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Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi
Prime Minister of India
First Term:January 19, 1966 - March 24, 1977
Predecessor:Lal Bahadur Shastri
Successor:Morarji Desai
Second Term:January 14, 1980 - October 31, 1984
Predecessor:Choudhary Charan Singh
Successor:Rajiv Gandhi
Date of Birth:November 19, 1917
Place of Birth:Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh
Date of Death:October 31, 1984
Political Party:Indian National Congress
Indira Gandhi (November 19, 1917 - October 31, 1984) was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. She was not related to Mahatma Gandhi; she took her last name from her husband Feroze Gandhi.

She served as Prime Minister of India from January 19, 1966 to March 24, 1977, and from January 14, 1980 until her assassination in 1984.

A brilliant political strategist and thinker, Indira also possessed an extraordinary desire for political power. As a woman occupying the highest position of government in a very patriarchal society, Indira was expected to be a passive leader, but her actions proved her otherwise.

As Prime Minister, Indira carefully used every tool available at her disposal to consolidate her power and authority. By using her powers of appointment, she created "notoriously weak" cabinets. She created her own governing Congress (R) party following the November 1969 split within the governing Indian National Congress.

Re-elected in 1971, she proceeded to boost her government's fortunes through a successful war that December against neighbouring Pakistan in East Bengal, where India's intervention enabled local separatists to crown their nine-month war of independence with the creation of the independent republic of Bangladesh.

To avoid being jailed for corrupt election practices, in June 1975 she declared a state of emergency, and in her own words brought democracy "to a grinding halt". Invoking article 352 of the Indian Constitution, she granted herself extraordinary powers and launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties and political opposition.

Rival party leaders were jailed, and electricity was cut off to opposition newspapers. Opposition-controlled state legislatures were dissolved and suspended indefinitely. The Prime Minister pushed a series of increasingly harsh bills and constitutional amendments through parliament, all which were approved with little discussion or debate.

The weak nature of India's constitution made it extremely easy for Indira to re-write the nation's laws, thus protecting herself from legal prosecution once emergency rule was revoked. As massive as these reforms were, Indira did not feel her powers were amassing quickly enough, so she utilized President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to issue "extraordinary laws" that bypassed parliament altogether, allowing her to rule by decree.

Indira's emergency rule lasted nineteen months. In 1977, greatly misjudging her own popularity, she called elections and was roundly defeated. To the surprise of some observers, she agreed to step down without much objection. Three years later she would be re-elected, although her second term would be much less authoritarian.

But Indira's later reign saw a serious breakdown in Hindu-Sikh relations that would eventually lead to her own assassination. Alarmed at the rise in popularity of the highly political Sikh missionary and leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, India's leaders were disturbed by his proclamation that Sikhs were a sovereign and self-ruling community.

Fearing Pakistani support for the movement, in June 1984 Gandhi ordered Operation Blue Star, a military assault on Amritsar's holy Harimandir Sahib or Golden Temple, the central Sikh place of prayer, which had been occupied by Jarnail Singh and his militant supporters with a heavy cache of arms. Many thousands died in the attack, while thousands more were allegedly raped and tortured by Police in a witchhunt of separatists, and several Sikh reference libraries were destroyed across Punjab, in addition to other gurdwaras (places of prayer).

Sikh alienation was deep and had dramatic consequences: on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, one of whom was fatally shot and the other subsequently (1988) sentenced to death by hanging. She died shortly after arriving at the airport in New Delhi. Hence, the airport was renamed Indira Gandhi International Airport after her. Anti-Sikh riots broke out after her death in New Delhi and nearly 2,000 innocent Sikhs were killed. Many members of the ruling Congress party were implicated for their role in the riots and many related cases are still pending judgement in Indian courts.

To this day, Indira's legacy as Prime Minister remains mixed. Though she had a strong personality, and her reign was popular with many segments of India's population, especially the youth and the poor, her decision to declare a state of emergency solely to escape prosecution remains controversial, and many Sikhs resent what Amnesty International and many other human rights agencies around the world see as the country's bloodiest genocide ever.

Her two sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, were both involved in politics. Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash in June 1980. Rajiv Gandhi entered politics in February 1981 and became prime minister on his mother's death, later (May 1991) himself meeting a similar fate, this time at the hands of Tamil militants.