Indira Gandhi A Profile in Indomitable Courage

Indira Gandhi was a living, nay glowing, symbol of courage. It was Indira’s indomitable courage that helped her challenge the Old Guard in the Congress party and emerge as the undisputed leader in 1969, it was her courage that helped her to face the arrogant American President Richard Nixon at the height of the Cold War during the early 1970s and it was her courage that helped her win a decisive victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war that catapulted the birth of Bangladesh.

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Indira Gandhi with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Dhaka

In 1971, India faced an ordeal of the most grievous kind when Pakistan launched an unprovoked full scale military attack on India. Pakistan made an abortive attempt to induce the United States to brow beat India into submission. As news spread of the dreaded American 7th Fleet heading towards the Bay of Bengal, Indira with amazing fortitude called Pakistan’s bluff in what was the finest diplomatic juggernaut of her illustrious career. As the war raged on unabated, an undaunted Indira responded with astounding alacrity, as the Indian Army drove out Pakistani troops from Indian soil literally with their crooked tails between their legs. After a 14 day war, Pakistan was forced to surrender with 93,000 military personnel who were promptly taken into Indian custody. Perhaps no one paid for the folly of underestimating Indira’s courage more dearly than the autocratic Pakistani military dictator General Yahya Khan who had on 27th November,1971 glibly boasted to a group of western journalists over a sumptuous dinner hosted by him, ‘ If that woman thinks she is going to cow me down..I refuse to take it. If she wants a war I will fight it.’ The noted Sunday Times correspondent Anthony Mascarenhas gave a graphic description of the General at that dinner rendezvous – ‘Rage and sweet reasonableness alternated in Yahya’s rambling confidence, ever returning to that woman! To a tough man like Yahya, being caught in a relentless trap and waiting helpless for the next turn of the screw is bad enough; to a Muslim general the idea that the screw is being turned by a Hindu in a sari is clearly agonising.’ With Indira at the helm of Indian affairs, Pakistan lost the war and consequently its eastern wing that became Bangladesh. This was undoubtedly Indira’s finest hour and India’s former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee hailed her as ‘Ma Durga’. Even President Nixon had to eat humble pie and admitted in public that Indira was ‘tougher than men’. No exposition on Indira Gandhi’s courage can be complete without specially commending her valiant humanitarian role that ultimately led to the 1971 Indo-Pak war. In this connection, the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina aptly observed – ‘she was not only your leader, but our mother. She gave us shelter in our days of trials and tribulations.’

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Indira Gandhi met Richard Nixon near the end of 1971 just days before the Indo-Pak war.

When Indira was just 13 years old, she organised a ‘Vanar Sena’ (Monkey Army) of young teenagers with the avowed objective of fighting for the freedom of her country. In 1934, her ‘Papu’ Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru sent her to Shantiniketan (The Abode of Peace), the pioneering institution founded by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore in 1901, to mould her according to his ideals and aspirations in life. When she entered the portals of Shantiniketan for the first time, she came dressed in a simple hand woven Khadi saree holding an old attaché case and bedding in her own feeble hands..a far cry from the aristocratic ways of her wealthy grandfather Motilal Nehru who used to wear immaculately tailored suits from the iconic Savile Row in London and send his clothes for dry cleaning to Paris! Seeing Indira’s lithe and supple body, Tagore advised her to learn Manipuri dancing. She took to Manipuri dancing as effortlessly as a duck takes to water and within a very short time mastered this ancient dance form. She was fortuitously chosen to render a Manipuri dance recital at the forthcoming Annual Day function of  Shantiniketan. On the appointed day, she was waiting in the make-up room for her turn to come when someone came into the make-up room and told her that Tagore wanted to see her immediately. She rushed to Tagore’s office and found to her utter discomfiture that Tagore was holding a telegram in his hands and looked rather sombre. Tagore came straight to the point and gently told her, ‘Daughter, this telegram is from your Papu. Your mother has become very sick.

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The Iron lady with Jacqueline Kennedy.The first lady met Mrs. Gandhi on her goodwill tour to India in March , 1962

He has asked you to come to Allahabad immediately.’ Her mother had been afflicted by a severe attack of pleurisy and was gravely ill with a high temperature and pulmonary complications. Unfazed, she prepared herself mentally and physically for the journey and it dawned upon her that the time had now come when she would have to plunge into the vortex of the battlefield of life. The words of her favourite song ‘Ekla Cholo Re’ (Walk alone), composed by Tagore, resounded in her ears and she left her Alma Mater in the midst of the function to catch the next train to Kolkata and then onward to Allahabad. Thus began her walk alone in the battlefield of life! Tagore’s immortal song “Ekla Chalo Re” continued to inspire her right through the vicissitudes of her glorious life. Not satisfied with existing translations, she even composed her own translation of the song in English.

“Indira Gandhi’s model was Joan of Arc”

Significantly, Indira’s role model was Joan of Arc, the Maid of Lorraine. She related the ‘call to service’ she received as a young girl to Joan’s experience. She later confessed in an interview with the celebrated English journalist Charles Bruce Chatwin that appeared in the Sunday Times on 27th August,1978, ‘Rather morbid it sounds now, but I didn’t think of it in those terms. It was the sacrifice of Joan of Arc that attracted me, the girl who gave up her life for her country.’ I had the privilege of knowing Indira Gandhi intimately since my school days in Delhi and one of the determining factors that brought me close to her was the fact that I could impersonate Nehru to perfection. Indira used to equate me with Nehru and often said to me that ‘you are a little boy but you have the personality of my father.’ Over the years, a strong and unshakable bond grew between us particularly during the last years of her life. She revelled in hearing Nehru’s important speeches in my voice and wrote many letters to me. In her letter dated 24th May,1980, she in fact had a word of praise for me, ‘How beautifully you write, calligraphy as well as words.’ She was never tired of repeating to me the rousing words of Joan of Arc, ‘In truth there is no defeat except from within, Unless you are beaten there you are bound to win.’ When my daughter and only child Anoorupa was born on 10th March,1985 in Kolkata, shortly after Indira’s treacherous assassination on 31st October,1984, I nicknamed her ‘Indu’ (Indira Gandhi’s nickname) without even batting an eyelid! Indira was truly the Iron Lady of India! In April,1981,it was ominously discovered during the course of a routine inspection that Makalu, an AirIndia Boeing 707 earmarked for Indira’s scheduled trip to Switzerland on 5th May,1981,was the target of an intended sabotage. I immediately wrote to her expressing my serious concern over the incident. In a letter dated 4th May,1981, she replied, ‘Thank you for your message of concern. Such risks are a part of my life. But no act of vandalism or violence can be condoned.’ In February,1983, Indira fell seriously sick and I wrote to her wishing her a speedy recovery. She replied on 25th March,1983 saying, ‘Life has its ups and downs and we must face both with equanimity. Don’t worry about my health. I am perfectly alright.’ The formidable Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray was an ardent admirer of Indira’s courage. In reply to a question as to who he thought was the best Prime Minister of India in an interview published in the party mouthpiece Saamana on 19th October,2011,Thackeray remarked, ‘When Indira Gandhi won the Bangladesh war, even Vajpayee hailed her as an avatar of Goddess Durga’ and lauded Indira as a ‘woman who had guts and knew how to rule.’ The venerable Indian born British business magnate and parliamentarian Lord Swraj Paul, who suffered the trauma of the tragic death of his daughter Ambika of leukaemia in 1968 at the tender age of four, paid a glowing tribute to Indira, ‘Mrs Indira Gandhi taught me not to lose courage in adversity.’ At this juncture, I am highly emboldened to share with readers some inspiring quotes of Indira on courage: ‘No individual or nation can prosper unless they have the courage to face dangers and difficulties.’

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Indira Gandhi with her Family (Starting from right) Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and her husband Rajiv Gandhi

‘Courage is a word which is much misused. But it would be very wrong for a community to think that it is courageous, to sit in a shelter and to come out to kill innocent people. That is not my idea of courage and I don’t think that it should be anyone’s idea of courage.’

‘If you have the courage to choose what s right, not what is convenient at that moment, or what other people will praise or what is easier, then you will find that what seemed difficult becomes easy. It will not matter whether you are praised or criticised. Then you will get the great satisfaction of knowing that you have done a good job.’

‘Whenever you take a step forward, you are bound to disturb something.  The young people must have the courage to face this. I think when Winston Churchill was asked which was the most important virtue he thought a great deal and finally said ‘courage’. Because without courage you cannot practise any other virtue. You have to have courage of different kinds. You must have intellectual courage to sort out different values and make up your mind about what you think is right for you. You have to have moral courage to stick to what you think is right – no matter what comes in your way, no matter what the opposition is – not only from your enemies but also from your friends, which is much more difficult to face. You must also have physical courage because what you think is right is sometimes full of hardships.’

‘Swamiji has taught us that we are the inheritors of a glorious and sublime culture. He has at the same time shown us and analysed the root causes of our national malady. It was Swami Vivekananda who has given us the ways and means how to reconstruct a new India. Swamiji preached the message of universal brotherhood. And a single word echoed and reached in all his speeches, was abhih i.e. fearlessness.’ In conclusion, if I were to pay my own personal homage to Indira, who was more than a mother to me, shorn of any political angle, I would readily encapsulate it in the following six sentences keeping in mind that her hallowed name bore six alphabets:

lawgupshup.com, law gupshupShe was irresistibly influenced by Joan of Arc, the Maid of Lorraine, whose shining example taught her even in her childhood that there was no defeat except from within and that unless one was beaten there one was bound to win.

She never lost courage in adversity even or when she had to face ordeals of the gravest kind and displayed the ‘abhih’ or ‘fearlessness’ that the noble teachings of Swami Vivekananda instilled in her.

She had the incomparable courage to provide shelter and succour to millions of Bangladeshi refugees when the whole world seemed to go against her and her deep seated humanitarian ideals and give birth to an independent, democratic and secular Bangladesh despite overwhelming odds. She was undoubtedly tougher than men. She scrupulously followed the ever inspiring ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ message of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore to the hilt.

She was never ever afraid of death and was prepared for it right till her bitter end with amazing fortitude, calm and composure.

-ANOOP BOSE

Advocate,

Supreme Court of India

E-mail : bose.anoop@ gmail.com

(Published In LawZ April 2016 Issue)

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