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No, Indira Gandhi’s anti-democratic politics does not need nuance

It is easy to review books. It is difficult to review their malaise. The publication of Jairam Ramesh’s Indira: A Life in Nature and Sagarika Ghose’s Indira Gandhi: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister commemorates Mrs Gandhi’s centenary, almost seven decades of which were spent in the body. But even when in the body, Indira Gandhi was always beyond the body — an elusive phenomenon, a political epoch in the uncertain history of postcolonial India.

The two monographs are self-conscious of their position in the precincts of this legacy, or what Sagarika Ghose has called the ‘Indira-fication’ of Indian politics. It is noteworthy that while Jairam Ramesh is an acclaimed member of the Good Old Party — a fact that might excuse his panegyric, Ghose is an eminent journalist who has been a trenchant critic of the present dispensation, withstanding considerable flak and virulent abuse for the posturing. The professed objective of both luminaries is the assessment of Indira Gandhi from the twenty-first century, in the hope that contemporary evaluation would have its lessons or reveal about what has passed nuances that were never acknowledged. As the living must necessarily look towards their dead for lessons of life, history is the effort and memory is its terrain.

The publication of Jairam Ramesh’s Indira: A Life in Nature and Sagarika Ghose’s Indira Gandhi: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister commemorates Mrs Gandhi’s centenary

The publication of Jairam Ramesh’s Indira: A Life in Nature and Sagarika Ghose’s Indira Gandhi: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister commemorates Mrs Gandhi’s centenary

The struggle to memorialise Indira Gandhi is the struggle to understand questions of the contemporary. Contested as it remains in character, three years of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have irrevocably changed the visage and sinew of India. As Hindutva forces on us unswerving political confrontation and perilous zones that could hitherto be relegated to theoretical indifference become our public spaces and universities, the need to understand what one is battling is only reasonable. Turning to Mrs Gandhi’s tumultuous years is the fruit of this labour, fostered by the memory of her anti-democratic politics. The desperation that makes us look for alternative imagination should also be the recognition of our utter inability to engage with Hindutva on its own terms, without memorialising what we think are precedents. In memorialising the past to understand the present, history unfurls itself to the danger of idealising the past. The two accounts in consideration are symptomatic of this malaise, reconfiguring a legacy that was only ever dark, iniquitous, and intrinsically undemocratic.

A portentous claim implicit in these narratives, for instance, is that Indira Gandhi was secular; in fact, and for good reason, it is she who incorporated it into the Preamble to the Constitution of India. That Hindutva is unexceptional is not the argument, but Indira Gandhi’s avowed commitment to secularism was handmaiden to her commitment to her personal interests of power. Although Ghose is careful with her argument, duly reminding us that Gandhi could not be completely secular because she was given to supersition and that her so-called politics of the ‘votebank’ would have disastrous consequences, the criticism is incomplete and too palatable. Surely, the question of minorities does not exhaust itself at ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim.’

Indira Gandhi was conspiratorial in the persecution of the Sikh community in the 1970s and the better half of the 1980s, even if one were to absolve her of complicity in the widespread massacre that followed her tragic assassination. The infamous Operation Blue Star of 1984, remembered for the deliberate desecration of the Akal Takht and other structures of Sikh piety, was similarly egregious for its recorded instances of human rights violations. Brahma Chellaney, one of the few reporters in Amritsar after the media blackout was enforced, reported as many as (almost) 500 civilian casualties, contrasting the government’s careful and distorted assessment of the same. Operation Woodrose that immediately succeeded Operation Blue Star has countless detentions, arrests, and cases of torture to its name, targeting civilians and students to repress the possibility of public protest. This was, in all certainty, aided by the Punjab-Chandigarh Disturbed Area Act (1983) which empowered officers to fire upon and arrest on the grounds of suspicion for the sustenance of public order and morality. If the vision of secularism is confined to constitutionalism, it does not understand itself as critical practice.

What, furthermore, of what is perhaps cliché in thinking of Mrs Gandhi — the Emergency of 1975-77? Of its suspension of civil liberties, violations of fundamental rights, arbitrary arrests, custodial torture, brutal clampdown on the media, coerced sterilisation? On her decision of writing on Indira Gandhi, Ghose tells us: “But in the end it was Indira’s bewildering, paradoxical persona that seduced me: the woman of grace and refinement who was trapped in the castle of her ambition and her craving for power, a stylish beautifully dressed figure standing at the window of a fortress looking out towards her people with great love but also paranoia. There is so much to learn from this extraordinary and formidable woman, so much drama in her tumultuous life, so many life lessons of tenacious survival.”

Dedicating the entirety of a chapter to the Emergency, the accusation here is not silence. But while one is glad that Mrs Gandhi was stylish and beautifully dressed, are we assume that the nuance of Gandhi’s personality makes a semblance of difference to her profoundly undemocratic legacy? It is, with all respect due to a journalist of Ghose’s stature, not a legacy that deserves the nuance of Mrs Gandhi’s personal grace and refinement. Are we to appreciate the significant addendum of her environmentalism, as Ramesh would have us believe, despite the irrevocable violence she did to the ideal of democracy envisioned by our nationalist struggle? We need never be absolutist in assessment to disagree with this admiration. Indira Gandhi was, indeed, India’s most powerful prime minister. It was a power constructed on anti-democratic politics, stealth, and consistent abuse of democratic institutions. It is a legacy we historically inherit, but a legacy we must actively refuse to appreciate, nurture, or sustain.

Updated Date: Jul 16, 2017 11:51 AM

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