Jawaharlal Nehru came from a distinguished Kashmiri Brahmin family. His father, Motilal Nehru (1861–1931), was a successful lawyer who joined the Indian National Congress (INC), becoming its president in 1920.
The elder Nehru founded a nationalist newspaper named The Independent and was elected to the Indian Legislative Assembly in accordance with the India Act (or Mongatu-Chelmsford Reform of 1919) between 1923 and 1924, and in 1926. He was also the author of the 1918 Nehru Report, which advocated dominion status for India.
Jawaharlal Nehru was educated at Harrow and Cambridge University in England, returning to India in 1912. He had a brief career as a barrister but soon gave up the legal profession and joined the Indian National Congress. He became a follower of Mohandas Gandhi, accompanying him in civil disobedience campaigns for self-government for India and serving many terms in jail. He rose quickly in the Congress, becoming leader of its left wing, its secretary between 1929 and 1939, and also its president. He used five months of internment in Ahmadnagar Fort in 1944 to write a book titled The Discovery of India that explored India’s cultural heritage. When freed from prison, he participated in negotiating sessions with British authorities in attempts to find mutually acceptable formulas for advancing India’s quest for independence. Although he condemned the provisions of the India Act of 1935 as totally inadequate, he nevertheless campaigned for the legislative elections that it authorized, winning impressive majorities in all non-Muslim provinces in 1937. Triumphantly Nehru stated that henceforth there were “only two parties” in India, the British-controlled government and the INC. Such statements motivated Mohammed Ali Jinnah, president of the All India Muslim League (which won in the Muslim majority provinces) to rally Indian Muslims to work toward a separate nation, Pakistan.
World War II shattered hopes of Hindu-Muslim unity. While the Congress refused to cooperate with the British war effort without first achieving independence and ordered all its provincial ministries to resign, the League hailed the day that the order was given as a day of deliverance for Muslims. League ministries cooperated with British authorities throughout the war and thereby gained valuable governing experience. Nehru spent the war years in jail for leading campaigns of noncooperation, and out of jail negotiating with British missions on the timetable for the transfer of power to Indians. His longest stint in prison was between August 1942 and March 1945.
Elections in Britain in 1945 had brought the Labour Party to power. Prime Minister Clement Attlee appointed Louis, Lord Mountbatten, Allied supreme commander in the Southeast Asia war theater, the last viceroy to India to complete the handover of power, set for August 1947. By that time the Muslim League had become firmly committed to Pakistan, and Gandhi and Nehru were forced to concede to a partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, which was accompanied by communal rioting and large-scale movement of refugees, with countless killed. Nehru became the first prime minister of independent India.
The years between 1947 and 1964, when Nehru was prime minister and the Congress Party held a majority in the Indian parliament, are called the Nehru Era. Economically, Nehru was committed to industrial expansion and adopted many features of the planned economy of communist nations, although he also allowed free enterprise. He abandoned the Gandhian vision of handicraft industries. India’s neutral stance and leadership among the nonaligned nations resulted in both the Communist and the Western blocs giving large amounts of economic aid to India. Farming remained in private hands, and there was no state-sponsored land distribution to the peasants. Economic development was stymied by rapid population growth, spurred by medical advances that increased life expectancy. Nehru conceded that India had to run fast in order to stand still because, despite steady gains in gross national product, per capita income showed little growth, and most of the population remained very poor.
Under Nehru (and afterward), India’s main international problem was Pakistan. The two newly independent nations went to war immediately over control of Kashmir, a princely state in the north with a Muslim majority population but ruled by a Hindu prince. Under the terms of the partition all princely states had to choose to join either India or Pakistan, and the ruler of Kashmir opted to join India, which immediately sent in its military. Pakistani forces also crossed into Kashmir, touching off the first Indo- Pakistani War. A cease-fire under a United Nations mandate went into effect in 1948, but the dispute remained unsettled, and Kashmir remained partitioned in 2006. A small war in 1961 expelled the Portuguese from their enclave, called Goa, in southwestern coastal India. As a republic, India remained a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Nehru’s foreign policy was aimed at securing Indian leadership among the nonaligned nations in the cold war; most of them were newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. However, he found his quest for leadership challenged by the People’s Republic of China, which, although communist, also sought to lead the Third World. Nehru’s friendship with China hit a roadblock over Tibet, a Chinese territory that Great Britain had sought to draw into its sphere of influence since the late 19th century. Tibet had enjoyed autonomy under the weak Chinese republican governments after 1912, which ended when the communist government of China militarily took control of Tibet and began consolidating its power there. A disputed boundary between the two nations remained unresolved, China contending that the McMahon Line drawn by the British in 1914 included 52,000 square miles of Chinese territory in India. Relations were exacerbated when a failed Tibetan revolt against China led to the flight of the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, to India, which gave him and his followers political asylum. A brief war broke out between India and China (September–November 1962) in which the Indian army was decisively defeated. The victorious Chinese army, however, did not advance beyond the area in dispute. The war was a severe blow to Nehru’s prestige.
Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur