Remembering a Titan
On Oct 31st, 31 years ago bullets pierced Indira Gandhi’s heart, killing her on the spot. The assassins were her personal bodyguards. November 19th was her birth day. Both days have come and gone. But the nation she ruled has come a long way. It may not be “Indira’s India”, a term coined during the 1970’s. But it is very well being “It is India, because of Indira.”
She kept India united and strong, and led the nation to victory, not once but twice. It is apt to remember this great lady who ruled us.
Our Parivar, a Congress Parivar:-
Our ancestral house is filled with portraits of national leaders such as Gandhi ji, Pandit Nehru, Subhas Bose, Bhaghat Singh, Babasaheb, and Indira Gandhi and for some strange and unknown reasons Teddy Roosevelt. As kids we hardly knew who the last one was and why he was there. Sadly Grandpa never bothered to give us a reason! (Sic)
But among all these portraits Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s portrait stood out.
It was a large life sized portrait smiling down across the family study hall. Looking down with a faint smile, she looked regal and at the same time motherly. Her grandparents had a soft corner for her. Maybe because they had 6 daughters or maybe they were flabbergasted by her political brilliance, courage and grit.
We were a Congress family. It did not really matter who the Congress candidate was, to which caste or religion the Congress candidate belonged. As long as there was an election and as long as it had a Congress candidate, we always voted for the Congress candidate. The elders felt a certain pride in voting for Congress.
Sonia Gandhi the silent superstar, but Yeh Dil Maange More!
The relationship continued even during the mid-nineties when Congress hit a rough patch. Even after the elders were bed ridden and the younger generation scattered across the globe, we were still a Congress family. Meanwhile the Congress party had lost its Gandhi’s “golden” touch. Congress is yet to regain its glory and is awaiting a true blooded savior. No offense to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the silent superstar, who did a very good job as the Congress Matriarch, but Yeh Dil Maange More! My grandparents up in heaven must be asking “are you listening Priyanka bitiya?”
More than a Congress family it was an Indira Gandhi family
Sometimes when the discussion turns political, one always comes to the question what kept the family bond with Congress so strong? The answers could be many but it always leads to one person: – Mrs. Indira Gandhi! Perhaps this explains her big portrait in the study hall.
No Indian leader left such a gargantuan imprint on post Nehruvian India as Mrs. Indira Gandhi did. Political giants like Jaiprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, Annadurai and Morarji Desai were easily dwarfed by her, that too by a wide margin. Truly a giant among giants, she was in many ways a Titan for our times.
Accepted she imposed Emergency, no doubt she did not tolerate criticism, agreed she was headstrong and even the slightest challenge to her power was ruthlessly crushed. But all these pale before her achievements.
Lone Lioness in a den full of Khadi wearing Wolves
She realized very early in her political career that a strong nation needs a strong leader. She had to be strong, as her own political career and the future of the nation depended on her strength.
If Indira displayed weakness, she might have lost elections. If she lost elections, her opponents of all shades would have grabbed power, having cobbled a fractious ragtag coalition. But the hard truth was that her opponents hated each other more than they hated her. This was proved beyond doubt, when the 1977 Janata Party government, riddled with internal contradictions and ego clashes, failed to perform and proved highly unstable. Such political instability is catastrophic for governance, economy, polity and the nation as a whole.
There were some misuses of power which are unjustifiable:-
- Giving legitimacy to family/dynasty based politics.
- The imposition of Emergency.
- Flagrant violations of article 370 to dismiss constitutionally elected governments.
- Merry-go-round rotation of Congress Chief Ministers.
Sadly most of her opponents were far worse but pretended to be saints. They usually wore earthly handspun garments like Khadi. Nevertheless they were wolves, wolves in Khadi clothes. They loved playing poisonous politics and spared no chance to undermine Indira, even if it meant jeopardizing India’s future.
In a den full of Khadi wearing wolves masquerading as saints, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was the lone Lioness. Alone, but ruthless she fought ferociously.
Indian Army wins a war for India
In 1969 the ruling Punjabi dominated western Army was fast turning into a genocidal monster. Pakistani Muslim army was committing daily holocausts on Hindus and the dark skinned, Bangla speaking low born Muslims. Previously these Bengalis in East Pakistan had demanded recognition for Bangla language and also it was their party, The Awami League that had won the 1970 election. Rapes on mass scale, atrocities against women and children, summary executions, torture induced deaths, burning of crops etc. were rampant.
What was the Bengali’s fault one may ask? They were dark skinned compared to the fair skinned Pakistani Generals. Yes most East Pakistanis were Muslims, but spoke “uncivilized” Bengali rather than the highly ornate Urdu which (incidentally even the Punjabi Muslim generals did not speak properly. Talk about hypocrisy!). Many more ridiculous “crimes” were added to the list, which included being rice eaters. Racism, caste and class discrimination so inherent, yet subaltern, among west Pakistani Muslim generals suddenly exploded into demonic anger against the hapless Bengalis.
Daily thousands of Bengali Refugees were pouring across the border into Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. The news was bad and getting worse. The Indian Government lead by Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi was aghast and worried at the turn of events. Mrs. Gandhi’s Government understood that such demographic changes were putting a huge burden on Indian Economy, Resources Food supplies and Political stability. It was an extremely tense situation.
A cabinet meeting was called in the summer of 1971. Most of the cabinet colleagues were in favor of an immediate war. Indira Gandhi too wanted it. Manekshaw the Army chief was the special invitee to this cabinet meeting. He was against the immediate war. The following were his reasons:-
- Most of Indian troops were far away from the border.
- The Bengali refugees from East Pakistan should be used as foot soldiers and they were still untrained.
- Summer was coming and the Himalayan passes will be open and the Chinese can use it threaten India.
- With the onset of monsoon the whole of East Pakistan will become flooded, unmanageable and difficult for the Indian army to make quick progress.
- Further we may need Superpower on our side.
In conclusion at that moment in 1971, there was no such guarantee of an Indian Victory.
Most cabinet members were aghast at the temerity of Manekshaw. They openly displayed their disapproval of him and demanded an immediate declaration of war against Pakistan. The decision fell on Indira. She hummed for few minutes and then said No for an immediate declaration of war. Manekshaw had his way.
Facing strong cabinet pressure, she took the decision to trust her Army Chief and wait. Given the border tensions and security scenario it was a risky, yet wise decision. Patience paid off. Eventually war came in December 1971, incidentally initiated by an ill prepared Pakistan when it attacked Indian air force bases in North India.
A major threat to India’s Eastern Border was neutralized and a friendly Bangladesh was born. India had won the first real victory in more than a thousand years.
Operation Bluestar a cruel necessity:-
No religion, or person or entity has the right to threaten the sovereignty of India. That’s exactly what Bhindrenwala did in 1984, when he occupied the Sikh holy temple of Swarna Mandir in Amritsar. He was ready to declare an Independent theocratic Punjab. He had the full backing of Pakistan. All he had to do was declare independence and Pakistan was prepared to wage a war against India to avenge its defeat in Bangladesh.
As last resort Indian Army was sent in to flush out these armed militants. Attack on the holiest site of Sikhs is no way justifiable. But one should also not justify the armed takeover of this sacred place.
There was already a strong international precedent for this action taken India. In 1979, inspired by the Iranian revolution, armed men had taken over Kaaba, the holiest place of Islam. They had taken hundreds of worshipper’s hostage and were declaring that the writ of Saudi Arabian government will no longer apply. Many negotiations had failed.
Then Saudi Government did what any sovereign self-respecting nation would do. Storm in the place, destroy the armed militias and then retake the sacred site. In this process they also took the help of the French. In this case the Saudi Government had cent percent control over the media, a luxury that Indira Gandhi lacked.
There could be some difference of opinions on Logistics, but Operation Blue Star was sadly an absolutely necessity. A few months after the operation she took bullets from her own bodyguards.
Operation Blue Star saved India, but killed Indira.
Hence in retrospect, the strength and ruthlessness of Indira Gandhi was productive for the nation.
All her shortcomings pale before her two greatest achievements:-
- The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war
- Operation Bluestar to stop Punjab from Secession
In a way both the above were extremely crucial for India future. First and foremost she was a patriot.
Scary Scenario’s that Indira avoided:-
- What if East Pakistan was not liberated, from the genocidal maniacs ruling West Pakistan?
- What if an independent and relatively pro India Bangladesh, was not born?
Would there not be an over the top security threat to India on her Eastern Border?
Moving to year 1984, what if Operation Bluestar did not happen?
- Bhindrenwala, the Khalistani leader dreaming of an independent theocratic Punjab, occupied the holiest place of Sikhism, the Swarna Mandir in Amritsar.
- Punjab would have been independent in a matter of months!
- This independent, theocratic, hostile, new nation on India’s northern border would not only have deprived India of her bread basket but also the chunk of its Army. Please note that thanks to the diehard dedication of our Sikh brethren, Indian Army is always over represented by these patriotic people.
- With East Pakistan still part of a united Pakistan and a hostile new nation Punjab, on her northern border India would have a very precarious security situation.
- This would have cajoled other separatist groups to accede from India.
- LTTE and its allies in Tamil Nadu would have declared an independent Tamil Elam.
- Assam would follow, followed by Nagaland, Kashmir, Manipur and Tripura.
- Not to forget our good old Naxals, ruling the roost across the jungles of central and eastern India.
- In 2015, India is a rapidly developing nation. Though a lot needs to be done, we have respectable economy. It was not the case during most of 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. To put it bluntly as a nation we were dead broke! With Punjab gone and other states ready to secede, India would neither have the army nor the resources to keep the nation united.
There will be no India left to defend! What a scary and ghastly situation that would be.
Thanks to Indira India is still a nation.
She was in many respects a Titan for our times.
Author Bio: S Vadwlas is a Software architect based in the US, with an American Masters in Engineering and an undergraduate degree from the National Institute of Technology (NIT), India. He is a contributor to the Times of India. He has completed a writer’s course at the Writers center, Bethesda in Washington DC. His upcoming book Go Clown (Get High Legally!) is a Literary Fiction Comedy set in India, America, Nepal and Thailand. The author can be reached on Twitter at @goclown_book / www.goclown.com