Did anyone notice I skipped Hindi Film 101 on Tuesday? These loooooooong posts take a long time to write, and in the meantime I am missing reporting on trailers, news stories, box office. So I am trying to find a better balance, and since Hindi Film 101 is the least read of them all (then DDLJ posts, then Sunday Speculative. Monday Malayalam and Tuesday Telugu/Tamil, so long as I write about newer movies, do really well. No one reads about the K. Balachander films), it is getting the axe. Well, the half axe, I’m still doing it on Thursdays. (last Nehru-Gandhi post here)
Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am neither Indian, not a specialist in Indian history. This is just a brief summary, giving the common knowledge version of the history of the Nehru-Gandhi family. So that we are all positioned for the wealth of period films that are coming our way this year.
(If you are Indian, you already know way more about this than I do. Don’t bother reading this post. Or, if you do read it, feel free to add more information in the comments)
I left off last time with the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962. Let us rewind and take a moment to remember what the interpersonal connections were between the family at this point. Indira had married against her father’s wishes, to a young man who had been following her around and courting her since she was a teenager. After marriage, she seemingly retreated to being a dutiful wife, having two sons and supporting her husband in his political career. In the late 50s, it was her husband who had sounded the alarm on the first scandal of the new Indian government. A bribery scandal which, today, would cause a bored yawn of “yeah? What else is new.” But in the 1950s, people still had hope that this new Indian government would be moral and pure and perfect. And evidence of high level corruption was a shock. Enough of a shock that it implicated Nehru himself. Not that he was secretly collecting massive wealth or anything like that. But simply that the expectation of his perfection was so high, a failure to control corruption in his underlings felt like a betrayal.
At the time, the feelings and responses of India Gandhi, torn between her father and her husband, seemed the least consequential of these events. But in fact, Indira’s reaction set the course of Indian history until, well, today! Indira reacted by retreating from her husband and getting closer to her father. Closer than they had really ever been before. Raised with her father in and out of jail, and her mother in and out of hospitals and sanatoriums, Indira had always been a little forgotten.
(See her hiding behind the big bouquet of flowers?)
It wasn’t just situational, it was also personality. Nehru was sparkling, witty, charming, the center of any room he walked into. Indira was overlooked, forgotten, quiet. Nehru had made his mark on the world long before he entered politics, an outstanding academic career with lots of friends and interesting associates behind him. Indira had been pulled in and out of school so often, she never quite managed to complete her studies.
It wasn’t that Indira was his daughter, not at all. If she had been a son with the same personality, Nehru would have had a similarly difficult time relating to her, and vice versa. But time changes things. Nehru was struggling with the greatest challenge of his life, somehow guiding India through her difficult toddler years as a country (Washington had the same problem, America almost faltered and died several times during his presidency). His wife was dead, the woman he loved (maybe) was far away in England, and his beloved sister, his closest companion and confident, was away acting as India’s diplomat abroad. After the scandal of 1958, in which Indira clearly chose her father over her husband, he came to rely on her more and more. She became his hostess, and his spokesperson. Feroze died in 1960, leaving Indira a widow at age 43, with two teenage sons. There were no great demands on her time, nothing to do besides act as her father’s assistant.
(No longer hiding)
And this was exactly when Nehru most needed her. He was 71, still carrying the worries of over a billion people on his shoulders, with fewer and fewer people he felt he could trust. Suddenly, Indira was in the room in all kinds of high level discussions, a level of working partnership that her mother had never quite achieved. This was also, by the way, when Indira’s teenage son Rajiv became best friends with the boy who lived down the block, Amitabh Bachchan.
(I will always love this photo. Sanjay Gandhi, Dara Singh’s brother, Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Dara Singh, and Amitabh Bachchan. Dara had just won some international wresting competition and was invited to the Prime Minister’s house as a special honor, and of course the teenage boys wanted a photo with this cool guy)
And then the Sino-Indian war happened. Nehru was stricken by the loss, his already strained health got worse. Indira nursed him and slowly took more and more responsibility. When he died in 1964, as the nation mourned, somehow it seemed natural for Indira to be his successor.
In some ways it was natural. She was a known quantity to the public who had watched her grow up. And she had been there in ever meeting and discussion for the past few years, there was no need to catch her up on what was happening.
But then it wasn’t natural in other ways. Which is why she wasn’t his immediate successor. Indira had no, how can I say this, philosophy? At this time, the very top Indian politicians were the ones who had literally given birth to India. It wasn’t simply a matter of picking a political party and following their platform, it was creating the platform, the party, the whole concept of politics. These were big men with big thoughts. Indira, as the second generation who received India as a created state, just didn’t seem “Big” enough yet.
And so the immediate successor to Nehru was another one of those “Big” men, Lal Bahadur Shastri. He lead India through another war, with Pakistan, in 1965. It ended with a peace agreement, Shastri died the day after it was signed, the last of the old guard. And now it was Indira’s time.
Indira had been slowly moving up the ranks for years, already served as President of the Congress Party (and The Internet tells me one of her biggest acts as President had been to forced the disbandment of the legally elected Communist party in Kerala. I suspect my Malayalam readers have more to say about this!). But, like I said, she didn’t seem to really have a philosophy, she hadn’t been there beating out the words of the Constitution, fighting with the British to prove their right to existence, all of that. And so there was still a bit of caution, even after she took power, as people tried to figure out what she was made of.
(America, as always, thought we knew everything already)
Turns out, what she was made of was pure steel! I think her enemies and her followers can all agree on that. No hesitation, no mercy. Which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. Indira started out seeming to be a puppet of the Party establishment, a familiar face to sell the policies they wanted. By 1969, 3 years she took control, she had fallen out with the establishment and formed her own rival party, taking with her the majority of the Congress Party elected officials, and maintaining a majority thanks to allying with small parties like the DMK (and here is where I am guessing my Tamil readers know a lot).
By the elections of 1971, Indira was the Congress party. Even more than her father had been, or at least in a different way than her father had been. Indira loomed over everything in the minds of the public, a vote for Congress was a vote for her. And while the Congress slogan was “Garibi Hatao” (eradicate poverty), the oppositions rallying cry was simply “Indira Hatao”. Indira’s win in the 1971 elections, and the start of her massive national anti-poverty campaign would have been enough to solidify her in her place as “India is Indira and Indira is India”. But then the Bangladesh war happened. And, for the first time, India had a definitive military victory. Indira’s steel lead them on and she was called “Goddess Durga” for India.
Indira did some remarkable things. Created a massive centralized power base. Turned India more and more towards socialism, trying to redistribute the wealth and implement the ambitious social programs her father had dreamed of. But the methods, the methods are where people had problems. Indira was not one to look for the compromise, or to try to be fair to her opponents, to hear their point of view.
3 years after the 1971 war, poof! All the Indira love was gone. That’s politics. The economy, thanks to war taxes, drought, and the gas crisis, tanked. And those murmurs about Indira’s brutal rule over her opponents had always been there, this moment of weakness just made them louder. Finally, in 1975, it all came to a head with a court case. Her opponent in the 1971 election had accused her of electoral malfeasance, using government resources to fight her campaign. And he won the case. Effectively voiding her election to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. Indira refused to accept the judgement and continued to fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Where the judgement was upheld.
Now, the thing that seems odd to those of us who are not in a Parliamentary system, is that this election had nothing to do with her popularity nationwide. Indira was only elected to represent her small district in Parliament. That made her eligible to be part of the party leadership for Congress. And to be elected by her fellow Members as the Prime Minister for the national government. Even though the Congress Party was interchangeable with Indira at this point, and Congress had just been elected with a massive majority throughout India, Indira could not serve unless she had won her tiny little local election. And this court case said she had not won it.
As soon as the news broke, the country erupted. Pro-Indira protests, anti-Indira protests, all kinds of things. That was predictable. But it was Indira’s reaction that no one could have imagined. She called on her cabinet and the President of India (India has a “President”, but it is more a kind of “only in extreme circumstances” sort of thing, the real power is with the Prime Minister) and asked them to declare a “State of Emergency” in the country.
Soon, even the states that had not elected the Congress party in 1971 were told they were now under “President’s rule”. Elections were suspended. Political opponents were arrested and thrown in jail indefinitely. Anyone could be thrown in jail indefinitely, the police had full powers. The Minister of Information had full powers of censorship over everything. No debate was allowed in parliament over these new orders, decrees came down from the President (the mouthpiece of Indira) and were obeyed. It lasted 21 months.
This is the hidden unspoken backdrop to all those films of the 70s. The words “The Emergency”, so far as I know, were never openly spoken. But all those films that struggled with ideas of authority versus individual freedom, the greater good of society, the rule of law, and the martyrdom of the working man, that’s what they are talking about.
(Just as a case study, this is Gayatri Devi. A gorgeous glamorous woman, and part of an ancestral royal family, the anti-Indira. They had been political opponents for years, Gayatri was one of the most popular figures of the country. During The Emergency, her royal title and privilege were ended along with all the rest of the ancestral royals in India, and she was thrown in jail for 5 months, during which time she was diagnosed with breast cancer and not allowed treatment. She thought she would die there)
This was also the era that saw the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s younger son. Now, I am trying to be as fair as possible to all the Nehru-Gandhi’s. I am not an expert, India is not my country, I don’t have every fact, I shouldn’t judge. They all seem to have tried the best they could to serve their country. But I think even with all those qualifiers we can all say that Sanjay was far far over the line. He took advantage of The Emergency to go a little wild with his own plans to “improve” India. He had no government authority for any of this, no post in his mother’s government, had never been elected. But he was Indira’s son, so he could.
An example of the stories told about him, during the emergency he went to visit the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi and was supposedly irritated at being unable to see it clearly thanks to the slums surrounding it. So he ordered in bulldozers, supported by firing squads, to clear the slums. 70,000 people were displaced, at least 150 killed out right. The other major issue with Sanjay was his taking the lead in the forced sterilization programs. Numbers are unclear, but they are probably in the thousands if not hundreds of thousands. Lower class young men rounded up, and forced to have vasectomies. Other men given incentives of land, money, in order to submit to the operation.
Oh, and for our filmi interests, there is plenty there as well. Kishore Kumar refused to sing as ordered at a government function. And so Sanjay declared him banned, and no Kishore songs were played on All India radio from then on. In other film news, a satirical comedy with thinly veiled characters based on the Gandhis was not just censored, but all copies were collected and thrown on a bonfire at Sanjay’s factory.
(this is Sanjay)
Sanjay’s could be seen as inspired by a hope for social improvement. India did have a population problem. And it did have a slum problem. And sometimes Kishore could be very very rude. His actions could still be seen as, in some way, an attempt to serve India. Of course, other stories say that he was also terribly corrupt, funneling government money to his private endeavors. I don’t know if there really is an excuse for that.
After 21 months, Indira raised the Emergency and declared elections. It is possible she was blind to the feelings of the people because she had so soundly silenced them. The press only reported what she allowed to be reported, the people in her government only said what she allowed them to say. And so she was probably very surprised when the loose alliance against her, made up of Hindu fundamentalists, southern heritage parties, and the various “new” Congress parties formed by those Indira had thrown out of her inner circle (and the few who had taken a moral stand and left that inner circle, especially after the rise of Sanjay, fearing that Indira would soon officially hand over power to him), swept to power. Congress lost the national elections, and Indira lost her seat. And so, for the first time in 30 years, since India’s independence, the Nehru-Gandhi family was not involved in the leadership of the country.