AS PRIME MINISTER OF INDIA
- Indira Gandhi became a member of the Congress Working Committee and Central Election Party in 1955.
- In 1958, she was appointed as a member of the Central Parliamentary Board of Congress.
- She was the Chairperson, National Integration Council of A.I.C.C. and the President, All
India Youth Congress, 1956 and Women’s Dept. A.I.C.C.
- She became the President, Indian National Congress in 1959 and served till 1960 and then
again from January 1978.
- She had been Minister of Information and Broadcasting from 1964 to 1966.
- On January 19, 1966, as the meeting to appoint the next Prime Minister took place, huge
crowds gathered outside the building, waiting for news. The then party chief, Satya
Narain Sinha, emerged. The crowd is said to have asked “What is it? Boy or girl?“
and Sinha responded “It’s a girl,“ causing the crowd to cheer with
joy. Indira had won with 355 votes to Desai’s 169. In typical Indira fashion, on
learning she had won, she humbly called herself a “desh sevika,“ or servant
of the nation. When asked by a journalist about the significance of her election as the
country’s leader, following in her father’s footsteps, she replied, “Perhaps
it ensures some kind of continuity—continuity of policy, and also perhaps continuity of
- Journalist Sudipta Kaviraj later wrote that “the greatest qualification of Indira
Gandhi at the time of her accession was…the fact that she was not too strongly
associated with any policy line to give offence to any of the groups which dominated the
polycentric structure of the Congress party after Nehru’s death.“
- The election of a woman as Prime Minister of India caught the attention of the world. In
America, Indira appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the heading: ’Troubled
India in a Woman’s Hands.’ English journalist John Grigg wrote in the
Guardian, “Probably no woman in history has assumed a heavier burden of
responsibility and certainly no country of India’s importance has ever before
entrusted so much power to a woman.“ Indira’s election paralleled a growing
feminist movement in the West, yet Indira never considered herself to be a feminist.
- On 24th January, 1966, Indira Gandhi was sworn in as the Prime Minister of India along
with the new Central Cabinet by the President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan.
- Indira Gandhi became the first woman Prime Minister of India and the third Prime
Minister of the country in succession to Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Years
of training, shouldering responsibilities, work tours and assistance to her father,
culminated in her assuming the leadership of the Government of India.
- There was a spontaneous affection and genuine admiration expressed throughout the
country. People felt she had stood the test of fire and deserved the honour.
- She served the country as Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980
until her assassination in 1984. Concurrently, she was the Minister for Atomic Energy
from September 1967 to March 1977.
- She also held the additional charge of the Ministry of External Affairs from September
5, 1967 to February 14, 1969.
- She headed the Ministry of Home Affairs from June 1970 to November 1973 and Minister for
Space from June 1972 to March 1977.
- From January 1980 she was the Chairperson, Planning Commission.
- She again chaired the Prime Minister’s Office from January 14, 1980.
- Indira Gandhi was the second longest-serving Prime Minister of India, after Jawaharlal
THE PURSUIT OF SELF RELIANCE
“..In the earlier decades the rallying cry of the deprived people was independence. Today
it should be self-reliance....” - Indira Gandhi, 1972 March 20, New Delhi
The achievements under Indira Gandhi’s leadership have been truly outstanding with respect to
achieving self-reliance and ensuring social justice.
- As the Prime Minister, Indira carried forward the Nehru legacy in economic planning.
Like Nehru, she was committed to achieving self-reliance in crucial sectors like food
grains, defence and technology. Through the measures pursued by her, the Indian economy
was insulated from adverse international issues such as the oil crisis. She also worked
towards bringing down inflation to a reasonably low level, both in the mid-seventies and
the early eighties. The domestic production of crude oil had been stepped up
substantially during this period.
- Like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira pursued an imaginative policy of developing scientific
research within the country by strengthening various scientific laboratories and
institutions through increased funding. It is now widely recognised that India occupies
a leading position in the developing countries with respect to scientific manpower and
- The second phase of land reforms undertaken in the early seventies altered the scenario
in rural India by preventing the concentration of land in just a few hands. It provided
land to millions of landless families.
- She took special interest in space research and research for peaceful uses of atomic
THE DECISION TO NATIONALISE BANKS, NATIONALISED THE COAL, STEEL, COPPER, REFINING, COTTON
TEXTILES AND INSURANCE INDUSTRIES
“...An institution, such as the banking system, which touches and should touch the lives
of millions, has necessarily to be inspired by a larger social purpose and has to
subserve national priorities and objectives....” -- Indira Gandhi, Broadcast from
All India Radio, July 1969
- The Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi issued an
ordinance ('Banking Companies (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Ordinance,
1969') and nationalised the 14 largest commercial banks with effect from the midnight of
19th July, 1969. This was a major economic milestone. Fourteen banks which
controlled seventy percent of India's deposits were nationalised. Six more banks were
nationalised in 1980. Imperial Bank had been nationalised in 1955, making it the State
Bank of India.
- The nationalisation of banks led to credit being channelised to agriculture and small
and medium industries. Banks had to reserve as much as forty percent of credit to the
priority sectors (agriculture and small and medium industries).
- The nationalisation drive not only helped increase household savings, but also provided
considerable investments in the informal sector, in small and medium-sized enterprises
and in agriculture. It contributed significantly to regional development and to the
expansion of India’s industrial and agricultural base.
- Jayaprakash Narayan, who became famous for leading the opposition to Gandhi in the
seventies, praised her for her bank nationalisations.
NATIONALISED THE OIL COMPANIES AFTER THE 1971 WAR
- During the 1971 war against Pakistan, foreign-owned private oil companies had refused to
supply fuel to the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force. In response, Gandhi
nationalised oil companies in 1973. After nationalisation the oil majors such as the
Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation (HPCL) and the Bharat
Petroleum Corporation (BPCL) had to keep a minimum stock level of oil, to be supplied to
the military when needed.
- In 1974 and 1976, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nationalised ESSO and Burma Shell (Caltex
and IBP were also nationalised). She formed the Oil Coordination Committee to ensure a
steady oil supply and to keep prices stable. She also introduced the ‘Administered
Pricing Mechanism’ to set the prices of petroleum products.
THE GREEN REVOLUTION
The Green Revolution in India was one of the important pieces of Indira’s radical programme
in the mid and late sixties.
- In the later years of Nehru‘s final term and during the Shastri interregnum,
agricultural reform shifted from institutional and structural reform of land use and
ownership, to a variety of technological developments.
- Among the most important of these was the introduction of hybrid, high-yielding
varieties of seeds for wheat and rice. Such crops increased production dramatically,
especially in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
- Indira Gandhi made the Green Revolution a key government priority and along with the new
hybrid seeds, initiated state subsidies, the provision of electrical power, water,
fertilisers and credit to farmers. Agricultural income was not taxable.
- The result was that India became self-sufficient in food – a heartfelt aim for Indira
after American President Johnson’s erratic and condition-laden food aid.
- The government investment in agriculture also rose sharply. The institutional finance
made available to agriculture doubled between 1968 and 1973. At the same time, public
investment, institutional credit, remunerative prices and the availability of the new
technology at low prices was also made available. This increased the profitability of
private investment by farmers and consequently the total gross capital formation in
agriculture proceeded at a faster pace. The results of this new strategy was witnessed
within a short period of time between 1967-68 and 1970-71, when food grain production
increased by thirty seven percent and subsequently net imports of food items fell from
10.3 million tonnes in 1966 to 3.6 million in 1970. Indeed, food availability increased
from 73.5 million tonnes to 99.5 million over the same period. By the eighties, not only
was India self-sufficient with food stocks of over 30 million tonnes, but also exporting
food to pay off its loans or loaning it to food deficit countries.
HER CHALLENGE TO THE SYNDICATE, THE GROUP OF PROVINCIAL SATRAPS OF THE CONGRESS
- In 1969 India's grand old party, the Congress, faced its first major split. The old
guard led by party President, S. Nijalingappa expelled Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from
the party for "fostering a cult of personality". The "Syndicate" (as the senior members
were called), could not quite come to terms with the fact that the "gungi gudiya" (dumb
doll), their snide reference for Indira, had a mind of her own. The break was confirmed
when Indira, after proposing N. Sanjeeva Reddy's name for presidentship, asked the
Congressmen to "vote according to their conscience". V.V. Giri, the rebellious Congress
- Several talks and meetings were held between the warring Congress factions - Syndicate
old guard and Indira’s followers. But to no avail. On 28th October Congress President,
Nijalingappa wrote an open letter to Indira charging her for creating a ‘personality
cult’ that threatened the democratic working of Congress.
- On 1st November, two unprecedented Congress Working Committee meetings took
place at the same time in two different locations of New Delhi; at the All-India
Congress Committee headquarters on Jantar Mantar Road and at Indira Gandhi’s home at 1,
Safdarjung Road. Each meeting was attended by team members. A week later, Indira released
a ‘Letter to Congressmen’ in which she unconvincingly insisted:
“…What we witness … is not a mere clash of personalities and
certainly not a fight for power. It is not as simple as a conflict between the parliamentary
and organization wings. It is a conflict between two outlooks and attitudes in regard to the
objectives of the Congress and the methods in which Congress itself should function. It is a
conflict between those who are for socialism, for change and for the fullest internal
democracy and debate in the organization, on the one hand, and those who are for the status
quo, for conformism and for less than full discussion inside the Congress, on the
- On 12th November, the Syndicate held an inquisition. Indira was tried in
absentia and found guilty of indiscipline and defiance of party leadership. The next
day, Congress President Nijalingappa announced that Indira was expelled from the party.
- Indira called for a meeting of the Cabinet which (with a few exceptions) pledged its
loyalty to her. She also issued a statement: “It is presumptuous on the part of this
handful of men to take disciplinary action against the democratically elected leader of
the people. Are we to submit to them (the party bosses) or clean the organization of
these undemocratic and Fascist persons?”
- Intense lobbying followed in order to ascertain who would hold onto the majority of the
Congress. Indira won, with a total of 297 Congress MOs, 220 of them from Lok Sabha.
Thereon, Indira’s Congress took on the title Congress (R) – for Requistionist and the
Syndicate clique became Congress (O) for the Organisation (though Congress (R) was
commonly believed to stand for the ruling Congress and Congress (O) for the old
NUCLEAR PROGRAMME OF INDIA
- India started its own nuclear programme in 1944 when Homi J. Bhabha founded the Tata
Institute of Fundamental Research. Physicist Raja Ramanna played an essential role in
nuclear weapons technology research; he expanded and supervised scientific research on
nuclear weapons and was the first directing officer of the small team of scientists that
supervised and carried out the test.
- After India’s independence, Jawaharlal Nehru authorised the development of a nuclear
programme headed by Homi Bhabha. The Atomic Energy Act of 1948 focused on peaceful
development. India was heavily involved in the development of the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, but ultimately opted not to sign it.
- “...We must develop this atomic energy quite apart from war — indeed I think we must
develop it for the purpose of using it for peaceful purposes. ... Of course, if we
are compelled as a nation to use it for other purposes, possibly no pious sentiments
of any of us will stop the nation from using it that way..” - Jawaharlal
Nehru, First Prime Minister of India
- India continued to harbour ambivalent feelings about nuclear weapons and accorded low
priority to their production until the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. In December 1971,
Richard Nixon sent a carrier battle group led by the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) into the
Bay of Bengal in an attempt to intimidate India. The Soviet Union responded by sending a
submarine armed with nuclear missiles from Vladivostok to trail the US task force. The
Soviet response demonstrated the deterrent value and significance of nuclear weapons and
ballistic missile submarines to Indira Gandhi. India gained the military and political
initiative over Pakistan after acceding to the treaty that divided Pakistan into two
different political entities.
- In 1967, Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister and work on the nuclear programme
resumed with renewed vigour. Homi Sethna, a chemical engineer played a significant role
in development of weapon-grade plutonium while Ramanna designed and manufactured the
entire nuclear device. The first nuclear bomb project did not employ more than seventy
five scientists because of its sensitivity. The nuclear weapons programme was now
directed towards the production of plutonium rather than uranium.
- On 7th September, 1972 when she was at the peak of her post-Bangladesh war
popularity, Indira authorised the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to manufacture a
nuclear device and prepare it for a test. Although the Indian Army was not fully
involved in the nuclear testing, the army's highest command was kept fully informed of
the test preparations. The preparations were carried out under the watchful eyes of the
Indian political leadership with civilian scientists assisting the Indian Army.
- The device was formally called the ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosive’, but it was usually
referred to as the ‘Smiling Buddha’. The device was detonated on 18th May, 1974 on
Buddha Jayanti (marking the birth of Gautama Buddha). Indira maintained tight control of
all aspects of the preparations of the Smiling Buddha test.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
- Indira was deeply committed to the modernisation of our economy through technological
upgradation. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, she pursued an imaginative policy of developing
scientific research within the country by strengthening various scientific laboratories
and institutions. There is no doubt that the productivity of our resources would have
been much lower without the achievements in the field of science and technology. Indira
was aware that in a fast-changing world, India could not afford to slacken its efforts
for achieving technological self-reliance. It is now widely recoginsed that India
occupies a leading position in the developing countries in respect of scientific
manpower and know-how.
- She took special interest in space research and in the research for peaceful uses of
atomic energy. She initiated a communication revolution in the country through the reach
of television network which promised to become a major instrument of socio-economic
change, with dissemination of useful information and knowledge.
- Indira’s tenure was marked in Science and Technology by the avowed pursuit of (a) self
and (b) the desirability of using Science and Technology to meet the basic needs of the
people. Self-reliance in the Indian context must be understood not as technological
autarky but as the ability to (i) develop the needed technologies and (ii) to adapt and
absorb the needed technologies which were imported. The experience of other countries,
such as Japan, suggests that such goals of self-reliance have to be pursued consistently
and vigorously over fairly long periods of time if they are to make any impact. Indira
Gandhi’s stay in power was certainly long enough to permit, in this regard, a fair
assessment of the results for the actions that were taken.
- The challenge to any political leadership seeking self-reliance goals lies in the task
of setting up the right priorities and of creating suitable policy instruments and
institutions. The data reveals that lack of financing has not been a problem. The growth
of investments in Science and Technology during Indira Gandhi’s tenure is quite
impressive by the standards of developing countries. In India, the market mechanism has
played a very limited role in allocating resources for Science and Technology. On the
other hand, the state (of which Indira Gandhi was the chief functionary) played a very
active and large role in determining the nature, rate and quantum of investments in the
Science and Technology field.
- Indira Gandhi’s government adopted the import substitution strategy for technology. The
intent was to stimulate and protect the domestic Research and Development activities. As
a consequence, the Indian industry made progress in evaluating and unpackaging imported
technology. This improved the country’s bargaining strength and it's emerging as a
technology supplier to the rest of the world.
- Indira initiated many important changes affecting Science and Technology. She provided
political patronage to Science and Technology, through increased funding for Research
and Development, by the elevation of scientists and technocrats and by the creation of
institutions for Science and Technology planning.
--- Reference from: India the Years of Indira Gandhi, Yogendra K. Malik and Dhirendra K.
Vajpeyi. E. J. Brill
INDIA’S SPACE MISSION
- In 1968, Indira Gandhi dedicated the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station to the
United Nations for research. ISRO itself was formed on Independence Day in 1969 and was
brought under the Department of Space. In 1979, it moved its major launch site to
Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, where it remains.
- The Soviet Union was closely involved with India’s space programme. A major milestone
for ISRO was in 1975 when the Soviet Union launched India’s first indigenously made
satellite, Aryabhata from its launch site, Kaspustin Yar. The name Aryabhata was given
by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to whom three names were suggested. Aryabhata was on
the top. It was followed by Maitri and Jawahar. Indira chose Aryabhata. After Aryabhata,
Bhaskara-1, an experimental satellite for earth observation, was launched on 7th June,
- The Russians continued to be closely involved with India’s space programme. India’s
first man in space, Rakesh Sharma was a member of the Soviet space mission in 1984. In a
famous conversation, he was asked by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi how India
looked from space and he replied, “Saare Jahan Se Achcha” (better than the whole world).
SUPPORT TO THE PEOPLE OF BANGLADESH TO LIBERATE THEMSELVES WITH SPECIAL EMPHASIS ON HER
SIGNIFICANT ROLE IN THE LIBERATION OF BANGLADESH
- On 25th March, 1971, the election won by an East Pakistani political party
(The Awami League) was ignored by the ruling West Pakistani establishment. The rising
political discontent and cultural nationalism in East Pakistan was met by brutal
suppressive force from the ruling elite of the West Pakistan establishment, in what came
to be termed as Operation Searchlight. The violent crackdown by Pakistani Army led to
Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declaring East Pakistan's independence as the
state of Bangladesh on 26 March, 1971. Pakistani President Agha Mohammed Yahya ordered
the Pakistani military to restore the Pakistani government's authority, beginning the
civil war. The war led to a sea of refugees (estimated at the time to be about ten
million) flooding into the eastern provinces of India.
- Soon refugees from East Pakistan were pouring over the borders into India, totaling to
ten million within nine months. This tremendous influx of Bengali refugees aroused a
strong reaction in India and many voices demanded that immediate and hawk-like action be
taken against West Pakistan. The refugees were also creating an enormous financial
burden for India.
- Indira Gandhi took the regional struggle between West and East Pakistan to the world
stage and did everything in her power to make West Pakistan’s reign of terror in the
East, a global issue – one that had human rights at its heart, including those of basic
democratic freedoms and self-determination. She hoped that international pressure would
secure a peaceful settlement and though Indian military preparations began at an early
stage of the crisis, Indira was determined not to go to war unless forced to do so.
- In August 1971, General Khan announced the imminent military trial of Sheikh Mujib in
Pakistan. Indira immediately wrote to heads of government around the world warning that
“this so-called trial will be used only as a cover to execute Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”
with disastrous consequences in East Pakistan and also in India. She appealed to the
world leaders “to exercise your influence with President Yahya Khan in the larger
interests of the peace and stability of the region”. When this plea failed to provoke a
strong response, Indira decided to go abroad and personally present her case before the
- On 24th October, 1971, Indira embarked on a twenty one day tour of Europe and
America in an attempt to galvanise world opinion.
- On 3rd December, 1971, General Yahya Khan bombed several Indian air bases,
essentially starting the war.
- On 6th December, Indira announced the recognition of an independent
Bangladesh and that Mukti Bahini, the Bangladeshi guerilla forces would be fighting
alongside Indian forces. The combined forces of Indo-Bangladesh armies quickly defeated
the Pakistani Army. By 16th December, 1971, the Pakistani Army surrendered with over
93,000 officers and men laying down their arms. That afternoon, Indira excitedly
addressed the anxious Members of Parliament, telling them “Dacca is now the free capital
of a free country.”
- The liberation of Bangladesh won Indira an immense amount of admiration and she was at
the peak of her power and glory.
- Indira’s triumph in the war with Pakistan was confirmed in the March 1972 state assembly
elections when Congress captured seventy per cent of the seats contested.
- Once again, she campaigned strenuously and while invoking the war with Pakistan, she
emphasised even more on “the bigger war against poverty”.
THE GARIBI HATAO PROGRAMME
- In the late sixties, it was increasingly being realised that the economic policies and
power structures had only brought about limited growth. But there had hardly been
equitable distribution of its benefit.
- Indira was aware of these ground realities and was by no means separated from the
broader leftist ideological paradigm vis-a-vis development. As the Prime Minister, she
was concerned about the steep prices affecting the economy and was also aware that the
poor were the worst hit by the situation. The radical Naxalite movement was gaining
ground in different parts of the country. She was aware of the implications of the
massive land grab movements inspired by leftist ideology.
- When the Congress split in 1969, Indira became the leader of one faction of the party
and she proved that she was no less radical than the leftists in waging struggle against
poverty. In the preparations of the Fourth Five Year Plan, she constantly expressed her
special concerns for the weaker sections of the population. She told her supporters that
with their support, she was determined to fight against poverty effectively. She pursued
the Nehruvian model of development with a greater degree of zeal and enterprise.
- Indira’s political opponents campaigned on the slogan “Indira Hatao,” (Remove Indira),
Indira retooled it to “Garibi Hatao,” (Remove Poverty). This slogan had a considerable
impact; Indira was now looked upon by many as India’s saviour. Her election campaign was
more energetic than it had ever been before.
- This was the backdrop of the Garibi Hatao desh bachavo (meaning ‘Abolish
Poverty rescue the country’) slogan of Indira Gandhi's 1971 election bid and later also
used by her son Rajiv Gandhi.
- The slogan and the proposed anti-poverty programmes that came with it were designed to
reach out directly to the poor and marginalised, by-passing the dominant rural castes.
For their part, the previously voiceless poor would at last gain both political worth
and political weight.
- In the 1971 elections, she popularised the slogan of Garibi Hatao and made it a point to
reach out to the various sections of the unprivileged groups of the rural India. Babu
Jagjivan Ram, who was made the president of the party, functioned as a spokesman of the
depressed groups. He observed, “The Hindu society is a confederation of different caste
… and the dominant castes which so far have been enjoying the fruits of all government
measures even today has to expropriate to themselves the advantage provided by the
government. We have the challenge from the dominant castes in certain areas and from
what is known as left adversaries. We have to meet all these challenges. The congress is
pledged to promote with special care with the educational, employment and economic interest
of the weaker sections of the people particularly the S C’s, S T’s and the O B C’s.”
- The early seventies carried the expectations of real social democratic possibilities in
India. However these experiments did not often yield the expected results because Indira
often faced a great deal of resistance from the dominant class interests. In this
regard, she stated that “One can bully state leaders so much and no more…”
- Indira often stood in an open car for hours addressing the crowds invoking radical
rhetoric to arouse the masses, but at the same time, reassured the higher classes that
she would be mindful of their interests as well. As a result, Indira and her supporters
triumphed in the parliamentary elections.
- In her speech delivered at the Red Fort on 15th August, 1975, Indira warned, “Please do
not expect magical remedies and dramatic results, there is only one magic which can remove
poverty, and that is hard work, sustained by clear vision, iron will and the strictest
TWENTY POINT PROGRAMME
The Twenty Point Programme was launched by Indira Gandhi in 1975 and was subsequently
restructured in 1982 and again in 1986.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in a radio broadcast, announced measures to revive the economy
and reinforce her image as a leader with socialist leanings. Among the announcements were-
raising the income tax exemption limit from Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 8,000, confiscation of
properties owned by smugglers, ceilings on ownership and possession of vacant land, and
acquisition of excess land. Land ceiling laws would be strictly implemented and surplus land
distributed among the rural poor. The Twenty Point Programme included steps to bring down
prices of essential commodities, promote austerity in government spending, crackdown on
bonded labour, liquidate rural indebtedness and make laws for a moratorium on recovery of
debt from landless labourers, small farmers and artisans.
The twenty points of the Programme were carefully designed and selected to achieve the above
The Twenty Point Programme consisted of the following:
1. Attack on rural poverty
2. Strategy for rained agriculture
3. Better use of irrigation water
4. Bigger harvest
5. Enforcement of land reforms
6. Special programmes for rural labour
7. Clean drinking water
8. Health for all
9. Two child norm
10. Expansion of education
11. Justice for SC/ST
12. Equality for women
13. New opportunities for women
14. Housing for the people
15. Improvement for slums
16. New strategy for forestry
17. Protection of environment
18. Concern for the consumer
19. Energy for the villages
20. A responsive administration
THE DECISION TO CALL ELECTION IN 1977
- Sanjay convinced Indira to postpone the general elections in February 1976 and again in
November 1976. This delay only lasted till January 1977. This was when Indira announced
the general elections against Sanjay’s wishes.
- On 18th January, 1977, Indira stunned the nation by announcing that a general
election would be held – not the following November as she had previously announced, but
in a mere two months’ time. “Every election is an act of faith”, she said in her
broadcast announcement, “It is an opportunity to cleanse public life of confusion. So
let us go to the polls with the resolve to reaffirm the power of the people.”
- Politically and personally this was when the low point of Indira’s life began, she lost
the election and didn’t have an income or a house to stay in. Interestingly, she
continued to be at the centre of the political narrative. Negativity towards Indira was
the single most unifying factor for the disparate Janta Dal and associated parties. She
and her family were subjected to political vendetta and surveillance of the highest
- In the run-up to the January 1980 general election, Indira spent sixty two days on the
road (and in the air), covering 40,000 miles and addressing up to twenty meetings a day.
An estimated ninety million people – or one in every four of the Indian electorate –
throughout the country saw and heard Indira Gandhi in the course of her last and most
- Indira stood for her old constituency, Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh as well a new one,
Medak in Andhra Pradesh. She won both contests by a large margin. She was accompanied by
her party all over the country – Congress captured 351 out of 542 Lok Sabha seats. As
the Times of India headline put it, “It’s Indira All the Way”.
- But then, Indira decided to resign from Rae Bareli. This allowed Sanjay Gandhi, who was
elected as the MP for the neighbouring constituency of Amethi, to look after Uttar
Pradesh. Later, he was appointed as the General Secretary of the All-India Congress
- She was then sworn in as Prime Minister for the fourth time on 14th January,
1980. After which, she moved back into her old house at 1, Safdarjung Road.
- On 23rd June, 1980, Sanjay Gandhi died in a fatal plane crash. He was flying
the plane along with Captain Subash Saxena, who was an instructor at the Delhi Flying
- After Sanjay’s death, Indira felt crushed and alone. There was huge pressure on Rajiv
Gandhi, who was a pilot with the Indian Airlines, to enter politics. As always in the
Nehru-Gandhi family, a sense of duty always prevailed.
- On 5th May, 1981, Rajiv Gandhi announced that he would stand in a June
by-election for Sanjay’s old constituency, Amethi. Rajiv won the Amethi by-election by
over a quarter of a million votes. He was sworn in as an MP on 17th August,
- All the while, communal riots were growing in both Assam and Punjab.
- After the creation of Punjab in 1966, certain issues concerning land distribution,
access to rivers and the capital Chandigarh, which Punjab shared with Haryana, remained
unresolved and a source of Sikh grievances. In 1973, the Sikh party, Akali Dal formally
articulated their demands at a meeting in Anandpur Sahib in a report that came to be
known as Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The Sikhs wanted sole possession of the state
capital of Chandigarh, to retain Hindu Punjabi-speaking regions and control over the
river waters essential to agriculture in the state.
- The Sikh majority in Punjab became more assertive and their political party, the Akali
Dal began to pose a political challenge to Congress. Then in 1977, the Akali Dal
defeated Congress in the elections.
- Meanwhile, a large number of Bengali immigrants, most of whom were Muslims, settled in
the state of Assam and threatened to reduce the Assamese to a minority in their own
state. A student organisation, the All-Assam Students Union, mobilized and led
anti-Bengali demonstrations in the state. When the unrest became critical in April 1980,
Assam was declared ‘a disturbed area’. Law and order broke down and paramilitary forces
had to be sent to secure the oil pipeline with which Assam supplied a third of India’s
- The indigenous tribal people also rose up at this time against high-caste Assamese
domination and demanded that ‘unauthorised occupants’ be thrown out of their tribal
- Troubles continued to mount in Indira’s absence as she spent a good deal of 1981 making
high-profile visits abroad.
- In May, she went to Switzerland, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. In August, she
went to Kenya with her family. A long tour which included Jakarta, Fiji, Tonga,
Australia and the Philippines followed in late September and early October. The rest of
October was taken up with visits to Romania and the North-South Summit of Heads of State
in Cancun, Mexico. This meant that Indira was away from India for the better part of the
summer and autumn of 1981.
- In the late months of 1981 and throughout 1982, Punjab burned. At this point she tried
to negotiate with the Akali Dal and Bhindranwale’s people. Nothing came of these
negotiations and soon Rajiv Gandhi took over the sticky and increasingly dangerous job
of dealing with Punjab, Bhindranwale and the Akali Dal.
- The 1982 session of Parliament opened with the announcement that in the past two years,
960 Harijans had been killed in the country. Hindu-Muslim riots flared up in major
cities. The communal situation worsened further by a wave of Harijan conversion to Islam
or Christianity – the only way an ‘untouchable’ could escape his fate despite continued
discrimination after conversion.
- Hindu zealots demanded that the government ban conversions. Indira however refused,
stating how it is ‘incompatible with the religious freedom guaranteed by the
- In late July 1982, Indira went to Washington to confer with President Ronald Reagan.
Indira’s 1982 talks with Reagan were meant to repair Indo-American relations, but they
were far from productive. In the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the
United States backed Pakistan as strongly as ever. And in American eyes, India was still
considered an ally of the Soviets. At a press conference in Washington, a reporter asked
Indira why India ‘always tilted towards the Soviet Union?’ to which she responded, “We
do not tilt on either side…we walk upright”.
OPERATION BLUE STAR
- In February 1984, Indira’s government embarked on another round of negotiations with the
Akali leaders in Punjab. However, the situation remained deadlocked and the violence
- During March and April 1984, Bhindranwale’s hit squads murdered eighty and injured
hundred and seven people. This toll included prominent Hindus and pro-Congress Sikhs.
Hindus who had not already left Punjab now began to flee the state – including traders,
money-lenders, shopkeepers and wealthy industrialists. By this time, Bhindranwale had
infiltrated the state administration and the police, taking control of the state’s
- The Akali Dal leader, Longowal – who by this time had come into conflict with
Bhindranwale and occupied a different part of the Golden Temple – declared that he was
willing to meet the Indian government halfway.
- Bhindranwale, however, was not. Bhindranwale insisted that all the Anandpur Sahib
Resolution demands – including those pertaining to land and access to river waters –
must be met, knowing this would not happen.
- Caught in the middle, Longowal announced that beginning 3rd June – the date of the
martyrdom of Guru Arjun, who had built the Golden Temple – grains would cease to flow
out of Punjab. The state was the breadbasket of India! If grain supplies were halted,
the rest of the country would eventually starve.
- At this point, the contingency plan of storming the Golden Temple and flushing out
Bhindranwale and his followers, became an inevitability.
- On 2nd June in a broadcast to the nation, Indira said “The Punjab, is
uppermost in all our minds. The whole country is deeply concerned.” She went on to say
that a commission would be established to decide ‘the whole territorial dispute’ of
Chandigarh, the river waters and Hindu areas of Punjab. The major problem, she insisted,
was not that the government had failed to offer an equable settlement, but rather the
Akalis had surrendered authority to Bindranwale. She could not
“allow violence and terrorism in the settlement of issues.
Those who indulge in such anti-social and
anti-national activities should make no mistake about this.”
- She made an emotional appeal ‘to all sections of Punjabis....don’t shed blood, shed
- Even as Indira spoke, Indian army troops were closing in on the Golden Temple. The
curtain was about to rise on ‘Operation Blue Star’.
- On 5th June, Indian army officers asked the civilians and armed extremists
inside the Golden Temple to evacuate and surrender respectively. None of Bhindranwale’s
people emerged, but 126 others –worshippers, pilgrims and moderate Sikhs – did.
- That night, Indian army commands forcibly entered the area of the temple where the Akali
leaders, not Bhindranwale, were hiding. Throughout the raid, Bhindranwale’s people
rained gunfire down and more than half of the ninety commandos were killed or seriously
injured before they reached their goal.
- The fighting came to an end with Bhindranwale’s death but the cost of exterminating him
had been high. It had exceeded all estimates made to Indira by her intelligence sources,
by the army and her advisers; it was far higher than she herself imagined.
- Operation Blue Star was a horrendous debacle. Out of the thousand troops sent into the
Golden Temple, somewhere between three hundred-seven hundred troops and over half the
Special Forces commandos had been killed. The estimate of civilian deaths is estimated
to be well over a thousand.
- Besides the human loss, the Golden Temple library – which contained hand-written
manuscripts by the Sikh Gurus – went up in flames; three hundred bullet holes riddled
the Harmandir Sahib and the Akal Takht was severely damaged.
- On 9th June, the Indian President, Zail Singh, visited the Golden Temple at
Indira’s request. One of the few desperate extremists active in one of the Temple
towers, who the army hadn’t been able to flush out, fired at him. The security man next
to Zail Singh was hit in the shoulder, the bullet having just missed its intended
- This was a warning shot. When the full extent of the carnage and desecration wreaked on
the Golden Temple became known, it was obvious that ultimate revenge would be taken.