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‘So sorry…Air India’: Indira Gandhi’s letter to JRD Tata dated 1978 surfaces – Mint

With Tata Sons, the country’s oldest and largest conglomerate, set to regain control of debt-laden national carrier Air India, senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh has shared a letter written by former prime minister Indira Gandhi, addressed to the airline founder, JRD Tata, after he was asked to step down as chairman.

Taking to Twitter, Ramesh wrote, “In February 1978, JRD Tata was summarily removed by the Morarji Desai Govt as Chairman of Air India—a position he had occupied since March 1953. Here is an exchange that followed between JRD and Indira Gandhi, who was then out of power. Her letter was handwritten.”

Tata-govt collaboration

Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata founded Air India in 1932 and named it Tata Airlines. In 1946, JRD Tata renamed the airlines as Air India.

Independence changed Tata’s relation with the Centre. Tata Group, in October 1947, gave a proposal to the Centre to float Air-India International.

The Centre was to hold a 49% stake in the Air India venture with a provision of acquiring an additional 2% stake in the firm. Tatas were to have 25% and the rest was to be owned by the public. The proposal got the Nehru government’s approval within weeks.

Five years after Tata allowed the government to own a 49% stake, the Nehru government decided to nationalise Air India.

In 1953, the government paid 2.8 crore to purchase the rest of Air India’s stock.

Despite nationalisation of Air India, JRD Tata remained Air India’s chairman for over 25 years. He was removed from the position in 1978.

JRD Tata removed as Air India Chairman

On February 1, 1978, the then-Morarji Desai government removed Chairman JRD Tata from the boards of Air India and Indian Airlines. He was later reinstated on the boards of both airlines in April 1980 by Indira Gandhi. However, he did not return as chairman.

In a handwritten letter in 1978, Gandhi offered her condolences for the government’s decision and lauded Tata’s efforts in building Air India. “You were not merely Chairman, but the founder and nurturer who felt deep personal concern,” Gandhi’s note read. “It was this and the meticulous care you gave to the smallest detail, including the decor and the saris of the hostesses, which raised Air-India to the international level and indeed to the top of the list.”

“We were proud of you and of the Airline. No one can take this satisfaction from you nor belittle government’s debt to you in this respect,” she wrote. Acknowledging the “misunderstanding” between the two of them, Gandhi said she had to function under great “pressure”, and also indicated that there were “rivalries within the Ministry of Civil Aviation”.

JRD Tata responsed to the letter after nearly two weeks. He said, “I was touched by your kind reference to the part I played in building up the airline. I was fortunate in the loyalty and enthusiasm of my colleagues and staff and the support I got from government without either of which I could have achieved little.”


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