Iron Lady of India

Saturday, 19 November 2011 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Dr. Sulakshi Thelikorala

A new definition was bestowed upon the role of South Asian women in the late 1960s, by the emergence of eminent female political figures from South Asia. These few remarkable ladies revolutionised the global political arena, pioneering the entry of women into world politics.

The world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the world’s longest serving woman Prime Minister Indira Gandhi were such elite world leaders from South Asia.

Hailing from one of the world’s most politically influential families, Indira Gandhi is admired globally as the most charismatic political leader of India, whose 94th birth anniversary is commemorated today, 19 November 2011.

Elected four times as the Prime Minister of India, Gandhi was the first woman elected to lead a democracy and the world’s longest serving woman Prime Minister from 1966 to 1984 when she was assassinated.


Indira Priyadarshani Gandhi nee Nehru was born on 19 November 1917 in Allahabad, the home to seven out of 14 Indian Prime Ministers. She was the only child of Kamala Kaul and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. Patriotism of her parents observed during the Indian independence struggle motivated young Indira to become a gifted political figure in the years to come.

She was further inspired when she received her primary education at the Shanthi Nikethan which was a world renowned educational institute led by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. She received her secondary education at the Somerville College, Oxford, being one of the Oxford University’s famous South Asian Graduates such as Benazir Bhutto, Solomon Dias Bandaranaike and Man Mohan Singh.

In 1942, Indira tied the knot with the young journalist Feroz Gandhi who was studying at the London School of Economics during Indira’s stay at Oxford. Henceforth, she took over Feroz’s name ‘Gandhi’ to become the world-renowned personality Indira Gandhi. The couple was blessed with two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, who later joined their mother in political advocacy.

Political career

Young Indira Gandhi started her political career in 1938, as she joined the Indian National Congress which is one of the major political parties in India, currently led by her daughter in law, Sonia Gandhi.

Since imprisonment was a common attribute to many political leaders, Indira Gandhi was also subjected to political violence during India’s independence struggle. Indira and her husband were imprisoned under the charges of subversion by the British soon after their marriage in 1942. Nevertheless, her one and only imprisonment lasted from 11 September 1942 until 13 May 1943 at the Naini Central Jail in her hometown Allahabad.

Indira acted as her father’s confidante since her mother’s death from tuberculosis and accompanied him around the world assisting him with his political endeavours. She slowly and steadily made her way until her presence was felt in the political arena. Hence, she got elected as a member of the Congress Central Parliamentary Board in 1958 and as the President of the Congress in 1959.

Pivotal moment

The pivotal moment in her political career occurred as her father, Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964. The then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appointed Indira Gandhi as the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, the fourth highest-ranking position in the Cabinet as the radio and television were considered vital media to disseminate information to the illiterate citizens of the country.

Gandhi was heading her way successfully in the cabinet for two years when Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death from a heart attack paved the way for young Indira to reach the desired Prime Minister chair. Thus, Indira Gandhi was sworn in as the first woman Prime Minister of India in 1966.

She was elected four times as the Prime Minister of the state becoming the world’s longest serving woman Prime Minister from 1966 to 1984, a distinction she holds to this day. During her days as the Prime Minister, displaying extraordinary political skills and tenacity, Gandhi developed strong international relations with several countries including the Soviet Union and China. Furthermore, Gandhi earned high reputation globally, with India launching its first satellite into space and testing of nuclear devices.


Ending her political career of forty six years, Prime Minister Gandhi was assassinated in the lawns of her house on 31 October 1984 by two of her own Sikh bodyguards. It is widely believed that her disputes with the Sikhs provoked them to claim avenge on her for the massive attack against the holy Sikh shrine, the ‘Golden Temple,’ four months prior to her assassination.

The post mortem revealed that the Prime Minister had sustained injuries from 30 bullets by an SLR and a pistol used by the assailants. She was cremated on 3 November 1984 near Raj Ghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi and her funeral was televised live across the globe. Even today Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s blood-stained sari and her belongings at the time of her death can be viewed at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

Her last public addressing was done two days prior to the assassination in Orissa, where the Prime Minister stated: “Even if I die for the service of the nation, I shall be proud of it. Every drop of my blood, I am sure, will contribute to the growth of this nation and make it strong and dynamic.”

The death of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a massive loss to the state, which led to violence and unrest across the country where thousands of Sikhs were burnt alive and many rendered homeless.

An extraordinary leader

Indira Gandhi was an extraordinary leader with a strong will to address the issues of the developing countries who led the Non-Aligned Movement dexterously as Chairperson in her last year.

She had remarkable endurance and ambition whilst building a formidable international reputation. Thus, she was listed as one of the ‘Most Powerful Women of the Century,’ Mother Theresa being the only other Indian. Every year her ‘janam dhin’ is commemorated on 19 November all across India, remembering a great leader and a legend of history.