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leader of the Indian National Congress and first Prime Minister of India
Jawaharlal Nehru [juh wah' hur lahl neh' rU] was born in Allahabad on November 14, 1889, the only son of Motilal Nehru, a prosperous lawyer. He studied in England, graduating from the Harrow School in 1907 and Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1910. After two years at the Inner Temple, London, he qualified as a barrister. He returned to India in 1912 and practiced law in the Allahabad High Court. He married Kamala Kaul in 1916.
The Independence Movement
Nehru first met Mohandas Gandhi at the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress held in Lucknow in 1916, and soon became one of Gandhi's most trusted followers. Like his father, Jawaharlal initially favored India retaining dominion status within the British Commonwealth, but he soon came to believe that India deserved nothing less than complete independence. He formally joined Gandhi's civil disobedience movement at the September 1920 session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta.
In 1921, Nehru was sentenced to six months imprisonment for his work in the civil disobedience movement. It would not be the first time he would go to jail, for he would ultimately spend a total of nine years in prison before India finally gained its independence.
Nehru served as General Secretary of the Indian National Congress from 1923 to 1925. In 1929, he presided over the Lahore session of the Congress, which declared complete independence and civil disobedience under Gandhi's leadership. He was elected president of the Indian National Congress that same year; he held the post again in 1936, 1937, and 1946.
In 1934, Gandhi formally resigned from politics and named Nehru as his successor. In 1937, the first elections under the Government of India Act were held. The Indian National Congress got the majority in seven of the eleven provinces, making Nehru the effective leader of India's government. Following the elections, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, leader of the defeated Muslim League, asked for the formation of coalition Congress-Muslim League governments in some of the provinces. Nehru's denial of the request would lead to a decades-long conflict between India's Hindu and Muslim populations.
In 1939, Britain unilaterally declared India's participation on the side of the Allies. Nehru replied that India had an obligation to support the democracies of the world, but would only fight as a free country. When Britain continued its refusal to grant independence, the Indian National Congress withdrew from the government and refused to support the British war effort.
In August, 1942, the entire Congress Working Committee was arrested for passing its "Quit India" resolution. Released in 1945, he was invited by the British to form an interim government to organize India's transition to independence. He subsequently took a leading part in the negotiations that culminated in the emergence of the dominions of India and Pakistan in August 1947.
India achieved complete independence on August 15, 1947, and Nehru became its first Prime Minister. He also assumed responsibility for India's foreign policy and served as Foreign Minister throughout his tenure.
When India became independent its native population was amongst the poorest in the world. Under Nehru's leadership, India became an industrialized nation and the national income rose 42%. Other improvements to Indian life included: the minimum marriageable age was increased from 12 to 15; women were given the right to divorce husbands and inherit property; the dowry system was made illegal; and, absentee landlords were stripped of their land, which was then transferred to tenant farmers who could document their right to occupancy.
A staunch advocate of non-aggression, Nehru gained international recognition for opposing alliances with either the United States or the Soviet Union, and for promoting neutralism. Along with Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito and Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, he became a spokesman for the nonaligned nations of Asia and Africa. As the leader of a nonaligned nation, Nehru played an important mediatory role in bringing the Korean War to an end. By offering India's services for conciliation and international policing, he was able to help end crises in the Suez Canal and the Congo.
Nehru did face major foreign policy challenges with respect to Pakistan and China, however. India's differences with Pakistan over the Kashmir region led to frequent border disputes and skirmishes, as well as brief all-out warfare. A consistent proponent of Communist China's admission to the United Nations, Nehru's position was seriously challenged when Chinese forces attacked and crossed the Indian border in 1962.
Although Nehru did have his critics, his government went virtually unchallenged throughout his entire seventeen years in office. He died in office after suffering a stroke on May 27, 1964.
Nehru was the author of many works, including Glimpses of World History (1934), his Autobiography (1936), and The Discovery of India (1946).
Nehru's only child, Indira Priyadarshini (Indira Gandhi) served as Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 to 1984. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, served as Prime Minister from 1984 to 1989.
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This page was last updated on April 18, 2017.