Early life and career
Indira Gandhi was born as Indira Priyadarshini Nehru in a Kashmiri Pandit family on 19 November 1917 in Allahabad. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in India's political struggle for independence from British rule, and became the first Prime Minister of the Dominion (and later Republic) of India. She was the only child (a younger brother was born, but died young), and grew up with her mother, Kamala Nehru, at the Anand Bhavan; a large family estate in Allahabad. She had a lonely and unhappy childhood. Her father was often away, directing political activities or incarcerated, while her mother was frequently bed-ridden with illness, and later suffered an early death from tuberculosis. She had limited contact with her father, mostly through letters.
Young Indira with Mahatma Gandhi
during his fast
in 1924. Indira, who is dressed in a khadi
garment, is following Gandhi's advocacy that khadi be worn by all Indians instead of British-made textiles
Indira was mostly taught at home by tutors, and intermittently attended school until matriculation in 1934. She was a student at the Modern School in Delhi, St Cecilia's and St Mary's Christian convent schools in Allahabad, the International School of Geneva, the Ecole Nouvelle in Bex, and the Pupils' Own School in Poona and Bombay, which is affiliated to University of Mumbai. She and her mother Kamala Nehru moved to Belur Math headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission where Swami Ranganathananda was her guardian later she went on to study at the Vishwa Bharati in Santiniketan, which later in 1951 became Visva-Bharati University. It was during her interview that Rabindranath Tagore named her Priyadarshini, literally "looking at everything with kindness" in Sanskrit, and she came to be known as Indira Priyadarshini Nehru. A year later, however, she had to leave university to attend to her ailing mother in Europe. While there, it was decided that Indira would continue her education at the University of Oxford. After her mother died, she briefly attended the Badminton School before enrolling at Somerville College in 1937 to study history. Indira had to take the entrance examination twice, having failed at her first attempt with a poor performance in Latin. At Oxford, she did well in history, political science and economics, but her grades in Latin—a compulsory subject—remained poor. She did, however, have an active part within the student life of the university, such as the Oxford Majlis Asian Society.
On 26 September 1981, Indira was conferred with the Honorory Degree of Doctor at the Laucala Graduation at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.
Indira Nehru c. early 1930s
During her time in Europe, Indira was plagued with ill-health and was constantly attended to by doctors. She had to make repeated trips to Switzerland to recover, disrupting her studies. She was being treated there in 1940, when the German armies rapidly conquered Europe. Gandhi tried to return to England through Portugal but was left stranded for nearly two months. She managed to enter England in early 1941, and from there returned to India without completing her studies at Oxford. The university later awarded her an honorary degree. In 2010, Oxford further honoured her by selecting her as one of the ten Oxasians, illustrious Asian graduates from the University of Oxford.
During her stay in Great Britain, Indira frequently met her future husband Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), whom she knew from Allahabad, and who was studying at the London School of Economics. The marriage took place in Allahabad according to Adi Dharm rituals though Feroze belonged to a Zoroastrian Parsi family of Gujarat. The couple had two sons, Rajiv Gandhi (born 1944) and Sanjay Gandhi (born 1946).
In the 1950s, Indira, now Mrs Indira Gandhi after her marriage, served her father unofficially as a personal assistant during his tenure as the first Prime Minister of India. Towards the end of the 1950s, Indira Gandhi served as the President of the Congress. In that capacity, she was instrumental in getting the Communist led Kerala State Government dismissed in 1959. That government had the distinction of being India's first ever elected Communist Government. After her father's death in 1964 she was appointed as a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and served in Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri's cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. In January 1966, after Shastri's death, the Congress legislative party elected Indira Gandhi over Morarji Desai as their leader. Congress party veteran K. Kamaraj was instrumental in achieving Indira's victory. Because she was a woman, other political leaders in India saw Gandhi as weak and hoped to use her as a puppet once elected:
Congress President Kamaraj orchestrated Mrs. Gandhi's selection as prime minister because he perceived her to be weak enough that he and the other regional party bosses could control her, and yet strong enough to beat Desai [her political opponent] in a party election because of the high regard for her father...a woman would be an ideal tool for the Syndicate.