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Indira Gandhi (1917 1984) was the only child of Kamla and Jawaharlal Nehru. She spent part of her childhood in Allahabad, where the Nehrus had their family residence, and part in Switzerland, where her mother Kamla convalesced from her periodic illnesses. She received her college education at Somerville College, Oxford. A famous photograph from her childhood shows her sitting by the bedside of Mahatma Gandhi, as he recovered from one of his fasts, and though she was not actively involved in the freedom struggle, she came to know the entire Indian political leadership. After Indias attainment of independence, and the ascendancy of Jawaharlal Nehru, now a widower, to the office of the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi managed the official residence of her father, and accompanied him on his numerous foreign trips. She had been married in 1942 to Feroze Gandhi, who rose to some eminence as a parliamentarian and politician of integrity but found himself disliked by his more famous father in law, but Feroze died in 1960 before he could consolidate his own political forces.
In 1964, the year of her fathers death, Indira Gandhi was for the first time elected to Parliament, and she was Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the government of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack less than two years after assuming office. The numerous contenders for the position of the Prime Ministership, unable to agree among themselves, picked Indira Gandhi as a compromise candidate, and each thought that she would be easily manipulable. But Indira Gandhi showed extraordinary political skills and tenacity and elbowed the Congress dons Kamaraj, Morarji Desai, and others out of power. She held the office of the Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977. She was riding the crest of popularity after Indias triumph in the war of 1971 against Pakistan, and the explosion of a nuclear device in 1974 helped to enhance her reputation among middle class Indians as a tough and shrewd political leader. However, by 1973, Delhi and north India were rocked by demonstrations angry at high inflation, the poor state of the economy, rampant corruption, and the poor standards of living. In June 1975, the High Court of Allahabad found her guilty of using illegal practices during the last election campaign, and ordered her to vacate her seat. There were demands for her resignation.
Mrs. Gandhis response was to declare a state of emergency, under which her political foes were imprisoned, constitutional rights abrogated, and the press placed under strict censorship. Meanwhile, the younger of her two sons, Sanjay Gandhi, started to run the country as though it were his personal fiefdom, and earned the fierce hatred of many whom his policies had victimized. He ordered the removal of slum dwellings, and in an attempt to curb Indias growing population, initiated a highly resented program of forced sterilization. In early 1977, confident that she had debilitated her opposition, Mrs. Gandhi called for fresh elections, and found herself trounced by a newly formed coalition of several political parties. Her Congress party lost badly at the polls. Many declared that she was a spent force, but, three years later, she was to return as Prime Minister of India. The same year, however, her son Sanjay was killed in an airplane crash.
In the second, post Emergency, period of her Prime Ministership, Indira Gandhi was preoccupied by efforts to resolve the political problems in the state of Punjab. In her attempt to crush the secessionist movement of Sikh militants, led by Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, she ordered an assault upon the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar, called the Golden Temple. It is here that Bindranwale and his armed supporters had holed up, and it is from the Golden Temple that they waged their campaign of terrorism not merely against the Government, but against moderate Sikhs and Hindus. Operation Bluestar, waged in June 1984, led to the death of Bindranwale, and the Golden Temple was stripped clean of Sikh terrorists, however, the Golden Temple was damaged, and Mrs. Gandhi earned the undying hatred of Sikhs who bitterly resented the desacralization of their sacred space. In November of the same year, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated, at her residence, by two of her own Sikh bodyguards, who claimed to be avenging the insult heaped upon the Sikh nation.
Mrs. Gandhi acquired a formidable international reputation as a statesman, and there is no doubt that she was extraordinarily skilled in politics. She was prone, like many other politicians, to thrive on slogans, and one Garibi Hatao, Remove Poverty became the rallying cry for one of her election campaigns. She had an authoritarian streak, and though a cultured woman, rarely tolerated dissent, and she did, in many respects, irreparable harm to Indian democracy. Apart from her infamous imposition of the internal emergency, the use of the army to resolve internal disputes greatly increased in her time, and she encouraged a culture of sycophancy and nepotism. At her death, her older son, Rajiv Gandhi, was sworn in as head of the Congress party and Prime Minister.
2. Early Life
Indira Gandhi was born on November 19, 1917 in Allahabad (in modern day Uttar Pradesh), British India. Her father was Jawaharlal Nehru, who would go on to become the first prime minister of India following its independence from Britain, her mother, Kamala Nehru, was just 18 years old when the baby arrived. The child was named Indira Priyadarshini Nehru.Indira grew up as an only child. A baby brother born in November of 1924 died after just two days. The Nehru family was very active in the anti imperial politics of the time, Indiras father was a leader of the nationalist movement, and a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
3. Sojourn in Europe
In March 1930, Kamala and Indira were marching in protest outside of the Ewing Christian College. Indiras mother suffered from heat stroke, so a young student named Feroz Gandhi rushed to her aid. He would become a close friend of Kamalas, escorting and attending her during her treatment for tuberculosis, first in India and later in Switzerland. Indira also spent time in Switzerland, where her mother died of TB in February of 1936.Indira went to Britain in 1937, where she enrolled at Somerville College, Oxford, but never completed her degree. While there, she began to spend more time with Feroz Gandhi, then a London School of Economics student. The two married in 1942, over the objections of Jawaharlal Nehru, who disliked his son in law. (Feroz Gandhi was no relation to Mohandas Gandhi.)Nehru eventually had to accept the marriage. Feroz and Indira Gandhi had two sons, Rajiv, born in 1944, and Sanjay, born in 1946.
4. Early Political Career
During the early 1950s, Indira served as an unofficial personal assistant to her father, then the prime minister. In 1955, she became a member of the Congress Partys working committee, within four years, she would be president of that body.Feroz Gandhi had a heart attack in 1958, while Indira and Nehru were in Bhutan on an official state visit. Indira returned home to take care of him. Feroz died in Delhi in 1960 after suffering a second heart attack.Indiras father also died in 1964, and was succeeded as prime minister by Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri appointed Indira Gandhi his minister of information and broadcasting, in addition, she was a member of the upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha.In 1966, Prime Minister Shastri died unexpectedly. Indira Gandhi was named the new Prime Minister as a compromise candidate. Politicians on both sides of a deepening divide within the Congress Party hoped to be able to control her. They had completely underestimated Nehrus daughter.
5. Prime Minister Gandhi
By 1966, the Congress Party was in trouble. It was dividing into two separate factions, Indira Gandhi led the left wing socialist faction. The 1967 election cycle was grim for the party it lost almost 60 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha. Indira was able to keep the Prime Minister seat through a coalition with the Indian Communist and Socialist parties. In 1969, the Indian National Congress Party split in half for good.As prime minister, Indira made some popular moves. She authorized the development of a nuclear weapons program in response to Chinas successful test at Lop Nur in 1967. (India would test its own bomb in 1974.) In order to counterbalance Pakistans friendship with the United States, and also perhaps due to mutual personal antipathy with US President Richard Nixon, she forged a closer relationship with the Soviet Union.In keeping with her socialist principles, Indira abolished the maharajas of Indias various states, doing away with their privileges as well as their titles. She also nationalized the banks in July of 1969, as well as mines and oil companies. Under her stewardship, traditionally famine prone India became a Green Revolution success story, actually exporting a surplus of wheat, rice and other crops by the early 1970s.In 1971, in response to a flood of refugees from East Pakistan, Indira began a war against Pakistan. The East Pakistani Indian forces won the war, resulting in the formation of the nation of Bangladesh from what had been East Pakistan.
6. Re election Trial and State of Emergency
In 1972, Indira Gandhis party swept to victory in national parliamentary elections based on the defeat of Pakistan and the slogan of Garibi Hatao, or Eradicate Poverty. Her opponent, Raj Narain of the Socialist Party, charged her with corruption and electoral malpractice. In June of 1975, the High Court in Allahabad ruled for Narain, Indira should have been stripped of her seat in Parliament and barred from elected office for six years.However, Indira Gandhi refused to step down from the prime ministership, despite wide spread unrest following the verdict. Instead, she had the president declare a state of emergency in India.
During the state of emergency, Indira initiated a series of authoritarian changes. She purged the national and state governments of her political opponents, arresting and jailing political activists. To control population growth, she instituted a policy of forced sterilization, under which impoverished men were subjected to involuntary vasectomies (often under appallingly unsanitary conditions). Indiras younger son Sanjay led a move to clear the slums around Delhi, hundreds of people were killed and thousands left homeless when their homes were destroyed.
7. Downfall and Arrests
In a key miscalculation, Indira Gandhi called new elections in March, 1977. She may have begun to believe her own propaganda, convincing herself that the people of India loved her and approved of her actions during the years long state of emergency. Her party was trounced at the polls by the Janata Party, which cast the election as a choice between democracy or dictatorship, and Indira left office.In October of 1977, Indira Gandhi was jailed briefly for official corruption. She would be arrested again in December of 1978 on the same charges. However, the Janata Party was struggling. A cobbled together coalition of four previous opposition parties, it could not agree on a course for the country, and accomplished very little.
8. Indira Emerges Once More
By 1980, the people of India had had enough of the ineffectual Janata Party. They reelected Indira Gandhis Congress Party under the slogan of stability. Indira took power again for her fourth term as prime minister. However, her triumph was dampened by the death of her son Sanjay, the heir apparent, in a plane crash in June of that year.By 1982, rumblings of discontent and even outright secessionism were breaking out all over India. In Andhra Pradesh, on the central east coast, the Telangana region (comprising the inland 40%) wanted to break away from the rest of the state. Trouble also flared in the ever volatile Jammu and Kashmir region in the north. The most serious threat, though, came from Sikh secessionists in the Punjab, led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
9. Operation Bluestar at the Golden Temple
During this period, Sikh extremists were waging a campaign of terror against Hindus and moderate Sikhs in the Punjab. Bhindranwale and his following of heavily armed militants holed up in the Akhal Takt, the second most holy building after the Golden Temple itself. The leader himself was not necessarily calling for the creation of Khalistan, rather he demanded the implementation of the Anandpur Resolution, which called for the unification and purification of the Sikh community within Punjab.Indira Gandhi decided to send the Indian Army on a frontal assault of the building to capture or kill Bhindranwale. She ordered the attack at the beginning of June, 1984, even though June 3rd was the most important Sikh holiday (honoring the martyrdom of the Golden Temples founder), and the complex was full of innocent pilgrims. Interestingly, due to the heavy Sikh presence in the Indian Army, the commander of the attack force, Major General Kuldip Singh Brar, and many of the troops were also Sikhs.
In preparation for the attack, all electricity and lines of communication to the Punjab were cut off. On June 3, the army surrounded the temple complex with military vehicles and tanks. In the early morning hours of June 5, they launched the attack. According to official Indian government numbers, 492 civilians were killed, including women and children, along with 83 Indian army personnel. Other estimates from hospital workers and eyewitnesses state that more than 2,000 civilians died in the bloodbath.Among those killed were Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the other militants. To the further outrage of Sikhs world wide, the Akhal Takt was badly damaged by shells and gunfire.
10. Aftermath and Assassination
In the aftermath of Operation Bluestar, a number of Sikh soldiers resigned from the Indian Army. In some areas, there were actual battles between those resigning and those still loyal to the army.On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi walked out to the garden behind her official residence for an interview with a British journalist. As she passed two of her Sikh bodyguards, they drew their service weapons and opened fire. Beant Singh shot her three times with a pistol, while Satwant Singh fired thirty times with a self loading rifle. Both men then calmly dropped their weapons and surrendered.
Indira Gandhi died that afternoon after undergoing surgery. Beant Singh was shot dead while under arrest, Satwant Singh and alleged conspirator Kehar Singh were later hanged.When news of the Prime Ministers death was broadcast, mobs of Hindus across northern India went on a rampage. In the Anti Sikh Riots, which lasted for four days, anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 Sikhs were murdered, many of them burned alive. The violence was particularly bad in Haryana state. Because the Indian government was slow to respond to the pogrom, support for the Sikh separatist Khalistan movement increased markedly in the months following the massacre.
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