What happens to a people when their memory of their heroes is eroded? What happens to a people when they forget or are taught to despise those who represent the best of their traditions? In revolutionary moments when the masses chose their leaders, their moral authority compels them to be better than they are, to make choices that exemplify sacrifice and courage. What happens to a people when these role models are taken away from them? Must they resign themselves to the colonial assertion that they are and will forever be mediocre and narrowly self interested?
These are questions that must interest and act as a warning to all those Indians who are interested in broad masses of people and the future of their nation. As we enter into the 75th year of our political independence, we must be cognizant of all those that face an attack from western and westernized intellectuals: Gandhi, Nehru, and their colleagues in the freedom movement. The world today is shifting between epochs, and the Indian people must be made aware of the grand and irreversible movement of history as the West enters a period of decline and Asia, led by China, rises. This is a period when the Indian people will have to reimagine their place in the world, and their contribution to human civilization. It will be a time when it becomes imperative that the new generation of Indians reassesses the history that has created them.
Our collective understanding of our history is shaped heavily by the West: by prominent western intellectuals in the top Western universities. Even as imperialism enforces the western world order through its economic and social institutions, perhaps the most insidious is this ideological hegemony over how we interpret our past. This manifests in a downplaying of the interference of western institutions in the events that have shaped India, as well as a deep anti-communism that shows our alliance with the Soviets as antithetical to our democracy. The CIA and its allies are made invisible and our inability to govern ourselves is chalked down to internal contradictions and differences. The natives, it is asserted, cannot get along. Our intellectuals do us a great disservice when they respond to any mention of the Western intelligence and institutional apparatus with laughs of ‘conspiracy’ and scoffs claiming lack of expertise.
In this article, we will attempt to address the legacy of revolutionary and great democrat Indira Gandhi, and to make clear her significance and the role of Western forces in the rewriting of her history. She is perhaps one of the most polarizing figures of modern India, and the generation that dominates politics today has been decisively shaped by either support or opposition to her.
Indira Gandhi was born in 1917 to Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru and spent her youth in India’s anticolonial movement, being forged in the struggle. She was mentored not only by her father, but also shared a close relationship with Mahatma Gandhi and other freedom fighters. Their example would guide her conscience and actions throughout her life, and she tried, in all her work, to further the project of a free India that they had laid out. She became prime minister in 1966 after the death of Lal Bahadur Shashtri under suspicious circumstances. Initially chosen because she was seen as a weak political figure who would be used as a mere figurehead to carry out the program defined by the conservative side of the Congress leadership, she soon proved that she would not compromise on any subject that concerned her work for the uplift of her people.
Against Imperialism and for Development and Peace
It is either naive or untruthful to look at the history of India’s development without taking into account the world order dominated by the US and Europe which constrained and defined so many of our decisions. One of the main problems that we inherited from colonial rule was food insufficiency and the prospect of famines. The great Bengal famine was only the last in a whole series of famines that had marred the consciousness of the nation. Other than the toll that these took physically on the people of India, the unavailability of the very basic of human needs weighed heavily on the dignity of our people.
In the early years of her administration, Indira Gandhi dealt successfully with famine-like conditions in north India caused by drought. The country still needed wheat imports, and Indira Gandhi initially approached the US for American wheat in food aid. In her visit to the US in 1966, President Johnson promised her to send 3.5 million tonnes of food grains to India under the PL-480 program. However, actual shipments were few and the Americans began to use food aid as a bargaining chip to pressurize the Indian state to change its agricultural policy, and to change its stance on Vietnam. President Johnson oversaw this personally on a ‘tonne by tonne’ basis . Indira Gandhi felt humiliated on behalf of our unclothed and hungry millions, and knew that a more permanent solution would have to be found. She pushed for planning and modernization of agriculture, and the Green Revolution was eventually successful in making India a food-sufficient nation.
She distanced herself from the US, and in 1966 issued a statement condemning the American bombing of Vietnam. She visited Moscow and in a joint statement with the Soviet Union declared American involvement in Vietnam to be ‘imperialist aggression’. She developed the Non-Aligned policy further, developing close ties with Nasser of Egypt, Tito of Yugoslavia, Fidel Castro of Cuba and other leaders of formerly colonized nations. Her visit to Africa in 1966 saw her receive a welcome that broke convention to honor her. Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda broke all traditions and conferred on Indira Gandhi the "Order of Grand Companion of Freedom", the highest decoration of the land. She was the first Asian to receive the award. Her visit to Tanzania was declared a state visit by Julius Nyerere.
All of this made Indira Gandhi very unpopular among the Western intelligence apparatus and leadership. However, perhaps the breaking point in India’s relationship with the US and American imperialism would come with the Bangladeshi liberation movement in 1971. With the humanitarian crisis of the Pakistani genocide in Bangladesh, refugees poured into West Bengal. Indira Gandhi was quick to respond to the crisis and undertook careful planning with the Indian army. She also directed an international campaign to win people over to the side of the Bangladeshi people, and educate the world of their predicament. Despite it being a great strain on our resources, the Indian government provided food, shelter and clothing for the refugees, and trained and supported the cadre of the Mukti Bahini. The Indian involvement in Bangladesh was greatly celebrated in Bangladesh, India and all over Africa and Asia.
Throughout this time, the US continued to provide arms and support to the Pakistani military. It tried to pose the issue of the Bangladeshi people as a local disagreement between India and Pakistan, rather than the question of the people’s self determination. China also supported Pakistan, and became hostile to India’s actions. Partly in response to all this, Indira Gandhi proceeded to sign a historic 20 year Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. This treaty cemented Indo-Soviet relations, and its reflection can still be seen in the Indian people’s love for the Russian people.
On 3rd December 1971, Pakistan launched a surprise attack on Indian military bases in the West. India was prepared, and Indian military action in Bangladesh was swift and decisive. Indira Gandhi immediately recognized the government of Bangladesh. The US stopped all aid to India and declared it to be the aggressor. The US seventh fleet, which was led by a nuclear aircraft carrier, set out for the Bay of Bengal. The 93,000 strong Pakistani army however was defeated on 16th December, 1971.
Following the war, Pakistan’s pro-Western military regime fell. Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first elected Prime Minister, met in Shimla in 1972 to negotiate the Shimla agreement. The terms that were decided were criticized by some as being too generous to Pakistan, but Indira Gandhi strongly put the concerns of peace first. She said on the occasion, ‘All I know is that I must fight for peace and I must take those steps which will lead us to peace… The time has come when Asia must wake up to its destiny, must wake up to the real needs of its people, must stop fighting among ourselves, no matter what our previous quarrels, no matter what the previous hatred and bitterness.’
In the 1970s Indira Gandhi became a champion of the New International Economic Order which aimed to set up a more just international economic order. She officially supported the World Peace Council, opposed apartheid in South Africa, and extended Indian support for liberation movements across Asia and Africa. It must be reiterated that Indira’s official support for the WPC and global peace movement has extraordinary significance, because she represented the spirit of the Indian people who would put even their limited and poor resources towards the struggle for human freedom.
Indira Gandhi and India were now considered a hostile entity by the American elite. Kissinger and Nixon referred to her as a ‘bitch’ in their conversations. The Indian state was under immense pressure from the US. This was a time when the world was rife with violent interventions by American intelligence. In 1973 Salvador Allende, the progressive president of Chile was assassinated by the CIA. In 1975 the CIA saw to the debasement of the Bangladeshi liberation project by brutally assassinating Mujibur Rehman along with his entire family, save his two daughters who were living in West Germany at the time. Between 1961 and 1973, six African independence leaders were assassinated by the Western alliance, including Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Mehdi Ben Barka of Morocco and Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau.
With this history in mind, Indira’s assassination in 1984 can be understood as one of a string of assassinations to derail the independence project of the formerly colonized nations. It is now well known that the forces in the Punjabi extremist movement were friendly with the American embassy. Those who wish to know more can refer to the book by freedom fighter Sheel Bhadr Yajee, ‘CIA Operations Against the Third World’ . To add to this, a recent book that documents conversations with Robert Crowley, the second in command of the CIA's Directorate of Operations now also points to the possible involvement of the CIA in the mysterious deaths of Homi Bhabha and Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Olof Palme, Swedish Prime Minister and a champion of the Non Aligned Movement was also assassinated in 1986.
The World Peace Council note on the assassination of Indira Gandhi  read, “The assassination is the result of a heinous conspiracy of reactionary forces, internal and external, against India’s constructive foreign policy of peace and non-alignment, for nuclear disarmament, for ending poverty and hunger in the world.”
It is a colonized mentality that would flippantly deny the hand of American imperialism in our history without a sobre examination of the facts. No one can deny that internal divisions in India exist, but to underestimate the role of the West in using and exacerbating them for their benefit is akin to a lie. It is a continuation of our colonial history that the Western rulers of the world manipulate our differences, assassinate our leaders, and train our intellectuals to blame the masses of Indian people.
Class Struggle and the State
It is easy to underestimate the task of administering a nation as complex and poor as India. The Indian project as established by Nehru with Gandhi’s leadership and philosophy was a great experiment in human society. There were many questions that had no easy answers, and one of these was the question of the organization of the state and its relationship to different social and economic sections within Indian society.
The freedom struggle was defined by unity such that all economic groups of the nation were bound together by Gandhi’s movement. There were indeed colonized sections of the elite that supported the British but the spirit of sacrifice compelled most Indian people, rich or poor, to join the movement. In this sense, the Marxist concept of class struggle was not adequate to capture the dynamics of the freedom movement. Instead, it was as if the nation itself became a class struggling against imperialism. The national movement captured the aspirations of the poor and working people of the nation and built unity around their interests.
After independence the Indian state aspired to carry on this unity around the objectives of the freedom movement. Nehru himself saw the Indian state as an experiment and was willing to redraw and rethink its many facets in order to fulfill the vision of the freedom struggle. In one striking debate between Nehru and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Nehru supported the curtailing of the freedom of the press in order to enable the state to carry out the implementation of broad land reforms . Leading up to this, the media as well as the judiciary were playing the role of neocolonial institutions and opposed land reforms in the name of protecting individual freedoms.
Still carrying its colonial legacy, the Indian state reflected many contradictions. There were the anticolonial aspects of it set up by Nehru. On the other hand, there were parts of the state that were inherited by the revolutionary government from the British such as the bureaucracy, the judiciary and outside of the state, the media. These institutions were saddled with colonial mentality and opposed many of the radical policies of the new government.
When Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, many of these institutions persisted. There was also a new generation of youth who did not know the sacrifice of the freedom movement, and were impatient for a more just and materially well off society. There remained the backbone of the freedom movement -- the peasantry and the working class, who were more patient in their suffering and with the development of the Indian project. Further, sections of the affluent middle class, including professionals and the intelligentsia, who had aligned themselves with the freedom movement under Gandhi, had begun to break away and were beginning to be consumed by universal selfishness. In the tensions of the cold war, they often spewed anti-communist propaganda. As early as 1965, a year after Nehru’s death, Aruna Asaf Ali had questioned , “Dare we believe those who make half hearted gestures and assure people that Nehru’s unfinished tasks will be accomplished?(...)Instead of providing people with a decisive, coherent and united leadership, those in high places seem to revel in the thought that they are ruling the destinies of 500 million Indians.”
These contradictions manifested also in the internal divisions in the congress and the party split twice, once in 1969 and again in 1979. Both times the side led by Indira Gandhi was the one that kept the support and love of the people.
In her first term, Indira Gandhi attempted to further her father’s work. She implemented nationalization of general insurance, and major banks. The MRTP Act, meant to check accumulation of industry in a few hands, was passed. There was legislation for reducing the ceiling on land holding size, and an attempt to distribute surplus land to landless and marginal farmers. When her bank nationalization and land reform initiatives, as well as the move to abolish privy purses were opposed by the supreme court on the basis of protecting the fundamental rights of the owners, she passed an important constitutional amendment restoring the parliament’s power to amend the Fundamental Rights .
All of this antagonized the neocolonial and right forces in Indian society. Further, even as this struggle for socialism was going on, the Bangladesh war’s drain on the state’s resources, coupled with a severe drought in 1972 created difficult economic conditions for the people. The politics of the time evolved into a kind of anti-Congressism with different opportunistic forces joining together not based on any principles other than opposition to Indira Gandhi. They included the CPM, the Muslim League, the Akali Dal, the Swatantra, Jan Sangh and the Lohia Socialists. This alliance of communal and ideologically marginal groups with anti-Soviet communists and socialists would prove easy to manipulate for imperialism as they lacked any ideological or moral moorings. In the elections in 1971, their lack of ideology was reflected in their main slogan, ‘Indira Hatao’, or ‘Abolish Indira’. Indira Gandhi responded as a revolutionary with the slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’, or ‘Abolish Poverty’.
It is in this context the largely student-led movement under Jayaprakash Narayan emerged with the events in Gujarat and Bihar. JP gave the call for ‘total revolution’ and the movement attempted to force government officials to resign, to paralyze the government and to force the assembly in Bihar to dissolve. JP’s movement won the support of sections of the intelligentia, students and the middle classes . It must be stressed that students form an immature and fickle force in revolutionary politics, and without the leadership of the poor and working masses can be defined by infantilism. The movement lasted barely a year as students went back to their classes.
However it was given a second impetus when the judiciary played once again its anti-people role, and declared that Indira Gandhi had indulged in corrupt election practices, and would not be eligible to contest elections or hold office for six years. There was no substance to the case, and the main argument was frivolous and trivial . Indira Gandhi refused to resign and appealed to the Supreme Court. JP seized this opportunity, and demanded her resignation. The forces around him were undisciplined and infiltrated with all kinds of agent provocateurs. They announced a week-long nationwide campaign of mass mobilization and civil disobedience against Indira Gandhi. They surrounded Indira Gandhi’s house at one point with thousands of volunteers, and appealed to the bureaucracy, police and army to disregard any ‘illegal’ orders by the government. These tactics smacked of involvement by American intelligence and the color revolutions we have since seen in Eastern Europe. On 2nd January, 1975, Lalit Narayan Mishra, then minister of railways, was brutally murdered in a bomb blast. Many, including Indira Gandhi, suspected CIA involvement. Like in the case of Lal Bahadur Shastri, no post mortem was ever carried out on Mishra’s body.
It was in this context that Indira Gandhi declared the emergency. She repeatedly tried to make the Indian people aware of the dangers that lurked in an easily manipulated and undisciplined movement. She spoke of the dangers of foreign interference as India attempted to make an upright and independent journey to socialism. The move was welcomed by large sections of the Indian people who were tired of the infantile and disruptive politics of the JP movement. Many areas of the bureaucracy and state apparatus were disciplined and ran smoother in service to the people. Indira Gandhi’s twenty point program was seriously implemented at many levels. It was a progressive and substantive program that included an attack on rural poverty, enforcement of land reforms and housing for the people.
Many critics of the emergency would argue against what has been laid out here, but the aim of this article is not to take a side in a narrow and sectarian pro or anti emergency debate. Rather, it is to illuminate the role of imperialism in our history, and the struggle against it by the Indian people under the leadership of Indira Gandhi.
How should we interpret this period in our history? Are the concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘authoritarianism’, narrowly defined as they are today, enough to explain what happened? In order to fully understand this counter-revolutionary moment, we must not be afraid to name who benefited most from these events -- American imperialism. Indira Gandhi was attempting to carry out a program for the uplift of the Indian poor and working masses. In effect she was leveraging the anticolonial state to carry out the program of building socialism in India. This required sacrifice and patience from the more affluent classes. Through the JP movement, sections of those classes chose to align with imperial forces that already had made clear their hatred for Indira Gandhi and the project of Indian socialism. She saw that in a nation that had come out of an anti-colonial revolution to form its state, the class struggle was inseparable from the anti-imperialist struggle. In that sense, this period can be understood as a period of intense class struggle. It is a period that saw a struggle over the Indian state and its attempts to establish a dictatorship of the Indian poor.
Current Political Climate
Why is this history important for us today? We see today a colonized Indian intelligentsia which is disinterested in the building of the Indian state and the removal of poverty. Instead, they carry out the colonizers age-old project of denigrating freedom fighters like Indira Gandhi, and painting our people as backward and incapable of self rule. Even those who speak vaguely positively about Indira Gandhi’s work fold under pressure from the Westernized intellectuals to admit to her ‘authoritarian tendencies’. Thus, we must take up the study of our history outside of the intelligentsia with purpose and be unafraid to speak openly about American forces all over the world. Further, we must not be provincial and embrace world history as our own history. The history of the Indian project cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the world, including the anticolonial projects of Africa and Asia, and the Soviet Union.
Indira Gandhi’s legacy must make us question the ideas of democracy and freedom today. Debates over these ideas have been rich in India since the time of Gandhi. Those who participated in the freedom movement did not define democracy as merely procedural or electoral. They conceptualized it more broadly as the availability of the basic necessities of life to the masses so they could find their voice in national matters, and develop to their full potential. Freedom meant not only personal freedom for landowners and the intelligentsia, but the freedom of the masses to better their condition. If the latter came at the cost of the former, that was a sacrifice that was needed for the betterment of humanity. In her Independence day speech in 1975, she said “Self rule does not just mean that you elect your representatives. It does not just mean that those who write in the newspaper should be allowed to write anything, even if they represent the voice of only a few. Self rule means that the benefits of self rule reach each household of India. They must reach those who cannot raise their voice, and even those who do not yet even know what they want, those who have lived so far alienated from any of the comforts of life. This is the self rule that we are trying to take the nation towards.”
Thus, the movement saw the link between sacrifice and service on the one hand, and freedom and democracy on the other. In our nonviolent struggle under Mahatma Gandhi, people had a sense that one could become free through service and sacrifice. In a time when our neighbor, China, has eliminated extreme poverty, we must have the courage to examine these concepts afresh for our times, independent of the West and their propaganda of an ‘Alliance of Democracies’.
Lastly, we must not be fooled by ‘movements’ that consist mainly of the Westernized intelligentsia and middle classes. Any movement for liberation must be led by the masses of people, the peasantry and the working class. People make their own history and though they move at their own pace, they move decisively. We must not underestimate the ability of common people to understand and interpret the past and the current political moment. We must affirm that our people can think and act. We must work for the unity of our people based on principle. Indira Gandhi never forgot the people of this nation. She spent her whole life, from childhood to the moment she was shot, in service to them. They were the source of her internal strength which allowed her to keep struggling against herculean odds. On the day before her assassination in a speech she said, “They have attacked me in every possible manner. I do not care whether I live or die. I have lived a long life and I am proud that I spend the whole of my life in the service of my people. I am only proud of this and nothing else. 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.”
 Mukherjee, M., Mukherjee, A., Chandra, B. (1999). India After Independence. India: Penguin Books.
 Yajee, S.B. (1985). CIA Operations in the Third World. Criterion Publications.
 Grover, V., Arora, R. (1999). Aruna Asaf Ali: A Biography of Her Vision and Ideas. Deep & Deep Publications.
 World Peace Council Records, Swarthmore College Peace Collection
 Singh, T., Hussain, A. (2021). Nehru: The Debates that Defined India. Fourth Estate India.
Nandita Chaturvedi is a contributor to and editor of this journal.