History Lesson

When her aunt Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit took on Indira Gandhi for crushing democracy and dissent

The story is relevant for India today.

In June 1975, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was traveling in London with her daughter Nayantara when she heard the news. Her niece, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had suspended Constitutional rights and declared an Emergency in India. In disbelief, Pandit tried to learn more about what had happened and why. She went to the High Commissioner’s residence, her own former home, and there realised the true terror she and her country were now facing. Opposition figures in their hundreds had been arrested, yet ambassadorial officials walked around with Stepford smiles. “Everything is fine,” they declared.

Upon her return home, Pandit found a Brave New World, with billboards everywhere plastered with elements of a 20-point programme that would bring Good Days to India. The population walked around in dazed silence, further hypnotised by radio and television ads that constantly promoted the government and its initiatives, while real news was erased. The place felt like a giant prison camp.

At her home in Dehradun, Pandit found herself under surveillance; someone was literally hiding in the bushes not all that discreetly. Her phones were tapped. Her mail was censored. Longtime friends and associates distanced themselves from her, for fear of repercussions.

Pandit found all this heartbreaking. She had adored her niece in their younger days; their extended family was very close and the two of them had a loving and close relationship early on. But Gandhi’s growing paranoia, her thin skin and insecurity, and her steely resolve to crush all who stood in her way gradually grew the distance between them, so much so that a few years previously, Gandhi had said directly that she simply did not trust her aunt.

Isolated in her home, Pandit faced many a sleepless night, “not willing to accept what was and yet not knowing what to do”. “How,” she wondered, “could we have become such little, mean people, full of fear and sycophancy?”

Day by day, the situation seemed to only grow worse. Gandhi was a deity, a goddess. She was India and India was her. Caesar had arrived.

Pushing back

Finally, determined to act for the greater good, whatever the consequences, Pandit gave an interview to The New York Times that appeared on October 31, 1976. Freedom and democracy were under assault, she proclaimed. She despaired for her country.

A few months later, Gandhi lifted the Emergency and began to release political prisoners. Opposition forces united to fight her and the “authoritarian trend” she represented. Pandit joined them, offering her services to help right the ship of state.

Now filled with the hope that can only come from productive action towards a better future, Pandit decided to release a dramatic, poignant statement to the press, which received widespread attention when she and Jagjivan Ram, a Dalit champion and former central minister, held a joint press conference on February 12, 1977. Her statement read:

“The essence of democracy is the right to dissent. This does not imply disloyalty to the country. Exchange of views and discussions are a democratic way towards a solid base on which the future progress and prosperity of the nation should be built. It is shocking to see all dissent muzzled and those who disagreed with government put into prison…More than anything else the situation created by fear is one which should be of concern to all thinking people. Gandhiji worked long and hard to release Indians from the fear caused by years of foreign rule. He put courage in our hearts and gave us strength and stamina to face and break a mighty empire…People are afraid to speak and by their silence have acquiesced in the denial of the very freedoms for which an earlier generation fought and laid down their lives. I have remained a passive spectator for too long but I cannot live at peace with myself if, by my silence, I seem to agree with the destruction of all I have been taught to hold dear…My first duty and loyalty is and must always be to my country.”

Pandit put everything she had into campaigning for the opposition, travelling widely and speaking at rally after rally, but seeking no position for herself. On election day, Gandhi and her allies were swept from power. Pandit recalled that it “must have been something like what happened in Europe at the ending of World War II.”

But Pandit’s political victory only magnified her personal sorrow. How could someone she held so close have gotten so far lost? She noted wistfully:

“Indira and I belong by upbringing and education on the same side, that of human rights, the need to work for freedom from oppressions that continue to crush humanity in so many parts of the world. When she strayed from that concept it was my duty to oppose her. Love for an individual must be kept separate from one’s deep convictions and beliefs, and this I did with all the strength and faith I possessed. When I went to meet her several weeks after the elections, I embraced her and wept…I cried for an opportunity lost…Her greatest mistake was in trying to build up her younger son…in allowing him to imagine he was some kind of crown prince. In his arrogance and thoughtlessness he brought upon India a tragedy and on his mother the hostility of the masses.”

Manu Bhagavan is Professor of History and Human Rights at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. He is writing a biography of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

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