25th Death Anniversary -- A Moment in Time: Reflections on Indira GandhiBy PREETI CHANDAN indiawest.comNovember 05, 2009 03:21:00 PM It was one of those moments in time for Indians, one about which they would say even years later, “I clearly remember where I was when I heard the news.” The news: The assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; the year: 1984. Two of the former Indian prime minister’s security guards, both Sikhs, fired at Gandhi on the grounds of the Prime Minister’s residence at 1 Safdarjung Road in New Delhi that fateful morning as she walked to her appointment with British actor Peter Ustinov, who was filming a documentary. She died in the hospital. Last Saturday, Oct. 31, marked the 25th anniversary of her slaying. Gandhi’s assassination made newspaper headlines around the world. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times ran comprehensive obituaries examining nearly every aspect of her long political career. And the violence that erupted in New Delhi against members of the Sikh community in its aftermath cast its long shadow on the Indian American community. The atmosphere at a memorial service held in Long Beach shortly thereafter by the Federation of Indian American Associations of Southern California was tense because of the Sikh attendees, recalled Rajen anand, chairman of the National Federation of Indian American Associations, who was president of the FIA in 1984. Three hundred attended the service. “Everyone was shocked; it was a big tragedy,” Anand told India-West. Reporters from Los Angeles’ three major TV networks descended on the home of FIA founder and community activist Inder Singh. After Singh condemned the assassination that night on KABC, he received death threats and militants broke the windows of his home, he recalled to India-West. Police advised him against attending the memorial service. (Even India-West received death threats shortly after the prime minister’s assassination.) Then, at India’s Independence Day celebration in 1985, two people came up to Singh and said, “You are a traitor to their (militants’) cause,” he said. Kamal Dandona, president of the New York-based Indian National Congress of America, told India-West his efforts led to a condolence meeting for the slain leader at Central Park. Thousands attended, he remembered, including then-New York Mayor Edward Koch. “It was a tribute befitting her stature,” he said. Destined for Politics Gandhi was a towering figure in Indian politics for two decades, serving as prime minister of the world’s most populous democracy for 15 years – from 1966-77 and 1980-84. After Mahatma Gandhi and her father, first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, she is perhaps the most famous Indian leader in the world. But according to veteran journalist and author Pranay Gupte, for today’s generation she is a vague historical figure. Gupte, in a telephone interview from Dubai, told India-West that on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s death, he contemporized his 1992 book, “Mother India: The Political Biography of Indira Gandhi,” recreating her times for the younger generation. The revised version was released last week by Penguin Books India. Born in 1917 in a politically influential family, Gandhi seemed inescapably destined for a career in politics. She was Nehru’s only child and served as his official hostess when he was in office. Her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was involved with Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party during the independence movement, and his house in Allahabad, where Gandhi grew up, served as headquarters for the freedom struggle. Enduring Legacy Gandhi’s years in power were turbulent and even her admirers concede that her legacy is a mixed one. “She was the most beloved and the most hated prime minister of India,” Stanley Wolpert, professor emeritus of history at UCLA who specializes in the history of India and Pakistan, told India-West. “She was virtually hailed as Mother Goddess after India’s liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 and (equally) reviled from 1975-77 when she suspended India’s constitution, censoring its free press and arresting over 50,000 Congress party stalwarts during her so-called ‘Emergency Raj’,” he said. Biographer Gupte said of her achievements: “The genesis of today’s India occurred far more in her time than even in Nehru’s time.” Gandhi’s agrarian reforms laid the ground for self-sufficiency in food grains; her emphasis on education and employment opportunities for women has resulted in their equal status, he told India-West. Gupte also lauded her encouragement of science and technology. Gandhi led India into the nuclear age when, in 1974, scientists exploded an underground nuclear device, and took the nation into the space age when it launched its own satellite. In 1984, through her efforts, an Indian astronaut flew in a Soviet spacecraft. “In those days of the Cold War, the concept of a superpower was very different than it is today and she had those larger ambitions for India,” Gupte pointed out. However, the corruption of the political system that is deeply entrenched in India took root during Gandhi’s time and proliferated because she tolerated it, he added. The Washington Post called the former prime minister “the best known spokesman for the less developed nations of the Third World.” In an obituary the day after Gandhi’s death, The New York Times called her a leader of “will and force” who “left her own imprint on India.” It also criticized many of her actions, quoting her critics who charged that her promises to erase poverty were quixotic and that India’s chronic and severe social problems actually burgeoned during her tenure. With all her faults, though, Gandhi was a revered national figure. In 1979, just two years after the Emergency, a survey showed her to be the single most popular political figure in India’s major cities. In the January 1980 elections, she and her Congress-I party won a sweeping victory in Parliament. Indo-U.S. Relations During Gandhi’s leadership, Indo-U.S. relations were often strained. President Johnson enjoyed meeting her during her first state visit to Washington and sent much needed wheat to India as a result, recalled Wolpert. But President Nixon sided with Pakistan's martial dictator, Yahya Khan, during the Bangladesh crisis and blamed Gandhi for "stealing" East Pakistan, with Soviet support, from West Pakistan, he added. Gupte said Gandhi grew up in an era of mutual suspicion between the two countries. The U.S. thought India’s non-alignment was only in name when in reality it was left-leaning, meaning toward Moscow, he said. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s famous tilt toward Pakistan consolidated her suspicion, so she never reached out to the U.S., he explained to India-West. However, Gupte added, Gandhi recognized the importance of developing cultural ties with the U.S. because more and more Indians had come to study here during her time. Some Indian Americans in California recalled to India-West their interaction with Gandhi when she visited Los Angeles in 1982. Community activist Singh helped facilitate Gandhi’s reception at Los Angeles City Hall hosted by Mayor Tom Bradley. Anand met her at that reception and later at an Indian community gathering in Century City. Gandhi also met California Governor Jerry Brown, said Anand. She was a great role model for women, he added. His wife, Angela, inspired by Gandhi’s talk in Century City, founded the Asian Indian Women’s Network in Southern California. Relations between India and the U.S. improved somewhat after Gandhi and President Reagan met in 1982, said Singh. As a result, a commission was set up for mutual exchange on education and culture. A two-week festival of India was held in the National Park near the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C as part of this agreement. Era of Darkness Yet, according to Wolpert, Gandhi’s achievements have been overshadowed by the stain of the Emergency and Operation Blue Star. He called her imposition of the Emergency a “cowardly extreme response” to her convictions of electoral malpractice. Gandhi assumed sweeping and arbitrary powers under the statute, raising fears that Indian democracy was dead. Ultimately, the military operation she used to quell a Sikh rebellion in Punjab for a separate state became her undoing, said Wolpert. A ****** climax resulted when she sent the army to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a revered Sikh shrine, to rout radicals holed up inside. Reportedly, 1,000 people died, and her assassination is widely believed to have been carried out in retaliation. “By launching Operation Blue Star she signed her own death warrant,” Wolpert told India-West, “the tragic aftermath of which was to leave thousands of loyal innocent Sikhs defenseless, burned or butchered in Delhi and its environs during three days and nights of violent anarchy.” Singh added, “For Sikhs, her memory will always correlate with what happened at the Golden Temple.” Rajdeep Singh Jolly, a Washington, D.C.-based Sikh lawyer, told India-West pointedly, “I feel the same way about Indira Gandhi as a Jew would feel about Adolf Hitler,” a comment reflecting how deep the wounds remain within the Sikh community even after a quarter-century. “Those are not physical wounds but cultural wounds, and 25 years are not enough to heal them,” Gupte said. According to news reports, the Congress party has decided to observe the 25th anniversary of her assassination on a large scale in New Delhi with programs continuing until Nov. 19, Gandhi’s birth anniversary. “Whether she will be celebrated as an iconic figure, I doubt it,” said Gupte. “Her time has come and gone.” Nevertheless, the Gandhi family continues to dominate Indian politics. Her son Rajiv succeeded her as prime minister but, in a repeat tragedy, was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991. His wife, Sonia, is president of the ruling Congress party. Sonia Gandhi’s son, Rahul, Gandhi’s grandson, is the Congress general secretary. Gupte emphasized that the Nehru-Gandhi family remains an extraordinary family that devoted its resources, intellect and heritage to its country as few have done. “What you cannot take away from them is their sacrifice … for the larger public interest,” Gupte told India-West. “They made the ultimate sacrifice: they paid with their lives.” Posted on behalf of forum member Tejwant Singh ji Malik.