Jawaharlal Nehru


British occupation of India begins at the start of the 17th Century and reaches its zenith at the end of the 19th Century. Indian opposition to colonial rule gains momentum in the early 20th Century as the independence movement becomes increasingly assertive. More background.

Mini biography

Born of 14 November 1889 at Allahabad in northern India, into a wealthy Kashmiri Brahman family. His father is a member of the self-rule movement and a leader of the Indian National Congress.

1905 - Nehru travels to England to study at Harrow school. After two years at Harrow, he enters Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. He spends three years at Trinity earning an honours degree in natural science then moves to London to study law at the Inner Temple. He qualifies as a barrister in 1912.

1912 - Nehru returns to India and practices law in the Allahabad High Court.

1916 - He marries Kamala Kaul. Their only child, Indira Priyadarshini (Indira Gandhi), is also destined to serve as prime minister of India. Nehru meets Mahatma Gandhi for the first time at the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress in Lucknow.

1917 - The British Parliament announces that Indians will be allowed greater participation in the colonial administration and that self-governing institutions will be gradually developed.

1919 - The promise of self-governing institutions is realised with the passing of the Government of India Act by the British Parliament. The act introduces a dual administration in which both elected Indian legislators and appointed British officials share power, although the British retain control of critical portfolios like finance, taxation and law and order.

However, the goodwill created by the move is undermined in March by the passing of the Rowlatt Acts. These acts empower the Indian authorities to suppress sedition by censoring the press, detaining political activists without trial, and arresting suspects without a warrant. Nehru now becomes closely involved in the Congress.

Gandhi begins a campaign of resistance or Satyagraha (the devotion to truth, or truth force) against the Rowlatt Acts and British rule. The Satyagraha movement spreads through India, gaining millions of followers.

The movement comes to a temporary halt on 13 April when British troops fire at point-blank range into a crowd of 10,000 unarmed and unsuspecting Indians gathered at Amritsar in the Punjab to celebrate a religious festival. A total of 1,650 rounds are fired, killing 379 and wounding 1,137. The incident galvanises Nehru, who becomes a staunch nationalist.

1920 - Gandhi proclaims an organised campaign of noncooperation and advocates Ahimsa (nonviolence) and Swaraj (self-rule), particularly in the economic sphere. Nehru joins the campaign. During the year, Gandhi refashions the Congress from an elite organisation into an effective political instrument with widespread grassroots support. Nehru supports the reforms.

1921 - Nehru is arrested by the British and imprisoned for the first time. Over the next 24 years he spends more than nine years in jail, with the longest of his nine detentions lasting for three years.

Nehru occupies much of his time in prison writing. His major works include 'Glimpses of World History' (1934), his 'Autobiography' (1936), and 'The Discovery of India' (1946).

Meanwhile, the Congress gives Gandhi complete executive authority. However, after a series of violent confrontations between Indian demonstrators and the British authorities, Gandhi ends the campaign of civil disobedience.

1923 - Nehru becomes general secretary of the Congress for a period of two years. He regains the position in 1927 for another two years.

1926 - He tours Europe and the Soviet Union, where he develops an interest in Marxism.

1927 - The British set up a commission to recommend further constitutional steps towards greater self-rule but fail to appoint an Indian to the panel. In response, the Congress boycotts the commission and drafts its own constitution demanding full independence by 1930.

1929 - Under Gandhi's patronage, Nehru is elected president of the Congress at the party's Lahore session. Nehru serves as party president six times.

1930 - Nehru is arrested during a new campaign of civil disobedience orchestrated by Gandhi. The campaign calls upon the Indian population to refuse to pay taxes, particularly the tax on salt, and centres on a 400 km march to the sea between 12 March and 6 April.

Thousands follow Gandhi as he walks south from his commune at Ahmedabad (the capital of Gujarat) to Dandi (near Surat on the Gulf of Cambay). When they arrive they illegally make salt by evaporating seawater. In May Gandhi is arrested and held in custody for the rest of the year. About 30,000 other members of the independence movement are also held in jail.

1931 - Gandhi accepts a truce with the British, calls off civil disobedience, and travels to London to attend a Round Table Conference on the future of India. On his return to India he finds that the situation has deteriorated.

1932 - Hopes that calm will prevail following the negotiations between the Indians and the British are dashed when Gandhi and Nehru are arrested. Nehru is sentenced to two years imprisonment.

1934 - When Gandhi formally resigns from politics, Nehru becomes leader of the Congress.

1935 - Limited self-rule is achieved when the British Parliament passes the Government of India Act (1935). The act gives Indian provinces a system of democratic, autonomous government. However, it is only implemented after Gandhi gives his approval.

1937 - In February, after elections under the Government of India Act bring the Congress to power in seven of 11 provinces, Nehru is faced with a dilemma. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the defeated Muslim League, asks for the formation of coalition Congress-Muslim League governments in some of the provinces. His request is denied.

The subsequent clash between the Congress and the Muslim League hardens into a conflict between Hindus and Muslims that ultimately leads to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.

1939 - When the Second World War breaks out in September, Britain unilaterally declares India's participation on the side of the Allies. Nehru argues that India's place is alongside the democracies but insists that India can only fight as a free country. The Congress withdraws from government and decides it will not support the British war effort unless India is granted complete and immediate independence. The Muslim League, however, supports the British during the war.

1940 - Nehru is arrested and sentenced to four years imprisonment but is released after little more than a year, along with other Congress prisoners. Meanwhile, the Muslim League adopts the Pakistan Resolution calling for areas with a Muslim majority in India's northwest and northeast to be partitioned from the Hindu core.

1941 - Japan enters the Second World War at the start of December and begins to sweep eastwards through Southeast Asia towards India.

1942 - The British attempt to negotiate a strategy for the defence of India against a Japanese invasion, offering complete independence after the war is won if the Indians cooperate. However, Gandhi and Nehru will accept nothing less than independence and call on the British to leave India.

When the Congress passes its Quit India resolution in Bombay on 8 August the entire Congress Working Committee, including Gandhi and Nehru, is arrested and imprisoned. Nehru is not released from this, his ninth, last and longest period of detention, until 15 June 1945.

Also during 1942 Gandhi officially designates Nehru as his political heir.

1944 - The British Government agrees to independence for India on condition that the two contending nationalist groups, the Muslim League and the Congress, resolve their differences.

1946 - Nehru, with Gandhi's blessing, is invited by the British to form an interim government to organise the transition to independence. Fearing it will be excluded from power, the Muslim League declares 16 August as Direct Action Day. When communal rioting breaks out in the north, partition comes to be seen as a valid alternative to the possibility of civil war. Nehru attempts to prevent partition but is unsuccessful.

1947 - On 3 June British Prime Minister Clement Attlee introduces a bill to the House of Commons granting independence to Britain's Indian colony and partitioning it into the separate nations of India and Pakistan. The House of Commons passes the India Independence Act on 14 July. Under the act Pakistan is further divided into east and west wings on either side of India.

India formally attains independence at midnight on 14 August. Pakistan is declared an independent state on the same day. Amid the celebrations Nehru delivers a famous speech on India's "tryst with destiny".

"At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awaken to life and freedom," Nehru says. "A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance."

However, the initial jubilation is soon tempered by violence.

Sectarian riots erupt as Muslims in India flee to Pakistan while Hindus in Pakistan flee the opposite way. As many as two million die in north India, at least 12 million become refugees, and a limited war over the incorporation of Kashmir into India breaks out between the two nation states.

Nehru becomes the first prime minister of independent India and introduces a mix of socialist planning and free enterprise measures to repair and build the country's ravaged economy. He also takes the external affairs portfolio, serving as foreign minister throughout his tenure as prime minister.

1950 - India becomes a republic with Nehru as its prime minister. He is deeply involved in the development and implementation of the country's five-year plans that over the course of the 1950s and 1960s see India become one of the most industrialised nations in the world.

Industrial complexes are established around the country, while innovations are encouraged by an expansion of scientific research. In the decade between 1951 and 1961, the national income of India rises 42%.

Nehru also pursues reforms to improve the social condition of women and the poor. The minimum marriageable age is increased from 12 to 15, women are given the right to divorce their husbands and inherit property, and the dowry system is made illegal. Absentee landlords are stripped of their land, which is then transferred to tenant farmers who can document their right to occupancy.

In foreign affairs, Nehru advocates policies of nationalism, anticolonialism, internationalism, and nonalignment or "positive neutrality". He founds the nonaligned movement with Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito and Egypt's Gamal Abdel-Nasser and becomes one of the key spokesmen of the nonaligned nations of Asia and Africa.

Nehru argues for the admission of China to the United Nations (UN) and calls for détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. Acting as a mediator, he also helps to end the Korean War of 1950-53.

1956 - India under Nehru is the only nonaligned country in the UN to vote with the Soviet Union on the invasion of Hungary, calling into question the country's nonaligned status.

1961 - Indian troops occupy the Portuguese enclave at Goa on the west coast of the country in December, removing the last remaining colonial administration on the subcontinent and ending six years of unsuccessful negotiations.

1962 - A long-standing border dispute with China breaks out into war, despite Nehru's efforts to improve relations between the two countries. When the Chinese threaten to overrun the Brahmaputra River valley on India's northern border, Nehru calls for aid from the West. China withdraws but Nehru's nonalignment policy is further discredited.

1963 - Nehru suffers a slight stroke, followed by a more debilitating attack in January 1964.

1964 - Nehru dies in office on 27 May in New Delhi from a third and fatal stroke.


Though often overshadowed by Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru was no less critical to the achievement of independence for India. He was the secular and pragmatic balance to Gandhi's spiritual idealism. The yin to Gandhi's yang. Nehru had the cultural and intellectual credibility necessary to first attract the younger intelligentsia to Gandhi's campaigns and then to rally them after independence had been gained. Gandhi got the ball rolling. Nehru kept it in motion.

Nehru's tenure as prime minister has, however, come under critical analysis. Always a democratic socialist, his five-year plans helped to establish the economic independence that Gandhi had advocated. Nehru's domestic policies were centred on democracy, socialism, unity and secularism. They helped India become one of the strongest democracies in the world and an emerging economic power. Nehru was also the father of a political dynasty. His only child, Indira Gandhi, served as India's prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 to 1984. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, was prime minister from 1984 to 1989.

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