Indira Gandhi: India’s First Woman Prime Minister

Indira Gandhi was India’s third prime minister and the first woman to lead the nation’s millions from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 until her assassination in 1984.

She was born November 19, 1917 at Anand Bhavan, a large family estate in Allahabad, to Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. The birth of a girl was considered an economic burden to a father, who had to provide her with a dowry and find her a husband.

The Nehrus were Kashmiri Brahmins, the highest of the four castes in Hindu society, which claim direct descent from the original Aryan settlers of India. Her grandfather, Motilal, decided to name her 'Indira' after his own mother, while her parents added 'Priyadarshini', meaning dear to the sight.

Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was independent India’s first Prime Minister following its freedom from British rule in 1947, and impatient of religious and caste prejudice.

It was not until the latter half of the 19th century that some westernized Indians took up the cause of female emancipation. Thanks to the emancipated outlook of her grandfather and her parents, her desires and talents were never stifled by discriminatory taboos to which most of her sex was subjected.

Growing up, Indira was a voracious reader. Her interests ranged over science, adventure, fairy tales and the biographies of nationalist heroes such as Joan of Arc, William Tell, Garibaldi and Juarez. She enjoyed plays, poetry, and was particularly impressed by Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gael and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. She enjoyed Lewis Carroll, the Faber Book of Insects and Maurice Maeterlinck's books The Life of the Bee and The Life of the Ant.

She gets her name not from Mahatma Gandhi, leader of India's nonviolent independence movement against British rule and founder of the Congress Party, but from her husband Feroze Gandhi, a lawyer who died in 1960. The couple spent 13 months in prison for subversion after fighting against British rule in India during the 1940s.

She was appointed the President of Congress party in 1959 and also served as her father's personal assistant from 1947 through 1964. Following her father's death in 1964, she served as a Cabinet Minister under Lal Bahadur Shastri's leadership. In her position as minister of information and broadcasting, she encouraged the making of inexpensive radios to reach India’s many illiterates and started a family planning program.

In January 24, she was sworn in as India’s third prime minister and the first woman to lead the nation’s millions following Shastri's sudden death. From 1966 to 1977, she was able to retain the position but lost after an emergency was imposed by her in 1975 leading to a national discontent and countrywide protests.

When Indira first came to power in 1966, the country had not yet recovered from the trauma of the Indo-China War of 1962, followed three years later by the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. She won with 355 votes to Morarji Desai’s 169.

India’s Green Revolution was one of the important pieces of Indira term in office. She made the Green Revolution a key government priority and along with the new hybrid seeds, initiated state subsidies, the provision of electrical power, water, fertilizers and credit to farmers. Agricultural income was not taxable.

India imported 18,000 tons of dwarf wheat seeds from Mexico in 1966. Punjab, often known as the “Granary of India,” made India self-sufficient in agricultural production, but in so doing, lost its traditional form of agriculture and depleted its water resources and soils considerably.

The Green Revolution’s 20 objectives included steps to bring down prices of essential commodities, promote austerity in government spending, crackdown on bonded labor, liquidate rural indebtedness and make laws for a moratorium on recovery of debt from landless laborers, small farmers and artisans. It focused on:

  1. Attack on rural poverty
  2. Strategy for rained agriculture
  3. Better use of irrigation water
  4. Bigger harvest
  5. Enforcement of land reforms
  6. Special programs for rural labor
  7. Clean drinking water
  8. Health for all
  9. Two child norm
  10. Expansion of education
  11. Justice for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST)
  12. Equality for women
  13. New opportunities for women
  14. Housing for the people
  15. Improvement for slums
  16. New strategy for forestry
  17. Protection of environment
  18. Concern for the consumer
  19. Energy for the villages
  20. A responsive administration

She returned to power as Prime Minister in 1980 and during this time, ordered storming of Sikh Holy Shrine Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar and was assassinated on October 31, 1984 by her two Sikh bodyguards.

A nation's strength ultimately consists in what it can do on its own and not in what it can borrow from others.

Like this post? Stop by and read Wangari Maathai: Founder of the Green Belt Movement, Nobel Prize Winner.” Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 and mobilized women to plant nearly 30 million trees. She was the first woman from Africa honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree.

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