By Bobbeeta Sharma
What we experience as a child has a profound effect in our lives. Indira Gandhi had an unusual childhood and that seemed to have shaped her destiny. Her transformation from a shy, reserved young girl to becoming the first woman Prime Minister of India is fasciting since later Indira Gandhi came to be referred to as ‘the only man in the cabinet’ or ‘the Iron Lady of India’. But the spark was evident even when she was a child.
In an article written for a school magazine in 1957 Indira Gandhi wrote about her first encounter as a child with conscience and duty. She wrote that once a relative who had come from Paris had brought her a beautiful embroidered dress, but her mother returned it saying that they wore only homespun khadi. Her mother then asked her in front of the visitor whether she would wear the beautiful dress when the rest of them wore khadi? Little Indira replied in the negative and asked the visitor to take the frock away. But the visitor taunted her by saying, “All right Miss Saint, how is it that you have a foreign doll?” It was an idle remark but little Indira was passiotely fond of the doll who she considered her as a friend and it was a great struggle for the little girl to choose between her love for the doll and love for her country. Ultimately country won and she set the doll on fire.
Later her grandfather Motilal Nehru presented her with a mini charkha and she learnt to spin. She even organised a Bal Charkha Sangh where children would learn to spin and weave. She formed the Monkey Brigade or the Var Se where children between the age of five and eighteen participated. They helped wounded Congress volunteers and even acted as couriers to pass on secret messages between Congressmen.
Indira Gandhi’s childhood revolved round the freedom struggle as her whole family was actively involved in it. She would frequently see her grandfather Motilal Nehru come in and out of jail. Soon her father Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru would be spending days and years in jail. There was a time both her parents were in jail at the same time. Indira was in her teens at that time. Her mother Kamala Nehru wrote anxiously - “Please let me know your daily routine. Please send your teacher’s fortnightly reports about your studies to your father. I hope you remember what I told you when I left home. Whenever I stroll outside the barrack, I think of you. You must also take a walk every day. When I am released, we shall go for walks together. That will be six months away, but six months will pass without either of us feeling it.” (Kamala Nehr : An Intimate Biography , Promila Kalhan).
During the Quit India Movement of 1942 Indira and her husband Feroze Gandhi were both arrested and put in jail. In an article in Women on the March, 1963, Indira Gandhi wrote –“Since the earliest childhood, I had visited jails, either for trials, of relations and friends or for the unsatisfactory but highly-treasured 20 minute interviews. People have heard of my parents’ imprisonments but it is not often realised what a large number of relatives, both on my father’s and mother’s side (offhand I can think of two dozen mes but there were probably more), spent long years in prison. I do not know of any other family which was so involved in the freedom struggle.” In an interview with Lord Chalfont for BBC, she said – “ ...It was an extremely insecure childhood because we did not know from day to day, who would be alive , who would be in the house, what would happen next.”
Indira Gandhi’s life as a child, as teeger, as an adolescent, as a wife, as a mother is synonymous with the evolution of the freedom struggle and India’s independence. She had lived it and gone through the struggle that went with it. Her grandfather Motilal Nehru gave away their home And Bhavan remed Swaraj Bhavan to the Congress Party. After Motilal Nehru’s death, money became scarce. Jawaharlal Nehru was most of the time in an out of jail. Kamala Nehru was compelled to sell the family silverware and jewelry to pay off government fines. Jawaharlal Nehru too was not a man attached to material possessions. They had another house which was med And Bhavan but Nehru gave it way to his sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit after his wife Kamala passed away.
Hence when Indira who had gone abroad to study returned to India, she did not have a home to come back to but had to live in relatives’ houses. Later when she became Prime Minister, And Bhavan was converted into a memorial. When she decided to marry Feroze Gandhi, her materl grandmother Rajeshwari Kaul asked her how she will adjust to a life with Feroze who had no money and the luxury to offer that she was used to, Indira replied , “Like my mother, I am an austere woman, very frugal and although I lived in And Bhavan, I will be equally happy in a peasant’s hut.” Even as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi lived in a small house at 1 Safdarjung Road with her two sons and their their families.
The spark that shone when she was a child had rekindled in her chosen path when she perhaps remembered and followed her father’s words – “Be the mistress of your own life, your present, your future and go ahead, consult me certainly, but decide for yourself .” From taking hard decisions of breaking away and forming her own party, winning elections and becoming Prime Minister for three terms, winning a war against Pakistan and helping create a new sovereign country of Bangladesh, making India self reliant in food production through Green Revolution, reviving Indian economy through bank tiolisation and passing of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, taking steps to eradicate poverty through the 20-point programme, laying the foundations of making India a nuclear power through the Pokhran Test, settling regiol disputes by creation of States of Punjab, Harya, Tripura, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Manipur and Union Territories of Mizoram and Aruchal Pradesh, to declaring Emergency when faced with an environment of lawlessness but consequently withdrawing Emergency and calling for elections thus expressing respect for democratic ideals, facing innumerable trials and vendetta politics from her opponents yet coming out triumphant with people’s mandate, Indira Gandhi took hard and tough decisions — decisions that had the country’s interests at heart. If Indira Gandhi ordered the army to flush out terrorists from the scared shrine of Golden Temple, it was done not for any persol benefit but for the country. But it came at the cost of her life. She had said one day before her death – “...as long as there is breath in me, so long will I continue to serve and when my life goes I can say that every drop of blood that is in me will invigorate India and strengthen it.”
(The author is General Secretary and Senior Spokesperson, APCC. This article is a tribute to Indira Gandhi on the occasion of her 100th birth anniversary)