Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

views updated Jun 27 2018

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1900-1990) was an Indian diplomat, politician, and a sister of India's first prime-minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She was active in the Indian freedom movement and held high national and international positions.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was born in Allahabad in what was then the United Provinces (later, Uttar Pradesh) on August 18, 1900, and was given the name Swarup Kumari ("Beautiful Princess") Nehru. She was the eldest daughter of a distinguished Brahmin lawyer, Motilal Nehru, and eleven years younger than her brother, Jawaharlal. Accustomed to luxury and educated at home and in Switzerland, she was greatly influenced by Mohandas Ghandi and became identified with the struggle for independence. She was imprisoned by the British on three different occasions, in 1932-1933, 1940, and 1942-1943.

In May 1921 she married Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, a foreign-educated barrister from Kathiawar. At that time she changed her name to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. The Pandit's had three daughters, including the novelist Nayantara (Pandit) Sehgal. Her husband died on January 14, 1944.

In 1934 Pandit's long career in politics officially began with her election to the Allahabad Municipal Board. In 1936 she was elected to the Assembly of the United Provinces, and in 1937 became minister of local self-government and public health—the first Indian woman ever to become a cabinet minister. Like all Congress party officeholders, she resigned in 1939 to protest against the British government's declaration that India was a participant in World War II. Along with other Congress leaders, she was imprisoned after the Congress' "Quit India" Resolution of August 1942.

Forced to reorient her life after her husband's death, Pandit traveled in the United States from late 1944 to early 1946, mainly on a lecture tour. Returning to India in January 1946, she resumed her portfolio as minister of local self-government and public health in the United Provinces. In the fall of 1946 she undertook her first official diplomatic mission as leader of the Indian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. She also led India's delegations to the General Assembly in 1947, 1948, 1952, 1953, and 1963.

Pandit was elected to India's Constituent Assembly in 1946. Shortly after India's independence in 1947, she joined the foreign service and was appointed India's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. In early 1949 she became ambassador to the United States.

In November 1951 she returned to India to contest successfully for a seat in the Lok Sabha (India's parliament) in the first general elections. In September 1953 she was given the honor of being the first woman and the first Asian to be elected president of the U.N. General Assembly.

For nearly seven years, beginning in December 1954, Pandit served as Indian high commissioner (ambassador) to the United Kingdom, including a tense period in British-Indian relations at the time of the Suez and Hungarian crisis' in 1956. From March 1963 until August 1963 she served as governor of the state of Maharashtra.

Jawaharlal Nehru's death on May 27, 1964 came as a great shock to her. In November, she was elected to the Lok Sabha in a by-election in the Philpur constituency of Uttar Pradesh, which her brother had represented for 17 years. She was re-elected in the fourth general elections in 1967, but resigned the following year for "personal reasons."

Furious at Indira Ghandi's (whose maiden name was Nehru) state-of-emergency suspension of democratic processes from 1975 to 1977, she campaigned against her niece. Her efforts resulted in an electoral defeat for Ghandi.

Pandit had not been politically active for several years when she died in Dehru Dun, India on December 1, 1990. On the occasion of her death, President Ramaswami Venkataraman described Pandit as a "luminous strand in the tapestry of India's freedom struggle. Distinctive in her elegance, courage, and dedication, Mrs. Pandit was an asset to the national movement."

Further Reading

Pandit's own writings include So I Became a Minister (1939); Prison Days (1946); a touching essay, "The Family Bond, " in Rafiq Zakaria, ed., A Study of Nehru (1959); many interviews and articles, and innumerable published speeches. Her daughter, Nayantara (Pandit) Sahgal, presented revealing portraits in Prison and Chocolate Cake (1954) and From Fear Set Free (1963). There is no good biography of Pandit, but three books by professed admirers are interesting: Anne Guthrie Madame Ambassador: The Life of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1962); Vera Brittain Envoy Extraordinary (1965); and Robert Hardy Andrews A Lamp for India: The Story of Madame Pandit (1967). She is often referred to in books on the Nehrus and in biographies of her brother, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Obituaries for Pandit appear in the Chicago Tribune (December 2, 1990) and the Washington Post (December 2, 1990). A brief biography of Pandit appears on-line at the A&E Network Biography site located at □

Pandit, Vijaya Lakshmi

views updated May 29 2018


PANDIT, VIJAYA LAKSHMI (1900–1990), Indian political leader and diplomat. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was born on 18 August 1900, the daughter of Motilal Nehru, a wealthy lawyer, and his wife Swarup. (She too was given the name Swarup at birth; Vijaya Lakshmi, the name by which she became known in public life, was given to her when she married.) Her older brother, Jawaharlal, served as prime minister when India became independent in 1947 until his death in 1964. Her younger sister, Krishna (later, Hutheesingh), in her memoirs described her famous sister as docile, obedient, tactful, and eminently suited to high office. She was also beautiful, highly intelligent, at ease with people of all classes, witty, and, on occasion, sharp-tongued. She was educated entirely at home by tutors under the supervision of her English governess, Jane Hooper.

The family became involved in nationalist politics when Motilal Nehru gave his support to Mohandas Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress, in its opposition to British rule. In 1921 Vijaya married Ranjit S. Pandit, a lawyer and Sanskrit scholar, and they had three daughters. Both she and her husband were active in the freedom movement, and they were imprisoned at various times. He died in 1944 after a prison term. Elected in 1937 to the provincial legislature of the United Provinces, she became minister in charge of local self-government, medicine, and public health.

Vijaya Pandit made her first visit to the United States in 1944 to see her daughters, Nayantara and Chandralekha, who were students at Wellesley College. She lectured widely on India, befriending influential Americans, including Eleanor Roosevelt. She represented India at the initial meeting of the United Nations in 1946 at San Francisco. When India became independent, she was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union (1947–1949) and then to the United States (1949–1951). From 1952 to 1954, she was a member of Parliament, and from 1953 to 1954, she led India's delegation to the United Nations, where she became president of the General Assembly. From 1954 to 1961, she was India's high commissioner to Great Britain. Governor of the province of Maharashtra from 1962 to 1964, she was a member of Parliament from 1964 to 1969.

Her niece, Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawaharlal, had become prime minister in 1964, but there were increasing strains between them as the Gandhi administration became more authoritarian, culminating in the suspension of civil rights. Pandit joined the opposition party and in 1978 won a seat in Parliament in the election that defeated Indira Gandhi. On her retirement from parliament, she wrote her memoirs, The Scope of Happiness. When she died on 1 December 1990, newspapers cited her as one of the most outstanding women of the century.

Ainslie T. Embree

See alsoNehru, Jawaharlal ; Nehru, Motilal ; Women and Political Power


The best source for her life is her autobiography, The Scope of Happiness: A Personal Memoir (New York: Crown, 1979). Anne Guthrie, Madame Ambassador: The Life of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1962), gives additional details on her family, as does the autobiography of her sister, Krishna Nehru Hutheesingh, With No Regrets (New York: John Day, 1945). Her relationship with her niece is discussed by her daughter, Nayantara Sahgal, in Indira Gandhi: The Road to Power (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982).