Indira Gandhi

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Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, visiting Austria. Hotel Imperial in Vienna. (1983). (Photo by Nora Schuster/Imagno/Getty Images)

Who Was Indira Gandhi?

Indira Nehru Gandhi was the first female prime minister of India, serving three consecutive terms from 1966 to 1977 and a fourth term from 1980 to 1984. She was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India after independence was achieved from the British in 1947. Although she was a popular and beloved leader, Indira Gandhi shocked many with her dictatorial tactics during her third term in office.

She was assassinated in 1984 by Sikh extremists.

Dates: November 19, 1917 – October 31, 1984

Also Known As: Indira Priyadarshini Nehru

Famous Quote: "You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist."

A Childhood Steeped in Politics

Indira Nehru was born November 19, 1917 in Allahabad in northern India, the only child of Kamala Kaul and Jawaharlal Nehru. The Hindu society into which Indira was born operated on a strict caste system, in which people were divided into different hereditary class levels. The wealthy Nehru family belonged to the highest caste level, the Brahmins. Indira's father was educated in England and graduated from Cambridge University as a barrister.

Indira's parents hosted many visitors in their large, beautiful home, which often served as a meeting place for those involved in the fight for Indian independence. At the time of Indira's birth, India had been under British rule since the late 18th century.

As Indians grew ever resentful of British involvement in their affairs, the British crushed any attempts at resistance.

Indira's father, Jawaharlal Nehru, along with Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, emerged as leaders of the growing movement for independence. As the movement gained momentum, many more Indians joined the cause and were willing to face imprisonment and even death to achieve India's freedom.

The struggle for independence that surrounded young Indira came to define her childhood. Her father and grandfather, both high level members of the Indian National Congress, were repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for their participation in protests. Because the family refused to pay fines ordered by the court, police officers frequently came to confiscate items from the house.

Perhaps in part because of the events that surrounded her, young Indira was always strong-willed and eager to speak her mind. Despite her feisty demeanor, however, Indira was physically frail and prone to respiratory ailments throughout her life.

Revolt Against the British

Indira began her schooling at an Indian public school, then later transferred to a private English school at the insistence of her grandfather. Her father disapproved, wary of the influence the British would have upon his daughter; thus, Indira left the school and received private tutoring in her home.

When Indira was five years old, the nationalist movement launched a new tactic. At the urging of Mahatma Gandhi,  Indians boycotted imported products. They stopped buying British goods, and many (including Indira's family) took all of their foreign belongings out of their homes and burned them on their lawns.

Young Indira tearfully added her favorite dolls to the bonfire.

In 1926, Indira's mother contracted tuberculosis (TB). Doctors advised Nehru to take his wife to Switzerland for medical care. The family of three lived in Geneva for a year, during which time Indira met and mingled with students of various nationalities. She gained confidence in herself and became more mature, proud that she could help care for her mother, as well as navigate the city and shop at the market.

Kamala's condition improved and the family sailed home in late 1927.

Return to India

Back in India, Jawaharlal Nehru renewed his commitment to the independence movement and was again imprisoned for his role in demonstrations. Indira, inspired by her father's activism, formed a group with other young people. The Vanar Sena, or "Monkey Brigade" (named after a well-known Indian poem), made important contributions to the nationalist movement by sewing flags, serving food to demonstrators, and writing letters for prisoners who were unable to write.

Through these activities, Indira met a young man named Feroze Gandhi (not related to Mahatma Gandhi). He became a close friend to Indira and a frequent visitor to the Nehru home. (Feroze would later become Indira's husband.)

In 1929, Indira's father was elected to lead the Indian Congress, succeeding his father. Nehru's first act as president of Congress was to draft a resolution seeking complete independence for the Indian people.

In January 1929, Indira's grandfather, Motilal Nehru, became very ill, prompting prison officials to release both him and his son from prison. Motilal died in February 1929.

Life at Boarding School

By late 1931, Indira's mother's health deteriorated further, necessitating a stay in a TB sanitarium. Concerned that his daughter would be left alone at home if he were imprisoned again, Nehru opted to send 14-year-old Indira to a small boarding school in Poona, a thousand miles from their home. Indira missed her parents terribly.

In 1933, Indira graduated from the Poona school at the age of 16. She enrolled at Shantineketan, a university in Bengal in eastern India run by a famous Indian poet. At her new, rather unconventional school, Indira learned the art of meditation, as well as classical Indian dancing and painting.

After only a year and a half at her new school, Indira was forced to leave Shantineketan to accompany her mother back to Switzerland for treatment of her TB. The treatment was not successful; Kamala died on February 28, 1936 at the age of 36. Eighteen-year-old Indira was devastated at the loss of her mother.

In London at the Outset of WWII

After her mother's death, Indira made the decision to go to England to continue her education, just as her father and grandfather had done. After initially failing the entrance exam for Oxford, Indira finally gained admittance in 1937. She enjoyed her studies at Oxford, but missed her father and her homeland.

Classmates at Oxford—including British writer Iris Murdoch—later characterized Indira as aloof and withdrawn at times.

Always prone to illness, Indira was forced to take time off from school in fall of 1938, when she was diagnosed with pleurisy. After a three-week hospitalization, Indira recuperated in India, returning to Oxford in April 1939.

By the time Indira decided she would return to India for good, however, Europe was in the throes of World War II. Hitler had invaded several European nations and the Germans had begun bombing raids on London. Indira volunteered with the Red Cross, driving an ambulance and assisting air-raid victims, but soon realized it was too dangerous to stay.

Accompanied by Feroze Gandhi, her childhood friend (who had also studied in London), Indira began the long trip back to India via ship in February 1941.They arrived in Mumbai, India in March. Indira's father, in prison once again, was not there to greet her.

Marriage to Feroze Gandhi

Soon after Indira's return, she announced to her father that she had accepted Feroze Gandhi's proposal of marriage. The announcement was met with shock and disapproval, not only by Nehru, but also by members of India's Hindu community. The engagement was considered scandalous because Feroze was from a lower social class and belonged to a different religious group. (He was a Parsi, whereas Indira was a Hindu.)

Nehru tried to convince Indira to end the engagement, but she warned him she would never speak to him again if he didn't give his approval. Nehru sought the advice of Mahatma Gandhi, whom he trusted implicitly. Gandhi met with the couple and gave them his blessing. On March 26, 1942, 24-year-old Indira and 29-year-old Feroze were married.

Imprisonment and Motherhood

In August 1942, the Indian Congress issued a resolution known as "Quit India," which demanded that the British leave their country. A nationwide campaign of civil disobedience began, consisting of strikes and protests.

The British, already mired in conflict both in Europe and along the northern Indian border, where Japanese troops threatened to invade, had no patience for the protests. British troops killed thousands of protestors and arrested many more, including nearly the entire Indian Congress.

Indira and Feroze joined protestors in Allahabad in September 1942. Indira was beaten by police, and both she and Feroze were arrested. Each spent several months in prison. Once out of prison, the couple reunited and Feroze found a job selling insurance. Indira, exhausted from her time in jail, needed to be hospitalized for a respiratory infection soon after her release.

On August 20, 1944, Indira gave birth to a son, whom she and Feroze named Rajiv. Indira's focus turned to raising her son. Being a good mother was especially important to her, given the difficult nature of her own childhood, complicated by her father's many imprisonments and her mother's illness. Indira had a second son, Sanjay, in December 1946. The family moved to the northeastern city of Lucknow, where Feroze worked as editor of a newspaper.

Hope Gives Way to Violence

By the end of World War II in 1945, India had still not achieved independence, thanks in part to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's vehement opposition. However, Churchill's defeat by the Labor Party in July 1945 paved the way for the creation of a free Indian state. The new prime minister, a supporter of Indian independence, freed all political prisoners soon after taking office.

Acting as leader of the interim government, Nehru traveled to Delhi to negotiate with the British in July 1946. Much to his dismay, he learned of a movement initiated by Muslims to separate India into two states: a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. Both Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi very much opposed a divided India, but were powerless to stop the movement or the violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of Indians were killed. Mass migrations took place, with Indian Muslims making the trek to Pakistan and Hindus from Pakistan fleeing to India.

At her father’s request, Indira, whose youngest son was just a few months old, traveled to various parts of India in an attempt to help bring about peace between Hindus and Muslims. Because the situation was so volatile, Indira's father insisted that she travel with police protection at all times.

As the country moved toward independence, the fighting raged on.

Indian Independence and the Assassination of Gandhi

The long-awaited day came at last on August 15, 1947, when the flag of India was hoisted, replacing the Union Jack. The Indian Independence Act, passed by the British Parliament the previous month, had created the independent states of India and Pakistan. West Pakistan was situated on the northwestern border of India; East Pakistan was 1200 miles away on India's northeastern border.

In January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi began a fast in protest of the violence between the two groups. Willing to die for the cause he believed in, Gandhi vowed he would not eat until the fighting stopped. He broke his fast on the sixth day, only after leaders from both groups agreed to work on a peaceful solution.

Just two days later, on January 30, 1948, 78-year-old Mahatma Gandhi was shot and killed by a young Hindu fanatic. Indira had just paid Gandhi a visit the day before he died. The entire country mourned the loss of the great leader who had championed the cause of independence.

Indira Holds Political Office

Nehru began his term as India's first prime minister, bereft at the loss of the man who had been his mentor and adviser for so many years. Indira soon stepped into the role of assistant and confidante to her father, moving from Lucknow to Delhi with her sons to be at his side. In 1952, Feroze was elected to Congress, enabling him to move to Delhi to be with his family and live in the prime minister's residence with them.

For Feroze, the situation was far from ideal. He and Nehru argued frequently and Indira's constant traveling took its toll upon her marriage. Feroze moved out of the residence and into official Parliamentary housing. He was rumored to have had affairs.

As Nehru sought to develop India's foreign policy, he traveled to many countries, including the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain, and others, usually accompanied by Indira. Acting as her father's official assistant, Indira became well-known and respected both at home and abroad. In 1955, she was elected to the Congressional Working Committee and in 1959 became president of the Congress — the same position held by both her father and grandfather before her.

Overwhelmed by her many responsibilities, 43-year-old Indira Gandhi opted not to run for re-election in 1960. After Feroze suffered a heart attack later that year, the couple reconciled and went on an extended vacation following his recovery. Only months later, Feroze had a second heart attack and died on September 8, 1960, with Indira at his side.

Despite her grief, 42-year-old Indira soon went back to work with her father.

Death of Nehru and Indira's Election as Prime Minister

As Nehru grew older and less able to carry out his duties, Indira took on more of his responsibilities, traveling to the U.S. and Europe on her father's behalf. In May 1964, Nehru died of a stroke at the age of 74.

Nehru was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was designated to serve until the next election. Shastri appointed Indira as minister for information and broadcasting, in part because he knew she was well-liked by the Indian people.

Shastri did not complete his term, dying of a heart attack on January 10, 1966 after less than two years in office. With the support of the Congress Party, Indira ran for prime minister against Moraji Desai. She won by a large margin, becoming India's third prime minister on January 24, 1966. At 48 years old, Indira Gandhi was only the second female prime minister in history. (Sri Lanka had elected a female prime minister in 1960.)

Three Consecutive Terms

Indira Gandhi was re-elected in the regular election in 1967, but by a smaller margin. In her first full term, she dealt with many difficult issues, including a major drought, famine, and the ever-present issue of warring religious factions in India. Indira ran for a second, full term and was sworn in on March 1, 1971.

That same year, civil war broke out between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. Indira was forced into the conflict on December 3, 1971,when the Pakistani air force bombed several Indian airfields. Indira sent Indian troops into East Pakistan. The East Pakistanis surrendered on December 14, and were eventually granted independence; the new country was named Bangladesh.

India's problems deepened over the next three years. With poverty and hunger on the rise, dissatisfaction among Indian people intensified, leading to widespread strikes and protests. Indira responded by having strikers and union leaders arrested, angering many Indian people.

In May 1974, India joined the nuclear arms race by exploding an underground nuclear device. Indira's intention was to harness nuclear energy to provide electrical power for India, but many world leaders voiced concern that yet another nation had gained access to nuclear power.

Indira Imposes State of Emergency

In June 1975, Indira was accused of having violated election laws during her campaign in 1971. But just as she was about to be removed from office for these infractions, Indira—acting with her son Sanjay as her adviser—instituted a national state of emergency. In what amounted to a virtual dictatorship, Indira imposed heavy restrictions upon citizens, including press censorship, mass arrests, and a highly controversial mandatory sterilization program.

Both Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay—who was seen as ruthless and power-hungry—came under heavy criticism. When Indira finally relaxed the state of emergency and allowed democratic elections in March 1977, she was soundly defeated by the Janata Party.

After eleven years (three consecutive terms) as prime minister, she found herself once again a private citizen, with time to relax and enjoy her grandchildren.

A Fourth Term

A year later, however, Indira returned to politics. She ran for Parliament in 1978 and won, but the ruling party, which feared her return to power, had the election results thrown out. Indira and Sanjay were briefly imprisoned for official corruption.

Determined to win back the title of prime minister in the upcoming January 1980 elections, Indira campaigned heavily. Her hard work paid off, helped along by a highly unpopular ruling party. Indira Gandhi succeeded at winning a fourth term as prime minister at the age of 62.

Only five months after Indira's victory, on June 23, 1980, she suffered another enormous loss when son Sanjay was killed in a plane crash. She had lost not only a son, but also her closest political ally. Indira convinced her other son, Rajiv, to run for Sanjay's seat in Parliament. He won the seat by a large majority in June 1981.

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi

In June 1984, Indira Gandhi was faced with a rebellion in the Punjab region by Sikhs (an ethnic and religious group in India). A group of extremist Sikhs who sought to create an independent state had taken refuge in the Golden Temple, considered their holiest shrine. Local authorities dared not enter such a holy place, even though the men within faced arrest for terrorist acts. Indira launched Operation Bluestar on June 6, sending in the Indian army to storm the temple. Hundreds of Sikhs were killed and their temple desecrated, angering even the most moderate Sikhs.

After Indira Gandhi received numerous death threats, her son Rajiv insisted that she wear a bulletproof vest.

Indira had long employed Sikh guards to protect her, but had been warned that she should replace them in view of recent events. She had refused. On the morning of October 31, 1984, as she walked along her garden path, she was ambushed by two of her trusted Sikh guards. They opened fire on Indira Gandhi—who was not wearing her bulletproof vest—killing her instantly. She was 66 years old.

Only hours after his mother's death, Rajiv was sworn in as prime minister.