Indira Gandhi

On this date in 1917, Indira Gandhi (née Indira Nehru) was born in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India, to a wealthy, upper-caste Brahmin Hindu family. Gandhi's father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister and popular independence leader. Before completion of her education at Oxford University, Gandhi joined the Indian independence movement, which led to her imprisonment for 13 months on charges of subversion by British colonial authorities. In 1942, she married a Congress party militant, Feroze Gandhi, but her marriage suffered as her father took office as prime minister (in 1947) and invited Indira to be his official hostess. In this position, Indira, while quiet and unassuming, studied the world's most powerful political elites and in the 1950s began building her own political career. She first was elected president of the Congress party in 1959, and in this role helped oust the Communist government from the southern Kerala state. She served in the upper house of Parliament in 1964, and in 1967, when her Congress party won the elections, Gandhi became the first woman leader of a major country in modern times.

As prime minister, Gandhi strengthened the authority of the federal government and strongly objected to religious sectarianism that, she believed, threatened Indian democracy. While some of her domestic policies were viewed as weak, she managed to keep relative social peace and silence radical opposition movements. She achieved great success in her foreign policy and, after winning re-election in 1971, led India to victory in a bitter war with Pakistan (that also resulted in the birth of Bangladesh). While her popularity grew among Indians and especially the poor, Gandhi gained a reputation as an authoritarian within her own party. After an Indian court determined her 1971 election was illegitimate, Gandhi declared a state of emergency, suspending civil liberties and jailing thousands of her critics. Facing internal and international pressure, she returned to democratic government in 1977, but the people elected a former rival, Morarji Desai, to replace her. Desai attempted to destroy Gandhi's reputation with corruption and abuse of power charges, but she fought back by campaigning in rural villages and regaining control of her party, which resulted in her election as prime minister for the fourth time in 1980. Sikh terrorist factions in the Punjab state demanded an independent state, but Gandhi refused to negotiate and, in June of 1984, ordered an army assault on a militant Sikh temple, which resulted in the loss of over 1000 lives. Over the next months, Gandhi remained undeterred by numerous death threats from Sikh militants. She told Newsweek, "In politics you simply can't hide from people. My life has been one with India, and it makes no difference to me if I die standing or in bed." Gandhi was gunned down in her garden in New Delhi by her body guards, Sikh religious extremists. Following her death was a period of extreme tension and bloodshed between Hindus and Sikhs across India. D. 1984.

“There exists no politician in India daring enough to attempt to explain to the masses that cows can be eaten.”

—Indira Gandhi, quoted by Oriana Fallaci in "Indira's Coup," New York Review of Books, 1975

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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