Dr Karan Singh

She had Found Inner Peace

She was deeply political and maybe a little more to the left than her father, and she had deeply held convictions. But before her assassination, she had risen above the heat and dust of politics.

To write about Indira Gandhi in a short article is virtually impossible. My correspondence with her, published by Penguin entitled ‘Kashmir and Beyond’, is a companion volume to the earlier one covering my correspondence with Pandit Jawarhalal Nehru, entitled “Jammu & Kashmir:
1949-1964”.

Pandit Nehru loved Kashmir and often visited along with Indira Gandhi and her sons-Rajiv and Sanjay. We got to know her well and on one occasion she stayed with us in Srinagar at Karan Mahal.

Although there was a general impression that she was only playing hostess for her father, those who knew her well were aware of her deeply held political convictions and commitments.

That political maturity and ideological clarity certainly had much to do with her later rise to power. It could hardly have been otherwise, growing up as she did in the highly political family founded by her grandfather; Motilal Nehru, and she literally breathed politics.

Then she had aunts, cousins and other members of the family, all deeply immersed in the nationalist movement. We also realised that she was an activist, somewhat more left-oriented than her father.

Father’s Companion

She did play an important role as the hostess in Teen Murti House and often accompanied her father on his visits abroad.

I recall on one occasion she called us in Srinagar and invited Asha and me to come down to Delhi for a dinner party that Pandit Nehru was hosting for Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the U.S. President.

On several other occasions also we attended dinners at Teen Murti House, during which we met a broad spectrum of interesting people from India and from around the world.

Asha and I got to know Indira well during the years I was Sadr-i-Riyasat up in Jammu and Kashmir, and by then I had begun chafing at the bit and wanting to enter the national political scene rather than being confined to the state.

She was aware of that. When she became Prime Minister after the sudden demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri, I reiterated my desire, but she said that I should wait until the general elections that were due in 1967.

When she won in 1967, despite a strong bid by Morarji Desai, she invited me to join her Cabinet as Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation, which I did on 15 March 1967.

I remained in her Cabinet for ten years until the party was roundly defeated in North India in the postEmergency elections of 1977. Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi both lost their seats and I was only one of the three Congress candidates elected to the Lok Sabha from North India.

I have lots of memories connected with Indira Gandhi during the ten years when I was in her Cabinet- 1967-1977. But I will mention only three.

Privy Purse

The first was the crisis when she decided to abolish the Privy Purse and privileges that had been promised to the Indian princes when they had acceded to India.

Although in this step the sum involved was virtually negligible, she made it one of her slew of populist measures which stood her in good political stead. Being a privy-purse holder myself and the member of her cabinet, I was obviously in an awkward position.

We did try to work out a compromise formula but the Concord of Princes took a maximalist view and refused to compromise as a result of which they lost everything.

I was the only one to stand up in Parliament and support the measure when Indira Gandhi happened to be in the House for the crucial debate.

The second crisis came when an Avro plane whose airworthiness had come under scrutiny crashed. As Minister for Civil Aviation, I had defended the decision to keep flying the aircraft.

This became a matter of considerable controversy in Parliament. There was a widespread impression that the plane was defective, which in fact turned out to be not correct when the enquiry ascribed the crash to pilot error.

I considered it necessary to take moral responsibility for the crash and sent in my resignation to Indira Gandhi, followed by a statement in Parliament. After waiting for two days, I learnt she had not accepted the resignation.

“I REMAINED IN HER CABINET FOR TEN YEARS UNTIL THE PARTY WAS ROUNDLY DEFEATED IN NORTH INDIA IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE EMERGENCY IN THE YEAR 1975”

Indira often accompanied her father in the country and abroad

Bangladesh Surge

The third memorable occasion was in December 1971 at the height of the
Bangladesh liberation war. For subsequent generations, it may be difficult to realise the extent of emotional involvement of the entire nations with the Bangladesh freedom fighters, and the remarkable role of the Indian Army.

I was sitting in the House and it so happened that my seat alphabetically came directly behind the Prime Minister. She seldom showed her emotions, but on that occasion, she virtually ran into the House, interrupted the debate and said, “Mr Speaker, I have an announcement to make.”

There was an immediate silence in the House and she said, “Dhaka has fallen to the Indian Army.” The house literally exploded in joy and had to be adjourned. That was, in fact, her finest hour.

Mistake, Mistake…

In addition to these events, there was, of course, the Emergency, which Indira Gandhi herself later said had been a mistake. After the Allahabad High Court judgment, there was a furor: The Opposition saw this as a golden opportunity.

I sat at my desk and wrote a personal handwritten letter, which as I mentioned, was not in my capacity as a Cabinet Minister, but in my personal capacity.

I suggested that she should offer to resign, send in her resignation to the President, who need not accept it on the grounds that the final decision was to be taken by the Supreme Court on her appeal.

This, I felt, would not only be the correct thing to do but may also have obviated the endless criticism that followed. I happened to have kept a photocopy of the letter which has been published in my correspondence with her.

She did not reply, nor was the matter mentioned hereafter. This is not the occasion to enter into a detailed description of the events that took place thereafter, except to say that when the party split, I chose to be with what was then the mainstream of the party led by YB Chavan including K Brahmananda Reddy, C Subramaniam, Sardar Swaran Singh and other leaders, rather than join the Congress (I) which she formed after the defeat.

As it turned out it was her faction that emerged triumphant after the 1980 elections, and although I was never in the government again, I did retain cordial personal relations with her.

I recall meeting her just a few weeks before her tragic assassination, a tragic end of a remarkable woman who, triumphing over all odds, led India as Prime Minister for 15 years.

Her last letter which was a sort of an informal will is a truly remarkable document and shows clearly that by the end she had risen above the heat and dust of her political life and achieved an inner calm and equilibrium.

In fact, just a few months before she had fulfilled her long-cherished desire to visit Kashmir in autumn, something she had not done before.

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