated from the Nehru household, Indira developed strong protective instincts and a loner personality. Her grandfather and father continually being enmeshed in national politics also made mixing with her peers difficult. She had conflicts with her father’s sisters, including Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and these continued into the political world.
Indira created the Vanara Sena movement for young girls and boys which played a small but notable role in the Indian Independence Movement, conducting protests and flag marches, as well as helping Congress politicians circulate sensitive publications and banned materials. In an often-told story, she smuggled out from her father’s police-watched house an important document in her schoolbag that outlined plans for a major revolutionary initiative in the early 1930s.
When India’s first general election approached in 1951, Gandhi managed the campaigns of both Nehru and her husband, who was contesting the constituency of Rae Bareilly. Feroze had not consulted Nehru on his choice to run, and even though he was elected, he opted to live in a separate house in Delhi. Feroze quickly developed a reputation for being a fighter against corruption by exposing a major scandal in the nationalized insurance industry, resulting in the resignation of the Finance Minister, a Nehru aide.
At the height of the tension, Gandhi and her husband separated. However, in 1958, shortly after re-election, Feroze suffered a heart attack, which dramatically healed their broken marriage. At his side to help him recuperate in Kashmir, their family grew closer. But Feroze died on September 8, 1960, while Gandhi was abroad with Nehru on a foreign visit.
Rise to Power
During 1959 and 1960, Gandhi ran for and was elected the President of the Indian National Congress. Her term of office was uneventful. She also acted as her father’s chief of staff. Nehru was known as a vocal opponent of nepotism, and she did not contest a seat in the 1962 elections.
Nehru died on May 24, 1964, and Gandhi, at the urgings of the new Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, contested elections and joined the Government, being immediately appointed Minister for Information and Broadcasting. She went to Madras when the riots over Hindi becoming the national language broke out in non-Hindi speaking states of the south. There she spoke to government officials, 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. Minister Gandhi’s actions were probably not directly aimed at Shastri or her own political elevation. She reportedly lacked interest in the day-to-day functioning of her Ministry, but was media-savvy and adept at the art of politics and image-making.
When the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 broke out, Gandhi was vacationing in the border region of Srinagar. Although warned by the Army that Pakistani insurgents had penetrated very close to the city, she refused to relocate to Jammu or Delhi. She rallied local government and welcomed media attention, in effect reassuring the nation. Shastri died in Tashkent, 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. Gandhi was the candidate of the ‘Syndicate’, regional power brokers of immense influence, who thought that she would be easily led. Searching for explanations for this disastrous miscalculation many years later, the then Congress President K. Kamaraj made the strange claim that he had made a personal vow to Nehru to make Gandhi Prime Minister at any cost’.
With the backing of the Syndicate, in a vote of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Gandhi beat Morarji Desai by 355 votes to 169 to become the fifth Prime Minister of India and the first woman to hold that position.
Operation Blue Star and Assassination
Gandhi’s later years were bedevilled with problems in Punjab. In September 1981, Bhindranwale was arrested in Amritsar, but was released twenty five days later due to lack of evidence. After his release, he relocated himself from his headquarters at Mehta Chowk to Guru Nanak Niwas within the Golden Temple precincts.
Disturbed by the spread of militancy by Bhindranwale’s group, Gandhi ordered the Army to storm the Golden Temple to remove Bhindranwale and his followers on June 3, 1984. Thousands of innocent Sikh pilgrims were killed in the process, leading to widespread anger over the desecration of Sikhism’s holiest shrine. The disregard for the thousands of civilians within the temple and excessive use of military force has remained a source of great controversy to this day.
In response to this desecration of the Golden Temple, 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 filming a documentary for Irish television, she passed a wicket gate, guarded by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, where they proceeded to open fire with their semiautomatic machine pistols before being shot themselves by other bodyguards. One bodyguard was killed and the other wounded. Gandhi died on her way to the hospital, in her official car, but was not declared dead until many hours later.
Indira Gandhi was cremated on November 3, 1984 near Raj Ghat and the place was called Shakti Sthal.