“India has got feminine virtues. She is gentle, kind, loving; she even has courage and I don’t believe for a moment that women have no courage.” — Jawaharlal Nehru
A 23-minute film floated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a part of their training package points fingers at the Congress party for being corrupt and power hungry. Amongst many other things, it also points fingers at Jawaharlal Nehru for his love for the West. This, according to the makers, was a threat to Indian culture.
Rare are the instances when popular historical figures are not dissected posthumously, more often than not based on the many ‘affairs’ that he or she had during their lifetime. Of late, the nation has been delving into the personal life of Nehru, a stalwart of the Indian freedom struggle, to portray that the Chacha Nehru that we so remember with much love on 14 November had but a colourful life as far as women are concerned. Thus, in a bid to oust the otherwise very nationalist figure, numerous accounts stressing on his liaisons with various women emerged.
Nehru’s enigmatic character is common knowledge to all so much so that much about the man may never be known. Albeit, what is in public domain is that the first prime minister of India stood for secularism and equality. Correctly identifying that the reasons behind the women’s subordination in society is connected to economic inequality, social confines of family, customs such as purdah, child marriage, untouchability and illiteracy, he had also recognized that making a broad generalisation on the betterment of the status of women in the country would be unrealistic. To Nehru, hence, the provision of an ‘individual political status of a citizen’ for women was a huge leap forward, something that required more thought and dialogue than knee-jerk responses.
As such, the PM was also deeply appreciative of women who could embrace their own political and social agency. Chief among them was Edwina Mountbatten, the last Vicereine of India. KF Rustamji, Chief Security Officer to Nehru, in I was Nehru’s Shadow, a book that carries edited excerpts from his diaries, described the relationship between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten as an example of an ‘intimate friendship’. “She was the type of woman whom the PM seemed to like — independent, opinionated, cheerful, and even brilliant in conversation but affectionate and sympathetic,” he wrote.
Rustamji also mentions Padmaja Naidu to be an influential figure in Nehru’s life. Describing her to be a woman with ‘inimitable sense of humour’, Rustamji also spoke out on how she had a ‘say-what-you-will’ attitude with JN [Jawaharlal Nehru].”
Nehru’s influence on his daughter Indira Gandhi is quite significant if one looks at his Letters from a Father to his Daughter. Making it a point to take Indira along for his various tours and events, his desire to get his daughter into the thick of Indian politics was so strong that it led him to neglect his sister, Vijaylakshmi Pandit who had played an active part of the Indian freedom struggle.
A man of scientific logic and reason, Nehru was also at the same time, highly appreciative of the creative and performing arts. This could be easily inferred from his remark on listening to the popular Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi in a concert: “Who am I, a mere prime minister before a Queen, a Queen of music.” Apart from music, Nehru was also very taken with visual art and artists. It was on one such occasion in Delhi that he met Amrita Sher-Gil and instantly grew to like her.
Rumoured to have lived a ‘scandalous’ life or in other words, a life in her own terms, Sher-Gil had a close relationship with Nehru. As Vivan Sundaram, Sher-Gil’s nephew and author of the book Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self Portrait in Letters and Writings, recalls, “When she (Amrita Sher-Gil) met Nehru, she wrote to a friend about instant mutual attraction between the two. Over the course of years Sher-Gil and Nehru exchanged a few letters but unfortunately only one of those which Amrita had sent to Nehru remains.”
“Whatever might be the limitations of Nehru’s project, his idea of nonaligned movement during the cold war era is salutary. War and conflict are essentially male ways of getting control over women, their bodies and lives. Unlike Indira, Nehru stood for non-alignment and peace”
Maya Leela | Academician, Barcelona
Several reports on Nehru’s alleged affairs with a godwoman, Shraddha Mata were also circulated along with other accounts. In an interview with the writer, Khushwant Singh, she allegedly claimed that if she had not been a sanyasin, Nehru would have married her.
For as long as history remembers, Nehru had been greatly influenced by Mahatama Gandhi’s thoughts and both of them despite their political differences have shared many a similarity. However, their strongest point of difference would be their personal lives. While Gandhi’s questionable experiments with women was under wraps for the longest time, Nehru was quite forthcoming with his comfort around women. Living his life as openly and freely as possible, Nehru, sought to inculcate the ideals that he cherished in the women he met, in his daughter. Perhaps that is why Indira Gandhi grew up to be the first woman prime minister of India. Indeed, these are still the ideals that women in contemporary times are striving for.
All through his life, Nehru stood for civil liberties, abhorring fascist forces who sought to curb women’s rights. In the wake of this, it is disheartening to watch these religious forces slowly bringing down the man who believed that the women of India deserved more.