Sonia Gandhi reminisces about ‘Indiratchka’ in Moscow

Full text of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s address at the inauguration of the Indira Gandhi Exhibition at Moscow, Russia on April 10, part of centenary celebrations of India’s former Prime Minister

Photo by Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

NH Web Desk

I am delighted to be back in this beautiful city after a long gap of 13 years. I have fond memories of my many visits here and to St Petersburg and the gracious hospitality of President Putin in 2005.

This photographic exhibition on the centenary anniversary of Indira Gandhi, which is inaugurated today, covers the life and times of a remarkable political personality, India’s only woman prime minister. Incidentally, many mothers in the Soviet Union named their daughters after her. In correspondence with one of them she wrote and I quote,

‘Indiratchka’ is rather long. My own family have always called me Indu which means Moon. Perhaps you could call your daughter Indutchka, which is easier to say”, unquote.

The ties of my family with your country date back to 1927 when Indira Gandhi’s grandfather Motilal Nehru, father Jawaharlal Nehru and mother Kamala first visited Moscow. It was this journey that inspired Jawaharlal Nehru to write his very first book, ‘Soviet Russia: Some Random Sketches and Impressions’. Indira Gandhi herself made her first trip to Russia in 1953. Her letters to her father tell him how excited and deeply moved she was by Moscow and her people.

From St Petersburg, then Leningrad, she wrote and I quote:

Leningrad is truly a beautiful city… It is still the city of Peter the Great… The Hermitage Museum has a wonderful collection of European paintings—the collection of arts from China, Ancient Egypt and a small one consisting of mainly armour from India. Unquote.

In January 1966, five months after she became India’s Prime Minister, she was back in Moscow on her first official visit. Just before this visit, she presented some antiquities to the Hermitage which are still on display. The USSR—and especially Russia—held a special place, both in her head and her heart. After all, she had grown-up in the shadow of not only her father but of two other remarkable men: the Father of our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi who derived inspiration from Leo Tolstoy, and India’s first Nobel Laureate, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who often expressed his admiration for Alexander Pushkin. She herself, an avid reader all her life, was familiar with Russian literature, and the work of the great Russian writers. She made in all nine visits to the then USSR—more than to any other country—during the 16 years of her Prime Ministership.

India and the Soviet Union shared a special partnership that began in the early 1950s under Jawaharlal Nehru. That partnership resulted in laying the foundations of India’s industrialisation, foundations that are still very visible. These include steel plants, oil refineries, engineering complexes, power stations and fertiliser factories. The Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai that is now globally renowned was started with Russian assistance. Indira Gandhi took the Indo-Soviet link to a new level altogether, giving it solid strategic content as well. At India’s moment of grave crisis in 1971, leading upto and during the Bangladesh’s War of Independence, the USSR stood like a rock with India, something that Indira Gandhi never forgot. There was a genuine warmth and a rare chemistry between Indira Gandhi and the Russian leaders.

Indira Gandhi was an influential and tireless global voice for peace and disarmament. Just before she was killed in October 1984, she joined five other heads of state to issue a forceful appeal for the abolition of nuclear weapons. She did not hesitate to speak against injustice and subjugation of people anywhere in the world. She believed strongly in the power of multilateral institutions and was opposed to hegemony of any kind by any country. Within India, she shared a rare rapport with the poor and disadvantaged sections of society. They saw in her the protector of their rights and the champion of their hopes and aspirations. Under her leadership, the Green Revolution made India self-reliant in rice and wheat and erased the haunting threat of famine. It was her drive and determination that led to India’s emergence as a space power. It might interest you to know that one of her many friends was Valentina Tereshkova whom she had first met in 1963. The two remained in close touch thereafter. On Indira Gandhi’s death, the world’s first woman cosmonaut paid a moving tribute to the world’s second woman Prime Minister; I quote,

“In the sad days when the news of Indira Gandhi’s villainous murder shocked the world, a great many women in our country wrote to us at the Soviet Women’s Committee to voice their anger and deep sorrow and extend their sincerest condolences to the women and all people of India”. Unquote.

Indira Gandhi had many and varied interests. She counted academicians, scientists, authors, poets, sculptors, painters and musicians across the world as her close personal friends—a good number of them from your country. Politics was her calling but nature was her passion. She was among the first political leaders anywhere in the world to take up the cause of environmental protection. She was only one of two heads of government to address the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in June 1972. She made a stirring speech, one that still resonates and is still relevant. Even while she was pre-occupied with political matters, she was concerned about the Siberian crane. Just a few days before she was assassinated, India and the USSR signed a treaty for the protection of migratory birds. Thanks to her sensitivity, over 60% of tigers in the wild are now to be found in India alone. She saw protecting nature and preserving India’s rich cultural heritage, as two sides of the same coin.

It is only appropriate that Moscow is the first place where this photo exhibition is on display outside India. I am truly grateful to our magnanimous hosts. The exhibition tells the story of a courageous, compelling and charismatic leader who left an indelible imprint not only on her own country, not only on the India-USSR relationship but on the world stage as well. That India and Russia enjoy such excellent relations is in no small measure due to her legacy, a legacy that has been consolidated by President Putin and successive Indian prime ministers.

Thank You.

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