Feroze Gandhi, whose 111th birth anniversary falls today, was a freedom fighter, prominent parliamentarian, journalist and above all, a crusader against corruption. He was only forty-eight years old when he died due to a massive heart attack just four days before his birthday.
Feroze Gandhi was born on September 12, 1912 in Bombay (now Mumbai) in a Parsi family from Gujarat. He lost his father when he was hardly six years old, and his family comprising his mother and her five children moved to Allahabad to live with his aunt, who was a surgeon in the city’s Lady Dufferin Hospital.
After completing his graduation from Allahabad, he went to study at the London School of Economics (but much later).
In 1930, Feroze joined the independence movement, which was then passing through the phase of civil disobedience led by Mahatma Gandhi, whose satyagraha also included the boycott of English education. It was in a demonstration outside his college, the Ewing Christian College, that Feroze Gandhi’s first contact with the already well known Nehru family happened.
Kamala Nehru, the wife of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was incarcerated, was leading a procession on a hot summer afternoon shouting slogans like ‘Bharat mata zindabad’ and ‘Mahatma Gandhi zindabad’ when she fainted due to exhaustion.
Feroze Gandhi, who was was witnessing the demonstration with his classmates atop a wall in the campus, jumped down immediately and helped carry Kamala under the shade of a tree and nursed her to recovery. This chance encounter was the beginning of a lasting relationship with the Nehrus that only ended with his death 28 years later.
When during the civil disobedience movement Feroze was imprisoned for the first time, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who also hailed from Allahabad, was amongst his jail companions. They developed an intimate friendship and often visited Anand Bhavan together after their release.
In 1961, a year after Feroze Gandhi’s death, Shastri, who was then home minister, recalled his association with the former: “Feroze was much younger than I. Despite that, we became very close friends, and it became routine to meet and go on for hours with general political exchange of ideas and opinions. Very few people at the age of seventeen or eighteen show such a devotion, patriotism and understanding as Feroze did.”
Motilal Nehru, who was sentenced to six months in jail along with his son Jawaharlal, died on February 6, 1931, soon after he was released. At his funeral in Allahabad, Feroze Gandhi’s mother, Rattimai, met Mahatma Gandhi and begged him to tell Feroze to give up political activities and resume his studies.
This is what the Mahatma replied in Gujarati to Rattimai, who was a Gujarati from Surat:
“Oh bahen … if I get seven boys like Feroze to work for me, I will get swaraj within seven days. In the India of the future, nobody will ask whether your son passed his BA or MA, but they will like to know how many times your son has been interned for nationalst activities.” The words of the Mahatma didn’t impress Rattimai. But though she was dejected, she decided not to interfere in Feroze’s chosen path.
The decade of the 1930s was an eventful one in the history of the freedom struggle and in the Nehru household. It saw the top stalwarts of the Congress assume presidentship after the Salt Satyagraha (March – April 1930) – Sardar Patel (1931), Jawaharlal Nehru (1936, 1937), Rajendra Prasad (1934) and Subash Bose (1938, 1939).
Months before Nehru became Congress president for the second time, Kamala Nehru, who had been suffering from tuberculosis for long, died in a sanatorium in Switzerland. Before she died on Feb 6, 1936, Kamala Nehru is believed to have given her consent to the marriage of her daughter Indira to Feroze, who had proposed to her three years earlier.
The marriage ultimately was solemnised as per Vedic rituals at Anand Bhavan on March 26, 1942, the day of the Ram Navami festival. Since it was an inter-faith wedding in those days of extreme orthodoxy, it was bound to raise a major controversy. It was especially so as one party involved was the most well-known political family.
Upper caste Hindus especially reacted vehemently: ‘Brahmin girl marrying a Parsi?’ But since Mahatma Gandhi blessed the marriage, the controversy died down.
But nevertheless Pandit Nehru issued a press statement:
“A marriage is a personal and domestic matter … though parents may and should advise in the matter, the choice and ultimate decision must lie with the two parties concerned … it is no business of parents or others to come in the way. When I was assured that Indira and Feroze wanted to marry one another, I accepted willingly their decision and told them that it had my blessing.”
Nehru went on to add: “Mahatma Gandhi, whose opinion I value not only in public affairs but in private affairs also, gave his blessings to the proposal … [he] expressed a wish that marriage might take place in Sevagram so that he might find it convenient to be present at it and bless the union personally … but the members of the family felt that it should take place in our home.”
Amongst those who attended the simple and unostentatious marriage ceremony, in which a 24-year-old Indira wore a khadi saree spun by her father in jail, were Dr Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Govind Ballabh Pant, Sarojini Naidu, Syed Mahmud and Acharya Kripalani. A surprise guest at the Anand Bhavan was Sir Stafford Cripps, who had arrived in India for his famous Cripps Mission that was to be rejected by the Congress Working Committee (CWC) the following month.
The Quit India Movement led to the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi and all senior leaders of the CWC in Bombay on the dawn of August 9, 1942.
Since Jawaharlal Nehru was taken to Ahmadnagar jail along with Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and others, Feroze and Indira Gandhi returned to Allahabad, and after carrying out underground activities for nearly a month, were arrested in mid-September and sentenced to one year rigorous imprisonment in Naini jail, where once again Feroze found the company of Nehru’s successor-to-be as PM, Lal Bahadur Shastri.
This was Feroze Gandhi’s fourth and last term in jail. He had been arrested three times earlier in the 1930s during and after the civil disobedience movement. After serving a full term of one year in Naini and Faizabad jails, Feroze was released and went back to stay at Allahabad with Indira Gandhi, who had been released earlier.
Almost a year before independence, an interim government was formed on September 2, 1946 and Jawaharlal Nehru, as head of the government, became extremely busy with his monumental responsibilities. He had founded the National Herald in 1937, but now after it resumed publication in early 1946, he realised he wouldn’t be able to devote time for the paper.
He persuaded Feroze to become a director in the National Herald in his place. Feroze Gandhi was appointed as the managing director of the Associated Journals Limited, which published the National Herald. He ran the paper efficiently and brought it out from the financial difficulties it was facing earlier.
He also took the initiative of bringing out the Urdu and Hindi editions of the paper and launching it from New Delhi in addition to Lucknow, from where it was running from the outset.
Acknowledging his contribution, Nehru noted: “Feroze has been in the Herald now for over six months … and from all accounts, has done very good work … and we are gradually reducing our liabilities … there is peace in the Herald office and cooperation between the editorial, managerial and press departments.”
The first general elections after independence were held in 1952 and Feroze Gandhi, who fought for the Lok Sabha from Rae Bareli (now being represented by Sonia Gandhi) won by a massive margin. He was re-elected from the same constituency in the second general election in 1957.
It was during these two terms in parliament that he became a national figure by his brilliant performance on the floor of the House, taking up issues that resonate even today, over six decades later. His maiden speech in parliament on corruption in the insurance companies run by Rama Krishna Dalmia led to the latter’s arrest and paved the way for the nationalisation of the insurance business.
In 1958, he raised the Haridas Mundhra scandal involving the now-government controlled LIC. This caused a great embarrassment to the clean image of the government and led to the resignation of the then-finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari (TTK, as he was popularly called, was however reinstated as a minister after the 1962 general elections and reappointed as finance minister in 1964 when Lal Bahadur Shastri took over as PM).
Besides the finance minister, the finance secretary H.M. Patel was dismissed from service and Mundhra, like Dalmia earlier, had a stint in jail.
Feroze, who ideologically was a staunch socialist, also made a strong case for the nationalisation of Telco, as the company, according to figures he marshaled painstakingly, was charging nearly the double of railway engines being imported from Japan. This raised a stir in the Parsi community as the Tatas, like Feroze, belonged to the same community.
As Feroze was earning greater laurels and becoming more and more popular, he unfortunately died of a heart attack at a young age, four days before his 48th birthday. His sudden death shocked the whole nation, but no one more than his life companion Indira Gandhi, then 43.
His death was physically and psychologically wounding for her. As she described later: “My whole mental and physical life changed suddenly, my bodily functions changed … I was physically ill. It upset my whole being for years … it was not just a mental shock, but it was as though someone had cut me in two.”
Gradually she recovered and was to ultimately become the country’s second longest serving prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru, but there was a greater personal tragedy in store for her twenty years after the death of her beloved Feroze.
What if Feroze Gandhi had not died so early? The ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of history will remain what they are.
Praveen Davar is an ex-Army officer, a columnist and author of Freedom Struggle and Beyond.