Indira Gandhi: World Leader or Witch?

by Guest on March 29th, 2011
in Know Your History, Leadership, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , ,

The late Bella Abzug used to say that we would know women have made it when a mediocre woman was as likely to be promoted as a mediocre man. Similarly, we know women have made great strides as leaders when we have to acknowledge imperfections at the same time that we celebrate elevations to power. Thanks to The Daily Femme writer Sara Messelaar, whose thoughtful piece asks important questions about how women leaders–or any historical figures–should be judged. Be sure to read to the end of it and then share your thoughts!

Just around the corner from my home here in Berlin, the tram stops at the intersection of Berliner Alley and Indira-Gandhi Street. For a long time, whenever the voice in the tram announced “Indira Gandhi Straße,” I thought: “she must have been a really great politician.” That feeling of her “greatness” quietly settled into my subconscious–the very reaction public memorials are supposed to foster in the first place. Mission Public Remembrance Accomplished. Woman’s History Month finally got me to take a real look at Gandhi’s story. I’m really glad I did, because Gandhi’s story is a complicated, unsettling, shocking chapter in women’s history.

Gandhi (who is not related in any way shape or form to Mahatma, by the way) served as the Prime Minister of India for four terms—longer than any other female Prime Minister in the world. Her position as the leader of the world’s largest democracy was especially impressive, since even today women in India struggle for equal treatment. As Cristen wrote, women are so disregarded in India that they don’t even have adequate public bathrooms for them. Gandhi, however, never let any of that get in her way.

The daughter of one India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira found her way into public life very early. She became Prime Minister herself in 1966, after Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri suddenly died of a heart attack.

Gandhi won election in her own right in 1967. In 1971, during her first term, she led the nation to a decisive victory in a war against Pakistan, which established an independent Bangladesh. She also oversaw the beginning of what would be called the “Green Revolution”—an agricultural program that increased Indian food production by 250%. The “Revolution” changed India from a food-aid recipient, to a net exporter of grains. With a social and military victory under her belt, Gandhi ran for reelection in 1971. She won by a landslide.

Although Gandhi won an electoral mandate in 1971, her election troubles weren’t behind her. Her opponents charged her with illegal campaigning practices, including using government resources for campaign purposes and bribery. She challenged the case all the way to the Indian Supreme Court. In 1975, four years after the charges were first raised, the Indian Supreme Court found Gandhi guilty of all the minor charges brought against her (however not of bribery). Her election to parliamentary office was declared null and void on June 12, 1975 and she was supposed to be removed from power.

Instead of stepping down, however, Gandhi convinced the Indian President to declare a state of internal emergency. During the Emergency from June 26, 1975 to March 21, 1977, Gandhi ruled by decree. She suspended civil rights and imprisoned all of her political opponents. Amnesty International reported that during the Emergency 140,000 people were held without charges—40,000 of them from the Sikh religious minority, which represented just 2% of the total population.

During that period, the government forcibly sterilized thousands of people, destroyed low-income housing (leaving thousands homeless), and severely censored all media. In 1977, Gandhi finally called for elections to re-legitimize her rule. Some believe that she overestimated her own popularity by listening to too much of her own government propaganda. At any rate, a coalition against Gandhi had already formed. They framed the election as India’s last chance to choose democracy over dictatorship.

Gandhi and her party lost. Badly.

The new ruling party charged Gandhi for crimes committed during the Emergency. The highly political trial however actually accomplished the exact opposite of its goal: the case against Gandhi was so hard to prove and so political that it turned a tyrant into a victim. In 1980, after apologizing for mistakes made during the Emergency, Gandhi again ran for election. And she won.

Ghandi’s political career ended abruptly on October 31, 1984, when two of her bodyguards assassinated her in retaliation for Operation Blue Star,  which sent soldiers into a sacred Sikh temple to remove terrorists occupying it. You can still find the sari she wore on that day, blood stained in the museum built to honor her.

Indira Gandhi's saree at the time of her death

Today, because of the crimes committed during the Emergency, many remember Indira Gandhi as Salman Rushdie depicted her in Midnight’s Children: the evil Widow. Nixon called her a “witch,” too. It would be wrong, however, to say that people remember Gandhi purely a villain. Some see her as a symbol for Indian feminism and for the potential power of women in the postcolonial world. Many remember the agricultural and military accomplishments of her government. Mother Theresa even voiced support for Gandhi throughout the state of emergency.

The controversy around the Indian leader so contrasted with my gut reaction to her as the namesake of Berlin’s Indira-Gandhi Street, that it has scared me a little bit. What does our celebrating and memorializing accomplish in the public sphere? Are we forgetting the black spots, the controversy, or the complications of (women’s) history? When does celebration fall into what Cornel West called “deodorizing” historical stank? Or the other way around, when does focusing on the bad unfairly blot out the good?

What do we do with the complicated legacy of Indira Gandhi? Or Margaret Thatcher?

What will we do with Sarah Palin?

Just as we recognize the imperfect FDR (who interned America’s Japanese population), or Thomas Jefferson (who owned slaves), I think we feminists have an obligation to recognize problematic leaders like Gandhi as a part of women’s history–with all the political advances and complications they bring with them.

For more info:
Kings College History Department – Women’s History: Indira Gandhi
New York Times – On This Day: “Assassination in India: A Leader of Will and Force, Indira Gandhi, Born to Politics, Left Her Own Imprint on India”
UCLA – Manas: History and Politics, Indira Gandhi

Sara Messelaar is a graduate student in history at Berlin’s Humboldt University. She moved to Germany in the summer of 2010, after graduating with her BA in history from Cornell University. You can find her every Monday and Friday at The Daily Femme, where she writes on immigration, European (and global) feminism, mental health, and a whole lot more. (

Footer line
Copyright 2010 Gloria Feldt