| Indira Gandhi
London, Nov. 27: Sonia Gandhi will be in Oxford on Friday to unveil a portrait of Indira Gandhi at Somerville College where her mother-in-law was briefly an undergraduate in 1937.
Later in the day, the Congress leader will deliver a lecture on “Conflict and Co-existence” to the Centre for Islamic Studies at Oxford, where past speakers have included Nelson Mandela.
The Indira Gandhi portrait will hang in the “Margaret Thatcher seminar room and reception area” at Somerville, the college’s principal, Dame Fiona Caldicott, said.
Lady Thatcher and Indira Gandhi are the two Prime Ministers Somerville has produced, Dame Caldicott added proudly. “We hope their portraits will hang side by side one day,” she said.
The future British Prime Minister, a grocer’s daughter from a lower middle class background, was at Somerville for four years from 1943, read Natural Sciences (Chemistry) and passed with a Second.
The college had a tradition of commissioning portraits of famous old girls, she explained. “We had been discussing having a portrait of Indira Gandhi with Indian friends when we had this generous offer from Sonia Gandhi, and we are very pleased she will unveil it herself.”
Lady Thatcher, who is in poor health, will not be present. “But we are hoping she will come later. We are discussing having her portrait done. The Margaret Thatcher seminar room and reception area was opened in 1989.”
Indira Nehru’s time at Oxford was spoilt by bad health and a fear of exams, especially in Latin which was compulsory in her time. She switched from an honours degree in history, which she had initially wanted to read, to a diploma in social and public administration, a non-degree course.
However, on her doctor’s orders, she had to abandon the course and did not return to Oxford to complete her studies.
She had difficulty getting in because passing Latin was necessary in her days but the college was keen to have the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru among its intake in 1937. She cut a lonely figure who seemed out of place among the jolly, hockey-stick brigade from British public schools.
Katherine Frank’s biography of the Indian prime minister says of the young Indira’s arrival at Oxford: “With piles of luggage, Indira arrived at Somerville College, on a cold, rainy Thursday afternoon in October, ‘feeling terribly nervous and agitated.’”
Like the other girls, “she wore tweed jackets, skirts and sensible shoes”. She matriculated — the formal induction ceremony — “wearing her academic gown, cap, a white blouse, black tie and black skirt”.
She took part in the activities of the Indian Majlis or the Labour Club but her attentions were distracted by her developing affair with Feroze Gandhi and the troubled political situation back in India. According to Frank, “Indira remained acutely aware of her role and stature as Nehru’s daughter when she was at Oxford, but she was a political presence rather than leader”.
After unveiling her mother-in-law’s portrait on Friday, Sonia Gandhi will move on to the Centre for Islamic Studies.
“She is expected to speak for 45 minutes to an hour,” said Hassan Abedi, a spokesman for the centre. “We hope she will then take questions.”
Sonia Maino, as the Congress leader was when she was a student at a language school in Cambridge in the 1960s, met her future husband, Rajiv Gandhi, when he was an undergraduate at Trinity, Nehru’s old college.
The only Indian whose portrait hangs at Trinity is its current Master, Amartya Sen.
“His wife, Emma Rothschild (a don at King’s College, Cambridge), was an undergraduate at Somerville,” disclosed Dame Caldicott.