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Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) was a great Indian nationalist leader who worked for independence and social reform. He became first prime minister of independent India, a position he retained until his death. He initiated India's nonalignment policy in foreign affairs.

Jawaharlal Nehru was born on Nov. 14, 1889, in Allahabad into a proud, learned Kashmiri Brahmin family. His father, Motilal Nehru, was a wealthy barrister and influential politician. Jawaharlal was an only child until the age of 11, after which two sisters were born. The atmosphere in the Nehru home was more English than Indian; English was spoken. It was also a luxurious home, with an impressive stable and two swimming pools. Jawaharlal was educated at home by tutors, most of them English or Scottish. Under the influence of a tutor Nehru joined the Theosophical Society at 13.

At the age of 15 Nehru left for England, where he studied at Harrow and Cambridge and then for the bar in London. He was called to the bar in 1912. His English experience reinforced his elegant and cosmopolitan tastes. As Nehru said of himself at Cambridge, "In my likes and dislikes I was perhaps more an Englishman than an Indian." In London he was attracted by Fabian ideas; nationalism and socialism from this time on provided his intellectual motive force.

Early Political Moves

Back in India, Nehru began to practice law with his father. It was not until 1917 that Nehru was stirred by a political issue, the imprisonment of Annie Besant, an Irish theosophist devoted to Indian freedom. As a result, Nehru became active in the Home Rule League. His involvement in the nationalist movement gradually replaced his legal practice. In 1916 Nehru was married to Kamala Kaul, of an orthodox Kashmiri Brahmin family. They had one daughter (later Indira Gandhi, third prime minister of independent India).

Apart from his father and Besant, the greatest influence on Nehru politically was Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi had been educated much like Nehru but, unlike him, remained basically untouched, essentially Indian. A second issue which fired Nehru's nationalism and led him to join Gandhi was the Amritsar massacre of 1919, in which some 400 Indians were shot on orders of a British officer.

The year 1920 marked Nehru's first contact with the Indian kisan, the peasant majority. Nehru was "filled with shame and sorrow … at the degradation and overwhelming poverty of India." This experience aroused a sympathy for the underdog which characterized many of Nehru's later political moves. The plight of the peasant was a challenge to his socialist convictions, and he attempted to persuade the peasants to organize. From this time on Nehru's concerns were Indian. He began to read the Bhagavad Gita and practiced vegetarianism briefly. Most of his life he practiced yoga daily.

In 1921 Nehru followed Gandhi in sympathy with the Khilafat cause of the Moslems. Nehru was drawn into the first civil disobedience campaign as general secretary of the United Provinces Congress Committee. Nehru remarked, "I took to the crowd, and the crowd took to me, and yet I never lost myself in it." Nehru here articulated two of his most distinctive traits throughout his career: his involvement with the people and his aloof and lonely detachment. The year 1921 also witnessed the first of Nehru's many imprisonments. In prison his political philosophy matured, and he said that he learned patience and adaptability. Imprisonment was also a criterion of political success.

International Influences

In 1926-1927 Nehru took his wife to Europe for her health. This experience became a turning point for Nehru. It was an intellectual sojourn, highlighted by an antiimperialist conference in Brussels. Here Nehru first encountered Communists, Socialists, and radical nationalists from Asia and Africa. The goals of independence and social reform became firmly linked in Nehru's mind. Nehru spoke eloquently against imperialism and became convinced of the need for a socialist structure of society. He was impressed with the Soviet example during a visit to Moscow.

Back in India Nehru was immediately engrossed in party conferences and was elected president of the All-India Trades Union Congress. In speeches he linked the goals of independence and socialism. In 1928 he joined the radical opposition to proposals for dominion status by his father and Gandhi. In 1930 Gandhi threw his weight to Nehru as Congress president, attempting to divert radicalism from communism to the Congress.

In 1930 Nehru was arrested and imprisoned for violation of the Salt Law, which Gandhi also protested in his famous "salt march." Nehru's wife was also arrested. From the end of 1931 to September 1935 Nehru was free only 6 months.

During the 1937 elections the Moslem League offered to cooperate with the All-India Congress Committee in forming a coalition government in the United Provinces. Nehru refused, and the struggle between the Congress and the Moslem League was under way. Nehru also established the precedent for economic planning in a suggestion that the Congress form a national planning committee. In 1938 Nehru paid a brief visit to Europe. On his return he was sent briefly as envoy to China until war intervened and made it necessary for him to return.

War in Europe drew India in, together with England. For Indian leaders the question was how an honorable settlement could be reached with England and still allow India to participate on the Allied side. Negotiations toward this end culminated in the Cripps mission and offer of dominion status in March 1942. Nehru refused to accept dominion status, as did the rest of Congress leadership. There followed the Congress "Quit India" resolution and the imprisonment of Nehru, Gandhi, and other Congress leaders until June 1945. There were nationwide protests, a mass demand for independence.

Prime Minister

In 1945, as Congress president, Nehru was pressed into negotiations with the Moslem League and the viceroy. Congress-Moslem League negotiations were marked by communal killings in Calcutta, followed by sympathetic outbreaks throughout India. Final decisions were reached in conversations between the last British viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and Nehru, Gandhi, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. According to the Mountbatten Plan, two separate dominions were created. Nehru became prime minister and minister of external affairs of independent India in 1947.

Following Gandhi's assassination in January 1948, Nehru felt very much alone facing economic problems and the possibility of the Balkanization of India. In 1949 he made his first visit to the United States in search of a solution to India's pressing food shortage.

Free India's first elections in 1951-1952 resulted in an overwhelming Congress victory. Economic planning and welfare were the first claims on Nehru's attention. He inaugurated a diluted version of socialist planning: concentration of public investment in areas of the economy that were free from private interests. The Planning Commission was created in 1950 and launched the First Five-Year Plan in 1951, stressing an increase in agricultural output. Nehru also took pride in the Community Development Program, established to raise the standard of living in the villages. He saw the Third Five-Year Plan operative before his death on May 27, 1964, in New Delhi.

Nehru was the architect of nonalignment in foreign policy. Economic weakness and the Indian tradition were powerful factors in formulating the policy. The other influence on Nehru's foreign policy was his controversial minister of defense, Krishna Menon. Nehru sought closer relations with nonaligned Asian states, with India in the role of leader.

Nehru's nonalignment policy was criticized by many Westerners and some Indians as giving preference to totalitarian countries rather than to democracies. Some critics believed that nonalignment left India no effective means to deal with China, national defense, the Great Powers, or the underdeveloped community. On the other hand, nonalignment had many Indian defenders, even in the face of the Chinese invasion of Indian border territory in 1962. Some held that nonalignment was a strategy for deterrence and peace, a force for protecting Indian independence and preservation of the international community on ethical grounds. Nevertheless, nonalignment as implemented by Nehru did not prevent the government from resorting to force in Hyderabad, Kashmir, and Goa.

Nehru the man and politician made such a powerful imprint on India that his death on May 27, 1964, left India with no political heir to his leadership. Indians repeated Nehru's own words of the time of Gandhi's assassination: "The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere."

Further Reading

A useful collection of Nehru's speeches and writings is Nehru: The First Sixty Years, selected and edited by Dorothy Norman (2 vols., 1965). Major biographies are Frank Moraes, Jawaharlal Nehru (1956); Donald E. Smith, Nehru and Democracy: The Political Thought of an Asian Democrat (1958); Michael Brecher, Nehru: A Political Biography (1960); and M. N. Das, The Political Philosophy of Jawaharlal Nehru (1961). A journalistic account, written by an intimate of the Nehru household, is Marie Seton, Panditiji: A Portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru (1967), a valuable book for students of Indian politics and history. A somewhat simplified biography, particularly suitable for young adults and casual readers, is Bani Shorter, Nehru: A Voice for Mankind (1970).

Works that assess Nehru's achievements and evaluate his place in history include K. Natwar-Singh, ed., The Legacy of Nehru: A Memorial Tribute (1965); The Emerging World: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Volume (1965); and G. S. Jolly, ed., The Image of Nehru (1969), all of which are laudatory and should be balanced by more critical appraisals, such as that in Brecher's biography. Walter Crocker, an intimate friend, yet sometimes a critic, of Nehru, wrote Nehru: A Contemporary's Estimate (1966), which is a more balanced appraisal. Paul F. Power and Columbia University Committee on Oriental Studies, eds., India's Nonalignment Policy (1967), deals with various Indian and foreign views of Nehru's foreign policy and contains a good bibliography on the subject. Another work by Michael Brecher, Nehru's Mantle: The Politics of Succession in India (1966), analyzes the parliamentary system in India that made possible a peaceful succession. □

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Nehru, Jawaharlal

Nehru, Jawaharlal 1889-1964


Born in November 1889, Jawaharlal Nehru would become Indias first prime minister.

Nehrus ancestors were Kashmiri Brahmins who had settled in Allahabad, in northern India. His father, Motilal Nehru, was a successful barrister and a prominent figure in the Indian National Congress (INC), which was established in 1885.

In 1905 Nehru was sent to England, studying first at Harrow, then at Cambridge University, and finally joining the Inner Temple and passing the Bar examinations. By 1905 the INC had begun to shift from a gradualist moderate politics to a more extremist anti-colonial stance as evinced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak (18561920) among others. Jawaharlal, unlike his father, found himself more in sympathy with this militant position. Nevertheless, during the years following his return to India in 1912, Nehru entered the legal profession through his fathers chambers. By 1917 he joined the Home Rule League movement guided by the extremist Tilak and the theosophist Annie Besant (18471933).

But it was events in 1919 that drove Nehru into deeper political involvement with congresss politics under the leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (18691948). First, the colonial government decided to continue wartime ordinances into peacetime under the Rowlatt Act, which would allow the British to hold Indian political agitators without trial. Gandhi launched an all-India civil disobedience campaign in protest. Second, while support for the campaign was uneven, General Reginald Dyers orders on April 13 to fire without warning upon an unarmed crowd of villagers galvanized Indian opposition. The villagers, ignorant of martial law regulations, had assembled to hear speeches in the city of Amritsar. Although Dyer was dismissed from the army, the House of Lords virtually exonerated him when it passed a motion in his favor. For Nehru, this was a sign that it was time for a more assertive struggle to achieve freedom.

Nehru became an avid supporter of Gandhi and joined the non-cooperation movement launched by him in 1920. In February 1927, on a personal visit to Europe, Nehru attended the International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism held in Brussels. Here he encountered the Marxist and socialist ideas of other delegates and a few months later he was invited to the Soviet Union to join in the tenth anniversary celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution. The socialist reforms Nehru witnessed left a profound impression on him and convinced him that as another largely agrarian country with an impoverished and mostly illiterate population, India could usefully emulate the Soviet experiment.

Returning with an arsenal of ideas, Nehru urged a more comprehensive struggle against the British. His ideas involved supporting an increasingly radical peasant agitation; a distancing from the conservative landlord and industrial supporters of the congress; and reforms such as the abolition of landlordism, socialization of the land, planned economic development, and state acquisition of key industries for the future. These ideas, however, brought Nehru into disagreement with Gandhi, who feared the class struggle they would provoke might fracture Indian unity. While they continued to diverge on many of these issues, Nehru desisted from openly challenging Gandhis political leadership in the interests of maintaining a consolidated anti-colonial movement.

With the British transfer of power on August 15, 1947, Nehru became Indias prime minister. Assuming power amid the devastating violence of the partition of British India into the nation-states of India and Pakistan, Nehru left the imprint of his political ideals as he sought to steer the new country into calmer political seas. Among Nehrus most significant legacies was to set India on the path of democracy in that elections rather than military coups produced changes of governments. Another of Nehrus bequests was the Indian states adoption of the ideal of secularism, defined not as a separation of church and state but as the commitment by the government to treat every religion equally. There was little resistance to this principle in the aftermath of the religious violence surrounding partition and Gandhis assassination at the hands of a Hindu supremacist on January 30, 1948.

However, Nehru is also credited with perpetuating the colonial governments over-centralized state structure that he had so vociferously criticized. Nearly 200 articles of the British-instituted Government of India Act of 1935 passed into the constitution of independent India. The imbalance of power between the central and provincial (called states in independent India) governments, in favor of the former, was retained as was the bureaucracy, the empires steel frame. The Gandhian ideal of a non-party government with a weak center and power devolved to village republics was discarded in substance.

On the economic front, although Nehru had compromised earlier with Gandhi, he now sought to apply many of his socialist ideas. However, as prime minister, he also had to take into account the wide variety of demands on the state as well as Indias pre-existing capitalist economic framework. While still adhering to his principle of planned development Nehru opted for a mixed economy in which the government would only control its capital goods and strategic industries. Through a series of five-year plans, heavy industry was given priority over consumer goods manufacture, and import substitution policies were pushed to attain self-sufficiency. But these measures took their toll in that the drive for self-sufficiency further isolated Indias economy and pushed up consumer prices. State-owned industries were maintained despite their often demonstrated inefficiency while large Indian capitalists, although firmly regulated, monopolized the domestic market, often dumping substandard consumer goods on it.

With regard to land reform too, Nehrus success is ambivalent. Among his first measures was to abolish landlordism and set land ceilings in the early 1950s. Yet the large dispossessed landlords were given compensation, and although land reforms were administered not from the center but by the states, prosperous peasant groups who dominated the Congress party at the provincial level increased the maximum acreage that could be held, to their advantage in many instances. Moreover, by exploiting loopholes in the legislations, many landlords transferred portions of their estates into the hands of family members or retainers. In the end, landless laborers benefited little from the agrarian reforms despite Nehrus commitment to removing the economic inequity of the colonial era.

The new nation-state of India was also pulled into a world of other nation-states. Nehrus achievements here, gaining him international renown, lay in steering India between the Scylla and Charybdis of the cold war blocs led by the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics through the principle of Non-Alignment. A term coined by Nehru, non-alignment was a principle put into international play along with leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser (19181970) of Egypt and Josip Broz Tito (18921980) of the former Yugoslavia. However, although advocating principled neutrality, Nehrus policies were often viewed with suspicion by many political leaders and observers, especially those aligned with the Western blocand especially when he refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

Perhaps Nehrus gravest political crisis was his countrys defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war provoked by border disputes emanating from the colonial past. The conflict itself was an embarrassing repudiation of a friendship that purportedly began when India became the first country to recognize Mao Zedongs Peoples Republic of China established in 1949. Nehru was not only brutally disappointed by Chinas aggression, but for the remaining two years of his life some of Nehrus domestic policies produced challenges to his leadership in parliament until his death on May 27, 1964.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Chinese Revolution; Cold War; Congress Party, India; Decolonization; Democracy; Gandhi, Indira; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Indian National Congress; Industrialization; Land Reform; Landlords; Mao Zedong; Neutral States; Partition; Planning; Secular, Secularism, Secularization; Socialism



Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1936. An Autobiography. London: Lane.

Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1941. Towards Freedom. New York: John Day.

Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1946. The Discovery of India. Calcutta: Signet Press.

Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1961. Indias Foreign Policy. Delhi: Government of India Publications Division.


Akbar, M. J. 1988. Nehru: the Making of India. London: Viking.

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Gopal, Sarvepalli. 19751984. Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography. 3 vols. London: J. Cape.

Khilnani, Sunil. 1999. The Idea of India. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Nanda, B. R. 1995. Jawaharlal Nehru: Rebel and Statesman. New Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press.

Mridu Rai

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Nehru, Jawaharlal

Jawaharlal Nehru (jəwähərläl´ nā´rōō, nĕ´–), 1889–1964, Indian statesman, b. Allahabad; son of Motilal Nehru. A politician and statesman of great skill, Nehru was enormously popular in India.

Early Career

Educated in England at Harrow and Cambridge, he was admitted to the English bar in 1912 and practiced law in India for several years. After the massacre at Amritsar (1919), he devoted himself to the struggle for India's freedom. His compelling oratory as well as his close association with Mohandas Gandhi contributed to making him a leader of the Indian National Congress, and in 1929 (the first of four times) he was elected its president.

A leader of the radical wing of the Congress, Nehru spent most of the period from 1930 to 1936 in jail for conducting civil disobedience campaigns. About 1939 disharmony developed between him and Gandhi. Nehru, who had been influenced by a study of Marxism, opposed Gandhi's ideal of an agrarian society and advanced a program calling for the industrialization and socialization of India. During World War II, however, Nehru and Gandhi were united in their opposition to aiding Great Britain unless India was immediately freed, and Nehru was imprisoned from Oct., 1942, to June, 1945. After his release, he participated in the negotiations that led to the creation of the two independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Indian Prime Minister

Nehru became India's prime minister and minister of foreign affairs and led the country through the difficult early years of independence. The domestic problems of those years included the massive influx of Hindu refugees from Pakistan; the integration of the princely states into the new political structure (Hyderabad was incorporated by force in 1948, and Kashmir's accession caused the first India-Pakistan War, ending in the partition of the state); and controversy and unrest associated with the reorganization of the states on a linguistic basis. On the economic front the government launched a series of five-year plans with the declared goal of achieving a "socialist pattern of society."

In foreign affairs Nehru adopted a policy of neutralism. He stressed the importance of the movement of nonaligned nations in international politics and became one of its leading spokesmen. He also opposed the formation of military alliances and urged a moratorium on all nuclear testing. Some observers felt that he lost stature as an advocate of peace by employing force in Kashmir and by seizing (1961) Goa from the Portuguese. It also appeared that he might be abandoning strict neutralism for a more pro-Western policy when he requested Western aid to defend India against Chinese border incursions in 1962.


Nehru wrote voluminously, especially while in prison; his notable works include Glimpses of World History (1936), comprising letters to his daughter (Indira Gandhi), and The Discovery of India (1946). See also his autobiography, Toward Freedom (American ed. 1941, repr. 1958); biographies by M. Edwardes (1971) and S. Gopal (3 vol., 1976–84); B. R. Nanda, The Nehrus (1962); A. von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007).

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Nehru, Jawaharlal

Nehru, Jawaharlal (1889–1964). Independent India's first prime minister. The son of Motilal Nehru, a prominent lawyer and leader of the Indian National Congress, Nehru was educated at Harrow and Cambridge and trained for the bar. He became politically active during Gandhi's first non-cooperation movement (1920–2). A socialist by conviction, he frequently clashed with Gandhi over tactics and policy. However, he was spellbound by the mahatma and remained personally loyal to him. In 1939 he was Gandhi's choice to displace fellow-socialist S. C. Bose as Congress president. Nehru played a leading role in the negotiations for independence in 1946–7 and was prime minister in India's first interim government. He was confirmed in office at three subsequent general elections. He was much impressed by the material achievements of the Soviet Union and sought to lead India in a similar direction. But he was also a democrat and had to modify many of his ideals accordingly.

David Anthony Washbrook

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Nehru, Jawaharlal

Nehru, Jawaharlal (1889–1964) Indian statesman, prime minister of India (1947–64), father of Indira Gandhi. Educated in England, he succeeded his father Motilal Nehru (1861–1931) as president of the Congress Party in 1929. Nehru and ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi led nationalist opposition to British rule in India. Nehru was imprisoned nine times for non-cooperation with the British between 1921 and 1945. He played a leading role in the negotiations with Mountbatten and Jinnah that led to the independence of India and Pakistan. As the first prime minister of an independent India, Nehru followed a foreign policy of non-alignment in the Cold War and became a respected leader of the Third World.

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