Indira Gandhi’s many battles

Nov 01 2016


INDIA’S Congress party has inherited many faults from history, not the least being its old inability to learn from it. We may thus critique Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi and so forth, but as historian Irfan Habib says we should not forget the respect these leaders deservedly earned. It was Indira Gandhi’s death anniversary yesterday (Oct 31). There are Pakistanis who may have rejoiced in the 1984 early morning assassination by her bodyguards. Many hold her responsible, incorrectly in my opinion, for splitting their country.

Let’s also acknowledge those Pakistanis who were compelled to think well of Mrs Gandhi for a range of reasons, occasionally despite themselves. Benazir Bhutto, regardless of her own pronounced opinion on Kashmir, could not have forgotten Mrs Gandhi as the one Indian who was outspoken in her petition to Ziaul Haq to spare Z.A. Bhutto’s life. Mrs Gandhi was in regular touch with Benazir’s distraught mother after Bhutto’s execution, lending her shoulder for the healing that never came about.

Leftist poet Fahmida Riaz and well-regarded journalist Salamat Ali among others would remember her for the warm stay she accorded them in India, when they headed out in exile from Zia’s tyranny. Mrs Gandhi was loath to extracting political mileage from her spontaneous hospitality, a different league from the embarrassing megaphone used churlishly to woo Baloch dissidents from Pakistan these days. She was a class act difficult to emulate. She would keep a wily Henry Kissinger sulking in the antechamber of her South Block office and not lunge at a visitor for a meaningless photo opportunity. There is that lovely pictorial memory of her, in fact, where Fidel Castro reaches for an embrace at the Delhi NAM summit and she dodges him with a dignified smile.

Those who thought ill of Indira Gandhi’s leadership cannot be blamed for missing her given the dangerous tactics India flaunts today.

And why do Pakistanis forget that Bangladeshis who made a career out of respecting Mrs Gandhi were themselves Pakistanis before they were forced by bad political judgement from Islamabad to seek a separate destiny? Had Mujib’s election not been subverted by the powers that be in Pakistan he would be a Pakistani leader, wouldn’t he? They can ignore my counterfactual fulminations, but Pakistanis missing the eastern flank of their country shouldn’t blame the boots for the faults of their feet. Indira Gandhi didn’t steal Bangabandhu’s election.

She tiptoed around the Cold War alignments of which she became a hesitant part. Remember that she was not instinctively pleased by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan though she didn’t openly slam it either. To send Indian troops into the erstwhile East Pakistan was a Cold War exigency as much as it was, in her own words, a neighbourly responsibility to end the bloody nightmare Dhaka had become for its own citizens.

There has been a lot of propaganda about Mrs Gandhi deriving domestic political mileage from her Bangladesh outing. That’s a canard, for she had won the 1971 parliamentary election handsomely way before any war drums began to loom on the horizon. She won the election for the promise of removing poverty not for an imminent war with Pakistan, which she was to win. In Uttar Pradesh alone she improved from 47 seats in 1967 to 73 in 1971, not by instigating a holocaust in Muzaffarnagar, but by calling for the removal of poverty.

In any case, those who thought ill of Indira Gandhi’s leadership be they in Pakistan or in India or China cannot be blamed for missing her today given the self-absorbed leadership they have to deal with and the dangerous and divisive tactics India flaunts. They will remember there was nothing gross about Mrs Gandhi’s diplomacy. She was courteous even with Zia when he visited Delhi for the non-aligned summit in 1983. (It is another matter she reportedly ticked off key diplomatic aide Natwar Singh for apparently breaching protocol to be extra nice to the Pakistani military dictator.)

As a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) those days, I was naturally critical of Mrs Gandhi’s emergency rule. Our communist-led students union ran a secret cyclostyling machine to issue periodic pamphlets against her misdemeanours. The machine was safely hidden in a rival communist student’s room whose party supported the emergency. There was no fear of a raid on his room. Several students were sent to jail for long and short stints. One communist student leader she jailed later became an advisor to Rajiv Gandhi. Two JNU student leaders she did not jail became chiefs of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which was critical of Mrs Gandhi, but who soon befriended her daughter-in-law as an ally.

Hindutva didn’t or couldn’t rear its head in any significant way while she was around. It had to merge its identity in a wider peoples’ movement to stay relevant. Hinduism flourished under Mrs Gandhi as a liberal adjunct of secular and socialist Indian democracy, the two phrases she presciently wove into the preamble of the constitution. She pointedly made Hindutva look like an irritating cousin of liberal Hinduism. Hindutva was to her Hinduism with an inferiority complex.

In Mrs Gandhi’s arithmetic, Muslims and Dalits formed a bulwark of the pyramid called the Congress with the Brahmins and Rajputs bringing up the apex. The boot is on the other foot now, which the Congress needs to grasp. Under former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, the equation has been rejigged, with the Dalits on top, as they should be, and Muslims with smaller groups of Brahmins and very few other upper castes shoring up the Dalit party.

This is where Mrs Gandhi’s heirs should remember history. They seem to be ignorant that only by supporting Mayawati could they win back the respect of the Dalits and Muslims. That is essential to defeat Hindutva in Uttar Pradesh next year or in India in 2019 just as Indira Gandhi did with ease.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn November 1st, 2016