Jairam Ramesh profiles Indira Gandhi as a naturalist

[First published in The Hindu dated May 21, 2017]

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

– William Shakespeare

Cover of the book. Picture credit: Amazon.in

While reading the “unconventional” biography of Indira Gandhi — Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature — one cannot help but wonder if the mantle of her father and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was thrust upon her after all. For, in more than one instance, the author of the book, Congress leader and former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh presents private correspondences of Mrs. Gandhi with her friends to show how the ‘Iron Lady of India’ had a softer side to her personality that yearned for the mountains and proximity to nature.

“I get a tremendous urge to leave everything and retire to a far far place high in the mountains.” Mrs. Gandhi is quoted as writing to her friend American photographer Dorothy Norman in 1958. In 1959, when she became Congress President, she is quoted as writing to a friend: “This heavy responsibility and hard work has descended on me just when I was planning for a quiet and peaceful year…”

Ramesh defends his decision to singularly portray the environmentalist in Indira Gandhi in his book: “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.”

Political redemption

The year 2017 marks the centenary of Mrs. Gandhi’s birth (November 19, 1917). It also marks 40 years since the Emergency was lifted in India (March 21, 1977), two years after the Congress government under Mrs. Gandhi imposed it on June 25, 1975. To have chosen this year, thus, to release a book on the former Prime Minister’s environmental legacy comes across as an effort to redeem her image from that of a “dictator” who trampled upon the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights of Indians. And Ramesh does that convincingly, quoting amply from private correspondences, public speeches and forewords to books that she wrote. The author sources several of his references from the recently declassified files available at the National Archives, New Delhi. He also blames Mrs. Gandhi’s nemesis Jayaprakash Narayan for provoking her to impose the Emergency by urging the army and the police to disregard orders of her ‘illegal government’.

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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