She encouraged coteries without seeming to court anyone. She took away the privy purses, but kept the princes. She spoke about rationality, but a hedonistic sadhu was a close confidante. She spoke about ‘social democracy’ but blatantly gave a fillip to the license permit raj.
When Indira Gandhi was voted as the woman of the millennium by a BBC online poll in 1999, leaving Mother Teresa and Madame Curie behind, the general opinion was that India was the flavour of the season. And, like the Miss Worlds facilitating a consumerist market, it seemed like a politically-correct move to prop up an Indian.
Did Indira Gandhi deserve such an honour that declared her the most important woman in a thousand years?
103 years ago to the day, Indira Gandhi was born (19 November 1917). And 36 years ago, on 31 October, when Indira Gandhi was shot dead, we were stunned and genuinely sad. She seemed imperishable.
She had mastered the art of playing both ‘victim’ and ‘rescuer’ – post-Emergency, after her son Sanjay’s death, even after death as her spirit hovered around when her politically-disinclined son was pulled out to save India.
As I look back at the three major unfortunate events she was responsible for, we can see how her actions shaped post-Partition politics and that continue to echo today in more insidious forms.
1971 – The Birth Of Bangladesh
Indira Gandhi thrived on strife. This is how she came to support the Mukti Bahini in what was then East Pakistan.
A little-known aspect of that time remains a blip. In a 13-day war, 54 of our men in uniform went missing. In 1971, we were too elated as cries of ‘Jai Bangla’ rent the air. In that charged atmosphere when 93,000 Pakistani prisoners were handed over, India ‘forgot’ to ask for our men in exchange. The prime minister apparently had no time for it.
Back in 1992, I had met some of the families. They had produced evidence before successive governments – letters, notes from emissaries. But nothing came of it. These families were waiting for news, good or bad, for closure.
In her book ‘The Bhutto Trial and Execution’, BBC correspondent Victoria Schofield mentioned how Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto could not sleep. Every night he heard cries wafting towards his cell from the other side of the barracks. One of his lawyers made enquiries and was told by the jail authorities that they were Indian prisoners held after the 1971 war. As she wrote, “When the time came to exchange POWs, the Indian government did not accept these lunatics as they could not recount their place of origin. And thus, they were retained at Kot Lakhpat.” Bhutto was hanged to death in 1979, eight years after the war.
Indira Gandhi’s ‘Role’ In Anti-Pakistan Narrative
In July 2019, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan admitted in the Lok Sabha that 83 Indian Prisoners of War (PoW) were taken into custody during Indo-Pak wars, including the 54 soldiers and officers who were either missing or killed in action during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. No conclusive search has been undertaken.
Politicians use the armed forces, and when victory is declared the dead, missing soldiers are either forgotten or manipulated to score points within the country.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee may or may not have called Indira Gandhi a ‘Durga avatar’, but that is what she was perceived as in the public imagination. It is no wonder that the western media thought of her as the ‘empress of India’; she had learned well the divide and rule policy, a legacy that Indian politicians continue to pay respects to by their actions.
It is her role in the creation of Bangladesh that brings to the fore India’s ambitions of being the region’s ‘bully’, if not a superpower. It also set up a concrete anti-Pakistan narrative.
Indira Gandhi’s 1975 Emergency & Clampdown On Democracy
For one who rode the human rights horse in another country, Indira Gandhi had scant respect for it at home. On the midnight of 25 June 1975, without consulting her Cabinet or even the law minister, Mrs Gandhi declared a nationwide emergency. Her ‘rubber-stamp’ President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed invoked Article 352 to suspend democracy.
The sheer insecurity, and pettiness, that prompted it was a group of young leaders questioning her violation of the electoral laws. Those who had called for ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ were arrested.
Like all frightened people, Mrs Gandhi ‘camouflaged’ her theories – about others trying to plot against her government and stall its functioning – beneath a cloak of self-righteousness, declaring that democracy was not more important than the nation. It is the sort of statement our rightwing ‘nationalists’ would love.
She could not even tolerate a peaceful resistance movement. Jayaprakash Narayan wrote to her several times from prison, and an open letter in February 1976 in the ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’. The Indian press was muzzled.
His words were stinging: “You have accused the Opposition of trying to lower the prestige and position of the country’s Prime Minister. But in reality, the boot is on the other leg. No one has done more to lower the position and prestige of that great office than yourself. Can you ever think of the Prime Minister of a democratic country who cannot even vote in his Parliament because he has been found guilty of corrupt electoral practices?”
Indians are attracted to tragedy queens and kings, their flaws forgotten the moment they are seen as suffering for the acts they made others suffer for.
The Congress published a book, ‘Congress and the Making of the Indian Nation’, that, in LK Advani’s words, was “a ridiculous attempt to make Sanjay Gandhi a scapegoat for all the misdeeds the country had to suffer during the Emergency.” Advani’s observations, of course, were rooted in his own understanding of what constitutes democracy, for he referred to Sanjay’s deeds as “worthwhile causes such as slum-clearance, anti-dowry measures, and literacy”.
Nevertheless, it was clear that Mrs Gandhi had not muddied her own hands.
Indira Gandhi’s ‘Reluctance’ To Engage With Minority Aspirations
If Sanjay Gandhi was the ‘scapegoat’ of the Emergency, then Rajiv Gandhi became the ‘scapegoat’ of the anti-Sikh killings following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. At worst, he could be accused of extreme insensitivity at the time.
It was Indira Gandhi who had given orders in June 1984 for the Army to attack the Golden Temple and 40 other gurdwaras in Punjab.
For one who had actively participated in Mukti Bahini’s separatism in Pakistan, Indira Gandhi was not even ready to engage with minority aspirations.
At least 2733 Sikhs were killed over three days, as supporters of the Congress party went on a rampage. Sikhs had suffered a great deal during the partition of the country. In 1984 they were uprooted again, and this time the enemy was at home.
An official apology came only in 2005, when Dr Manmohan Singh said: “I have no hesitation in apologising not only to the Sikh community but the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood and what is enshrined in our Constitution.”
Anti-Minority Sentiments Have Only Worsened Since Indira Gandhi Era
Expansionism dreams, anti-minority-ism, and scant respect for the right to dissent against political crimes have peaked and are far worse now, and I don’t see any leader today utter words such as these: “Even if I died in the service of the nation, I would be proud of it. Every drop of my blood... will contribute to the growth of this nation and to make it strong and dynamic.”
I’ll quote Ghalib here:
“rag-e-sang se tapakta woh lahu ki fir na thamta
jise gham samajh rahe ho, ye agar sharaar hota”.
(The blood that drips from the veins of stone will not cease / What you think of as grief should have been a spark.)
(Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)