The Legend of Indira Gandhi

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (November 19, 1917–October 31, 1984) was the third (1966–77) and sixth (1980–84) prime minister of India and the first woman to hold that office. Her legacy is very complex.

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Gandhi was the daughter of the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). She was a member of the Indian National Congress, a nationalist organization established during British rule in 1885. In the 1930s Gandhi began the Vanara Sena, a movement that consisted of young people who participated in marches and protests to support the independence movement and also distributed nationalist propaganda and illegal materials.

While attending Oxford University, Gandhi met a young Parsee activist and Congress Party member, Feroze Gandhi (1912–60). The two eventually returned to India and were married in 1942. They had two sons, Rajiv (1944–91) and Sanjay (1946–80). Shortly after their marriage she and Feroze joined Mohandas Gandhi’s (1869–1948) nonviolent action against the British, which landed them in jail. Shortly after independence Gandhi moved to Delhi to aid her father, and Feroze accepted a position in Allahabad as a writer for a Congress Party newspaper.


During India’s first election, Gandhi worked as campaign manager for both her father and her husband. Nehru won the election and became the first prime minister of India; Feroze won a seat in Parliament. Friction between Nehru and Feroze Gandhi caused the couple’s official separation. Feroze Gandhi suffered a heart attack in 1957 and after a brief reconciliation with Indira and their two sons, died in 1960.

Gandhi’s political career took off. She was elected president of the Congress Party in 1960 and subsequently became Nehru’s chief of staff and major political adviser. After her father’s death in 1964, India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, appointed her minister for information and broadcasting in his cabinet. In this position she became a very popular figure, as she traveled to many non-Hindi-speaking regions and calmed rising violence against the imposing of Hindi as India’s national language. She also gained popularity when she refused to leave volatile border regions where she was vacationing when the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 broke out. After Prime Minister Shastri died, Gandhi won the election and become the third prime minister. She immediately began successful programs to aid farmers in the production of staple foods.

In 1971 she met her first major crisis when East Pakistan declared independence. Events culminated in another Indo-Pakistani War in 1971. India’s intervention led to the defeat of Pakistani forces and independence for Bangladesh. India detonated a nuclear device and joined the nuclear club in 1974 under her leadership.

The Congress Party, however, suffered schism. One reason was her shifting of power away from the individual states to the central government. She was accused of fraud and was found guilty. Her sentence was removal from office and prohibition from running in elections for six years, which she appealed, thus remaining in office until the appeal could be heard.


She then countered the advice of President Fakhuruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of emergency that would give the prime minister and her government unchecked power. On June 26, 1975, the emergency proclamation was ratified by Parliament. Elections were postponed. The emergency government she led had unlimited power of detention and censorship and persecuted many members of opposing parties. However, the economy flourished, and violence decreased. The emergency ended in 1977, possibly because she believed in her popularity. She called for elections, was beaten handily by the Janata Party, and stepped down. Her measures in imposing and leading the government during the emergency split the Congress with an offshoot wing called Congress-I supporting her.

The Janata government immediately sought to prosecute the former prime minister for her illegal acts. It reviewed, and the president called for, new elections in 1980, in which the Congress-I won a landslide victory.

Gandhi’s final term as prime minister had to deal with challenges from the Sikh Akal Takht extremist movement, which sought autonomy for Punjab, a state with a Sikh majority. Gandhi countered by ordering the Indian army to raid the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a site holy to Sikhism. The raid resulted in an uproar among the Sikh minority. Two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her on October 31, 1984.

Caleb Simmons

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