Indira Gandhi – The Iron Lady of India

Hemant Abhishek

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi is fondly remembered by Western press as the ‘Iron Lady of India.’ Within the country she is widely regarded as one of the strongest prime ministers the country has ever had. Her iron-fisted approach in dealing with conflicts with the neighbouring countries and strong foreign policy made her one of the most-admired figure among world leaders. On her birthday on November 19, we bring to you some interesting facts from her life.

As a child Indira’s schooling was sporadic. She often had to tend to her mother while her father was away either partaking in the independence struggle or in prison. She was taught at home by tutors, but her lion’s share of learning came from the letters her father wrote to her educating her about the world, Indian history, etc. A collection of these 30 such letters was published as “Letters from a Father to His Daughter.”

She spent a brief stint at the Viswa Bharati University at Shantiniketan, under the tutelage of Rabindranath Tagore.

As a young girl, she formed the ‘monkey brigade’ with a batch of children her age. Modelled on Lord Hanuman’s army of monkeys in the Ramayana, with sole aim to do whatever they could to help end British rule in India. Once, while the civil disobedience movement was on, she and her comrades hid the literature and documents pertaining to the movement and carried them to safety while the police conducted raids.

After her mother passed away Indira was sent off to England for higher studies. She didn’t keep too well here and had to frequent Switzerland to be treated by the famous doctor, Auguste Rollier. During one such trip in 1940, when the Nazi armies laid siege to Europe, on her way back to England from Switzerland, Indira was stranded for two months in Portugal.

It was during her stint at Oxford in Britain that she met Feroze Gandhi, an alumnus of London School of Economics. They soon grew fond of each other and married later on.

Soon after their marriage the couple was sent off to prison. Indira served 11 months between September 1942 and May 1943 at the Naini Jail in Allahabad.

After India attained independence in 1947, her father became the first prime minister of the country. Indira served unofficially as his personal assistant and paid close attention to the affairs of the country and learnt the ropes from him.

After Nehru’s death in 1964, she became the Minister for Information and Broadcast in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet.

Upon Shastri’s demise in 1966, Indira Gandhi became the prime minister for the first time. Under her Congress emerged victorious in the 1967 elections as well.

She strongly supported East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in its secessionist conflict with Pakistan in 1971. In the resulting conflict, India dealt a crushing blow on Pakistan and emerged as hegemonic power of South Asia.

In the election held right after the war, she led Congress to a landslide victory winning 352 of the 518 seats in the Lok Sabha – an upward swing of 73 seats.

Shortly after this victory her opponents Socialist Party levied allegations of violating election laws upon her. In a landmark judgement in June 1975, the High Court of Allahabad ruled against her, declaring her election to Parliament void and rendering her out of politics for six years.

Indira Gandhi responded to the court verdict by declaring a state of emergency throughout India. The emergency meant that many personal freedoms were curbed, her political opponents were imprisoned her political opponents and Indira Gandhi assumed absolute power. The emergency imposed in 1975 coupled with unpopular measures like sterilization drives saw the pendulum and public opinion swing against her.

In the next elections of 1977, the Congress faced a crushing defeat in the hands of the Janata Party. Adding insult to injury, Indira and her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, lost the elections.

After three years of instability at the Centre, Indira returned for her fourth term as prime minister in 1980. She continued in office until her death.

Several sources say that Indira had had a premonition of her death, so much so that while addressing a rally in Odisha a day before her death, she was quoted as saying, "I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow. I shall continue to serve till my last breath and when I die every drop of my blood will strengthen India and keep a united India alive.”

She was gunned down by her bodyguards Satwant Singh and Beant Singh on October 31, 1984 at her residence 1, Safdarjung Road, Delhi.

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