Jawaharlal Nehru is among the most important personages of modern Indian history, second perhaps only to Mahatma Gandhi. When India gained its independence in August, 1947, Nehru became its first prime minister, a position he held until his death in 1964. During the 1950’s Nehru bestrode the world stage as the spokesman of neutralism during the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. While Gandhi’s fame continues to live, Nehru has largely vanished from public awareness outside India, with many of his policies having proved to be impractical failures. Nehru: The Invention of India is an attempt to assess Nehru’s historical significance and his current relevance.
Shashi Tharoor, like Nehru, is an Indian with roots in the non-Indian world. Born in London, he was educated in India and the United States. He has served as the executive assistant to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who, as a young man, was an admirer of Nehru. Nehru, dedicated to Annan, is a popular rather than a scholarly work, and though Tharoor is an admirer of Nehru and finds his contributions to modern India immense, Nehru is not an uncritical account of the Indian statesman.
Nehru, as a Brahmin—the highest caste in India’s traditional caste system—was born in 1889 and bred in the upper reaches of Indian society. India was, at that time, ruled by Great Britain. Nehru’s father, Motilal, was a successful lawyer, and young Nehru, as his only surviving son, was spoiled as a child. Motilal was a strong presence in his son’s life, and Tharoor claims that Nehru was always in need of a father figure, both for approval and for someone against whom to rebel. Nehru’s mother was a strict Hindu, but Motilal was more cosmopolitan and secular, given to London suits and requiring English to be spoken in their home.
At the age of fifteen Nehru enrolled at England’s Harrow, the prestigious “public” school attended a decade earlier by Winston Churchill, a later nemesis of Nehru. The latter was only an average student at Trinity College, Cambridge, and studied law at the London School of Economics, mainly to please his father. After seven years in England, he returned to India in 1912.
In 1916 Nehru was married, and as was traditional, his father chose the bride, Kamala Kaul, the daughter of a flour-mill owner. At about this same time Nehru became involved in the Indian National Congress. Initially he believed that Britain could be petitioned into giving India home rule within the British empire, but by 1918 Nehru became convinced that peaceful resolutions would not achieve this goal. His belief was confirmed by the British massacre of 379 civilians at Amritsar in 1919.
With his political activism, Nehru had little time for his neglected wife. His daughter, Indira, was born in 1917, but Nehru was mostly an absentee father. Taking up the cause of India’s landless peasants, he had found his public role. In 1921 he commented to his father, “Greatness is being thrust upon me.” In that same year, both were arrested for their opposition to the British raj. It would not be their last arrest. In the following two decades, Nehru spent 3,262 days in prison for his anti-British activities.
Indian nationalists were deeply divided between radicals and conservatives and between Hindus and Muslims. Sectarian or communal violence was widespread. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a British-trained lawyer like Nehru and Gandhi, claimed that the Muslim League was the sole entity speaking for Muslims. The Indian National Congress (INC) had always included representatives from all of India’s religious groups, but Hindus were in the distinct majority. Nehru, the secular rationalist, consistently deplored Indian sectarianism. He held numerous positions in the INC, also known as the Congress Party, during those years, and political challenges were compounded by family concerns. Kamala suffered from tuberculosis, necessitating the family’s relocation to Switzerland. It was during his European sojourn that Nehru became a convert to socialism. When he returned to India in 1927 he was convinced that dominion home rule was not enough: Only complete independence would satisfy him. Nehru’s nationalism was an evolving process.
He became an icon in 1928, after being badly beaten by the police while protesting a visiting British commission. Gandhi instigated nonviolent civil disobedience against the British, famously in 1930 when he embarked on a 241-mile march against the British tax on salt. At its conclusion Gandhi, and then Nehru, were imprisoned, and shortly afterward so was Motilal, but the latter’s health failed, and he died in early 1931. Tharoor stresses the impact that Nehru’s father had on him, both in his secular rationalism and in his ability to compromise.
The 1930’s was a difficult decade for Nehru. With his father dead and Kamala ill (she died in 1936), he was occasionally...
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