The woman of the millennium!

The woman of the millenniuml

Mrs. Gandhi being elected woman of the millennium is a matter of great satisfaction to every Indian and my mind is filled with the memories of Mrs. Gandhi as I saw her from time to time. My first recollections of Mrs.Gandhi are when I was seven or eight years old. Those days Mrs.Gandhi was not yet in politics. She was a social worker and took interest in the activities of the Indian Council of Child Welfare. Around that time, very close to our house in Delhi, the first Bal Bhavan was established. We children went over there almost every evening. Mrs.Gandhi used to occasionally drop in and join us in whatever we were doing. One day she joined us in the clay modelling class. She made a little horse and as we stood watching, she told us about the ‘Bankura Horse’. That really showed her love for Bengal. Sometimes she brought her children and encouraged them to play with us. She used to come without fail on ‘Diwali Day’ and bring sweet packets in a big basket for us. I remember many happy occasions when I have received sweets from her. Those days she was a very appealing woman in her thirties who usually wore a big bindi on her forehead, white saree and flowers in her hair.
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When the King of Saudi Arabia made his first visit of India he brought a big consignment of dates for the Indian children. Dates were distributed in all the schools in Delhi. In the evening, when we came to Bal Bhavan, we received a second and bigger helping from Mrs. Gandhi who came personally to distribute the dates. As the years went by her visits to Bal Bhavan became few and far between, but it was due to her patronage till the very end that the Delhi Bal Bhavan became a unique centre of creative learning for children. She totally shared her father’s love for children and later helped in establishing bal bhavans all over India under the Nehru Memorial Fund. The next image of Mrs. Gandhi which is imprinted in my mind is of the day when she lost her husband. Having always placed duty before self she had been forced to drift away from him. Many people did not understand that the blow of Phiroze Gandhi’s death was much deeper for her than what could be visualised. I can’t forget the symbolic way in which she offered her long and beautiful hair to the flames on the funeral pyre of her husband. It was a symbol of the great devotion which an Indian woman feels for her husband. She wanted a part of her body permanently to go with him. All those who were witnesses to this act were deeply moved.

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Mrs.Gandhi as a remarkable woman and as Nehru’s daughter meant so much to us girls but still we could never visualise her as the Prime Minister. With her slight figure, angelic beauty and long black hair, she appeared to us more like a fairy and an ideal, and not a Prime Minister. It was only after Nehru’s death that possibilities of her becoming Prime Minister were becoming more and more real. I can’t forget the mood in Delhi, the day she was actually sworn in as the Prime Minister. I was doing my second year in college. After the classes, we were walking towards the bus stop in the evening when we suddenly felt that there was something euphoric in the air. When the evening newspaper boy thrust a newspaper in my hand, the full impact of what had happened dawned on us. A woman had become the Prime Minister of India – the largest democracy in the world. Before it could happen anywhere else, it had happened right here in India. We were jumping with joy. We congratulated and shook hands with every other woman walking on the road. Old women hugged us and young women laughed with an air of new-found freedom. We were dazed and we knew in our hearts it was not Indira Gandhi but all of us who had made it. We forgot to take the bus and walked all the way home sharing and enjoying with abandon a great moment in history of Indian womanhood.

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What Indira Gandhi has done as Prime Minister is history and I don’t wish to go into that here, but I must mention about the passing of a small but significant piece of legislation by her. When I joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1972 I found a discriminatory clause in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) regarding Conduct Rules which greatly discouraged women from joining the prime services of the nation. On the one hand the women who joined IFS were not permitted to get married at all. In case they happened to venture into marriage they were no more worthy of the exalted Indian Foreign Service and had to quit the job. On the other hand there were no such restrictions on men. Similarly, women who joined the IAS could not marry while they were on probation. Even after the probation was over they could not get married without the prior permission of the Government. Whereas no such permission was needed by the men in order to get married. These clauses were a grave insult to Indian women. Due to such disabilities many intelligent women of extraordinary talents had to resign from the Indian Foreign Service and many others were forced to remain single. The chauvinistic clauses remained there, untouched, to make things as difficult for women as possible.

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This really infuriated me and I wanted to bring this injustice to the notice of the Prime Minister. To our surprise she was already in charge of the matter. While we all watched and cheered from the visitors gallery in the Lok Sabha, Mrs. Gandhi herself moved the amendment to All India Services Act. She not only removed the offensive clauses, but added certain provisions to make the family life of women officers much more congenial and comfortable both in the IAS and IFS. While the Prime Minister was busy with major issues and large scale programmes, a minor but personal matter, concerning a tiny number of women officers, did not escape her attention. She visited us at the National Academy of Administration and also received a delegation of women officers at her residence. The message which she personally conveyed to us was that each woman should work twice as hard as a man to make an impact. She also said, “whatever job you do ‘first help the women’, stand against suppression, fight for your rights and those of others, yet never take advantage of being a woman”. I always keep these words in my mind when I sit on my desk.

I took another delegation to her to permit women officers to join the Indian Police Service. It was only due to the personal efforts of Mrs. Gandhi overruling her cabinet secretary and other advisors that the Indian Police Service was thrown open to the Indian Women in 1972 and Kiran Bedi became the first woman police officer of the country. I have great satisfaction to see that Kiran has brought a good name to the country and vindicated the stand taken by Mrs. Gandhi. The next time I saw Mrs.Gandhi was when she visited Tamilnadu during the 1977 election campaign. Those days I was the Deputy Secretary to the Governor Shree Mohan Lal Sukhadia ji. Mrs.Gandhi was hopping from place to place in her helicopter on her election tour. I think she was already expecting the worst outcome and looked very exhausted and weak when she halted briefly at the Madras Raj Bhavan. On that occasion she hardly ate anything. Inspite of her personal worries, she was full of care and concern for the Raj Bhavan staff and enquired personally about each one of us. The Cancer Institute at Adyar had asked for a piece of land near the Children’s park (where they have their new complex). Mrs. Gandhi was very keen to help them and checked with me the status of their case. As was expected Mrs.Gandhi lost the elections due to the unpopularity of emergency and some other factors.

I happened to visit Delhi around that time and I got from my mother, the following account of Mrs.Gandhi, after her defeat. All the women in our neighbourhood, cutting across party lines, including my mother were grief stricken at her defeat. They decided to call on her to console her. They put on their white sarees, black badges and made their way to her house. Mrs.Gandhi no more a Prime Minister could receive them at leisure. As soon as they saw Mrs.Gandhi they became hysterical and started wailing and crying. Some fell on the ground and swooned, others started beating their chests. One screamed ‘Indira ji sab kuch khatam ho gaya, (Indira ji every thing is finished). Mrs. Gandhi simply told them to stop being absolutely foolish. She said “power is finished but Indira Gandhi is not finished. Now that I am free from the burden of Prime Ministership I can work much more closely with the people, which I always wanted to do”. Towards the end of the meeting when she saw some women still sobbing and wiping their noses with their pallus she smiled imperceptibly and said “Aap himmat rakhiye mein vapis aaa jaungi”. (Please maintain your courage for I will come back). Only then were the women able to get up and leave. So much was their faith in her, even when she stood before them defeated and lost. I am sure she spoke these words more to console the unhappy women, but it did come true sooner than expected and she was back in the saddle.

One of the rare moments when we were again able to be in her presence was during the 5th World Tamil Conference held in Madurai in the year 1980. Dr.Venkatasubramaniam, currently Member Planning Commission (then Director of School Education) and I were to go to the Madurai Airport to receive the Hon’ble Prime Minister. It was his idea that I place a floral kreetam on her head. She was quite amazed by the crown made of flowers and enquired about its significance. Dr.Venkatasubramaniam promptly said that it was symbolic of the kreetam of ‘Goddess Meenakshi’, the legendary goddess who ruled the city of Madurai. During the day she enjoyed the various cultural events thoroughly. In the evening after the cultural pageant and procession she was to have an exclusive meeting with foreign delegates in Pandiyan Hotel next to the Circuit House where she was staying. This was to take place before she addressed a mammoth public meting. The number of people who had turned up in Madurai on that day was unprecedented. After the procession was over there was a terrible traffic jam. The foreign delegates who were to come for this meeting got stuck in the traffic jam and could not reach the meeting. Everybody from top to bottom was nervous. The meeting which was scheduled for 4 p.m. could not be held till 6.30 p.m. The Prime Minister kept her cool and waited patiently in the Circuit House for two-and-half-hours. When it was suggested to her that due to the delay, this particular meeting could be cancelled and she could proceed directly to the public meeting, she said, “Foreign delegates should not be disappointed. They must carry a good image of India with them. I shall wait”. Any other lesser mortal would have shown total impatience with the breakdown of arrangements and lost his temper, but not Mrs.Gandhi. Her meeting with the foreign delegates of the World Tamil Conference lasted for 40 minutes and was most enjoyable to watch. She listened to them with great interest and answered all their queries. Mrs.Gandhi was most happy when a Delegate from USA started reciting Tamil folk songs and enacted a piece from the Tamil Folk Street Theatre (Therukoothu).

Later her speech in the public meeting showed such insight into the Tamil Culture that most of us were spell bound. She made mention of the fact that English words like rice and mango were derived from (arisi and mangkai). Such a simple thing had never occurred to any of us. She paid glorious tributes to Valluvar, to Tamil literature and to the Bharat Natyam dance form. We all sincerely felt that it was the best speech we had heard, in the ten-day long conference, surpassing those of the Tamil scholars and experts. 

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