Home - Personalities - Jawahar Lal Nehru
 Jawahar Lal Nehru (1889 - 1964)
Nehru was born in Allahabad, the son of Motilal Nehru, a wealthy Brahman lawyer whose family had originally come from Kashmir, and Swarup Rani Nehru. After private tutoring, Nehru went to Britain with his family. When his family left in 1905, Nehru stayed to attend the Harrow School and then Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, where he studied science and read widely. After studying law at the Inner Temple in London, he returned to India in 1912 and practiced law for several years without enthusiasm. In 1916 he married Kamala Kaul, and in 1917 they had a daughter, Indira.
In 1919 Nehru joined the Indian National Congress, a political organization working for greater autonomy for India, which was then a British colony. Nehru became devoted to the organization's new leader, Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi reorganized the Congress in this period and recruited able lieutenants, among them Nehru. Nehru brought his father into active cooperation with Gandhi, and father and son worked together in the nationalist cause during the 1920s. Nehru was also active in the Allahabad municipal government. Guided by Gandhi, he gradually learned about rural India and became an effective speaker to both Western-educated sophisticates and Indian peasants. In time, Nehru's popularity was second only to Gandhi's.

During this period he was imprisoned many times for civil disobedience. His longest detentions occurred between 1932 and 1935, and 1942 and 1945. While in prison, he wrote his major books, Toward Freedom (1936), an autobiography; The Discovery of India (1946); and Glimpses of World History (1934), a series of letters to his daughter, Indira. He was a talented and expressive writer in English, and he and India's freedom struggle became more widely known through the extensive circulation of his writings in the West.
By the end of World War II (1939-1945), Nehru was recognized as Gandhi's heir apparent in the Congress. Although he and Gandhi differed somewhat in their views of the world, they remained personally and politically close throughout Gandhi's lifetime. When the British formed an interim Indian government in 1946 preliminary to full independence, by Gandhi's choice Nehru became its prime minister.
As head of the interim government, Nehru participated in negotiations for a united and federated India that were held in 1946 between the British rulers, the Congress, and the Muslim League. The Muslim League was a political organization working to create a separate Muslim state so that Hindus, a majority of the population in India, would not gain control of the entire Indian subcontinent after independence. Nehru opposed the division of India on the basis of religion. He adhered to a secular perspective and believed that all Indians regardless of religious affiliation should be equal citizens of the new nation. The parties were unable to agree on a structure for federation, but the British government moved to turn over power to its Indian successors anyway. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, worked out a procedure for the transfer of power, advocating the division of British India between India and Pakistan as the fastest and most workable solution. Nehru reluctantly agreed to the partition.

Nehru became independent India's first prime minister on August 15, 1947, and remained its leader until his death in 1964. Upon taking office he moved to implement moderate socialist economic reforms by means of centralized economic planning. Nehru personally presided over the government Planning Commission that drew up successive five-year plans, beginning in 1951, for the development of India's economy. In the decade and a half after independence, these plans stressed industrial development and national ownership of several key areas of the economy. Nehru also backed plans for community development projects and the creation of many educational institutions. Throughout the Nehru years, India's economy achieved steady growth and its agricultural production increased, though not as rapidly as many hoped. Nehru also encouraged the development of India's nuclear energy program.

Nehru served as foreign minister throughout his tenure as prime minister. One of the first foreign policy challenges he faced was a conflict with Pakistan over the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in October 1947. At independence, Kashmir, bordering on India and Pakistan, had delayed making a decision to join either country. When a small group of Kashmir's majority Muslim population demanded accession to Pakistan, Pakistani troops invaded the area. Kashmir's Hindu ruler, Sir Hari Singh, then signed an agreement conceding the region to India. For political and personal reasons, Nehru believed that it was essential that Kashmir remain part of India, and he sent troops into the region to support India's claim to it. The United Nations negotiated a cease-fire agreement in January 1949, but no definitive solution was reached on this issue.

As the Cold War developed in the 1950s, Nehru shaped a foreign policy of "positive neutrality" for his nation, attempting to defuse international tensions without joining either of the international power blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union. He became one of the key spokesmen of the nonaligned nations of Asia and Africa, mostly former colonies which, like India, wanted to avoid dependence on any major power. Under Nehru's guidance, India supervised a prisoner exchange at the end of the Korean War (1950-1953) and helped monitor a truce between the French and the Vietnamese at the end of the First Indochina War (1946-1954). At the Bandung Conference of nonaligned Asian and African nations in 1955, Nehru championed India-China friendship and backed the efforts of the People's Republic of China to gain membership in the United Nations. Nehru's government opposed the British-French invasion of the Suez Canal area in 1956 (see Suez Crisis), though he spoke much more softly about Soviet incursions into Eastern Europe.

India and China, as Asia's two most populous nations, tried to achieve cooperation, and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited India in 1954. From the late 1950s, however, relations between the nations deteriorated over boundary disputes and over India's acceptance of Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama, after China invaded Tibet in 1950. In 1959 Chinese troops occupied territory claimed by both China and India. After diplomatic efforts failed to resolve the dispute, a short border war broke out in 1962 between Indian and Chinese forces in the Himalayas. Indian troops were unprepared for the encounter and were decisively beaten. The Chinese took no additional territory, but continued to occupy the land they had annexed in 1959. India's crushing defeat stimulated a reevaluation of India's defense capabilities, and Nehru was forced to call for the resignation of Defense Minister V. K. Krishna Menon, a close personal friend. Despite his policy of nonalignment, Nehru requested equipment assistance from the American military during this crisis, and it was granted through the offices of Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith and President John F. Kennedy.

The Chinese affair had a devastating personal impact on Nehru, whose health declined rapidly. He saw the border war as a betrayal by a nation for whose place in the world he had fought. In January 1964 Nehru suffered a stroke. He died in May. Two years later, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, became prime minister of India and held that position for a total of 15 years before she was assassinated by Sikh radicals in 1984. Indira's son and Nehru's grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, also served as India's prime minister, from 1984 to 1989. He was assassinated in 1991.
Category filed under: Political

 Quick Links
Browse personalities according to categories