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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.