Jawaharlal Nehru; 14 November 1889 – 27 May 1964 was the firstPrime 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 Chacha 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 organization. Nehru, who had reluctantly heeded Gandhi’s call for immediate independence, for he had desired to support the Allied war effort during World War II, 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 realize 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 system. In foreign policy, he took a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement 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 Bal Diwas (Children’s Day).
Early life and career (1889–1912)
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 childbirth. 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.
Nehru described his childhood as a “sheltered and uneventful one”. He grew up in an atmosphere of privilege at wealthy homes including a palatial estate called the Anand Bhavan. 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 tutor. He 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 Bal Ram Nanda, these scriptures were Nehru’s “first introduction to the religious and cultural heritage of [India]….[they] provided Nehru the initial impulse for [his] long intellectual quest which culminated…in The Discovery of India.”
Nehru became an ardent nationalist during his youth. The Second Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War intensified his feelings. About the latter he wrote, “[The] Japanese victories [had] 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 [my] 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 honors 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.
After completing his degree in 1910, Nehru went to London and stayed there for two years for law studies at the City Law School. 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.
Nehru at the Allahabad High Court
Struggle for Indian Independence (1912–1947)
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 harbored 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 Mahatma Gandhi in 1913. Later, he campaigned against the indentured labor and other such discriminations faced by Indians in the British colonies.
When World War I broke out, 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 organization 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 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 counseled 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 Bal Gangadhar 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-governance, 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 Home Rule League. In June 1917 Besant was arrested and interned by the British government. The Congress and various other Indian organization 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-cooperation 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.
Internationalizing the struggle
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 coordinate 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 emphasized 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 Subhas Chandra 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 realize 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 Peoples 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 favor 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 rules 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 tricolor 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 realized 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 recognize the legitimacy of the claims by the Congress party for independence. Nehru considered the salt satyagraha the high-water mark of his association with Gandhi, and 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
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 of 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 Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and C. 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 onward, 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.
Nehru’s visit to Europe in 1936 proved to be the watershed in his political and economic thinking. His 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 were unmatched. The Muslim League under Muhammad 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’s 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 leader 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”.
In October 1940, Gandhi and Nehru, abandoning their original stand of supporting Britain, decided to launch a limited civil disobedience campaign in which leading advocates of Indian independence were selected to participate one by one. Nehru was arrested and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. After spending a little more than a year in jail, he was released, along with other Congress prisoners, three days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
When the Japanese carried their attack through Burma (now Myanmar) to the borders of India in the spring of 1942, the British government, faced by this new military threat, decided to make some overtures to India, as Nehru had originally desired. Prime Minister Winston Churchill dispatched Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the war Cabinet who was known to be politically close to Nehru and also knew Jinnah, with proposals for a settlement of the constitutional problem. As soon as he arrived he discovered that India was more deeply divided than he had imagined. Nehru, eager for a compromise, was hopeful. Gandhi was not. Jinnah had continued opposing the Congress. “Pakistan is our only demand”, declared the Muslim League newspaper “Dawn” and by God we will have it.”
Cripps’s mission failed as Gandhi would accept nothing less than independence. Relations between Nehru and Gandhi cooled over the latter’s refusal to co-operate with Cripps, but the two later reconciled. On 15 January 1941, Gandhi had stated:
Some say Pandit Nehru and I were estranged. It will require much more than difference of opinion to estrange us. We had differences from the time we became co-workers and yet I have said for some years and say so now that not Rajaji but Jawaharlal will be my successor.
Gandhi called on the British to leave India; Nehru, though reluctant to embarrass the Allied war effort, had no alternative but to join Gandhi. Following the Quit India resolution passed by the Congress party in Bombay (now Mumbai) on 8 August 1942, the entire Congress working committee, including Gandhi and Nehru, was arrested and imprisoned. Nehru emerged from this—his ninth and last detention—only on 15 June 1945.
During the period where all of the Congress leadership were in jail, the Muslim League under Jinnah grew in power. In April 1943, the League captured the governments of Bengal and, a month later, that of the North West Frontier Province. In none of these provinces had the League previously had a majority – only the arrest of Congress members made it possible. With all the Muslim dominated provinces except the Punjab under Jinnah’s control, the artificial concept of a separate Muslim State was turning into a reality. However, by 1944, Jinnah’s power and prestige were on the wane. A general sympathy towards the jailed Congress leaders was developing among Muslims, and much of the blame for the disastrous Bengal famine of 1943–44 during which two million died, had been laid on the shoulders of the province’s Muslim League government. The numbers at Jinnah’s meetings, once counted in thousands soon numbered only a few hundreds. In despair, Jinnah left the political scene for a stay in Kashmir. His prestige was restored unwittingly by Gandhi, who had been released from prison on medical grounds in May 1944 and had met Jinnah in Bombay in September. There he offered the Muslim leader a plebiscite in the Muslim areas after the war to see whether they wanted to separate from the rest of India. Essentially, it was an acceptance of the principle of Pakistan – but not in so many words. Jinnah demanded that the exact words be said; Gandhi refused and the talks broke down. Jinnah, however, had greatly strengthened his own position and that of the League. The most influential member of Congress had been seen to negotiate with him on equal terms. Other Muslim League leaders, opposed both to Jinnah and to the partition of India, lost strength.
Prime Minister of India (1947–64)
Nehru and his colleagues had been released as the 1946 Cabinet Mission to India arrived to propose plans for the transfer of power.
Once elected, Nehru headed an interim government, which was impaired by outbreaks of communal violence and political disorder, and the opposition of the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who were demanding a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. After failed bids to form coalitions, Nehru reluctantly supported the partition of India, according to a plan released by the British on 3 June 1947. He took office as the Prime Minister of India on 15 August, and delivered his inaugural address titled “Tryst with Destiny”.
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.”
On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was shot while he was walking to a platform from which he was to address a prayer meeting. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu nationalist with links to the extremist Hindu Mahasabha, who held Gandhi responsible for weakening India by insisting upon a payment to Pakistan. Nehru addressed the nation through radio:
Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that; nevertheless, we will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country.
Yasmin Khan argued that Gandhi’s death and funeral helped consolidate the authority of the new Indian state under Nehru and Patel. The Congress tightly controlled the epic public displays of grief over a two-week period—the funeral, mortuary rituals and distribution of the martyr’s ashes—as millions participated and hundreds of millions watched. The goal was to assert the power of the government, legitimize the Congress party’s control and suppress all religious para-military groups. Nehru and Patel suppressed the RSS, the Muslim National Guards, and the Khaksars, with some 200,000 arrests. Gandhi’s death and funeral linked the distant state with the Indian people and made more understand the need to suppress religious parties during the transition to independence for the Indian people.
In later years, there emerged a revisionist school of history which sought to blame Nehru for the partition of India, mostly referring to his highly centralized policies for an independent India in 1947, which Jinnah opposed in favor of a more decentralized India. Such views have been promoted by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which favors a decentralized central government in India.
In the years following independence, Nehru frequently turned to his daughter Indira to look after him and manage his personal affairs. Under his leadership, the Congress won an overwhelming majority in the elections of 1952. Indira moved into Nehru’s official residence to attend to him and became his constant companion in his travels across India and the world. Indira would virtually become Nehru’s chief of staff.
Nehru had led the Congress to a major victory in the 1957 elections, but his government was facing rising problems and criticism. Disillusioned by alleged intra-party corruption and bickering, Nehru contemplated resigning but continued to serve. The election of his daughter Indira as Congress President in 1959 aroused criticism for alleged nepotism, although actually, Nehru had disapproved of her election, partly because he considered it smacked of “dynastism”; he said, indeed it was “wholly undemocratic and an undesirable thing”, and refused her a position in his cabinet. Indira herself was at loggerheads with her father over policy; most notably, she used his oft-stated personal deference to the Congress Working Committee to push through the dismissal of the Communist Party of India government in the state of Kerala, over his own objections. Nehru began to be frequently embarrassed by her ruthlessness and disregard for parliamentary tradition and was “hurt” by what he saw as an assertiveness with no purpose other than to stake out an identity independent of her father.
In the 1962 elections, Nehru led the Congress to victory yet with a diminished majority. Communist and socialist parties were the main beneficiaries although some right wing groups like Bharatiya Jana Sangh also did well.
Assassination attempts and security
There were four known assassination attempts on Nehru. The first attempt on his life was during partition in 1947 while he was visiting North-West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan) in a car. The second one was by a knife-wielding rickshaw-puller in Maharashtra in 1955. The third one happened in Bombay (now Maharashtra) in 1956. The fourth one was a failed bombing attempt on train tracks in Maharashtra in 1961. Despite threats to his life, Nehru despised having too much security around him and did not like to disrupt traffic due to his movement.
Nehru implemented policies based on import substitution industrialization and advocated a mixed economy where the government controlled public sector would co-exist with the private sector. He believed that the establishment of the basic and heavy industry was fundamental to the development and modernisation of the Indian economy. The government therefore directed investment primarily into key public sector industries – steel, iron, coal, and power – promoting their development with subsidies and protectionist policies.
The policy of non-alignment during the Cold War meant that Nehru received financial and technical support from both power blocs in building India’s industrial base from scratch. Steel mill complexes were built at Bokaro and Rourkela with assistance from the Soviet Union and West Germany. There was substantial industrial development. The industry grew 7.0 per cent annually between 1950 and 1965 – almost trebling industrial output and making India the world’s seventh largest industrial country. Nehru’s critics, however, contended that India’s import substitution industrialization, which was continued long after the Nehru era, weakened the international competitiveness of its manufacturing industries. India’s share of world trade fell from 1.4 per cent in 1951–1960 to 0.5 per cent over 1981–1990. On the other hand, India’s export performance is argued to have actually shown sustained improvement over the period. The volume of exports went up at an annual rate of 2.9 per cent in 1951–1960 to 7.6 per cent in 1971–1980.
GDP and GNP grew 3.9 and 4.0 per cent annually between 1950–51 and 1964–65. It was a radical break from the British colonial period. But, in comparison to other industrial powers in Europe and East Asia, the growth rates were considered anemic at best. India lagged behind the miracle economies (Japan, West Germany, France, and Italy). State planning, controls, and regulations were argued to have impaired economic growth. While India’s economy grew faster than both the United Kingdom and the United States – low initial income and rapid population increase – meant that growth was inadequate for any sort of catch-up with rich income nations.
Under Nehru’s leadership, the government attempted to develop India quickly by embarking on agrarian reform and rapid industrialization. A successful land reform was introduced that abolished giant landholdings, but efforts to redistribute land by placing limits on landownership failed. Attempts to introduce large-scale cooperative farming were frustrated by landowning rural elites, who formed the core of the powerful right-wing of the Congress and had considerable political support in opposing the efforts of Nehru. Agricultural production expanded until the early 1960s, as additional land was brought under cultivation and some irrigation projects began to have an effect. The establishment of agricultural universities, modeled after land-grant colleges in the United States, contributed to the development of the economy. These universities worked with high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, initially developed in Mexico and the Philippines, that in the 1960s began the Green Revolution, an effort to diversify and increase crop production. At the same time, a series of failed monsoons would cause serious food shortages despite the steady progress and increase in agricultural production.
The British Indian Empire, which included present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, was divided into two types of territories: the Provinces of British India, which were governed directly by British officials responsible to the Governor-General of India; and princely states, under the rule of local hereditary rulers who recognised British suzerainty in return for local autonomy, in most cases as established by treaty. Between 1947 and about 1950, the territories of the princely states were politically integrated into the Indian Union under Nehru and Sardar Patel. Most were merged into existing provinces; others were organized into new provinces, such as Rajputana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Bharat, and Vindhya Pradesh, made up of multiple princely states; a few, including Mysore, Hyderabad, Bhopal, and Bilaspur, became separate provinces. The Government of India Act, 1935 remained the constitutional law of India pending adoption of a new Constitution.
The new Constitution of India, which came into force on 26 January 1950, made India a sovereign democratic republic. Nehru declared the new republic to be a “Union of States”. The constitution of 1950 distinguished between three main types of states: Part A states, which were the former governors’ provinces of British India, were ruled by an elected governor and state legislature. The Part B States were former princely states or groups of princely states, governed by a Raj Ramu H, who was usually the ruler of a constituent state, and an elected legislature. The Raj Ramu H was appointed by the President of India. The Part C states included both the former chief commissioners’ provinces and some princely states, and each was governed by a chief commissioner appointed by the President of India. The sole Part D state was the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which were administered by a lieutenant governor appointed by the central government.
In December 1953, Nehru appointed the States Reorganisation Commission to prepare for the creation of states on linguistic lines. This was headed by Justice Fazal Ali and the commission itself was also known as the Fazal Ali Commission. The efforts of this commission were overseen by Govind Ballabh Pant, who served as Nehru’s Home Minister from December 1954. The commission created a report in 1955 recommending the reorganization of India’s states. Under the Seventh Amendment, the existing distinction between Part A, Part B, Part C, and Part D states was abolished. The distinction between Part A and Part B states was removed, becoming known simply as “states”. A new type of entity, the union territory, replaced the classification as a Part C or Part D state. Nehru stressed commonality among Indians and promoted pan-Indianism. He refused to reorganize states on either religious or ethnic lines. Western scholars have mostly praised Nehru for the integration of the states into a modern republic but the act was not accepted universally in India.
Jawaharlal Nehru was a passionate advocate of education for India’s children and youth, believing it essential for India’s future progress. His government oversaw the establishment of many institutions of higher learning, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management and the National Institutes of Technology. Nehru also outlined a commitment in his five-year plans to guarantee free and compulsory primary education to all of India’s children. For this purpose, Nehru oversaw the creation of mass village enrollment programs and the construction of thousands of schools. Nehru also launched initiatives such as the provision of free milk and meals to children to fight malnutrition. Adult education centers, vocational and technical schools were also organized for adults, especially in the rural areas.
Under Nehru, the Indian Parliament enacted many changes to Hindu law to criminalize caste discrimination and increase the legal rights and social freedoms of women. A system of reservations in government services and educational institutions was created to eradicate the social inequalities and disadvantages faced by peoples of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Nehru also championed secularism and religious harmony, increasing the representation of minorities in government.
Nehru specifically wrote Article 44 of the Indian Constitution under the Directive Principles of State Policy which states: ‘The State shall endeavor to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.’ The article has formed the basis of secularism in India. However, Nehru has been criticized for the inconsistent application of the law. Most notably, Nehru allowed Muslims to keep their personal law in matters relating to marriage and inheritance. Also in the small state of Goa, a civil code based on the old Portuguese Family Laws was allowed to continue, and Muslim Personal law was prohibited by Nehru. This was the result of the annexation of Goa in 1961 by India, when Nehru promised the people that their laws would be left intact. This has led to accusations of selective secularism.
While Nehru exempted Muslim law from legislation and they remained unreformed, he did pass the Special Marriage Act in 1954. The idea behind this act was to give everyone in India the ability to marry outside the personal law under a civil marriage. As usual, the law applied to all of India, except Jammu and Kashmir (again leading to accusations of selective secularism). In many respects, the act was almost identical to the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, which gives some idea as to how secularized the law regarding Hindus had become. The Special Marriage Act allowed Muslims to marry under it and thereby retain the protections, generally beneficial to Muslim women, that could not be found in the personal law. Under the act polygamy was illegal, and inheritance and succession would be governed by the Indian Succession Act, rather than the respective Muslim Personal Law. Divorce also would be governed by the secular law, and maintenance of a divorced wife would be along the lines set down in the civil law.
Nehru led the faction of the Congress party which promoted Hindi as the lingua-franca of the Indian nation. After an exhaustive and divisive debate with the non-Hindi speakers, Hindi was adopted as the official language of India in 1950 with English continuing as an associate official language for a period of fifteen years, after which Hindi would become the sole official language. Efforts by the Indian Government to make Hindi the sole official language after 1965 were not acceptable to many non-Hindi Indian states, who wanted the continued use of English. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a descendant of Dravidar Kazhagam, led the opposition to Hindi. To allay their fears, Nehru enacted the Official Languages Act in 1963 to ensure the continuing use of English beyond 1965. The text of the Act did not satisfy the DMK and increased their skepticism that his assurances might not be honored by future administrations. The issue was resolved during the premiership of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who under great pressure from Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was made to give assurances that English would continue to be used as the official language as long the non-Hindi speaking states wanted. The Official Languages Act was eventually amended in 1967 by the Congress Government headed by Indira Gandhi to guarantee the indefinite use of Hindi and English as official languages. This effectively ensured the current “virtual indefinite policy of bilingualism” of the Indian Republic.
Nehru led newly independent India from 1947 to 1964, during its first years of independence from British rule. Both the United States and the Soviet Union competed to make India an ally throughout the Cold War. Nehru also maintained good relations with the British Empire. Under the London Declaration, India agreed that, when it became a republic in January 1950, it would join the Commonwealth of Nations and accept the British monarch as a “symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.” The other nations of the Commonwealth recognized India’s continuing membership of the association. The reaction back home was favorable; only the far-left and the far-right criticized Nehru’s decision.
On the international scene, Nehru was a champion of pacifism and a strong supporter of the United Nations. He pioneered the policy of non-alignment and co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement of nations professing neutrality between the rival blocs of nations led by the US and the USSR. Recognizing the People’s Republic of China soon after its founding (while most of the Western bloc continued relations with Taiwan), Nehru argued for its inclusion in the United Nations and refused to brand the Chinese as the aggressors in their conflict with Korea. He sought to establish warm and friendly relations with China in 1950 and hoped to act as an intermediary to bridge the gulf and tensions between the communist states and the Western bloc.
Nehru had promised in 1948 to hold a referendum in Kashmir under the auspices of the UN. Kashmir was a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, the two have gone to war with each other over the state in 1947. However, as Pakistan failed to pull back troops in accordance with the UN resolution and as Nehru grew increasingly wary of the UN, he declined to hold a plebiscite in 1953. His policies on Kashmir and the integration of the state into India was frequently defended in front of the United Nations by his aide, V. K. Krishna Menon, a brilliant diplomat who earned a reputation in India for his passionate speeches.
Nehru, while a pacifist, was not blind to the political and geostrategic reality of India in 1947. While laying the foundation stone of the National Defence Academy in 1949, he stated: “We, who for generations had talked about and attempted in everything a peaceful way and practiced non-violence, should now be, in a sense, glorifying our army, navy and air force. It means a lot. Though it is odd, yet it simply reflects the oddness of life. Though life is logical, we have to face all contingencies, and unless we are prepared to face them, we will go under. There was no greater prince of peace and apostle of non-violence than Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, whom we have lost, but yet, he said it was better to take the sword than to surrender, fail or run away. We cannot live carefree assuming that we are safe. Human nature is such. We cannot take the risks and risk our hard-won freedom. We have to be prepared with all modern defense methods and a well-equipped army, navy and air force.”
Nehru envisioned the developing of nuclear weapons and established the Atomic Energy Commission of India in 1948. Nehru also called Dr. Homi J. Bhabha, a nuclear physicist, who was entrusted with complete authority over all nuclear-related affairs and programs and answered only to Nehru himself. Indian nuclear policy was set by the unwritten personal understanding between Nehru and Bhabha. Nehru famously said to Bhabha, “Professor Bhabha take care of Physics, leave international relation to me”. From the outset in 1948, Nehru had a high ambition to develop this program to stand against the industrialized states and the basis of this program was to establish an Indian nuclear weapons capability as part of India’s regional superiority to other South-Asian states, most particularly Pakistan.
Nehru also told Bhabha, and later it was told by Bhabha to Raja Ramanna, that: “We must have the capability. We should first prove ourselves and then talk about Gandhi, non-violence and the world without nuclear weapons.“
Nehru was hailed by many for working to defuse global tensions and the threat of nuclear weapons after the Korean War (1950–1953). He commissioned the first study of the effects of nuclear explosions on human health, and campaigned ceaselessly for the abolition of what he called “these frightful engines of destruction”. He also had pragmatic reasons for promoting de-nuclearisation, fearing that a nuclear arms race would lead to over-militarisation that would be unaffordable for developing countries such as his own.
Nehru ordered the arrest of the Kashmiri politician Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, whom he had previously supported but now suspected of harboring separatist ambitions; Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad replaced him.
In 1954, Nehru signed with China the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, known in India as the Panchsheel (from the Sanskrit words, punch: five, sheel: virtues), a set of principles to govern relations between the two states. Their first formal codification in treaty form was in an agreement between China and India in 1954. They were enunciated in the preamble to the “Agreement (with an exchange of notes) on trade and intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India”, which was signed at Peking on 29 April 1954. Negotiations took place in Delhi from December 1953 to April 1954 between the Delegation of the PRC Government and the Delegation of the Indian Government on the relations between the two countries with respect to the disputed territories of Aksai Chin and South Tibet. The treaty was disregarded in the 1960s, but in the 1970s, the Five Principles again came to be seen as important in China–India relations, and more generally as norms of relations between states. They became widely recognized and accepted throughout the region during the premiership of Indira Gandhi and the 3-year rule of the Janata Party (1977–1980).
In 1956, Nehru had criticized the joint invasion of the Suez Canal by the British, French and Israelis. The role of Nehru, both as Indian Prime Minister and a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement was significant; he tried to be even-handed between the two sides while denouncing Eden and co-sponsors of the invasion vigorously. Nehru had a powerful ally in the US president Dwight Eisenhower who, if relatively silent publicly, went to the extent of using America’s clout in the International Monetary Fund to make Britain and France back down. The episode greatly raised the prestige of Nehru and India among the third world nations. During the Suez crisis, Nehru’s right-hand man, Menon attempted to persuade a recalcitrant Gamal Nasser to compromise with the West and was instrumental in moving Western powers towards an awareness that Nasser might prove willing to compromise.
In 1957, Menon was instructed to deliver an unprecedented eight-hour speech defending India’s stand on Kashmir; to date, the speech is the longest ever delivered in the United Nations Security Council, covering five hours of the 762nd meeting on 23 January, and two hours and forty-eight minutes on the 24th, reportedly concluding with Menon’s collapse on the Security Council floor. During the filibuster, Nehru moved swiftly and successfully to consolidate Indian power in Kashmir (then under great unrest). Menon’s passionate defense of Indian sovereignty in Kashmir enlarged his base of support in India, and led to the Indian press temporarily dubbing him the “Hero of Kashmir”. Nehru was then at the peak of his popularity in India; the only (minor) criticism came from the far-right.
The US had hoped to court Nehru after its intervention in favor of Nasser during the Suez crisis. However, Cold War suspicions and the American distrust of Nehruvian socialism cooled relations between India and the US, which suspected Nehru of tacitly supporting the Soviet Union. Nehru maintained good relations with Britain even after the Suez Crisis. Nehru accepted the arbitration of the UK and World Bank, signing the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960 with Pakistani ruler Ayub Khan to resolve long-standing disputes about sharing the resources of the major rivers of the Punjab region.
Although the Panchsheel (Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence) was the basis of the 1954 Sino-Indian border treaty, in later years, Nehru’s foreign policy suffered through increasing Chinese assertiveness over border disputes and Nehru’s decision to grant asylum to the 14th Dalai Lama. After years of failed negotiations, Nehru authorized the Indian Army to invade Portuguese controlled Goa in 1961, and then he formally annexed it to India. It increased his popularity in India, but he was criticized by the Communist opposition in India for the use of military force. The use of military force against Portugal earned him goodwill among the right-wing and far-right groups.
Sino-Indian War of 1962
From 1959, in a process that accelerated in 1961, Nehru adopted the “Forward Policy” of setting up military outposts in disputed areas of the Sino-Indian border, including in 43 outposts in territory not previously controlled by India. China attacked some of these outposts, and thus the Sino-Indian War began, which India lost, and China withdrew to pre-war lines in eastern zone at Tawang but retained Aksai Chin which was within British India and was handed over to India after independence. Later, Pakistan handed over some portion of Kashmir near Siachen controlled by Pakistan since 1948 to China. The war exposed the unpreparedness of India’s military which could send only 14,000 troops to the war zone in opposition to the many times larger Chinese army, and Nehru was widely criticized for his government’s insufficient attention to defense. In response, Nehru sacked the defense minister V. K. Krishna Menon and sought US military aid. Nehru’s improved relations with the US under John F. Kennedy proved useful during the war, as in 1962, President of Pakistan (then closely aligned with the Americans) Ayub Khan was made to guarantee his neutrality in regards to India, who was threatened by “communist aggression from Red China”. The Indian relationship with the Soviet Union, criticized by right-wing groups supporting free-market policies was also seemingly validated. Nehru would continue to maintain his commitment to the non-aligned movement despite calls from some to settle down on one permanent ally.
The aftermath of the war saw sweeping changes in the Indian military to prepare it for similar conflicts in the future, and placed pressure on Nehru, who was seen as responsible for failing to anticipate the Chinese attack on India. Under American advice (by American envoy John Kenneth Galbraith who made and ran American policy on the war as all other top policy makers in the US were absorbed in coincident Cuban Missile Crisis) Nehru refrained, not according to the best choices available, from using the Indian air force to beat back the Chinese advances. The CIA later revealed that at that time the Chinese had neither the fuel nor runways long enough for using their air force effectively in Tibet. Indians in general became highly sceptical of China and its military. Many Indians view the war as a betrayal of India’s attempts at establishing a long-standing peace with China and started to question Nehru’s usage of the term “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” (meaning “Indians and Chinese are brothers”). The war also put an end to Nehru’s earlier hopes that India and China would form a strong Asian Axis to counteract the increasing influence of the Cold War bloc superpowers.
The unpreparedness of the army was blamed on Defence Minister Menon, who “resigned” his government post to allow for someone who might modernise India’s military further. India’s policy of weaponisation via indigenous sources and self-sufficiency began in earnest under Nehru, completed by his daughter Indira Gandhi, who later led India to a crushing military victory over rival Pakistan in 1971. Toward the end of the war India had increased her support for Tibetan refugees and revolutionaries, some of them having settled in India, as they were fighting the same common enemy in the region. Nehru ordered the raising of an elite Indian-trained “Tibetan Armed Force” composed of Tibetan refugees, which served with distinction in future wars against Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. During the conflict, Nehru wrote two desperate letters to US President John F. Kennedy, requesting 12 squadrons of fighter jets and a modern radar system. These jets were seen as necessary to beef up Indian air strength so that air-to-air combat could be initiated safely from the Indian perspective (bombing troops was seen as unwise for fear of Chinese retaliatory action). Nehru also asked that these aircraft be manned by American pilots until Indian airmen were trained to replace them. These requests were rejected by the Kennedy Administration (which was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis during most of the Sino-Indian War), leading to a cool down in Indo-US relations. According to former Indian diplomat G Parthasarathy, “only after we got nothing from the US did arms supplies from the Soviet Union to India commence”. Per Time Magazine’s 1962 editorial on the war, however, this may not have been the case. The editorial states, ‘When Washington finally turned its attention to India, it honoured the ambassador’s pledge, loaded 60 US planes with $5,000,000 worth of automatic weapons, heavy mortars and land mines. Twelve huge C-130 Hercules transports, complete with US crews and maintenance teams, took off for New Delhi to fly Indian troops and equipment to the battle zone. Britain weighed in with Bren and Sten guns, and airlifted 150 tons of arms to India. Canada prepared to ship six transport planes. Australia opened Indian credits for $1,800,000 worth of munitions’.
Nehru’s health began declining steadily after 1962, and he spent months recuperating in Kashmir through 1963. Some historians attribute this dramatic decline to his surprise and chagrin over the Sino-Indian War, which he perceived as a betrayal of trust. Upon his return from Dehradun on 26 May 1964 he was feeling quite comfortable and went to bed at about 23:30 as usual, he had a restful night till about 06:30 soon after he returned from the bathroom, Nehru complained of pain in the back. He spoke to the doctors who attended on him for a brief while and almost immediately Nehru collapsed. He remained unconscious until he died. His death was announced to Lok Sabha at 14:00 local time on 27 May 1964 (same day); cause of death is believed to be the heart attack (dissecting aneurysm of the aorta). Draped in the Indian national Tri-colour flag the body of Jawaharlal Nehru was placed for public viewing. “Raghupati Raghava Rajaram” was chanted as the body was placed on the platform. On 28 May, Nehru was cremated in accordance with Hindu rites at the Shantivan on the banks of the Yamuna, witnessed by 1.5 million mourners who had flocked into the streets of Delhi and the cremation grounds.
Nehru, the man, and politician made such a powerful imprint on India that his death on 27 May 1964, left India with no clear political heir to his leadership (later Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded him as the Prime Minister). The death was announced to the Indian parliament in words similar to Nehru’s own at the time of Gandhi’s assassination: “The light is out.”
Described as Hindu Agnostic, Nehru thought that religious taboos were preventing India from going forward and adapting to modern conditions: “No country or people who are slaves to dogma and dogmatic mentality can progress, and unhappily our country and people have become extraordinarily dogmatic and little-minded.
The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.— Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru(1936); pg 240-241
Nehru married Kamala Kaul in 1916. Their only daughterIndira was born a year later in 1917. Kamala gave birth to a boy in November 1924, but he lived only for a week. Indira married Feroze Gandhi in 1942. They had two sons – Rajiv (b. 1944) and Sanjay (b. 1946).
Nehru was alleged to have had relationships with Shraddha Mata, Padmaja Naidu and Edwina Mountbatten. Edwina’s daughter Pamela acknowledged Nehru’s platonic relationship with Edwina. Nehru’s sister, Vijayalaxmi Pandit told Pupul Jayakar, Indira Gandhi’s friend and biographer, that Padmaja Naidu and Nehru lived together for many years.
As India’s first Prime minister and external affairs minister, Jawaharlal Nehru played a major role in shaping modern India’s government and political culture along with sound foreign policy. He is praised for creating a system providing universal primary education, reaching children in the farthest corners of rural India. Nehru’s education policy is also credited for the development of world-class educational institutions such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Indian Institutes of Technology, and the Indian Institutes of Management.
In addition, Nehru’s stance as an unfailing nationalist led him to also implement policies which stressed commonality among Indians while still appreciating regional diversities. This proved particularly important as post-Independence differences surfaced since British withdrawal from the subcontinent prompted regional leaders to no longer relate to one another as allies against a common adversary. While differences of culture and, especially, language threatened the unity of the new nation, Nehru established programs such as the National Book Trust and the National Literary Academy which promoted the translation of regional literatures between languages and also organised the transfer of materials between regions. In pursuit of a single, unified India, Nehru warned, “Integrate or perish.”
Historian Ramachandra Guha writes, “[had] Nehru retired in 1958 he would be remembered as not just India’s best prime minister, but as one of the great statesmen of the modern world.” Nehru, thus, left behind a disputed legacy, being “either adored or reviled for India’s progress or lack of it”.
In his lifetime, Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed an iconic status in India and was widely admired across the world for his idealism and statesmanship. His birthday, 14 November is celebrated in India as Bal Divas (“Children’s Day”) in recognition of his lifelong passion and work for the welfare, education and development of children and young people. Children across India remember him as Chacha Nehru(Uncle Nehru). Nehru remains a popular symbol of the Congress Party which frequently celebrates his memory. Congress leaders and activists often emulate his style of clothing, especially the Gandhi cap and the “Nehru jacket”, and his mannerisms. Nehru’s ideals and policies continue to shape the Congress Party’s manifesto and core political philosophy. An emotional attachment to his legacy was instrumental in the rise of his daughter Indira to leadership of the Congress Party and the national government.
Nehru’s personal preference for the sherwani ensured that it continues to be considered formal wear in North India today; aside from lending his name to a kind of cap, the Nehru jacket is named in his honour because of his preference for that style.
Numerous public institutions and memorials across India are dedicated to Nehru’s memory. The Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi is among the most prestigious universities in India. The Jawaharlal Nehru Port near the city of Mumbai is a modern port and dock designed to handle a huge cargo and traffic load. Nehru’s residence in Delhi is preserved as the Teen Murti House now has Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, and one of five Nehru Planetariums that were set in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Allahabad and Pune. The complex also houses the offices of the ‘Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund’, established in 1964 under the Chairmanship of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, then President of India. The foundation also gives away the prestigious ‘Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fellowship’, established in 1968. The Nehru family homes at Anand Bhavan and Swaraj Bhavan are also preserved to commemorate Nehru and his family’s legacy.
In popular culture
Many documentaries about Nehru’s life have been produced. He has also been portrayed in fictionalised films. The canonical performance is probably that of Roshan Seth, who played him three times: in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi, Shyam Benegal’s 1988 television series Bharat Ek Khoj, based on Nehru’s The Discovery of India, and in a 2007 TV film entitled The Last Days of the Raj. In Ketan Mehta’s film Sardar, Nehru was portrayed by Benjamin Gilani. Girish Karnad’s historical play, Tughlaq (1962) is an allegory about the Nehruvian era. It was staged by Ebrahim Alkazi with National School of Drama Repertory at Purana Qila, Delhi in the 1970s and later at the Festival of India, London in 1982.
Nehru was a prolific writer in English and wrote a number of books, such as The Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History, and his autobiography, Toward Freedom. He had written 30 letters to his daughter Indira Gandhi, when she was 10 years old and was in a boarding school in Mussoorie, teaching about natural history and the story of civilisations. The collection of these letters was later published as a book Letters from a Father to His Daughter.
In 1955, Nehru was awarded Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.