Saturday, 5 November 2011

A Red-letter Day - Part 2 - The Iron Lady

Continuing from Part 1 of this series, the date 31st October was one that gave India, one of India's greatest sons, but it is also a sad day in India's history, for it took away our strongest, severest, yet widely loved daughters, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi.

[A young Indira with her father.]
She was born on the 19th of November 1917 to Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamla Nehru and was educated at a number of schools, from Rabindranath Tagore's Shantiniketan to the Somerville College, Oxford, where she met her husband Feroze Gandhi and whose surname she assumed; unfortunately their marriage did not last long as he passed away in 1960. Contrary to popular misconception, she is not Mohandas a.k.a. Mahatma Gandhi's relative (for once I am forced to call him Mahatma). Oh the stupid foreigners, cannot fathom a thing and make doltish assumptions! Born in a family that was at the heart of India's political scene, with her father being the first and longest serving Prime Minister, serving unchallenged until his death in 1964, it was no surprise that she too would one day become a politician, for like most businesses and even professions in India, being a politician too is more like a family affair. And what a politician she made! She was appointed as a member of India's Upper House of Parliament., the Rajya Sabha, and made Minister for Information and Broadcasting in Lal Bahadur Shatri's government, but after his death, she became the Prime Minister in 1966. Dubbed initially by Rammanohar Lohiya as the 'गूँगी गुड़िया', romanised as 'Gungi Gudiyaa', meaning 'dumb doll', she went on to show that she was in fact a 'dangerous doll'. Rammanohar did not live long to see that happen, but Gandhi, or Mrs. Gandhi as she was widely addressed, soon showed that she was no pushover; she was here to stay. She was India's first female Prime Minister, the world's second, and until very recently, the longest serving too! She held the country with an iron grip, outmanœuvred opponents, silenced critics and sewed their mouths shut, and used every trick in the political treatise to get what she wanted. The saying, 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned', so aptly applied to her; however, in her case the last word did not matter. She did not need a reason to unleash her power. She was a wild tigress let loose.

[Clash of the Titans: Indira Gandhi and Richard Nixon.]
She increased relations with the Soviet Union, like her father, and her personal dislike for the then President of the United States of America, Richard Nixon, soured Indo-US relations, and the two nations did not look each other in the eye for a long time. Nixon referred to her as a 'witch; and 'clever fox' in his communications with the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. At a time, when the USA was interfering in every matter all over the world, she had the guts to give it the cold shoulder. A cold shoulder to the nosy proponent of the Cold War.

During her term, India made great strides in a number of fields. A major part of the Green Revolution, that vastly reduced food shortage in India, was during her reign; and so was the White Revolution or Operation Flood, which did the same for milk production. Together they alleviated poverty and helped move India a step closer towards self-dependency in food and India became a food exporter from an importer. She nationalised 14 major banks in 1969 and 6 more in 1980, which was a master move and what was influential in shielding the Indian economy from international fluctuations, and is applicable even today, which was recently put to test during the global crisis of 2008-09 and it passed with flying colours. Under her tenure, India carried out nuclear tests, in response to China's Test No. 6, at Pokhran in Rajasthan under the code name Smiling Buddha in 1974, and India became the youngest member of the nuclear club, and the only country outside of the permanent members in the security council to possess nuclear weapons. And the tests awed the world and showed them India's potential and power, cementing her position as an emerging economy and superpower.

[Indira during happier times.]
But the reason she became immensely popular was because of her support to the liberation movement in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The Pakistani (then West Pakistani) army's atrocities in East Pakistan caused migration of hordes to India, more than a crore (10 million) people sought shelter in India, disrupting the economy. So Indira supported the freedom movement and war was officially declared on 3rd December, 1971, when Pakistan began pre-emptive air-strikes across India. India retaliated, and it was war time. The army, navy and the air force were all deployed. Within days, defeat seemed certain for Pakistan. By December 6th, India recognised East Pakistan as Bangladesh on the 16th the Pakistani forces surrendered, but not before butchering nearly 3 million Bengali doctors, teachers, professionals, young men and others, when they were sure of defeat. The war was a severe blow to Pakistan's confidence and ego. They were beaten in all counts. They lost nearly a third of their navy, they lost nearly half their population and a third of their land to a new nation, kilometres of their territory was captured by the Indian army, though this was later returned (I think that was the only major mistake she made), and over 90,000 prisoners of war, which were also released after Pakistan signed the Simla Agreement and agreed to accept Bangladesh as an independent country.

It was during her term that India's first satellite, Aryabhatta, named after the greatest astronomer ever, took flight in 1975 and the first Indian cosmonaut in space, Rakesh Sharma, in 1984. Her conversation with him in space, which was telecast on Doordarshan, India's public service broadcaster, became extremely famous. When asked by her how India looked from up there, he borrowed lines from Allama Iqbal's masterpiece, and said, "सारे जहाँ से अच्छा" (Saare jahaan se achchaa), i.e. better than the whole world.

{Her fight back in 1979.]
However, she did have her annus horribilis, which just did not seem to end and was one of the saddest chapters in the history of democratic India. In 1975 her election to the Lower House of Parliament, Lok Sabha was declared void by the Allahabad High Court on the grounds of electoral malpractices and she was found guilty of dishonest election practices, excessive election expenditure and using the government machinery for her party benefit. She was to be removed from the Parliament within 6 months, and she could not contest elections for 6 years! Without a seat, she could also not hold the Prime Minister's post. So in one of her smartest yet most horrible moves, she asked the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a State of Emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution, justifying it as a move to quell the disorder caused by the opposition, which allowed her to rule by decree and suspend elections and civil liberties. She had assumed tyrannical powers. The media was gagged and masses were arrested, mainly from the Opposition parties, which included many future Chief Ministers, Cabinet Ministers and a Prime Minister! She imposed President's Rule in states governed by the Opposition. Her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi conducted forced vasectomies, irrespective of a person's age, in the name of Family Planning initiatives. The atrocities committed were beyond description. It was one of the darkest hours of  our otherwise great history. She kept extending the Emergency till 1977, when she called for General Elections, in which she and Sanjay and many loyalists lost their seats. However, the new coalition government did not last and was dissolved in 1979, and soon the nation realised that they indeed needed her to lead the country with an iron grip. In the elections that year, she won a landslide victory and was back in power.

[The Iron Lady.]

Yet another dark blotch on her résumé was when in 1984 she ordered the Indian Army to march into the holiest Sikh Shrine, of Harmandir Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to eradicate the Sikh separatists, led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who were taking refuge there. They wanted a separate Sikh state of Khalistan. The military operation, Operation Blue Star, destroyed and defiled the centuries old temple, led to the loss of hundreds of civilians, priests and army personnel and scarred the Sikhs' honour, for army tanks had entered the holy shrine, the temple destroyed and many manuscripts and artifacts taken over. Many Sikhs, who form a considerable part of the Indian Army, resigned. This Operation came back to haunt Indira just a couple of months later when on 31st October 1984, two of her own bodyguards, Sikhs, shot 30 bullets into her body to avenge her sacrilegious attack. She was rushed to the hospital, but passed away soon. And a nation wept. Her assassination was soon followed by anti-Sikh riots, which engulfed the country like nothing it had seen since Partition and it resulted in a huge death toll. Towards the end, she had almost become prophetic about her death and was famously quoted as saying, "If I die a violent death, as some fear and a few are plotting, I know that the violence will be in the thought and the action of the assassins, not in my dying.' and '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.' And invigorate it did!

[The two tigresses, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi.]
She was rightly called the Iron Lady. She shared that sobriquet with a number of women, but more so with her contemporary Margaret Thatcher. They both went to the same college, Somerville College, were the first female Prime Ministers of their respective countries, were surrounded by controversies, had a number of assassination attempts, battled and overcame economic problems and waged and won wars!

[A rare Gandhi family photo. From left: Sanjay, Rajiv, Indira, Rajiv's kids Rahul and Priyanka, Sanjay's wife Maneka and Rajiv's wife Sonia.]
She achieved for India what one could only dream of. I did not like her father Nehru or M. Gandhi (I refuse to call him Mahatma), but she is my favourite leader. She may have done some horrible things, and she may be the perfect exemplification of a 'Woman Hitler', but to me she was more like 'Mother India' and most of all, I adore her for she had guts and a terrific personality! She cemented her party's position, at both the state and the national level, where it has ruled the longest since Independence; her son was the next Prime Minister who won the largest ever number of seats, in the Lok Sabha, 404 out of 506, riding on the nation's emotional wave and her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, who appears an image of her, has led the country since 2004. There are countless government schemes in her name, most important being the Indira Awaas Yogna, providing homes to the poor, and the world's largest university with over 35 lakh (3.5 million) students is named Indira Gandhi National Open University after her. And so is New Delhi's international airport. She was also awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour. For a long time she was the only Indian lady to have her wax statue at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, until she was joined by my favourite actress and the most beautiful woman, Aishwarya Rai. She continues to inspire women, to surge ahead and make their mark in a patriarchal male chauvinistic society. Her legacy lives on.

Coming up Part 3 - The Iron Bullet.

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