Voice of Dissent

Nayantara Sahgal’s battle with Indira Gandhi

01 June 2014
As perhaps the first female political columnist in the country, Sahgal wrote for the Sunday Standard for almost fourteen years.
As perhaps the first female political columnist in the country, Sahgal wrote for the Sunday Standard for almost fourteen years.

Nayantara Sahgal (born 1927) belongs to India’s best-known political family, the Nehrus, and is a journalist, political commentator, essayist, biographer and novelist. She is perhaps the only Indian writer in English to have consistently reflected the political life of the country in her novels. Sahgal grew up with her cousin Indira Gandhi in Anand Bhawan, the family home in Allahabad, at a time when both girls’ parents were frequently away or in jail, and the two went to boarding school together. As a young woman, Nayantara idealised her mother’s brother, Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she considered a father figure after her own father passed away when she was seventeen. Her political outlook was strongly shaped by Nehruvian ideas, and her columns from the early 1960s to the end of the 1970s consistently criticised the dismantling of his legacy by his daughter, Indira, first as a leader of the Congress and then as prime minister. This outspokenness, especially in the face of Indira’s growing authoritarianism in the lead-up to her declaration of emergency in 1975, earned Sahgal the extreme displeasure of India’s most powerful woman at the time, and brought her perilously close to becoming a political prisoner. She remained undeterred, however, refusing to be censored by those in power. The following essay is adapted from Ritu Menon’s Out of Line: A Literary and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal, forthcoming this month from HarperCollins India.

BY A CURIOUS CIRCUMSTANCE OF HISTORY, both personal and political, Nayantara Sahgal relocated to Delhi in 1967, at the same time that her cousin, Indira Gandhi, embarked on recasting the Congress party in her own mould. And, by the same curious circumstance, this was also when Nayantara began writing the political columns that would reconfigure her relationship with Indira unalterably and permanently.

Nayantara Sahgal was probably the first woman political columnist in the country; she was not, however, a columnist by choice. Financial constraints following her divorce in 1967, and the expense of managing on her own, in a way, forced her hand. Then as now, a writer couldn’t hope to live off her royalties, and so, for a good many years, her fiction and journalism proceeded more or less in tandem, albeit with considerable difficulty; this meant snatching time away from her other preoccupations, from householding and parenting. Nayantara wrote a regular political column for close to fourteen years for the Sunday Standard (part of The Express Group, which also published the Indian Express), as well as reporting on the political activist Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in Bihar before the Emergency of 1975 for his paper Everyman’s Weekly, edited by the well-known Delhi journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea. On occasion, she also contributed to The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, the London Times and The Far Eastern Economic Review, among others.

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    Ritu Menon is a feminist publisher; the author, with Kamla Bhasin, of Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition; and the editor of numerous anthologies of fiction and poetry by women. She lives in Delhi.

    Keywords: Congress Indira Gandhi Jawaharlal Nehru JP Narayan Indian politics federalism socialism Emergency Nayantara Sahgal