Pandit, Vijaya Lakshmi (1900–1990)

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Pandit, Vijaya Lakshmi (1900–1990)

Indian diplomat and politician, often called the "Lamp of India," who was a leading figure in one of Asia's most important political dynasties and became the first Asian, and the first woman, to preside over the UN General Assembly. Name variations: Nan; Vijayalaxmi Pandit; Vijay Laksmi Pandit; Mrs. Ranjit Pandit; Swarup Kumari Nehru. Pronunciation: Pundit. Born Swarup Kumari Nehru on August 18, 1900, at Anan Bhavan, Allahabad, India; died on December 1, 1990, in India; daughter of Motilal Nehru (1861–1931, a prominent lawyer dedicated to Mohandas Gandhi's nonviolent campaign to free India from colonial rule) and a mother, full name unknown, who was a Swarup from the Punjab; sister of Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964, prime minister of India); tutored at home by a governess; married Ranjit Sitaram Pandit (a lawyer and activist for independence), on May 10, 1921; children: three daughters, Chandralekha Mehta (a journalist), Nayantara Sahgal (a novelist), Rita Dar (a director of public relations).

Was a member of Indian National Congress Party; imprisoned by the British (1932–33); elected to Allahabad Municipal Board (1934); elected to Assembly of the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh, 1936); first Indian woman to become a Cabinet minister as minister of Local Self-Government and Public Health (1937); imprisoned by the British (1940); imprisoned again (1942–43); elected to India's Constituent Assembly (1946); was leader of Indian Delegation to the United Nations (1946–48, 1952–53, and 1963); was India's first ambassador to the Soviet Union (1947–49); served as ambassador to the United States (1949–52) and concurrently to Mexico (1949–51); was the first woman and first Asian to serve as president of the UN General Assembly (1953–54); served as Indianhigh commissioner (ambassador) to the United Kingdom (1954–61); served as governor of the state of Maharashtra (1962–63); defied Indira Gandhi's takeover of the Indian government and the imprisonment of thousands of opposition members (1975–77).

In June 1975, during one of the turbulent periods in the long struggle for independence and democracy on the subcontinent of India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cited a "deep and widespread conspiracy" as reason for declaring a state of emergency throughout the land. In the months that followed, thousands who opposed her government were arrested, total censorship was imposed on all organs of the press, and even the writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, whose lives had been dedicated to the achievement of Indian independence, were proscribed by law. In the blink of an eye, the largest democracy in Asia had been transformed into a dictatorship.

Then, in an extraordinary move encapsulating a half-century of India's complex political history, an elderly woman, retired after decades of diplomatic and government service, stepped forward to lead an opposition movement determined to defeat the prime minister. Already in her late 70s, an internationally recognized stateswoman as well as a survivor of several years in prison, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit rallied most of India behind her, and led a movement that resulted in a call for new elections, the defeat of Indira Gandhi, and the preservation of democracy on the Indian subcontinent. For Pandit, this political play was to some degree the extension of a family dispute, involving both the limits of social and political privilege and the necessity of personal sacrifice for the sake of nationalistic ideals, because the prime minister was her niece, and these adversaries had shared the same social and family background, and even the same household, for the better part of their lives.

The girl who became Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the child of prominent Hindus, Saraswt Brahmans who originally came from India's Kashmir valley. A number of her kin had served as functionaries in the British Raj. Her father Motilal Nehru had studied at Allahabad University for a bachelor's degree which he did not complete, but became a serious student of law and built an extremely successful law practice from which the family's fortune was derived. His wife was a Swarup, from the Punjab, who had been wed to him when she was 14 in a traditional arranged marriage, and their large household was typical of many aristocratic homes of the time, incorporating two entirely different lifestyles side-by-side. On Pandit's father's side, the house boasted Western furniture, Sèvres china, and crystal, while her mother occupied rooms furnished in a traditional Indian manner, in which only vegetarian foods were served.

The Nehru household was typically Indian, in that many aunts, uncles, and cousins lived there together, but it was unconventional in other ways. Because Motilal Nehru was opposed to traditional caste distinctions and orthodox prejudices, many of the family's servants were from the untouchable caste, forbidden by orthodox Hindu tradition from fraternizing with Brahman families. Because he had equally strong views about the status of women, he saw to it that his daughter received the same education in their home as her brothers Jawaharlal and Krishna, under the tutelage of an English governess, Miss Hooper. Once, while Vijaya Lakshmi was in the room, a friend chastised him about the way he was raising his daughter, asking, "Is it necessary to let an Indian girl behave in the uncouth manner of the English? Why is she being educated according to foreign standards and being given so much freedom? Do you intend to make her into a lawyer like yourself?" Her father responded by asking her directly if she would like to read law, leaving her with the abiding impression that the option was open to her, although it was not one she chose to pursue.

When it came to finding their daughter a husband, however, her parents followed the Indian tradition of obtaining the services of a matchmaker. Given the task was Mahadev Desai, then secretary to Mohandas Gandhi. Desai suggested that she read an article in the journal Modern Review, "At the Feet of the Guru," written by Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, a talented young barrister. After she read the article and showed interest, Pandit was invited to the Nehru home, where, after a visit of three days, he proposed.

Marriage meant many changes for the young woman known up to this time as Swarup Kumari. According to Hindu custom, she was now adopted into the clan of her in-laws, and received a new name that combined her husband's name with the name of the province from which he came. Thus, henceforth, she would be known as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, but before the wedding Ranjit wrote to his bride, "I have come many miles and crossed many bridges to come to you—but in the future you and I must cross our bridges hand in hand." Indeed, their life together would be shared on an equal footing, whether in raising their family, striving for their country's freedom, or going to prison.

At the time of the Pandits' marriage in 1921, the national movement to obtain India's freedom from British rule by nonviolent methods had made considerable headway, and both Pandit's father and her brother Jawaharlal Nehru were becoming deeply involved. The great leader of the movement was Mohandas Gandhi, respectfully called the Mahatma, who gave his blessing to the young couple. Describing Gandhi's influence, Jawaharlal Nehru once said that he "seemed to cast a spell on all classes and groups of people and drew them into one motley crowd struggling in one direction." In the early years of her marriage, Pandit's husband and her father both gave up lucrative law practices in order to devote their energies to the political arm of the movement, the Indian National Congress. Pandit herself joined the Non-Cooperation movement as a soldier of non-violence. By 1929, when her beloved brother Jawaharlal presided over the Congress session, the Pandits had three daughters, Rita (Dar ), Chandralekha (Mehta ), and Nayantara (Sahgal ). Pandit's political activities by this time included organizing and leading processions as well as delivering fiery speeches. On January 27, 1932, she was arrested, along with one of her sisters, for defying the Crown by publicly observing Indian Independence Day. Her youngest daughter was three when she was fined and sentenced to one year in prison.

At the end of her imprisonment, Pandit continued her political activities. Ranjit Pandit supported his wife's work and sacrifice; the couple were partners in their determination to bring democratic rule to India by nonviolent means. In 1936, the Congress Party swept the polls in many provinces and Pandit won a seat in Uttar Pradesh. In July 1937, she accepted the post of minister for Local Self-Government and Education. As Pandit said of her new job, "This was the first time a woman had been given the position of Minister and had to work with men as her subordinates and colleagues." While forging her way through this new territory, she had the solid support of her family, once noting, "I had a husband who was always at my side when needed—critical and understanding."

One of her first acts as minister was to auction off a beautiful silver tray that had been given as a gift and donate the proceeds to a local hospital. Finding that the Public Health Department in her charge was poorly organized, she described it as the "untouchable" among the ministries. Pandit was disturbed by the inadequacy

of hospital care, commenting, "The poor, especially the women, were terrified at the idea of going to a hospital, and they had a point. Once admitted they were more or less left to their fate." She became dedicated to improving health care for women, and visited provincial hospitals and clinics in an effort to change the notion that the poor, and especially poor women, were expendable. Among the many modern social programs she instituted were those to provide clean drinking water for villages, milk for children, and playgrounds throughout India.

As minister of health, Pandit dealt at times with India's complex religious and ethnic tensions. Once she attended a festival in Hardwar, a city of hereditary Hindu priests, where she was visited by a deputation of priests requesting that the government forbid the slaughter of cows in the city. At first glance, the request appeared legitimate, since the cow is sacred to Hindus, but a close reading of the petition revealed that the ban was not intended for Hardwar, but for nearby Jawalapur, which was Muslim. Since a number of Muslim butchers made their living in Jawalapur, the request was revealed to be not religious so much as an attempt by Hindu priests to cause economic destruction among the Muslims. When Pandit denied the request, the house where she was staying was surrounded by a rowdy crowd which shouted and broke windows. Pandit flung open a door, stood on a chair and took off her watch, indicating a countdown that allowed the crowd ten minutes to calm down. The crowd shortly dispersed, and she later received an apology for the incident.

In the late 1930s, although the British had made concessions to the Indian National Congress, India remained under colonial rule. With the onset of World War II, there were many, including Pandit, who objected to Great Britain's decision that India should take part in the war. Protests led Pandit to another imprisonment in 1940, and in August 1942 she was imprisoned a third time, along with Ranjit and other Congress leaders, for issuing a "Quit India" resolution. After nine months, she was released on grounds of ill health, and during 1943, although still not well, she organized the Bengal Famine Relief. Ranjit remained in prison, where his health continued to deteriorate. Released too late to be saved, he died on January 14, 1944. Grief-stricken and under threat of re-imprisonment, Pandit continued her work for independence; in 1945, with one of her daughters, she left for America to avoid another sentence.

When India finally gained independence in August 1947, Pandit's diplomatic career was already under way. She served as India's Ambassador to the United Nations in 1946 and 1947 (a position she would also fill in 1963). From 1947 to 1949, she was her country's first ambassador to the Soviet Union, where she was touched by the warmth of the people living under the drastic conditions that followed World War II there. Pandit next served concurrently as ambassador to the United States from 1949 to 1952, and as ambassador to Mexico from 1949 to 1951. In September 1953, she achieved the signal honor of becoming the first woman and the first Asian elected president of the UN General Assembly. She served in this capacity until the following year, when she became India's ambassador to Great Britain, Ireland, and Spain, concurrent postings she would hold until 1961. Despite her repeated imprisonments and the circumstances of her husband's death, Pandit liked the British people and regarded England as her second home. This breadth of perspective, which allowed her to recognize that no other colonial power had done as much for democracy as had the British, led others to call her the "Lamp of India."

Devotion to family was a lifelong characteristic of Pandit's. She was always deeply fond of her brother Jawaharlal Nehru, and of his daughter Indira, whom she described as an older daughter to her own children. The egalitarian attitudes instilled by her father prevailed into the next generation, as Pandit saw that her daughters were well educated. The oldest, Rita, later became a director of public relations as well as a diplomat's wife; Chandralekha became a journalist, wife and mother, and the marriage of her own daughter to a Muslim extended the long tradition of toleration in the Nehru-Pandit household; Nayantara became a novelist. Pandit's daughters had sacrificed much for their parents' political involvement, but all remained devoted to the high ideals that had necessitated the hardships.

The death on May 27, 1964, of her brother Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India since 1950, came as a great shock to Pandit. She soon was elected to serve in the seat he had held for 17 years in the National Congress, but resigned on July 8, 1968, to devote herself to social service and international work. Two years earlier, Nehru's daughter Indira Nehru Gandhi had decided to follow in her father's political footsteps, and within a few years her government began to demonstrate certain disturbing trends. Posters of Gandhi, with exhortations for unity under "The Leader," were plastered around the country, and members of the government were encouraged to be "committed" to her leadership. Worse, Gandhi began to groom her son, Sanjay, as a kind of crown prince, an action having no place in a true democracy. Pandit was in England when the state of emergency was declared by Indira Gandhi in June 1975, and she immediately returned home. There she found many of her friends imprisoned, and conditions in her own home all too reminiscent of the days before India's independence, with her phone tapped, her letters censored, and her movements under constant surveillance. Believing that political conditions were even worse than they had been under British rule, Pandit decided that she must oppose her niece, no matter what the cost.

For the next two years she was vocal in her opposition to the government, knowing that even as a woman in her late 70s she might be thrown into jail. Because India was still under censorship, most of her outcries were heard only in the international press, but on January 18, 1977, the state of emergency was suddenly lifted. Pandit remained determined that elections must be held and her niece defeated. Shortly after her friends in the opposition were released from prison, a coalition was formed for the express purpose of changing the Indian leadership. Soon there were calls for elections, the opposition found overwhelming support, the campaign began to build, and in 1977 Indira Gandhi was defeated.

Gandhi never forgave her aunt for her prominent role in her ouster. While Pandit regretted the loss of her niece's affection, she believed the familial relationship had been a necessary sacrifice to ensure that Indian democracy would thrive. Indira Gandhi was reelected as prime minister in 1980. Her family did, in fact, become a kind of dynasty in Indian politics: after her assassination in 1984, she was succeeded by her son Rajiv Gandhi, who served as prime minister until he, too, was assassinated in 1991, and in the following years his wife Sonia Gandhi became prominent in the Congress Party. Nevertheless, Pandit's timely opposition played an important role in preventing the development of a dictatorship in India. Throughout her long and distinguished career, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit never allowed new roles, new obligations, or even imprisonment to intimidate her. The nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi were the hallmark of her career, and she always believed enlightened leadership to be more important than political power. Indeed, her most important quality, perhaps, was forgiveness. After the defeat of her niece, Pandit wept for them both.


Mishra, Akhilesh. "Vijayalaxmi Pandit" in Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. by S.P. Sen. Calcutta: Institute of Historical Studies, 1974, pp. 297–300.

Pandit, Vijaya Lakshmi. "The Family Bond" in A Study of Nehru. Ed. by Rafiq Zakaria. Bombay: Times of India, 1960, pp. 125–127.

——. The Scope of Happiness. NY: Crown, 1979.

"Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, Politician and Nehru's Sister, Is Dead at 90," in The New York Times. December 2, 1990.

Karin Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia