Political Iconography & the Female Political Leader: The Case of Indira Gandhi, Some Initial Questions

On October 2, 2012 by admin


 Trina Nileena Banerjee



‘The coming generation will feel extremely proud of the name of Indira Gandhi. They will worship her as the personification of Sita, Lakshmi and Durga. Long live Indiraji,’

~ Virendra Khanna, General Secretary of National Affairs. [i]



From a large portion of the visual, historical and literary material emerging around the National Emergency in India (1975-1977), it could be argued that a strong undertone of religiosity and the sense of a mystical, yet terrifying, female power surrounded the popular perception of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule. Sita[ii], Lakshmi[iii] and Durga[iv], of course, stood for the virtues of chastity, purity, service, prosperity and strength – qualities that were seen to be embodied in Indira’s person during the first years of her government. The influence of religious, especially Hindu religious, iconography had always been a strong determinant in the popular representations of national political leadership in India and had managed to survive from the days of the nationalist struggle into the 1970s, as Christopher Pinney has shown in his book Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India.[v] In an essay called ‘Towards the Space of the Beholder’, Pinney writes:

Ramakrishna, as also Swami Vivekananda, initially subjected to photographic regimes, were very soon circulated through the technology of chromolithography – a way of disseminating photos of the gods (bhagwan ke photo) which was more phenomenologically adequate to the task of impressing quasi-divine power. The same would soon also be true of the political pantheon as it merged towards the end of the nineteenth century. Tilak, Gandhi, Ambedkar and numerous others were endlessly photographically documented (many of them by the Bombay based photographer V. N. Virkar), but is as coloured lithographs that they sedimented themselves among the wider populace.[vi]

An examination of Indira Gandhi’s representations in popular art during the 1960s and 1970s (as recorded in the prints available in Pinney’s book and various popular cartoons) reveals a continuation of this tradition: an odd visual continuum between the portrayal of godhead and that of political leadership. The element of worship, which had continued to feature prominently in the political and electoral popularity of figures of Indira Gandhi’s stature from the time of Independence, appears to be a strong subterranean current in these popular representations. This strand of religiosity was not a figment of imagination or wishful thinking that emerged from sections of Indira’s loyal coterie, but, arguably, significantly coloured the visual and verbal rhetoric of the dominant political propaganda surrounding her greatness, shaping mass-produced images and popular calendar art, and ultimately putting the final seal on the process of her deification during the nineteen months of the Emergency, when Congress President D. K. Barooah famously claimed “India is Indira, Indira is India.’ Pinney writes in his book about the continuities that existed in the 1960s’ and 70s’ between representations of technological/military advance, political leadership and religious figures:

There were also, in the 1960s and ’70s, inevitably a vast number of Indira images; she is shown with Jawaharlal Nehru, with Sanjay, against the national flag. One series, strongly inflected with a Soviet socialist realist aesthetic, depicts scenes from the life of contemporary India within decorative interlocking cogs suggestive of a huge mechanized India. Heroic peasants clutching sheaves of wheat and sickles are juxtaposed with vast hydroelectric projects, the Trombay reactor, heavy engineering works and scenes of high-tech laboratories peopled by whitecoated technicians. Wendy O’Flaherty once commented on the Shivling-like contours of the Trombay reactor, suggesting that a postage stamp that bore its image depicted it within a religious frame. Be that as it may, some Hindu deities have always engaged intimately with modernity. Vishvakarma – a traditional deity of artisan castes – has long been worshipped through special pujas in steel and other factories throughout India…[vii]

Impulses towards industrial modernity merged with celebrations of (Hindu) religious tradition the labour-power of ‘heroic peasants’; presiding over these images, yoking together ‘progress’ and the visual grammar of Hindu worship, was the benevolent figure of the then current Prime Minister and the concrete embodiment of the idea of ‘Mother India’. This essay will attempt to examine, through the case of Indira Gandhi, the complex and perhaps perverse imbrications of authoritarian rule, deification, embodiment and femininity in the Indian political context of the 1960s and 1970s. How a female political leader ‘performs her image’ in the post-colonial public sphere and the extra-rational implications of this performance, which tap on to both deep-seated religious and socio-cultural resources for success, would be the primary themes of exploration in this paper. The essay also emerges from my broader investment in a theoretical and historical exploration of women’s relationship to power in the realpolitik, their differential engagements with political violence (not just as victims but also as agents/perpetrators) and their associations with authoritarian/repressive/right-wing regimes and politico-religious movement.  The association of a female political leader with perhaps the single-most repressive period in the political history of post-Independence India leads to an inevitable rethinking of the straightforward liberal feminist notion of female political agency as a positive in itself. I am interested in the relationship of this problematic to performance, especially the performance of gender in the public and political sphere.

Popular visual representations – for example, the frequently misogynistic cartoons and caricatures in the mainstream media[viii] – of Indira Gandhi that were current during the period of her governance reveal much about the intimate, complex, and sometimes derisive, relationship existing between the iconic female leader and the postcolonial polity she governed.  My specific interest is in the relationship of popular critiques, as well as celebrations, of political conservatism to the figure of the exceptionally powerful female. There is, in addition, the difficulty faced by feminists in reading such a figure, one who did nothing historically for the larger interests of marginalized women’s groups, as well as for ‘sisterhood’. This difficulty is addressed by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan in her essay ‘Gender, Leadership and Nation: The ‘Case’ of Indira Gandhi’[ix] in the book Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism. Sunder Rajan discusses the roles of female political leaders in South Asian countries and the difficulties that feminist theory faces in analyzing effectively their political contributions (especially vis-à-vis the complex popular representations of their ‘femininity’, or lack thereof). She writes: “In the typical biographical representations of Indira Gandhi, the problem of reconciling gender and authority is resolved through the familiar dichotomizing of the subject into a private self and a public persona; and here it is the self alone that is gendered female.”[x]During the Emergency when Indira Gandhi’s authority grew to unimaginable proportions and slogans such as ‘Indira is India’ became unprecedentedly popular. According to journalist Kuldip Nayar[xi], who was imprisoned under censorship laws during the Emergency, a ‘cult of personality’ developed around Mrs. Gandhi and visual spectacle formed a crucial part of this ‘cult’. Larger than life, and in some cases, enormous blow-ups of her figure, along with her new twenty-point economic programme appeared everywhere. It begun to be said that Mrs. Gandhi looked quite sordid in most of these gargantuan visual representations and she later had some of them pulled down. But the upshot was that the urban and semi-urban spaces of the country were pervaded by ‘monstrous’ representations of the female leader of the nation, who had by then begun to be widely hated in several circles for her uncompromisingly authoritarian ways. On the other hand, according to journalists like Barun Sengupta[xii], Indira Gandhi was often popularly referred to as the ‘only real man’ in the Congress (especially contra the previous Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was seen as a really weak and ineffectual leader), signaling towards a continuance of the reading of effective political leadership in terms of masculinity and femininity within what was, in reality, an atmosphere of severely repressive governance.

What seems to emerge ever more strongly in the studies of Indira Gandhi’s career, immediately pre- and post-Emergency, is the impossibility of the separation of a distilled ‘secular’ field in the postcolonial Indian context, where calculable electoral operations may be mapped without doubt in relation to stable constituencies, ‘interest’ groups and a ‘disenchanted’, and enlightened political actions. What Thomas Blom Hansen asserts in his study of Shiv Sena politics between the 1960s and 1990s, could perhaps also be said, in a more qualified way, about mainstream electoral politics in India in the build-up towards the Emergency and in the events that immediately followed it. It could be argued that some of the predominant political features of this time were the manipulation/organisation of public spectacles on massive scales and the management of public moods/rumours (during the Emergency through a containment of some rumours and the encouragement of others). There was also the deliberate operation of a certain stylistic aesthetic both in terms of rhetoric (including consistent ‘socialist’ double-speak in the case of Gandhi and the assertion of a freshly-minted ‘anti-corruption’ political honesty in the case of Jayprakash Narayan, her political and moral opponent) and bodily comportment. One could contend that it was all these factors put together, rather than any stable political ideology or concrete plan of action, which allowed both Gandhi and her subsequent opponent (popularly known as “JP”) to sustain, however briefly, the electoral/political gains they were able to garner. Hansen writes:  “[…] political choice and preference probably is guided by much more ephemeral and transient collective moods, as well as considerations of worthiness or personal qualities of the candidates standing for election. […] I will suggest we focus much more on the role of ideology, of the creation of public moods and sentiments, of the production of authority…”[xiii]  Also important for my argument in this context is the mode of production of this political authority in the case of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, which to my mind, approximates closely to what Achille Mbembe in his book On the Postcolony calls the self-construction of this authority as a ‘fetish.’ Mbembe writes:

“In the postcolony, the commandement8 seeks to institutionalize itself, to achieve legitimation and hegemony (recherche hégémonique), in the form of a fetish. The signs, vocabulary, and narratives that the commandement produces are meant not merely to be symbols; they are officially invested with a surplus of meanings that are not negotiable and that one is officially forbidden to depart from or challenge. To ensure that no such challenge takes place, the champions of state power invent entire constellations of ideas; they adopt a distinct set of cultural repertoires and powerfully evocative concepts; but they also resort, if necessary, to the systematic application of pain. The basic goal is not just to bring a specific political consciousness into being, but to make it effective.”[xiv]

But this same authoritarian move towards the fetishization of political authority/icons from above allows, according to Mbembe, a ludic space – a space where the postcolonial subject may turn into homo ludens par excellence. But Mbembe speaks also of the mutual ‘zombification’ of the commandement and the ruled which he sees as leading to instances of theophagy, since, he argues, this relationship is primarily a magical, enchanted one. He writes:

As noted, the commandement defines itself as a cosmology or, more simply, as a fetish. A fetish is, among other things, an object that aspires to be made sacred; it demands power and seeks to maintain a close, intimate relationship with those who carry it. […]It turns the postcolonial autocrat into an object that feeds on applause, flattery, lies. […]In this situation, one should not underestimate the violence that can be set in motion to protect the vocabulary used to denote or speak of the commandement, and to safeguard the official fictions that underwrite the apparatus of domination, since these are essential to keeping the people under the commandement’s spell, within an enchanted forest of adulation that, at the same time, makes them laugh.[xv]

He goes on to say:

[…] peculiar also to the postcolony is the way the relationship between rulers and ruled is forged through a specific practice: simulacrum (le simulacre). This explains why dictators can sleep at night lulled by roars of adulation and support only to wake up to find their golden calves smashed and their tablets of law overturned. The applauding crowds of yesterday have become today a cursing, abusive mob.[xvi]

Indira Gandhi’s massive electoral failure in the March 1977 elections is said to have immensely surprised her. Indira was caught off-guard by her defeat in spite of the fact that it was plain to see for anyone other than her and those who belonged to her sycophantic coterie that she was bound to lose. For her, who listened only to those who gave her the news she wanted to hear and the media she had herself carefully censored, the victory of the Janata Party under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan (also known as ‘Loknayak’: ‘the leader of the people) was unexpected. A solipsistic closed circle had been created between herself and the media she had carefully created (by putting into operation an immense machinery of every-day censorship that looked over the most banal details of everything that appeared in newsprint or was broadcast over radio), where she heard her own voice echoed back to her and in what could only be called a process of ‘zombification’ began to believe it. All official voices and every newspaper had explicitly sung only praises for Indira till the Emergency was called off on January 18, 1977, a couple of months before the election. The magical practice of fetishization and simulacral rituals had ensured that a mutual zombification of both the autocrat and the mobs was achieved. The announcement of the elections and the lifting of the Emergency meant that the autocrat’s spell was broken and the scenario seemed to be exactly as Mbembe has outlined above: the adoring/worshipping masses had turned overnight into an angry mob, hungry for its deity’s flesh. An instance of theophagy, it could be argued. Mbembe also provides an important clue towards the reading of resistance (or its absence) during the Emergency – that in the context of the familiarity and the intimate space shared by the ruler and the ruled, an atmosphere of conviviality shared by the two sides clear mappings of resistance and oppression in the way we commonsensically understand them would be difficult.

Around the time of the Emergency, therefore, official propaganda continued to fetishize and deliberately deify the image of Gandhi for the masses. Emma Tarlo discusses the emergence of dominant and official narrative of the Emergency in Northern India in the mid 1970s in her book Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi:

The overriding message was that through hard work and mass coordination, India could enter a new and successful era of socialism.




While slogans, stickers and newspaper headlines codified the basic message into succinct and memorable phrases, government pamphlets with titles like Timely Steps and Preserving Our Democratic Structure spread the word. […] the Prime Minister’s words are echoed in the praise of successive chief ministers and important dignitaries who proclaim the Emergency ‘a necessary measure’, ‘a good opportunity for the poor’, ‘a wise and timely action’. Meanwhile Indira herself is admired for her dynamic leadership, her pursuit of truth and her dedication to the nation for which she will never be forgotten.[xvii]

In the propaganda that painted her leadership as motherly service to the nation, the vast populace of India appeared as her children and explicit connections of Indira’s role as the benevolent maternal leader of the nation with iconic images of Bharat Mata were not uncommon. The crucial point to remember here about the nationalist imagination of Bharat Mata is that she was both a deity and a familial figure, an abstract symbol of the suffering yet resilient ‘spirit’ of India[xviii] as well as concretely embodied in and as Everywoman of the independent nation. The Bharat Mata was also the iconic embodiment of the twin feminine and seemingly opposing virtues of service/nurture and power/Shakti. Indira herself appears to have been an active participant in the representation and dual configuration of her political role as goddess and intimate, often deliberately using her supposed familial and nurturing roles in relation to the nation in order to garner popular support during electoral campaigns. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan tells us in her essay in Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism:

Indira herself used every opportunity to flaunt her (actual) Nehru identity as daughter, as well as her symbolic maternal concern for the people of the nation; and the two were not unrelated. It was during the 1967 elections when Indira Gandhi was only fifty years old that she was first hailed as ‘Mother India’. In a speech she said to her village audience, “Your burdens are relatively light because your families are limited and viable. But my burden is manifold because crores of my family members are poverty-stricken and I have to look after them’. Thus gendered family identities – especially motherhood – are culturally capable of sustaining metaphoric expansion to embrace dimensions of leadership. Mother India (the film) became the most memorable record of the possibilities of such transformation.[xix]

But as the Emergency intensified its grip on India, it extended its repressive reach from arbitrary mass arrests of almost all active members of the opposition parties under the MISA[xx] and the ruthless censorship of the press, towards the forced or coercive sterilization of multitudes of poor people in Northern India. This was especially widespread in Haryana, where Bansi Lal, the Prime Minister’s right hand man held his sway. Sterilization was carried out for the announced purposes of population control, along with a programme of ruthless slum clearance for urban beautification in and around Delhi. Benevolent images of the nurturing priyadarshini[xxi] gradually gave away to the emergent form of the terrible mother bent on the destruction of her own children, as the goddess began to turn into a demon of uncontrollable power and cruelty, an embodiment of all that was repugnant about femininity. In discussing the role and trajectory of Indira Gandhi’s political leadership, as it was reflected in cultural products during the time of her rise to power, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan begins her analysis with Mehboob Khan’s popular Hindi film Mother India made in 1957. She then goes on to discuss literary works that emerged on the subject after the experience of the Emergency, starting with a story by O. V. Vijayan called ‘The Foetus’ which is one of a group of stories that first appeared in 1978 and were according to the author, ‘allegories of power’ that emerged from the witnessing of the “power and terror, occasioned by India’s brief experience of Emergency.”[xxii] The central figure of this story is ‘the Lady, Widowed Sovereign’ who never appears in the story but rules over a cursed village whose inhabitants are terrorized, hunted and killed by the Foetus who is her immaculately-conceived son. Only her portrait is seen in the text worshipped in ‘the carnal fullness of middle age, pregnant, naked’. Sunder Rajan argues that while the allegorical form was made necessary by concerns about censorship at the time, this story was one of the ‘more specifically political critiques of Indira Gandhi’s prime Ministership in the post Emergency period.’[xxiii] Sunder Rajan writes: ‘Between Mother India, product of post-Independence nationalism and ‘Foetus’ and Midnight’s Children, born of the Emergency trauma, stretches the history of Indira Gandhi’s leadership.’[xxiv]

It does indeed appear that the ‘look’ of Indira Gandhi, so to say, quite literally changed during these months as represented various genres of mass-produced popular art, especially in political cartoons that appeared sporadically in international journals[xxv] and Indian news weeklies, some of which were later shut down. Even serious representations of her visage began to resemble grotesque caricatures, visions of a femininity gone horribly wrong. Strangest among these changes was the transformation in her own perception of the visual material manufactured by her own governmental machinery that had spectacularly filled up the urban public space during the Emergency – enormous images of herself that accompanied the pictorial representations of her by-now notorious Twenty Point Programme, circulated aggressively in order to balance out the repressive measures against civil liberty through apparently benevolent steps towards social justice and a more equitable distribution of resources.  Journalist Kuldip Nayar writes in his book The Judgement: The Inside Story of the Emergency in India published in 1977:

Mrs. Gandhi had always given an economic cover to her political manoeuvres. […] This time she believed that the twenty-point programme would hide the move to sustain herself in power. And she looked like succeeding for the time being. The twenty-point programme came to dominate the media and every official and non-official discussion. Hoardings and posters came up everywhere, listing the points and carrying large portraits of her. The bigger the hoarding, the better was the appreciation, until she herself ordered their dismantling because her close friends told her that she looked “hideous” in paintings on the hoardings.[xxvi]

Whether the paintings themselves were ‘hideous’ or whether they were perceived as such as a result of her growing unpopularity among the people towards the later months of the Emergency is difficult to gauge. But visual spectacles that marked the public space with images of Indira’s supposed popularity, as well as her continual broadcasts over the All India Radio about the needs/benefits of the Emergency and the continuous valorization of her efforts in the newspapers that became the mouthpieces of her coterie (the ones which did not were shut down), formed a large part of the combined propaganda machinery that kept the Emergency juggernaut rolling. The attempt to use spectacle to mark popular support began early with the collection of massive crowds in front of Mrs. Gandhi’s residence in 1 Safdarjung Road 12 June 1975, right after the Allahabad High Court judgement pronounced her guilty of corrupt practices in the 1971 elections (which had brought her to the Lok Sabha as Prime Minister). This judgement was the most immediate trigger for the declaration of the Emergency on 25 June 1975. According to Kuldip Nayar, trucks and Delhi Transport Corporation buses were requisitioned to bring crowds from the villages to the capital free of charge and the Chief Ministers of neighbouring states were asked to organize rallies in support of Indira Gandhi’s continued Prime Ministership. The idea was to prove by a sheer show of numbers in the public space that the people’s overwhelming support overruled the verdict of the judiciary in the matter of Mrs. Gandhi’s continuing in office. In the days that led up to the declaration of internal Emergency further rallies were organized in Delhi to stand as evidence for the popular support for Indira’s leadership, the biggest being the one that took place on the 20th of June. Similar rallies were organized by the opposition under Jayprakash Narayan’s leadership, starting from March that year, in order to publicly mark the growing dissatisfaction with Indira’s government.  Nayar writes:

With emergency rule a little more than two months old, a cult of personality began to develop around Mrs. Gandhi. Her pictures sprouted all over the country, her twenty-point programme began to be chanted like a mantra: “Indira-study circles” were organized by all major universities and the Indira brigade gathered more volunteers.

And the portrayal of Mrs. Gandhi as a goddess by Husain, a famous painter, was now being officially shown round the country. Mrs. Gandhi of the Emergency was the deity who rode a full-blooded roaring tiger, and not a lion as mythology depicted.[xxvii]

It was Bharat Mata, drawing on the religious iconography of the goddess Durga, who was often shown in popular art as riding a lion signifying her embodiment as Shakti.[xxviii] The intimate terror of the image of Indira Gandhi as Bharat-Mata-gone-wrong, the journey, as it were, from priyadarshini (the loved one who is pleasing to look at, if we consider the combined meanings of ‘priya’ as both ‘well-loved’ and ‘pleasing’) to monster – can be grasped a little better if we look a deeper into the function of representative political iconography in modern India. In studying what he calls ‘history made by art’ or ‘how pictures were an integral element of history in the making’ in the book ‘Photos of the Gods’: The Printed image and Political Struggle in India, Christopher Pinney writes:

Scholars such as Roy Wagner and Marilyn Strathern have investigated the manner in which certain cultural practices treat images as compressed performances. […] The relevant question then becomes not how images ‘look’, but what they can ‘do’.[…]  A key concept here [in Hindu practice] is the notion of darshan, of ‘seeing and being seen’ by a deity, but which also connects to a whole range of ideas relating to ‘insight’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘philosophy’. […] Darshan’s mode of interaction mobilizes vision as part of a unified human sensorium, and visual interaction can be physically transformative.[xxix]

Pinney then goes on to suggest that the interactions and imbrications between religious and political iconography in India have had a much longer and more complicated history of overlap than have been explored in recent studies on the subject. It is clear however from the memoirs and accounts that appear right after the end of the Emergency in 1977[xxx], that the production of Indira Gandhi as an icon with patriotic-religious significance and the creation of multitudinous visual representations of the slogan ‘Indira is India’ was a deliberate and wide-ranging process that traversed many areas of public life in India at the time. And rather than a disavowal of her femininity or an underlining of its irrelevance to her position of political authority, these images and verbal propaganda sought to highlight the fact of her specifically female power (Shakti/Bharat Mata/Durga). Saba Mahmood writes on the use of the word ‘icon’ in her essay “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?”

[…]it refers not simply to an image but to a cluster of meanings that might suggest a persona, an authoritative presence, or even a shared imagination. In this view, the power of an icon lies in its capacity to allow an individual (or a community) to find him – or herself in a structure that has bearing on how one conducts oneself in this world. The term icon in my discussion therefore pertains not just to images but to a form of relationality that binds the subject to an object or an imaginary.[xxxi]

In discussing the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005, where the Prophet Muhammad was represented as a terrorist, and the prevalent reaction of the western world to it, Mahmood critiques what she calls a ‘rather impoverished understanding of images, icons, and signs’ which ‘not only naturalizes a certain concept of a religious subject but fails to attend to the affective and embodied practices through which a subject comes to relate to a particular sign – a relation founded not only on representation but also on what I will call attachment and cohabitation.’[xxxii] Trying to understand the affective potency of the images of Indira Gandhi circulated during the Emergency, would lead us directly to an engagement with the historical fact that these images were actually accompanied by clear directives on how to conduct one’s life and bear oneself in day-to-day living as a good, as opposed to an unruly, citizen of India during a time of crisis. The image of the authoritarian mother entered the quotidian with clear disciplinary moves that decreed hard work, punctuality and a rigid governance of the self and family as imperative for national interest. The double-speak of socialism on paper and in propaganda was accompanied with a crackdown on democratic liberties and implicit support of big business, as various historians and political theorists like Partha Chatterjee[xxxiii], Sudipto Kaviraj[xxxiv] and Andre Gunder Frank[xxxv] have shown in their work. But important for our purposes is taking into cognizance the fact that policies like the Family Planning Scheme in scaling up of the sterilization drive, especially under the enthusiastic leadership of Sanjay Gandhi, led to thousands of rural and urban males being sterilized i.e. having to go through nasbandi. These operations were carried out most often through coercive measures that were put into place by the entire bureaucratic machinery (also acting under intimidation and fearful of their own interests) through a system of pervasive rewards and punishments, as Emma Tarlo and Veena Das have shown in their work. This created an atmosphere of widespread fear and paranoia, especially among the urban and rural poor, that gave the regnant, looming figure of Indira Gandhi a directly (one could say almost literally) emasculating potential as an all-powerful woman in authority. As Veena Das writes:

In popular imagination, the emergency is known as the time of nasbandi (sterilization).[xxxvi] This period shows with stark clarity how the politics of the body lies at the intersection between law and regulation. […] The authoritarianism of Mrs. Gandhi’s rule in this period and the destruction of institutions made it imperative for the bureaucracy to implement the policies of the government, not in accordance with rules and regulations, but in accordance with their reading of the wishes of their superiors. The state was literally seen to be embodied in the person of Mrs. Gandhi and her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, who became, as was widely acknowledged, the extra-constitutional center of power.[xxxvii]

Monstrosity was, of course, the other side of deification. The massive electoral victory of 1971 that brought Indira to power for the term that ended in the Emergency came soon after the other high point of her political career – India’s victory in the war against Pakistan for Bangladesh’s liberation. This event had catapulted Indira to the height of popularity and personal confidence. The affective intensity and national pride that had coalesced around her person at this time saw an equal wave of hatred/disgust generated against her political authority within a period of six years. She was swept unanimously out of power by the gigantic electoral defeat that followed the Emergency in 1977. As Sudipto Kaviraj writes in his foundational essay ‘A Critique of the Passive Revolution’ published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 1988:

A remarkable feature of the new politics was the quickening of the political cycle. Indira Gandhi carried her party to power on promises which were more radical and proportionately more unrealistic than earlier programmes. […] Governments had to pay the price for such populism sooner than expected. Under Nehru, electoral majorities of the Congress had never been comparably large; yet none of those administrations had difficulty in seeing through their appointed constitutional terms. Remarkably, after Indira Gandhi’s victory in 1971, no government has actually lasted its term. By 1973, Indira Gandhi’s large parliamentary majority notwithstanding, she was in deep political crisis.[xxxviii]

In fact, Indira Gandhi grew increasingly defensive and nervous of her own political control over the nation in the face of growing international censure and rising internal resentment during the later months of the year 1976. She went into the 1977 elections, much against the wishes of her son Sanjay Gandhi and her close advisors, perhaps partly in order to prove to the international community and her dissenters inside that she was still at the helm of things, enjoying as much popular and electoral support as she had done in the past. She was, of course, proven tragically wrong. Sunder Rajan writes, interestingly: ‘During the Emergency, for instance, we learn that she felt panic-stricken, as if riding a tiger and not being able to get off it.’[xxxix] The image of the Bharat Mata envisioned as an embodiment of Shakti or Durga, of course, returns once again to haunt the figure of this political heroine. But this time, of course, it is a Bharat Mata no longer so poised, but on the verge of losing control of what she rules, precariously balanced at the edge of political disaster. And once again, the contours, both repulsive and pleasing at extremes, of her ‘womanhood’, rather than being peripheral to our understanding of the nature of her political authority appear as intrinsic to the complexity we must untangle in order to adequately analyse the unraveling shape of her controversial political career as the leader of a postcolonial nation. In order to do so, it is essential to unpack the ambivalent relationship of popular perceptions of femininity and masculinity to political authority, as also to examine the outlines of the Janus-like anatomy of the ‘woman-nation’ symbolic unit that has worked overtime in the service of (a fervently religious) patriotism. The study of cultural representations of women in authority that emerge from the Emergency, allows us an opportunity to examine, via the covert operations of religion in the so-called ‘rational’ public sphere, the misogyny that moulds the other face of deification in the project of heroic nationalism.[xl]  In his concluding chapter to the book Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, Partha Chatterjee writes:

[…] nationalist thought has not emerged as the antagonist of universal Reason in the arena of world history. […] ever since the Age of Enlightenment, Reason in its universalizing mission has been parasitic upon a much less lofty, much more mundane, palpably material and singularly invidious force,  namely the universalist urge of capital. To the extent that nationalism opposed colonial rule, it administered a check on a specific political form of metropolitan capitalist dominance. […] But this was achieved in the very name of Reason. Nowhere in the world has nationalism-qua-nationalism challenged the marriage of Reason and capital.[xli]

The imperatives of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ that hold pivotal positions in the dominant imagination of national histories, of course, hinge on this critical marriage between Reason and capital. The holding in permanent suspension of the crisis of the ‘people-nation’ (which Partha Chatterjee speaks about, following Gramsci) also allows for certain illusions to persist: for example, the idea that ‘development for all’ can be achieved by democratic means as long as the constitution of the right sort of ‘vanguard’ (cultural/economic/social/political) is made possible. In a strangely paradoxical way, the Emergency, then, is both the collapse of this ‘democratic’ illusion of ‘progress for all’, as well as a forceful reiteration of the power of Reason and order, which lies at the beginning of the narrative of nation. What mediates between these two faces of collapse and reassertion is, like Benjamin’s dwarf, the hidden force of religion. The governmental impulse of the state, without which no notion of ‘planning’ can operate, and which makes charting the course of development possible, comes nakedly to the fore during a political situation such as the Emergency. The rule of law runs things like clockwork, but also twists itself into strange shapes to emasculate, imprison and raze to the ground. Just like the ‘revolution’, then, the Emergency is an exceptional time. It is both order and disorder, joined at base. Trains run on time; but thousands of guiltless people fester in jails for years.  Running parallel the subjugated history of the ‘lie of freedom’ (‘yeh azaadi jhootha hai’) and highlight the dishonesty of the state masquerading as ‘people-nation’, is the story of the collapse of the dominant narrative of ‘state-representing-nation’, i.e. Progress. This is the failure of the ‘cunning of reason’, the ultimate crumbling into insanity of the dominant discourse. The Janus face of the Emergency helps us to map the course of both the dominant and the marginal narratives of ‘nation’, with a specific focus on the problematic of women and power, and the impossibility of escaping from the subterranean workings of religion when mapping this terrain.



[i] Emma Tarlo, Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi, (Berkeley and Los Angeles:

University of California Press, 2003), 27.

[ii] Sita, the wife of Rama in the great Indian epic Ramayana was known for her chastity and unquestioning devotion to her husband.

[iii] Lakshmi was the goddess of prosperity and household well-being in the Hindu pantheon.

[iv] Durga was a goddess who was an embodiment of ‘Shakti’ (power personified as female) and a destroyer of evil.

[v]  Christopher Pinney, Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (London:

REAKTION Books, 2004).

[vi] Christopher Pinney, ‘Towards the Space of the Beholder’, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society Text Archiveshttp://cscs.res.in/dataarchive/textfiles/textfile.2008-09-18.9604442564.

[vii] Christopher Pinney, Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (London: REAKTION Books, 2004), 172.

[viii] One interesting later example is the cartoon of Indira Gandhi that was published towards the end of her life as the cover of the magazine The Economist in 1984. This cartoon depicted her quite literally as a monstrous figure, mimicking the ‘devis’ (goddesses) who were representations of Shakti (female power) but displaying an extraordinarily repulsive/ugly visage. Here, Indira has four arms (much like some of the mythical Hindu goddesses), each arm representing an aspect of her power. In one hand, she holds a sword. In another, a bag marked ‘money’. And in two other fists, she holds captives representatives of the ‘common man’ of India, who seem to be screaming in protest. She is also shown as stepping over Sri Lanka, in a grotesque dance that mimics the ‘Nataraj’ or the ‘dancing Shiva’.  Copies of the magazine were confiscated at the airport before they could be disseminated and this issue of the magazine banned.  This was preceded, however, since the 1970s, with several national and international representations that were equally derogatory, including election graffiti on city walls. Popular cartoons included those by cartoonist Sudhir Dhar, who worked for the English daily Hindustan Times and cartoonist Abu Abraham whose works appeared in this period in The Indian Express, as well as other newspapers. It is interesting to note that in Abraham ‘s cartoon’s Indira as “Mummy” to the nation’s male politicians becomes a recurrent trope. A detailed analysis of these cartoons, however, is beyond the scope of this essay. [Indiequill, “The Economist’s Indira Gandhi Circa 1984’: http://indiequill.wordpress.com/2008/04/07/the-economists-indira-gandhi-circa-1984/ and Sadanand Menon, “Bursting Bloated Bladders of Lies and Pomposity”, Himal Southasian (June 2010): http://www.himalmag.com/component/content/article/4259-bursting-bloated-bladders-of-lies-and-pomposity.html. ]

[ix] See Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1993).

[x] Ibid, 116.

[xi] Kuldip Nayar, The Judgement: The Inside Story of the Emergency in India (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1977), 86.

[xii] Barun Sengupta, ‘Indira Ekadashi’ in Rachana Samagra (Kolkata: Ananda, 2008), 526. Sengupta writes about Indira’s steady rise to power in the late 1960s: “Indira’s critics could see after this fight that she was inimitable even in the field of political strategy. The way in which she steadily fought against the party leadership and won her place made most ordinary people think that these leaders were novices in comparison to her. At this time, a lot of people started saying: amongst the Congress leaders only Indira was the real man, and the rest were women even if they appeared to be men!”

[xiii] Thomas Blom Hansen, “Politics as Permanent Performance: The Production of Political Authority in the Locality”, in The Politics of Cultural Mobilization in India, ed. John Zavos, Andrew Wyatt and Vernon Hewitt (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), 20.

[xiv] Achille Mbembe, “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity” in On the Postcolony (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 103.

[xv] Ibid, 111.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Emma Tarlo, Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 27.

[xviii] In fact the creation of Mother India as an icon helped in some ways to envision and performatively bring this imagined spirit into being in terms of popular political practice.

[xix] Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women, 106-107.

[xx]“Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) had been amended only a year earlier to authorize the government to detain or arrest individuals without producing charges before a court of law.”, Kuldip Nayar, The Judgement, 38.

[xxi] A name given to her by Rabindranath Tagore in the year spent at Shantiniketan between 1934 and 1935 and subsequently popularised.

[xxii] Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women, 106.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid, 108.

[xxv] For example, a cartoon of Indira Gandhi as ‘Mother Goddess’ and half-animal that was published in The Economist, 1984, which caused the magazine being confiscated at airports in India, as we have pointed out earlier.

[xxvi] Kuldip Nayar, The Judgement, 59.

[xxvii] Nayar, 86.

[xxviii] As evidenced in the prints available in Christopher Pinney’s Photos of the Gods.

[xxix] Ibid, pp. 9. [Emphasis mine.]

[xxx] Primila Lewis, Reason Wounded: An Experience of India’s Emergency (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978), Soli Sorabjee, The Emergency, Censorship and the Press in India, 1975-77 (New Delhi: Central News Agency, 1977) and Kuldip Nayar, The Judgement: The Inside Story of the Emergency in India (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1977).

[xxxi] Mahmood, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 4 (1 January 2009): 836-862.

[xxxii] Ibid, 842.

[xxxiii] Partha Chatterjee, A Possible India, in The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 51-66. Chatterjee writes: “In November 1975, major reforms were announced in licensing policy: some fifteen export-oriented engineering industries were allowed automatic expansion of capacity – virtually all of them were marked by low average capacity utilization; blanket exemptions from licensing were granted to twenty-one industries in the medium sector, and unlimited expansion beyond the licensed capacity was allowed to foreign companies and large monopoly houses in thirty other important industries; the procedure for regularising unauthorized capacity installed by monopoly houses and foreign companies was liberalised.” [Chatterjee, 63].

[xxxiv] Sudipta Kaviraj, “A Critique of the Passive Revolution”,  Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 23, No. 45/47, Special Number (Nov., 1988), 2429-2444

[xxxv] Andre Gunder Frank, “Emergence of Permanent Emergency in India Author”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 12, No. 11 (Mar. 12, 1977): 463-475.

[xxxvi] Specifically, the sterilization of males.

[xxxvii] Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 172-174.

[xxxviii] Sudipto Kaviraj, ‘A Critique of the Passive Revolution’, 2438.

[xxxix] Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women, 102.

[xl] Examples of other plays written in India at this time that contain references to Indira’s rule include Vijay Tendulkar’s Encounter in Umbugland, which was a farce written in 1967. The character of Princess Vijaya here perhaps represents the young Indira. [Vijay Tendulkar, Collected Plays in Translation (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004)].

[xli] Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 168.



Chatterjee, Partha. A Possible India: Essays in Political Criticism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

———. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

———. The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Das, Veena. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley and Los Angeles:      University of California Press, 2007.

Frank, Andre Gunder. “Emergence of Permanent Emergency in India.” Economic and Political Weekly 12, no. 11 (March 12, 1977): 463-475.

Hansen, Thomas Blom. “Politics as Permanent Performance: The Production of Political Authority in the Locality”, in The Politics of Cultural Mobilization in India. Edited by John Zavos, Andrew Wyatt and Vernon Hewitt . New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Indiequill. “The Economist’s Indira Gandhi Circa 1984’.  http://indiequill.wordpress.com/2008/04/07/the-economists-indira-gandhi-circa-1984/ .

Kaviraj, Sudipta. “A Critique of the Passive Revolution.” Economic and Political Weekly 23, no. 45/47 (November 1, 1988): 2429-2444.

Lewis, Primila. Reason Wounded: An Experience of India’s Emergency. New Delhi: Vikas, 1978.

Mahmood, Saba. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 4 (January 1, 2009): 836-862.

Mbembe, Achille. “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity”. On the Postcolony. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.

Menon, Sadanand. “Bursting Bloated Bladders of Lies and Pomposity”. Himal Southasian (June 2010): http://www.himalmag.com/component/content/article/4259-bursting-bloated-bladders-of-lies-and-pomposity.html.

Pinney, Christopher. “Photos of the Gods”: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India. London: Reaktion Books, 2004.

——- ‘Towards the Space of the Beholder’, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society Text Archives: http://cscs.res.in/dataarchive/textfiles/textfile.2008-09-18.9604442564

Sunder Rajan, Rajeswari. Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1993.

Sengupta, Barun. Rachana Samagra. Calcutta: Ananda Publishers, 2007.

Sorabjee, Soli. The Emergency, Censorship and the Press in India, 1975-77. New Delhi: Central News Agency, 1977.

Tarlo, Emma. Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Vijay Tendulkar, Collected Plays in Translation (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004)


Trina Nileena Banerjee is currently teaching at the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her PhD was on women in the group theatre movement in Bengal (1950-1980) and she is also currently working on a monograph titled Embodying Suffering: Interface(s) between Women’s Protest Movements and Women’s Performance in Contemporary Manipur (1980-2010). She has also been a stage and film actress, as well as a poetry and fiction writer.






















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