Indira Gandhi – First Woman Prime Minister of India


Indira Gandhi was India’s first female prime minister and part of a family political dynasty that included her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, her son, Rajiv Gandhi and her daugher-in-law, Sonia Gandhi. She served four terms before being assassinated.

Indira Gandhi Timeline

A quick look at India’s Gandhi’s life

1917 – born to Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru
1938 – joined the National Congress party
1942 – married Feroze Gandhi
1947 – India gains independence and Jawaharlal Nehru becomes prime minister
1959 – became president of the Congress party
1964 – became Minister of Information and Broadcasting
1966 – elected Prime Minister
1975 – convicted of election illegal campaign practices; declared a state of emergency
1977 – voted out of office
1980 – re-elected Prime Minister
1984 – ordered the Army to storm the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest temple, to get separatist militants
1984 – assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards

Indira Gandhi Biography

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi ( 19 November 1917 – 31 October 1984) was the Prime Minister of the Republic of India for three consecutive terms from 1966 to 1977 and for a fourth term from 1980 until her assassination in 1984, a total of fifteen years. She was India’s first and to date, the only female prime minister. She is the world’s all time longest serving female Prime Minister.

Life and career

Indira Gandhi was born into the politically influential Nehru Family. Her father’s name was Jawaharlal Nehru and her mother’s name was Kamala Nehru.It’s a common myth to relate the name Gandhi with Mahatma Gandhi, but her surname is from her marriage to Feroze Gandhi. Her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was a prominent Indian nationalist leader. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a pivotal figure in the Indian independence movement and the first Prime Minister of Independent India.

In 1934–35, after finishing school, Indira joined Shantiniketan, a school set up by Rabindranath Tagore, who gave her the name Priyadarshini (priya=pleasing, darshini=to look at). Subsequently, she went to England and sat for the University of Oxford entrance examination, but she failed, and spent a few months at Badminton School in Bristol, before clearing the exam in 1937 and joining Somerville College, Oxford. During this period, she was frequently meeting Feroze Gandhi, whom she knew from Allahabad, and who was studying at the London School of Economics. She would marry Feroze in 1942.

Returning to India in 1941, she became involved in the Indian Independence movement. In the 1950s, she served her father unofficially as a personal assistant during his tenure as the first Prime Minister of India. After her father’s death in 1964 she was appointed as a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and became a member of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting.

The then Congress Party President K. Kamaraj was instrumental in making Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister after the sudden demise of Shastri. Gandhi soon showed an ability to win elections and outmaneuver opponents. She introduced more left-wing economic policies and promoted agricultural productivity. She led the nation as Prime Minister during the decisive victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan and creation of an independent Bangladesh. A period of instability led her to impose a state of emergency in 1975. Due to the alleged authoritarian excesses during the period of emergency, the Congress Party and Indira Gandhi herself lost the next general election for the first time in 1977. Indira Gandhi led the Congress back to victory in 1980 elections and Gandhi resumed the office of the Prime Minister. In June 1984, under Gandhi’s order, the Indian army forcefully entered the Golden Temple, the most sacred Sikh Gurdwara, to remove armed insurgents present inside the temple. She was assassinated on 31 October 1984 in retaliation to this operation.

Early life

Growing up in India

Indira Nehru Gandhi was born on 19 November 1917 to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamala Nehru and was their only child. The Nehrus were a distinguished Kashmiri Pandit family. At the time of her birth, her grandfather Motilal Nehru and father Jawaharlal were influential political leaders. Gandhi was brought up in an intense political atmosphere at the Nehru family residence, Anand Bhawan, where she spent her childhood years.

Growing up in the sole care of her mother, who was sick and alienated from the Nehru household, Indira developed strong protective instincts and a loner personality. The flurry of political activity in the Nehru household made mixing with her peers difficult. She had personal conflicts with her father’s sisters, including Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and these extended into her relationship with them in the political world.

In her father’s autobiography, Toward Freedom, he writes that the police frequently came to the family home while he was in prison and took away pieces of furniture as payment toward the fines the Government imposed on him. He says, “Indira, my four-year-old daughter, was greatly annoyed at this continuous process of despoliation and protested to the police and expressed her strong displeasure. I am afraid those early impressions are likely to colour her future views about the police force generally.”

Indira created the Vanara Sena movement for young girls and boys which played a small but notable role in the Indian Independence Movement, conducting protests and flag marches, as well as helping members of the Indian National Congress circulate sensitive publications and banned materials. In an often-told story, she smuggled out in her schoolbag an important document from her father’s house under police observation, that outlined plans for a major revolutionary initiative in the early 1930s.

Studying in Europe

In 1936, her mother, Kamala Nehru, finally succumbed to tuberculosis after a long struggle. Indira was 18 at the time and had never experienced a stable family life during her childhood. While studying at Somerville College, University of Oxford, England, during the late 1930s, she became a member of the radical pro-independence London based India League.

In early 1940, Indira spent time in a rest home in Switzerland to recover from chronic lung disease. She maintained her long-distance relationship with her father in the form of long letters as she was used to doing through her childhood. They argued about politics.

In her years in continental Europe and the UK, she met a young Parsi man active in politics, Feroze Gandhi. After returning to India, Feroze Gandhi grew close to the Nehru family, especially to Indira’s mother Kamala Nehru and Indira herself.

Marriage to Feroze Gandhi

When Indira and Feroze Gandhi returned to India, they were in love and had decided to get married. Indira liked Feroze’s openness, sense of humor and self-confidence. Nehru did not like the idea of the marriage, but Indira was adamant and the marriage took place in March 1942 according to Hindu rituals.

Feroze and Indira were both members of the Indian National Congress, and when they took part in the Quit India Movement in 1942, they were both arrested. After independence, Feroze went on to run for election and became a member of parliament from Raebareli Uttar Pradesh in 1952. After the birth of their two sons, Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, their relationship was strained leading to a separation. Shortly after his re-election, Feroze suffered a heart attack, which led to a reconciliation. Their relationship endured for the few years prior to the death of Feroze Gandhi in September 1960.

The Nehru family – Motilal Nehru is seated in the center, and standing (L to R) are Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Krishna Hutheesing, Indira, and Ranjit Pandit; Seated: Swaroop Rani, Motilal Nehru and Kamala Nehru (circa 1927).

Early leadership

President of the Indian National Congress

During 1959 and 1960, Gandhi ran for and was elected as the President of the Indian National Congress. Her term of office was uneventful. She also acted as her father’s chief of staff. Nehru was known as a vocal opponent of nepotism, and she did not contest a seat in the 1962 elections.

Prime minister

Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of India, administering the oath of office to Indira Gandhi on 24 January 1966.

First term

Domestic policy

When Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966, the Congress was split in two factions, the socialists led by Gandhi, and the conservatives led by Morarji Desai. Rammanohar Lohia called her Gungi Gudiya which means ‘Dumb Doll’. The internal problems showed in the 1967 election where the Congress lost nearly 60 seats winning 297 seats in the 545 seat Lok Sabha. She had to accommodate Desai as Deputy Prime Minister of India and Finance Minister of India. In 1969 after many disagreements with Desai, the Indian National Congress split. She ruled with support from Socialist and Communist Parties for the next two years. In the same year, in July 1969 she nationalized banks.

Operation Blue Star and assassination

Indira Gandhi’s blood-stained saree and her belongings at the time of her assassination, preserved at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

Main articles: Operation Blue Star, 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots, and Indira Gandhi assassination

In June 1984, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s Sikh group occupied the Golden Temple. In response, on 6 June 1984, during one of the holiest Sikh holidays, enacting Operation Blue Star, the Indian army opened fire killing a disputed number of Sikh militants along with supporters of Bhindranwale. The State of Punjab was closed to International media, Sikh devotees, human rights organizations and other groups during the period. On 31 October 1984, two of Gandhi’s bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, assassinated her with their service weapons in the garden of the Prime Minister’s residence at 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi as she was walking past a wicket gate guarded by Satwant and Beant, to be interviewed by the British actor Peter Ustinov, who was filming a documentary for Irish television. According to information immediately following the incident, Beant Singh shot her three times using his side-arm and Satwant Singh fired 30 rounds, using a Sten submachine gun. Beant Singh and Satwant Singh dropped their weapons and surrendered, afterwards they were taken away by other guards into a closed room where Beant Singh was shot dead and Satwant Singh was shot and arrested by her other bodyguards, on the charges of trying to escape.

Gandhi died on her way to the hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where doctors operated on her. Official accounts at the time stated as many as 29 entry and exit wounds and some reports stated 31 bullets were extracted from her body. She was cremated on 3 November near Raj Ghat. Her funeral was televised live on domestic and international stations including the BBC.

Personal life

Initially Sanjay had been her chosen heir; but after his death in a flying accident, his mother persuaded a reluctant Rajiv Gandhi to quit his job as a pilot and enter politics in February 1981.

After Indira Gandhi’s death, Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister. In May 1991, he too was assassinated, this time at the hands of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Rajiv’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, led the United Progressive Alliance to a surprise electoral victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

Sonia Gandhi declined the opportunity to assume the office of Prime Minister but remains in control of the Congress’ political apparatus; Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, formerly finance minister, now heads the nation. Rajiv’s children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, have also entered politics. Sanjay Gandhi’s widow, Maneka Gandhi – who fell out with Indira after Sanjay’s death and was famously thrown out of the Prime Minister’s house[28] – as well as Sanjay’s son, Varun Gandhi, are active in politics as members of the main opposition BJP party.

“You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist. – Indira Gandhi”

Indira Gandhi Quotes

Quotations from India’s first female prime minister.

- My grandfather once told me that there are two kinds of people: those who work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was less competition there.-You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.- I don’t mind if my life goes in the service of the nation. If I die today every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.- Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.
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Indira Gandhi Photo with Nehru

A photo of the father and daughter

India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru photo with Daughter Indira Gandhi at the Asia African Conference

Indira Gandhi with her father, Jawaharlal Nehru

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