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Indira Gandhis many battles

INDIAS Congress party has inherited many faults from history, not the least being its
old inability to learn from it. We may thus critique Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi and
so forth, but as historian Irfan Habib says we should not forget the respect these leaders
deservedly earned. It was Indira Gandhis death anniversary yesterday (Oct 31). There
are Pakistanis who may have rejoiced in the 1984 early morning assassination by her
bodyguards. Many hold her responsible, incorrectly in my opinion, for splitting their

Lets also acknowledge those Pakistanis who were compelled to think well of Mrs Gandhi
for a range of reasons, occasionally despite themselves. Benazir Bhutto, regardless of
her own pronounced opinion on Kashmir, could not have forgotten Mrs Gandhi as the
one Indian who was outspoken in her petition to Ziaul Haq to spare Z.A. Bhuttos life.
Mrs Gandhi was in regular touch with Benazirs distraught mother after Bhuttos
execution, lending her shoulder for the healing that never came about.

Leftist poet Fahmida Riaz and well-regarded journalist Salamat Ali among others would
remember her for the warm stay she accorded them in India, when they headed out in
exile from Zias tyranny. Mrs Gandhi was loath to extracting political mileage from her
spontaneous hospitality, a different league from the embarrassing megaphone used
churlishly to woo Baloch dissidents from Pakistan these days. She was a class act
difficult to emulate. She would keep a wily Henry Kissinger sulking in the antechamber
of her South Block office and not lunge at a visitor for a meaningless photo opportunity.
There is that lovely pictorial memory of her, in fact, where Fidel Castro reaches for an
embrace at the Delhi NAM summit and she dodges him with a dignified smile.

Those who thought ill of Indira Gandhis leadership cannot be blamed for
missing her given the dangerous tactics India flaunts today.

And why do Pakistanis forget that Bangladeshis who made a career out of respecting
Mrs Gandhi were themselves Pakistanis before they were forced by bad political
judgement from Islamabad to seek a separate destiny? Had Mujibs election not been
subverted by the powers that be in Pakistan he would be a Pakistani leader, wouldnt
he? They can ignore my counterfactual fulminations, but Pakistanis missing the eastern
flank of their country shouldnt blame the boots for the faults of their feet. Indira Gandhi
didnt steal Bangabandhus election.

She tiptoed around the Cold War alignments of which she became a hesitant part.
Remember that she was not instinctively pleased by the Soviet occupation of
Afghanistan though she didnt openly slam it either. To send Indian troops into the
erstwhile East Pakistan was a Cold War exigency as much as it was, in her own words, a
neighbourly responsibility to end the bloody nightmare Dhaka had become for its own

There has been a lot of propaganda about Mrs Gandhi deriving domestic political
mileage from her Bangladesh outing. Thats a canard, for she had won the 1971
parliamentary election handsomely way before any war drums began to loom on the
horizon. She won the election for the promise of removing poverty not for an imminent
war with Pakistan, which she was to win. In Uttar Pradesh alone she improved from 47
seats in 1967 to 73 in 1971, not by instigating a holocaust in Muzaffarnagar, but by
calling for the removal of poverty.

In any case, those who thought ill of Indira Gandhis leadership be they in Pakistan or in
India or China cannot be blamed for missing her today given the self-absorbed
leadership they have to deal with and the dangerous and divisive tactics India flaunts.
They will remember there was nothing gross about Mrs Gandhis diplomacy. She was
courteous even with Zia when he visited Delhi for the non-aligned summit in 1983. (It is
another matter she reportedly ticked off key diplomatic aide Natwar Singh for
apparently breaching protocol to be extra nice to the Pakistani military dictator.)

As a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) those days, I was naturally critical of
Mrs Gandhis emergency rule. Our communist-led students union ran a secret
cyclostyling machine to issue periodic pamphlets against her misdemeanours. The
machine was safely hidden in a rival communist students room whose party supported
the emergency. There was no fear of a raid on his room. Several students were sent to
jail for long and short stints. One communist student leader she jailed later became an
advisor to Rajiv Gandhi. Two JNU student leaders she did not jail became chiefs of the
Communist Party of India (Marxist), which was critical of Mrs Gandhi, but who soon
befriended her daughter-in-law as an ally.

Hindutva didnt or couldnt rear its head in any significant way while she was around. It
had to merge its identity in a wider peoples movement to stay relevant. Hinduism
flourished under Mrs Gandhi as a liberal adjunct of secular and socialist Indian
democracy, the two phrases she presciently wove into the preamble of the constitution.
She pointedly made Hindutva look like an irritating cousin of liberal Hinduism. Hindutva
was to her Hinduism with an inferiority complex.

In Mrs Gandhis arithmetic, Muslims and Dalits formed a bulwark of the pyramid called
the Congress with the Brahmins and Rajputs bringing up the apex. The boot is on the
other foot now, which the Congress needs to grasp. Under former Uttar Pradesh chief
minister Mayawati, the equation has been rejigged, with the Dalits on top, as they
should be, and Muslims with smaller groups of Brahmins and very few other upper
castes shoring up the Dalit party.

This is where Mrs Gandhis heirs should remember history. They seem to be ignorant
that only by supporting Mayawati could they win back the respect of the Dalits and
Muslims. That is essential to defeat Hindutva in Uttar Pradesh next year or in India in
2019 just as Indira Gandhi did with ease.
The writer is Dawns correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn November 1st, 2016