NEHRU, JAWAHARLAL (1889–1964), nationalist leader and first prime minister of India (1947–1964). Jawaharlal Nehru was born in Allahabad on 14 November 1889. The Nehrus originally came from the valley of Kashmir and had migrated to Delhi at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Jawaharlal's grandfather, Gangadhar, was a police officer in Delhi at the time of the Revolt of 1857. When the victorious British troops stormed their way into Delhi, he escaped with his family to Agra. Early in 1861, at the age of thirty-four, he passed away. Three months after his death, his wife gave birth to a son, who was named Motilal. He was brought up by his elder brother, Nandlal. Motilal Nehru, the father of Jawaharlal, forged his way to the forefront of the Allahabad Bar, where he built up an enormous practice; he was noted for his natural shrewdness, persuasive advocacy, and ready wit. Genial, fond of good food and good wine and good conversation, he was known among his friends—British and Indian—for his generous hospitality.
The Early Years
As a child, Jawaharlal was the recipient of much anxious solicitude from his parents. His mother, Swarup Rani, showered on him, as he wrote later, "indiscriminate and excessive love." Motilal decided that the schools in Allahabad were not good enough for his son, and arranged for his instruction at home by European tutors. Though he was spared the straitjacket of a conventional education, solitary instruction at home deepened the loneliness of the boy, who as the only child for eleven years had little opportunity to play with children of his own age. One of his tutors, Ferdinard T. Brooks, a young man of mixed Irish and French extraction, inspired in him a zest for reading and an interest in science.
From English tutors to an English public school must have seemed to Motilal Nehru a natural, perhaps a necessary step. In 1905 he took his son to England and had him admitted to Harrow public school. Jawaharlal entered the school routine of studies and sports, though he did not seem to leave any impression on his contemporaries, nor did they find his company intellectually stimulating. "My tastes and inclinations," he wrote to his father, "are quite different. Here boys older than me and in higher forms than me take great interest in things which appear to me childish."
In October 1907 Jawaharlal was admitted to Trinity College at Cambridge. His interest in science led him to take the Natural Science Tripos for his subjects. The three years he spent at Cambridge were, as he recalled later, "pleasant years with many friends.. and a gradual widening of the intellectual horizon." The days were taken up with work and play, and the long winter evenings passed in interminable discussions on life, literature, politics, ethics, sex, and people, until long after midnight the dying fires sent Jawaharlal and his friends shivering to their beds. Cambridge also imparted a keen edge to Jawaharlal's political thinking. His letters from Harrow and Cambridge exuded nationalist fervor and aggressive anti-imperialism, which alarmed his father, though it was not uncommon for Indian students at British universities to pass through a phase of intellectual rebellion and political extremism.
A Political Calling
After graduating from Cambridge, Jawaharlal qualified as a barrister and returned to India in 1912 to practice at the Allahabad High Court as his father's junior. He was soon bored by what he called "the technicalities and trivialities of much of the legal lore." Deep down in him, there was a vacuum, which required filling with something more than personal and professional ambition. It was politics that seemed to strike a vital chord in him, but politics in Allahabad were too tepid for him. It was only in June 1917, when the arrest of Annie Besant, the leader of the Home Rule movement, created a political storm that he was drawn into the vortex of political agitation. However, soon afterward, a declaration by the British government affirming the British policy of "developing self-governing institutions" in India brought down the political temperature. The politics of Allahabad relapsed into their wonted torpor; the Nehrus fell back into domestic and professional grooves.
Advent of Gandhi
Meanwhile, Jawaharlal had married Kamala Kaul, the daughter of a Delhi businessman, in 1916. In November 1917 Indira, their only child, was born. Like many of his contemporaries, educated in British universities, young Nehru would have slid into the comfortable anonymity of a well-off up-country lawyer, were it not for the emergence of a new leader on the Indian scene. M. K. Gandhi had returned to his homeland in 1915 after twenty years' sojourn in South Africa, where he had led the small Indian immigrant community in its struggle against racial discrimination. In the course of this struggle, Gandhi had evolved satyagraha, a new method of rectifying injustice and resisting oppression nonviolently. Nehru first met Gandhi in 1916. He was somewhat puzzled and baffled by his political philosophy but attracted by his personality. Reports of an agrarian agitation that Gandhi led against European indigo planters in Bihar in 1917 impressed Nehru; they indicated that Gandhi possessed a keen political sense and an effective weapon of nonviolent resistance, which was a promising alternative to the armchair polemics and the sporadic acts of terrorism between which Indian politics had so far been oscillating.
Nehru's real initiation into militant politics came in the spring of 1919, when Gandhi launched a campaign against the Rowlatt Bills restricting civil liberties, one of which was passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in the teeth of the opposition of Indian members. Jawaharlal felt an irresistible call to follow Gandhi, but his father, a moderate and constitutionalist Congress leader, strongly disapproved of his twenty-nine-year-old son plunging into an unconstitutional agitation. Having failed to dissuade his son, Motilal Nehru sought Gandhi's intervention. Gandhi visited Allahabad and advised Jawaharlal to be patient. Soon afterward the British massacre in Amritsar and martial law in the Punjab alienated millions of Indians from the British Raj and brought both Nehrus, father and son, into political alignment with each other and with Gandhi. Motilal was the first front-rank leader of the Congress to cast his lot with Gandhi when the Mahatma launched a campaign of "nonviolent noncooperation" in September 1920. The call to nonviolent battle against British rule swept young Nehru off his feet. "I gave up," he was to write later in his autobiography, "all other associates and contacts, old friends, books, even newspapers, except insofar as they dealt with the work in hand. I almost forgot my family, my wife and my daughter."
In December 1921, Jawaharlal and his father were arrested and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. The noncooperation movement was fast gathering momentum when in February 1922, alarmed by a riot in a remote village in eastern India, Gandhi called it to a halt on the ground that the atmosphere in the country was not conducive to nonviolent mass civil disobedience. Not surprisingly, he was arrested soon afterward, and his campaign collapsed.
Visit to Europe
The sudden revocation of civil disobedience by Gandhi shocked Jawaharlal. During the next five years, nationalist politics were in the doldrums. Gandhi's followers in the Congress Party were themselves divided on the issue of entry into the legislatures. There was also a deterioration in Hindu-Muslim relations. Jawaharlal disliked factional and communal politics and kept out of them. In March 1926 he left for Europe for the treatment of his wife, who was suffering from tuberculosis. While she was convalescing in Switzerland, Nehru had time for reading, reflection, and travel. In February 1927 he attended the Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism at Brussels, where he met radicals and revolutionaries from four continents. In November 1927 he paid a short visit to Moscow when the Soviet Union was celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. What impressed him was the planned Soviet assault on poverty, disease, and illiteracy, and the tremendous push toward industrialization and away from customs that impeded social progress.
The European visit gave a radical edge to Jawaharlal Nehru's politics. His speeches and writings acquired a sharp anti-imperialist and pro-socialist slant. At the annual session of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta in December 1928, he clashed head-on with the "old guard" of the party on the issue of dominion status versus complete independence as the goal of the party. Thanks to Gandhi's ingenuity, a compromise was reached, and a split was averted. It was decided that if by 31 December 1929 dominion status was not conceded by the British government, the Congress would demand complete independence for India and fight for it by resorting to civil disobedience.
The Calcutta Congress stirred the stagnant pools of Indian politics. For Nehru, politics again acquired a sense of purpose, urgency, and adventure. All signs pointed to Gandhi's return to active leadership of the Congress. Gandhi was in fact elected president of the Congress session to be held in December 1929, but he declined the honor in favor of Jawaharlal. The fact that it fell to young Nehru to preside over the momentous session at Lahore, and to unfurl the flag of purna swaraj (complete independence), gave a tremendous boost to his popularity throughout the country.
As the new year dawned, Gandhi announced that he would launch his campaign by marching the 240 miles (388 kilometers) from Ahmedabad to Dandi, a village on the western coast, to break the salt tax law, which made the manufacture of salt a state monopoly. The first impulse of the government, as of the Congress intellectuals, was to ridicule the idea that there could be any connection between salt and swaraj (selfgovernment). However, the political scene was quickly transformed under Gandhi's magic.
The Salt Satyagraha electrified the country. It drew the entire Nehru family into the political arena. Jawaharlal was the first to go to prison; he was followed by his father, his sister, and his wife. Jawaharlal was thrilled by the tremendous response of the people to Gandhi's call. More than 60,000 people courted imprisonment. But a year later, in March 1931, Jawaharlal was shocked, when after talks with Viceroy Lord Irwin, Gandhi agreed to call off civil disobedience and to attend a Round Table Conference in London to discuss constitutional reforms. A few days later, however, at the annual Congress session at Karachi, he piloted a resolution supporting the Gandhi-Irwin Pact.
Nehru and Gandhi
This was not the first, nor would it be the last, time that Nehru differed with Gandhi. There were numerous occasions when he was assailed by doubts about Gandhi's policies, but he did not press his differences to the breaking point. They were divided by twenty years of age as well as intellectual and temperamental differences. Contrary to the common impression, however, it was not always Nehru who gave in. Gandhi knew that young Nehru was not a blind disciple; he wanted to harness Nehru's talents and dynamism for the national cause, and was confident of containing his impetuous and rebellious spirit. It was not without much inner conflict that Jawaharlal was able to reconcile the conflict between his mind and his heart, between his own views and his loyalty to Gandhi. He knew that Gandhi was open to argument and compromise on important issues. There were several planks in the Congress program that Nehru sponsored and Gandhi accepted, such as the declaration of fundamental rights in 1931, the struggle for civil liberties in the princely states, and the unequivocal denunciation of Nazism and fascism in Europe.
Nehru and World War
In 1935, when Nehru's wife suffered a serious relapse of her pulmonary tuberculosis, he was released from prison—he had been arrested in February 1934—to take her to Switzerland. This visit increased his sensitivity to the currents and crosscurrents of international politics and his hatred of the totalitarian regimes that were casting the shadow of war over Europe. When World War II broke out in 1939, Nehru wanted the Indian National Congress to throw its weight on the side of the democracies, but he realized that the people of India could hardly be inspired to wholeheartedly participate in the war effort unless the British government gave India a real stake in the war. Nehru hated the totalitarian regimes and wanted India to strengthen the Allied cause but, to his dismay, the British government headed by Winston Churchill failed to make any imaginative gesture to nationalist India. In 1940–1941, after the fall of France and after the entry of Japan into the war, the Congress had offered to join a national government to resist the Axis powers. In March 1942 the British government sent a Cabinet minister, Sir Stafford Cripps, with proposals on the future constitution of India to enlist the support of Indian political parties, but no agreement could be reached.
In the aftermath of the failure of the Cripps mission, Gandhi's decision to embark on mass civil disobedience created a painful dilemma for Nehru, but he fell in line with the decision of the party. The government unleashed a massive repression. All Congress leaders, including Gandhi and Nehru, and more than 60,000 adherents of the party were imprisoned. This was Nehru's longest spell in jail; it was also his last. He was released in 1945, just in time to attend the abortive Simla conference convened by the viceroy, Lord Wavell, to break the political deadlock. Soon after, the Labour Government was voted into power in Britain, and it decided to concede self-government to India. Nehru played a prominent role in this conference as well as in the subsequent negotiations with the Cabinet mission in 1946, and later with Lord Mountbatten, for transfer of power from British to Indian hands. In these negotiations the most vexed question was the position of the Muslim community in India after the withdrawal of the British power.
Nehru was a rationalist and a humanist and was remarkably free from religious passions and prejudices. The communalism of India, he told Lord Lothian, a British Liberal politician, in 1936, "is essentially political, economic and middle class." He had observed upper-class politicians, both Hindu and Muslim, who had little contact with the masses, and were wrangling endlessly over the distribution of seats in legislatures and jobs under the government. The Muslim League had been the principal proponent of Muslim separatism since the beginning of the twentieth century. It was founded in 1906 with a two-fold program: loyalty to the British Raj, and provision of safeguards for Muslims against a Hindu majority in a future constitution. The League had met with an electoral disaster in 1937. But nine years later, in the general election of 1946, it won a landslide victory under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the president of the All-India Muslim League. He owed his victory to his undoubted tactical and polemical skills, but he was also able to exploit the antagonism between the Congress and the British government that prevailed throughout World War II. The vision he held forth of a separate Muslim state, reminiscent of the glory of the Mughal empire, struck the imagination of his coreligionists. Nehru has been blamed for underrating Jinnah, but in retrospect, it seems it was beyond the power of Nehru and the Congress Party to stem the tide of Muslim separatism, which had been rising since the beginning of the twentieth century, and which took the form of secession and nationalism in the 1940s. The stand taken by Nehru, and indeed by the Congress leadership, was that religion was not a satisfactory basis for nationality, and that the best course for multiracial and multireligious countries was to seek a solution within the framework of a federal constitution, as the United States and Canada had done. Such a proposition was, however, not acceptable to the leaders of the Muslim League; its truth was to dawn upon them much later, in 1971, after the breakup of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh.
When Nehru assumed office as prime minister, he was fifty-eight. Although his entire working life had been spent in opposition to British rule—nine years actually spent in jail—he made a remarkably effortless transition from rebel to statesman. His political philosophy was eclectic. It drew upon nineteenth-century British liberalism, Fabian socialism, Marxist dialectics, Soviet economics, and Gandhian ethics. In spite of a penchant for political theory, Nehru's approach to critical issues was pragmatic. In 1949 he led India into the Commonwealth despite the long history of conflict with Britain and his own vehement opposition to dominion status twenty years earlier. Similarly, even though he had avowed his allegiance to the socialist ideal in the 1930s, he sought, after he assumed office, to reconcile socialism with economic growth and stability.
Immediately in 1947, Nehru's government was faced with formidable challenges: the restoration of order after the terrible upheaval caused by the partition of the subcontinent, the resettlement of the uprooted 5 million refugees from West Pakistan, and the rehabilitation of the transport system and the administrative machinery. The five-hundred-odd princely states, with the exception of Kashmir, were integrated into the Indian Union with remarkable speed and smoothness. Nehru took an active part in the Constituent Assembly in framing the constitution of the Indian Republic, which was inaugurated on 26 January 1950. He had to lay the foundations of a new political and economic order. He had never been a member of a legislative body, but he quickly became a great parliamentarian. Unlike many other leaders of newly liberated countries in Asia and Africa, he submitted himself to the verdict of three successive general elections, the fairness of which was never questioned. He nurtured institutions and traditions indispensable for the growth of parliamentary democracy, such as a free press, an independent judiciary, and the supremacy of the civil government.
Nehru had studied Marx and admired Soviet attempts at planned economic development, but his socialism was not of the doctrinaire variety. After he came to power, he sought to reduce economic disparities, but without hampering the growth of the economy. He knew India had been bypassed by the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century. His aim was "to convert India's economy into that of a modern state and to fit her into the nuclear age and do it quickly." He lifted Indian science from its small beginnings to a national effort. There was a tremendous expansion of higher education, especially in science and technology; the result was that the country was able to build a large reservoir of scientific manpower, second only to that of the United States and the Soviet Union.
The establishment of the Planning Commission in 1950 was a landmark in Nehru's economic policy. The commission fixed levels of investment, prescribed priorities, apportioned investment between agriculture and industry, and allocated resources between the state governments and the central government. Nehru envisioned economic planning as a long-term strategy. He used it not only to make the best use of available resources, but also to forge links of economic unity in the Indian federal system, and through public debate to make it an instrument of democratic education and peaceful social change. The results of the first fifteen years' efforts were substantial; the area under irrigation increased by 45 million acres, food production rose from 55 million to 89 million metric tons, installed power generating capacity increased from 23 million to 102 million kilowatts, and industrial production grew by 94 percent. Unfortunately, most of the gains of these years were offset by an unexpected and unprecedented increase in population.
Nehru's entire term as prime minister was conterminous with the peak of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, but he refused to ally India with either of them. Originally, this policy was an assertion of India's right, after attainment of independence, to conduct her international relations without being tied to the apron strings of Great Britain or any other great power. But it also became, in Nehru's hands, a calculated and sophisticated response to the postwar scene, dominated as it was by the rivalry of the two superpowers. Nehru, who, besides his lifelong association with Gandhi, had been trained as a scientist and was a self-taught historian, was quick to perceive that the two power blocs were poised for mutual destruction, which, in the post-Hiroshima era, posed a serious threat to the future of humankind. India's refusal to be stampeded into either bloc blazed a trail that most of the newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa followed. The organization of the nonaligned movement remained somewhat loosely knit and amorphous, but it nevertheless became a force to reckon with inside and outside the United Nations, and it acted as a vocal pressure group in the battle against neocolonialism and racism and in favor of world peace. At the Bandung (1956) and Belgrade (1961) conferences of nonaligned countries, Nehru's was on the whole a reassuring voice and a steadying hand on the leaders of the Afro-Asian bloc.
Nehru's diplomatic style was peculiarly his own; it owed much to his experience as a nationalist leader for three decades, when he was continually, and publicly, analyzing problems and suggesting solutions in intellectual and moral terms. His instant and candid comments on world events, especially in the early 1950s, evoked much resentment in the West. It was alleged that his criticisms of the actions (such as in Hungary) of the Soviet Union tended to be more cautious and modulated than his criticisms of the actions (such as over Suez) of the Western powers. The fact is that Nehru's sharp criticism of particular policies of the Western democracies was intended to bring to bear the pressure of public opinion in these countries on their governments. Since this method could not work in the case of the Soviet bloc (the media being controlled by the state), the use of the diplomatic channels was a better option for Nehru than was public criticism. Nehru's object was, as he once put it, "to bring about results rather than put up people's backs." On such issues as West Berlin and the independence of Austria, his moderating influence through personal appeals to Soviet leaders, exercised behind the scenes, was much greater than what has been commonly assumed. Willy Brandt, the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) during the Berlin crisis, told the author of this article in 1971 that Nehru had used his influence with the Soviet Union to calm the crisis. Similarly, according to Chancellor Kreisky of Austria, Nehru had already before 1955 begun to mediate between Austria and the Soviet Union. "We asked Nehru," Kreisky recalled, "to tell the Soviets that if the Soviets were to sign a treaty, Austria would become a neutral country."
It was a great disappointment to Nehru that he failed to win and sustain the goodwill of India's two great neighbors, China and Pakistan, but it was not for lack of trying. "The root cause" with Pakistan, as Nehru explained to President Harry Truman in 1949 during his visit to the United States in 1949, was "the emotional climate of Pakistan whose people were being constantly encouraged by the government and leaders to pursue a policy of inspired fear and hatred towards India. Kashmir was thus not so much a cause as an illustration of tensions between the two countries."
India was one of the first countries to recognize Communist China. Nehru showed extraordinary restraint when Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950. He even incurred the displeasure of the Western bloc by supporting China's entry into the United Nations. But from 1959, India was faced with territorial claims and encroachments on the India-China border. Three years later came a surprise attack in full force. On the Indian side, there were doubtless lapses both in diplomacy and defense. The Indian positions on the mountainous terrain in the northeast were not well defended; India suffered a defeat that deeply hurt Nehru and perhaps hastened his death in May 1964.
Nehru was a writer of distinction. His major works, Glimpses of World History (1934), Discovery of India (1946), and An Autobiography (1936), were all written in prison. His Autobiography is considered his most important work. It is less a chronicle of his life than that of the nationalist movement. It was too much to hope that the British public would take to sharp criticisms of British rule in India from one of the most radical leaders of Indian nationalism, but the book became a best-seller in England. It had ten printings in 1936 and was translated into thirty-odd languages. Besides being an exercise of the author in introspection, it presented for the first time the case for Indian independence under Gandhi's leadership in an idiom that the West could understand.
No political leader, with the exception of Gandhi, stirred the minds and hearts of the Indian people for so long and so deeply as Nehru did. As one of the principal architects of Indian freedom, as a nation builder and as a champion of world peace, Jawaharlal Nehru was among the tallest figures of the twentieth century. He led his country during the difficult years of transition from colonialism to democracy, from traditionalism to modernity, and from a stagnant to a developing economy.
As prime minister of India, the task Nehru undertook was a formidable one: the simultaneous pursuit of national integration, political democracy, economic development, and social justice; in all these objectives he achieved a measure of success. But there were losses as well: the failure to foresee the population explosion, to strictly enforce land reforms, to accelerate universal elementary education, and to stem the slide in the standards of administration. These deficiencies and failures were partly attributable to Nehru's own limitations, partly to the actual working of his party and the political system. Unlike Gandhi, Nehru lacked the gift of identifying and harnessing political talent, and he failed to build up a second line of leadership. However, the charge that he sought to set up a political dynasty is untenable. It is true that he stubbornly refused to nominate a successor. A week before his death, he said, "If I nominate somebody, that is the surest way of his not becoming prime minister. People would be jealous of him, dislike him." However, during his last illness, when he recalled Lal Bahadur Shastri to join his Cabinet, it was taken as a hint that he favored him as his successor. As for his daughter, Indira Gandhi, her opportunity was to come seventeen months later, after Shastri's sudden and untimely death, when she was elected leader of the Congress Party in an open contest.
B. R. Nanda
Brecher, M. Nehru: A Political Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Gopal, S. Jawaharlal Nehru. 3 vols. London: Jonathan Cape, 1973–1984.
Nanda, B. R. The Nehrus: Motilal and Jawaharlal. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1962.
Nehru, Jawaharlal. An Autobiography. London: John Lane, 1936.
——. The Discovery of India. Mumbai: Asia Publishing House, 1946.
——. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. 1st series, edited by S. Gopal. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1972–1982.
——. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. 2nd series, edited by S. Gopal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984–2002.
Pandey, B. N. Nehru. London: Macmillan, 1977.
Wolpert, Stanley. Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Nehru, Jawaharlal 1889-1964
Nehru’s ancestors were Kashmiri Brahmins who had settled in Allahabad, in northern India. His father, Motilal Nehru, was a successful barrister and a prominent figure in the Indian National Congress (INC), which was established in 1885.
In 1905 Nehru was sent to England, studying first at Harrow, then at Cambridge University, and finally joining the Inner Temple and passing the Bar examinations. By 1905 the INC had begun to shift from a gradualist “moderate” politics to a more “extremist” anti-colonial stance as evinced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856–1920) among others. Jawaharlal, unlike his father, found himself more in sympathy with this militant position. Nevertheless, during the years following his return to India in 1912, Nehru entered the legal profession through his father’s chambers. By 1917 he joined the Home Rule League movement guided by the “extremist” Tilak and the theosophist Annie Besant (1847–1933).
But it was events in 1919 that drove Nehru into deeper political involvement with congress’s politics under the leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948). First, the colonial government decided to continue wartime ordinances into peacetime under the Rowlatt Act, which would allow the British to hold Indian political agitators without trial. Gandhi launched an all-India civil disobedience campaign in protest. Second, while support for the campaign was uneven, General Reginald Dyer’s orders on April 13 to fire without warning upon an unarmed crowd of villagers galvanized Indian opposition. The villagers, ignorant of martial law regulations, had assembled to hear speeches in the city of Amritsar. Although Dyer was dismissed from the army, the House of Lords virtually exonerated him when it passed a motion in his favor. For Nehru, this was a sign that it was time for a more assertive struggle to achieve freedom.
Nehru became an avid supporter of Gandhi and joined the non-cooperation movement launched by him in 1920. In February 1927, on a personal visit to Europe, Nehru attended the International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism held in Brussels. Here he encountered the Marxist and socialist ideas of other delegates and a few months later he was invited to the Soviet Union to join in the tenth anniversary celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution. The socialist reforms Nehru witnessed left a profound impression on him and convinced him that as another largely agrarian country with an impoverished and mostly illiterate population, India could usefully emulate the Soviet experiment.
Returning with an arsenal of ideas, Nehru urged a more comprehensive struggle against the British. His ideas involved supporting an increasingly radical peasant agitation; a distancing from the conservative landlord and industrial supporters of the congress; and reforms such as the abolition of landlordism, socialization of the land, planned economic development, and state acquisition of key industries for the future. These ideas, however, brought Nehru into disagreement with Gandhi, who feared the class struggle they would provoke might fracture Indian unity. While they continued to diverge on many of these issues, Nehru desisted from openly challenging Gandhi’s political leadership in the interests of maintaining a consolidated anti-colonial movement.
With the British “transfer of power” on August 15, 1947, Nehru became India’s prime minister. Assuming power amid the devastating violence of the partition of British India into the nation-states of India and Pakistan, Nehru left the imprint of his political ideals as he sought to steer the new country into calmer political seas. Among Nehru’s most significant legacies was to set India on the path of democracy in that elections rather than military coups produced changes of governments. Another of Nehru’s bequests was the Indian state’s adoption of the ideal of secularism, defined not as a “separation of church and state” but as the commitment by the government to treat every religion equally. There was little resistance to this principle in the aftermath of the religious violence surrounding partition and Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of a Hindu supremacist on January 30, 1948.
However, Nehru is also credited with perpetuating the colonial government’s over-centralized state structure that he had so vociferously criticized. Nearly 200 articles of the British-instituted Government of India Act of 1935 passed into the constitution of independent India. The imbalance of power between the central and provincial (called states in independent India) governments, in favor of the former, was retained as was the bureaucracy, the empire’s “steel frame.” The Gandhian ideal of a non-party government with a weak center and power devolved to “village republics” was discarded in substance.
On the economic front, although Nehru had compromised earlier with Gandhi, he now sought to apply many of his socialist ideas. However, as prime minister, he also had to take into account the wide variety of demands on the state as well as India’s pre-existing capitalist economic framework. While still adhering to his principle of planned development Nehru opted for a mixed economy in which the government would only control its capital goods and strategic industries. Through a series of five-year plans, heavy industry was given priority over consumer goods manufacture, and import substitution policies were pushed to attain self-sufficiency. But these measures took their toll in that the drive for self-sufficiency further isolated India’s economy and pushed up consumer prices. State-owned industries were maintained despite their often demonstrated inefficiency while large Indian capitalists, although firmly regulated, monopolized the domestic market, often dumping substandard consumer goods on it.
With regard to land reform too, Nehru’s success is ambivalent. Among his first measures was to abolish landlordism and set land ceilings in the early 1950s. Yet the large dispossessed landlords were given compensation, and although land reforms were administered not from the center but by the states, prosperous peasant groups who dominated the Congress party at the provincial level increased the maximum acreage that could be held, to their advantage in many instances. Moreover, by exploiting loopholes in the legislations, many landlords transferred portions of their estates into the hands of family members or retainers. In the end, landless laborers benefited little from the agrarian reforms despite Nehru’s commitment to removing the economic inequity of the colonial era.
The new nation-state of India was also pulled into a world of other nation-states. Nehru’s achievements here, gaining him international renown, lay in steering India between the Scylla and Charybdis of the cold war blocs led by the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics through the principle of “Non-Alignment.” A term coined by Nehru, non-alignment was a principle put into international play along with leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) of Egypt and Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980) of the former Yugoslavia. However, although advocating principled neutrality, Nehru’s policies were often viewed with suspicion by many political leaders and observers, especially those aligned with the Western bloc—and especially when he refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.
Perhaps Nehru’s gravest political crisis was his country’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war provoked by border disputes emanating from the colonial past. The conflict itself was an embarrassing repudiation of a “friendship” that purportedly began when India became the first country to recognize Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China established in 1949. Nehru was not only brutally disappointed by China’s “aggression,” but for the remaining two years of his life some of Nehru’s domestic policies produced challenges to his leadership in parliament until his death on May 27, 1964.
SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Chinese Revolution; Cold War; Congress Party, India; Decolonization; Democracy; Gandhi, Indira; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Indian National Congress; Industrialization; Land Reform; Landlords; Mao Zedong; Neutral States; Partition; Planning; Secular, Secularism, Secularization; Socialism
Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1936. An Autobiography. London: Lane.
Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1946. The Discovery of India. Calcutta: Signet Press.
Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1961. India’s Foreign Policy. Delhi: Government of India Publications Division.
Akbar, M. J. 1988. Nehru: the Making of India. London: Viking.
Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Gopal, Sarvepalli. 1975–1984. Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography. 3 vols. London: J. Cape.
Khilnani, Sunil. 1999. The Idea of India. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) was a great Indian nationalist leader who worked for independence and social reform. He became first prime minister of independent India, a position he retained until his death. He initiated India's nonalignment policy in foreign affairs.
Jawaharlal Nehru was born on Nov. 14, 1889, in Allahabad into a proud, learned Kashmiri Brahmin family. His father, Motilal Nehru, was a wealthy barrister and influential politician. Jawaharlal was an only child until the age of 11, after which two sisters were born. The atmosphere in the Nehru home was more English than Indian; English was spoken. It was also a luxurious home, with an impressive stable and two swimming pools. Jawaharlal was educated at home by tutors, most of them English or Scottish. Under the influence of a tutor Nehru joined the Theosophical Society at 13.
At the age of 15 Nehru left for England, where he studied at Harrow and Cambridge and then for the bar in London. He was called to the bar in 1912. His English experience reinforced his elegant and cosmopolitan tastes. As Nehru said of himself at Cambridge, "In my likes and dislikes I was perhaps more an Englishman than an Indian." In London he was attracted by Fabian ideas; nationalism and socialism from this time on provided his intellectual motive force.
Early Political Moves
Back in India, Nehru began to practice law with his father. It was not until 1917 that Nehru was stirred by a political issue, the imprisonment of Annie Besant, an Irish theosophist devoted to Indian freedom. As a result, Nehru became active in the Home Rule League. His involvement in the nationalist movement gradually replaced his legal practice. In 1916 Nehru was married to Kamala Kaul, of an orthodox Kashmiri Brahmin family. They had one daughter (later Indira Gandhi, third prime minister of independent India).
Apart from his father and Besant, the greatest influence on Nehru politically was Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi had been educated much like Nehru but, unlike him, remained basically untouched, essentially Indian. A second issue which fired Nehru's nationalism and led him to join Gandhi was the Amritsar massacre of 1919, in which some 400 Indians were shot on orders of a British officer.
The year 1920 marked Nehru's first contact with the Indian kisan, the peasant majority. Nehru was "filled with shame and sorrow … at the degradation and overwhelming poverty of India." This experience aroused a sympathy for the underdog which characterized many of Nehru's later political moves. The plight of the peasant was a challenge to his socialist convictions, and he attempted to persuade the peasants to organize. From this time on Nehru's concerns were Indian. He began to read the Bhagavad Gita and practiced vegetarianism briefly. Most of his life he practiced yoga daily.
In 1921 Nehru followed Gandhi in sympathy with the Khilafat cause of the Moslems. Nehru was drawn into the first civil disobedience campaign as general secretary of the United Provinces Congress Committee. Nehru remarked, "I took to the crowd, and the crowd took to me, and yet I never lost myself in it." Nehru here articulated two of his most distinctive traits throughout his career: his involvement with the people and his aloof and lonely detachment. The year 1921 also witnessed the first of Nehru's many imprisonments. In prison his political philosophy matured, and he said that he learned patience and adaptability. Imprisonment was also a criterion of political success.
In 1926-1927 Nehru took his wife to Europe for her health. This experience became a turning point for Nehru. It was an intellectual sojourn, highlighted by an antiimperialist conference in Brussels. Here Nehru first encountered Communists, Socialists, and radical nationalists from Asia and Africa. The goals of independence and social reform became firmly linked in Nehru's mind. Nehru spoke eloquently against imperialism and became convinced of the need for a socialist structure of society. He was impressed with the Soviet example during a visit to Moscow.
Back in India Nehru was immediately engrossed in party conferences and was elected president of the All-India Trades Union Congress. In speeches he linked the goals of independence and socialism. In 1928 he joined the radical opposition to proposals for dominion status by his father and Gandhi. In 1930 Gandhi threw his weight to Nehru as Congress president, attempting to divert radicalism from communism to the Congress.
In 1930 Nehru was arrested and imprisoned for violation of the Salt Law, which Gandhi also protested in his famous "salt march." Nehru's wife was also arrested. From the end of 1931 to September 1935 Nehru was free only 6 months.
During the 1937 elections the Moslem League offered to cooperate with the All-India Congress Committee in forming a coalition government in the United Provinces. Nehru refused, and the struggle between the Congress and the Moslem League was under way. Nehru also established the precedent for economic planning in a suggestion that the Congress form a national planning committee. In 1938 Nehru paid a brief visit to Europe. On his return he was sent briefly as envoy to China until war intervened and made it necessary for him to return.
War in Europe drew India in, together with England. For Indian leaders the question was how an honorable settlement could be reached with England and still allow India to participate on the Allied side. Negotiations toward this end culminated in the Cripps mission and offer of dominion status in March 1942. Nehru refused to accept dominion status, as did the rest of Congress leadership. There followed the Congress "Quit India" resolution and the imprisonment of Nehru, Gandhi, and other Congress leaders until June 1945. There were nationwide protests, a mass demand for independence.
In 1945, as Congress president, Nehru was pressed into negotiations with the Moslem League and the viceroy. Congress-Moslem League negotiations were marked by communal killings in Calcutta, followed by sympathetic outbreaks throughout India. Final decisions were reached in conversations between the last British viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and Nehru, Gandhi, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. According to the Mountbatten Plan, two separate dominions were created. Nehru became prime minister and minister of external affairs of independent India in 1947.
Following Gandhi's assassination in January 1948, Nehru felt very much alone facing economic problems and the possibility of the Balkanization of India. In 1949 he made his first visit to the United States in search of a solution to India's pressing food shortage.
Free India's first elections in 1951-1952 resulted in an overwhelming Congress victory. Economic planning and welfare were the first claims on Nehru's attention. He inaugurated a diluted version of socialist planning: concentration of public investment in areas of the economy that were free from private interests. The Planning Commission was created in 1950 and launched the First Five-Year Plan in 1951, stressing an increase in agricultural output. Nehru also took pride in the Community Development Program, established to raise the standard of living in the villages. He saw the Third Five-Year Plan operative before his death on May 27, 1964, in New Delhi.
Nehru was the architect of nonalignment in foreign policy. Economic weakness and the Indian tradition were powerful factors in formulating the policy. The other influence on Nehru's foreign policy was his controversial minister of defense, Krishna Menon. Nehru sought closer relations with nonaligned Asian states, with India in the role of leader.
Nehru's nonalignment policy was criticized by many Westerners and some Indians as giving preference to totalitarian countries rather than to democracies. Some critics believed that nonalignment left India no effective means to deal with China, national defense, the Great Powers, or the underdeveloped community. On the other hand, nonalignment had many Indian defenders, even in the face of the Chinese invasion of Indian border territory in 1962. Some held that nonalignment was a strategy for deterrence and peace, a force for protecting Indian independence and preservation of the international community on ethical grounds. Nevertheless, nonalignment as implemented by Nehru did not prevent the government from resorting to force in Hyderabad, Kashmir, and Goa.
Nehru the man and politician made such a powerful imprint on India that his death on May 27, 1964, left India with no political heir to his leadership. Indians repeated Nehru's own words of the time of Gandhi's assassination: "The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere."
A useful collection of Nehru's speeches and writings is Nehru: The First Sixty Years, selected and edited by Dorothy Norman (2 vols., 1965). Major biographies are Frank Moraes, Jawaharlal Nehru (1956); Donald E. Smith, Nehru and Democracy: The Political Thought of an Asian Democrat (1958); Michael Brecher, Nehru: A Political Biography (1960); and M. N. Das, The Political Philosophy of Jawaharlal Nehru (1961). A journalistic account, written by an intimate of the Nehru household, is Marie Seton, Panditiji: A Portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru (1967), a valuable book for students of Indian politics and history. A somewhat simplified biography, particularly suitable for young adults and casual readers, is Bani Shorter, Nehru: A Voice for Mankind (1970).
Works that assess Nehru's achievements and evaluate his place in history include K. Natwar-Singh, ed., The Legacy of Nehru: A Memorial Tribute (1965); The Emerging World: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Volume (1965); and G. S. Jolly, ed., The Image of Nehru (1969), all of which are laudatory and should be balanced by more critical appraisals, such as that in Brecher's biography. Walter Crocker, an intimate friend, yet sometimes a critic, of Nehru, wrote Nehru: A Contemporary's Estimate (1966), which is a more balanced appraisal. Paul F. Power and Columbia University Committee on Oriental Studies, eds., India's Nonalignment Policy (1967), deals with various Indian and foreign views of Nehru's foreign policy and contains a good bibliography on the subject. Another work by Michael Brecher, Nehru's Mantle: The Politics of Succession in India (1966), analyzes the parliamentary system in India that made possible a peaceful succession. □
David Anthony Washbrook