A son was born to a marine engineer Jehangir Gandhi and his wife Ratimai, nee Commissariat on 12 September 1912 at the Tehmulji Nariman Parsi Lying-in Hospital (the most popular maternity home of Parsis for almost a century). He was the youngest of five children, the elder four being Dorab, Faredoon, Tehmina and Aloo. Originally the family hailed from Bharuch, Gujarat and had migrated to Bombay.
Nehru might not have liked him and he was a thorn in flesh of many a scamster. He is not remembered as he should be, no statue stands in his honour, nor any airport or monument is named after him. He lived a stormy life but left it without much of a stir. He was named Feroze by his parents. He was Feroze Jehangir Gandhi, a freedom fighter and later, a Member of Parliament, who went on to become the husband of a Prime Minister and the father of a Prime Minister – Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, respectively!
Feroz Gandhi was seven years old in 1920 when his father Jehangir passed away. Ratimai Gandhi took off with her children from Mumbai to live with her sister Dr. Shirin Commissariat, a surgeon at the Lady Duffrin Hospital in Allahabad. Feroze completed schooling from Vidya Mandir High School and graduated from Ewing Christian College.
These were historical times – Gandhiji’s clarion calls moved millions to abandon their British jobs, burn clothes and everything British. There were demonstrations everywhere. Kamla Nehru and her daughter were picketing outside the Erwing Christian College as part of the Vanar Sena (The Monkey Brigade). It was overpoweringly hot. Kamla Nehru swooned and Feroze who was at the college went to her aid to comfort her. The very next day he quit his studies to became an active member of the Indian Freedom Movement – this is how he met Indira Nehru. He changed his surname from Gandhi to Gandhi. The year was 1930. Later that year he was imprisoned for nineteen months along with India’s second Prime Minister, the diminutive but great Lal Bahadur Shashtri, the then the Chief of the Allahabad District Congress Committee. Feroze was imprisoned again in 1932 and in 1933, while working close to Nehru. He had fallen in love with 16-year-old Indira and proposed to her, but her mother rejected the proposal as she was too young to get married. As he continued visiting Kamla to inquire after her frail health, he would meet Indira too. In 1935, her health worsened even as Jawaharlal was in jail and she had to be taken to a sanatorium in Baudweiller, Switzerland by Subash Chandra Bose. Jawaharlal was released and left for Switzerland but she succumbed to her ill health. Feroze Gandhi lost a good friend.
Indira attended Oxford but due to her weak academic performance, was unable to obtain a degree. Feroze was also in England and in the years that went by they grew very close. In 1942 they got married, much against Jawaharlal Nehru’s will, leading to a public outcry as a Hindu Girl had married a Parsi. The outcry was such that Gandhiji issued a statement with an appeal, “I invite the writers of abusive letters to shed your wrath and bless the forthcoming marriage.” Indira and Feroze were married according to Hindu rites. 1942 was the year of the last great revolt by Gandhiji, the Quit India Movement. Soon after their marriage, Indira and Feroze were arrested and detained for several months. In 1944, the couple was blessed with a son – Rajiv and in 1946, with second son – Sanjay. They spent years together in Allahabad where Feroze worked as the MD of National Herald, founded by father-in-law Jawaharlal Nehru.
In 1950, Feroze became a member of the Provincial Government. In 1952, during the first general elections, he was elected from the Rae Bareli constituency in Uttar Pradesh. Jawaharlal became the first PM of India. Feroze plunged headlong into politics. He was a strong critic of the government headed by his father-in-law, the PM! He campaigned against corruption. Many Indian businessmen started cultivating friendships with politicians, to get away with financial irregularities… not much different from the present day scenario! In December 1955, Feroze exposed Ram Kishan Dalmia, Chairman of a bank and an insurance company who used to illegally transfer funds of Public held companies for his personal benefit, taking over Bennett and Coleman Co Ltd., publishers of newspapers, magazines and books.
In his second term in parliament in 1958, he exposed Haridas Mundhra involving government controlled Life Insurance Corpn. This tarred the squeeky clean image of Nehru’s government leading to the resignation of the finance minister T T Krishnamachary. By now the rift in Indira and Feroze’s marriage had become public knowledge.
Indira Gandhi was Congress President, lobbying for imposing President’s rule in Kerala. Feroze was a staunch democrat and furious at the very thought! They fought over the issue. He influenced other politicians against the act, fighting it through the press. As per political commentator Janardan Thakur, “It was her husband who perhaps first called her a ‘fascist’, way back in 1959 when she was Congress President. He thought it undemocratic to dismiss an elected government, whether communist or otherwise. He told her over breakfast, ‘you are bullying people. You are a fascist!’ She retorted, ‘You are calling me a fascist! I can’t take that!,’ storming out of the room in rage.’ Finally, President’s rule was imposed in Kerala.
The love story that began in the romantic age of the great freedom struggle ended as an anti-climax – both lost out to politics. In 1958, Feroze had heart problem. Indira, who now lived with her father, was away in Bhutan. She visited Feroze on her return and looked after him. In 1960, he suffered a second heart attack and passed away on 8 September 1960. He was cremated and his ashes were interred at the Parsi cemetery in Allahabad.
Feroze Gandhi was indeed a titan in his times but missed out on the due honor and publicity he deserved.