Remembering Indira Gandhi: Repression and partisan goals lead to chaos

Many lessons could be learned from Indira's murder. The first is that there will be repercussions for repression and authoritarian tendencies; and second, political power should not be used for partisan goals, write Dr Vineeth Mathoor & Sunil Kumar for South Asia Monitor 


October 31 marks the end of an era in Indian politics. It was on this day in 1984 when Indira Gandhi, the most influential politician of her time, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. Satwant Singh and Beant Singh had nothing personal against Indira Gandhi, but they had vowed to avenge Operation Blue Star ordered by her to flush out terrorists from the Golden Temple -- the holiest shrine of the Sikhs -- in Amritsar in June 1984. Blood flows when vengeance, personal or political, is carried out.
Being the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira learned her first lessons of public life in the sprawling Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi, the official residence of the first prime minister that was converted into a museum and library after his death. Leaving the lush lawns of the pristine Lutyen's bungalow she moved to Switzerland and England in pursuit of education. 

She grew into an adamant woman in personal and political life. Kerala was the classic example of her resolve as she made her ailing father dismiss the first communist government in 1959. A lonely childhood and a failed marriage played a vital role in the making of a brave but fragile Indira. She was an unpredictable but shrewd and intelligent woman. 

Indira's rise to power came soon after the demise of Nehru in 1964. In 1966, she became the first woman Prime Minister of India and had the second-longest tenure in office. Her policies were a mix of populism and political stability. It seems astounding now that India then could break Pakistan in 1971, barely ten years after a botched up war against China and having dealt with Pakistan on the battlefield. No doubt it was Indira's willpower that led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
The limitations of Indira

Though she had expressed the vital qualities of an inclusive leader, fundamentally, two problems marred Indira’s qualities. These problems have resulted not only in the decline of her influence and personal assassination but also the downfall of Congress. First, what can be termed as Dhritarashtraism, to use an Indian aphorism, depended on her sons, especially the younger one Sanjay Gandhi. Like Dhritarashtra of the Mahabharata, she was very fond of her two sons. This is alright from a mother’s viewpoint, but not, of course, from political perspectives. Too much affection, like Dhritarashtra, blinded her not to see what her children were doing. That allowed Sanjay Gandhi, the younger one, to be the mastermind behind Indira’s political strategies. This is evident when Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of Allahabad High Court gave a verdict that Indira Gandhi's election to the Lok Sabha from Rai Bareli in 1971 is null and void on the grounds of electoral malpractice.
Following the verdict, Sanjay Gandhi and his friend Siddharth Sankar Ray, the Chief Minister of West Bengal stood by Indira to make sure that she declares the State of Emergency, based on the provisions of Article 352(1) of the Indian Constitution, on June 25, 1975. Congress would have been vindicated from the accusation of being fascist if she could wisely think and not submit to Sanjay. The result, as evident from 1975 to 1977, was the imposition of de-democratization. 

Indeed, emergency gave opportunities to Jana Sangh, an early incarnation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and a group of political parties to spread their wings in Indian politics.
Similarly, forced vasectomy during the emergency was Sanjay’s contribution. Without realizing the socio-economic situation in India, Sanjay Gandhi was persuaded by the dream to make India a world power. Though the goal was good, his methods were fatal. Having no respect for democracy, Sanjay chose to force things on people. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Muslims, were forced to undergo vasectomy surgery. Many of them, it was argued, were not even married.
The second trait of Indira was her love for political vengeance. Surrounded by her kitchen cabinet and satellites, Indira never thought of compromising with her political opponents. What she missed was the fact that she was making a proxy war, that too unnecessarily. This is what ultimately led to her assassination as well. Indira and Sanjay could have never met Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, had the son and mother not tried to destabilize the Akali Dal-Janata Party coalition in Punjab. Bhindranwale was the autocratic choice against the Akali Dal-Janata Party coalition that came to power in Punjab in 1977. With the support from Sanjay, Bhindranwale succeeded, initially in militarizing the Sikh community and then rallying them for Khalistan, an imagined separate homeland for the Sikh community. At the height of his influence, Bhindranwale decided the politics of Punjab, sidelining the dictates from New Delhi. Escorted by armed Sikh militia, Bhindranwale became a thorn in the side of Indira and Sanjay.
Sanjay had already met his inevitable fate when the demand for a separate Khalistan was aired in the streets of Punjab. There was nothing to do; neither the mother nor the entourage could do anything when Sanjay was burnt in the blue sky of Safadarjung in Delhi on June 23. 1980 and died in the air crash. Indira was left alone, though Rajiv, her elder son was alive.

Operation Blue Star

With Bhindranwale becoming a headache, Indira became more and more sad and lonely to deal with the Khalistan movement. She was sure that Pakistan, China, and the United States supported Bhindranwale and the Khalistan movement. Her main concern, the Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple, was home to hundreds of innocent people and any attack on the Golden Temple would hurt the feelings of the Sikh people.  

With no positive options in hand, Indira ordered military action into the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Between June 1, 1984, and June 8, 1984, the Indian military conducted an armed raid in the temple premises and killed Bhindranwale and his Sikh militia. Named as Blue Star Operation, the incident upset normal life in Punjab and worried Sikhs across the globe. Threats to take Indira's life came from many quarters. And on the afternoon of October 31, 1984, Indira was killed by her two Sikh bodyguards. Soon after her killing, anti-Sikh riots erupted in the country. The riots continued in some areas for several days, killing more than 3,000 Sikhs in New Delhi and an estimated 8,000-17,000 or more Sikhs were killed in 40 cities across India.

Lessons learned

Many lessons could be learned from Indira's murder. The first is that there will be repercussions for repression and authoritarian tendencies; and second, political power should not be used for partisan goals. 

Otherwise, the bravest Prime Minister India has ever seen could have made more contributions to the country. It was a big loss for India.
(The writers are Dr. Vineeth Mathoor & Sunil Kumar, Assistant Professors, NSS Hindu College, Changanacherry, Kerala. The views expressed are personal. They can be contacted at &

Post a Comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Newsletter Subscription

The subscriber's email address.
Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
Tweets about SAMonitor
SAM Facebook