As twelve year-old head of the Monkey Brigade, a youth group that sought to help end British rule in India, Indira learned the dialogue of power young. She once conned British officials out of searching the car she was in by saying she did not want to be late for school – the documents on the seat beside her gave details of a forthcoming civil disobedience.
She had always been close to her father who educated her, sending her letters from prison about global history. These letters were later collated into a still-popular one thousand page book, Glimpses of World History.
When she was 19, Gandhi’s mother died and she began to help her father entertain political visitors and diplomats, developing her own political career in the process. Nehru died in 1964, having been in power since independence. His successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri died suddenly in 1966. Perhaps deluded by her femaleness into thinking she would be meek and malleable, Congress, of which she was by now president, helped her into power. They had underestimated her. She immediately fired several congress members and began to rule not with a feather but with a fist.
In the aftermath of the Bengal Famine, one of the ambitious policies she introduced was the Green Revolution, which expanded farmland, maximised the numbers of crops grown in particular areas and introduced GM crops. As a result, India could feed itself effectively and even began successfully exporting food.
What might be of interest to my readers is what happened after she introduced a state of emergency. In a bid to stop the rural deaths from hunger in rural areas, Gandhi, along with her son Sanjay, introduced a sterilisation programme:
This programme was implemented by Compulsuasion (compulsion and persuasion), ensuring that as many people as possible in particular areas of India were unable to reproduce. Denied public food rations, village wells, their own salaries and even dragged to clinics, people were left with little choice. As a Catholic schoolgirl of the late 80s and early 90s, I recall the emphasis that fundraising efforts placed on hunger versus starvation, hunger being a chronic problem and killing far more people than starvation. I now wonder if these charities’ focus on world hunger came not just out of a desire to diminish the results of hunger itself but from the fear of other countries taking up Gandhi’s controversial sterilisation model. Sadly with condoms and the pill taboo, the practice of sterilisation is still taking place in India today (4million sterilisations took place between 2013-14 and there have been over seven hundred related deaths in the last few years).
Given the sterilisation policy and that Gandhi commissioned India’s first nuclear weapon what is it I admire about her? That she was an intellectual woman who thrived in a man’s world – as far as I’m aware, she was the only female political leader when she first came to power in 1966. That she believed in multiculturalism and in people from different religions living side by side. That she had vision and survived prison only to be reinstated by her country in the next election. And all this whilst being a mother.
Gandhi lost her son Sanjay, who she was priming to succeed her, to an aircraft accident after he crashed a plane he had not yet learned to fly. Funeral footage shows her walking alongside his body, her own cramped over in grief. It is said that afterwards she spent much of her time alone in the garden.
I have been fortunate enough never to experience what is, without question, one of the worst things that can happen to a human being – the death of child. But I do touch on the subject in my pamphlet. At the Permeke exhibition at Bozar in Brussels, I saw in some of the portraits of his wife the love but also the distance that can be created when an infant dies. I chose the title ‘Castrametation’, which means military camp and comes from the Latin for fortified place to point, albeit obliquely, to the walls grief builds around us. The poem is spoken in the voice of the father who tries to emotionally reach his wife without success and ends thus:
This is a sorrow men can only view
from behind, in silhouette.
(Becky Cherriman, ‘Castrametation’, Echolocation)
Gandhi’s own death is well – documented. She said with prescience, ‘If I die every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.’ The next day she was assassinated. If she had survived another 8 years she would have had to witness the assassination of her remaining son Rajiv who was blown up by a suicide bomber along with 14 others in 1991.
As we’ve seen recently, after extreme religious groups take action there is often a backlash. After Gandhi’s murder, Sikhs across India were targeted and killed for the actions of the two assassins who happened to share the same religion. As someone who believed in a secular state – Gandhi’s attempt at protecting India’s secularism by sending the military into the temple where Sikhs were meeting to discuss how to obtain an independent state was the reason for her assassination - this would not have been what she wanted.
A Firm of Poets have been given a residency at The Hepworth Wakefield to celebrate the photography of Martin Parr. They have lots of exciting things planned. I will be running a drop in workshop for them on the evening of Thursday 18th February. Do drop me a line if you think you can come along. Find details at The Hepworth Wakefield
Echolocation poetry pamphlet – Nottingham launch at 7.30pm on Weds 24th February 2016
Echolocation poetry pamphlet – Leeds launch at 2pm on Sun 28th February 2016. Tickets are free but are going fast so please book in plenty of time.