You can't shake hands with a clenched fist

Paula Mahar on 2014-04-02 21:56:36
Born in 1917, Indira Gandhi grew up in country which was undergoing swift political change. It was also a country where there were many clenched fists: Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh, all with differing creeds pulling them into conflict that would dramatically affect India's turbulent history. Indira Nehru Gandhi was no relation to Mohandas Gandhi, the man whose policy of civil disobedience brought India to freedom after centuries of British domination, but her father, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Mahatma were political allies.


Indira’s father was often away from home as a leader of India's independence movement, and her mother, who died when Indira was 19, suffered from illness. Indira had to leave her university studies when her mother became ill, dying in 1936. In 1942, she married Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mohandas Gandhi). Although their marriage did not have Nehru's approval, their politics did; Indira and her husband were jailed as participants in their country's move toward independence.

In 1947, India achieved its independence from Great Britain. In 1948, Mohandas Gandhi, the face of India and the proponent of peace, was assassinated. Upon Gandhi’s death, Nehru said,



When Nehru became India's first primer minister, his daughter became his personal assistant and unofficial chief of staff, obtaining a hands-on education in politics that would be of great service to her in the years to come. Her own political career began in 1964 after Nehru’s death, when she was elected to the government and became the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the Cabinet. Comparing herself to her father, the newcomer to elected office said, “My father was a statesman, I am a political woman. My father was a saint. I am not.” 

Indira became prime minister in 1966, but if the political operatives expected to profit from the fame of her name while manipulating her like a puppet, they were in for a surprise. She was her own woman, taking charge of the Indian Congress Party without hesitation. If the leaders of the world, mostly male, expected India's female prime minster to be weak, they learned otherwise. She promoted the development of India's nuclear weapons program, brokered closer ties to the Soviet Union to counterbalance enemy Pakistan's alliance with the United States, declared war on Pakistan and negotiated a subsequent peace treaty, and nationalized the banks, mines, and oil companies. Indira was very capable of shaking hands to forge partnerships and deals that benefitted India, but her handshake was a powerful one and the nations of the world learned to respect her.

But political leadership was not without travail. The clenched fist of religious strife which had divided India in the past resurfaced in the 1980s. When the Sikh separatist movement began, and extremists took up positions in the sacred Golden Temple to conduct a campaign in support of armed violence against Hindus, Indira sent troops to the scene. More than 400 people died in the violence. Perhaps she had sensed that the violence which had taken Mohandas Gandhi's life would also strike her. She had once said, 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.”

In 1984, Indira was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. She was succeeded as prime minister by her son Rajiv. Perhaps more of Indira's political life was dominated by the clenched fist rather than the handshake, but at a time when political power was denied to most women, India's female prime minister was not afraid of leadership or of dying in service to her country.

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