Text of Paper presented by Mridula Mukherjee on “Indira Gandhi: A Visionary Leader” atIndira Gandhi Centenary Seminar, Gauhati, 18 February, 2017

Indira Gandhi: A Visionary LeaderIndira Gandhi Centenary Seminar, Gauhati, 18 February, 2017

​​​​​​​​Mridula Mukherjee

Indira Gandhi has the unique distinction of being one of the most admired and one of the most criticized leaders of our times. Even now, occasional opinion surveys declare her to be the best Prime Minister India has had. And numerous critics begin their stories with a critical comment on the Emergency. And it cannot be denied that the admirers and the critics do so for good reason. There is ample justification for arguing that an objective assessment of her life and work must take into account the rosy and the dark side. But today is not the occasion for that. There is a time and place for everything. Today, on the occasion of her birth centenary celebrations, let us try and understand how and why she was so admired as a leader. What was it about the quality of her leadership that stood out from others? I believe that it was the visionary, courageous and decisive nature of her leadership that marked her out. It was her ability to think of the long term, the future, see the big picture, to stand up for ideals and principles, to take difficult decisions, even at great personal cost, that distinguished her. Her vision for India was inspired by the ideals of the freedom struggle, in which she was born and raised. Of these, the one we shall focus on today is the ideal of secularism, which involves a consistent struggle against communalism.


Having witnessed the horrors of Partition and the tragedy of the Mahatma’s killing, she had a crystal clear understanding of communalism and its dangers, and was unflinching in her commitment to the secular ideal. I will illustrate my observations with a few examples.


In the heat and dust and din raised by the Emergency, we have forgotten how valiantly Indira Gandhi fought against the communal monster, till she fell prey to it on 31st October 1984.


Hindu communal forces, which had lain dormant after being discredited because of the taint of being associated with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, had been raising their ugly head since the early 1960s. They had used India’s defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962 to launch a sharp attack on Nehru and project themselves as “nationalists”. They had also used the Indo-Pak War of 1965 to spread communal poison by equating Pakistan with Muslims, by suggesting that Muslims were fifth columnists, potential Pakistanis in Indian territory. After Indira Gandhi came to power, in November 1966, they tried a new gambit by linking up with Hindu religious organizations, who had till then showed no enthusiasm for the Jana Sangh (a strategy fully developed later in the Ram Janmabhumi agitation) when Hindu communalism rode on a religious issue which had embedded in it an anti-Muslim stance.


A huge procession comprised of thousands of sadhus and others was organized in Delhi as the culmination of a month-long agitation demanding a ban on cow slaughter. When the crowd ran amuck, and turned violent, the Jana Sangh leadership dissociated itself from the whole proceedings, despite the fact that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was present on the dias at Parliament Street, and as was later discovered and revealed in Parliament, Kedar Nath Sahni, a senior RSS leader, and Secretary of Delhi Jana Sangh, was the one who had sought permission for the procession. This was reminiscent of the RSS denying any links with Gandhiji’s assassin Nathuram Godse, and was part of its strategy of working through a multitude of front organizations, and in case of a crisis, denying any link with the said organization. This was the exact opposite of what Gandhiji had taught: disobey unjust laws and orders, accept your “guilt”, and willingly take the punishment, which included jail terms, fines, confiscation of property including land, and, on occasion loss of life. The revolutionaries also had the same tradition; they bravely went to the gallows, took harsh punishment, including Kala Pani, or banishment to the Andamans jail, but never asked for pardon or clemency. A sharp contrast to Hindutva icon V. D. Savarkar, who begged forgiveness from the British and offered his “loyalty to the English government.”


The weakened position of the Congress in the 1967 national and state elections and the formation of coalition governments in many North Indian states further emboldened the communal elements. Cashing in on the base built via anti-Christian mission and anti-Muslim propaganda, the Hindu communal forces turned the occasion of a protest against the recognition of Urdu as a second language in Bihar into anti-Muslim riots in Ranchi in August 1967. This was followed by the instigation of the Ahmedabad riots in 1969, and the Bhiwandi- Jalgaon riots in 1970. The reports of the Raghuvir Dayal Commision (Ranchi), the Vythayathil Commission and the Justice Jaganmohan Reddy Commission (Ahmedabad), and the D.P. Madon Commision (Bhiwandi-Jalgaon) clearly showed the modus operandi of the communal forces, which included the RSS, Jana Sangh and the Shiv Sena (in Maharashtra), the latter having graduated from anti-South Indian to anti-Muslim. Incidentally, the Ahmedabad riots, described as one of the most organized instance of communal violence, coincided, perhaps intentionally, with the birth centenary celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi, thus putting big question marks on the later claims to Gandhian Socialism, love for Khadi, and frequent invocations of Gandhi, whether for Swachh Bharat or other endeavours.


Riding the wave of success in unleashing communal violence, the Jana Sangh leaders adopted a very aggressive tone during the debates in Parliament on the Ahmedabad and Bhiwandi-Jalgaon riots. Atal Bihari Vajpayee warned that Hindus will become ugra or aggressive if the Muslims were communal. The demand for Indianisation or Bharatiyakaran or nationalization of Muslims was raised, with the obvious implication that they were not Indian, were anti-national and separatist. This was a repeat performance of what Vajpayee and Madhok had done in 1961 in the context of student trouble in AMU when they moved a resolution in Parliament saying the time had come to nationalize and Indianise, bharatiyakaran being the term used for Indianisation.  


But they had probably not anticipated the new forthright stance of the Prime Minister. Freed from the burden of having to constantly appease and compromise with the old guard of the Congress after the party split in 1969, and having formed new alliances with the Left parties and young radicals, which had already resulted in the leftward turn in economic policy, it was a confident and combative Indira Gandhi who took the Jana Sangh leaders head on. Vehemently countering Vajpayee’s assertions, she took the floor herself and questioned the whole idea of bharatiyakaran. To quote; ‘If therefore Shri Vajpayee wants every Indian to love his country and to be patriotic, nobody can quarrel with that and I certainly do not do so; nor is any special theory of Indianisation required. But I think his theory is not quite innocent. Shri Vajpayee would not waste his energy in stating something which is so obvious. He and those of his way of thinking have a very definite purpose.’ She said that it was ‘most sinister’ that Hindu Communal groups are taking upon ‘themselves to be the judges of who is Indian and who is not’, ‘Whenever any group sets itself up to decide who is an Indian and who is not, there is bound to be trouble.’ She further asked, ‘If the task of Indianisation was so simple, why should it arouse fears in the minds of some sections of our people?’


Vajpayee in turn accused her of misleading the minority and wanting to divide society, and Madhok went so far as to say that she needed to be ‘Indianised’.


Refusing to be cowed down, she replied that ‘every child who is born of mother India is a good Indian. There is the law of treason and there are competent courts to decide if anyone is guilty of treason. This cannot be left to be decided by any political group or party. No oratorial devices can hide the real intentions of those who advocate Indianisation of their fellow countrymen.’ Unmasking the nefarious designs behind the innocent sounding words, she said either ‘Shri Vajpayee’s doctrine means the obvious’ and needs ‘no reiteration, or it is hiding something.’ Taking a swipe at Vajpayee’s double talk, she said ‘ Vajpayee’s colleague Shri Madhok is a better guide. He bluntly says what he means and the house is aware of his numerous utterances on the subject.’ She was also quick to catch Vajpayee and expose his real intent when he sought to explain away communal violence by Hindus by describing it as a retaliation to Muslim communalism. Declaring that she was very happy that the Deputy Speaker had not heeded the demand of some members to expunge Vajpayee’s offensive remarks, she said; ‘I would like those remarks to be remain on record and be read by future generations and by the people so that they could see what is really in their minds, not the sweet sounding beautiful Hindi that he paraded before us, from time to time, but what is really behind those words.’ And then, without mincing any words, she said, ‘and today we saw behind those words naked fascism.’


The offensive launched by the Prime Minister in Parliament on the communal fascist forces was continued at the AICC meeting held from 13-15 June 1970. The Congress President, Jagjivan Ram, emphasized on the urgent need of ‘the party to fight the communal tendencies.’ Kamlapati Tripathi moved a resolution condemning the idea of Indianisation as anti-national, anti-Indian and anti-Hindu. Returning the compliment, he said, ‘if anybody needed Indianisation, it were the RSS and Jana Sangh who were guilty of falsifying our history, our tradition, our culture in the cruelest manner.’ Condemning all forms of communalism, a resolution said that ‘para military communal organisations like the RSS and the Jamat-e-Islami have no place in our secular society’ and urged that ‘the government should seriously consider whether such organisations should be allowed to continuously poison our society with communal violence and hatred.’ Speaking at the session, Indira Gandhi , while laying emphasis on the need to provide security of life to the people, also drew attention to the need to combat the communal threat at the ideological level. In words which have such a contemporary ring, she said:


​‘The Government cannot be wholly successful unless we have people in every village, in every street, helping us in this task. The police can help, but the police by itself cannot be as effective as our party could be if it geared itself to this task. Because the task is not merely of hitting back or punishing; that should certainly be done. The task is to try and remove this poison from people’s mind, to try and create an atmosphere in every neighbourhood where a citizen can feel he can live in peace.’


​Her success in pushing back the communal wave is to be seen by the fact that the Jana Sangh won only 22 seats in the General Elections next year in 1971, with only 7.3 % of the vote, down from 35 with 9.3% of the vote in 1967.


​The Bangladesh crisis which erupted almost immediately after the 1971 elections, provided another opportunity to the communal forces and they were quick to try and turn it into an anti-Pakistan tirade. However, Indira Gandhi very deftly prevented this from succeeding and in her campaign to build world opinion on the issue, focused on the need to solve the humanitarian crisis of ten million refugees and not on the dismemberment of Pakistan. Despite enormous pressure to attack Pakistan, Indira held her hand and it was Pakistan who started the war on 3rd December 1971. Her address to the Army bears quoting as an example of rallying to its support without arousing hyper-nationalism:

‘The people of all regions, all languages, all religions, and all political parties are united as never before. They are as determined as you to defeat the aggressor…. You and we are fighting in defence of the great principle that people of all religions are equally our brothers. We are defending the great ideals of equality and brotherhood, which are the life and blood of our democracy.’

She invokes secularism, equality, democracy as the constituent elements of our nationalism, and emphasizes national unity around the issue. It is only because she had a long term vision, for India, for the world, based on ideals and principles, that she could do this. Her actions created a new country, dismembered Pakistan, but she never let it become a story of Hindu India destroying Muslim Pakistan. Today, when a few clandestine armed incursions across the line of Control, are paraded as proof of an exclusive patented masculine nationalism, it may be a sobering thought to recall that it was a diminutive woman 46 years ago who inflicted a decisive defeat on Pakistan and then had the courage to uphold the ideals of the freedom struggle and return every inch of occupied territory on the Western border.


The respite provided by the spectacular success in the 1971 elections and the victory in the War with Pakistan on the issue of Bangladesh was not to last long. By the start of 1973, the afterglow of the Bangladesh had faded. On the contrary the heavy bills of that glorious event had started coming in. The government’s overflowing granaries had been emptied out to feed the 10 million Bangladesh refugees who had by now gone home. At this very moment the weather gods turned cruel and the rains failed again. Indira’s hitherto ascendant career had run into a bad patch. The Budget deficit shot up and foreign exchange reserves plummeted. Prices soared by 24 per cent, the largest surge in one go since Independence. This inevitably led to economic discontent on a mass scale and political turbulence. Destructive polarization that had become dormant during and after the Bangladesh War also resurfaced.


This was disastrous enough. What made it catastrophic was the first Oil Shock in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war later in the year. Petroleum prices quadrupled over a very short time, shattering the Indian economy already under heavy strain. India needed a huge loan from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF’s conditions went against the entire gamut of Indira Gandhi’s policies in pursuance of garibi hatao. Stoically, she accepted the conditions and enforced a wage freeze, compulsory deposits by all salaried employees and drastic cuts in government expenditure that meant more unemployment. Both the drought and the Oil Shock were beyond her control.


The first place where protests erupted was Gujarat, which had seen a rise of more than 100 per cent in prices of cooking oil and food grains during 1973. The inept and widely believed to be corrupt Congress government became the target of the agitators, who were led by students but included wide sections of society. The protesters called their movement “Nav Nirman” or Resurgence. It soon spread all over Gujarat and often turned violent. Jayaprakash Narayan, the veteran Socialist and Sarvodya leader moved to Ahmedabad saying he was inspired by the students’ movement. With the situation worsening every day, the Prime Minister bought peace with them by accepting their demand for the dissolution of the state assembly in which her party had a stable two-thirds majority. On the heels of the Gujarat agitation, and inspired by its success, an agitation on the same lines and with similar objectives was started by students in Bihar in March 1974. For years, conditions were ripe for a mass movement in Bihar. The people in general, and the students and youth, in particular, felt that there was no other way to get grievances redressed than demonstrations, strikes, gheraos, bandhs and street violence


The Bihar students’ movement attracted all-India attention when on 18 March, they organized a gherao of the Governor and the assembly on its opening day. The gherao, resisted by the police, led to large-scale violence and riots and arson in Patna. Five people died in police firing. The agitation immediately spread to other Bihar towns. Moreover, as in Gujarat, the opposition parties quickly joined forces with the student agitation and, in fact, took it over. They also added the demand for the resignation or dismissal of the state government and the dissolution of the assembly.


A new dimension was added to the Bihar movement by Jayaprakash Narayan agreeing to take over the leadership of the student movement. From now on the students’ movement in Bihar, as also its wider all-India extension, came to be generally known as the JP Movement .

 Also the demands of the protest movements were widened to include the dissolution of the elected Bihar assembly.


For the first time JP also called upon Mrs. Gandhi to resign. On 17 October, he specifically announced that his objective was the removal of Indira Gandhi from office. It is important to note that the Jan Sangh and its student wing, the ABVP, came to occupy a dominant position in the movement. From June 1974 onwards, JP repeatedly toured the country, addressing large and receptive crowds. The JP Movement got the backing of nearly all the non-left political parties and groups, consisting of such disparate political formations as the RSS, Jan Sangh, Anand Marg, Congress (O), BLD (which later came to include Swatanta party), DMK, Akali Dal, SSP and Naxalites.


However, though Jayaprakash retained much of his popularity, the Bihar movement gradually lost its spontaneity as well as appeal by the end of 1974. The response to the JPM in other regions was also disappointing. The JP Movement had also failed to garner enough support on the left. By September-October 1974, it had reached a dead-end.  


Mrs. Gandhi challenged JP to test her government’s legitimacy and his popular support throughout the country, in the coming general elections, due in February-March 1976. Elections and not unconstitutional means were the best means of finding out the will of the people, she said. JP readily accepted the challenge. JP continued to tour the country, one state after another. He also asked the police not to ‘obey orders that were illegal or went against their conscience’. Regarding the Army he said: “If the rulers do venture to use the army to suppress a peaceful revolution, the army should not allow itself to be so used. On such occasions the leaders of the revolution may call upon the army to come over to their side.’ (1) However, despite his massive efforts, the JPM did not at any stage make much of a dent in South India and Maharashtra. In fact, it remained as a whole confined to the Hindi-speaking regions of North India.


Still, by the middle of 1975, the situation had got defused and was not beyond repair and the capacity of the political leadership to manage it within the normal political process. Also, both sides had accepted the role of elections in determining the will of the people. But this was not be, for a fortuitous event intervened. Justice Sinha of the Allahabad High Court declared Indira’s election invalid on what were admittedly minor technical grounds.


The Allahabad Judgment and the Congress defeat in the Gujarat Assembly elections revived the opposition moment. The Opposition’s call for Mrs. Gandhi’s resignation was renewed even more vociferously after Justice Iyer’s confused ruling. The opposition would not wait for the final judgement of the full bench of the Supreme Court. In a mammoth rally, held in Delhi on 25 June, under the auspices of Jan Morcha, the opposition leaders declared that Mrs. Gandhi having lost the moral right to rule, they would not let her function as Prime Minister, and that to dislodge her from office and to force her to resign they would organize a nation-wide one week-long campaign of mass mobilization, demonstrations and civil disobedience. Batches of volunteers would go daily to the Prime Minister’s residence and hold demonstrations. The campaign would be intensified after one week and end with the gherao or an encirclement of the Prime Minister’s house by lakhs of volunteers who would permit no one to enter or leave the house.


In his speech at the Delhi rally, JP who had returned to Delhi, denounced Mrs. Gandhi’s continuation in office as illegal and unconstitutional. He said a time might come when he would ask the people to ‘derecognize the government’, withdraw cooperation from it, refuse to pay it taxes and in general make it impossible for it to function. He once again appealed to the military, police and government servants not to take orders from ‘a disqualified head of a discredited government’ and to refuse to obey the government’s orders that they considered wrong or ‘illegal’ or that were ‘repugnant to their conscience’.


The plan was that the opposition movement, after being initiated on 29 June, was to be rapidly accelerated and brought to completion on 5 July. The finale of the movement would come on Sunday, 5 July in Delhi, with a huge rally at the Prime Minister’s house in defiance of a ban. The Prime Minister was then to be gheraoed, making it impossible for her to function. In other words the opposition plan had all the hallmarks of a non-military coup d’etat. Interestingly, Nehru had used the same term to characterize the RSS ambitions in 1948. He had said very clearly that the RSS and other communal elements were wanting to effect a coupd’etat, and Gandhiji’s assassination was part of that effort.



Indira Gandhi took serious note of the agitational and civil disobedience plan of the Opposition and of the plan to gherao her house as well as of the call to the armed forces, the police and government servants to disobey government orders, regarding it as a call to them to mutiny. She believed the opposition was planning to seize power or install a puppet Congressman as the Prime Minister.


Consequently, in a lightening response to the projected campaign that was anticipated neither by her opponents nor by her supporters she declared a state of Internal Emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution on 26 June, arrested a large number of opposition leaders and several Congress dissidents imposed a strict censorship on the Press, and suspended all other fundamental rights, thus stifling all opposition to the government. She promised to return to normalcy as soon as the conditions warranted it. In the bargain, she put an end to JP’s movement for Total Revolution.


Indira Gandhi justified her action in imposing the Emergency in two consecutive broadcasts on 26 and 27 June, in several speeches, and in innumerable interviews to Indian and foreign press persons during 1975 and 1976. Consistently maintaining that the Indian political system had not failed. She repeatedly asserted after 25 June that the stability, security, unity, the ‘fabric’ and the very survival of the nation were in danger due to national and international threats. Furthermore, she said that ‘Some political parties with fascist leanings had combined with a set of frustrated politicians to destroy the country’s self-confidence.” Mrs. Gandhi’s justification of the Emergency was based on the agruments that India’s stability, security, integrity and unity – ‘its very freedom’ – as also its democracy were in danger from the disruptive character of the JPM.


Interestingly, Mrs Gandhi did not accuse JP of being anti-democratic or a votary of violence, either before or after the Emergency. He had, however, she said, because of his lack of mass support and organization, started to lean towards, align himself with and organizationally depend on organizations and parties which opposed non-violence and favoured both violence and dictatorship. The JP Movement included parties like the RSS which were communal, anti-minority, had a secret constitution and believed in violence.

What becomes apparent from JP’s writings and speeches of the period is that he was unable either to diagnose the ills of the Indian polity or suggest effective remedies for them. It was because of this basic weakness, that it was possible for communalists and other tainted political leaders and parties to appropriate his ideas and movement and popular appeal for their own purposes. In his case, quite often rhetoric took the place of thought in the discussion of the causes and remedies of the social malaise or the conduct of the movement – a fatal flaw in the sole leader of a mass movement.  

An important, perhaps critical, question in any movement, apart from its ideological orientation, is that of its organization. A serious flaw of the JP Movement, especially in its later, all-India phase, was its organizational dependence on RSS-Jan Sangh, which, along with their front or constituent organizations, had a strong well-knit structure, trained cadre and branches all over the country, especially in northern and central India, and were in a position to provide muscle to the movement.


Disciplined and trained on paramilitary lines, the RSS cadres were brought up from their adolescent years on a communal and basically authoritarian ideology. RSS was clearly neo-fascist in its origins. JP did not oppose the RSS-Jan Sangh penetration and domination of the movement and, instead, gladly accepted their active participation, even though he had been all his life a staunch opponent of communalism and communal organizations as also a sharp critic of RSS-Jan Sangh. During 1974-75 JP not only ignored the anti-secular, communal and anti-democratic character of RSS-Jan Sangh and sought their active support in his movement but also gave them good chits and lent them an aura of respectability. Replying to those who criticized him for relying upon RSS-Jan Sangh cadres, he said: ‘The Jan Sangh and RSS are neither reactionary nor fascist. How can any party which had lent its support to Total Revolution be called reactionary or fascist?’ And, then, he went to the extent of saying: ‘if the Jan Sangh is fascist, then I too am a fascist.’ (Times of India, 6 March 1975)


The organizational muscle of the movement was provided by the cadres of the RSS and those of the Jan Sangh and its student wing, the ABVP, and to a certain extent by the activists of the rich-peasants based BLD in UP and the communal Akali Dal in Punjab. Consequently, while JP remained the movement’s chief mobilizer and public face, organizationally it came to be increasingly dominated by the RSS-Jan Sangh. JP’s inadequacy as its leader constituted a major shortcoming of the movement. Revolutionary rhetoric without ideology, organization and cadres could have been a recipe for disaster. The threat to democracy did not, however, come from JP himself.


JP himself was not the stuff of which dictators are made. The danger of authoritarianism did not come from him. However, there were, as pointed out earlier, others around him who were so inclined, and who were increasingly coming to dominate the movement organizationally, and only too willing to capitalize on JP’s ideological woolliness, political confusion.


Indira Gandhi clearly understood where the real threat came from, as is evident from the fact that the main edge of the Emergency’s repressive measures seemed to be almost entirely directed against anti-social elements or against the extreme communal right.


It is interesting to note that, true to its double-faced character, in less than two months after the imposition of the Emergency, Bala Sahib Deoras, head of the RSS, who was detained in Yervada jail, Pune, made a major overture to Mrs. Gandhi in a letter on 22 August 1975. Praising the speech that she had made on the Independence Day as appropriate and well-balanced, he asked her to utilize the ‘power of the Sangh for the upliftment of our country.’ In another letter to Mrs. Gandhi on 10 November 1975, Deoras congratulated her on the successful election appeal before the Supreme Court, asserted that the RSS had no connection with JP Movement, refuted other charges against his organization, repeated, as was done by Golwalkar in 1948-49, the assurance of its non-involvement in politics, and appealed to her to lift the ban on the RSS and release its workers. He also suggested that she use RSS’s strength to implement government’s programmes. RSS’s Hindi organ, Panchajanya, also welcomed in December 1975 the emergence of Sanjay Gandhi as a youth leader. Needless to add, the Prime Minister, used to the devious ways of Deoras and his ilk, was not taken in by these professions of innocence.


The point being argued here is not that the Emergency was justified, and that the suspension of democracy was civil liberties was necessary, but that it was not a picture of black and white, with a democratic movement led by JP on the one side and an authoritarian Indira on the other, but a complex situation in which fascist communal forces were working to gain control over an open-ended mass movement by providing much needed cadre and organizational framework. Indira Gandhi had hit on the right counter by asking JP to test his strength in the coming elections. Perhaps she needed to continue that strategy even after the Allahabad judgement, and give a call for early elections, which were in any case due in a few months. The Emergency, in which many faced jail terms, in the long run probably ended up providing the “Victims” a halo of sacrifice and much –needed legitimacy, which they claim even today.


The withdrawal of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi and her subsequent defeat and the access to state power by the communal forces was used by them to entrench themselves in the state machinery and use their position to promote their ideological interests.


However, as we know, bickerings within the ramshackle coalition of disparate forces rapidly escalated and the Janata Party broke up on the issue of dual membership, since the Jana Sangh members were loth to give up their link with the RSS.

Indira came back to power in 1980, less than three years after her defeat in 1977. It was very clear soon enough that the communal situation had deteriorated in the intervening years. Apart from major riots in Moradabad, Meerut, and Biharsharif, the situation in Assam and Punjab called for immediate attention.


Before Indira resumed power, in 1979 itself, there was a massive mass movement in Assam in which students, litterateurs and common people participated. It is said that over three million people, urban and rural, poor and rich, courted arrest in the satyagraha between 12 and 17 November 1979. The issue was the migration into Assam of non-Assamese, mostly Bengali –speaking people from Bangladesh. The fear was that they may numerically overtake the local population, thus affecting the linguistic and cultural character of the province. There were also issues of grant of citizenship, voting rights, and land ownership. Since the significant number of the migrants were Muslim, it was not difficult to give the problem a Hindu vs. Muslim colour. And this is what the RSS did by raising the issue of religious demography, a favourite with them anyway. The VHP organized its session in Gauhati in 1982. It gave the slogan of Hindus in danger and under siege. The AASU tried to counter it and Indira Gandhi was quite ready to negotiate with them while countering the communal elements. She visited Assam and also tried to reassure the minorities. She was attacked by Hindu communal elements who made an issue out of her saying ‘khuda Hafiz’ at a meeting. The situation worsened and ended up in the horrific Nellie massacre in February 1983 in which between 1000 to 3000 villagers, mostly Muslim, were killed. It appeared that the communal forces had successfully disrupted what began as a genuine non-violent mass movement with the legitimate objective of protecting the cultural identity of the Assamese people. These events cast a heavy shadow, and despite holding elections in an effort to normalize the situation, not much headway could be made in Indira’s lifetime and it was left to Rajiv Gandhi to pick up the thread and finally sign the Assam accord.


Coming to Punjab, where the situation was also extremely complex, with old grievances being mixed with new to make a poisonous mix. It was Indira who had presided over the formation of the Punjabi-speaking Province in 1966 soon after she became Prime Minister. But the Akali party that claimed to represent the entire Sikh community was still frustrated because it could not come to power despite the achievement of the Punjabi Suba it had dreamed of for so long. The reason was simple. All Sikhs did not vote for the Akali party although it permanently controlled all the Sikh shrines with their huge landed properties and enormous income. A minority of Sikh votes plus the bulk of Hindu votes enabled the Congress to be in power in Punjab. In 1977, when the tidal wave of anti-Emergency sentiment made clean sweep of the Congress, the Akalis, for the first time, rose to power in Punjab entirely by themselves though they shrewdly shared power with the Janata both in the state and the Centre.


Immediately after the 1977 parliamentary poll, the Janata government arbitrarily dismissed Congress governments in nine states while their term was not yet over. In all nine, the Janata or its allies won. The Akalis, already well entrenched in Chandigarh were not interested in this manoeuvre. However, when the Janata government fell and fresh Parliamentary elections were held, the Akali party found to its horror that it had lost the bulk of the parliamentary seats. Yet it remained confident that it would rule Punjab for two more years and then win the fresh election to the state assembly. It did not foresee that Indira would repay the Janata in the same coin. She dissolved state governments in the same nine states, and won back all of them, including Punjab. Political parties in other eight states took their defeat in their stride. But the Akalis were incensed and alleged that the whole exercise was a “conspiracy” to eliminate the only Sikh government in the country. This was the start of a no-holds-barred, all-out Akali campaign to get even with Indira and her party in which many Sikhs outside the Akali ranks also joined. The subsequent developments turned into a calamity of gigantic proportions for the country that also took Indira’s life.


Giani Zail Singh who was Congress chief minister of Punjab in the Seventies had unwisely but ostentatiously tried to steal the Akalis’ clothes by pandering heavily to the religious sentiments of the Sikhs. He did not realize that in this game he could not beat the extremists. The Akalis retaliated by passing an ambiguous resolution at Sri Anandpur Sahib making many demands on behalf of the Sikhs, principally the one for the “utmost autonomy” to them, limiting the “interference into their affairs by the Delhi durbar to the barest minimum”. While in power in Punjab (1977-80), the Akalis had said nothing about this resolution but after losing power they revived it with vengeance.


Zail Singh, apparently with Sanjay Gandhi’s approval, picked up a relatively obscure, young and fundamentalist lay preacher named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale with a view to building him up as a rival to the Akali leadership. It was believed that by advocating extremist causes the young preacher would embarrass the Akali Dal. Precisely, the reverse happened. Bhindranwale soon turned into a classic Frankenstein’s Monster and embarked upon devouring his creators. The Akali Dal then started a dharma yudh (holy war) against the Indira government over the Anandpur Sahib resolution and sundry Sikh demands including one for a separate Sikh personal law.


Bhinadranwale took it over and stretched the resolution into demanding an independent and sovereign state of Khalistan. His young followers started a reign of murder and terror. In his daily sermons, he preached ideology of hate which inspired his gun-trotting young followers, popularly called Kharkus, who killed all those whom they perceived as enemy of Khalistan. Bhindranwale and his men became self appointed moral police and started prescribing dress codes for school boys and girls, norms of behaviour for police and bureaucracy. With the help of Major-General Shahbeg Singh, Bhindranwale succeeded in fortifying the Golden Temple complex to pre-empt any move to eject him from his safe haven. After having fortified himself, Bhindranwale sent instructions to his men, to eliminate all those who dared to oppose his ideology and actions. Mr. Tohra and his lieutenants in the S.G.P.C., the supreme body for the control and management of the Akal Takhat and other historic shrines, did not stop Bhindranwale and his gun trotting young men from occupying Guru Nanak Niwas and later occupying and fortifying the Akal Takhat complex both of which were under the control of the S.G.P.C.


A campaign for defiance of the established law was jointly launched by Bhindranwale and splinter groups of Akali Dals, All India Sikh Students Federation led by Bhai Amrik Singh and protégés of Dr. Ganga Singh Dhillon, Dr. Jagjit Singh Chauhan and other self-proclaimed promoters of Khalistan abroad. Beginning with hoisting of Kesri flag, a symbol of the Republic of Khalistan during the Hola Mahala festival in Anandpur in March, 1984, issuing of Khalistan Passports and currency, these groups together created chaotic conditions where Bhindranwale and his supporters started challenging the authority of the State. This was a godsend to Pakistan that immediately extended all help to the “Sikh insurgency”.


Editors and correspondents of newspapers opposing Bhindranwale, became special targets of the terrorist groups patronized by Bhindranwale. To attract media attention aeroplanes of government owned Indian Airlines were hijacked. Country made bombs and hand grenades were thrown at strategic places. Buses were stopped by terrorists, members of a particular community were forced to come out and shot in cold blood. The situation reached its nadir when A.S. Atwal, D.I.G. of Panjab Police, was shot dead at the main entrance of the Golden Temple soon after his return from the sanctum sanctorum after offering his morning prayer.


Indira Gandhi tried to accommodate the Akalis to whatever extent she could. But Indira, like Nehru, was not willing to negotiate on the unity and integrity of India and accept challenge to the constituted authority of the state. Rather than coming out with a clear-cut plan to take the state out of the impasse, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, President of Shiromani Akali Dal, called upon the Sikhs to “launch a countrywide non-cooperation movement by refusing to pay land-revenue, water and electricity bills and prevent the movement of food grains out of Panjab”. Worried over the outcome of the latest move of the Shiromani Akali Dal, coupled with the fact that Bhindranwale had already fortified himself in the Akal Takhat, Mrs. Gandhi made an appeal to the Akali Dal leaders “to call off their threatened agitation”. It seems, by this time, Akali leaders were no longer in control of the situation. Rather than immediately responding to Mrs. Gandhi’s call, Akali leaders decided to follow the policy of inaction.


When the situation begun to get out of hand, and it became clear that Bhindranwale had ensconced and fortified himself in the Golden Temple and amassed a huge cache of arms and ammunition, and that the SGPC was going to do nothing about it, and was in fact launching a non-cooperation movement, she had the vision and the courage to take whatever steps were thought necessary to remove him from there, knowing they would be unpopular, knowing fully well the dangers involved for her personally as a result of these steps. It was part of her fight against communalism, in all its shades, which she understood was the gravest threat to Indian national unity. She paid for it with her life, and as is well known, refused to remove her Sikh bodyguards even when asked to, saying, ‘Aren’t we were secular?’


I might conclude with a quote from Inder Malhotra, her biographer, who says that she had a “deep and unswerving devotion to India and cause of its sovereignty, independence, unity and autonomy in every sphere of life. It is no exaggeration to say that she would have readily killed or swallowed poison herself rather than compromise with India’s honour.”



Prof. Mridula Mukherjee

Professor of Modern Indian History (Retd)

Centre for Historical Studies

Jawaharlal Nehru University

New Delhi- 110067



Categories: Uncategorized

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