Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India and a prominent personality in the Indian freedom movement, was born on 14 November 1889 in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. His father, Motilal Nehru was a renowned lawyer and one of Mahatma Gandhi’s notable lieutenants. His mother, Swarup Rani Nehru came from a well-known Kashmiri Brahmin family settled in Lahore. Jawaharlal Nehru had two sisters Vijyalakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hatheesing. In 1916, Jawaharlal married Kamala Kaul, and they were blessed with a child, Indira Priyadarshini.
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 at Allahabad. His father had him educated at home by private governesses and tutors until he was 16. Under the influence of one of the tutors, Ferdinand T. Brooks, Nehru became interested in science and theosophy.
In 1905 Nehru went to England and studied at Harrow, then at Trinity College, Cambridge and graduated with an Honours degree in Natural Science in 1910. He later studied Law at the Inns of Court School of Law (Inner Temple), London.
Nehru returned to India in August 1912, and enrolled himself as an advocate of the Allahabad High Court. However, he did not relish either the practice of law or the company of lawyers. He began to involve in nationalist politics gradually in the coming years. Within months of his return to India in 1912, he had attended an annual session of the Indian National Congress in Patna. He collected funds for the civil rights campaigners led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1913. Later, he campaigned against the indentured labour and other such discriminations faced by Indians in the British colonies. However, Nehru was not satisfied with the pace of the national movement. He became involved with more outspoken nationalist leaders who were demanding Home Rule for Indians.
The year 1915 witnessed the advent of Mahatma Gandhi in Indian politics, which substantially transformed the course of struggle for India’s Independence. His creed of peace and non-violence made the national movement into a mass all India movement. Nehru met Mahatma Gandhi for the first time in the Congress session at Lucknow in December 1916 and Gandhi had a major impact on Nehru in his active politics. In Fenner Brockway words, “The Association of Gandhi and Nehru for over thirty years is an epic in human co-operation. Their names are indissoluble in the record of India’s struggle for freedom”. He was also deeply impressed by Gautama Buddha. He had written, “The story of Gautama Buddha has influenced me from my childhood. The influence was two-fold. First it influenced me as a story and second I liked the scientific attitude reflected therein, the scientific and ethical attitude”.
The first major active involvement of Nehru in mass politics came at the onset of the Non-Cooperation movement in 1920. He led the movement in the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), and was arrested on charges of anti-government activities in 1921. He was released a few months later. Gradually, he became intensely involved with the problems of cultivators and the poor. He led the kisan (peasant) movement and no-tax campaign in U.P. in 1930. For him, “imperialism was a curse which should be lifted from the brows of men, that poverty was incompatible with civilization, that nationalism should be poised on a sense of international community and that it was not sufficient to brood on these things when action was urgent and compelling”. These were the principles which inspired and gave vitality to Jawaharlal Nehru’s activities in the years of India’s struggle for freedom. During the first twenty-five years of his political life, i.e. between 1920 and 1945, he spent more time in jail than outside.
Nehru played a leading role in the development of the internationalist outlook of the Indian independence struggle. His efforts paid off in 1927. The Congress was invited to attend the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels, Belgium. The meeting was called to co-ordinate and plan a common struggle against imperialism. Nehru represented India and was elected to the Executive Council of the League against Imperialism that was set up during this meeting. Also, Nehru’s visit to Europe in 1936 proved to be the watershed in his political and economic thinking. Nehru’s real interest in Marxism and his socialist pattern of thought stem from these tours.
His dynamic leadership, understanding of national and international issues, won for him a significant place in the Indian national movement. He was chosen as Congress President for a number of times before and after Independence -- 1929, 1936, 1937 and 1946 and in 1951-54. He was the President of the Lahore session of the Congress in 1929 when the AICC adopted the resolution for Complete Independence ‘Purna Swaraj’ from the British Raj and also moved the Quit India resolution in 1942. In 1946, Nehru headed an interim Government of India and had to preside over the issue of the partition of India.
Jawaharlal Nehru also supported the cause of the people in the Princely States and helped to make their struggle as a part of the nationalist movement for independence. The All India States People’s Conference was formed in 1927, and Nehru, who had been supporting the cause of the people of the Princely States for many years, was made the President of the Conference in 1935. This body later played an important role during the political integration of India.
Nehru took office as the Prime Minister of India on 15 August 1947, and delivered his famous inaugural address titled “Tryst with Destiny”. He knew that India’s tryst with destiny meant the sovereignty of the people and the acceptance of the primacy of equality. His vision for modern India based on a dream of a sovereign and democratic republic. But his immediate task was to set the house in order. The trauma of transition coupled with Partition posed a plethora of problems and challenges.
The Constitution of India was enacted in 1950, after which he embarked on his ambitious programme of economic, social and political reforms. Chiefly, he oversaw India’s transition from a colony to an independent republic, while nurturing a plural, multi-party democracy. The first major test of Indian democracy came with the general election of 1951-52 held on the basis of adult franchise in which over 173 million voters were registered. The successful conduct of that election received appreciation from various quarters. It was the direct result of his dream being fulfilled by establishing Panchayati Raj and universal adult franchise, which strengthened the parliamentary democracy. To have smooth functioning of administration, he constituted the State Reorganization Committee and set forth the process of re-organising states on linguistic basis. He also gave a clear direction to India’s role in the comity of nations with the policy of non-alignment and the principles of Panchsheel.
Jawaharlal Nehru believed in planned economic development based on import substitution, industrialisation. He advocated a mixed economy where the government controlled public sector would co-exist with the private sector. He believed that the establishment of basic and heavy industry was fundamental to the development and modernisation of the Indian economy. The government, therefore, directed investment primarily into the key public sector industries -- steel, iron, coal, and power -- promoting their development with subsidies and protectionist policies. The Planning Commission was set up in 1950. Under Nehru’s leadership, the government also attempted to develop India by embarking on agrarian reform, abolition of Zamindari system and rapid industrialisation. The 1960s saw the start of the Green Revolution, an effort to diversify and increase crop production.
However, in the pursuit of development, the government never lost sight of the Scheduled Tribes people and the Backward Classes. The concern for the Scheduled Tribes people demonstrated in his approach to the needs of backward regions. He has said “I approached them in a spirit of comradeship”. He was in close touch with Verrier Elwin who was well-versed in cultural aspects of Scheduled Tribes of India, to devise approaches to problems faced by the tribals of India. Along with all the efforts to enable national integration, there were efforts to protect their identity and their rich cultural heritage.
Nehru was an advocate of education for India’s children and youth, believing it essential for India’s future progress. The government oversaw the establishment of many institutions of higher learning and centre for arts and culture such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Lalit Kala Akademi, the Sahitya Akademi and Indian Council of World Affairs.
The Parliament enacted much far reaching legislation such as the Hindu Law and Hindu Civil Code, which increased the legal rights and gave social empowerment to women. A system of reservation in government services, educational institutions and legislatures was created to end the social inequalities and disadvantages faced by the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Nehru also championed secularism and religious harmony by increasing the representation of minorities in government.
Nehru took great interest in the development of science and technology and firmly believed that scientific temper and scientific approach to problems would liberate India from economic miseries and social justice. Nehru was one of the first persons to use the term “Scientific Temper” and advocated its promotion. He wrote in his book Discovery of India, “It is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems”. As he himself explained it: “Politics led me to economics and this led me inevitably to science and scientific approach to all our problems and to life itself. It is science alone that would solve the problems of hunger and poverty”. The principal accomplishment in Science and Technology in the Nehru era was the creation of a large infrastructure covering the physical, chemical, biological, engineering services and technology. Two main areas of thrust were the development of the atomic energy and through it, the space programme, and setting up a large chain laboratories under the Council for Science and Industrial Research (CSIR). He also laid the foundation of atomic energy and research. He worked very closely with Homi Bhabha, S.S. Bhatnagar, Vikram Sarabhai and others and made significant efforts to reduce bureaucracy in scientific establishments.
Nehru also laid the foundation of big dams, such as Bhakra Nangal, Hirakud and Nagarjuna Sagar. He considered them the “Temples of Modern India”. He also laid the foundation of steel plants of Bhilai, Rourkela and Durgapur in collaboration with the Soviet Union, Germany and England. Once Dr. S. Radhakrishnan said about Nehru that “No homage is necessary for him. Modern India is the greatest monument which he has built for himself”.
Nehru was the architect of India’s foreign policy. He began to take interest in world affairs long before Independence, when India had no international status. In the 1930s his sympathies were with Abyssinia and Republic of Spain. Independent India’s policy of non-alignment and Panchsheela, influenced by Gautama Buddha, were as much the gift of Nehru as of Indian tradition. On 15 August 1949, Nehru declared from the Red Fort, “In our foreign policy, we have proclaimed that we shall join no power bloc and endeavour to co-operate and be friendly with all countries.” As a leader of free India, Nehru recognized that his country could neither stay out of the World nor could it divert of its own interest in world affairs. Hence, he firmly believed that India must follow its own course in world affairs and not allow itself to be used by any other country, however powerful that country might be. The policy of Non-Alignment was the natural growth of such thinking. He wanted international disputes to be settled by peaceful negotiations, failing that by arbitration and not by war. Hence, he supported the role of the United Nations Organisation.
The Chinese aggression in 1962 was a grave challenge to Nehru’s prestige. It unified the nation in support of its territorial integrity and sovereignty.
On the international scene, Nehru was a champion of peace and a strong supporter of the United Nations. He pioneered the policy of non-alignment and co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement of nations professing independence from the then rival blocs of nations, the West led by the USA and the socialist bloc of the USSR.
Nehru, while a champion of peace, was not blind to the political and geo-strategic reality of India in 1947, which resulted in the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission of India (AEC) in 1948 and also laying the foundation stone of the National Defence Academy (India) in 1949.
Nehru was a prolific writer. He wrote many books and articles for a number of newspapers and journals. During the freedom struggle, he spent over ten years in prison where he produced his great works such as The Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History, An Autobiography, Towards Freedom, and Letters from a Father to His Daughter.
In 1955 Nehru was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour of the country. Nehru was loved by all, including his comrades or opponents. In fact Nehru has written in his Will and Testament that “I have received so much love and affection from the Indian people that nothing that I can repay a small fraction of it, and indeed there can be no repayment of so precious a thing as affection”. His birthday on 14th of November is celebrated in India as Bal Divas (Children’s Day) on behalf of children and young people. Children across India remember him as Chacha Nehru.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru also laid great stress on cleanliness. He said that people of India must learn to keep their surroundings clean. It is not only important on hygienic point of view but also in respect of their health medically. He wanted that people should be self-reliant in all respect and not to depend on government agencies totally. In one of the occasions he said that everybody expects the Government should do it but it is quite impossible for any Government to undertake the hundreds and thousands of small village schemes that could easily be undertaken by the villagers themselves. He said, “There is need for developing the spirit of self-reliance among the villagers. Some simple norms should be laid down for testing the people’s preparedness to do things themselves. The community development programme should be extended to any new areas unless people in that region demonstrate their spirit of self-help by undertaking elementary schemes of community benefit like the keeping the village clean. In the existing blocks, additional financial allocations should be contingent on the people’s initiative and capacity for discharging their own responsibilities”.
The man, who made such a powerful imprint on India, passed away on 27 May 1964. However, he would be remembered not just as India’s foremost and pioneering Prime Minister, but also as one of the greatest statesmen of the modern world. Mahatma Gandhi gave him the greatest compliment, “He is pure as the crystal. He is truthful beyond suspicion.
Nehru will be remembered for his modern values and thoughts, insistence upon the Unity of India, and in the face of ethnic and religious diversity, taking India into the modern age of scientific innovation and technological progress, social concerns for the marginalised and poor, and respect for democratic values.