Profile of a Thinker –Jawaharlal Nehru

Review of the contributions of a Major Thinker

This issue of Samyukta highlights the contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru


Born on 14 November, 1889 into an aristocratic family of Kashmiri Pandits who had migrated from Kashmir to Delhi and from there to Allahabad, Jawaharlal Nehru traces the ancestry of his birth in his Autobiography. In this context it is relevant to note that the history of a person merges with that of the nation when he becomes the leader of that nation. Therefore when Nehru was penning his Autobiography, he was also relating the saga of troubled times of a nation in search of its identity and freedom. Since Nehru was in and out of prisons as a political detainee, he wrote copiously during his period of imprisonment and there is no aspect of the state and personal life that he has left untouched. 

He is the prime example of a person who has benefited by Western education. After his primary schooling he was sent to England for higher education. So his taste and sensibilities were westernised. He could identify himself with the British — he had respect for their good qualities and was not bitter towards them. His attitude seemed to be that of ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’.

         After his arrival from Britain he was actively involved in Indian politics and he came into contact with Gandhiji. Gandhiji’s principle of non-violent struggle inspired him. He himself admits:

India was in my blood and there was much in her that thrilled me. And yet I approached her almost as an alien critic, full of dislike for the present as well as for many of the relics of the past that I saw. To some extent I came to her via the West, and looked at her as a friendly Westerner might have done. I was eager and anxious to change her outlook and appearance and Rive her the garb of modernity… There was a great deal that had to be scrapped, that must be scrapped; … (”The Quest”, The Discovery of India of India, 41).

But it is to be noted that both An Autobiography and The Discovery of India of India were written at a particular period in his life and they do not span his entire life. In the Preface to The Discovery of India of India, he has written:

. . . much has happened since I wrote it. I have felt tempted to add and revise, but I have resisted the temptation. Indeed I could not have done otherwise for life outside prison is of a different texture and there is no leisure for thought or writing. (xiv)

         Nehru’s overwhelming concern has been with nationalism and the spurt given to Indian Independence through the various agitations organised against the British. He was not willing to compromise with any thing short of absolute Independence. But the Congress with Gandhiji as its supreme head was prepared to negotiate with the British. Though he admired the charisma of Gandhiji and the power he had over the masses, yet he was sometimes impatient with him for giving in so easily to the British. At one juncture he has even criticised the tendency in the party to idolise Gandhi:

I think it is right that we should encourage honest criticism and have as much public discussion of our problems as possible. It is unfortunate that Gandhiji’s dominating position has to some extent prevented this discussion. There was always a tendency to rely on him. This is obviously wrong, and the nation can only advance by reasoned acceptance of objectives and methods, and a co-operation and discipline based on them and no blind obedience. No one, however great he may be, should be above criticism. (An Autobiography, 424)

What stands out most towards the end of his Autobiography is his difference of opinion with Gandhiji. It seemed to him that Gandhiji was not interested in reform and development but with moral concerns of sin and personal salvation. He talked about making a virtue of poverty and mortification of the body. He quotes Gandhiji:

India’s salvation consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the last fifty years. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors, and such-like have all to go; and the so-called upper classes have to learn consciously, religiously, and deliberately the simple peasant life, knowing it to be a life giving true happiness… Every time I get into a railway car or use a motor-bus I know that I am doing violence to my sense of what is right… to attempt to reform the world by means of highly artificial and speedy locomotion is to attempt the impossible. (cited in An Autobiography, 527).

The British delayed the Harijan Upliftment Bill and the Temple Entry Proclamation that Gandhiji had negotiated with them for the silliest of reasons. Yet Gandhiji compromised. And Jawaharlal Nehru who was poised to lead the country to complete independence felt impatient whenever Gandhiji digressed from the Civil Disobedience Movement. Moreover, he was not in complete agreement with Gandhiji’s ways of decolonising the nation.

         Nehru has also explored the tendency in India to conceive of the nation as ‘Bharat Mata’. The nation has often been feminised in order to elicit the greatest sacrifices from the common masses. He does not seem to approve of this situation where the anthropomorphic tradition is used to cheat the people.

         When addressing the question of women, Nehru first looks inwards. In the second chapter of The Discovery of India subtitled ‘Our Marriage and After ‘, Nehru evaluates his marriage with Kamala and castigates himself for not giving due attention to his wife since his mind was filled with only one subject—the liberation of India. The absolute honesty with which he lays bare the situation is probably an eye-opener to the position of women in India. 

I had taken from her what she gave me. What had I given in exchange during those early years? I had failed evidently and possibly she carried the deep impress of those days upon her (30). 

And later he compares her to Chitra in Tagore’s play who had said: 

I am Chitra. No goddess to be worshipped nor yet the object of common pity to be brushed aside like a moth with indifference. If you design to keep me by your side in the path of danger and daring, if you allow me to share the great duties of life, then you will know my true self. (30) 

Nehru narrates that women came to the forefront of the national struggle when the men folk were in prison, The avalanche of women in the political world surprised not only the British government but also the men themselves. The men not only appreciated the display of courage and daring that the women showed, but also their organisational power. Nehru recounts that his father, as the leader of the Civil Disobedience Movement, had in no way encouraged what he termed as ‘the aggressive attitude’ of women. In his paternal and old-fashioned way he had disliked the women—young and old— ‘messing about the streets in the hot sun’ and coining to conflict with the police. But as Nehru points out, even he seemed to realise the temper of the people and ultimately resigned himself to the situation. Nehru becomes emotional when he recounts it in The Discovery of India

Never can I forget the thrill that came to us in Naini Prison when the news of this reached us, the enormous pride in the women of India that filled us. We could hardly talk about all this morning ourselves, for our hearts were full and eyes were dim with tears. (31) 

And when the ‘Resolution of Remembrance’ was passed at thousands of public meetings all over India on 26 January 1931, the anniversary of India’s Independence Day, a special mention was made about the role played by the women of India, honouring their courage and commitment to the cause of freedom: 

We record our homage and deep admiration for the womanhood of India, who, in the hour of peril for the motherland, forsook the shelter of their homes and, with unfailing courage and endurance, stood shoulder to shoulder with menfolk in the front line of India’s national army to share with them the sacrifices and triumphs of the struggle… (32) 

Thus Nehru raises the women’s question in the context of India’s Nationalist Movement. He realised that women were capable of rising up to challenges when the situation arose. He also realised their organising capacity. 

Commenting on the legal position of women as recorded by Manu, Nehru agrees that it was bad, because it firmly established that women could never have an independent existence of their own. And there was no mention of women scholars in Taxila or other universities but unquestionably there were eminent women scholars. But he concludes that the position of women in ancient India was much better off than in ancient Greece and Rome, in the early Christianity, in the canon law of medieval Europe and indeed right up to comparatively modern times. 

Gifted as he was with a depth of knowledge and breadth of vision, Nehru enumerates one by one the causes of the ‘backwardness’ of Indian woman. Nehru describes as an ‘unfortunate development’ the growth of purdah or the seclusion of women. He agrees that there might have been some segregation of the sexes among the aristocracy in India as in ancient Greece, Iran and to some extent all over Western Asia. But he argues that nowhere was there a strict seclusion of women. He traces it to the Byzantine court circles from where it spread to Russia. In India purdah seems to have grown during the Mughal times, when it became a mark of status and prestige among the Hindus and Christians. He says: 

I have no doubt at all that among the causes of India’s decay in recent centuries, purdah or the seclusion of women, holds an important place. I am even more convinced that the complete ending of this barbarous custom is essential before India can have a progressive social life. That it injures women is obvious enough, but the injury to man, to the growing child who has to spend much of its time among women in purdah, to social life generally is equally great. (Discovery of India, 261) 

Yet another reason pointed out by Nehru for the so-called ‘backwardness’ was the unfair laws of inheritance. He observed that the laws of inheritance derived from the Hindu joint family system and sought to protect joint property from transfer to another family. A woman by marriage changed her family. In many ways she was looked upon as a dependant of her father or her husband or son, but she could and did hold property in her own right. (Discovery of India 288-89) 

Another problem plaguing the society was the custom of ‘suttee’. But social reformers like Rajaram Mohan Roy campaigned actively against it and the British government gradually abolished it. 

As a man of socialist inclinations he threw in his lot with the common man and worked for their uplift. Nehru writes with extreme shock and revulsion about the conditions that existed in India in the post-industrial phase in Bengal, Bombay and Ahmedabad. He recounts visiting some of these slums and hovels of industrial workers, gasping for breath and corning out dazed, full of horror and anger. He also tells us about the horrible working conditions in the coal mines in Maria: 

I can never forget that picture or the shock that came to me that human beings should labour thus. Women were subsequently prohibited from working underground, but now they have been sent back there because, we are told, war needs require additional labour; and yet millions of men are starving and unemployed. There is no lack of men, but the wages are so low and the conditions of work so bad that they do not attract (The Discovery of India of India, 391) 

One of the most important things that Nehru did when he took over the reins of power as the Prime Minister of free India was to improve the conditions of women. He brought out laws to stop child marriage. He raised the marriage age of women from sixteen to eighteen. He also tried to secure legal rights for women, which had been denied them for a very long period. His cabinet appointed Dr. Ambedkar to look into women’s rights and frame laws accordingly. 

According to Gavit and Affar Chand, the principle and value of gender equality is not a concept of recent origin in India. It was accepted by the Indian National Congress through the fundamental right resolution in 1931, which later found a place in the Constitution of the Indian Republic (Nehru, 159) 

Nehru had realised that education was one of the most powerful forces in the emancipation of women. This was reflected in the University Education Commission, 1948. It emphasised: ‘If education has to be limited to men or women, it should be given to women for then it would more surely be passed on to the next generation’. (cited in Nehru, 163) 

Nehru was also of the firm belief that women should take an active part in political work. When replying to Durgabai Jog’s (1899) query as to the type of work that women could take up besides social service and spinning, Nehru clarified with conviction: 

It is a little difficult for me to suggest a special programme for you. There are really so many activities which can be undertaken. I think women should take the fullest part in political work. That will give them a greater status in India than any other thing else. But apart from this, women should also work for the removal of all disabilities from which their sex suffers. (174) 

Nehru took a keen interest in the women’s legal rights. He was of the opinion that the Indian laws, customs etc, fell heavily on the womenfolk. That was why he was in favour of introducing legislation though with some trepidation. He actively lobbied for the passing of the Hindu Special Marriage Act, the Hindu Code and the Hindu Succession Act. It was not done overnight but through years of hard work of campaigning for women’s rights. Even then there were large-scale protests when the Hindu succession Act was passed. After years of Manusmriti, here was a politician and an enlightened soul giving equality to women through the rights of succession—from now on women gained the legal right to inheritance. The patriarchy at large felt that it was the last stroke by which the male dominion was brought crumbling down. 

The circumstances that led to the passing of the Bill were also controversial. Dr. Rajendra Prasad returned the Bill twice due to public Opposition. Dr. Ambedkar who drafted the Bill felt that even Nehru was not keen to support the Bill and so he resigned from the Cabinet in disgust. But Nehru had a definite stand in the matter. As pointed out by Christopher Jaffrelot in his book Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste, Nehru was attached to this Code in which he saw, quite as Ambedkar, one of the cornerstones of the modernisation of India. When ‘Ambedkar pressed him to submit it as quickly as possible to the Parliament, Nehru asked him for a little patience and even split the code into four subsects for defusing the opposition before submitting it to the Assembly on 17 September 1951. (Jaffrelot 2004) 

The fate of the Hindu Code Bill which was intended to provide a civil code in place of the body of Hindu personal law (which had been amended to only a limited extent by the British authorities) has been analyzed in detail by Christopher Jaffrelot in his book titled The Hindu National Movement and Indian Politics. 1925 to the 1990 Jaffrelot points out that when the Bill was first presented to the Constituent Assembly on 9 April 1948, it caused a great deal of controversy and was subsequently broken down to three more specialised bills which came before the Lok Sabha from 1952 -’57: The Hindu Marriage Bill, the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Bill and the Hindu Succession Bill. The Hindu Marriage Bill outlawed polygamy and contained provisions dealing with inter-caste marriages and divorce procedures; the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Bill had as its main thrust the adoption of girls, which till then had been little practised; the Hindu Succession Bill placed daughters on the same footing as widows and sons, where the inheritance of family property was concerned. 

Christopher Jaffrelot points out that the Hindu rationalists were annoyed that the civil law reform concerned only the Hindus whereas the Constitution enjoined the state to give India a uniform Civil Code. According to him, Nehru’s secularism seemed to suffer from a certain lacuna, as he was prepared to condone the right of the civil courts to apply Muslim personal law in cases affecting Muslims. 

Jaffrelot recounts the fate of the Hindu Code Bill. On 25 September 1951, the portion of the Hindu Code Bill concerning marriage and divorce was deformed by amendments and finally buried without uttering the least of protest. Considering the fact that he had not been supported enough by the Prime Minister, Ambedkar sent him his letter of resignation from his government on 27 September 1951. (Jaffrelot 1999 102-4) 

Rajendra Prasad who was elected President of the Republic in 1950 ‘in a letter to Patel’ expressed his strong reservations against such reforms of the Hindu traditions and he rose against a project whose ‘new concepts and new ideas are not only foreign to the Hindu law but are susceptible of dividing every family’. He argued that the proposal for reform should first be included in the party manifesto and placed before the voters before any discussion in Parliament.

As Christopher Jaffrelot has pointed out in The National Movement and Indian Politics, Nehru had to make many concessions to the bill’s critics including Rajendra Prasad. And although the bills were adopted by the new Parliament in the mid 1950s, they were less far-reaching in scope than Nehru had intended. But they bear testimony to Nehru’s vision to establish the modern India of his dreams and also his ability to defy Hindu traditionalists. These legal measures ‘largely in favour of the Indian women’ reveal him to be a man who lived far ahead of his times. Probably if he had not conceded and appeased the Muslims in his generosity to make a minority community feel at home, he would not have a provoked so much ire and would have been successful in passing the Hindu Code Bill in its original drafted form.


Nehru, Jawaharlal. (2004), An Autobiography , Penguin India, New Delhi.

The Bodley Head , London, 1936.

.(2004), The Discovery of India of India, Penguin India, New Delhi. © The Signer Press , Calcutta. 1946.

Gavit and Affar Chand (eds.) (1989), Nehru, H.K. Pub, New Delhi.

Jaffrelot, Christopher. (2004), Arnbedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste. Columbia Uni. Press, Columbia.

.(1999), The Hindu National Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s, Penguin, New Delhi.


NISHA VENUGOPAL. Teaches at Sanakaracharya University, Kaldy. Her doctoral work was on the plays of Robert Lowell. Has contributed articles to research journals and presented papers at national and international seminars.

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Teaches at Sanakaracharya University, Kaldy. Her doctoral work was on the plays of Robert Lowell. Has contributed articles to research journals and presented papers at national and international seminars.

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