Indira Gandhi: Early Years

Naxalbari Movement

CPI was split and now never splinter groups were formed from it like the C.P.M under Jyoti Basu. It formed the West Bengal government. However a few young radical cadres weren’t satisfied with this development. They felt Indian democracy was a sham, Indian agrarian structure was still dominated by rich, Indian polity was bourgeois. They wanted an armed overthrow of this. Under Charu Majumdar, CP Marxist-Leninist was formed and an armed struggle was launched near Naxalbari village.

CP(ML) movement found new support amongst youth of universities and colleges who were tired of the existing system. However the armed revolt failed as they underestimated the police repression. The police successfully reduced them to a few areas. The main failure of the naxalists was their armed struggle couldn’t get a wide base. They also failed to understand the Indian agrarian structure, character of Indian society and widen their base amongst radical youth or peasants.

Congress Split: 1969

Congress party had declined during the period after Nehru’s death. The syndicate had led to factionalism and increased strength of the opposition. The cadre had shunned party work and were more interested in parliamentary politics. A few harsh decisions of the government had increased public discontent. Party itself couldn’t be united behind Indira on policy matters. Corruption had increased, discontent people had taken recourse to violent means as seen during Naxalbari movement. Workers had resorted to gherao by besieging the factories if their demands weren’t met.

Within the congress to a revival of the Syndicate was seen. The syndicate members were increasing their interference in government affairs. They also wanted to remove Indira Gandhi as leader. But Indira Gandhi was cautious to respond. In the interest of party unity she avoided direct confrontation but when her supreme authority over the party and government was challenged she responded with ruthlessness.

The Congress had faced electoral defeat for the first time in 1967. The reaction of most party leaders was to shift to leftist programs like nationalization, remove privy purses of princes, vigorous planning, rapid industrialization and closer relation with Soviets. This 10 point program was recognized by Indira too. However she didn’t want the party to become polarized and split. The Right-wing of the congress wanted social development too but by capitalism.

Matters became confrontational after Sanjiva Reddy was chosen as the Congress’s nominee after Zakir Hussain’s death. Since in Indian polity president occupies a ceremonial post but Syndicate wanted its own man as president as he would be able nominally chose the prime minister. Indira had opposed this but couldn’t stop his nomination. She now decided to fight the syndicate by taking populist decisions. She adopted the nationalization plan of socialists. This made her very popular. Now she also decided to support V.V.Giri the independent candidate for president. To ensure the victory of Sanjiva Reddy, the syndicate had tried to form an alliance with opposition.

Indira used this meeting to accuse them of trying to oust her from power by allying with reactionary elements. She therefore openly supported Giri and refused to issue the party whip in favor of Sanjiva Reddy. In the elections, Reddy was defeated. This was a major embarrassment for the syndicate who ousted Indira from the party for breaking discipline. This led to a split in congress and two organizations were formed – Congress (R) for requisitionists and Congress (O) for organization. Indira got the support of majority of the party and the ALL India Congress Committee. The Congress (O) became the real congress and now Indira was the real leader of Congress and Government. She enjoyed great popularity and power never achieved even by her father.

Indira and Congress after the Split

Now with full support of the party, the government launched a program of socialism. It abolished the privy purses of princes. However the supreme court invalidated this decision and also nationalization of banks. The Congress under Indira was successful in lifting the mood of gloom that existed after 1962 war. The socialist policies also gave her increasing support from the marginalized. However the capitalists and upper class distanced from her.

The Government of India was a coalition and didn’t have the numbers for amending the constitution. The issue of abolition of privy purses was made a major issue and Indira dissolved the Lok Sabha prematurely to call for new elections. The elections saw an alliance of opposition parties like Congress (O), right-wing and communal parties. They had the motto of “Indira Hatao” to which the Congress(R) responded with the more effective “Garibi Hatao”. the opposition parties belonged to different ideologies and so couldn’t make an effective propaganda and instead hoped to entice voters based on personal attacks on Indira Gandhi.

The campaign was for pro-development and economic transformation. The public were tired of the constant breakdown of government due to coalitions. They wanted stability which was promised by Indira Gandhi.

In the elections of 1971 the Congress (R) won absolute majority in Parliament. It now had the numbers needed for amending the constitution. Indira had proved that an election propaganda around the development of marginalized had more weight than for caste and communal ideology. She now had the high task of delivering on her promises made to the people. However before she could settle in power the Bangladesh crisis begun.

Bangladesh Crisis and Indo Pak War in 1971

Post independence the Punjabi speaking West Pakistanis dominated over the Bengali speaking East Pakistanis.

The Bengal Legislative Assembly voted unanimously to break from India on June 20th 1947. The Two Pakistan’s were formed separated by 1300 miles of Indian territory. The dream of United Pakistan was however in danger as demands for making Bengali as the National Language rose from East Pakistan. However these were rejected.

Other major differences emerged on economic grounds. The foreign exchange earned from East Pakistani jute exports was diverted to promote industrialization in West Pakistan. Thus in long term the GDP of both the parts were different. In terms of political opinion too the West Pakistanis were dominant. The Centralized state was ruled by mostly West Pakistanis and supported by the unresponsive military bureaucracy.

They West Pakistanis dominated the army, bureaucracy and institution’s of the east.

When elections to the National assembly were announced the Awami League won in East Pakistan and Zulfikar Bhutto’s People’s party won in West Pakistan. But the Awami league had more seats in the Legislative Assembly and would have formed the Government. Bhutto however claimed support of the Army and its General Yahya Khan. The General intervened to resolve the political deadlock and suspended the National assembly. The Awami League cadres chose to strike against this. The Pakistani Army launched an assault – “Operation Searchlight” and unleashed a brutal repression of pillage, rape and murder. Some 10 million refugees fled to India. It is estimated that 3 lakh Bangladeshi’s were killed.

The Awami party formed a government in exile at Calcutta. The refugees who came into India had now reached 1 crore. But throughout this crisis Indira remained calm. She knew that war was inevitable but to attack East Pakistan would lead to change in international opinion against India. Indira wanted a war on India’s terms. It couldn’t fight in monsoon when rivers and marshes were flooded. A fight had to be in December when the snow-clad Himalayas would prevent China from aiding Pakistan.

The war had to be swift before international agencies could intervene. It had to be on both fronts as even West Pakistan would attack. Awami party had built a Mukti Bahini.

Indian leadership decided not to get directly in confrontation but trained, armed and supported the Mukti Bahini guerilla fighters against the Pakistani Army – “Operation Jackpot”. Indian leadership also launched a diplomatic offensive for creation of an independent Bangladeshi state.

An international opinion had to be created in India’s favor so Indira provided the refugees food and shelter inspite of India’s resource crunch. India also signed a Treaty of Friendship with Soviet Union in order to form a pact if either was attacked. Soviet’s would also block all UNSC resolutions not in India’s interest.

December 4th was the day of the attack on East Pakistan but Pakistan General ordered an attack on Indian airforce bases on 3rd. However the IAF wasn’t harmed and the next day the army and Mukti Bahini swiftly reached till Dakha and surrounded the garrisoned West Pakistani army. In order to delay the surrender of Pakistan, US President Nixon ordered the US Navy fleet to Bay of Bengal. But Indira refused to budge and ordered the Indian army to continue its warfare. Finally, the Pakistani army was defeated.


Indo US relations reached a low point after the war. However Indira Gandhi’s popularity reached a new high. People equated her with Durga or Shakti. The transfer of 1 crore refugees too was smooth. The war was stopped after Pakistan surrendered as further continuing it would lead to international intervention. Indian economy too had suffered during the war. War on the western front was pointless too as India would face a fiercer battle there and annexation of Pakistan was never an objective.

India became a new power in the South Asian subcontinent. This victory wiped out memories of the failed war of 1962. Secularism too was seen as all communities in India worked together. The Indian Muslims saw the condition of the People in East Pakistan, a nation formed from communal ideology.

The Shimla conference after the War took place where both sides agreed to bilaterally resolve disputes without outside intervention. Exchange of territories took place and Bangladesh was recognized by Pakistan.