Indira Gandhi, born Indira Nehru, was a stateswoman, politician and daughter to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. She served as India’s Prime Minister following the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri and held the office for three separate terms; between 1967 and 1971 first, then between 1971 and 1977, and finally between 1980 and 1984 before being assassinated. She is, to date, India’s first and only female Prime Minister. She is also the longest serving Indian Prime Minister after her father Jawaharlal Nehru, who held the post for 17 years post independence.
She is, perhaps, one of the most controversial figures in Indian politics as well, following her declaration and extension of the Emergency (1975-1977) and her alienation of the Sikh community following ‘Operation Blue Star‘. The aftermath of the operation is seen as the cause of her death in October 1984, when she was shot dead by two of her own body guards; Satwant Singh and Beant Singh.
The surname ‘Gandhi’ bears no relation to Mahatma Gandhi, even though her family was closely associated with the nation’s leader; rather it was adopted after her marriage to Feroze Gandhi, a native of Bharuch in South Gujarat where ‘Gandhi’ is common surname (His family migrated to Bombay where he was born).
During her stint as Prime Minister, she was viewed by many as being fiercely ruthless in her policies, and in terms of centralization of power.
However, she is remembered for her contributions to India’s growth, both in her domestic and foreign policies. She continues to be a relevant name in Indian history and politics, given that no other women has held the post of India’s Prime Minister after her.
Here are some of the achievements of Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership in India
- I. Facilitating the Green Revolution
- II. Nationalising 14 Private-Sector Banks
- III. Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 – Liberation of Bangladesh
- IV. The Shimla Agreement
- V. Ending Privy Purse given to Royalty since 1947
- VI. Operation Smiling Buddha
- VII. First Indian to go into Space
- VIII. Operation Blue Star
- IX. Facilitating Foreign Policy
I. Facilitating the Green Revolution
Since India has been primarily an agrarian economy, with most of its people engaged in the rural agriculture; the focus of Indian leaders post-independence, was towards the increased production of food grains to counter the problems of mass hunger, as a result of prevailing poverty and unemployment in the country.
Provisions had been made in the Nehru and Shastri governments towards increased production of food grains via government policy, through the ‘Five-Year plans’.
The United States of America was a key ally of India; President Kennedy was vocally supportive of Indian leaders and their policies. The death of Kennedy saw a steady decline in Indo-US relations, particularly when President Nixon came to power in 1969.
Indira Gandhi visited USA, two months after she was first elected as Prime Minister. The President at the time was Lyndon B. Johnson, who was quite impressed by her. The visit also helped more food and developmental aid from the US. However, ties started getting strained after. Johnson’s revision of the Public Law 480 Policy, changing it from surplus disposal of food to planned production of exports. Furthermore, India’s refusal to support USA in the Vietnam War drew the ire of America.
As a result, the import of food grains from the US to India saw a steady decline, giving rise to shortages of food supply in the country. This prompted the Indira Gandhi government to adopt Norman Borlaugh‘s Green Revolution ideology.
Agriculture was shifted to the industrial sector with the adoption of modern methods such as use of HYV (High Yielding Variety) seeds, use of pesticides and fertilizers, and the adoption of modern technology such as tractors and irrigation facilities. The program was headed by M.S. Swaminathan, an agricultural scientist widely regarded as the ‘Father of Green Revolution in India’.
II. Nationalising 14 Private-Sector Banks
On 19th July 1969, the government of India under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nationalized 14 private-sector banks by means of an ordinance. The ordinance was called the Banking Companies (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) ordinance, which was followed by an act of the same name.
Under this ordinance, the ownership of 14 major commercial private banks- which controlled 70% of the country’s deposits- was transferred to the Central government.
The first reason for nationalization was because of the unpredictable manner in which these banks functioned, where 361 private banks ‘failed’ across the country between 1947 and 1955. Depositors would lose all their money as they were not offered any guarantee by their respective banks.
Another reason for nationalization was the fact that these banks only catered to large industries and businesses, where the agriculture sector was largely ignored. Between 1950 and 1967, the percentage of loans given to farmers declined from 2.3% to 2.2%.
The issue of the above-stated ordinance was to make credit easily available to the ‘priority sector’; agriculture, small industries, traders and entrepreneurs. Moreover, this ordinance sought to establish banks in rural and backward areas.
III. Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 – Liberation of Bangladesh
On the night of March 25th 1971; Pakistan (West Pakistan at the time) launched ‘Operation Searchlight‘ against East Pakistan (Modern-day Bangladesh), where it carried out the systematic elimination of nationalist Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, religious minorities and armed personnel. The Pakistan military junta annulled the results of the 1970 elections and arrested the Prime Minister-designate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Extensive military operations and air-strikes were carried out in rural and urban areas of East Pakistan, to suppress the civil disobedience that ensued after the 1970 elections. Radical militants backed the Pakistan Army to assist it during raids on the local population. They engaged in mass murder, deportation and genocidal rape.
This led to the fleeing of 10 million refugees from East Pakistan to India, whilst displacing 30 million others. A Provincial government of Bangladesh was created in Mujibnagar and temporary asylum was given to it by India, as they moved to Calcutta as a ‘government in exile’.
India joined the war on 3rd December 1971, following pre-emptive air strikes by Pakistan in North India. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi expressed full support towards East Pakistan, and concluded that instead of taking in millions of refugees, it was economical to go to war with Pakistan. With the help of air supremacy achieved in the eastern province, as well as the rapid advances of the Indian Armed forces backed by Allied Forces of Bangladesh, Pakistan surrendered in Dhaka on December 16th 1971. The war lasted a total of 13 days.
26th March 1971 is officially considered as the official Independence Day for Bangladesh, and the name was in effect thus forth. Bangladesh sought admission into the United Nations with most voting in its favour, except for China who veto-ing the decision as a result of being allies with Pakistan.
IV. The Shimla Agreement
Following the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and the liberation of Bangladesh, an agreement was signed between India and Pakistan at Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. The treaty was signed between then President of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The agreement paved the way for the diplomatic recognition of Bangladesh by Pakistan.
Under the agreement, both the parties agreed to settle their differences through peaceful means and bilateral agreement. Kashmir, as a dispute was also considered as a bilateral issue that must be settled through the Shimla Agreement 1972, and thus India denied any intervention by third parties, even by that of the United Nations.
The agreement also saw the conversion of the Cease-fire line of 17th December 1971 into the Line Of Control (LOC) between India and Pakistan. It was agreed that ‘neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally, irrespective of mutual differences and legal interpretations’.
V. Ending Privy Purse given to Royalty since 1947
Under Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership, the government proposed the 26th Amendment in which Privy Purse given to royalty; all payments and privileges coming with it, was to be abolished.
Privy Purse was a payment given to the royal families of erstwhile princely states as part of their agreement to integrate with India in 1947, and later merge with the states in 1949 thereby losing all their ruling rights.
The bill was proposed to the Parliament first in 1969 and passed in the Lok Sabha. However, it failed to be passed in the Rajya Sabha by one vote to reach the two-thirds majority. The bill was proposed again in 1971, and was passed successfully as the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India.
The case was argued on the basis of equal rights for all citizens and the need to reduce the government’s revenue deficit.
VI. Operation Smiling Buddha
Smiling Buddha was the code name of India’s first nuclear bomb, which was tested on May 18th 1974. The operation was conceived by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on September 7th 1972, while taking a tour of the Bhabha Atomic Research Facility in Mumbai.
A verbal authorization was given by the Prime Minister to the officials to manufacture the bomb they had a design, and to prepare it for a field test. Following authorisation, the design was subject to engineering. Meanwhile, work was being done to find a suitable field test.
Very few record were kept, both on the development process and the decision-making process involved, in its engineering and testing.
Post engineering, the bomb was detonated on the army base, Pokhran-Test Range (PTR), in Rajasthan by the Indian Army under the supervision of several key Generals of India. Pokhran-I, the MEA designation of Smiling Buddha, was also the first confirmed nuclear weapons test by a nation outside the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) claimed this test was a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’, but it was actually an accelerated nuclear program.
VII. First Indian to go into Space
Under the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, India sent its first man into space. Rakesh Sharma, a former Indian Air Force pilot, was the first Indian to fly into space aboard Soyuz T-11, which was launched on 2nd April 1984, as part of the Interkosmos programme.
Interkosmos was a Soviet space programme, designed to help the Soviet Union‘s allies with crewed and un-crewed space missions.
Sharma spent 7 days, 21 hours and 40 minutes abroad the orbital station Salyut-7, during which his 3 member Soviet-Indian conducted scientific and technical studies, including 43 experimental sessions.
Upon returning from space, he was presented with the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union‘ honour. In India, he (And his Soviet counterparts) received the highest peace time gallantry award, the ‘Ashoka Chakra‘.
VIII. Operation Blue Star
Operation Blue Star was the biggest internal security mission ever undertaken by the Indian Army, in 1984. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the military operation Sikh Militants from the Harmandir Sahib Complex, or the Golden Temple located in Amritsar, Punjab. The operation was carried out between June 1st and June 8th of 1984.
The Khalistan movement was a Sikh nationalist movement aimed at creating an independent state for Sikhs inside the current North-Western Republic of India. Even though the movement started between the 1940s and 50s, it gained traction between the 70s and the 80s.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was the leader of the Damdami Taksal, and the main reason behind Operation Blue Star. He was an influential leader who mainly inspired Sikh youths, and managed to persuade many people to follow Sikh rules and tenets.
During the operation, Bhindranwale and Khalistan supporters occupied the Akal Takht complex in the Golden Temple. The aim was to eliminate Bhindranwale and regain control of Harmandir Sahib complex.
Official records place the death toll at 575; 83 soldiers of the Indian army, and 493 civilians.
Indira Gandhi’s government received a lot of backlash for barring the media from entering Punjab. Media personnel were put on a bus and dropped off at Haryana border. A curfew was mandated in Punjab where no mode of transport was available for any sorts of travel.
This incident is also seen as the cause of her death on 31st October 1984, at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards.
IX. Facilitating Foreign Policy
Under the Indira Gandhi regime, India’s foreign policy saw a landmark period where it established itself as a regional power in South Asia.
The biggest success of her foreign policy came with the creation of Bangladesh after the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, which was an assertion of India’s dominance in South Asia. The war also saw the signing of the Shimla Agreement which sought to normalise relations with Pakistan.
Indira Gandhi was vocally critical of the USA’s policy and subsequent War in Vietnam, and drew the ire of the western superpower in her government’s close relationship with the Soviet Union.
India was also included in the Soviet space program Interkosmos, where Rakesh Kumar became the first Indian to fly into space.
Indira Gandhi is perhaps one of the most popular Indian leaders in the world, today. Apart from being the daughter of one of the nation’s founding fathers, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, she was also India’s first and only female Prime Minister.
Her strong presence in the international scenario helped establish India’s position as an emerging global super power. She was called by many as the ‘Iron Lady of India’ at the time of her tenure. After leading India to victory in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, she was hailed as a ‘goddess’ by many political leaders with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in particular, calling her ‘Goddess Durga‘.
With all her achievements, her tenure was not short of controversy. Her declaration of a nation wide emergency, resulting in a ban on the press and media, got her the criticisms of many; from the people and opposition governments. Operation Blue Star, though aimed at removing Sikh militants from a shrine, was a highly contentious issue and was seen as ultimately, being the cause of her death in 1984.
Nevertheless, she leaves behind a legacy as one of India’s greatest Prime Ministers. Indira Gandhi was succeeded by her son Rajiv Gandhi, immediately following her assassination.