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Prime Minister of India, 1966-1977 and 1980-1984
Indira Priyadarshini Nehru was born in Allahabad (in modern-day Uttar Pradesh) on November 19, 1917, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamala (Kaul) Nehru. A baby brother born in November of 1924 died after just two days. She received her preliminary education at home, after which she briefly attended school to complete her matriculation. She subsequently enrolled at the Viswa Bharti University in Calcutta, but had to leave due to the ailing health of her mother, who died of tuberculosis in Switzerland in February of 1936.
Indira entered Somerville College, Oxford University, in 1937, but frequent bouts with illness prevented completion of her studies. She did, however, manage to to meet Feroz Gandhi, a student at the London School of Economics. She returned to India in 1941, and married Feroz in 1942 (despite major objections from her father). Feroz and Indira Gandhi subsequently had two sons, Rajiv, born in 1944, and Sanjay, born in 1946. Feroz Gandhi died of a heart attack in 1960; Indira never remarried.
After India gained its independence in 1947, Indira served as an unofficial personal assistant to her father, the new nation's first Prime Minister. She became a member of the National Congress Party's working committee in 1955, and became its president in 1959. After her father's death in 1964 she was appointed to the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian Parliament) and became Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Lal Bahadur Shastri's cabinet. In this post she extended broadcasting time, liberalized censorship policies, and approved a television education project in family planning.
Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister upon the sudden death of Shastri in January 1966. The National Congress Party was by then split between socialists and conservatives (with Gandhi leading the socialist faction), and that split resulted in the party losing 60 seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house) in the 1967 elections. Gandhi managed to hold onto the Prime Minister position by forming a coalition with the Indian Communist and Socialist parties. She led her party to a landslide victory in the 1971 elections.
During her first two terms as Prime Minister, Gandhi nationalized all banks, as well as the coal, steel, copper, refining, cotton textiles, insurance, and oil industries. A program of major agricultural reform saw India go from an import-dependent nation to one that was actually exporting surpluses of wheat, rice, and other crops by the early 1970's. In 1971, in response to a flood of refugees from East Pakistan, she began a war against Pakistan. The East Pakistani/Indian forces won the war, resulting in the formation of the nation of Bangladesh from what had been East Pakistan. India joined the "nuclear community" in 1974.
Although Gandhi engineered and oversaw some sweeping economic successes in her first years as Prime Minister, there were almost as many failures. Almost immediately after the 1971 elections, Socialist Party leader Raj Narain charged Gandhi with corruption and electoral malpractice. In June of 1975, the High Court in Allahabad ruled for Narain. Gandhi should have been stripped of her seat in Parliament and barred from elected office for six years, but she refused to step down and declared a state of emergency instead. Although the ruling was soon overturned by the Indian Supreme Court, the state of emergency was continued. Gandhi purged the national and state governments of her political opponents, arresting and jailing political activists. To control population growth, she instituted a policy of forced sterilization, under which impoverished men were subjected to involuntary vasectomies (often under appallingly unsanitary conditions). Sanjay Gandhi, who by then was playing a very active role in his mother's government, led a move to clear the slums around Delhi; hundreds of people were killed and thousands left homeless when their homes were destroyed.
Confident that she had the Indian people on her side, Gandhi called a general election in March of 1977. Her confidence was too high, however, as the National Congress Party was soundly defeated by the Janata Party. After the Janata Party failed to live up to its promises, it was just as soundly defeated by Gandhi's party in the January 1980 elections and Gandhi once again became Prime Minister. When Sanjay died in a plane crash that June, Gandhi began grooming Rajiv as her successor.
The first couple of years after Gandhi's return to office were relatively successful politically and economically, but religious divisions threatened to tear the nation apart. The largest conflict centered around India's large Sikh population, a radical portion of which was calling for an independent Sikh state. In 1983, militant Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and followers occupied the Akhal Takt, the second-most holy building after the Golden Temple, in Amritsar. On June 3, 1984, the most important holiday in the Sikh calendar, Gandhi sent the Indian Army against them. In the early morning hours of June 5, the army attacked. According to official Indian government numbers, 492 civilians were killed, including women and children, along with 83 Indian army personnel. Other estimates from hospital workers and eyewitnesses state that more than 2,000 civilians died in the bloodbath. Among those killed were Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the other militants. To the further outrage of Sikhs world-wide, the Akhal Takt was badly damaged by shells and gunfire. In the aftermath, a number of Sikh soldiers resigned from the Indian Army. In some areas, there were actual battles between those resigning and those still loyal to the army.
On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi walked out to the garden behind her official residence for an interview with a British journalist. As she passed two of her Sikh bodyguards, they drew their service weapons and opened fire. Beant Singh shot her three times with a pistol, while Satwant Singh fired thirty times with a self-loading rifle. Both men then calmly dropped their weapons and surrendered. Indira Gandhi died that afternoon after undergoing surgery. Beant Singh was shot dead while under arrest; Satwant Singh and alleged conspirator Kehar Singh were later hanged.
When news of the Prime Minister's death was broadcast, mobs of Hindus across northern India went on a rampage. In the Anti-Sikh Riots, which lasted for four days, anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 Sikhs were murdered, many of them burned alive. Indira Gandhi was succeeded by her son Rajiv.
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This page was last updated on February 10, 2019.