Indira Gandhi was born Indira Nehru in a Kashmiri Pandit family on 19 November 1917 in Allahabad. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in India’s political struggle for independence from British rule, and became the first Prime Minister of the Union (and later Republic) of India. She was the only child (a younger brother was born, but died young), and grew up with her mother, Kamala Nehru, at the Anand Bhavan; a large family estate in Allahabad. She had a lonely and unhappy childhood. Her father was often away, directing political activities or being incarcerated in prison, while her mother was frequently bed-ridden with illness, and later suffered an early death from tuberculosis. She had limited contact with her father, mostly through letters.
Indira was mostly taught at home by tutors, and intermittently attended school until matriculation in 1934. She was a student at the Modern School in Delhi, St Cecilia’s and St Mary’s Christian convent schools in Allahabad, the International School of Geneva, the Ecole Nouvelle in Bex, and the Pupils’ Own School in Poona and Bombay, which is affiliated to University of Mumbai. She and her mother Kamala Nehru moved to Belur Math headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission where Swami Ranganathananda was her guardian later she went on to study at the Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan. It was during her interview that Rabindranath Tagore named her Priyadarshini, and she came to be known as Indira Priyadarshini Nehru. A year later, however, she had to leave university to attend to her ailing mother in Europe. While there, it was decided that Indira would continue her education at the University of Oxford. After her mother died, she briefly attended the Badminton School before enrolling at Somerville College in 1937 to study history. Indira had to take the entrance examination twice, having failed at her first attempt with a poor performance in Latin. At Oxford, she did well in history, political science and economics, but her grades in Latin a compulsory subject remained poor. She did, however, have an active part within the student life of the university, such as the Oxford Majlis Asian Society.
Gandhi served as her father’s personal assistant and hostess during his tenure as prime minister between 1947 and 1964. She was elected Congress President in 1959. Upon her father’s death in 1964, Gandhi refused to enter the Congress party leadership contest and instead chose to become a cabinet minister in the government led by Lal Bahadur Shastri. In the Congress Party’s parliamentary leadership election held in early 1966, upon the death of Shastri, she defeated her rival, Morarji Desai, to become leader; and, thus, succeeded Shastri as Prime Minister of India.
During her stay in Great Britain, Indira frequently met her future husband Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), whom she knew from Allahabad, and who was studying at the London School of Economics. The marriage took place in Allahabad according to Adi Dharm rituals though Feroze belonged to a Zorastrian Parsi family of Gujarat.
In the 1950s, Indira, now Mrs. Indira Gandhi after her marriage, served her father unofficially as a personal assistant during his tenure as the first Prime Minister of India. Towards the end of the 1950s, Indira Gandhi served as the President of the Congress. In that capacity, she was instrumental in getting the Communist led Kerala State Government dismissed in 1959. That government had the distinction of being India’s first ever elected Communist Government. After her father’s death in 1964 she was appointed as a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and became a member of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. In 1966, after Shastri’s death, the Congress legislative party elected Indira Gandhi over Morarji Desai as their leader. Congress party veteran, Kamaraj was instrumental in achieving Indira’s victory.
She became an Indian politician and central figure of the Indian National Congress party, and to date the only female Prime Minister of India. Indira Gandhi was the only child of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She served as Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984, making her the second-longest-serving Prime Minister after her father.
As the Prime Minister of India, Gandhi was known for her political ruthlessness and unprecedented centralisation of power. She went to war with Pakistan in support of the independence movement and war of independence in East Pakistan, which resulted in an Indian victory and the creation of Bangladesh, as well as increasing India’s influence to the point where it became the regional hegemon of South Asia. Gandhi also presided over a controversial state of emergency from 1975 to 1977 during which she ruled by decree. She was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards a few months after she ordered the storming of the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar to counter the Punjab insurgency.
Indira Gandhi was brought at 9:30 AM to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where doctors operated on her. She was declared dead at 2:20 PM. The post-mortem examination was conducted by a team of doctors headed by Dr. T.D. Dogra. Dr. Dogra stated that as many as 30 bullet wounds were sustained by Indira Gandhi, from two sources, a Sten gun and a pistol. The assailants had fired 31 bullets at her, of which 30 had hit; 23 had passed through her body while 7 were trapped inside her. Dr. Dogra extracted bullets to establish the identity of the weapons and to match each weapon with the bullets recovered by ballistic examination. The bullets were matched with respective weapons at CFSL Delhi. Subsequently Dr. Dogra appeared in the court of Shri Mahesh Chandra as an expert witness (PW-5), and his testimony lasted several sessions. The cross examination was conducted by Shri P. N. Lekhi, the defence counsel. Salma Sultan gave the first news of assassination of Indira Gandhi on Doordarshan’s evening news on 31 October 1984, more than 10 hours after she was shot. She died two weeks and five days before her 67th birthday.
The day before her death (30 October 1984) Indira Gandhi visited Orissa where she gave her last speech at the then Parade Ground in front of the Secretariat of Orissa:
“I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow…I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say, that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it. Even if I died in the service of the nation, I would be proud of it. Every drop of my blood… will contribute to the growth of this nation and to make it strong and dynamic.”
After her death, the Parade Ground was converted to the Indira Gandhi Park which was inaugurated by her son, Rajiv Gandhi. Today, the spot where Indira Gandhi was assassinated is marked by a glass opening in the crystal pathway at the Indira Gandhi Memorial. On 31 October 1984, two of Gandhi’s bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, shot her with their service weapons in the garden of the Prime Minister’s residence at 1 Safdarjung Road, New Delhi. The shooting occurred as she was walking past a wicket gate guarded by Satwant and Beant. She was to have been interviewed by the British actor Peter Ustinov, who was filming a documentary for Irish television. Beant Singh shot her three times using his side-arm and Satwant Singh fired 30 rounds. Beant Singh and Satwant Singh dropped their weapons and surrendered. Afterwards they were taken away by other guards into a closed room where Beant Singh was shot dead. Kehar Singh was later arrested for conspiracy in the attack. Both Satwant and Kehar were sentenced to death and hanged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
Gandhi was cremated on 3 November near Raj Ghat. The site where she was cremated is today known as Shakti Sthala. Her funeral was televised live on domestic and international stations, including the BBC. Following her cremation, millions of Sikhs were displaced and nearly three thousand were killed in anti-Sikh riots. Rajiv Gandhi on a live TV show said of the carnage, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”