Jawaharlal Nehru: 14 November 1889 – 27 May 1964 was the first Prime Minister of India and a central figure in Indian politics before and after independence. He emerged as the paramount leader of the Indian independence movement under the tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi and ruled India from its establishment as an independent nation in 1947 until his death in 1964. He is considered to be the architect of the modern Indian nation-state: a sovereign, socialist, secular, and democratic republic. He was also known as Pandit Nehru due to his roots with the Kashmiri Pandit community while many Indian children knew him as “Uncle Nehru”.
The son of Motilal Nehru, a prominent lawyer and nationalist statesman and Swaroop Rani, Nehru was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge and the Inner Temple, where he trained to be a barrister. Upon his return to India, he enrolled at the Allahabad High Court, and took an interest in national politics, which eventually replaced his legal practice. A committed nationalist since his teenage years, he became a rising figure in Indian politics during the upheavals of the 1910s. He became the prominent leader of the left-wing factions of the Indian National Congress during the 1920s, and eventually of the entire Congress, with the tacit approval of his mentor, Gandhi. As Congress President in 1929, Nehru called for complete independence from the British Raj and instigated the Congress’s decisive shift towards the left.
Nehru and the Congress dominated Indian politics during the 1930s as the country moved towards independence. His idea of a secular nation-state was seemingly validated when the Congress, under his leadership, swept the 1937 provincial elections and formed the government in several provinces; on the other hand, the separatist Muslim League fared much poorer. But these achievements were seriously compromised in the aftermath of the Quit India Movement in 1942, which saw the British effectively crush the Congress as a political organisation. Nehru, who had reluctantly heeded Gandhi’s call for immediate independence, for he had desired to support the Allied war effort during the Second World War, came out of a lengthy prison term to a much altered political landscape. The Muslim League under his old Congress colleague and now bête noire, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had come to dominate Muslim politics in India. Negotiations between Nehru and Jinnah for power sharing failed and gave way to the independence and bloody partition of India in 1947.
Nehru was elected by the Congress to assume office as independent India’s first Prime Minister, although the question of leadership had been settled as far back as 1941, when Gandhi acknowledged Nehru as his political heir and successor. As Prime Minister, he set out to realise his vision of India. The Constitution of India was enacted in 1950, after which he embarked on an ambitious program of economic, social and political reforms. Chiefly, he oversaw India’s transition from a colony to a republic, while nurturing a plural, multi-party democracy. In foreign policy, he took a leading role in Non-Alignment while projecting India as a regional hegemon in South Asia.
Under Nehru’s leadership, the Congress emerged as a catch-all party, dominating national and state-level politics and winning consecutive elections in 1951, 1957, and 1962. He remained popular with the people of India in spite of political troubles in his final years and failure of leadership during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. In India, his birthday is celebrated as Children’s Day.
Early life and career (1889–1912)
Nehru in khaki uniform as a member of Seva Dal.
Jawaharlal Nehru was born on 14 November 1889 in Allahabad in British India. His father, Motilal Nehru (1861–1931), a wealthy barrister who belonged to the Kashmiri Pandit community, served twice as President of the Indian National Congress during the Independence Struggle. His mother, Swaruprani Thussu (1868–1938), who came from a well-known Kashmiri Brahmin family settled in Lahore, was Motilal’s second wife, the first having died in child birth. Jawaharlal was the eldest of three children, two of whom were girls. The elder sister, Vijaya Lakshmi, later became the first female president of the United Nations General Assembly. The youngest sister, Krishna Hutheesing, became a noted writer and authored several books on her brother.
The Nehru family ca. 1890s
Nehru described his childhood as a “sheltered and uneventful one”. He grew up in an atmosphere of privilege at wealthy homes including a large palatial estate called the Anand Bhawan. His father had him educated at home by private governesses and tutors. Under the influence of a tutor, Ferdinand T. Brooks, he became interested in science and
theosophy. He was subsequently initiated into the Theosophical Society at age thirteen by family friend Annie Besant. However, his interest in theosophy did not prove to be enduring and he left the society shortly after Brooks departed as his tutorHe wrote: “for nearly three years [Brooks] was with me and in many ways he influenced me greatly”
Nehru’s theosophical interests had induced him to the study of the Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. According to B.R. Nanda, these scriptures were Nehru’s “first introduction to the religious and cultural heritage of [India]….[they] provided Nehru the initial impulse for long intellectual quest which culminated…in The Discovery of India.”
Nehru became an ardent nationalist during his youth. The Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War intensified his feelings. About the latter he wrote, “[The] Japanese victories stirred up my enthusiasm … Nationalistic ideas filled my mind … I mused of Indian freedom and Asiatic freedom from the thraldom of Europe. Later when he had begun his institutional schooling in 1905 at Harrow, a leading school in England, he was greatly influenced by G.M. Trevelyan’s Garibaldi books, which he had received as prizes for academic merit.He viewed Garibaldi as a revolutionary hero. He wrote: “Visions of similar deeds in India came before, of gallant fight for [Indian] freedom and in my mind India and Italy got strangely mixed together.”
Nehru went to Trinity College, Cambridge in October 1907 and graduated with an honours degree in natural science in 1910.During this period, he also studied politics, economics, history and literature desultorily. Writings of Bernard Shaw, H.G Wells, J.M. Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Lowes Dickinson and Meredith Townsend moulded much of his political and economic thinking.
Nehru at the Allahabad High Court
After completing his degree in 1910, Nehru went to London and stayed there for two years for law studies at the Inns of Court School of Law (Inner Temple). During this time, he continued to study the scholars of the Fabian Society including Beatrice Webb.He passed his bar examinations in 1912 and was admitted to the English bar
After returning to India in August 1912, Nehru enrolled himself as an advocate of the Allahabad High Court and tried to settle down as a barrister. But, unlike his father, he had only a desultory interest in his profession and did not relish either the practice of law or the company of lawyers. He wrote: “Decidedly the atmosphere was not intellectually stimulating and a sense of the utter insipidity of life grew upon me.” His involvement in nationalist politics would gradually replace his legal practice in the coming years.
Struggle for Indian Independence (1912–47)
Nehru had developed an interest in Indian politics during his time in Britain.Within months of his return to India in 1912 he had attended an annual session of the Indian National Congress in Patna. He was disconcerted with what he saw as a “very much an English-knowing upper class affair” The Congress in 1912 had been the party of moderates and elites. Nehru harboured doubts regarding the ineffectualness of the Congress but agreed to work for the party in support of the Indian civil rights movement in South Africa.He collected funds for the civil rights campaigners led by Mohandas Gandhi in 1913. Later, he campaigned against the indentured labour and other such discriminations faced by Indians in the British colonies
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, sympathy in India was divided. Although educated Indians “by and large took a vicarious pleasure” in seeing the British rulers humbled, the ruling upper classes sided with the Allies. Nehru confessed that he viewed the war with mixed feelings. Frank Moraes wrote: “If [Nehru’s] sympathy was with any country it was with France, whose culture he greatly admired.During the war, Nehru volunteered for the St John Ambulance and worked as one of the provincial secretaries of the organisation in Allahabad.He also spoke out against the censorship acts passed by the British government in India.
Nehru emerged from the war years as a leader whose political views were considered radical. Although the political discourse had been dominated at this time by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a moderate who said that it was “madness to think of independence”, Nehru had spoken “openly of the politics of non-cooperation, of the need of resigning from honorary positions under the government and of not continuing the futile politics of representation”. He ridiculed the Indian Civil Service (ICS) for its support of British policies. He noted that someone had once defined the Indian Civil Service, “with which we are unfortunately still afflicted in this country, as neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”.Motilal Nehru, a prominent moderate leader, acknowledged the limits of constitutional agitation, but counselled his son that there was no other “practical alternative” to it. Nehru, however, was not satisfied with the pace of the national movement. He became involved with aggressive nationalists leaders who were demanding Home Rule for Indians.
The influence of the moderates on Congress politics began to wane after Gokhale died in 1915.Anti-moderate leaders such as Annie Beasant and Lokmanya Tilak took the opportunity to call for a national movement for Home Rule. But, in 1915, the proposal was rejected because of the reluctance of the moderates to commit to such a radical course of action. Besant nevertheless formed a league for advocating Home Rule in 1916; and Tilak, on his release from a prison term, had in April 1916 formed his own league. Nehru joined both leagues but worked especially for the former He remarked later: “[Besant] had a very powerful influence on me in my childhood… even later when I entered political life her influence continued.”Another development which brought about a radical change in Indian politics was the espousal of Hindu-Muslim unity with the Lucknow pact at the annual meeting of the Congress in December 1916. The pact had been initiated earlier in the year at Allahabad at a meeting of the All-India Congress Committee which was held at the Nehru residence at Anand Bhawan. Nehru welcomed and encouraged the rapprochement between the two Indian communities.
Home rule movement
Several nationalist leaders banded together in 1916 under the leadership of Annie Besant to voice a demand for self-government, and to obtain the status of a Dominion within the British Empire as enjoyed by Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Newfoundland at the time. Nehru joined the movement and rose to become secretary of Besant’s All India Home Rule League. In June 1917 Besant was arrested and interned by the British government. The Congress and various other Indian organisation threatened to launch protests if she were not set free. The British government was subsequently forced to release Besant and make significant concessions after a period of intense protest.
The first big national involvement of Nehru came at the onset of the non-co-operation movement in 1920. He led the movement in the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Nehru was arrested on charges of anti-governmental activities in 1921, and was released a few months later. In the rift that formed within the Congress following the sudden closure of the non-co-operation movement after the Chauri Chaura incident, Nehru remained loyal to Gandhi and did not join the Swaraj Party formed by his father Motilal Nehru and CR Das.
Internationalising the struggle
Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi
Nehru and his daughter Indira in Britain, 1930s
Nehru played a leading role in the development of the internationalist outlook of the Indian independence struggle. He sought foreign allies for India and forged links with movements for independence and democracy all over the world. In 1927, his efforts paid off and the Congress was invited to attend the congress of oppressed nationalities in Brussels in Belgium. The meeting was called to co-ordinate and plan a common struggle against imperialism. Nehru represented India and was elected to the Executive Council of the League against Imperialism that was born at this meeting.
During the mid-1930s, Nehru was much concerned with developments in Europe, which seemed to be drifting toward another world war. He was in Europe in early 1936, visiting his ailing wife, shortly before she died in a sanitarium in Switzerland. Even at this time, he emphasised that, in the event of war, India’s place was alongside the democracies, though he insisted that India could only fight in support of Great Britain and France as a free country.
Nehru closely worked with Subhash Bose in developing good relations with governments of free countries all over the world. However, the two split in the late 1930s, when Bose agreed to seek the help of fascists in driving the British out of India. At the same time, Nehru had supported the Republicans who were fighting against Francisco Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. Nehru along with his aide V.K. Krishna Menon visited Spain and declared support for the Republicans. HE refused to meet Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy when the latter expressed his desire to meet him.
Nehru was one of the first nationalist leaders to realise the sufferings of the people in the states ruled by Indian Princes. He suffered imprisonment in Nabha, a princely state, when he went there to see the struggle that was being waged by the Sikhs against the corrupt Mahants. The nationalist movement had been confined to the territories under direct British rule. He helped to make the struggle of the people in the princely states a part of the nationalist movement for independence. The All India states people’s conference was formed in 1927. Nehru who had been supporting the cause of the people of the princely states for many years was made the President of the conference in 1935. He opened up its ranks to membership from across the political spectrum. The body would play an important role during the political integration of India, helping Indian leaders Vallabhbhai Patel and V.P. Menon (to whom Nehru had delegated the task of integrating the princely states into India) negotiate with hundreds of princes.
In July 1946, Nehru pointedly observed that no princely state could prevail militarily against the army of independent India. In January 1947, he said that independent India would not accept the Divine Right of Kings, and in May 1947, he declared that any princely state which refused to join the Constituent Assembly would be treated as an enemy state. During the drafting of the Indian constitution, many Indian leaders (except Nehru) of that time were in favour of allowing each Princely state or Covenanting State to be independent as a federal state along the lines suggested originally by the Government of India act (1935). But as the drafting of the constitution progressed and the idea of forming a republic took concrete shape (because of the efforts of Nehru), it was decided that all the Princely states/Covenanting States would merge with the Indian republic. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, de-recognised all the rulers by a presidential order in 1969. But this was struck down by the Supreme Court of India. Eventually, the government by the 26th Amendment to the constitution was successful in abolishing the Princely states of India. The process began by Nehru was finally completed by his daughter by the end of 1971.
Declaration of Independence
Nehru was one of the first leaders to demand that the Congress Party should resolve to make a complete and explicit break from all ties with the British Empire. He introduced a resolution demanding “complete national independence” in 1927, which was rejected because of Gandhi’s opposition.
In 1928, Gandhi agreed to Nehru’s demands and proposed a resolution that called for the British to grant dominion status to India within two years. If the British failed to meet the deadline, the Congress would call upon all Indians to fight for complete independence. Nehru was one of the leaders who objected to the time given to the British – he pressed Gandhi to demand immediate actions from the British. Gandhi brokered a further compromise by reducing the time given from two years to one. Nehru agreed to vote for the new resolution.
Demands for dominion status was rejected by the British in 1929. Nehru assumed the presidency of the Congress party during the Lahore session on 29 December 1929 and introduced a successful resolution calling for complete independence.
Nehru drafted the Indian declaration of independence, which stated:
We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life, so that they may have full opportunities of growth. We believe also that if any government deprives a people of these rights and oppresses them the people have a further right to alter it or abolish it. The British government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but has based itself on the exploitation of the masses, and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually. We believe therefore, that India must sever the British connection and attain Purna Swaraj or complete independence.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve 1929, Nehru hoisted the tricolour flag of India upon the banks of the Ravi in Lahore. A pledge of independence was read out, which included a readiness to withhold taxes. The massive gathering of public attending the ceremony was asked if they agreed with it, and the vast majority of people were witnessed to raise their hands in approval. 172 Indian members of central and provincial legislatures resigned in support of the resolution and in accordance with Indian public sentiment. The Congress asked the people of India to observe 26 January as Independence Day. The flag of India was hoisted publicly across India by Congress volunteers, nationalists and the public. Plans for a mass civil disobedience were also underway.
After the Lahore session of the Congress in 1929, Nehru gradually emerged as the paramount leader of the Indian independence movement. Gandhi stepped back into a more spiritual role. Although Gandhi did not officially designate Nehru his political heir until 1942, the country as early as the mid-1930s saw in Nehru the natural successor to Gandhi.
Nehru and most of the Congress leaders were initially ambivalent about Gandhi’s plan to begin civil disobedience with a satyagraha aimed at the British salt tax. After the protest gathered steam, they realised the power of salt as a symbol. Nehru remarked about the unprecedented popular response, “it seemed as though a spring had been suddenly released”.He was arrested on 14 April 1930 while entraining from Allahabad for Raipur. He had earlier, after addressing a huge meeting and leading a vast procession, ceremoniously manufactured some contraband salt. He was charged with breach of the salt law, tried summarily behind prison walls and sentenced to six months of imprisonment. He nominated Gandhi to succeed him as Congress President during his absence in jail, but Gandhi declined, and Nehru then nominated his father as his successor. With Nehru’s arrest the civil disobedience acquired a new tempo, and arrests, firing on crowds and lathi charges grew to be ordinary occurrences.
The Salt Satyagraha succeeded in drawing the attention of the world. Indian, British, and world opinion increasingly began to recognise the legitimacy of the claims by the Congress party for independence. Nehru considered the salt satyagraha the high-water mark of his association with Gandhiand felt that its lasting importance was in changing the attitudes of Indians:
Of course these movements exercised tremendous pressure on the British Government and shook the government machinery. But the real importance, to my mind, lay in the effect they had on our own people, and especially the village masses. … Non-cooperation dragged them out of the mire and gave them self-respect and self-reliance. … They acted courageously and did not submit so easily to unjust oppression; their outlook widened and they began to think a little in terms of India as a whole. … It was a remarkable transformation and the Congress, under Gandhi’s leadership, must have the credit for it.
Architect of India
Gandhi and Nehru in 1942
Nehru elaborated the policies of the Congress and a future Indian nation under his leadership in 1929. He declared that the aims of the congress were freedom of religion, right to form associations, freedom of expression of thought, equality before law for every individual without distinction of caste, colour, creed or religion, protection to regional languages and cultures, safeguarding the interests of the peasants and labour, abolition of untouchability, introduction of adult franchise, imposition of prohibition, nationalisation of industries, socialism, and establishment of a secular India. All these aims formed the core of the “Fundamental Rights and Economic Policy” resolution drafted by Nehru in 1929–31 and were ratified by the All India Congress Committee under Gandhi’s leadership. However, some Congress leaders objected to the resolution and decided to oppose Nehru.
The espousal of socialism as the Congress goal was most difficult to achieve. Nehru was opposed in this by the right-wing Congressmen Sardar Patel, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari. He had the support of the left-wing Congressmen Maulana Azad and Subhas Chandra Bose. The trio combined to oust Dr. Prasad as Congress President in 1936. Nehru was elected in his place and held the presidency for two years (1936–37) He was then succeeded by his socialist colleagues Bose (1938–39) and Azad (1940–46 After the fall of Bose from the mainstream of Indian politics (because of his support of violence in driving the British out of India), the power struggle between the socialists and conservatives balanced out. However, Sardar Patel died in 1950, leaving Nehru as the sole remaining iconic national leader, and soon the situation became such that Nehru was able to implement many of his basic policies without hindrance. The conservative right-wing of the Congress (composed of India’s upper class elites) would continue opposing the socialists until the great schism in 1969. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was able to fulfill her father’s dream by the 42nd amendment (1976) of the Indian constitution by which India officially became “socialist” and “secular”.
During Nehru’s second term as general secretary of the Congress, he proposed certain resolutions concerning the foreign policy of India.From that time onwards, he was given carte blanche in framing the foreign policy of any future Indian nation. He developed good relations with governments all over the world. He firmly placed India on the side of democracy and freedom during a time when the world was under the threat of fascism He was also given the responsibility of planning the economy of a future India. He appointed the National Planning Commission in 1938 to help in framing such policies. However, many of the plans framed by Nehru and his colleagues would come undone with the unexpected partition of India in 1947.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore
Nehru visit to Europe in 1936 proved to be the watershed in his political and economic thinking. Nehru’s real interest in Marxism and his socialist pattern of thought stem from that tour. His subsequent sojourns in prison enabled him to study Marxism in more depth. Interested in its ideas but repelled by some of its methods, he could never bring himself to accept Karl Marx’s writings as revealed scripture. Yet from then on, the yardstick of his economic thinking remained Marxist, adjusted, where necessary, to Indian conditions.
When the Congress party under Nehru chose to contest elections and accept power under the Federation scheme, Gandhi resigned from party membership. Gandhi did not disagree with Nehru’s move, but felt that if he resigned, his popularity with Indians would cease to stifle the party’s membership. When the elections following the introduction of provincial autonomy (under the government of India act 1935) brought the Congress party to power in a majority of the provinces, Nehru’s popularity and power was unmatched. The Muslim League under Mohammed Ali Jinnah (who was to become the creator of Pakistan) had fared badly at the polls. Nehru declared that the only two parties that mattered in India were the British Raj and Congress. Jinnah statements that the Muslim League was the third and “equal partner” within Indian politics was widely rejected. Nehru had hoped to elevate Maulana Azad as the pre-eminent leaders of Indian Muslims, but in this, he was undermined by Gandhi, who continued to treat Jinnah as the voice of Indian Muslims.
World War II and Quit India movement
When World war II started, Viceroy Linlithgow had unilaterally declared India a belligerent on the side of the Britain, without consulting the elected Indian representatives. Nehru hurried back from a visit to China, announcing that, in a conflict between democracy and Fascism, “our sympathies must inevitably be on the side of democracy…. I should like India to play its full part and throw all her resources into the struggle for a new order.”
After much deliberation the Congress under Nehru informed the government that it would co-operate with the British but on certain conditions. First, Britain must give an assurance of full independence for India after the war and allow the election of a constituent assembly to frame a new constitution; second, although the Indian armed forces would remain under the British Commander-in-Chief, Indians must be included immediately in the central government and given a chance to share power and responsibility. When Nehru presented Lord Linlithgow with the demands, he chose to reject them. A deadlock was reached. “The same old game is played again”, Nehru wrote bitterly to Gandhi, “the background is the same, the various epithets are the same and the actors are the same and the results must be the same”.
On 23 October 1939, the Congress condemned the Viceroy’s attitude and called upon the Congress ministries in the various provinces to resign in protest. Before this crucial announcement, Nehru urged Jinnah and the Muslim League to join the protest but the latter declined.
In March 1940 Jinnah passed what would come to be known as the “Pakistan Resolution”, declaring “Muslims are a nation according to any definition of a nation, and they must have their homelands, their territory and their State.” This state was to be known as Pakistan, meaning “Land of the Pure”. Nehru angrily declared that “all the old problems … pale into insignificance before the latest stand taken by the Muslim League leader in Lahore”. Linlithgow made Nehru an offer on 8 October 1940. It stated that Dominion status for India was the objective of the British government. However, it referred neither to a date nor method of accomplishment. Only Jinnah got something more precise. “The British would not contemplate transferring power to a Congress-dominated national government the authority of which was “denied by large and powerful elements in India’s national life”.