Jawaharlal Nehru

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Nehru led India through the difficult transition from colony to independence, providing the critical political skills for his close friend and mentor, Mahatma Gandhi. Upon India’s being granted independence on August 15, 1947, Nehru became India’s first prime minister. Following Gandhi’s assassination in January, 1948, Nehru placed India firmly in a nonaligned, democratic path, ruling the country until his own death on May 27, 1964.

Early Life

Jawaharlal Nehru was born into an affluent, prominent Kashmiri Brahman family on November 14, 1889. Nehru’s father was both a barrister and prominent politician, and Jawaharlal was groomed for a similar role from an early age. Given the family background, young Nehru was reared in an Anglophile atmosphere, tutored by a succession of British nannies and teachers.

At thirteen, under the influence of his tutor, Ferdinand Brooks, Nehru joined Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society. In May, 1905, Nehru arrived at Harrow School in London to prepare for college. Following three years of study at Harrow, Nehru began his studies in 1907 at Trinity College, Cambridge. Following completion of his undergraduate studies, in 1910 Nehru moved to London to begin his bar studies at the Inner Temple.

Nehru returned to India in September, 1912. Given his family interests in Congress Party politics, young Nehru soon became involved in Allahabad’s political scene, though at the time the Congress Party was fairly obscure. Nehru attended the Congress Party’s Bankipore meeting as a delegate in October, 1912. He worked as a junior barrister under his father’s supervision, but he was not drawn to the practice of law as a profession.

Nehru married Kamala Kaul, the daughter of an orthodox Brahman Kashmiri family, on February 8, 1916. In November, 1917, their daughter Indira was born, who would herself later become Prime Minister of India.

Life’s Work

Despite India’s contributions to the Allies in World War I, the nation was disappointed by Britain’s subsequent Government of India Act of December 23, 1919, feeling that it fell far short of Indian desires for home rule. Nehru by this time had determined to work with Gandhi, who had returned to India from South Africa in January, 1915. Gandhi’s satyagraha (nonviolence) campaign began in March, 1919, and Nehru fully supported it. Nehru believed that Gandhi’s policies offered “a method of action which was straight and open and possibly effective.” The relevance of Gandhi’s policies was highlighted by the massacre on April 13, 1919, at Amritsar, when troops under General Reginald Dyer opened fire, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. Nehru’s father had continued to rise in Indian politics; in November, 1919, he was elected to the presidency of the Congress Party.

In June, 1920, Nehru met with a crowd of peasants who had marched fifty miles to Allahabad to acquaint the politicians with the appalling conditions of their lives. Nehru was sufficiently moved by their tales of exploitation by the large landowners that he began to interest himself in the plight of the peasantry. Nehru began to understand that in the countryside might be built a base of political support for a national movement, rather than largely relying on the cities. He quickly became very popular among the peasantry as a politician who, despite a background of affluence, was genuinely concerned with their problems. Nehru now busied himself with spreading Gandhi’s satyagraha policies throughout the countryside.

British authorities were sufficiently vexed by the Nehrus’ activities that on December 6, 1921, they took father and son into custody. Jawaharlal was released in March, 1922, when it was discovered that he had been wrongly convicted. Upon his release he worked to urge Indians to boycott foreign goods, resulting in his rearrest and sentencing on May 19, 1922, to a twenty-one-month prison term. Nehru was again released early, in January, 1923. Nehru was arrested yet again in September, 1923, but given a suspended sentence.

Nehru now believed that Congress Party policies needed a body of regular, disciplined volunteers; he accordingly founded the Hindustan Seva Dal in December, 1923, a body under congressional control that was to recruit and train patriotic Indians. Within the month, Nehru was formally elected General Secretary of Congress.

Nehru’s wife’s health began to deteriorate; she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. In March, 1926, the entire family moved to Switzerland in order to facilitate her recovery. The Nehrus settled in Geneva; while Kamala underwent medical treatment, Jawaharlal busied himself observing the International Labor Office and the League of Nations, both headquartered in the city.

Nehru was a keen political observer of the European political scene and during his twenty-month stay in Europe, visited a number of the European capitals. During the summer of 1926, he visited Italy, observing the effects of Fascism there. During September he again went to England, while that autumn a trip to Berlin impressed him with German industrial might. In February, 1927, Nehru went to Brussels as an Indian National Congress Party representative to attend the International Congress of Oppressed Nationalities Against Imperialism. Nehru pursued some academic interests while in Switzerland, becoming enrolled in the University of Geneva’s International Summer School. During November, 1927, Nehru and his family went to Moscow for the tenth anniversary celebrations of the establishment of Soviet power, giving Nehru a chance to observe firsthand the workings of a socialist state.

Upon his return to India in December, 1927, Nehru threw himself into Congress political work, immersing himself in it for the next two years. In answer to the hotly debated question of whether India should seek either dominion status within the...

(The entire section is 2445 words.)