Friday, October 31, 2014

If I die a violent death

It is 30 years to the day since Indira Gandhi, a major figure in the National Congress Party and India’s third prime minister, was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. There is scant evidence available online that she was a diarist, although one or two sources do refer to a diary. One of her senior aids, B. N. Tandon, kept a daily diary for nearly two years so as to document a political crisis; it reveals a rather unflattering portrait of his boss. Meanwhile, India’s recently elected Bharatiya Janata Party has chosen to downplay Gandhi’s memory on this significant anniversary of her death.

Indira Nehru was born in Allahabad in 1917. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, led India’s political struggle for independence from British rule, and became the first prime minister of the Dominion (and later Republic) of India. He was often away, and her mother was frequently bed-ridden. Indira was educated mostly at home, although at times also in Switzerland, before attending Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan, and then Oxford University. She left Oxford before completing her studies. While in Europe, she became better acquainted with Feroze Gandhi (unrelated to Mahatma Gandhi), whom she had known from Allahabad, and who was studying at the London School of Economics. They married in 1942 according to Hindu rituals, and against the wishes of Indira’s father, and had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay.

In the 1950s, Indira Gandhi served her father unofficially as a personal assistant during his tenure as prime minister. After his death, in 1964, she was elected to the Rajya Sabha (upper house), and Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had succeeded her father as prime minister, gave her a place in his cabinet. And when he died abruptly, the Congress Party sought a docile successor, and appointed Gandhi; but she proved anything but docile, surprising her father’s old colleagues by sacking high-level officials and leading with a strong hand. She brought about great change in agricultural policy which improved the lot of her country’s poor, and, for a time, was hailed as a hero. In 1971, she intervened in the Pakistan Civil War, in support of East Pakistan, and was influential in the creation of an independent Bangladesh.

Increasingly, Gandhi ruled with an authoritarian hand, and corruption was rife within her administration. She was found guilty of a minor infraction, and then there were demands for her resignation. Gandhi responded by calling for a state of emergency which allowed her more central control, in particular of states ruled by opposition parties. In 1977, though, her popularity slumped, and the Congress Party lost an election. Subsequent efforts by opponents to bring her to trial only served to gain her more support, and in 1980 she won a landslide election. That same year, her son Sanjay, who had been serving as chief political adviser, died in a plane crash. Thereafter, Indira’s younger son, Rajiv, took over as Indira’s heir apparent. (He would become prime minister on the death of his mother, and then be assassinated himself in 1991.)

In the new term of office, Gandhi was preoccupied by efforts to resolve political problems in the state of Punjab. In an attempt to crush the secessionist movement of Sikh militants, led by Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, she ordered an assault upon the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar, the Golden Temple. ‘Operation Bluestar’, as it was called, in June 1984, led to the death of Bindranwale and many civilians, and caused damage to the sacred Golden Temple itself. Many Sikhs bitterly resented Gandhi for the attack, and she was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Cultural India, a New York Times obituary, a Guardian review of a modern biography, the BBC, or a Googlebooks preview of Mother India: A Political Biography of Indira Gandhi by Pranay Gupte.

I have not been able to find online any definitive information that Indira Gandhi kept a diary, but there are a couple of sources which imply that she did at different times. Pupul Jayakar, in her biography (published first by Viking, New Delhi, in 1992), quotes several entries from Gandhi’s childhood diary, (although they appear as though they might have been taken from an agenda rather than a journal). She says that 12 year old Indira was angry at being denied active participation in the freedom struggle by Congress and so set about, with vigour and determination, to form her own children’s brigade, the Vanar Sena (army of monkeys): ‘Indira’s diary, written neatly in a tiny scrap book, indicates her precise down-to-earth mind - adult in its planning and concerns, with an understanding that it is the little things that make great events possible, an astonishing state of mind for a twelve-year-old child.’

6 September 1930
‘Papu’s interview at 10:00 A.M.
Meeting of the Students’ Working Committee at 12:30
Meet Gupta about Vanar Sena’s work in different wards.
Katra Vanar Sena’s meeting at Katra Ashram at 6.00 P.M. to 9.00 P.M.
Drill and meeting of Vanar Sena & Bal Sangh at Swaraj Bhawan at 5.00 P.M.’

8 September 1930
‘Boycott week Programme for Vanar Sena.
The whole week Prbahat Pheris - 6-8 A.M.
Procession starting at Khadi Bhandar at 5:30 P.M.
Meeting at Purshottam Das Park.’

13 September 1930
‘Strike in schools on behalf of Jatindra Das
Procession and meeting.’

Jayakar quotes also from other diaries, notably the prison diary kept by Gandhi’s father Jawaharlal Nehru (more about which can be read in Sankar Ghose’s biography available to preview at Googlebooks).

Then there are also the prophetic words Gandhi wrote on the day before her death which are widely quoted on the internet, and which some sources say were culled from her diary (see Facts on File). However, an article in India Today about the memorial at her old office, 1 Safdarjung Road, states that these words were found among her private papers.

30 October 1984
‘If I die a violent death as some fear and a few are plotting, I know the violence will be in the thought and the action of the assassins and not in my dying; for no hate is dark enough to overshadow the extent of my love for my people and my country and no force strong enough to divert me from my purpose and my endeavour to take this country forward.’

Finally, it is worth noting that Bishan Narain Tandon, a senior official in Indira Gandhi’s office kept a diary for 20 months, during a period of political crisis. This diary was published in two parts, by Konark Publishers, as PMO Diary-I: Prelude to the Emergency (2002) and PMO Diary-II: The Emergency (2006). According to Konark, ‘the reader gets an accurate and fascinating glimpse into the persona of Indira Gandhi as well as her working style.’ But reviews of the diary, such as one at India Today and another at Current News, show it reveals a rather unflattering portrait of Gandhi.

Perhaps - I’ve no idea in truth - Tandon’s diary has helped undermine the memory of Gandhi. Many Indian-sourced media articles in the last few days, reporting on the 30th anniversary of her assassination, have drawn attention to how the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), which took over government from the National Congress Party earlier this year, has been downplaying Indira Gandhi’s legacy in favour of (Sardar or Chief) Vallabhbhai Patel, who was another leader of the Congress Party, and deputy prime minister under Jawaharlal Nehru. See: India Today - Congress cries foul on Indira Gandhi being ‘sidelined’; The Times of India - [Prime Minister] Modi hails Sardar Patel, links Indira Gandhi’s death anniversary to 1984 riots; and Wall Street Journal blog - Is Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Eclipsing Indira Gandhi?.

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