Indira Gandhi (November 19, 1917 - October 31, 1984) was Prime Minister of India from January 19, 1966 to March 24, 1977, and from January 14, 1980 until her assassination in 1984.
She was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. She was not related to Mahatma Gandhi; she took her last name from her husband Feroze Gandhi, who changed his surname to "Gandhi" for political reasons.
A brilliant political strategist and thinker, Indira also possessed an extraordinary desire for political power. As a woman occupying the highest position of government in a very patriarchal society, Indira was expected to be a passive leader, but her actions proved her otherwise.
When her father died in 1964, she was pressured to take up a career in politics. She was elected as a member of Parliament in her father's Indian National Congress Party, and was appointed a minister in the cabinet of Congress Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri died in office in 1966, and Indira successfully ran to succeed him as party leader, and thus Prime Minister of India.
As Prime Minister, Indira carefully used every tool available at her disposal to consolidate her power and authority. By using her powers of appointment, she created "notoriously weak" cabinets. She created her own governing Congress (R) party following the November 1969 split within the governing Indian National Congress.
Re-elected in 1971, she proceeded to boost her government's fortunes through a successful war that December against neighbouring Pakistan in East Bengal, where India's intervention enabled local separatists to crown their nine-month war of independence with the creation of the independent republic of Bangladesh.
Opponents had long made allegations that her party had praticed electoral fraud to win the 1971 elections. In June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad found the sitting Prime Minister guilty of election fraud, and ordered her to be removed from her seat in Parliament and banned from running for an additional six years. Rather than face the charges, Indira declared a state of emergency, and in her own words brought democracy "to a grinding halt". Invoking article 352 of the Indian Constitution, she granted herself extraordinary powers and launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition. This move was endorsed by Mother Teresa.
Rival party leaders were jailed, and electricity was cut off to opposition newspapers. Opposition-controlled state legislatures were dissolved and suspended indefinitely. The Prime Minister pushed a series of increasingly harsh bills and constitutional amendments through parliament, all which were approved with little discussion or debate.
The weak nature of India's constitution made it extremely easy for Indira to re-write the nation's laws, thus protecting herself from legal prosecution once emergency rule was revoked. As massive as these reforms were, Indira did not feel her powers were amassing quickly enough, so she utilized President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to issue "extraordinary laws" that bypassed parliament altogether, allowing her to rule by decree.
Indira's emergency rule lasted nineteen months. In 1977, greatly misjudging her own popularity, she called elections and was roundly defeated. To the surprise of some observers, she agreed to step down without much objection. Three years later she would be re-elected, although her second term would be much less authoritarian.
Indira's later reign was most marked by a serious breakdown in Hindu-Sikh relations that would eventually lead to her own assassination. Alarmed at the rise in popularity of the highly political Sikh missionary and leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, India's leaders were disturbed by his proclamation that Sikhs were a sovereign and self-ruling community.
Fearing Pakistani support for the movement, in June 1984 Gandhi ordered Operation Blue Star, a military assault on Amritsar's holy Harimandir Sahib or Golden Temple, the central Sikh place of prayer, which had been occupied by Jarnail Singh and his militant supporters with a heavy cache of arms. The occupiers refused to depart peacefully and a firefight ensued - with 83 soldiers and 493 occupiers killed, and many more injured.
Sikh alienation was deep and had dramatic consequences: on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, one of whom was fatally shot and the other subsequently (1988) sentenced to death by hanging. She died shortly after arriving at the All India Institute for Medical Sciences, AIIMS, in New Delhi. Anti-Sikh riots broke out after her death in New Delhi and nearly 2,000 innocent Sikhs were killed. Many members of the ruling Congress party were implicated for their role in the riots and many related cases are still pending judgement in Indian courts.
To this day, Indira's legacy as Prime Minister remains mixed. Though she had a strong personality, and her reign was popular with many segments of India's population, especially the youth and the poor, her decision to declare a state of emergency solely to escape prosecution remains controversial, and many Sikhs resent what they see as the country's bloodiest genocide ever.
Her two sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, were both involved in politics. Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash in June 1980. Rajiv Gandhi entered politics in February 1981 and became prime minister on his mother's death, later (May 1991) himself meeting a similar fate, this time at the hands of Tamil militants. Rajiv's widow and Indira's daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, led a Congress led "coalition"(which by itself was history for the Congress party) to a surprise electoral victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha dethroning Shree Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his National Democratic Alliance (NDA) , but declined the opportunity to assume the office of Prime Minister.Doctor Manmohan Singh now heads the nation.