Inside India #36: India after Independence – Nehru’s defining decade

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

At around midnight on 14 August 1947, on the eve of Independence, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, delivered one of the most widely remembered of all public addresses. Even today his words resonate for the hope they embody: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny; and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. 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. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India, and her people, and to the still larger cause of humanity.”

Picture attribution: Prakash pandey07 CC 4.0

In summing up India’s emergence from centuries of colonialism, and laying out a vision for her future, Nehru sought to capture the essence of the long struggle to freedom and the India that he hoped to help shape.

In the years following Independence, many of those hopes stumbled, blighted by the difficulties of fashioning unity out of a nation that was fragmented along multiple lines including class, religion, caste, and economic need: the Fifties would prove a difficult decade for Nehru.

Having stepped into Gandhi’s symbolic shoes following the revolutionary icon’s assassination in 1948, Nehru found himself battling for leadership of the Congress Party. He was criticised by conservative Hindus for not adopting a strong enough stance towards the new neighbours, Pakistan; by socialists demanding a more equitable society; and by economic liberalists insisting India’s future lay in opening up the economy to capitalist forces.

Transforming an agrarian nation ruled by an authoritarian elite into a modern, democratic, economically-viable society was to be a monumental undertaking for the new government. Partition and the British exit had badly disrupted economic networks and created a substantial refugee population, particularly in urban centres such as Bombai, Delhi and Calcutta.

Nehru’s response was to draw up a Five Year Plan (with distinctly socialist leanings) and to ask the people of India to back his vision.

In 1951, they did so.

In the largest election in human history 173 million eligible voters (out of a population of 360 million) voted Nehru’s Congress Party to a landslide victory and he became the first democratically-elected Prime Minister of the country.

Nehru responded to this vote of confidence by implementing several key initiatives. He abolished the caste system and addressed unjust religious practises through the reform of Hindu law.

He attempted (but didn’t quite succeed) to alter India’s uneven distribution of land ownership. Various land reform initiatives were hampered by fierce opposition from feudal landowners – the zamindars of old – and royal houses, and the vested interests of regional state legislatures.

Another failure was the inability to make significant headway in educating the citizenry. India began the decade with only 18% of its population classed as literate; by 1960 that figure was still under 30%.

On the other hand, the Fifties were a largely peaceful decade for India. Aside from the ongoing sabre-rattling with Pakistan, the country adopted a foreign policy that favoured maintaining a measured distance from conflict. Indeed, Nehru became a leading spokesman for ‘nonalignment’ – the refusal to take sides in the mounting Cold War between the USSR and the United States.

At home, the urbane Nehru was able to force through the integration of former princely states into the Indian union, and managed to suppress burgeoning movements for greater autonomy in regions such as Punjab. 

Ultimately, Nehru won three consecutive terms, serving as Prime Minister until his death from a heart attack in 1964.

Known as ‘Pandit’ Nehru because of his roots in the Kashmiri Pandit community (‘pandit’ means Hindu priest or wise man), he was, like Gandhi, trained as a lawyer at Inner Temple in London.

That legal expertise – and a savoir faire that was the envy of many statesmen of the time – served him in great stead throughout his tenure as Prime Minister of the world’s most populous democratic republic. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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