Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, the only child of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, led a controversial life, more eventful and dramatic than any public personality of her time.
The Iron Lady of India, the former Prime Minister from 1966-77 and 1980-84 whose 101st birth anniversary is today (Monday), has had it all.
Indira’s remarkable transformation from being the daughter of Nehru to a powerful daughter of India, the Emergency and hunger for power, the doting mother and wily politician, the fashion icon and much-reviled dynast, is proof that she was destined to be in politics.
Here are some lesser-known facts about India’s first woman PM:
- Almost from the moment she was born on November 19, 1917, Indira witnessed a bonfire of foreign goods. Later, the 5-year-old chose to burn her own beloved doll because the toy had been made in England. When she was 12, Indira played an even bigger role in India’s struggle for self-determination by leading children in the Vanar Sena (the name means Monkey Brigade; it was inspired by the monkey army that aided Lord Rama in the epic Ramayana). The group grew to include 60,000 young revolutionaries who addressed envelopes, made flags, conveyed messages and put up notices about demonstrations.
- She was educated in Swiss schools and at Somerville college, Oxford. She was elected as the president of the Indian National Congress in 1960 and after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s abrupt death in 1966, she succeeded him as the Prime Minister. She is the second longest serving PM of India, after her father.
- India married Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi and fellow participant in the struggle for independence, in 1942. Despite the fact that Indira and Feroze were in love, theirs was a wedding that few people in India supported. It was also out-of-the-norm not to have an arranged marriage. In fact, there was such a public outcry against the match that Mahatma Gandhi had to offer a public statement of support, which included the request: “I invite the writers of abusive letters to shed your wrath and bless the forthcoming marriage.” Though the pair had two sons – Sanjay and Rajiv – together, the marriage was not a great success. Feroze had extramarital liaisons, while much of Indira’s time was spent with her father after he became India’s prime minister in 1947. The marriage ended with Feroze’s death in 1960.
- In 1971, Indira faced a crisis when troops from West Pakistan went into Bengali East Pakistan to crush its independence movement. Making the situation even more complicated were geopolitical considerations — President Richard Nixon wanted the United States to stand by Pakistan and China was arming Pakistan, while India had signed a “treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation” with the Soviet Union. The situation didn’t improve when Indira visited the United States in November — Oval Office recordings from the time reveal that Nixon told Henry Kissinger the prime minister was an “old witch.” The war’s conclusion was a triumph for India. After the conflict had ended, Indira declared in an interview, “I am not a person to be pressured — by anybody or any nation.”
- In June 1975, Indira was found guilty of electoral malpractice. When rivals began advocating for her removal as prime minister, she opted to declare a state of emergency. Emergency rule would be a black moment for India’s democracy, with opponents imprisoned and press freedoms limited. Perhaps most shockingly, millions of people were sterilized — some against their will — during this period. To encourage men to undergo vasectomy, incentives such as cooking oil and cash were offered.
- After Sanjay died in 1980 (he was killed in a plane crash), tensions between his wife Maneka and mother Indira rose further. Things came to a head when Maneka defied Indira to attend a rally of Sanjay’s former political allies (which didn’t help the political interests of Rajiv, Sanjay’s brother). As punishment, Indira ordered Maneka to leave her house. In return, Maneka made sure the press captured her bags being unceremoniously left outside. Maneka took her son, Varun, with her, and being separated from a beloved grandson was a blow for Indira.
- Indira and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher met in 1976, ever since they were very close to each other. When Thatcher came close to being killed by an IRA bomb in October 1984, Indira was sympathetic. Following Indira’s own assassination a few weeks later, Thatcher ignored death threats to attend the funeral.
- In 1984, her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her a few months after she ordered the storming of the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar to counter the Punjab insurgency. Her bodyguards had fired 31 bullets at her, of which 30 had hit; 23 had passed through her body while 7 were trapped inside her.