Jawaharlal Nehru was the first Prime Minister of India and a central figure in Indian politics for much of the 20th century. 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 office in 1964. Nehru is considered to be the architect of the modern Indian nation-state: a sovereign, socialist, secular, and democratic republic.
The son of Motilal Nehru, a prominent lawyer and nationalist statesman, 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, Nehru 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 organisation. Nehru, who had reluctantly heeded Gandhi's call for immediate independence, for he had desired to support the Allied war effort during the Second World War, came out of a lengthy prison term to a much altered political landscape. The Muslim League under his old Congress colleague and now bete 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, Nehru set out to realise 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 monarchy to a republic, while nurturing a plural, multi-party democracy. In foreign policy, Nehru took a leading role in Non-Alignment 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 Children's Day.
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 child birth. 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.
The Nehru family ca. 1890s
Nehru described his childhood as a "sheltered and uneventful one." He grew up in an atmosphere of privilege at wealthy homes including a large palatial estate called the Anand Bhawan. His father had him educated at home by private governesses and tutors. Under the influence of a tutor, Ferdinand T. Brooks, Nehru became interested in science and theosophy. Nehru 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. Nehru wrote: "for nearly three years 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 B.R. Nanda, these scriptures were Nehru's "first introduction to the religious and cultural heritage of India. They provided Nehru the initial impulse for long intellectual quest which culminated...in the Discovery of India."
Nehru became an ardent nationalist during his youth. The 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 Nehru 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. Nehru 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 dressed in cadet uniform at Harrow School in England
Nehru went to Trinity College, Cambridge in October 1907 and graduated with an honours degree in natural science in 1910. During this period, Nehru 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.
Nehru at the Allahabad High Court
After completing his degree in 1910, Nehru went to London and stayed there for two years for law studies at the Inns of Court School of Law (Inner Temple). During this time, he continued to study the scholars of the Fabian Society including Beatrice Webb. Nehru 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. Nehru 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 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. Nehru 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 harboured 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 Mohandas Gandhi in 1913. Later, he campaigned against the indentured labour and other such discriminations faced by Indians in the British colonies.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, 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 organisation in Allahabad. Nehru also spoke out against the censorship acts passed by the British government in India.
Nehru in 1918 with wife Kamala and daughter Indira 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." Nehru ridiculed the Indian Civil Service (ICS) 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 counselled 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 Lokmanya Tilak took the opportunity to call for a national movement for Home Rule. But, in 1915, the proposal was rejected due to 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.