Indira Gandhi was the only child of Kamala and
Jawaharlal Nehru. She received a good education, first at Visva-Bharati University in Bengal and then at Oxford. Politics was in her blood and on returning to India she joined the National Congress Party, which was at the forefront of the struggle for independence.
An accomplished politician, Indira Gandhi rose in the party and was elected President in 1959. After the death of Nehru in 1964, Bahadur Shastri became Prime Minister and appointed her as Minister of Information. But Shastri died only two years later and at this point Gandhi became Prime Minister, suddenly finding herself running the world’s largest democracy.
She was re-elected narrowly in 1967, and decisively in 1971. In the same year she gave India’s military support to what was then East Pakistan (East Bengal), leading to the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh. In 1972 she led the Congress Party to a landslide victory.
However, this was followed by a difficult period in which she was accused of violating election laws and faced being barred from politics. In response she declared a state of emergency and imprisoned her opponents.
Although inspired by the teachings of her pacifist namesake, Indira Gandhi did not shrink from extreme measures. On 6 June 1984 she sent the army to quell a Sikh occupation of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, an action that resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and simmering Sikh resentment.
Her political career was to end in tragedy. In October 1984 she was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, an eventuality she had previously considered: ‘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 assassin, not in my dying’. A similar fate awaited her son and successor Rajiv in 1991.
An ancient Sanskrit saying says, woman is the home and the home is the basis of society. It is as we build our homes that we can build our country. If the home is inadequate – either inadequate in material goods and necessities or inadequate in the sort of friendly, loving atmosphere that every child needs to grow and develop – then that country cannot have harmony and no country which does not have harmony can grow in any direction at all.
That is why women’s education is almost more important than the education of boys and men. We – and by ‘we’ I do not mean only we in India but all the world – have neglected women’s education. It is fairly recent. Of course, not to you but when I was a child, the story of early days of women’s education in England, for instance, was very current. Everybody remembered what had happened in the early days.
… Now, we have got education and there is a debate all over the country whether this education is adequate to the needs of society or the needs of our young people. I am one of those who always believe that education needs a thorough overhauling. But at the same time, I think that everything in our education is not bad, that even the present education has produced very fine men and women, specially scientists and experts in different fields, who are in great demand all over the world and even in the most affluent countries. Many of our young people leave us and go abroad because they get higher salaries, they get better conditions of work
… One of the biggest responsibilities of the educated women today is how to synthesize what has been valuable and timeless in our ancient traditions with what is good and valuable in modern thought. All that is modern is not good just as all that is old is neither all good nor all bad. We have to decide, not once and for all but almost every week, every month what is coming out that is good and useful to our country and what of the old we can keep and enshrine in our society. To be modern, most people think that it is something of a manner of dress or a manner of speaking or certain habits and customs, but that is not really being modern. It is a very superficial part of modernity.
… Now, for India to become what we want it to become with a modern, rational society and firmly based on what is good in our ancient tradition and in our soil, for this we have to have a thinking public, thinking young women who are not content to accept what comes from any part of the world but are willing to listen to it, to analyze it and to decide whether it is to be accepted or whether it is to be thrown out and this is the sort of education which we want, which enables our young people to adjust to this changing world and to be able to contribute to it.
Some people think that only by taking up very high jobs, you are doing something important or you are doing national service. But we all know that the most complex machinery will be ineffective if one small screw is not working as it should and that screw is just as important as any big part. It is the same in national life. There is no job that is too small; there is no person who is too small. Everybody has something to do. And if he or she does it well, then the country will run well.
In our superstition, we have thought that some work is dirty work. For instance, sweeping has been regarded as dirty. Only some people can do it; others should not do it. Now we find that manure is the most valuable thing that the world has today and many of the world’s economies are shaking because there is not enough fertilizer – and not just the chemical fertilizer but the ordinary manure, night-soil and all that sort of thing, things which were considered dirty.
Now it shows how beautifully balanced the world was with everything fitted in with something else. Everything, whether dirty or small, had a purpose.
… So, I hope that all of you who have this great advantage of education will not only do whatever work you are doing keeping the national interests in view, but you will make your own contribution to creating peace and harmony, to bringing beauty in the lives of our people and our country. I think this is the special responsibility of the women of India. We want to do a great deal for our country, but we have never regarded India as isolated from the rest of the world. What we want to do is to make a better world. So, we have to see India’s problems in the perspective of the larger world problems.
Indira Gandhi was the only child of Kamala and