A leader and a gentleman

The Nehru legacy, which had its origins in the hoary days of the Mughal empire, still lives on

HR Bharadwaj Delhi

Pandit jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, was a colossus who strode at a time when the country urgently needed a leader who could keep India's tryst with destiny. Studying his enduring contribution to politics and nation-building is not really easy. His impress is visible in every aspect of political and social life. It is important to trace his earlier years to comprehend what shaped Nehru's vision and world.

The Nehrus

Kashmiri Brahmins are known in north India for their refined intellect and good looks. The first Nehru was Pandit Raj Kaul, a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian based in Kashmir. In 1716, he attracted the attention of Emperor Farruk Saiyyer, who invited him to Delhi and granted some villages and a house situated on the canal running through the city as jagir. From the fact of his residence on the canal (Nehar), he was known as Raj Kaul Nehru and in the course of time "Nehru" became the surname adopted by the family.

Panditji's father, Motilal Nehru, was a vakil (judge) of the Allahabad High Court. He had a roaring practice and he was permitted to appear and plead at the bar of the Judicial Committee of His Majesty's Privy Council. He was also one of the founders of the Swaraj Party. He responded enthusiastically to the call given by Mahatma Gandhi to join in the non-cooperation movement under the flag of the Indian National Congress. Motilal was typical of the distinguished class of persons who had joined the freedom movement and in his old age he gained the reputation of being the "aristocratic of the assembly".  Whatever the place he sat at a table, it would become, as an eminent English judge said later, the head of the table. Consciously imperious, he created great loyalty as well as bitter opposition.

 He presided over the Amritsar Congress during Christmas in 1919 and readily sacrificed everything for the sake of the country-his fabulously lucrative legal practice and his aristocratic style of living. Moti Lal Nehru's contribution was significant in the growth of parliamentary life in the country. He headed a committee to formulate constitutional principles for India. Motilal Nehru's great admiration for Gandhi descended on his son too.

Jawaharlal Nehru was born in 1889 in Allahabad. His father had meticulously planned his career. He sent him to Harrow, an aristocratic public school in the north-western outskirts of London. After studying there for two years, Jawaharlal went to Trinity College, Cambridge. Trinity enlarged his vision and helped him come in contact with the top-most intellectuals of the world. He saw and had the opportunity to hear George Bernard Shaw, Roosevelt and many top Indian politicians during their visits there. He went to Inner Temple to complete his legal training. Young Nehru travelled extensively in the British Isles and Europe. Having called to the Bar, Nehru returned to India, where the whole Nehru family was eagerly awaiting his arrival. His father Motilal Nehru made no secret of his happiness that his son was ready to join him in his lucrative legal practice and expressed the hope that within the next few years, he would be able to manage independently. Motilal wrote a letter to attract his son to legal practice. "An overzealous client sent a money order of Rs500 to you as your fee and it has been directed to Mussoorie. The first fee your father got was Rs5. You are gradually 100 times better than your father. I wished I was my son instead of being myself."


Nehru joined the Allahabad High Court. After spending some time in the bar library, clubs and associating himself with activities connected with the legal profession, he felt that this line of work did not fill him with whole hearted enthusiasm. He got attracted to Shri Gopal Krishna Gokhle's Servants of India society, but never joined it. He first met Mahatma Gandhi about the time of the Lucknow Congress during the Christmas of 1916.

Jawaharlal married Kamla Kaul, a Kashmiri Brahmin girl whose parents had a modest living in Delhi, on Vasant Panchami on 1916. Young Jawahar was extremely disturbed with what was happening around the country and was attracted to Gandhi, who became his guide and philosopher when it came to attaining swaraj or self-rule. That became his obsession and goal. Mahatma played an active role in the Champaran movement and later in opposing the Rowlatt legislation.

The Nehru family was under the spell of Gandhi. Jawaharlal, too, was inspired Gandhi's opposition to the Rowlatt act and wanted to plunge into politics. His father was opposed to the idea, feeling that it would mean a lot of change in his lifestyle of a person who was groomed like a prince. He was adamant and felt that non-cooperation with the British was the only way to emerge victorious. In 1921, at the age of 32, he served his first prison term and he was incarcerated many times after that till Independence. He became head of government in 1946 and prime minister of free India in 1947.

After Independence, Nehru enjoyed so much goodwill that he could have been a dictator and people would not have minded it. A committed democrat, he realised the enormous responsibility that had been thrust on him by history and circumstances to make India a modern state despite being rooted to its rich culture and glorious traditions. He got down to the task of building institutions and creating precedents that were to serve subsequent generations. Glanville Austin, in his book Working a Democratic Constitution-An Indian Experience, writes: "These were the years of creation and much that occurred during them presaged developments to come... Nation builder, reformer, ardent democrat and flawed administrator, he and his colleagues tried to do everything at once. Citizen's expectations were high, their leaders' were higher. But the successes of the period were fundamental, power relationship was sorted out constitutionally, the parliamentary system became entrenched, democracy not only Nehru's charisma, popular participation strengthened it. Parliament was Nehru's natural habit, one whose health and strength he strove to secure. ...As soon as he entered the House, he brought grace and eloquence along with him."

Nehru established high norms in the system of governance. He had made it a rule of meeting with the president every Thursday at 9.30 am to discuss national and international issues. He also showed courtesy to all constitutional offices like the vice president, speaker and chief justice.

Nehru was a great supporter of the independence of the judiciary. During his intervention in the debate in Constituent Assembly, he said, "These Judges should not only be first rate, but should be acknowledged to be first rate in the country and of the highest integrity: if necessary, people who can stand up against the Executive Government and whoever may come in their way." In one of his files, Nehru noted: "The appointment of a High Court Judge is one of the highest that we can make. It requires not only great care in consideration, but such consideration at the highest level."

Nehru died on May 1964 and left a will that epitomised his love for India's cultural heritage and the great rivers.


The writer is Union Minister of Law, GoI. The article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book