With the demise of Nehru, the State was now run by an Acting Government with Gulzarilal Nanda as Prime Minister. Congress Party, after some internal politics, had decided Lal Bahadur Shastri would be their Prime Ministerial candidate. He was a person of humility and an active follower of Mahatma Gandhi. For Congress, the more important thing was having a socialist figure and unlike Morarji Desai, who was a profound nationalist and a top contender to him, Shastriji won the hearts of many Congressmen who wanted the legacy of Nehru to continue. Subsequently, Lal Bahadur Shastri was sworn in as the Prime Minister on 9th June 1964.
Shastriji was very clear in his approach; which was, a socialist democracy at home and peaceful coexistence with other nations. During his visit to Anand, Gujarat, he saw the magnificent work taken up by Verghese Kurien in establishing the dairy co-operative. Astonished by the work, Shastri encouraged Kurien to implement the same AMUL pattern all over India. He set up the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and there was a massive development in the dairy sector. India which used to import milk powder from foreign nations started to sell surplus of the same outside. This change was called The White Revolution or Operation Flood, giving sustainability to the dairy industry across the country.
India in the same years saw chronic food shortages. Using the same strategies, he also commissioned the National Agricultural Products Board which set up the Food Corporation of India. He even aired an appeal to all Indians to voluntarily give up one-time meal so that remaining food will be redistributed to the needy. His appeal was so popular that eateries all over India voluntarily shut down on every Monday and showed support to the ‘Shastri Vrat’. His policies of industrialising the agricultural sector resulted in surplus of agricultural produce especially in fertile plains of India in states like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh of crops like wheat. This was called the Green Revolution of India. Although it led to some damaging effects to socio-ecology as well as finances in these states after many decades, it is perceived as a major achievement in revolutionising the approach to agriculture in the country.
Indo-Pak War of 1965
Meanwhile in the relatively tranquil environment, India’s neighbor Pakistan, was plotting to expand and grab land from India, thinking that the recent war with China would’ve brought it down to its knees. Pakistan deployed Border Police in India’s Kutch territory illegally. After some skirmishes in Kutch, Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar in 1965, to raise insurgency in Kashmir and take over the entire state. In firm retaliation, Shastriji allowed the Indian Army to launch a full-scale military battle against Pakistan. India captured strategically very important posts in Kashmir and Punjab in such a manner that at one point, even Pakistan feared that India would besiege Lahore City. However, the matter went to the UN shortly and a cease-fire was imposed. Shastriji didn’t have any aspiration to capture foreign territory and clearly wanted peaceful coexistence with our neighbours. So, India respected the cease-fire.
Accordingly, an agreement between Ayub Khan, the then President of Pakistan and Shastri, was signed with Soviet’s mediation in Tashkent (now in Uzbekistan). This is the infamous Tashkent Agreement. In its declaration, India expected peaceful coexistence and non-interference in internal matters from Pakistan in return of all the captured territories and transfer of the prisoners-of-war from both sides. Shastriji died the next day in Tashkent itself. However, his family didn’t believe in his death having natural causes and since then, numerous conspiracy theories have cropped up about his death. He is remembered as a hero today in India for his vision and approach to politics.
Indira Gandhi’s Rise to Power
After his sudden demise, Gulzarilal Nanda again headed the Acting Government while Congress was forced to look for a new leadership for the country after Shastriji. This time, Nehru’s own daughter, Indira Gandhi was selected as party’s Prime Ministerial candidate in 1966. Key reasons for her selection were that she was seen as a shadow of her father and party’s internal leadership initially thought that, as a woman, she won’t be that strong in politics and can be used as a pawn. However, she changed this perspective of media from being called ‘Gungi Goodiya‘ (Dumb Doll) to ‘India is Indira and Indira is India!’
As she gained instant support from the people in the initial years, she implemented all those policies which Shastriji had planned. She had to go through elections in 1967 in which her party won. However, her certain policies like devaluing the Rupee, importing wheat from the USA, etc were criticised by the public. Also, some differences arose between her and the party members on issues pertaining to selection of Presidential candidate and her decision to nationalise 14 banks without taking the finance minister Morarji Desai into confidence. She even increased this number to 20 later in 1980. These differences led to a split in Congress Party itself. A pro-Indira faction often informally called the ‘Indicates’ and the older Congress leaders’ faction called the ‘Syndicates’. Because of this split, Indira Gandhi lost majority in the Lok Sabha but still managed to run the government on support of some regional parties like DMK.
1971 General Elections
An opportunistic alliance was formed between Congress(O), Jan Sangh and other parties. What really drove this alliance was their slogan “Indira Hatao”, rather than any common ideological ground. Indira Gandhi campaigned on national and social issues, democracy, secularism and socialism and coined the famous slogan “Garibi Hatao”, which is unfortunately still used today because of the existing economic disparity. Indira Gandhi managed to touch the nation’s soul and Congress(R) swept the polls winning 352 of 518 Lok Sabha seats giving her the much-coveted super majority i.e. two-thirds of total seats which later turned out to be fatal. Before being able to implement initiatives and policies which people had expected a new challenge emerged before her, the Bangladesh Crisis.
Indo-Pak War of 1971 and Creation of Bangladesh
British India had been partitioned brutally, the nation of West Pakistan and East Pakistan were formed, separated geographically, united solely on the flawed logic of religious homogeneity. The people of East Pakistan felt neglected and demanded autonomy from West Pakistan. In the December 1970 Elections, the Bengali Awami Party won overall majority but General Yahya Khan with the support of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto refused them to form the Government and imprisoned their leader in West Pakistan. The West Pakistan Army unleased a reign of terror on East Pakistan resulting in killing of innocent civilians and created a situation of a possible Genocide of the Minorities in East Pakistan to flee to India for the safety of their lives. The Awami Party leaders escaped to Calcutta forming a Government of Bangladesh in Exile and organized the Mukti Bahini(Liberation Army).
There was a wave of sympathy and call for strong action in India for the people of East Pakistan. Indira Gandhi had to act courageously with extreme caution and cool calculations. India gave sanctuary to the government of Bangladesh in exile and gave military training, monetary and material aid to Mukti Bahini on Indian soil. The refugees were given food, clothing and shelter by the Indian government even though it caused a strain on the nation’s resources. Along with this, the military was secretly preparing plans for swift and strong military action on both western and eastern fronts. On 9th August India signed an Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation implying both the countries to help each other militarily if required, keeping India safe from a possible US-China Intervention.
General Yahya Khan ordered a failed attack on Indian Air Force Bases on the Eastern Front hence pushing India closer to war. A simultaneous war was also happening on the western front. Chinese threat was limited to verbal denunciations and US President Richard Nixon sent the US seventh fleet led by nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Indira Gandhi handled the whole situation carefully and UNSC resolutions against India were not passed. Indian Armed Forces surrounded Dacca, now known as Dhaka, and forced 93000 Pakistani soldiers to surrender. Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Bhutto signed the ‘Simla Declaration’ in 1972. Pakistan recognized Bangladesh in 1973 and released Mujibur Rahman who came to power in Bangladesh. Thus, Indira Gandhi not only managed to win a difficult war but also alter the geopolitical equations. Indira Gandhi had led the country into war courageously, prompting even opposition leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee who called her the ‘modern-day incarnation of Durga’.
However, not all was well after the war. By 1973 Indira Gandhi’s popularity began to dwindle. A combination of recession, growing unemployment, rampant inflation, scarcity of food resources, large budgetary deficit and depleting foreign reserves due to the ’71 War had occurred. Law and order deteriorated with strikes and student protests starting to turn violent. In a sudden twist of events the Allahabad High Court convicted Mrs. Gandhi of electoral malpractices and declared that Mrs. Gandhi could not hold any office for six years. Mrs. Gandhi appealed to the Supreme Court, which declared her to continue in office and debates in parliament for the time being.
A nationwide movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan started to gather traction in society. The movement led by JP was flawed in many aspects, and according to historians, it was unlawful and undemocratic. Jayaprakash Narayan appealed to the people to make it impossible for the Government to function, to not pay any taxes and appealed to the armed forces, the police and the bureaucracy to refuse to obey any orders given by the Government, resulting in the Declaration of Internal Emergency on June 26th 1975. Indira Gandhi justified her actions by three points. First, India’s stability, security, integrity and democracy were in danger due to the disruptive character of the JP Movement, referring to JP’s speeches, she accused the opposition of inciting the armed forces to mutiny and the police to rebel. Second, there was an urgent need to implement a programme of rapid economic development in the interests of the poor and the underprivileged. Third, she warned against intervention and subversion from abroad with the aim of weakening and destabilizing India.
The decision to impose Emergency by Mrs. Gandhi was heavily criticized. The Proclamation of Emergency suspended the federal provisions of the Constitution and Fundamental Rights and Civil Liberties. Several hundred opposition leaders, renowned academics, newspaper heads, trade unionists and student leaders were arrested. Right-wing organizations like RSS were also banned. Smugglers, hoarders, black marketeers and goons were also arrested. The Parliament was made ineffective, the Constitution was being re-written, elected state governments were unlawfully expelled. The very fabric of democracy of India was being strained.
The initial public response to emergency was with passivity, acquiescence, acceptance or even support. That was partially due to the minor good changes people were excited about. Administration was working with order and discipline. The Twenty-Point Programme was seriously tried to be implemented. But that was short lived. People starting to get uncomfortable with civil rights being denied. The bureaucracy and the police had unchecked power. In a short amount of time people’s hopes and dreams were shattered. Indira Gandhi knew the situation was starting to get out of hand and was a lot worse than what was anticipated. Indira Gandhi was always committed to liberal and democratic values but strangely she was persuaded to undermine them.
End of Emergency Period
As the darkest chapter in India’s democratic history was coming to an end, in January 1977 Indira Gandhi announced that she was returning India to democratic rule, and called for new elections. Because of her control over media, she misread people’s inclination but anti-incumbency was building against her. The opposition movements took advantage of this situation, and warned Indian citizens that this was their last chance of choosing between ‘democracy and dictatorship’. Morarji Desai who had developed rivalry with her got his revenge and was sworn in as PM.
Indira suffered a crushing defeat and was virtually wiped out from the North. But Desai’s good days were numbered, what followed was something that led to a disadvantageous peace. He fell victim to inter party politics and never recovered from the Two Year Itch. Charan Singh with support of Gandhi became Prime Minister of India and created a new front.
Her support did not last very long. She struck with vengeance, and stormed back to power in 1980. Thus, ending a decade momentous in the history of the nation, throughout this decade Mrs Gandhi had her fair share of Kipling’s two impostors, success and failure, in full and equal measure.
Sanjay Gandhi, her son, whom she called her heir in politics, died in an air crash in 1980, making clear that Rajiv, her older son will lead her legacy.
By 1982 there was a growth of secessionist movements all over India. Communal riots had spread all across Punjab. A radical group of Sikhs led by a fiery religious preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He along with his followers had declared war against the state and opposed peaceful negotiation with the government. They moved their headquarters inside the Golden Temple.
Rising concerns with Jarnail’s intentions, in 1984 the government decided to go on the offensive. Initial plan was to have airborne commandos kidnap Bhindranwale but this was aborted in favour of large-scale occupation of Golden Temple by the special forces popularly known as ‘Operation Bluestar’. After a night of fighting, the Indian commandos seized the Akal Takhat building. Around 82 troops lost their lives, and 492 civilian casualties were reported. This operation widened the rift between the Sikh minority and rest of the country.
Indira Gandhi’s Assassination
Just a day a day before her assassination during a rally she made a speech in Orissa almost suggesting what was on the way. “I am alive today; I may not be there tomorrow . . . I shall continue to serve till my last breath, every drop of my blood will strengthen India and keep a united India alive.”
On 31st October 1984, Indira had an interview and, on her way, she was greeted by Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, her bodyguards. It had been only a few months since Operation Bluestar but she had no reason to doubt her Sikh bodyguards who were at her service for ten years. But resentful by what had happened at the Golden Temple, they had planned on assassinating Indira. A total of 33 bullets were fired at her. She was rushed to AIIMS but the news of her passing away was announced in a few hours. This resulted in political unrest all over the country.
In retrospect 1970s will forever be identified as the period of Indira Gandhi, and her political dynasty.
36 years after her death she’s still remembered as one of the most courageous but controversial leader India ever had. Her time in the office was marked by her achievements like the swift execution of war with Pakistan in 1971, nationalisation of banks but were followed by lapse of judgement, including the Emergency period from 1975-77 and the massacre at the Golden Temple that cost her life.
She experienced it all, the power, the glory and the agony.
– Manasi, Mihir and Yugandhar
(References- India After Independence by Bipin Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee, The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank)