Indira II

Indira became the prime minister of India in 1966 following the death of India’s second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri on the 11th of January 1965. Both Nehru and Shastri were from the Gandhi camp and they were no doubt inspired and influenced by his non-violent stance and his rather peaceful approach to things.

While both men were without doubt able administrators, and were more than capable of governing the country in times of peace neither were suitable candidates to govern in times of war and could be blamed at least partly for India’s relatively poor showing in the first Indo-Pakistan war (1947 – 1948) or the war of Kashmir, the Sino-India War of 1962 and the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. Despite the fact that almost little or no territory changed hands in all three wars there was a significant loss of lives.

Things however were vastly different in the Liberation War of Bangladesh 1971. The Nixon administration fearing a rise in Soviet influence, primarily due to affairs in Afghanistan where the Soviet Union was gaining a firm foothold, encouraged their then allies to send supplies to Pakistan and were prepared to overlook or ignore the 1971 genocide of Bangladesh.

It is also worth adding that in the aftermath of 1947 it was obvious that India needed to bolster its defense capabilities and that to some degree explains the BJP’s success in recent times i.e. the willingness to spend extensively on defense. This coupled with the fact that there have been significant improvements in indigenous defense systems and the BJP’s willingness to maintain the trend has helped increase the BJP’s popularity. As far as the average Indian is concerned there are certain sectors that he or she wants to see significant improvements in and defense is one of them.

Indira was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi at an early age and was no doubt familiar with him, his work and his teachings but she could never be described as a leader in the Gandhi mold or even as a leader who was in the Nehru or Shastri mold for that matter and despite having served under both of them – she served as her father’s personal assistant and following her father’s death in 1964 she was appointed the minister of information and broadcasting by the Shastri government, she was nothing like them. She was also appointed the president of the congress party in 1959 and served in the capacity for a year.

There was nothing in her past to indicate that there would be a gradual move away from democracy towards a more state based economy, but that was in effect what happened following the 1966 elections, when the congress party won the elections, albeit by a smaller number of seats and Indira became the prime minister of India. I suspect that the move towards socialism was spurred on not by a sudden fixation for communism but rather a need to address the countries more pressing problems i.e. poverty, illiteracy and gender inequality. Despite the constant criticisms that are hurled at it, socialism does in fact advocate for a more equal distribution of wealth.

As soon as she was appointed the prime minister of India, Indira showed a boldness that would take many of her congress allies by surprise especially those that were expecting a docile leader who would accede to all their wishes because her actions clearly told the congress party that she was prepared to throw party politics out the window.

I am not going to say that she didn’t create a class of hyper rich, I think she did but not intentionally. It happens with nationalization i.e. when ownership is transferred from the private sector to the state and then back to the private sector it tends to create a class of hyper rich people who have a monopoly over certain sectors.

She also entrusted certain key people with the development of certain sectors for example the iron and steel sector and pioneered the growth of the Tatas, the Birlas and numerous other multinational companies like them.

In 1969 Indira nationalized the fourteen largest banks in India and while her popularity with the congress party especially its president was going downhill, her popularity among the regional parties was growing especially the DMK and that started the south’s long-standing infatuation with Indira.

I’m not saying that the leaders of the DMK are not rich. To the contrary they are exorbitantly rich but they too were founded on socialist principles and idolized both Lenin and Stalin and the bottom-line here was simply a better distribution of wealth especially among the Dravidians who felt left out and marginalized by the north. Whether that was indeed the case or otherwise was and is an entirely different matter but at that stage they saw in Indira a leader who was willing to address the inequalities and the alliance was formed.

Indira I

This is my first attempt at writing something that remotely resembles a biography and the person I have selected is none other than the iron lady of India, its second longest serving prime minister and perhaps the most complex person to serve as the prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi.

Of all the prime ministers of India, I am most fascinated by Indira and unlike most prime ministers who served in times of peace, she was one of the few women prime ministers who served during a war – a war that India was never expected to win, and if it wasn’t for her tenacity, India in all probability, would have lost the war.

At the onset, I have to admit that it is impossible to cover her whole life in an article or a series of articles because it was a long and illustrious career and her tenure as prime minister spanned more than a decade. Her first tenure lasted for ten years and her second tenure for four.

The events that we will be looking at here will be the events that piqued my interest as a young boy reading the New Straits Times between the age of 10-14 and we will look at the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh, the death of her son Sanjay – a death that rocked the nation and a death many believe was an assassination, the subsequent fall-out with her daughter in law Maneka, who remains the only member of the Nehru dynasty who is not associated or affiliated to the Congress Party of India. Maneka who has had a long and illustrious political career herself serves with the BJP and finally the events that led to Indira’s death.

The events that I have mentioned here are by no means complete or comprehensive and for anyone who wants to acquire an insight to the life of India’s iron woman, it is best that they get a copy of her biography (there are a few in the market).

I read one of her biographies many years ago and to date I have never really managed to grasp the depths of it. Her life was by no means simple.

Indira was India’s third prime minister; her father Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first and longest serving prime minister and Indira was his only daughter. Indira in fact was an only child and being born in one of the most politically influential families in India, it would be fair to say that she would have come to terms with the intricacies and the subtleties of Indian politics at an early age.

India is one of the most difficult countries in the world to govern, not only because of the size of its population but also because of its diversity and each of its 29 states often demand separate attention and it is more often than not difficult to appease all the parties in the mix, but despite that Indira managed to keep a lid on things. This coupled with India’s external foes makes governing India challenging to say the least.

Indira was a Kashmiri Pandit or a Kashmiri Brahmin and she was born in Allahabad a district in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a state rich in history but not without its share of conflicts. Even at birth Indira could never be described as the contemporary Indian because Indians today are normally associated with states like Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana or Bengal and places like Mumbai and Delhi from the western perspective of things anyway.

The young Indira could aptly be described as the orthodox Brahmin girl and she was without doubt conservative but that was only to be expected given the strict upbringing most Kashmiri Pandit girls have.

Indira however was very, very intelligent and I remember reading somewhere that she loved reading and she was very knowledgeable and that she’d even read works like the arthashastra, something that most people don’t read. So it is fair to say that even at a young age, well before being elected the prime minister of India, the concepts of conflict and war were not alien to her and she was to a very large degree or extent able to accept conflict and war for what it was and that would have no doubt helped her during her tenure as prime minister where she would have had to face conflict and war over and over again.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)

Among the top tier parties in India with a larger support base than most parties and a party that has a bigger national appeal than many of the other parties and is not limited to a specific state, region or territory is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) whose core supporters come from the schedule castes, schedule tribes and other backwards castes and while the party doesn’t have a manifesto per se or has opted not to release one, it represents the rights of those who do not belong to the upper class or castes and while people outside India may have difficulties coming to terms with the caste system, it does play a role in Indian politics. Caste based politics is an ugly facet of Indian politics and representatives do get elected on the caste ticket especially if they represent the dominant caste in a specific area or constituency.

In addition to state interests and national interests’ politicians in India sometimes also have to contend with caste based issues and this can at times lead to heated debates in the political arena but it is not as bad as some people make it out to be. Most Indians these days realize the mistakes that they have made in the past and are working towards overcoming caste related obstacles and likewise most parties realize that in order to either acquire or hang on to the reins of power they need support from all sections of the community and both the BJP and the INC are working towards building a broader support base and are wooing supporters from all sections of the community, regardless of caste, race or religion.

Despite the fact that there have been numerous reports on caste biasness, the official stance has always been to give more privileges to the less fortunate especially when it comes to education and employment.

The government strategy for many, many, years has been to give preference to those that belong to backward castes but that mechanism can sometimes break down at regional levels and it is almost impossible at times to steer away from caste based issues especially when there are politicians who choose to play up on those issues.

The BSP is not without its internal divisions but that is only to be expected. Any party that has a large and diverse following is bound to have internal divides.

The party was founded in 1984 and has been around for some time. Its founder Kanshi Ram was born in the Ropar District of Punjab to a Sikh family. He also founded the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF) in 1971 and the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti in 1981 which was the predecessor of the present BSP to raise awareness among Dalits on caste based issues and the role of Dalits in the wider political spectrum.

Caste issues are not only prevalent among Hindus but it was and in some instances still is an issue among Sikhs. He died in 2003 (18th September) and was succeeded by the incumbent, Mayawati, who has served as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh four times and can be described as a veteran politician who still has a very strong following in Uttar Pradesh.

Mayawati is an outspoken critic of the BJP, a party that she views as a predominantly Hindu party and at once stage she even threatened to convert to Buddhism if the BJP doesn’t change its attitude towards the Dalits, but as I have mentioned earlier the BJP is making efforts to widen its support base, it has too if it wants to remain in power.

The party continues to campaign for the rights of Dalits who without doubt belong to the most vulnerable sections of the community and are sometimes threatened with violence. In 2017 for example, a BSP party leader Rajesh Yadav was shot dead and that is an indication of how heated things can get.

The party is currently trying to expand its support base, especially after the BJP’s landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh and is willing to join hands with other secular parties if the terms are acceptable. The BJP’s victory as far as the party is concerned was largely due to the use of Electronic Voting Systems and the party is current pushing for a return to paper balloting.

All India Trinamool Congress

For anyone who is interested in Indian politics it would be worth their while to not only know the two bigger parties in the picture but to also make a note of the regional parties that can formally contest a seat and those that can’t and the parties that are backed by armed militias and those that aren’t. Sounds complicated?? Well it is, exponentially so.

India is probably the most democratic country in the world but with democracy comes the burden of listening to all segments of the population and giving everyone a chance or an avenue to be heard.

The face of Indian politics has changed in the last twenty to thirty years and it continues to change to not only meet the demands of its huge population but to also meet global expectations.

Among the 7 or 8 parties that rank as top tier political parties in India is the All India Trinamool Congress a breakaway faction of the INC or the Indian National Congress led by the often vocal and at times strong critic of the BJP, Mamata Banerjee, who also currently serves as the Chief Minister of Bengal.

The All India Trinamool Congress or the AITC controls 211 of the 294 seats in the West Bengal State Assembly and as far as Bengal is concerned the AITC is an extremely influential party. It has managed to wrest control of the state away from its predecessor the Communist Party of India (CPI)(M) which was by no means an easy feat.

Bengal was once a major stronghold of the CPI(M), a predominantly Marxist party, and the Marxists not only have popular support in Bengal but they also have strong support in various other states in India and that is partly due to the fact that, for the masses and the impoverished, communism provides or appears to provide a better solution. Marxist ideology has an old school charm about it that appeals to many.

In the runup to the 2011 elections the state witnessed violent clashes between supporters of the AITC and supporters of the CPI(M) but at the end the AITC emerged triumphant and won by a substantial majority and has remained in control ever since and it looks to remain in control for quite some time.

The party was founded by Mamata Banerjee and as far as political parties are concerned it is a fairly new party having taken roots in 1998 after a factional breakaway from the INC. In addition to serving as the Chief Minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is also an author, painter and poet of some note.

The AITC appears to be a non-religious based party or a party that is not bound by religious ideology or principles and makes an effort to serve people of all religions and that would not only appeal to those in the middle i.e. those that favor neither the left nor the right but also to the communists in Bengal because communism doesn’t place too much emphasis on religion.

The AITC, going by its manifesto, is a party that puts Bengali culture first, and places more emphasis on Bengali history and tradition as opposed to orthodox political views which look to be fast losing their appeal. As far as Bengal is concerned it may have struck the right balance, especially given the fact that the state is extremely proud of its rich artistic and literary legacy.

In addition to that the party also aims to alleviate poverty in Bengal. Poverty is not only a problem in Bengal but it is a major problem in most Indian states though admittedly some states fare better than others. A lot depends on the state government and therefore state elections are equally as important as federal or national elections and it is fair to say that the commitment to eradicate poverty is something that is common among most political parties in India.

In recent times there have been speculations of a division within the party with the exit of Mukul Roy a member of parliament and a founder member of the AITC.

The party despite its anti-corruption stance has been hit by allegations of corruption and it will be interesting to see how the party recovers from these widespread allegations especially in light of its aspirations of becoming a national party.

The Siam-Burma Railway Line

The invasion of Malaya begun just after midnight on the 8th of December 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor with a naval assault on the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade stationed in Kota Baru, Kelantan, followed by an amphibious landing supported by air strikes by Air Group III.

The attack was led by General Tomoyuki Yamashita; the man selected for the job and later dubbed the Tiger of Malaya. The destruction on the Malaysian side of things was total and British and Commonwealth troops were on the retreat from the start, driven back from the north to the south and by the 31st of January 1942, British and Commonwealth forces had completely withdrawn to Singapore and Malaya had fallen.

The allies suffered massive casualties with 9,000 dead and almost 130,000 captured. Between the 8th of December to the 15th of August 1945, Malaya was administered by the Japanese and much of its wealth as were its people were deployed to further Japan’s war efforts.

In 1943 the Japanese commenced with the building of the Burma-Siam railway line, a necessity for Japan at that stage to further its war efforts and in addition to POWs the Japanese army also took thousands of young men of Tamil origin to help with the construction of the railway line.

Among those men was my grandfather on my dad’s side Nadisan Thevar. In total, approximately 180,000 civilian workers were brought in from various countries to help lay the tracks and it is estimated that almost half the number died during the construction of the railway line. Of those that remained many didn’t return home and because of the extremely high death toll the Burma-Siam railway line is sometimes called the death railway.

My grandfather was born in 1890 in Chidambaram and he came to Malaysia in 1900 at the age of 10 to work. It must have been very difficult in India at the time because there was a big outflow of workers that not only went to Malaysia but also to Thailand, Myanmar and various other countries in Indo-China.

My grandfather was taken at the age of 53, so he was by no means young, but he was employed with the railway services, as a matter of fact he was an engine drive so I am not sure if that had something to do with it but as I understand it groups of men were indiscriminately taken from their homes and herded away by the truckloads.

Nothing was heard from him until he returned in 1946 after spending about three years in Thailand. From all accounts it was a very, very difficult life. He died 9 years later from a heart attack at the age of 65 and I’ll write more about his life in my next book titled Ramachanderam and it includes the accounts of my grandfather’s life in Thailand while he was there.

The Japanese started building the Burma-Siam railway line to ferry supplies from Thailand, which was a buffer state during the Second World War i.e. a state that was neutral, to Burma.

Prior to that supplies to Japanese troops stationed in Burma were ferried by sea but the route around the Malay Peninsula in addition to being lengthy was fraught with danger and allied vessels and submarines which patrolled the area proved to be more than a handful.

It order to overcome these difficulties and to ensure that their troops in Burma were adequately supplied, the Japanese embarked on the rather ambitious project of building a railway line that ran all the way from Thailand to Burma and despite the difficulties of constructing such a line it was completed well ahead of schedule and was in operation within a year.

The line started from Ban Po in Thailand and stretched all the way to Thanbyuzayat in Burma and ran for about 258 miles. Hence it was a fairly long trip but much shorter that the 2,000 mile sea route that was used previously.

It is difficult to say, with any degree of certainty, what happened to the POWs and civilians that survived because many didn’t return home once the line was completed and it is fair to surmise that many continued as laborers or remained behind and became either Burmese or Siamese citizens.

The Mizo National Front (MNF)

Indian politics is a like a smoking cauldron filled with varied interests and a successful leader as far as India is concerned is a leader who manages to keep a lid on the cauldron. To borrow a phrase from the arthashastra, a successful leader is a leader who manages to keep the nation intact.

In order to understand Indian politics we not only have to look at the two major parties, Congress and the BJP, but we also need to take a look at the smaller regional communal parties to try and understand their concerns. Communalism remains one of India’s most pressing problems and it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Even today the Kuki National Army, though there is a long standing ceasefire agreement with the Indian army, is asking for a separate state and it is an example of how ethnic aspirations, if unaddressed, can divide a nation.

Mizoram was a British colony and post the independence of India in 1947, the state was given a choice of being either a part of India, Pakistan or Burma and subsequently chose to join India and became a district of Assam.

The Mizo National Front (MNF) which spearheaded the move for a separate state was formed in 1966 but its roots date back at least 11 years earlier and it evolved from the Mizo Cultural Society which was an organization that was established to advocate for Mizo rights. The most pressing problems at that stage were communal problems but that was superseded by the mautam famine of 1959-1960.

Between 1959-1960 Mizoram was struck by a natural disaster that led to a humanitarian crisis of extreme proportions. The bamboo that grew wildly in the state’s dense forests began to flower and fruits of the bamboo plant became food for the rats and that in turn led to an increase in the rat population which quickly spiraled out of control and led to the destructions of crops which in turn precipitated widespread famine.

According to the MNF the government of Assam was warned that the bamboo would flower and that it would lead to famine but the government played in down as tribal superstition and refused to intervene and when the famine eventually did hit, there was widespread anger.

The Mizo Cultural Society changed its name to the Mautam Famine Front in 1961 to not only help with relief efforts but to also demand for a separate state which would at the very least give the Mizos partial self-governance. The organization was founded in 1961 by Pu Laldenga who subsequently, many years later, became Mizoram’s first chief minister. The Mizo Famine Front was later dissolved and changed its name to the Mizo National Front and in 1966 it launched a separatist war.

The combatants were trained by former members of the 2nd Assam Rifles, Pu Laldenga himself served as a sergeant with the army prior to entering civil service and from all account the combatants were trained in exactly the same manner that the members of the Indian Army were.

The separatist war started on the 1st of March 1966 with an attack on an army outpost in Aizawl and escalated from there. The war not only involved ground troops but also included air raids by the Indian Air Force (5th and 6th of March).

The Indian Air Force raid, in retaliation to the uprising, on Aizawl was extremely damaging and under normal circumstances the air force may not have been called in but for the fact that on the 24th of January 1966 Indira Gandhi, India’s iron lady was elected the prime minister of India and she dealt with the situation in the manner that she always did when the security of the nation was threatened, with force.

The question would later be raised as to why the government used such excessive force to deal with its own citizens and New Delhi would deny it, claiming that the raids on Aizawl were in fact routine supply drops.

The ensuing struggle would force members of the Mizo National Front to go underground and the war was fought from hideouts in jungles in and from across India’s borders. It was a desperate struggle that would compel many government and non government organizations to try and seek a peaceful solution.

However, because Mizoram was a predominantly Christian state and still remains so, some 87% of its population is Christian, church leaders, at the request of the then governor, intervened on behalf of the people of Mizoram and peace negotiations were started. In 1974 selected church leaders began to act as mediators in talks between the government and the MNF.

Talks also later began with Rajiv Gandhi who wanted an unconditional surrender but the church argued on behalf of the Mizos. Things went back and forth during which time Pu Laldenga and the Mizo National Front remained underground and finally 20 years after the MNF launched its separatist war, in 1986, a peace accord was signed and Mizoram became a separate state.

The MNF’s armed struggle is a thing of the past. It remains a political party but support for it appears to be waning with new parties like PRISM (People’s Right to Information and Development Implementation Society of Mizoram) emerging and contesting parliamentary seats and it is difficult to say how the MNF will fare in the future but things appear to be changing for Mizoram and the state appears to be heading in the right direction.