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Political Tigress: Indira Gandhi

Updated on March 11, 2016

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi

Leader of The Monkey Brigade

Political Tigress: Indira Gandhi

Born in Allahabad, India in 1917, Indira Nehru was an activist from the very beginning. Passionate about Indian freedom even as a child, Indira used to spy on police activity while pretending to play outside, forming “The Monkey Brigade” with her friends when she was 12, helping to deliver communications between leaders of the independence movement. She gave “thunderous speeches” about freedom to the servants in her household, and threw her dolls into the fire to protest goods made outside of India. Though she was not related to the other famous Gandhi, the peaceful activist Mohandas, he was a family friend, and he was an early and powerful influence on the young Indira.

Young Indira with Mohandas Gandhi

Young Indira with Mohandas Gandhi
Young Indira with Mohandas Gandhi

Indira also chafed at the unequal treatment of women in her country, saying “Women in India, perhaps in most of the world, are so dominated and discriminated against. There is much unnecessary cruelty and humiliation.” Rather than be married to someone her parents picked, she chose her own husband, a journalist named Feroze Gandhi. He moved in with her family, an unusual arrangement in Indian culture, and they had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay. Feroze was an activist as well, and he and Indira participated together in many demonstrations against the apartheid government. Once they were both arrested and spent a horrible year in jail for demonstrating. Eventually, Indira and Feroze drifted apart, but they never divorced.
At the age of 21, Indira joined the National Congress Party, becoming its president in 1959, and eventually her father, Jawaharhal Nehru, became the first prime minister of India, and Indira became his political adviser. She was soon appointed minister of broadcasting, an especially important role in the government at that time as a large majority of Indians were illiterate. In 1966, Prime Minster Lal Bahadur Shastri, her father’s successor died in office, and Indira Gandhi took his place.

Indira Gandhi with Sons

Indira Gandhi with sons Rajiv (left) and Sanjay (right)
Indira Gandhi with sons Rajiv (left) and Sanjay (right)

A Tigress

Because she was a woman in a patriarchal society, few men took Indira seriously as any kind of leader. They called her a “dumb doll” and assumed that because she was female she would readily back down from conflict and be easily manipulated. At the first public speech Indira ever gave, a heckler in the crowd yelled, “She doesn’t speak—she squeaks!” Such attitudes were designed to bring Indira down, but in fact they only made her stronger; soon she would be known as a “tigress among one hundred monkeys.”

Indira became the first woman to ever lead India as a country, though it was no easy feat; India was home to 720 million people who spoke 1000 different languages, followed seven different religions, and lived in 3000 different castes (social divisions.) Determined to unify and improve her country, Indira limited the population growth through a voluntary sterilization program (which was met with extreme me resistance), encouraged and promoted women to participate in the government, encouraged the use of computers, led their country to victory over Pakistan in 1971, and even successfully launched India’s first satellite into space. Before every major decision she made, Indira would ask herself, “Is it good for the pride of the country?” And it often was.

Still, misogyny was rampant. At one speech Indira gave, a man in the crowd picked up a rock and threw it at her face, breaking her nose. Not wanting to give the thug the satisfaction of seeing her back down, Indira continued to speak, holding up the edge of her sari over her face to hide the blood pouring from her nose.

Indira Gandhi meeting with JFK

Indira Gandhi meeting with JFK
Indira Gandhi meeting with JFK

With so many people ignoring her successes and hating her just because she was female and/or for trying to improve the social system in India, Indira found it increasingly harder to trust people. Soon her mistrust bordered on paranoia, and, fearing that her opponents were going to unseat her, Indira declared a state of emergency and censored all reports in the press. This severely damaged her popularity, and in 1977 Indira was voted out of office.

Not one to surrender easily, Indira launched a new campaign a few years later, riding elephants into distant villages to speak with the people there, traveling 40,000 miles in 63 days and speaking to 240 million people. Onions were an important ingredient in Indian cooking, and Indira wore a garland of them around her neck, vowing to lower the price of the onions if people voted for her. The ploy worked, and Indira regained the office of prime minister.

Indira seemed to have little in the way of a social life while acting as prime minister. After putting in eighteen hour workdays, Indira would walk through her beautiful garden to unwind, sometimes playing with her tiger cubs and baby panda. There were rumors that she had some kind of relationship with her handsome yoga instructor, but there never seemed to be any validity to the stories. Indira never learned how to cook, but she adored her daughter-in-law Sonia’s Italian food … especially since Indira suspected that her own cooks were trying to poison her. She liked to write poetry, and it was a great thrill for her when beat poets like Alan Ginsberg read her work.


When Indira was 66, a group of Sikh terrorists took their holiest temple hostage. Indira responded to the uprising by dispatching her troops to remove the terrorists from the temple. Indira herself had several Sikh bodyguards at the time, and her advisers worried, warning her that she should remove them from her detail. Indira was hesitant, fearing that by removing the Sikh bodyguards that she would further add to their humiliation and anger. Tragically, her advisers were right; later that year as she walked in her garden, her Sikh bodyguards shot Indira Gandhi to death.
Her assassination enraged the Indian people, and within minutes after the announcement of her death riots broke out in the capital New Delhi. Within four days, 4000 Sikhs were murdered, with another 20,000 injured. Indira’s son Rajiv was soon elected to prime minister, but he himself was murdered in 1991. In 1998, Rajiv’s wife Sonia emerged from seclusion and became a prominent figure in Indian politics.

Indira Gandhi works cited:
The Usborne Book of Famous Women, by Richard Dungworth & Philippa Wingate
Lives of Extraordinary Women, by Kathleen Krull
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Women’s History, by Sonia Weiss and Lorna Biddle Rinear

Monument to Indira Gandhi

Monument to Indira Gandhi, Victoria Garden, Kolkata
Monument to Indira Gandhi, Victoria Garden, Kolkata


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