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Indira gets too much credit for the 1971 victory

By Sudhir Bisht
November 21, 2017 12:18 IST
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'Had Sam Bahadur not dictated the timing of India's military intervention, Bangladesh would not have been created without a prolonged battle.'
' Manekshaw's strategy won the war for India in just 13 days,' says Sudhir Bisht.

Then prime minister Indira Gandhi with General S H F J Manekshaw, then chief of the army staff

IMAGE: Then prime minister Indira Gandhi with General S H F J Manekshaw, then the chief of the army staff.

November 19 was an important date for leaders and followers of the Indian National Congress.

Had Indira Gandhi been alive on Sunday, she would have been one hundred years old. Prime Minister Narendra D Modi tweeted his homage to the former prime minister, but there was a conspicuous absence of celebration at the Congress headquarters.

Perhaps Indira Gandhi has been forgotten too soon by her party.


I am no admirer of Mrs Gandhi, but I am not one who will paint her as a complete villain either.

My earliest memory of Indira Gandhi was when I was 11 years old. My father was listening to the BBC in June 1975 and he cried out, almost in pain. 'Indiraji has declared a state of emergency. Indian democracy has been impaled. Oh God, please save my country.'

As is normal for any 11 year old, whatever my father said became my belief too.

It took me over three decades to realise that perhaps there was no other option available to Indira Gandhi to save the country from lawlessness.

Jayaprakash Narayan -- the idealistic but highly impractical icon -- had given a call for a civil disobedience-like movement and Indira Gandhi was desperate to save her chair as much as she wanted to save the country from sliding into anarchy.

So in a way declaring a state of Emergency was a Hobson's Choice for Indira Gandhi. She herself was responsible for sending India into such a state with her mediocre governance that was marred by corruption and brazen mismanagement of the public distribution system. The education sector was rotting and poverty was omnipresent.

Indira Gandhi was responsible for the people's uprising under JP's leadership, but once the righteous uprising had reached its crescendo, it became necessary for her to declare a state of Emergency.

A vast majority of Indians appreciated the Emergency. The frequent strikes, the disruption of the railways, the vanishing of rations from public distribution system shops, were all halted.

Labour became disciplined, the trains ran on time, the PDS became efficient and the babus were hard at work in their offices.

The moment Indira started putting her political opponents in jail, Indians silently resolved to teach her a lesson as soon as possible.

Indira Gandhi had many frailties, chief among which was her aversion for people whom she considered brilliant and with a mind of their own.

She was also power hungry to some extent. But what no one can take away was her gall and gumption to take on the mightiest of the mighty if it involved the honour of our country.

She had the courage to go to war with Pakistan on two fronts and she had the guts to ignore the massive backing that America was giving Pakistan.

I have no qualms about giving Indira Gandhi full marks for her courage and statesmanship during the 1971 War.

Mrs Gandhi is often credited with winning the war against Pakistan in 1971. But I think she gets far too much credit for India's win.

She was the leader of the country when the Indian armed forces led by the brilliant General Sam Manekshaw combined with East Pakistan's Mukti Bahini carved out an independent Bangladesh from Pakistan.

Military historians of recent vintage give Indira Gandhi disproportionate credit for the bifurcation of Pakistan. In fact, Manekshaw should be given all the credit for not succumbing to her pressure of going to war much earlier.

Had Sam Bahadur not dictated the timing of India's military intervention, Bangladesh would not have been created without a prolonged battle of attrition.

Manekshaw's strategy won the war for India in just 13 days.

Indira Gandhi is often painted as a brave leader who didn't hesitate to send the army inside the Golden Temple when it was found that militants were stockpiling weapons inside the holy shrine. I find this argument very foolish.

First, it was her party's government in Punjab that allowed the stashing of weapons inside the Golden Temple.

Second, Indira Gandhi's advisers wrongly underestimated the strength of the militants inside the temple.

Third, the strategy chosen for flushing out the militants from the temple was wrong. Indira Gandhi's Operation Bluestar created a major chasm between Hindus and Sikhs even outside Punjab.

So how should India look at Indira Gandhi's legacy?

Her admirers will not shy away from calling her a reincarnation of Ma Durga astride a tiger, a leader who created Bangladesh out of Pakistan, while her detractors would like to despise her for her role in declaring a state of Emergency.

I would take a more holistic view of Indira Gandhi. During her tenure as India's undisputed leader, the Indian economy continued to grow at an embarrassingly slow pace.

Corruption thrived, nepotism was rampant, mediocrity was rewarded.

But here was a prime minister who abolished privy purses in spite of strong opposition from the erstwhile royals.

She had the courage to nationalise 14 private banks in 1969 and she had the brains to outwit all those who made her prime minister to manipulate her at will.

Indira Gandhi was a courageous woman, a sharp person with limited education, a mediocre but popular prime minister, an arrogant leader who was lucky to have a subservient second rung of leadership.

She must now lament how her ignorant grandson is destroying her legacy by playing into the hands of the Hardik Patels and Jignesh Mewanis.

Sudhir Bisht, Delhi-based author and columnist, tweets at @sudhir_bisht

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