Remembering the legacy of Indira Gandhi

A worrying moment can bother you for years to come, but what if there is a whole day plagued by unpleasant events, one after another. How can such a day be erased from memories? Surely the terror, fear and loathing of that day will continue to attack you. Every year October 31 has a similar effect on me. On the same day in 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by his bodyguards at his official residence and after that horrific events continued in Delhi and other parts of the country. Once the cycle of violence and riots began, it took several days for the situation to return to normal. As a journalist, I also witnessed these poisoned moments.

Today, when we remember Indira Gandhi, it seems that she is one of the few designers of modern India. It was the time of utopias and socialist dreams, as soon as she took power, she made hasty populist decisions, one after the other. Whether it is the abolition of the private purse of members of the royal family and the Maharajas or the nationalization of banks, many such decisions have been characterized as socio-economic reforms. Please do not compare decisions made then with those made today. It was a cold war torn world that had emerged from World War II. The needs of the time were different. In a democracy, those at the lowest rungs of society had high hopes for such decisions. This was the basis of Indira Gandhi’s long political success. She had an incredible ability to communicate and to captivate the weaker sections. In 1971, its slogan was: “They say to take away Indira, I say to eradicate poverty”.

It should also be remembered that two years before coming to power, India waged a bitter war with Pakistan. Wars are always heavy on the pockets of the common man. India at that time seemed to be slowly reeling. There was not enough money in the treasury to feed the huge population and there was nothing to feed the large population except red wheat supplied by the United States. For this, US President Lyndon B. Johnson used to threaten India in various ways. It is also said that once the United States stopped a ship loaded with wheat in a port for some reason. It was an embarrassing moment for New Delhi as warehouses across the country had food grains of very limited duration. It seemed like we had no choice but to live on the mercy of the United States.

This is the time when Indira Gandhi, on the advice of experts, chalked up new experiences and improvements in the field of agriculture. The historic green revolution is the product of this. If India’s warehouses are now filled with more grain than needed, much of the credit goes to Indira Gandhi.

She was also extremely sensitive to India’s borders. She strategically changed the map of this subcontinent by making Sikkim part of India. It was an extremely bold move. There was a possibility of strong resistance from China and there were also concerns that small neighboring countries might be skeptical, but she was firmly committed. Because of this capacity, it had already divided Pakistan into two parts in 1971. This battle will always hold an important place in the military history of the world. It was the first time that more than 90,000 soldiers from one country were forced to surrender in front of the Indian army. Imagine, what would have happened if Pakistan hadn’t been divided like this? In Kashmir as well as in Bengal and in the North-East, the flames of separation would have been high.

His other feat was incredible. Although she was the victim of personal insults from US President Richard Nixon, Indira Gandhi did not give up. By signing a long-term strategic agreement with the Soviet Union, it had given India new heights and new security. The first nuclear test at Pokhran, on May 18, 1974, is no less important. This had dampened the audacity of many neighbors. No other country in the Cold War era was able to take such a step.

Despite so much success, his feet have always stayed on the ground. She never hesitated to meet people, to interact with them. When we studied in the primary classes, we had to greet her when she visited Allahabad. We found many people there holding black flags and chanting slogans such as “Murdabad” or “Go back”. Asked by journalists, his answer would be: the opposition has the right to protest, but was it really that generous?

It was the time of the opposition political heavyweights. People like Ram Manohar Lohia, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and George Fernandes were there to oppose her. They all called her a dictator. She had also proved it by imposing an emergency. The 21 months of the Emergency from June 25, 1975 to March 21, 1977 are a dark spot on his success story. She is also known as the founder of dynastic politics. She first tried to promote her youngest son Sanjay and after he was killed in a plane crash she dragged her eldest son Rajiv, who was not at all interested in politics. She herself was a dynastic product and if she perpetuated it, why is that surprising?

She had also failed to establish peace in Punjab, Kashmir and the northeast. However, in a long political life of a politician, not everything can be right. Indira Gandhi’s work even reminds us of her 37 years after her departure. We are people with weak memories but she has carved a deep signature on the milestone of time. She will be missed even more.

Shashi Shekhar is Editor-in-Chief, Hindustan. The opinions expressed are personal.

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