Jawaharlal Nehru, India's First Prime Minister

Nehru was a friend and ally of the Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for India's independence.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, c. 1960. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Early Life

On November 14, 1889, a wealthy Kashmiri Pandit lawyer named Motilal Nehru and his wife Swaruprani Thussu welcomed their first baby, a boy they named Jawaharlal. The family lived in Allahabad, at that time in the Northwest Provinces of British India (now Uttar Pradesh). Little Nehru was soon joined by two sisters, both of whom also had illustrious careers.

Jawaharlal Nehru was educated at home, first by governesses and then by private tutors. He particularly excelled at science, while taking very little interest in religion. Nehru became an Indian nationalist quite early in life, and was thrilled by Japan's victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1905). That event prompted him to dream "of Indian freedom and Asiatic freedom from the thraldom of Europe."


At the age of 16, Nehru went to England to study at the prestigious Harrow School (Winston Churchill's alma mater). Two years later, in 1907, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where in 1910 he took an honors degree in natural sciences - botany, chemistry and geology. The young Indian nationalist also dabbled in history, literature and politics, as well as Keynesian economics, during his university days.

In October of 1910, Nehru joined the Inner Temple in London to study law, at the insistence of his father. Jawaharlal Nehru was admitted to the bar in 1912; he was determined to take the Indian Civil Service exam and use his education to fight against discriminatory British colonial laws and policies.

By the time he returned to India, he had also been exposed to socialist ideas, which were popular amongst the intellectual class in Britain at the time. Socialism would become one of the foundation stones of modern India under Nehru.

Politics and the Independence Struggle

Jawaharlal Nehru returned to India in August of 1912, where he began a half-hearted practice of law in the Allahabad High Court. Young Nehru disliked the legal profession, finding it stultifying and "insipid."

He was much more inspired by the 1912 annual session of the Indian National Congress (INC); however, the INC dismayed him with its elitism. Nehru joined a 1913 campaign led by Mohandas Gandhi, in the start of a decades-long collaboration. Over the next few years, he moved more and more into politics, and away from law.

During the First World War (1914-18), most upper-class Indians supported the Allied cause even as they enjoyed the spectacle of Britain humbled. Nehru himself was conflicted, but came down reluctantly on the side of the Allies, more in support of France than of Britain.

More than 1 million Indian and Nepalese soldiers fought overseas for the Allies in World War I, and about 62,000 died. In return for this show of loyal support, many Indian nationalists expected concessions from Britain once the war was over, but they were to be bitterly disappointed.

Call for Home Rule

Even during the war, as early as 1915, Jawaharlal Nehru began to call for Home Rule for India. This meant that India would be a self-governing Dominion, yet still considered a part of the United Kingdom, much like Canada or Australia.

Nehru joined the All India Home Rule League, founded by family friend Annie Besant, a British liberal and advocate for Irish and Indian self-rule. The 70-year-old Besant was such a powerful force that the British government arrested and jailed her in 1917, prompting huge protests. In the end, the Home Rule movement was unsuccessful, and it was later subsumed in Gandhi's Satyagraha Movement, which advocated complete independence for India.

Meanwhile, in 1916, Nehru married Kamala Kaul. The couple had a daughter in 1917, who would later go on to be Prime Minister of India herself under her married name, Indira Gandhi. A son, born in 1924, died after just two days.

Declaration of Independence

The Indian nationalist movement leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, hardened their stance against British rule in wake of the horrific Amritsar Massacre in 1919. Nehru was jailed for the first time in 1921 for his advocacy of the non-cooperation movement. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Nehru and Gandhi collaborated ever more closely in the Indian National Congress, each going to prison more than once for civil disobedience actions.

In 1927, Nehru issued a call for complete independence for India. Gandhi opposed this action as premature, so the Indian National Congress refused to endorse it.

As a compromise, in 1928 Gandhi and Nehru issued a resolution calling for home rule by 1930, instead, with a pledge to fight for independence if Britain missed that deadline. The British government rejected this demand in 1929, so on New Year's Eve, at the stroke of midnight, Nehru declared India's independence and raised the Indian flag. The audience there that night pledged to refuse to pay taxes to the British, and to engage in other acts of mass civil disobedience.

Gandhi's first planned act of non-violent resistance was a long walk down to the sea to make salt, known as the Salt March or Salt Satyagraha of March 1930. Nehru and other Congress leaders were skeptical of this idea, but it struck a chord with the ordinary people of India and proved a huge success. Nehru himself evaporated some sea water to make salt in April of 1930, so the British arrested and jailed him again for six months.

Nehru's Vision for India

During the early 1930s, Nehru emerged as the political leader of the Indian National Congress, while Gandhi moved into a more spiritual role. Nehru drafted a set of core principles for India between 1929 and 1931, called the "Fundamental Rights and Economic Policy," which was adopted by the All India Congress Committee. Among the rights enumerated were freedom of expression, freedom of religion, protection of regional cultures and languages, abolition of untouchable status, socialism, and the right to vote.

As a result, Nehru is often called the "Architect of Modern India." He fought hardest for the inclusion of socialism, which many other Congress members opposed. During the later 1930s and early 1940s, Nehru also had almost sole responsibility for drafting the foreign policy of a future Indian nation-state.

World War II and the Quit India Movement

When the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939, the British declared war against the Axis on behalf of India, without consulting India's elected officials. Nehru, after consulting with the Congress, informed the British that India was prepared to support democracy over Fascism, but only if certain conditions were met. The most important was that Britain must pledge that it would grant complete independence to India as soon as the war was over.

The British Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, laughed at Nehru's demands. Linlithgow turned instead to the leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad ali Jinnah, who promised military support of Britain from India's Muslim population in return for a separate state, to be called Pakistan. The mostly-Hindu Indian National Congress under Nehru and Gandhi announced a policy of non-cooperation with Britain's war effort in response.

When Japan pushed into Southeast Asia, and early in 1942 took control of most of Burma (Myanmar), which was on British India's eastern doorstep, the desperate British government approached the INC and Muslim League leadership once again for aid. Churchill sent Sir Stafford Cripps to negotiate with Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah. Cripps could not convince the pro-peace Gandhi to support the war effort for any consideration short of full and prompt independence; Nehru was more willing to compromise, so he and his mentor had a temporary falling-out over the issue.

In August of 1942, Gandhi issued his famous call for Britain to "Quit India." Nehru was reluctant to pressure Britain at the time since World War II was not going well for the British, but the INC passed Gandhi's proposal. In reaction, the British government arrested and imprisoned the entire INC working committee, including both Nehru and Gandhi. Nehru would remain in prison for almost three years, until June 15, 1945.

Partition and Prime Ministership

The British released Nehru from prison after the war was over in Europe, and he immediately began to play a key role in negotiations over the future of India. Initially, he vigorously opposed plans to divide the country along sectarian lines into a predominantly-Hindu India and a predominantly-Muslim Pakistan, but when bloody fighting broke out between members of the two religions, he reluctantly agreed to the split.

After the Partition of India, Pakistan became an independent nation led by Jinnah on August 14, 1947, and India became independent the following day under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru embraced socialism, and was a leader of the international non-aligned movement during the Cold War, along with Nasser of Egypt and Tito of Yugoslavia.

As Prime Minister, Nehru instituted wide-spread economic and social reforms that helped India reorganized itself as a unified, modernizing state. He was influential in international politics as well, but could never solve the problem of Kashmir and other Himalayan territorial disputes with Pakistan and with China.

Sino-Indian War of 1962

In 1959, Prime Minister Nehru granted asylum to the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees from China's 1959 Invasion of Tibet. This sparked tensions between the two Asian superpowers, which already had unsettled claims to the Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh areas in the Himalaya Mountain range. Nehru responded with his Forward Policy, placing military outposts along the disputed border with China, beginning in 1959.

On October 20, 1962, China launched a simultaneous attack at two points 1000 kilometers apart along the disputed border with India. Nehru was caught off guard, and India suffered a series of military defeats. By November 21, China felt that it had made its point, and unilaterally ceased fire. It withdrew from its forward positions, leaving the division of land the same as before the war, except that India had been driven from its forward positions across the Line of Control.

India's force of 10,000 to 12,000 troops suffered heavy losses in the Sino-Indian War, with almost 1,400 killed, 1,700 missing, and nearly 4,000 captured by the Peoples Liberation Army of China. China lost 722 killed and about 1,700 wounded. The unexpected war and humiliating defeat profoundly depressed Prime Minister Nehru, and many historians claim that the shock may have hastened his death.

Nehru's Death

Nehru's party was reelected to the majority in 1962, but with smaller percentages of the vote than before. His health began to fail, and he spent a number of months in Kashmir during 1963 and 1964, trying to recuperate.

Nehru returned to Delhi in May of 1964, where he suffered a stroke and then a heart attack on the morning of May 27. He died that afternoon.

The Pandit's Legacy

Many observers expected Parliament member Indira Gandhi to succeed her father, even though he had voiced opposition to her serving as Prime Minister for fear of "dynastism." Indira turned down the post at that time, however, and Lal Bahadur Shastri took over as the second prime minister of India.

Indira would later become the third prime minister, and her son Rajiv was the sixth to hold that title. Jawaharlal Nehru left behind the world's largest democracy, a nation committed to neutrality in the Cold War, and a nation developing quickly in terms of education, technology and economics.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Jawaharlal Nehru, India's First Prime Minister." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/jawaharlal-nehru-195492. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, July 29). Jawaharlal Nehru, India's First Prime Minister. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jawaharlal-nehru-195492 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Jawaharlal Nehru, India's First Prime Minister." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jawaharlal-nehru-195492 (accessed March 20, 2023).