Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature by Jairam Ramesh | Excerpt

Jairam Ramesh’s Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature presents the former prime minister’s life as a naturalist and examines how she steered India’s conservation policy. An excerpt

books Updated: Jun 23, 2017 09:40 IST
Jairam Ramesh
Jairam Ramesh
Hindustan Times
Indira Gandhi,conservation,Jairam Ramesh
Indira Gandhi on a yak on trip to Bhutan; 1958. (Courtesy Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature)

From the Chapter 1: A First Word

…This is an unconventional biography of Indira Gandhi—for it deals with only one aspect of her personality and her record in office.

Why focus on Indira Gandhi’s life as a naturalist when she was quintessentially a politician?

The answer is simple.

A naturalist is who Indira Gandhi really was, who she thought she was. She got sucked into the whirlpool of politics but the real Indira Gandhi was the person who loved the mountains, cared deeply for wildlife, was passionate about birds, stones, trees and forests, and was worried deeply about the environmental consequences of urbanization and industrialization.

She was the only head of government, other than the host prime minister, to speak at the first-ever United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972. Her speech there has reverberated down the decades.

She was singularly responsible not just for India’s best-known wildlife conservation programme—namely, Project Tiger—but also for less highprofile initiatives for the protection of crocodiles, lions, hanguls, cranes, bustards, flamingos, deer and other endangered species.

She almost single-handedly pushed through two laws—one for the protection of wildlife and another for the conservation of forests, which continue to hold sway. Today’s laws for dealing with water and air pollution were enacted during her tenure.

Indira Gandhi used her political authority to save ecologically sensitive areas from destruction like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the entire northeast and the rainforests in the Western Ghats.

She repeatedly drew the attention of chief ministers and other political colleagues to issues concerning wildlife, forests, pollution, resettlement, and for the need to always maintain what she called ‘ecological balance’.

She highlighted, time and again, the inextricable link between India’s natural and built heritage. Indeed, she was one of the very few—perhaps, the only one—to see nature and culture as two sides of the same coin.

It is because of these accomplishments, among several others, that Indira Gandhi deserves to be looked at with a fresh ‘green’ lens. While her politics and economics changed over the years, all through she remained steadfast to conservation. This passion survived the vicissitudes in her life.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi watching lions in Gir, Gujarat; November 1955 (Courtesy Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature)

On matters related to the environment, she was open-minded and deeply engaged all the time. She listened, consulted and reached out. She responded to what she was being told. She was both active and proactive. She gave political space to different points of view; she offered time, often at short notice, to those who would not normally have been able to reach individuals at the helm of decision-making. She took courageous positions that had no immediate electoral payoffs.

The environmentalist in her has never got the acknowledgement it warrants from her biographers… A cohesive ecological narrative extending right through her life based on written records has been missing.

That is the unabashed reason for this book. It is an exploration of a relatively under-appreciated dimension of Indira Gandhi’s personality and of her achievements in public life as an ecologist.

…Whatever the judgement regarding her politics or economics, Indira Gandhi is still relevant as far as India’s search for ecological security in its pursuit of high economic growth is concerned.

Indira Gandhi in Himachal Pradesh; winter 1956 (Courtesy Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature)

On more than one occasion Indira Gandhi had said that she was no feminist. By the same token, she was no narrow, one-dimensional environmentalist either. She was always acutely aware and deeply conscious that she was the prime minister of a country burdened by deprivation and poverty, a country where malnutrition and disease were widely prevalent, a country where the main challenge was to educate a growing population and provide it with expanding employment opportunities.

Her entire effort, therefore, was to arrive at a balance between ecology and economic growth. This meant that, at times, she would align herself with the ecology and on other occasions, with the forces of growth and industrialization, while insisting on ecological safeguards…

From Chapter 3: The Companionship Years (1950–1964)

By Indira’s own admission, her entire life revolved around India’s first prime minister. … for the purposes of this book—it’s best to describe the time between 1950 and 1964 as ‘the companionship years’.

…For fourteen years, Indira Gandhi lived in Teen Murti House, the prime minister’s official residence in a lush green 65-acre complex with peacocks and various other birds. This sprawling colonial-era bungalow was originally built for the British commander-in-chief who started living there in 1930. When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948, there was concern that Nehru might be the next target. A reluctant Nehru was persuaded by his cabinet to move into the bungalow, which he did on 2 August 1948. Indira Gandhi shuttled back and forth between Lucknow and New Delhi, before moving in full-time with her father in early 1950.

Jawaharlal Nehru with Himalayan pandas, Teen Murti House; 1957. (Courtesy Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature)

The prime minister’s residence was a mini-zoo of sorts—as graphically described by Indira Gandhi herself seven years into her stay there:

We always had dogs, the good kind with long pedigrees and others rescued off the streets that were just as devoted—also parrots, pigeons, squirrels and practically every small creature common to the Indian scene. And we thought life was pretty full, looking after them on top of all the older [sic] chores. Then in Assam, we were presented with a baby cat-bear (or red Himalayan panda), although we did not know what it was until we reached Agartala and were able to study the book of Indian animals in the Commissioner’s library […] Much later we got him a mate […] and now they have the most adorable little cubs—the first, I believe, to be bred in captivity. My father calls on the panda family morning and evening. They miss him when he is out of station […]

Two years ago, we received our first tiger cubs—there were three named Bhim, Bhairav and Hidamba. A man came from Lucknow Zoo to teach us how to look after them […After a while] we sent them off to the Lucknow Zoo where you can still meet Bhim and Hidimba; magnificent beasts, their muscles rippling with power and grace. [Marshal Tito] asked for one of them and Bhairav now resides in Belgrade.

…Of all the jungle’s magnificent creatures, Indira was unarguably most committed to the tiger. She had read Jim Corbett, of course, but perhaps the first time she actually saw the beast in the wild was on 19 October 1955 on the way to Jog Falls in Karnataka. That day, she wrote to her father:

Here I am after all. And truly it’s a sight worth seeing. The scenery all along the road was very lovely too, although the road itself was deplorable.

Just as I was being told that there is no likelihood of seeing any wild animal at that time of the forenoon and in this season when water is plentiful throughout the forest, a tiger, magnificent creature, sauntered across the road just in front of our car.

The sight was permanently etched in her mind—and twenty-seven years later she recalled it vividly in a foreword to a book of wildlife photographs by one of her senior colleagues from Karnataka.

Indira Gandhi with four chief ministers—(left to right) V.P. Naik, chief minister of Maharashtra; Ghanshyam Oza, chief minister of Gujarat; Barkatullah Khan, chief minister of Rajasthan; and P.C. Sethi, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh—signing an agreement on projects along the Narmada; August 1972. (Courtesy Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature)

Consequently, if there’s one environmental cause Indira is forever associated with, it is tiger conservation. Intriguingly, throughout the 1950s, the Indian Board for Wild Life (IBWL), set up in April 1952, never recommended a ban on shooting tigers. In fact, in its very first meeting in Mysore in November–December 1952, it identified fourteen animals that required urgent protection, but failed to mention the grand beast! A ban on hunting tigers came to be initiated only in 1970, four years after Indira became prime minister.

Read more: Emergency gave democratic credentials to RSS, Modi: Jairam Ramesh

But that Indira thoroughly disapproved of the practice is revealed by a letter dated 7 September 1956 that she wrote to her son Rajiv:

We have received a huge tiger’s skin. The tiger was shot by the Maharaja of Rewa only two months ago. The skin is lying in the ballroom. Every time I pass it I feel very sad that instead of lying here he might have been roaming and roaring in the jungle. Our tigers are such beautiful creatures, so graceful. You can see their muscles rippling under their skins. Such a short time ago he must have been King of the Jungle—striking terror in the hearts of other animals.

I am so glad that nowadays more and more people prefer to go into the jungles with their cameras instead of guns. It seems such a shame to deprive anything of the joy of living just for our pleasure.

Indira Gandhi feeding kangaroo during a retreat organized by the Commonwealth Summit, Melbourne, Australia; May 1981. (Courtesy Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature)

First Published: Jun 12, 2017 21:44 IST