Patriots > Freedom Struggle under Mahatma Gandhi > Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
Nehru, Jawaharlal (Pandit) (1889-1964)
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was born at Allahabad on 14 November 1889, and died on 27 May 1964 in New Delhi. (For family history, see the biographical entry on Pandit Motilal Nehru.) By the time Jawaharlal Nehru was born, his father Motilal Nehru had won a name among the reputable lawyers of the Allahabad High Court Bar. He had earned wealth and social status. Fond of the western life, Motilal had grown into a snob, who would not send his beloved son to a local school, so that contacts with commoner boys might not spoil him. Jawahar was brought up under the care of European governesses and tutors.

The elder of the two sisters, Vijayalakshmi, a girl of striking charm, was eleven years his junior and no company for him. Few other children could come to Motilal's house, which developed in Jawahar a sense of loneliness. He was ten, when the family moved to the new palatial house, Anand Bhavan. The first and their only male child, the parents showered affection on little Jawahar. He was fondly called 'Nanhe' or the little one. Jawaharlal had all that luck could confer -wealth, status and comfort.

Jawaharlal sailed with the family for England at the age of fifteen, and was admitted to the famous Harrow Public School, where he remained for two years. He was quiet and reserved, and did not make much impression on his contemporaries. In 1907, he went to the Trinity College, Cambridge, a seminary of British Prime Ministers. After three years' stay, in 1910 he took the Tripos in Natural Sciences-Chemistry, Geology and Botany.

As a student, he was just average. Jawaharlal somewhat came out of his shell at Cambridge; read books on literature and politics and took an interest in the Fabians and Socialists. The two writers who moulded his early political thinking were Lewis Dickinson and Meredith Townsend. Motilal wanted his son to qualify as a Barrister and in the autumn of 1910 Jawaharlal joined the Inner Temple, London.

He had plenty of leisure and took to the life of an English bohemian. He ate well, dressed well in Bond Street suits, frequented social clubs and saw dramatic plays and ballet performances. In 1912, he was called to the Bar. At the time, he was a bit of prig and returned to India as more of an Englishman than an Indian.

At the time of his wedding on 8 February 1916, Jawaharlal was twenty-six, a British educated Barrister, but curiously his was not a love marriage. The bride, Kamala Kaul, a girl of barely seventeen-pretty, slim and tender-was choosen by his parents, Kamala came of a well-known Kashmiri Kaul family of Delhi doing business. Jawaharlal was domineering; Kamala quite and unobtrusive. She could produce little impact on her petulant husband. In the second year of the marriage, Kamala gave birth to her only child, Indira Kamala did not keep good health and died prematurely in 1936.

Life at the Bar was not thrilling enough for Jawaharlal. But politics in India was taking a new turn under Gandhiji's dominating personality. Gandhiji's great contribution to the Congress was to create its mass base and mass sanction. India was seething with discontent. She has been bled white during the war, but Victory's gifts to her were the Rowlatt laws and the Jallianwala blood-bath.

It so happened that one night in 1919, Jawaharlal got into a railway compartment in which some army officers, one being General Dyer, the author of the Jallianwala tragedy, were travelling. General Dyer gave a gruesome account of what he had done and ended boastfully: "how he had the whole town at his mercy and he felt like reducing the rebellious city to a heap of ashes, but he took pity on it and refrained." It was too much for Jawahar's sensitive soul. He was thoroughly shaken and transformed into an arch-rebel, who fought against the British without a break till Independence.

During the finest twenty-five years of his life between 1920 and 1945, it can truly be said of Jawaharlal that of his two legs, one was inside the jail and the other outside.

Jawaharlal's rise in Indian politics was meteoric. Starting his public career in the Uttar Pradesh (then United Provinces), a little over one decade later he was elevated to the highest post in the Congress hierarchy-the Presidentship, though it could be brought about only by the abnegation of Gandhiji and Vallabhbhai Patel, both of whom had received more votes. His dynamic lead during the crucial 1930 Civil Disobedience, however, won for him a place second to Gandhiji's in the Congress. The ascendancy was, however, not free from struggle.

Vallabhbhai was a potential rival. In an obvious reference to Vallabhbhai and his group, Jawaharlal wrote to Gandhiji in 1936, that "a peaceful end awaited me-politically of course. All had been fixed except the cremation." Gandhiji cautioned him to be patient and the crisis blew over. Thereafter Jawaharlal's position became so dominant that thrice he was chosen as Congress President and then the first Prime Minister. In 1951 he had to face the last challenge. Purushottam Das Tandon, at the time the Congress President, raised the issue of the Organisation's precedence over the Congress Government. The verdict went in favour of Nehru, who, thereafter, became supreme both in the Government and in the Congress.

Jawaharlal was truly the son of his father- short-tempered, aggressive and imperious, but more humane. He did not inherit his mother's humility and religiosity. The Irish tutor of his boyhood, Ferdinand T. Brooks, introduced Jawahar to Mrs. Annie Besant's theology. He was, however, not so much taken by her theosophy as by her silver-tongued oratory. He admired her daring and intellectual vivacity.

Brooks also created in his pupil a love for poetry and an inquisitiveness into the mysteries of science. He developed a taste for Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Wells and Mark Twain. In his ultimate approach to political problems, Nehru subscribed to the philosophical ethos of Mill, Gladstone and Morely. He was also influenced by the writings of Bernard Shaw and Bertand Russell.

In active politics the biggest impact on Jawaharlal was that of Gandhiji. They differed vitally on basic issues and sometimes clashed publicly, but that would not diminish their mutual admiration. As if possessed by ecstasy, Gandhiji wrote of Jawaharlal: "He is pure as crystal, he is truthful beyond suspicion. He is a knight sans peur, sans reproche. The nation is safe in his hands." Gandhiji nominated him as his political heir and thus Vallabhbhai, a man of iron-will and superb organising capacity, was eliminated from contest for the succession. Vallabhbhai gracefully accepted the master's verdict and agreed to serve as a deputy to Jawaharlal in the Government.

Jawaharlal is often accused of being a bad judge of men. In the thirties he gathered round him a group of radical young men-Jaya Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and others, but each one abandoned him and some became his bitter critics. He had a short honeymoon with C. Rajagopalachari and pressed his claim for the first Head of the Republic of India, but before the Constitution could be enforced Jawaharlal and Rajagopalachari were no more companions. Abul Kalam Azad was one of the few topmost congressmen who stood by him till death. Jawaharlal could forget old grudges; Govind Ballabh Pant, who had earlier sided against him with Vallabhbhai, later became his Home Minister and a trusted lieutenant.

Lonely and somewhat introspective, Jawaharlal could often be animated by women's company.. Among Indian women, Padmaja Naidu was his closest friend. Lady Mountbatten had wit and beauty, which charmed Nehru. Abul Kalam writes that on Nehru : "perhaps even greater was the influence of Lady Mountbatten than her husband, Lord Mountbatten's" (Italics are of the Contributor).

Arthur M. Schlesinger has related how after a dull state banquet at Washington in 1961, Nehru displayed interest and vivacity only in talks with Jacqueline. When Schlesinger reported the event to Kennedy, he quipped : "A lot of visiting statesmen have the same trouble." Indira Gandhi, who had earlier presided over Nehru's household, became more of a friend and adviser towards the end of his life.

Nehru was one of the most widely travelled Indians. In 1926, he had taken ailing Kamala to Venice for treatment; in 1936 he was in Lausanne by the side of his dying wife; and in 1938 he had gone to share the woes of conflict-torn Europe. During one of these tours he met the French Philosopher, Romain Rolland, but the high moral tone of his social philosophy left Nehru cold and distant.

Nehru was emotionally and intellectually hostile to the Axis Powers. He made an agonising quest for an honourable settlement with Britain so that India could fight the war shoulder to shoulder with the Allies. But he was swept away by Gandhiji's 'Quit India' hurricane and lodged with other national leaders in the Ahmednagar jail. Jawaharlal had developed a peculiar apathy for Lord Wavell, the Viceroy, and was largely instrumental in his recall.

Wavell's successor, Lord Mountbatten, was a refreshing change for Nehru. They came close to each other and it does no small credit to Lord Mountbatten that step by step he could transform Nehru, the erstwhile opponent of the partition of India, into acquiescing in the June 1947 plan to divide India. In this he was assisted by Lady Mountbatten. With the British Prime Minister Attlee, Nehru was co-architect of the multi-coloured and multi-racial Commonwealth of Nations.

Nehru was a modernist. He stood for a free society. His contribution to the country's democratic set-up based on adult franchise was not insignificant. His agnosticism and opposition to all forms of organised religion had already paved the way for secularism. Women constitute half the population and no society can be free without women having equal status with men. Jawaharlal codified the customary Hindu Law and gave women equal right of inheritance and divorce. Caste is restrictive and incompatible with a free society. Nehru tried to crush it, but failed.

He hated the narrow concept of nationalism and stood for free intercourse with the rest of the world. Unlike Gandhiji, non-violence was not an article of faith with Nehru, but he would not use violence to achieve social transformation. Nehru had rejected Gandhiji's theory of economic trusteeship, but he would not promote class struggle. Nehru tried to give India unity, but the States reorganisation on the basis of language was not the best form of it. He wanted to give India a national language-Hindi, but succeeded only in giving a longer lease to English.

No modern society can sustain itself without the support of a highly developed industrial system to meet civilian and defence needs. Nehru would not minimise Gandhiji's programme of cottage industries, but he believed that as a substitute for big machines, small industries were a backwash. Nehru's highest contributions to India's development were science and technology-the decimal system and a chain of national scientific laboratories.

India's resources are vast but undeveloped. Hence the need for planned development. A Plan must have an objective and it took the shape of Nehru's brand of socialism with mixed economy ; the public and private sectors functioning side by side. When Nehru died, the Third Plan had gone awry, and was followed by three annual plans-or no plans.

Nehru was a profuse writer. His `Autobiography' and 'Discovery of India' enjoyed wide circulation. Among his other works were `Glimpses of World History', `Letters from A Father to His Daughter' and 'A Bunch of Old Letters'. In India, with miserably low literacy, the principal medium of mass communication is the platform. Nehru was no soap-box orator; his speeches took the form of an intimate talk with his people. They came in surging masses to hear and transmit waves of energy to him.

Some of Nehru's admiring critics believe that he had outlived the fruitful period of his life. `A Thousand Days' has quoted Kennedy's comment on Nehru of 1961- "It was all so sad: this man had done so much for India's independence, but he has stayed around too long and now it was going bit by bit." Nehru left behind many unfinished tasks-communalism, poverty, Indo-Pakistan estrangement. His mid-fifty entente with China, Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai, was based on false assumptions.

True, in a growing society, new problems come to the surface, but Nehru's unresolved problems date back to the pre-Nehru or early-Nehru era. History will yet take time to record a verdict on Nehru's external and home policies but truly he was the man "who, with all his mind and heart, loved India and the Indian people. And they, in turn, were indulgent to him, and gave him of their love most abundantly and extravagantly."


It is not possible to give within a short compass an adequate account of all aspects of the career and life of a personality like that of Jawaharlal Nehru. The Contributor of the biographical sketch has, no doubt, done his best to focus attention on the salient aspects. But in view of the special importance attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru in the public life of pre-independent and independent India, we feel it necessary to add a few more paragraphs on some aspects of his life and career which have not been adequately dealt with by the Contributor. The views expressed in these paragraphs are those of the Editor and not of the Contributor.

In recent times Nehru has been eulogised and raised to a unique position among India's freedom-fighters, next to, if not equal with, that of Mahatma Gandhi, not to speak of the earlier pioneers. The present adulation may be due to a variety of reasons. But in a work like the Dictionary of National Biography, these considerations have no place, and it is necessary to view the life and career of Nehru in the proper perspective, as it would be viewed by later generations.

It is not our object to belittle the greatness of Nehru in certain respects, but at the same time in a scholarly and impartial work like the Dictionary of National Biography one should attempt to assess the personality and career of Nehru in their proper proportions and not magnified unduly by sentimental effusions or present-day political conditions. It is with that object in view that the following few paragraphs have been added to the biographical sketch.

Other relatively less important offices held by him, Presidentships and Secretaryships, would count in legions. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest award of India, in 1955. Jawaharlal won for India a place of importance in the world which was out of all proportion to her economic and military position. For over a decade, he was virtually a doyen among the world leaders.

Nehru was the architect of India's foreign policy. Long before freedom, when India had no international status, he began to take interest in world affairs, which invoked ridicule from some of his colleagues. Nehru had a dislike for kings and dictators. In the thirties his sympathies were with Abyssinia and Republican Spain. Independent India's policy of non alignment was as much the gift of Nehru as of Indian traditions. Nehru wanted international disputes to be settled by negotiations, failing that, by arbitration, and not by war; hence his support to the United Nations Organisation, its frequent failures notwithstanding. Nehru knew what colonial rule meant for the subject races and he stood by the colonial people in their struggle for freedom.

At Oppressed Nationalities Conference at Brussels in 1927, however, Nehru met a kindred soul in the German dramatist, Ernest Toller, who later shared his aversion to Hilter and the Nazi system. Toller was too sensitive to the oppressive atmosphere and committed suicide. After Independence, Jawaharlal visited many countries of Asia, Europe, Africa and America as a state guest. He attended the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference almost every year.

The country showed ample recognition of Nehru's greatness by showering upon him the highest offices, both in the Congress and in the Government. He was elected as Congress President a record number of times-five. In 1946, he was the Party's nominee to the post of Vice president of the Governor-General's Council. He was Prime Minister for full seventeen years till his death.

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