Happy Thursday! Time to come back to the Gandhi-Nehru family! Doesn’t get any easier to talk about stuff after 1984 really, does it? Partly because 1984 cast such a long shadow. (Nehru Gandhi part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here)
Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not an Indian, nor am I an expert on Indian History. This is just very basic background on the biggest events in this family’s life because, if you are interested in the films of India, it is important to know about the First Family of India.
I ended the last section with a brief description of the riots/pogrom/massacre/genocide following Indira’s assassination. But that isn’t really giving enough weight to it, especially since this is still the biggest sin that chases this family to the present day.
There have been many many many many many riots/pogroms/massacres/genocides of the type of the 1984 violence in India. The majority were done by Hindus to religious minorities within the country. Arjun Appadurai wrote a brilliant book called “Fear of Small Numbers” (you can read it here, but be warned that it is very depressing) which talks about why a majority can become violent towards a minority, even more violent as the minority shrinks. There is a mental trick that comes into effect, you start to think “it would be so easy if we were all the same! And we are so close to that now, if only this .1% could be gotten rid of.” That’s what happened with the Jews in Germany, the Tutsis in Rwanda, and the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 (and of course the Muslims in Gujurat in 1989, in Bombay in 1992, in Gujurat in 2002 again, and so on and so on). The majority population attacked a small minority.
(DilDeewana in the comments asked if there was any art at all that dealt with 1984, and I just realized that it is connected to the boom of Punjabi rappers. Or, more accurately, why the rap style created by an oppressed minority in America looking for a war cry spoke to the Punjabi artists. Notice Yo Yo’s lion shoes for his Sikh heritage, the tractor for the Punjab)
Essentially, what I am talking about is bullying. The myth is that “the bully is jealous of you!”; the reality is that bullying comes when people have power. The charming wealthy well-loved kid with lots of friends will get off on using their power to torment the poor kid. In the same way, when a group is riding high in society, that is when they are most likely to turn and use their power to attack others. It’s why white men in America seem to hate everybody.
Bringing it back to 1984! For years, the Congress Party and the Gandhi-Nehru family in particular had almost limitless power in India. And so, this first moment of attack shocked them, and caused a massive overreaction/lack of reaction.
(another song! Love this one)
The violence and deaths in Delhi were horrible, it’s true. But what makes it bitter, makes it rankle, is that the mob was supported by the State. Datablue reminded me in the comments that there was an army regiment nearby that could have easily been called in when the violence started and at least helped to stop the bleeding a little. But they weren’t called, because it was a Sikh regiment and it was feared they would “overreact”. 72 individual police officers were identified by multiple commissions as being culpable in the violence, and were never prosecuted. The investigatory commissions themselves tended to be abruptly canceled, or allowed to continue and then their findings ignored.
But I don’t think that’s what really burns. What really burns is all the educated respected responsible Congress Party types who came out to the steps of the hospital where Indira’s body was kept and lead the calls for “Khoon Ka Badla Khoon”. And who kept leading those calls for the next 30 days as the violence escalated, driving it higher and higher.
Rajiv, Indira’s son and then new Prime Minister of India, was thrown into the middle of all this. His mother had just died, his older brother had died just a few years earlier, he was suddenly in charge of a massive nation, and all the “wise old men” who were supposed to be advising him were out on the steps literally calling for blood. And so, 19 days into the killings, Rajiv’s comment on them was;
“Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.”
It sounds passive and poetic. Until you start to think, THREE THOUSAND PEOPLE MURDERED. While his government looks the other way. And Rajiv is saying “it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little”?
(Speaking of shaking….)
Okay, I’m gonna try to leave that behind (although it’s never really been left behind), and move on to Rajiv as national leader. Like when his mother came to power, there was some uncertainty at the start. Everyone thought he was a good guy. Not like they liked him (although they did that too), but that he was sincerely concerned about the future of India and doing what was best for the country, not just for himself. The question was, would all those good intentions be enough? Would he be able to find a vision, pull together a coalition, do everything that needed to be done?
(Looks kind of like a sweet guy, doesn’t he?)
And the answer was……yes and no. Turns out, he had a great vision! A lot of the stuff that you think of as “modern India” came from Rajiv. Telecommunications infrastructure, modernizing the economy, encouraging educational growth-essentially, all those call centers and computer jobs and data processing moving to India are thanks to the plans Rajiv put in place back in the 80s. But the way he did it wasn’t quite as practiced as it could have been. Who knows, perhaps if he had had a chance, he could have come back for a second term with all the kinks worked out.
There were two big, I don’t want to say “black marks”, but kind of grey marks on the Rajiv regime. The first is the Indo-Sri Lanka accord. Sri Lanka is a majority Sinhalese state. But there is a large, and long term, Tamil minority. This Tamil minority, naturally, has strong ties to its ethnic and linguistic parent, the Tamil states in India.
Slowly, over time, that same “fear of small numbers” idea started working in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese was made the official language, barriers were put in place of ethnic Tamilians becoming full citizens, and so on. As more and more Tamilians were deported, or just plain left to live in India instead (now that India was a free country too, with a Tamil speaking state, the creation of which is a whole other story that belongs back in the Nehru section), the percentage of Tamilians in Sri Lanka got smaller and smaller. And the state became more and more aggressive in trying to “weed out” that small percent.
Aggression breeds aggression. The Tamilians took to the hills and forests and formed into guerrilla fighters. This is kind of an unknown/forgotten war in the West, but it was brutal. And the fighting tactics the LTTE used set a standard for guerrilla warfare worldwide. Suicide bombers, female suicide bombers, child soldiers, they had it all. And the state forces set a standard as well, 12,000 “disappeared” people, second only to Iraq. Out of a population of only 20 million, versus Iraq’s 36 million.
(Family members and photos of the disappeared)
India was torn over what to do about this issue. On the one hand, there was a need for general stability in the region and a desire to form strategic alliances with their neighbors. But on the other hand, there were the language and ethnic ties to the Tamil population of Sri Lanka, the refugees now living in India, and the powerful Tamil political wing within India pushing for the Tamil side.
Skipping all of the backing and forthing and food drops to rebels and secret arms support and so on, at the end of it, Rajiv brokered a “peace” treaty, in which the Sri Lankan government agreed to lightening up, essentially. Rajiv was so eager for peace that he signed this not-quite-perfect treaty, and agreed that India would support it. And then had to prove himself, and send in troops to Sri Lanka, “Indian Peace Keeping Force” (IPKF), to help weed out the LTTE fighters. This did NOT go over well with the Tamil population of India. Starting with one of the soldiers in Rajiv’s honor guard who suddenly lashed out and tried to strike him while he was reviewing troops. The soldier was contained and arrested and put in jail for two years. This was all in 1987.
That same year, a much bigger scandal broke, the “Bofors Scandal”. This one is really really complicated. Without going into all the ins and outs of it, basically there may have been a payoff to the Gandhi family in return for a massive Indian arms deal using American money to pay a Swedish arms manufacturer. This scandal quickly expanded to tarnish pretty much everyone in the Congress party.
Small footnote, also tarnished Amitabh Bachchan! When his best friend since childhood suddenly became the most powerful man in the country, he was convinced to try his hand at politics as well. He was elected and had a somewhat unremarkable political career, before being suddenly tarnished in the same scandal as Rajiv.
(Amitabh and his brother went to court and, after years and years and years, finally got exonerated. This is them, at court in London anticipating a good verdict)
In the years since, both Amitabh and Rajiv have been more or less exonerated. But at the time, it was a big enough scandal to almost end both their careers. Both of them lost their power, Amitabh struggled to regain his film popularity, and Rajiv struggled to re-form his party after losing the general elections.
Rajiv was doing well a couple years later. Still in opposition, he had strengthened his following and was traveling the country supporting Congress candidates and maneuvering for a win in the next elections. Who knows, this could have been the time he got it right, kept his vision but managed to handle everything else too.
And then at a rally in Madras on May 21, 1991, a woman approached him, asked to touch his feet, bent down, and detonated a bomb strapped to her. She died, Rajiv died, and so did 14 other people. She was a young Tamilian from Sri Lanka, sent by the LTTE, possibly in direct response to a recent interview in which Rajiv had declared that when he came back to power, he would be willing to send in the IPKF to disarm the LTTE again.
(Pretty memorial mosaic version of the event that stands on the place where he died)
Rajiv died when his children were only 21 and 19. Which was sad, that they lost their father so young. But also sad, because there was no clear heir ready to take over the party. For 6 years, Congress was virtually Gandhi-less for the first time ever. Because the only even close to eligible Gandhi around was Sonia, Rajiv’s widow, and she wasn’t interested.
Sonia had already had a very complicated life. She went from teenage waitress/college student to married into the most powerful family in India. And then from the out-of-sight foreign daughter-in-law, to the front and center first lady of India. Not only that, she was sent out to fight against her counterpart, Sanjay’s wife/widow, when she was contesting an election against Rajiv (these family reunions must be so messed up).
(the standing woman and the sitting woman would later become political enemies. After all 3 other adults died violently. This family is strange!)
It helped that over the years Sonia appeared more and more “Indian”. Not only did she give up her Italian citizenship (not until 1983, but at least she did it eventually), she effortlessly wore saris, long hair, all the signs of Indian womanhood. But no matter how “Indian” she became, the fact is that she was born and raised in Italy and that was still there, a threat hanging over her. That was part of the Bofors scandal, the money was supposedly passed along by an Italian friend of Sonia. And it came up within the past few years, some Italian sailors were accused of a crime on Indian soil and there was the unspoken reminder that the woman meeting with the Italian ambassador used to be Italian herself.
But she was still a Gandhi! So in 1997, she won a seat and was promptly made President of the Congress party. She fought hard for years as leader of the opposition, and in 2004 she spearheaded a nationwide campaign to oust the BJP from office, with the slogan of “Aam Aadmi” (common man). And won.
At which point there was a crisis, since the idea of a formerly Italian woman as the Prime Minister of India was just a little too much. In the end, Sonia stepped aside in favor of Manmohan Singh. Which was also seemingly an attempt to resolve 1984, with a Sikh Prime Minister, only it didn’t quite work because it never works to make up for a mistake without acknowledging the mistake. Sonia continued to lead the Congress party for a total of 15 years.
But what of the next generation? Rajiv and Sonia’s kids? Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the older by a year and the daughter, has never been formally elected to anything. But has campaigned hard for her other family members. She married at 25 to a businessman not a politician, 6 years after her father’s death, and has two children.
(You know how you sometimes see a headline out of the corner of your eye and think it is about the movie star but then it isn’t? Yeah, they mean THIS Priyanka)
And then there’s Rahul. The current Gandhi. He had an odd childhood. In a recent speech, he talked about learning badminton from the bodyguards who would later kill his grandmother. After his grandmother’s death and his father’s ascension, he and his sister had to be homeschooled because of the security threats. He started college at Harvard, only to be pulled out halfway following his father’s assassination and sent to Rollins University in Florida to hide under an assumed name and finish his education.
After finishing school, he worked in some interesting kind of start up companies, and supposedly had a serious Spanish girlfriend for a while. But then in 2004, it was time to grow up and join the family business. He contested and won his first election, and was promptly maneuvered into a party leadership role.
(I don’t know how I feel about the bearded look)
Here’s the thing about the current Gandhi’s. Yes, they are shockingly rich in a way that really feels like it must involve some kind of corruption (92.8 million rupees in the family coffers). Yes, 1984 was a terrible sin for which they have never fully apologized. Yes, the Bofors scandal, trading on the family name, all kinds of things. But if you are a progressive, especially on social issues, they are your best bet right now. Both Rahul and Sonia declared their support for the repeal of Section 377. They are against religious conservatives, for empowering women, all kinds of things.
I don’t know where the family will go from here, generally Rahul’s sister Priyanka is considered more charismatic and Rahul so far hasn’t really shown much success in his leadership. And there is no 4th generation lined up, Rahul has indicated he may never marry. But, who knows! In 1978, who would have ever thought that Indira would be elected again?