November 19 is being marked by Indians as the 101st birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi, the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister who left a mark with her decisive leadership and tough decisions that redefined the geopoloitics of South Asia. During her two stints as PM (1966-77 and 1980-84), she gave India some of its defining moments post-Independence. Be it the Green Revolution, nationalisation of banks, creation of Bangladesh, and the first nuclear test at Pokhran, her contribution to the nation is undeniable, despite the dark cloud of Emergency in 1975 that diminished her stature as one of the tallest leaders in the post-World War II era.
Indira took over the reigns of the government at a time when India was reeling under an acute famine. She approached the US for PL 480 programme relief to tide over the crisis but felt humiliated when the actual aid came in small tranches. Indira realised that the country needs to be self-reliant in terms of food supplies to avoid the ignominy. Though the work towards the Green Revolution started under Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, she gave the programme the definig push. The Green Revolution pushed the use of hybrid and high-yielding wheat and rice varieties. These crops augmented the produce dramatically, especially in Punjab and Haryana.
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Nationalisation of Banks
Indira took a bold step to nationalise 14 commercial banks on July 19, 1969 through an Ordinance, a decision that remains contentious even today. The private banks were considered unreliable after a string of failures. It was also believed that these banks were lending only to big businesses, ignoring the agriculture sector which was crucial for reducing poverty. Estimates suggest only 2.2 per cent of the bank loans were given to the farmers in 1967. Although the success of Gandhi’s banks nationalisation remains questionable, it will remain one of the toughest measures taken up by an elected government.
1971 war and creation of Bangladesh
The 1971 war against Pakistan was a watershed event in the history of South Asia. The war led to the division of Pakistan into two, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh. India intervened successfully in a political crisis precipitated by the refusal of West Pakistani politicians to cede power to the Awami League led by Mujibur Rahman that won the elections. The Pakistani Army cracked down on protesting opposition in East Pakistan that led to a huge refugee influx into India. Indira Gandhi took an unpredictable step by intervening in the crisis in support of Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League and supported Mukti Bahini groups that were leading a revolt against West Pakistan. Later, this escalated into a full-fledged war and Indian Army handed Pakistan a crushing defeat. An instrument of surrender was signed by Pakistan’s Lt Gen A A K Niazi with Lt Gen J S Aurora at Dhaka at 4.55 pm on December 16, 1971. The success in 1971 war made Indira a national icon, drawing comparisons with goddess Durga even from opposition leaders.
Pokhran Nuclear Test – 1974
The need to go nuclear was felt among India’s policy circles after China exploded a 16-kiloton nuclear bomb in 1964. After defying a US Navy fleet deployed in Bay of Bengal to liberate Bangladesh, Indira felt the need to establish India as a major scientific and military power. On September 7, 1972, at the peak of her post-war popularity, Indira authorised testing of a nuclear device. On May 18, 1974, India conducted a nuclear test, becoming the only non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to be a nuclear power. The decision was kept a secret, and very few people among Indira’s close circle were aware of the move. It is said that even Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram was kept in the dark about the test.
Emergency – 1975
Declaration of national emergency in 1975 remains one of the darkest decisions in India’s post-independence history. Civil liberties were curbed, elections were suspended, Indira’s political opponents were sent to jail and press freedom was curtailed between June 25, 1975 and March 21, 1977. Indira had cited threats to national security as the reason behind declaring emergency. The decision made her immensely unpopular among masses leading to her defeat in the 1977 general elections.
Operation Blue Star
Indian army’s biggest internal security mission – Operation Blue Star – was carried out under Indira Gandhi’s watch. She decided to send the Army to the Golden Temple to flush out militants who were camping in Sikh religion’s holiest shrine. A total of 492 civilians and 83 Army personnel were killed in the mission, one of the most controversial decisions taken by the former Prime Minister. Indira paid the ultimate price for her decision. She was assassinated by two of her bodyguards on October 31, 1984, who were angered by Operation Blue Star.