When a young Indira Gandhi showed glimpses of her leadership qualities during freedom struggle

Before becoming India's first and only woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi was actively involved in the country's freedom struggle

No other woman politician in India has attracted both adulation and criticism equally than Indira Gandhi. The daughter of Jawahar Lal Nehru is the only woman to have become India’s Prime Minister. In the times when women rarely stepped outside their homes, Gandhi defied odds to occupy the top office of the world’s largest democracies. If she was called ‘Goddess Durga’ by her opposition, as well as was vehemently criticised for the 1975 Emergency.


Early years and freedom struggle

Indira Priyadarshini Nehru was born on November 19, 1917 in Allahabad. Both her father Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru and grandfather Pandit Motilal Nehru were freedom fighters. Right from an early age, she was committed to India’s fight for independence against the British. Indira’s close friend Pupul Jayakar wrote in the book Indira Gandhi: A Biography, “ Angry at being denied active participation in the freedom struggle by the Congress, Indira set about forming her own children’s brigade, the Vanar Sena (army of monkeys).”

Jayakar wrote further, “The children of the brigade were between five and 18 years of age. Indira as general controlled the movement of the army from Anand Bhawan. The little ‘monkeys’ addressed envelopes, cooked meals, attended to wounded volunteers, sometimes acted as couriers carrying secret messages to Congressmen.”

Even Jawahar Lal Nehru in a letter congratulated his daughter on the new initiative.”Indu dear, congratulations to the little monkey in enrolling fellow vanars in the vanar sena.”

Also read: Janaky Athi Nahappan: The woman who led ‘Rani of Jhansi Regiment’ of the Indian National Army

During the Quit India Movement in 1942, the newly married Indira continued to be involved in the freedom struggle. Her husband Feroze Gandhi acted as a courier agent for the Congressmen. Through him, she was able to send political literature and money to the freedom fighters. She was also arrested while addressing a rally in Allahabad. She was released after eight months in May 1943.

Indira as PM

After serving as Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet, Indira Gandhi took oath as PM after the latter died in Tashkent in 1966. Following the split in the Congress three years later, she floated her own Congress (I) party that swept the 1971 General Elections. Towards the end of the same year, she led India to a decisive victory over Pakistan in a full-fledged war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Four years later, she was disqualified from Lok Sabha on allegations of electoral malpractice in the Lok Sabha elections. On the midnight of June 26, 1975, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed proclaimed a state of Emergency on her advice.

During the 18-month period of Emergency, civil liberties were suspended and the press was censored by the Indira Gandhi government. The massive detentions and arrests accompanied by sterilisation programme led to her unpopularity. In the 1977 elections, her party was ousted leading to the formation of Janata Party government.

Return to power

Following the collapse of two successive Janata governments, Indira returned to power with an astounding majority in the 1979 elections. However, the days were difficult due to the sudden demise of her younger son Sanjay Gandhi and rising insurgency in Punjab. She took a bold step of sending the army to flush out militants in Amritsar’s Golden Temple in June 1984, an act which was criticised by many. Four months later, she was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Her death was followed by gruesome anti-Sikh riots in which thousands of people were killed. Nevertheless, Indira Gandhi continues to be a source of inspiration for women in the country.

Also read: Kamala Nehru: How Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘shy’ wife fought against the British

As India celebrates 70 years of independence, we bring you stories of women who were part of the Indian Independence Struggle. You might have heard about some of them but most do not find a mention in our history books or popular memory. These were ordinary women from all walks of life who managed to make extraordinary contributions to the cause of freedom.

This series is our tribute to these women and their exemplary work. We bring you 70 stories of courage and valour over the next one week leading up to 15th August 2017. Write to us, if you have any names to add to this list. Email: inuthsocial@indianexpress.com

For interesting news videos from InUth, follow us on Youtube.com/InUthdotcom