Ever since I read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, I have been fascinated by India. Like us, they were once a colony (they achieved independance in 1947). But their culture and history are incredibly different from ours. Indira Gandhi was their third Prime Minister, and she did some great things as well as some very bad things.
The first Prime Minister of India was Indira’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru. Indira grew up an only child, her mother Kamla was often ill and the family was rich so she spent a lot of time convalescing in Switzerland. The Nehru house was a hub for powerful and influential people, and there’s a famous picture of young Indira sitting by the bed of Mahatma Ghandi after one of his fasts. This woman was unknowingly groomed to be in a place of power. I say unknowingly because although she was surrounded by power, everything I have read leads me to believe that being a woman was indeed limiting in Indian culture during that time, and that because India had just become independant from the British Empire, no one could know what would be happening politically for the next hundred years. Like so many leaders, Indira was in the right place at the right time.
So young Indira was educated at Somerville College in Oxford, England, came back and married Feroze Gandhi in 1941. It was a controversial union because he was a Parsee. Parsees are basically desended from Iranian Zoroastrianists, and Indira was Hindu. Hindus, incidentally had and still have the Caste system. I was actually chatting with and Indian Biographer today (he’s in Bombay, I LOVE facebook), and he says that the Indian constitution actually still upholds the Caste system. It’s basically a way to seperate people into socio-economic groups; there are 4 of them. There’s no marriage between Castes, and you were relegated to the life your Caste dictated to you way back when…apparently that’s going to take a few more generations to get rid of according to my writer friend, but there you have it. Anyway, I can’t imagine that it was easy for Indira to marry outside of her own religion, and some accounts say her father supported the marriage, some say he didn’t. Either way, she did marry Feroze, and the union produced two sons; Rajiv and Sanjay. During this time Indira’s father became Prime Minister, and she was his unnofficial personal assistant. Her husband died in 1960, and her father in 1964. Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded her father as Prime Minister, and she served in his cabinet. After his death in 1966, Indira was made Prime Minister by the behind-the-scenes men in charge who thought she’d be easy to control. They were wrong…and this is where it gets interesting.
Indira Ghandi did a lot of great things: Nationalized banks, devalued the rupee to boost trade, focused on agriculture to solve her country’s food shortages and even make India a food exporter (the Green Revolution), worked to give the poor a political voice that was at that time unprecedented…her campaign slogan for her second term was actually Garibi Hatao, in english: Stop Poverty.
Like many politicians though, Indira got a little power-hungry and did some pretty nasty stuff toward the end of her career: she was accused of electoral malpractice for using government resources for campaigning, and when the national court ordered her from her seat in parliament, Indira called state of emergency. She had all of her accusers arrested, and managed to retrocatively overturn the conviction. This is where it gets bad. Indira’s accusers were her political opposition, so she had them all deposed and replaced by people loyal to her. She censored the media, and because of the emergency granted herself permission to rule by decree. Then she brought her younger son Sanjay in to impose curfews in the cities, clear slums, leaving thousands of people homeless and starving, and activate the family planning program because of India’s out of control population growth. The family planning plan was simple: forced vasectomies. So what they’d do is herd a whole bunch of men on a train promising them jobs; all men would want jobs, the country was poor and starving. So they’d get on a train, full of hope…the train would stop at a camp where they would be given crude vasectomies. No job, no future children. That was the big solution to India’s population problem.
Eventually, Indira pissed off the wrong people; the Sikhs. Because the troubles between India and Pakhistan are nothing new, Pakhistanis took hold of the Golden Temple in India, and Indira had the Army open fire on them, killing civilians as well. So this made the Sikhs very angry, and unfortunately for her, Indira had two Sikh bodyguards who assasinated her for that. The year was 1984.
Indira Ghandi is still a symbol of feminism in India today, and although the end of her political career reeks of self-serving nepotism, the begining is still remembered as promising and pure. On the whole, she was just a fascinating woman in a fascinating time.