27 May 1964: Jawaharlal Nehru, first PM of India, died

“Is there a man in the whole country who can take the place of Nehru?”

~ Gulzarilal Nanda, acting Prime Minister after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru spoke in a national broadcast, 27 May 1964.

The emotional statement made by Gulzarilal Nanda on the death of Jawaharlal Nehru describes the Nehru's position in the government and in the hearts of the people of the country. A prominent freedom fighter of India’s independence struggle, and the first Prime Minister of the newly independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru’s achievements cannot be measured on any scale. He not only consolidated a divided nation, but also gave a direction to the new country to move forward. It is no wonder that he is remembered as the “architect of India.” Nehru’s death, on 27 May 1964 due to heart attack, came as a deep loss to the nation, which depended on his every decision. He was 74 years of age.

Jawaharlal Nehru was born on 14 November 1889, during a time when the British had a solid hold on India. His father Motilal Nehru, a well-known advocate, provided his son with all the possible amenities for a good upbringing, from a sheltered and pampered childhood to foreign higher education. He wanted his son, Jawahar, to join his practice after completing his education. Jawahar, who was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideologies decided to join the nationalist struggle, demanding the British to grant greater autonomy for Indians. Along with Gandhi, he adopted the non-violent civil disobedience movement and renounced his well-to-do status to live a simple life.

His Political Career

Jawaharlal Nehru’s political career started in 1919, when he enlisted into the Indian National Congress. Owing to his close association with Gandhi, Nehru took the position at the forefront while fighting for India’s swaraj. He is known tohave played a significant role in negotiating the terms and conditions of India’s independence. After the country gained independence, he accepted the biggest responsibility of creating a nation, by becoming its first Prime Minister.

During his 17 years of prime minister-ship (from 1947 to 1964), Nehru had to deal with a large number of issues, from developing a constitution, to bringing princely states and kingdoms into the new democratic nation to introduce economic reforms to the partitioned India. He faced each problem with passion and was helped by several people like his Home Minister Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, Law Minister B R Ambedkar, and Governor General Lord Mountbatten. Despite religious polarization in several parts of the country, Nehru used all available tools to keep the country together. Historian and author Ramchandra Guha remarked, “[Nehru] had helped nurture a plural, multi-party democracy against massive opposition and in the face of widespread scepticism. He had forged innovative and independent-minded economic and foreign policies. He had made sure that India would not be a Hindu Pakistan.”

Along with a number of economic decisions, in order to industrialise India and establish its path towards prosperity, Nehru also left a legacy of education undertakings that sealed India’s future progress. He not only committed to free and compulsory primary education for all kids, but also directed the establishment of higher learning institutions like Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), National Institutes of Technology (NITs), All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). He is considered to have encouraged “scientific discovery and technological development.”

One of the major responsibilities of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was to maintain foreign relations with not only his neighbouring countries, but also others in the world. He joined a number of international organizations like the United Nations and British Commonwealth, and even co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement. Nehru’s relation with neighbouring nations was less than perfect; and Kashmir remained a disputed land. Relations with China seemed fine in the beginning, when Nehru and the Chinese premier signed the Panchsheel Agreement (1954) for coexistence and determination of the country’s borders. Although, this agreement was retracted by China when Chinese troops tried to take control over the Brahmaputra River Valley. It is believed that there were other reasons as well, between India and China that escalated the insurgency, which included the dispute over the legality of the McMahon Line, and India providing refuge to the Dalai Lama during the Tibet-China conflict.

His Death

Jawaharlal Nehru’s death on 27 May 1964 was a result of a third heart attack. He had been suffering from deteriorating health for the past two years. Historians believe that the condition was caused by the China-India War. He regarded the conflict as a “breach of trust.” Although, Nehru made a number of trips to hill stations to recuperate, his health kept declining. He experienced his first heart stroke in 1963, and then in the January of 1964. The one in May was the death knell. During his last moments, his daughter Indira, was beside him.

News about his death was announced by Cabinet Minister (Ministry of Steel), Coimbatore Subramaniam at 2:00 p.m., who uttered emotionally, “The prime minister is no more. The light is out.” This was followed by widespread mourning. Thousands of people visited Nehru’s body to pay their last respects. Nehru’s final procession towards the cremation ground was long and witnessed by almost “2,50,000 men, women and children.” His last rites were conducted in the cremation ground in Shantivana, on the banks of the River Yamuna.

Political Situation after Nehru’s Death

Nehru’s death created a hole in leadership in the central government. In his lifetime, he never thought or discussed who would succeed the post after him. In fact at a news conference, a few days before his death, while answering a question about his retirement, he had said “my lifetime is not ending soon.”

Possible candidates who were likely to succeed Nehru were Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi. But, at the time of swearing in, the then home minister, Gulzarilal Nanda was chosen as the interim Prime Minister the night of Nehru’s death. It was although a temporary arrangement. Subsequently, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the Prime Minister in June 1964. K Kamaraj, the Congress Party President is believed to have been “instrumental” in the move.

Also on this day:

1962 – Ravi Shastri, Indian cricketer and commentator, was born

2013 – Jagjit Singh Lyallpuri, Indian politician who was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), died


  • The NY Times, India Mourning Nehru, 74, Dead of a Heart Attack; World Leaders Honor Him
  • The BBC, 1964: Light goes out in India as Nehru dies


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