The arrest of several key political associates of Maneka Gandhi, the daughter-in-law and outspoken critic of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, has touched off a furor among India's opposition parties amid charges of a campaign by the government to suppress political dissent.
Maneka Gandhi, 26, who plans to launch a new political party next month based on the support of friends of her late husband, Sanjay, says she expects to be arrested also as part of what she termed a "political vendetta" inspired by the prime minister.
Several opposition parties that had bitterly opposed Maneka Gandhi when she was allied with her mother-in-law and husband during the period of emergency rule in India, which ran from 1975 to 1977, have issued statements condemning the arrests and warning that they could be a prelude to a broader government crackdown on opposition to the ruling Congress-I Party.
While Maneka Gandhi's incipient opposition movement so far has proved itself to be little more than a nuisance to the prime minister, the arrests during the weekend of some of its top leaders underscored Indira Gandhi's recent escalation of criticism of the opposition in general, in which she has charged her critics with attempting to subvert the government.
Earlier this month, the prime minister announced a reshuffle in her government in which several proteges of Sanjay Gandhi were named to key sub-Cabinet posts. The move was seen as an attempt to offset claims by her estranged daughter-in-law that supporters of Sanjay had defected from Congress-I to the new opposition party.
On Saturday, police arrested three prominent leaders of Maneka's movement, including Akbar Ahmed, her second-in-command, and charged them in connection with a Sept. 19 shooting of a party worker in a government guest house in Gauriganj, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The worker, Tikori Singh, was shot in the leg and bled to death, authorities said, when party officials refused to let police inside the building.
Maneka Gandhi, who was in the guest house at the time, called the shooting accidental and said her followers were being "framed" to undermine the new party, which is called Sanjay Vichar Manch, or Platform for the Propagation of Sanjay's Views.
Maneka said she has been named in a police complaint as a "co-conspirator," and that she expects to be arrested if she carries out her threat to conduct demonstrations throughout the state to protest the arrests.
She accused the prime minister of ordering the arrests while on a state visit to the Soviet Union last week so that it would appear she was not directly involved. Indira Gandhi, who dismissed her daughter-in-law from her house in March in what was described as a bitter feud over who would replace Sanjay as her heir-apparent in the Congress-I party, has refused to be drawn into the controversy over the recent arrests.
Snubbing Maneka, the prime minister has been grooming her son, Rajiv, 37, a former airline pilot and political neophyte, for the succession role, and Maneka has charged Rajiv with depriving Sanjay's followers of power in the Congress Party. Maneka also accused Indira Gandhi of straying from the political ideals of her son, who was killed in a light plane crash in 1980.
The arrest of Sanjay Vichar Manch leaders continued yesterday when the Bihar state party leader Lalit Mohan Singh, managing director of the Indian Nation and Searchlight newspapers, was picked up by police and charged with "forgery and cheating" in connection with the publication of a bogus letter purportedly from the state's chief minister, Jagannath Mishra, pledging his support for Maneka's new party. Later, police broke up a demonstration and arrested seven party workers.