Birthday Special: Women Who Influenced Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru once said, "To awaken the people, it is the women who must be awakened. Once she is on the move, the family moves, the village moves, and the nation moves". This belief reflects his own life and the experiences he had with women

Snehal Mutha
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On this day in 1889, the first Prime Minister of India was born in Allahabad, now Prayagraj. Today is his 134th birth anniversary. Though many would say Jawaharlal Nehru grew up in luxury, his experiences brought him across the plight of people from grassroots levels. Many contributed in making of him and his growth. Starting from his mother Swarup Rani, to her sisters and daughter. Nehru has always considered women as a pillar of strength and confidence. 


Who was Swarup Rani?

Swarup Rani had a great influence on the life of Nehru, this could be figured out from his autobiography wherein he writes: “Though my admiration and affection for him (father) remained as strong as ever, fear formed part of them. Not so with my mother. I had no fear of her, for I knew that she would condone everything I did because of her excessive and indiscriminating love for me. I saw much more of her than I did of a father.”

His mother sowed cultural values in his mind, which influenced his life. Nehru grew up listening to the stories of the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata from his mother and aunt, but Nehru hardly followed them. 

Who is Kamala Kaul?

Kamala Kaul has been a constant support behind Nehru's ambitions. Kamala married him in 1916 and stood by Nehru's side even when his father, Motilal Nehru, was against him joining the freedom movement. Kamala herself followed Gandhi’s principles and philosophy. To Kamala's liking, Nehru changed his aristocratic lifestyle to austere life and followed simplicity.

In the book, Kamala Nehru: An Intimate Biography by Promilla Kalhan, Indira Gandhi spoke about her mother’s Influence on her father. She stated, “When my father wanted to join Gandhiji and to change the whole way of life, to change our luxurious living, to give up his practice, the whole family was against it. It was only my mother’s courageous and persistent support and encouragement which enabled him to take this big step." 


Kamala, along with being a comrade to her spouse, had her freedom fighter and feminist identity. She visited the villages to make speeches and was actively involved in national activities. Kamala wrote in a letter as cited in Suruchi Thapar, The Nehru Women: Conflicts and Stresses During the Freedom - “I shall urge them to fight for their own freedom, educate their daughters so that they are not in trouble like us and join the struggle for independence so that we do not have to spend our lives in shame.”

Nehru and his family moved to Europe to treat Kamala's illness. It also allowed Nehru to read extensively, travel across Europe, and attend conferences. During this time, his sisters Vijayalakshmi and Krishna joined him, and both greatly influenced Nehru. 

Vijayalakshmi and Krishna Nehru

Krishna joined Jawaharlal in Geneva and spent a few years accompanying her brother in attending conferences, meeting several Indian exiles, and travelling across Europe, which also helped her broaden her horizons. As Krishna influenced Nehru, Nehru supported her in her decision to join the school, which her parents were against. One of the chapters in With no regrets, an autobiography by Krishna Nehru Hutheesing mentions how Nehru's intervention succeeded in persuading her parents to let her join the school. This shows Nehru in favour of women's agency. 

From Kamala Nehru to Krishna Nehru, nationalist activism represented their first occasion of public engagement. Though Nehru was in a leading position, the women in his life equally participated in the freedom struggle. While building India from debris left by the British to policy-making, Nehru tried to acknowledge women's plight. Before his death, he himself considered policies related to the improvement of the condition of Hindu women as the greatest achievement under his leadership. By this, it means the Hindu Code Bill. However, he failed to address the plight of Muslim women. 

Nehru frequently wrote to Chief ministers to ensure adequate numbers of women were elected to Parliament. In one of the letters, he wrote - "During the last general election I laid great stress on having women candidates. In spite of my efforts, relatively few women were put as candidates or were elected— in our political organisation there are not many women functioning, and yet the standard of Indian womanhood is high and Indian women have brought us more real in the world than perhaps the men. A nation cannot go far ahead unless it gives full scope to its women."


Nehru had faith in the spread of education to bring about women’s equality. The first official step in this direction was the appointment of a National Committee on Women’s Education (1958-59). 

As Chairman of the Allahabad Municipal Board in 1923, Nehru condemned social attitudes toward prostitutes. According to him, prostitution can be decreased by raising women’s status and providing them with ‘honourable careers’

Why do we celebrate Children's Day on Jawaharlal Nehru's Birthday?

Nehru is also the originator of the Mid-Day Meal for school children which was implemented by K Kamraj in Tamil Nadu for the first time and is now prevalent across the nation. His visit to Rayalaseema in Madras Province in 1952, forced him to put children in schools and provide them with meals free of cost. The Madras Government accepted his idea, and he wrote about it in a letter dated 17 October 1952, which is available in volume 3 of the Letters to Chief Ministers.

The other issues concerning women, which turned into acts, were the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, the Hindu Succession Act, the Minority and Guardianship Act, and the Adoptions and Maintenance Act of 1956. It also addressed monogamy and divorce rights for both genders, and it also gave women the right to maintain and inherit family property.

Nehru's popular quote speaks about women's empowerment, "To awaken the people, it is the women who must be awakened. Once she is on the move, the family moves, the village moves, and the nation moves". This belief reflects his own life and the experiences he had with women. 


Views expressed by the author are their own

Suggested Reading: Did Jawaharlal Nehru and Gangubai Kathiawadi Know Each Other?

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