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The personal is the political: An excerpt from a new biography of Feroze Gandhi

Bertil Falk’s biography of Feroze Gandhi reveals a democrat at loggerheads with his wife Indira Gandhi as a result of his belief in a federal India. The Kerala crisis of 1957 possibly destroyed the marriage

books Updated: Nov 26, 2016 09:36 IST
Bertil Falk
The marriage of Feroze Gandhi and Indira Nehru on August 2, 1942. At extreme right is Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, sister of Nehru. The simple ceremony attended by many stalwarts of the Congress Party was solemnised by Pandit Lakshmi Dhar Shastri, a Sanskrit professor at Delhi University
The marriage of Feroze Gandhi and Indira Nehru on August 2, 1942. At extreme right is Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, sister of Nehru. The simple ceremony attended by many stalwarts of the Congress Party was solemnised by Pandit Lakshmi Dhar Shastri, a Sanskrit professor at Delhi University(Bettmann Archive/Getty)

One of the states on the southernmost tip of India, Kerala had a population of about 20 million in 1959 – half were Hindus, while the other half comprised Muslims and Christians. As a matter of fact, Christianity probably reached the shores of Kerala as early as 52 AD, when St Thomas, also known as Doubting Thomas (because he is said to have doubted that the other ten apostles had seen the resurrected Jesus), a disciple (some say a twin brother) of Jesus Christ, landed at Cranganore. Nevertheless, Christianity was certainly well established in Kerala in the fourth century AD.

From a political point of view, Kerala at the time of Independence had a strong Muslim League and Communist presence. When the voters of Kerala in 1957 brought the Communist Party of India (CPI) into power it created quite a stir. For the first time in history, a Communist government had been elected rather than grasping power through revolution and occupation. No single party got the majority votes, but due to the electoral system, the Communist Party with more than 35 per cent of the votes was invited to form the government.

When the elected Communists began to pass their programme through the Kerala legislature it caused agitation and instability in the state. The Kerala government was led by EMS Namboodiripad. His government was a duly elected one and should, of course, not have been overthrown until, possibly, by the voters at the next general election.

Earlier governments in Kerala had promised land reforms, but it was the Communist government that decided on implementing them. Another reform was an Education Bill, which Inder Malhotra describes as ‘aimed at controlling and regulating the plethora of privately-run schools and colleges which had become a byword for waywardness. The Christian Church, the Muslim League and the Nair Service Society, all controlling numerous educational institutions and landed estates, were in the forefront of the agitation which soon developed into a mass movement for the removal of the Communist ministry.’

Feroze and Indira on their way back to India from Europe. It was after her return that Indira first spoke to Nehru about her decision to marry Feroze. (Courtesy NMML, New Delhi)

But when in some schools, the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi was replaced with portraits of Marx and Stalin, the agitation grew even stronger and became a storm. New Delhi, already somewhat obsessed with the apprehension that too independent and powerful state governments were a danger to the centre and the unity of the nation, became worried. Jawaharlal Nehru tried to persuade Namboodiripad to go slow with his reforms, but Namboodiripad refused. Voices in the capital were raised conveying the message that the Communist government in Kerala should be thrown out with force and presidential rule imposed.

Nehru was ambivalent. He did not like the situation in Kerala, but he knew that it was against the idea of democracy to dismiss a popularly elected state government, even though the CPI by definition itself was not a democratic party. As a matter of fact, when the CPI won the elections in 1957, Nehru had been almost proud that his India was such a good democracy that it permitted Communists to come to power – by legal means. He also considered it possible that the outcome of the Kerala elections would prove to other Communists around the world that there was a peaceful and democratic road to power.

Unlike her father, Indira, president of the AICC (All India Congress Committee) in 1959, had no democratic second thoughts when it came to crushing the elected government in Kerala or the elected government of any Indian state for that matter. The agitation in Kerala may have been fuelled by the reforms the CPI government went for, but even before the agitation in Kerala against the Communist rule was in full swing, Indira Gandhi grasped the opportunity. She orchestrated the unrest from New Delhi through her loyal AICC workers in the state. And she did it hand in hand with the communal Hindus in the state and with the Muslim League. The situation turned violent, the police opened fire against demonstrators and many died. Even though some of the blame must be put on the Communist rulers, this was also the first but not the last time that Indian blood was shed because of Indira Gandhi. Here she showed that she could be a stiff authoritarian and undemocratic leader and it paid off. She was soon on the verge of ensuring that she got her way.

While the situation in Kerala was tense, in the background there was Feroze and their disintegrating marriage. On 21 July 1959, Indira wrote to Dorothy Norman: ‘A veritable sea of trouble is engulfing me. On the domestic front, Feroze has always resented my very existence, but since I have become President he exudes such hostility that it seems to poison the air. Unfortunately he and his friends are friendly with some of our ministers and an impossible situation is being created.’

Then she switched to the big political problem: ‘The Kerala situation is worsening. This movement is not petering out as Communists claim but gathering momentum. The women, whom I have been trying to organise for years, had always refused to come into politics. Now they are out in the field. Over 8000 have been arrested. I have heard that in Europe and perhaps in America my father is being blamed for not taking any action.’ And here we discern that Indira Gandhi considers her father weak and indecisive: ‘He has given a very good lead from the beginning but he is incapable of dictatorship or rough-shodding over the views of his senior colleagues.’

Feroze and Indira Gandhi with Jawaharlal Nehru. Their first son Rajiv was born in 1944 in Bombay. (Courtesy NMML, New Delhi)

She continues in the same vein: ‘More and more I find that he is almost the only one who thinks in terms of ideology rather than personality. I cannot write much in a letter but you would be surprised that some of the ministers whom we had considered the most anti-Communist are now supporting the Communist government of Kerala. My father cannot go against the wishes of the Home Minister, for instance. It is a very ticklish situation.’ Indira Gandhi was not able to separate anti-Communism from accepting a popularly elected Communist government. And even though Nehru was ‘incapable of dictatorship and rough-shodding’, Indira was not. Ultimately Nehru, basically weak as he was, caved in to his daughter and did it her way.

Many years later, around 1976, she was interviewed by Emmanuel Pouchpadass, her biographer. When she looked back at the events in 1959, she played down her own role saying that ‘my part was not as important as it is now made out to have been.’

That was not her only rationalization. She also said that ‘the Marxists are always accusing me of having brought down their government. My recollection is that Mr Namboodiripad, who was the chief minister, did make a statement to the effect that the law and order situation was not entirely in their control, there was a strong public demand for a change of government. But it could never have been done had the Central Government not been willing. I did go to Kerala and I did report on the situation. My own opinion would not have changed things. The fact is that my father probably was not happy about the situation. I know Feroze was not happy about it.’

What an understatement!

Feroze and Indira Gandhiat teh breakfast table with Jawaharlal Nehru. It was at thsi table that Feroze once accused his wife of being a fascist. (Unknown source)

Feroze was furious, to say the least. He fought her with all means, through the press, via other politicians and face-to-face with her over the breakfast table at Teen Murti. According to Janardan Thakur, well-known political correspondent: ‘It was her husband who perhaps first called her a “fascist”, way back in 1959 when she was Congress President, Indira Gandhi had been lobbying hard for intervention in Kerala and Feroze had taken a stand against it. He thought it was undemocratic to dismiss an elected government, whether it was a communist government or otherwise. The issue had come up at breakfast table at Teen Murti, and there had been quite a row between Indira and Feroze, with Nehru looking on very distressed. “It is just not right,” Feroze had said, “you are bullying people. You are a fascist.” Indira Gandhi had flared up. “You are calling me a fascist. I can’t take that.” And she had walked out of the room in rage.’

Feroze lost the battle and President’s rule was imposed in the state. But even after losing the battle, Feroze nonetheless continued the struggle for democratic principles. For the next turn of events that happened was that the Congress under the presidency of his wife made the situation even worse to ensure that the Communists could not return to power. The Congress made an electoral and political alliance with the Indian Union Muslim League and other disputable elements in Kerala.

Feroze after his first heart attack together with sons Rajiv and Sanjay. (Courtesy Feroze Gandhi College, Rae Bareli)

Feroze spoke out – not as a member of the Lok Sabha, but at a Congress meeting: ‘We intend to have electoral alliances in Kerala. I really do not know what it all means. We are going to have and we will have alliances with the Muslim League, with the leaders of caste, casteism. Where are we? Where is the Congress? Where are the principles of the Congress? Sir, Shri Padmanabhan Nair, the day that the President’s proclamation is issued, asked the Governor “come on, now suspend the Education Act, suspend Agrarian Reforms Bill”. Are we going to be dictated by a caste monster we have produced? Has the Congress organization come to this level? Has it fallen so low that we are going to be dictated [to] by communal elements, by leaders of caste and by those who can enthuse religious feelings into people and create situations where we get caught? Sir, tomorrow, if this is allowed to continue and this policy is allowed to work, we might as well have alliances with the Jana Sangh and we might as well have alliances with hundreds of other parties.’

And he concluded: ‘Today in Kerala you have forged the instrument of your own destruction. If this instrument is not destroyed, this instrument is going to destroy us. That is all that I have to say.’

Feroze’s colleague in the Parliament, Bali Ram Bhagat, shared with me in August 1998: ‘I still remember his words. He described it as a caste monster, as A Caste Monster and we are surrendering to A CASTE MONSTER.’

What was the reaction to his speech? Let us listen to an anonymous voice: ‘For the first time I felt that there was a complete silence in the Central Hall where the party meeting was held. For the first time I felt an impasse in the meeting had reached. The way out was inconclusive debate and allowing a good deal of passage of time before the next meeting.’

Heda, also a member of Parliament, shared: ‘Among the Congress members, Feroze had devoted himself to the study of the Constitution quite early. His speech in the Party meeting on 2nd August 1959, was devoted to it. He raised his voice against the imposition of President’s rule in Kerala. What surprised us most was that he did it almost single handed when both Prime Minister and Congress President, were so close to him. His emphasis was that we are not forming a pattern to determine the desirability or otherwise of the President’s Rule in any given situation. The final decision is that of the Central Leadership. But at the same time public in general should feel that certain norms were followed and the extreme step was taken after due warning.’

In another account, Feroze on this occasion in the Congress Parliamentary Board ‘spoke out forcefully against the Congress adventure in Kerala. He denounced his party – and, by implication, his own wife – for signing up with right-wing forces in Kerala. Nehru later told friends that he found Feroze’s remarks unforgivable.’

Family ties: Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959 (Ullstein bild via Getty Images)

But Feroze was not alone. The Congress Parliamentary Board also denounced the intrigues and history has shown that the most unforgivable thing was that Nehru yielded to his daughter. Had Nehru been wiser he should instead have lent an ear to his son-in-law. It was Nehru who deserted his democratic principles, which were reduced to lip service.

In 1998, I had the opportunity in London to talk with Mary Shelvankar, who was a good friend of Indira Gandhi. Being a Marxist-Leninist, who met and admired Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh and Chinese Communist Party’s Zhou Enlai, she could not have been overly happy when her friend Indira destroyed the first duly elected Communist government in the world.

When I mentioned the Kerala incident and the struggle between Feroze and Indira over her behaviour, Mary Shelvankar said: ‘Feroze and Indira were nationalists and socialists, but when it came to democracy their differences were almost total. Feroze was more of a federalist, while Indira subscribed to a rather authoritarian attitude. I knew Indira much better than Feroze. I was – and I still am – much more to the left than she was. I still consider Lenin a good man. When my husband was India’s ambassador to Hanoi, he ever so often went home to report. I met Indira many times and we had many discussions. Over the years, Indira and I argued and argued on a very friendly level. I thought that one should let people be as they are and permit them to be on their own, but she stuck to the concept of Mother India. She wanted all the power in her hands. She was against a federal India. In her opinion India was not enough developed to be a federal state. Feroze had a different approach. I only met Feroze two or three times in New Delhi during the 1950s. I never got close to him, because I felt that Indira did not want it. But from my discussions with Indira, I understood that Feroze was for a federal India and was against the centralized India she wanted.’

The elections in Kerala that followed Indira Gandhi’s successful intrigues showed that the Communist Party still had a very strong following. As a matter of fact, Indira and her allies succeeded through their acts to increase the support for the CPI from 35.28 to 43 percentage of the popular vote. In that sense, the agitation Indira had fuelled proved counter-productive. It rather, strengthened the popular base of the CPI than weakening it. Indira had shown her firm determination and iron will. Most other leaders of the Congress party not only demonstrated that they liked the fact that she subscribed to the Jesuit slogan that the end justifies the means. They exhibited poor judgement in another respect as well. They did not realize that she had displayed her mettle. The reason for their failure was perhaps that they may have shared her opinion in the actual point of issue. They may even have felt that she had carried out their wishes.

As a result of their blindness, they committed the big mistake a couple of years later of making her the prime minister of India. Dom Moraes wrote: ‘Room was made for her at the top by the combined efforts of certain Congress politicians, and her image then was that of a shy and reticent person, anxious to please her mentors. When the right hour came, she raised her pinions, shook off all encumbrances, and took to the upper air, flying over the country like the spirit of her childhood heroine…’ That heroine was Joan of Arc.

Bertil Falk and Indira Gandhi (Katarina Falk)

It is strange that she was able to uphold the impression of being a puppet for so long, even though she had come out in her true colours as early as in 1959 and that in a very decisive way, when she created the Kerala clampdown. But the fact is that the king- and queen-maker Congress leader from Tamil Nadu Kamaraj and the other responsible leaders of the so-called Syndicate, the breakaway party also called the Indian National Congress (Organization) that was formed when the Congress party split in 1969, did not understand the true face she showed during the Kerala crisis.

If Kamaraj had been more observant, keen and suspicious in 1959, he would have understood that Indira was not to be trifled with. He did not see the writing on the wall and committed his life’s political mistake to prefer her to Morarji Desai, something he later came to regret. It is of course always easy to be wise after the event, but the moment of truth finally dawned on him. When this otherwise very able and impressive Dr Frankenstein from Tamil Nadu understood that he had created a political monster, it was too late. He was himself cut to size, his powerbase eroded and he died disillusioned in 1975, with his creation standing by the side of his funeral pyre.

Read more: Gopalkrishna Gandhi on Feroze Gandhi

The miscalculation of Kamaraj and his friends and the failure of the Syndicate to undo the mistake are however extraneous to our subject. Except for one important fact. If they had been more democratic and had listened to Feroze and his friends in the party and the press in 1959, they would have been able to avoid the biggest political blunder of their lives in 1966.

Feroze’s fear that ‘this kind of unjustified action would erode the Congress Party’s democratic credentials, and even encourage authoritarian tendencies in the future’ proved to be prophetic. The road from democracy to the Emergency was paved.

President’s rule is the euphemism used for the implementation of Paragraph 356 of the Indian Constitution, which provides for dismissing state governments in cases of misgovernance, lack of a majority in the legislature and so on. In accordance with her conviction that India was not developed enough to be a federal nation, Indira Gandhi used Article 356 no less than twenty-nine times between 1966 and 1977. President’s rule was also used nine times when the Janata regime was in power. And when Indira Gandhi was returned to power, she – in a vindictive mood – used or rather misused this tool eight times in 1980 alone. Steps have been taken in order to stop the galloping abuse of Article 356, but I have a feeling that more could be done.

A series of selfies, long before the word was invented, taken by the young Feroze Gandhi in London. (Courtesy NMML, New Delhi)

Now to be fair, Indira Gandhi reinstated the democracy she betrayed. When I asked her why she did so, she said that in a democracy it is not possible to keep an Emergency going for too long. At least and at last she understood that, but the Emergency was an expensive experience for India. And in the long run, Indira Gandhi after Operation Blue Star, when the Indian army stormed the Sikhs’ sacrosanct Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out terrorists, had to pay an even higher price – her own life when she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards – for her ruthlessness than Kamaraj paid for his credulity.

In the long run, it is rather the legacy of Feroze than the legacy of his wife, that is alive and kicking. Indian democracy is at work at the national and the regional levels as well as the local level. Federal India is in many respects a democratic model for the world.