Congress leader Rahul Gandhi recently responded to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks over his last name.
PM Modi, replying to the Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address in the Rajya Sabha last week, had said: “If we miss out on mentioning (Jawaharlal) Nehru anywhere, they (the Congress) get upset. Nehru was such a great person, then why do none of them use the Nehru surname? What is the shame in using the Nehru name?”
Gandhi hit back on February 13, saying, “I asked the Prime Minister some questions. I asked him about his relationship with Mr Adani. I asked how Mr Adani has grown so fast. The Prime Minister did not answer a single question. His response to my questions was that why are you not called Nehru, why are you called Gandhi. Because generally in India… maybe Mr Modi doesn’t understand this… But generally in India our surname is the surname of our father.”
The ‘Gandhi’ in Rahul Gandhi’s name comes from Feroze Gandhi, his paternal grandfather, freedom fighter, journalist, and Member of Parliament from Raebareli. He passed away in 1960, a few days before he would have turned 48.
Feroze Gandhi was born Feroze Jehangir Ghandy on September 12, 1912 in Bombay. His parents, Ratimai (née Commissariat) and Jehangir Faredoon Ghandy, were Parsis, and Jehangir worked as a marine engineer.
A young Feroze moved to Allahabad after his father passed away, to live with his aunt Shirin Commissariat, a surgeon at the Lady Dufferin Hospital. Feroze was a student at the Ewing Christian College when, at the age of 18, he had his brush with the two forces that would change his life forever – the freedom struggle, and the Nehru family.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s wife Kamala Nehru, who would later become Feroze’s mother-in-law, was among the satyagrahis picketing outside Ewing Christian College. Kamala fainted in the heat and crowds, and Feroze jumped to her aid. From then on, Feroze dropped out of the British-staffed college and threw himself into the freedom struggle, spending a lot of time at Anand Bhawan, the Nehru family home and important political centre. It was also around this time that he changed his surname from Ghandy to Gandhi, in honour of Mahatma Gandhi.
Marriage to Indira Gandhi
This was the period when Feroze first came in contact with Indira Priyadarshini, Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, five years his junior. He first proposed to Indira when she was only 16, but Kamala Nehru objected, saying her daughter was too young.
Journalist Sagarika Ghose writes in her book Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister that over the next few years, as Kamala’s health deteriorated due to tuberculosis, Feroze remained a dependable friend to the Nehrus, even visiting Kamala at the Badenweiler clinic in Germany.
When Indira joined Oxford in 1937, Feroze was studying at the London School of Economics. Ghose writes that the young people fell in love then, with Indira becoming involved in the radical political movements Feroze was linked with, including the India League, led by VK Krishna Menon.
In 1941, they returned to India, both having dropped out of college and determined to get married. The Nehru family was not thrilled about Indira’s choice, as Feroze did not come from a similarly aristocratic lineage, but after Mahatma Gandhi blessed their union, the couple got married on March 26, 1942, on Ram Navami, at Anand Bhawan.
After Independence, Feroze was elected MP from Raebareli. The Congress then had virtually no opposition. However, Feroze, even from the treasury benches, regularly raised his voice against the government and the party when he did not agree with them.
It was Feroze Gandhi who, in 1958, proved in Parliament that the Life Insurance Corporation’s (LIC) had, at the behest of high-ups in the government, invested hugely in six ailing companies owned by Haridas Mundhra, a dodgy businessman. Then Finance Minister T T Krishnamachari had to resign as a consequence of Feroze’s campaign.
Three years before that, he had exposed the financial manipulations by what was known as the Dalmia-Jain or DJ Group. His revelations led to the nationalisation of the country’s life insurance industry.
He was also the one who introduced a Private Member’s Bill making it possible for journalists to report on proceedings inside Parliament.
By now, Indira and Feroze’s marriage was deteriorating. Ghose writes that Feroze had been unfaithful, while Indira’s increased involvement with her father’s political and social life created more distance between the couple.
Journalist Coomi Kapoor, in her book The Emergency, has written that the couple’s younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, was devoted to Feroze, and “believed that his father had been abandoned and that the neglect of his well-being had led to his early death from a heart attack.”
But apart from personal differences, Feroze also disagreed with his wife politically, displaying a firmer commitment to democracy and federalism than the more authoritarian Indira.
A particularly bitter confrontation between the couple occurred over the Centre’s decision to dismiss the democratically elected Communist government of Kerala in 1959. This was when Nehru was still alive, and Indira was the Congress president. The government of EMS Namboodiripad was bringing in land and educational institutes’ reforms, which was witnessing major opposition. The central government used this unrest as a reason to dismiss the government. Among the most strident critics of this move was Feroze, who even called her wife a ‘fascist’ over this.
Swedish journalist Bertil Falk, in his book Feroze The Forgotten Gandhi, writes, “According to Janardan Thakur, well-known political correspondent: ‘It was her husband who perhaps first called her a “fascist”… The [Kerala] issue had come up at breakfast table at Teen Murti, and there had been quite a row between Indira and Feroze, with Nehru looking on very distressed. “It is just not right,” Feroze had said, “you are bullying people. You are a fascist.” Indira Gandhi had flared up. “You are calling me a fascist. I can’t take that.” And she had walked out of the room in rage.’”
On September 8, 1960, Feroze Gandhi died of a heart attack. Hindustan Times reported about his funeral that “verses from the Gita and the Ramayana, and from the Quran and the Bible were chanted. A special prayer was conducted for the departed soul by Parsi priests”.
Feroze Gandhi’s grave is in the Parsi cemetery at Allahabad, where his life had found a new direction.