HOW PEOPLE REMEMBER THE ‘EMPRESS OF INDIA’
THE 100th birth anniversary of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi fell just a couple of weeks ago on November 17, 2017.
What is curious is that millions across India still remember her with affection. This is distinctly odd, considering she is blamed for having very nearly crushed Indian democracy when she declared a state of emergency on June 25, 1975, locked up thousands of political opponents, curbed press freedom and allowed her younger son Sanjay to unleash a reign of terror under the guise of a sterilisation campaign. She also forced her elder son Rajiv to enter politics despite the objections of his wife Sonia when Sanjay was killed in a flying accident in 1980.
Dev Kant Barua, the Congress party president, was obsequious when he coined the expression: “India is Indira and Indira is India.”
Perhaps she realised the emergency was the biggest mistake of her life. She lifted it in 1977, called a general election and accepted defeat when her party was crushed at the polls.
She was finished, pundits predicted. I was invited to tea with GD Birla, one of India’s most eminent industrialists, at Grosvenor House where he maintained a suite.
“There is no comeback for her,” he told me.
Back in 1975, when I went home to Calcutta (now Kolkata) on holiday, my father, who was then an editor on the English language daily, the Amrita Bazar Patrika, said: “There is only one story in India – Jayaprakash (JP) Narayan’s campaign against Indira Gandhi.”
After a tortuous journey by rail, steamer and bullock cart, I caught up with JP late at night in a village in deepest Bihar. JP refused to give me an interview but at midnight he came, put an arm round me and asked why I had not introduced myself as my father’s son – as young men he and my father had been friends in Patna.
I sent long interviews back to London to The Daily Telegraph and to the New Statesman. Neither published the piece (sent painstakingly word by word by telegram). Then came the emergency.
After her election defeat, Mrs Gandhi came to London where Swraj Paul, her greatest supporter, ensured she stayed at Claridges. Half the British cabinet went to see her.
“Are you making a comeback?” one of us asked Gandhi.
She raised an eyebrow: “Comeback? I haven’t gone anywhere.”
The masses of India, who had thrown her out, voted her back in 1980. After Operation Blue Star, the Indian army’s assault on the Golden Temple in June 1984 to flush out militants from the holy shrine, she was warned by her intelligence it was not safe for her to keep her Sikh bodyguards.
But Mrs Gandhi would not countenance any discrimination against them – and paid with her life when two of them shot her on October 31, 1984.
Mrs Gandhi is also remembered as the one who led India to a comprehensive military victory against Pakistan during the Bangladesh crisis of 1971.
She was often accused of being authoritarian, a sort of “Empress of India”. Her emergency certainly damaged the country’s political institutions. And yet the people of India have shown a great deal of forgiveness where she is concerned. That is perhaps because there was no doubting her love for India and Indians. And it is because of her that people continue to treat Rahul Gandhi with a certain amount of indulgence.
I have a feeling that with passing time, most Indians probably will remember only the good things about Indira Gandhi.