Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India for 16 years (1966-77 and 1980-84). She was the daughter of Jawaharal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, and was not related to the non-violence activist Mahatma Gandhi. Indira Gandhi was the world's longest serving woman prime minster. She was also the first woman leader of a major country in the modern era, serving for almost a dozen years before Margaret Thatcher was elected.

After Nehru’s death in 1964 Indira Gandhi held a cabinet portfolio as minister of information and broadcasting in government of Lal Bahadur Shastri—Nehru’s successor. The only child of Nehru, who was also her mentor in the nationalist movement, she was selected by the Congress Caucus, also known as the Syndicate, as prime minister when Shastri died in 1966 even though her eligibility was challenged by Morarji Desai, a veteran nationalist and long-time aspirant to that office. The Congress "bosses" were apparently looking for a leading figure acceptable to the masses, who could command general support during the next general election but who would also acquiesce to their guidance. Hardly had Indira Gandhi begun in office than she encountered a series of problems that defied easy solutions: Mizo tribal uprisings in the northeast; famine, labor unrest, and misery among the poor in the wake of rupee devaluation; and agitation in Punjab for linguistic and religious separatism. [Source: Library of Congress]

Book: “The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi” by Katherine Frank, HarperCollins, 2001.

Indira Gandhi's Early Life and Family

Indira Gandhi was the granddaughter of Motilal Nehru, the patriarch of a dynasty that would produce three Indian prime ministers—Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandi. Motilal was an early member of the Indian national Congress. In 1929 the Congress drafted its own constitution under his guidance, demanding full independence for India.

Indira Gandhi was Nehru's only child. She was born on November 19, 1917 in Allahabad, an ancient city on the banks of the Ganges that retains much of its elegant charm. She was brought up in a grand manor house with Serves porcelain, grand pianos, libraries and Saville Row suits. Indira was controlled by her father and her grandfather. When she nine, her grandfather tried to prevent her from having physical contact with her beloved mother. She was brought up to be strong and uncomplaining. Her father insisted she run everyday "breathing through her heels."

Nehru married his Indira’s mother Kamala when he was young. Kamala was an insecure woman who developed into a stunning beauty in her 30s and was dominated by Nehru's sisters. She was often ill, enduring bouts of tuberculosis and pleurisy. Nehru's sisters’ were particularly abusive to her when he was in prison. She died in 1936. After Kamala died Nehru had affairs and fell in love with Edwina Mountbatten. Indira was traumatized by her father's period in prison and her mother's illnesses.

Indira Gandhi was described by UCLA historian Stanley Wolpert as "a frail, introspective, brooding child reared in a world of silent suffering and deeply felt hatreds." She once said, "My parents and relatives, most of the family, were often imprisoned. Our house was raided by the police and things confiscated.”

Indira Gandhi once said she developed a "love for stones no less than trees, and for animals of all kinds...If a person is not at home with nature then I think he is not at home with himself either. " She had a pet bear and a blackbuck kept "for a very long time," until house guests started to complain about being speared with its spiral horns. [Source: John Putman, National Geographic September 1976]

Indira Gandhi was educated early on by English governesses who called her father "Joe" and her aunt "Nan." She once said that Nan "blighted my youth." On one occasion Indira overheard her call her "ugly and stupid." Later Indira studied at a convents school in India and an exclusive private school in Switzerland. She attended Oxford.

Indira Gandhi's Own Family Life

Indira went against her parents wishes and married a Parsi named Feroze Gandhi (no relation either to the Mahatma) even though her father told her he was "pained and surprised" by "the casual way" in which she discarded "precious traditions and heritages."

Feroze was a lawyer and the son of a shopkeeper. He initially lifted her spirit and made her feel beautiful. He and Indira had two children: Sanjay and Rajiv. Feroze ultimately disappointed Indira. He was very handsome but reportedly had several affairs, including, according to some sources, one with Indira's mother. He and Indira endured splits and reconciliations. He died at the age of 48 in 1960. Indira is rumored to have taken a lover after her husband's death.

Indira's youngest and favorite son Sanjay was groomed to be Indira's successor despite a reckless streak. While Indira was in office he often acted as Indira's political enforcer. Indira spoiled Sanjay and he played a part in her unpopularity (See Corruption). He died on June 23, 1980 after failing to come out a dive during a stunt plane maneuver. After Sanjay died, the position of Indira’s older son Rajiv and his Italian wife Sonia rose.

Maneka Gandhi, widow of Indira's son Sanjay, often defied her mother-in-law Indira. Maneka was became widow at 23 with a three-month old son when Sanjay died. Refering to Indira Gandhi as Mrs. G, a family friend told the New York Times, "Maneka was totally neglected, and Rajiv and Sonia came to the center stage as Mrs. G's closest confidants. Mrs. G. actually went out of her way to belittle the girl. With Maneka in the room, she'd give Sonia something—a watch or a pen—and say, 'I want you to have this."

In 1982, Maneka was accused of disloyalty and was kicked out of Indira Gandhi’s house. Maneka had anticipated the move and made sure the press was on hand when she left. In her autobiography, Maneka wrote that Indira said, “You will get out of this house immediately...Get out this minute. Get out!. Maneka said Indira wagged her finger and threw her belongings in the road. Maneka later ran for parliament as a member of the BJP with her son Varn acting as her campaign manager. In the mid-1980s she flew to Kashmir to support an official who was ousted by Indira.

See Rajiv Gandhi

Indira Gandhi's Character

Manipulative, calculating and cold, Gandhi was often been compared with Durga, the Hindu goddess-figure and warrior-queen. The Economist reported "Mrs. Gandhi defined and dominated the politics of her country for two decades. She took big risks, some wise, some foolish." Indira was deeply influenced by her father.

Indira could be a charismatic speaker. She had very distinctive gestures and speech cadences. She proved to be a very capable, and sometimes ruthless, leader. She was skilled at manipulating populist sentiments and thrived in a world dominated by men.

Indira consulted regularly with astrologers and holy men. It is said that she scheduled trip at auspicious times and reportedly told Queen Elizabeth to delay the landing of a flight she was on so as not to land at an inauspicious time. The flamboyant guru Chandraswami was credited with devising potions to protect Indira Gandhi from her enemies. He acted like a court astrologer for Gandhi's government, reading palms, mixing traditional medicines and telling fortunes to influential people in her government.

Indira Gandhi's Early Life in Politics

Indira Gandhi was raised in grand mansion where her father, Mahatma Gandhi, and other members of the Congress party held important strategy sessions that presumably Indira sometimes sat in on. Her early was life was dominated by politics. At the of 12 she ran messages for the adults . Shortly after she was married she was imprisoned for 12 months for leading a protest.

Because Nehru was a widower, Indira acted as first lady. She became head of the Indian Congress Party at the age of 47 in 1964, the year Nehru died. She was named minister of information and broadcasting in the cabinet of her father's successor, Lal Badahur Shastri. When he died in 1966, Indira was chosen by the Indian National Congress to be prime minister.

As a member of the legislature Indira Gandh first represented the Phulpur constituency near Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. She and her father, Nehru, held the seat of Rae Barelu almost continuously from 1952 to 1984. The home district of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is now centered around Amethi, a small town in Utter Pradesh.

Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister

Indira Gandhi was prime minister of India for 16 years (1966-77 and 1980-84). She was named to the position in 1966 as a compromise between conservatives and leftist in the Congress party. She was one the first woman leaders in a modern democracy. She was initially regarded as a "dumb doll" and a figurehead and then surprised everyone by seizing power and purging those who opposed her. Through the 1970s and early 1980s she dominated Indian politics and consolidated authority in the central government. Gandhi passed laws that centralized power in New Delhi, surrounded herself with people judged more by their loyally than their merit and stacked the court with "pliable judges.".

Nehru had never wanted to create a family dynasty. Indira's start was shaky and insecure. In the fourth general election in February 1967, the Congress majority was greatly reduced when it secured only 54 percent of the parliamentary seats, and non-Congress ministries were established in Bihar, Kerala, Orissa, Madras, Punjab, and West Bengal. A Congress-led coalition government collapsed in Uttar Pradesh, while Rajasthan was brought under President's Rule — direct central government rule. [Source: Library of Congress]

The kingmakers in the Congress party tried make Indira Gandhi their puppet. In November 1969, the Congress expelled her for "indiscipline". She then formed her own faction in Congress, rallied the support of loyal M.P.s, called elections and drove out the old boys network. The series of events split the party into two factions: the Congress (O) — for Organisation — under Morarji Desai, a veteran nationalist, and the Congress (R) — for Requisition — under Gandhi. She continued as prime minister with support from communists, Sikhs, and regional parties and eliminated all rivals for the next 15 years. After this her grasp on power was so formidable that the president of her party one remarked, "India is Indira and Indira is India."

Indira Gandhi grabbed so much power herself and her central government that the role of state governments and private enterprises was greatly reduced. Her government strictly regulated everything from birth control to the manufacture of automobiles. She was the first world leader to introduce equal wage legislation but the law did little to help improve the lives of working and non-working women.

Gandhi campaigned fiercely on the platform "eliminate poverty" (garibi hatao ) during the fifth general election in March 1971, and the Congress gained a large majority in Parliament against her former party leaders whose slogan was "eliminate Indira" (Indira hatao). After India's decisive victory over Pakistan in the third war over Kashmir in December 1971, Indira firmly established herself at the pinnacle of power, overcoming challenges from the Congress (O), the Supreme Court, and the state chief ministers in the early 1970s. The more solidified her monopoly of power became, the more egregious was her intolerance of criticisms, even when they were deserved. As head of her party and the government, Gandhi nominated and removed the chief ministers at will and frequently reshuffled the portfolios of her own cabinet members. Ignoring their obligations to their constituencies, party members competed with each other in parading their loyalty to Gandhi, whose personal approval alone seemed crucial to their survival. [Source: Library of Congress]

Indira Gandhi's Domestic Programs: Planned Economy, Birth Control and Poverty

In the Indira Gandhi years India had a Soviet-style economy with production quotas and a limited variety of goods. Seeking to eradicate poverty, Mrs. Gandhi pursued a vigorous policy in 1969 of land reform and placed a ceiling on personal income, private property, and corporate profits. She also nationalized the major banks, a bold step that widened a rift between herself and the party elders.

Economic self-sufficiency was one of the government's main goals. The possession of consumer goods such as refrigerators and automobiles was regarded as wasteful and frivolous. Foreign products and imported goods were either prohibited outright or kept out with outrageously high duties.

Indira Gandhi's slogan was “Garibi Hatao” (Remove Poverty). Very few poor Indians rose out poverty during her decade and a half in power, however, and little progress was made on the problems of illiteracy, child labor, infant mortality, and castism. The foundation of her family planning campaign was a forced sterilization program conceived by her son Sanjay. As part of Gandhi's 1971 "Removal of Poverty" program industry was nationalized. Her 1975 twenty-point poverty programs featured loans to the poor but much of the money was siphoned by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

Under Indira Gandhi, family planning oriented towards sterilization. With Sanjay Gandhi, Indira's son, at the helm, the government tried to reduce the number of births by offering men money and transistor radios for vasectomies. When that didn't work it tried more heavy handed methods and some people were sterilized without their knowledge. There was public backlash against the government and the program didn't work. The population rose at an alarming rate. Indonesia had more success with the "supermarket" method of birth control.

Indira Gandhi and Foreign Policy

Indira Gandhi was prime minster when India exploded its first nuclear device in an underground tests on May 18, 1974 in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. After India's decisive victory over Pakistan in the third war over Kashmir in December 1971 she was at the pinnacle of her power.

Indira Gandhi was an isolationist. She boldly established a relationship with the Soviet Union, much to the chagrin of the U.S. In August 1971, Gandhi signed the twenty-year Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation with the Soviet Union because ties with the United States, which had improved in Nehru's later years, had eroded. Her New Delhi home had a photograph of her father having dinner with the Kennedies right next to a pictures signed "Loving Greetings, Uncle Ho Chi Minh." [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

A civil war stirred up by India in 1971 created the nation of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan. Over one million died in the war and 10 million hungry refugees fled to India, mostly to Calcutta, West Bengal, Assam and other places in eastern India.. Most of the dead were killed by the West Pakistan army.

The division of Pakistan made India the unquestioned superpower of the subcontinent. India's victory over Pakistan in 1971 and Gandhi's insistence that the millions of refugees from Bangladesh be sent back to their country generated a national surge in her popularity, later confirmed by her party's gains in state elections in 1972.

Hard Times and Corruption Under Indira Gandhi

Neither Gandhi's consolidation of power, nor her imperious style of administration, nor even her rhetoric of radical reforms was enough to meet the deepening economic crisis spawned by the enormous cost of the 1971 war. A huge additional outlay was needed to manage the refugees, the crop failures in 1972 and 1973, the skyrocketing world oil prices in 1973-74, and the overall drop in industrial output despite a surplus of scientifically and technically trained personnel. No immediate sign of economic recovery or equity was visible despite a loan obtained from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1974. Both Gandhi's office and character came under severe tests, beginning with railroad employee strikes, national civil disobedience advocated by J.P. Narayan, defeat of her party in Gujarat by a coalition of parties calling itself the Janata Morcha (People's Front), an all-party, no-confidence motion in Parliament, and, finally, a writ issued by the Allahabad High Court invalidating her 1971 election and making her ineligible to occupy her seat for six years. [Source: Library of Congress]

Policies that were intended to reduce social and economic disparities created special interest. States subsides that were supposed to benefit the poor were used instead by bureaucrats, land owners and industrialists to keep a reliable flow of profits coming in. India's cycle of corruption began in 1971 when Indira Gandhi launched an expensive Western style political campaign that needed millions of dollars to finance. Businessmen and special interests groups recruited by her fundraisers were willing to give her the money she needed to run he political machine in return for favors.

The most famous Indian corruption scandals was the Maruti affair, in which Indira Gandhi's son Sanjay siphoned money from a "people car" project in the 1970s. The Indira Gandhi period one government official said "represented a transition from a sacrificing group of people to a self-seeking, profit-making group of politicians who were nothing but rentiers,' he said. "Perhaps a wealthy country can survive bad character in its leaders, but a poor country like India need people of integrity. [Source: Molly Moore, Washington Post, February 3, 1995]

Indira Gandhi Imposes Emergency Rule

In 1975, Gandhi invoked "emergency" rule after a High Court judgment had gone against her that threatened to remove her from office. What had once seemed a remote possibility took place on June 25, 1975: the president declared an Emergency and the government suspended civil rights. Because the nation's president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974-77), and Gandhi's own party members in Parliament were amenable to her personal influence, Gandhi had little trouble in pushing through amendments to the constitution that exonerated her from any culpability, declaring President's Rule in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu where anti-Indira parties ruled, and jailing thousands of her opponents. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In her need to trust and confide in someone during this extremely trying period, she turned to her younger son, Sanjay, who became an enthusiastic advocate of the Emergency. Under his watchful eyes, forced sterilization as a means of birth control was imposed on the poor, increased numbers of urban squatters and slum dwellers in Delhi were evicted in the name of beautification projects, and disgruntled workers were either disciplined or their wages frozen. The Reign of Terror, as some called it, continued until January 18, 1977, when Gandhi suddenly relaxed the Emergency, announced the next general election in March, and released her opponents from prison. *

Gandhi's desire to hold on to power was compared with that of U.S. president Richard Nixon in the Watergate era. Under emergency rule she ruled by decree, suspended civil liberties, imprisoned thousands of leading politicians and intellectuals, muzzled the Indian and foreign press, and blocked recourse of the courts. Gandhi's move was popular among the Indian middle-class. "Even the traffic was disciplined during the emergency," a hotel owner told Burns. "We Indians do better under a bit of dictatorship.”

Indira Gandhi Driven from Office in 1977 Only to Return in 1980

In April, 1977, Indira Gandhi was driven from office by Indian voters, who elected Moraji Desai, an opposition leader who had been imprisoned without trial only two months before. The vote showed that Indians could put up with a degree of economic injustice but they would not tolerate tyranny. In February 1977, with elections only two months away, both J.P. Narayan and Morarji Desai reactivated the multiparty front, which campaigned as the Janata Party and rode anti-Emergency sentiment to secure a clear majority in the Lok Sabha (House of the People), the lower house of Parliament .

Desai, a conservative Brahman, became India's fourth prime minister. He formed a coalition and ran India from 1977 to 1979. The first non-Congress Part member to rule India he died in 1995 at the age of 99. He attributed his long life to the fact he was celibate until the age of 32. Desai’s his government, from its inception, became notorious for its factionalism and furious internal competition. As it promised, the Janata government restored freedom and democracy, but its inability to effect sound reforms or ameliorate poverty left people disillusioned. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Desai lost the support of Janata's left-wing parties by the early summer of 1979, and several secular and liberal politicians abandoned him altogether, leaving him without a parliamentary majority. A no-confidence motion was about to be introduced in Parliament in July 1979, but he resigned his office; Desai's government was replaced by a coalition led by Chaudhury Charan Singh (prime minister in 1979-80). Although Singh's life-long ambition had been to become prime minister, his age and inefficiency were used against him, and his attempts at governing India proved futile; new elections were announced in January 1980. *

Gandhi and her party, renamed Congress (I) — I for Indira — campaigned on the slogan "Elect a Government That Works!" and regained power. Sanjay Gandhi was elected to the Lok Sabha. Unlike during the Emergency, when India registered significant economic and industrial progress, Gandhi's return to power was hindered by a series of woes and tragedies, beginning with Sanjay's death in June 1980 while attempting to perform stunts in his private airplane. Secessionist forces in Punjab and in the northeast and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979 consumed her energy. *

Sikh Separatist Movement

Frustrations over discrimination among Sikhs led to the creation of a Sikh militancy in the 1970s that demanded a separate Sikh state. The government didn’t want the Punjab—the breadbasket of India— to break away from India.. Using a argument similar to that used later in Kashmir, the Indian government argued that if the Sikhs were allowed to have their own state then other ethnic and religious groups would also want autonomy, potentially fracturing India into a bunch of small states like the Balkans.

The leader of the Sikh separatist movement was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a charismatic preacher who wore a blue turban tied in the old tradition way, had powerful hands, a droopy left eyelid and crooked yellowish teeth. He often carried a arrow in his hand which symbolized his religious authority. During his inflammatory and virulent speeches, he accused Hindus of injustice and described how police tortured Sikhs by cutting open their legs and pouring salt in their wounds. He demanded that Punjab be made a Sikh state called Khalistan. It was hard to imagine this happening since the Punjab grew two thirds of India's grain.

Indira Gandhi began to involve the armed forces in resolving violent domestic conflicts between 1980 and 1984. In May 1984, Sikh extremists occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar, converting it into a haven for terrorists. Gandhi responded in early June when she launched Operation Bluestar, which killed and wounded hundreds of soldiers, insurgents, and civilians.

On June 5, 1984, some 4,000 Indian soldiers took up positions around the 72-acre Golden Temple. Inside the temple were 1,000 Sikh pilgrims and separatist armed with rifles, grenades and anti-tank rockets, positioned behind sandbags, brick and steel. Infantrymen stormed the temple and were greeted with a barrage of automatic weapon, mortar and rocket fire. Pinned inside the temple, the Sikh commander of the Indian forces, called upon tanks to back him up, a move he didn't want to make out of fear of damaging the temple.

Assassination of Indira Gandhi

On November 12, 1984, five months after the raid on the Golden Temple and shortly after predicting her own death, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her trusted Sikh bodyguards at her home shortly before she was supposed to be interviewed by Peter Ustinov, who later said, "We were in the garden at 8:30...the mike was in place and we were all ready. I told the press secretary we were ready and he went to fetch her." The bodyguards apparently committed the murder in revenge for the assault on the Golden Temple. They were reportedly given a "black warrant," or execution order, by Sikh militant leaders.

At 9:08 in the morning, as she was walking to the interview, Beant Singh, a Sikh police subinspector, drew his revolver and fired three times. Satwatwant Singh, the constable at the gate to her house, opened fire with a machine gun and pumped 30 bullets in her crumpled body. Beant Singh raised his hands and said, "I have done what I have to do. Now do what you have to do." He was shot dead. His accomplice was later tried and hanged. Mrs. Gandhi was driven in a white Ambassador to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where she was pronounced dead on arrival. She had been hit by at least 20 bullets. [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

Few tears were shed. The cremation of Indira Gandhi was broadcast around the world. After witnessing her cremation presided over by her son Rajiv, one visiting dignitary asked him, "Could you really do that to your mother?"

Riots After Indira Gandhi's Assassination

Thousands of Sikhs were killed in riots that followed the assassination. The news of Indira Gandhi's assassination plunged New Delhi and other parts of India into anti-Sikh riots for several days; several thousand Sikhs were killed. After Gandhi's son, Rajiv Gandhi, was sworn in as prime minister he called for "maximum restraint" but his statement "When a giant tree falls, the earth shakes" was seen by some as tacit authorization the anti-Sikh violence. On the night after Gandhi's assassination, the streets were quiet but the next night Hindu mobs rampaged through Sikh neighborhoods, chanting "blood for blood." Sikhs were pulled off buses and trains and butchered and set on fire with tires over their heads. Black smoke hung in the air from all the Sikh trucks, taxis and temples set on fire.

Senior officials in Gandhi's party were charged with leading the disturbances. One local politician directed a mob to burn a row of Sikh houses, leaving one owned by a party supporter untouched. The new president of India was nearly killed when a mob attacked his limousine because it was driven by a Sikh. One Hindu man armed with an iron stake told Time, "You know how I feel. I want to kill Sikhs. I want to see Sikh blood on the streets." Other Hindus hid their Sikh neighbor from the mobs.

The worst sectarian violence since 1947, lasted for 11 days, with most of the killing taking place during the first three days. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, and 3,000 to 10,000 people, mostly Sikh men and boys, died in the violence. Sikh men that survived had their beards burned off and the turbans desecrated. Only a handful of the rioters, murderers and leaders were arrested and fewer were convicted on any crimes. Many of the widows and children of the murdered men lived together in crowded apartment blocks in the neighborhood of Tilak Nagar in Delhi.

After 1984 through early the 1990s an average of about 5,000 people died every year in Sikh-related violence in the Punjab and there were estimated to be a hundred different armed terrorist bands in the Punjab.

The conflict hurt the economy. Trains going into the Punjab were canceled. After the Gandhi assassination there was a great deal of debate within the Sikh community about tactics and ideology. The Sikh separatist movement ended as much from pressure within the Sikh community as outside it. The conflicted in the early 1990s with the Indian government cracking down hard on separatists while holding elections in 1992. A new state government helped defeat the separatists and restore Punjab’s position as the “breadbasket of India.”

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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