14th November 1889: Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was born

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and one of its founding fathers, was born on November 14, 1889, at Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) to a Kashmiri Pandit family. Nehru’s father, Motilal, was a prominent barrister and an important figure in the Indian National Congress, serving twice as its president. Nehru’s mother Swaruprani Thussu belonged to Kashmiri family based in Lahore.  

As a child, Nehru both admired and feared his father, the latter because of Motilal’s temper. “I admired father tremendously. He seemed to me the embodiment of strength and courage and cleverness, far above all the other men I saw, and I treasured the hope that when I grew up I would be rather like him. But . . . I feared him also,” Nehru later wrote in his autobiography.

He grew up partly in a huge house called Anand Bhawan and was largely educated at home by private teachers. “Our house itself was far from being a lonely place, for it sheltered a large family of cousins and near relations, after the manner of Hindu families. But all my cousins were much older than I was and were students at the high school or the university and considered me far too young for their work or their play,” Nehru wrote in his autobiography. “And so in the midst of that big family I felt rather lonely and was left a great deal to my own fancies and solitary games.”

For a while the young Nehru was associated with the Theosophical Society, which led him to discover the Buddhist and the Hindu religious thought. However, his notions of religion were “very hazy”. As he put it: “Father and my older cousins refused to take it (religion) seriously. The women of the family indulged in various ceremonies and pujas from time to time, and I rather enjoyed them, though I tried to imitate to some extent the casual attitude of the grown-up men of the family.”

Nehru was attracted to nationalism from a young age. Events like the Boer War filled his mind with “nationalistic ideas”. In 1907 he went to Trinity College, Cambridge and secured a degree in natural science three years later. He studied the works of writers such as Bernard Shaw, J.M. Keynes and Bertrand Russell. After Cambridge, he studied law in London for two years, passing his bar examination in 1912.

A few months after returning to India, Nehru attended an annual session of the Congress. Though he perceived the party at that time to be largely dominated by an English-speaking upper class, he worked for issues such as supporting the Indian civil rights movement in South Africa that was being spearheaded by Mohandas Gandhi.

Towards the end of World War I, Nehru became more vocal about issues such as non-cooperation and the need to resign from honorary positions under the British government. He was unhappy at the pace at which the national movement was progressing. He joined hands with nationalist leaders like Annie Besant to press for self-government.

Nehru met Gandhi for the first time in 1916 during the Congress’s Lucknow session. The two men would go on to form a very special bond that determined the path of the Independence movement. 

By the early 1920s Nehru had emerged as among the most important leaders of the Congress. He looked at the Indian independence struggle movement through a larger, internationalist prism, and was acutely aware of similar movements in other countries. He sought allies and global partnerships in pressing for a common cause with other nations that were victims of imperialism. Nehru was invited in 1927 to take part in a meeting of ‘oppressed nationalities’ in Belgium.

He was among the first nationalist leaders to demand “complete national independence” from British rule. Gandhi agreed to the thrust of Nehru’s arguments and in 1928 proposed a resolution calling for the British to grant dominion status to India in two years. Failure to meet the deadline meant the Congress would give a call for complete independence. The British government rejected the Congress’s demand for dominion status. Nehru, who became president of the party on December 29, 1929, then introduced a resolution that called for complete independence.

“We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life, so that they may have full opportunities of growth,” Nehru’s Indian declaration of independence stated. “We believe . . . that India must sever the British connection and attain Purna Swaraj or complete independence.”

In the 1930s Nehru was convinced that an Independent India should be wedded to a socialist ideology. With the threat of World War II looming, he decided to side with democracy and oppose fascism. After the war started, Nehru said the Congress would support Britain but the party needed an assurance of full independence once the war was over. The British rejected the demand. Meanwhile, much against Nehru’s and Gandhi’s wishes, the Indian Muslim League’s Mohammed Ali Jinnah passed the ‘Pakistan resolution’, calling for an independent state for the subcontinent’s Muslim population.

After the war, the British found it difficult to ignore the growing tide of resentment against the delaying of independence. Finally, on August 15, 1947, Nehru, after decades of struggle and years spent in jail, ushered in a free nation with these memorable words: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

Prime Minister Nehru led India for nearly 17 years. Irrespective of what critics say of his social, economic or foreign policies, it is hard to deny that he laid the foundations of a democratic government and a pluralistic nationalism. Reflecting on Nehru’s role in the making of modern India, in his 1997 book The Idea of India, the historian Sunil Khilnani wrote: “. . . India, an ungainly, unlikely, inelegant concatenation of differences, after fifty years still exists as a single political unity. This would be unimaginable without Nehru’s improvisation.”

Also on this day:

1943 — Aditya Vikram Birla, Indian industrialist, was born

1947 — Bharathan, Malayalam filmmaker, was born

1967 — Saba Karim, Indian cricketer, was born

1985 — Manoj Kumar Tiwary, Indian cricketer, was born

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