An influential leader in the Indian independence movement and political heir of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru became the nation’s first prime minister in 1947. Although faced with the challenge of uniting a vast population diverse in culture, language and religion, he successfully established various economic, social and educational reforms that earned him the respect and admiration of millions of Indians. His policies of non-alignment and Panchscheel—principles of peaceful coexistence—guided India’s international relations until the outbreak of the Sino-Indian War in 1962, which contributed to his declining health and subsequent death in 1964, ending his 17-years in office. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, later served as prime ministers.

Jawaharlal Nehru: Early Life and Family

Jawaharlal Nehru was born into an affluent Kashmiri Brahman family in Allahabad on November 14, 1889. Tutored at home until the age of 15, Nehru subsequently attended Harrow in England and, later, Trinity College, Cambridge. After studying law at London’s Inner Temple, he returned to India at the age of 22 where he practiced law with his father and prominent barrister, Motilal Nehru.

Did you know? In 1949, after zookeepers had killed most of Tokyo’s wild animals to prevent them from escaping during World War II air raids, Nehru delighted Japanese children by presenting Ueno Zoo with an Indian elephant.

In 1916, four years after his parents had made the suitable arrangement, Nehru married 17-year-old Kamala Kaul. The following year, their only child, Indira Priyadarshini, was born.

Jawaharlal Nehru: Political Awakening

Upon learning of esteemed theosophist Annie Besant’s arrest in 1917, Nehru was moved to join the All India Home Rule League, an organization devoted to obtaining self-government within the British Empire. In April 1919, British troops opened fire on thousands of unarmed civilians who had been protesting recently passed legislation that permitted the detainment of suspected political foes without trial. The Massacre of Amritsar, in which 379 Indians were killed and more than a thousand others were wounded, outraged Nehru and further solidified his resolve to win India’s independence.

During the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-22) led by Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru was imprisoned for the first time for activities against the British government and, over the course of the next two and a half decades, spent a total of nine years in jail.

In 1929, Jawaharlal was elected president of the Indian National Congress—his first leadership role in politics—whereby he promoted the goal of complete independence from Britain as opposed to dominion status. In response to Britain’s declaration of India’s participation in the war against Germany at the onset of World War II without consulting Indian leaders, members of Congress passed the Quit India resolution on August 8, 1942, demanding political freedom from Britain in exchange for support in the war effort. The following day, the British government arrested all Congress leaders, including Nehru and Gandhi.

Jawaharlal Nehru: Challenges and Legacy as Prime Minister

On August 15, 1947, India finally gained its independence and Nehru became the nation’s first prime minister. Amid the celebration of newly acquired freedom, there was also considerable turmoil. The mass displacement that followed partition into the separate nations of Pakistan and India, along with disputes over control of Kashmir, resulted in the loss of property and lives for several hundred thousand Muslims and Hindus.

Throughout his 17-year leadership, Nehru advocated democratic socialism and secularism and encouraged India’s industrialization beginning with the implementation of the first of his five-year plans in 1951, which emphasized the importance of increasing agricultural production. He also promoted scientific and technological advancements through the establishment of higher learning, and instituted various social reforms such as free public education and meals for Indian children, legal rights for women—including the ability to inherit property and divorce their husbands—and laws to prohibit discrimination based on caste.

During the Cold War, Nehru adopted a policy of non-alignment in which he professed neutrality, but was criticized when he refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and later requested foreign aid after China invaded India’s northern border in 1962. The conflict, known as the Sino-Indian War, had a deleterious effect on Nehru’s health, resulting in a severe stroke in January of 1964 and his death a few months later on May 27.