Jawaharlal Nehru

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.

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