Indira Gandhi
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Introduction

The only daughter of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi was destined for politics. First appointed prime minister in 1966, she garnered widespread public support for agricultural improvements that led to India’s self-sufficiency in food grain production as well as for her success in the Pakistan war, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. After serving three terms, Gandhi was voted out of office for her increasingly authoritarian policies, including a 21-month state of emergency in which Indians’ constitutional rights were restricted. In 1980, however, she was reelected to a fourth term. Following a deadly confrontation at the Sikh’s holiest temple in Punjab four years later, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards on October 31, 1984, ushering her son Rajiv into power and igniting extensive anti-Sikh riots.

Born on November 19, 1917, in Allahabad, India, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was the sole child of Kamala and Jawaharlal Nehru. As a member of the Indian National Congress, Nehru had been influenced by party leader Mahatma Gandhi, and dedicated himself to India’s fight for independence. The struggle resulted in years of imprisonment for Jawaharlal and a lonely childhood for Indira, who attended a Swiss boarding school for a few years, and later studied history at Somerville College, Oxford. Her mother passed away in 1936 of tuberculosis.

In March 1942, despite the disapproval of her family, Indira married Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi lawyer (unrelated to Mahatma Gandhi), and the couple soon had two sons: Rajiv and Sanjay.

In 1947, Nehru became the newly independent nation’s first prime minister, and Gandhi agreed to go to New Delhi to serve as his hostess, welcoming diplomats and world leaders at home and traveling with her father throughout India and abroad. She was elected to the prominent 21-member working committee of the Congress Party in 1955 and, four years later, was named its president. Upon Nehru’s death in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the new prime minister, and Indira took on the role of Minister of Information and Broadcasting. But Shastri’s leadership was short-lived; just two years later he abruptly died and Indira was appointed by Congress Party leaders to be prime minister.

Within a few years Gandhi gained enormous popularity for introducing successful programs that transformed India into a country self-sufficient in food grains—an achievement known as the Green Revolution.

In 1971, she threw her support behind the Bengali movement to separate East from West Pakistan, providing refuge for the ten million Pakistani civilians who fled to India in order to escape the marauding Pakistan army and eventually offering troops and arms. India’s decisive victory over Pakistan in December led to the creation of Bangladesh, for which Gandhi was posthumously awarded Bangladesh’s highest state honor 40 years later.

Following the 1972 national elections, Gandhi was accused of misconduct by her political opponent and, in 1975, was convicted of electoral corruption by the High Court of Allahabad and prohibited from running in another election for six years. Instead of resigning as expected, she responded by declaring a state of emergency on June 25, whereby citizens’ civil liberties were suspended, the press was acutely censored and the majority of her opposition was detained without trial. Throughout what became referred to as the “Reign of Terror,” thousands of dissidents were imprisoned without due process.

Anticipating that her former popularity would assure her reelection, Gandhi finally eased the emergency restrictions and called for the next general election in March 1977. Riled by their limited liberties, however, the people overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Janata Party and Morarji Desai assumed the role of prime minister.

Within the next few years, democracy was restored, but the Janata Party had little success in resolving the nation’s severe poverty crisis. In 1980, Gandhi campaigned under a new party—Congress (I)—and was elected into her fourth term as prime minister.

In 1984, the holy Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, was taken over by Sikh extremists seeking an autonomous state. In response, Gandhi sent Indian troops to regain the temple by force. In the barrage of gunfire that ensued, hundreds of Sikhs were killed, igniting an uprising within the Sikh community.

On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated outside her home by two of her trusted bodyguards, seeking retribution for the events at the temple.