My history hero: Fergal Keane chooses Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964)

Fergal Keane, BBC special correspondent, chooses Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, as his history hero

Young girl putting garland around Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. (Photo by Dinodia Photos/Getty Images)

Jawaharlal Nehru: in profile

Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of India and has been hailed as one of the architects of the modern Indian nation state. After training to be a barrister in England, Nehru returned to his native India, became prominent in the Indian National Congress movement and in 1929 called for complete independence from the British Raj. He became premier upon Indian independence in 1947, introduced widespread reforms and remained in office until his death in 1964.

When did you first hear about Jawaharlal Nehru?

I really only got to know him in any deep way as an adult, after reading Alex von Tunzelmann’s fantastic book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire.

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What kind of man was he?

On one level, he was very human, and you can see it in a whole range of his political attitudes, but I suspect he was also someone who was quite austere and didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was truly a born leader – he grew up thinking he was born to lead – and that came from his family background. Like Nelson Mandela, he was very conscious of his own dignity and place in history.

What made Nehru a hero?

The creation of a secular Indian nation after the horrors of partition – a remarkable achievement. He also fought against caste discrimination, but India’s vast poverty was far bigger than any one man could solve. It’s hard for those who come to power as liberation leaders: you’re buoyed up by the hopes of so many millions of supporters, but politics becomes more complicated when you’re in office. Sadly, his democratic legacy was undermined when his daughter, Prime Minister Indira [Gandhi], declared a state of emergency in the mid-1970s which suspended basic civil rights.

What was his finest hour?

In August 1947, the moment India became free, riots and massacres were taking place across the country. Nehru put his own life on the line when he saw a Muslim tailor being attacked by a mob intent on killing him. He jumped out of his car, got away from his bodyguards, and beat back the crowd with a stick. That wasn’t a calculated act; it was the action of a man with a deep conviction as to the kind of society he wanted to build in India, as well as a prime example of his raw courage. That’s what makes him a hero to me.

Jawaharlal Nehru put his own life on the line when he saw a Muslim tailor being attacked by a mob intent on killing him

Is there anything you don’t hugely admire about him?

He could be verbose and impatient, and I think in the long term he rather lost his strategic grip. The disastrous Sino-Indian War of 1962, which India lost, was a real low point.

What would he make of India today?

I think he would be deeply distressed at how Hindu nationalists have tried to hijack the project of India. And he would have been horrified at the recent riots, and the scapegoating of Muslims. It’s not the India he fought for.

If you could meet Nehru, what would you ask him?

Would you do an interview, please?

Fergal Keane was talking to York Membery

Fergal Keane is a special correspondent for BBC News and was awarded an OBE in 1996 for services to journalism. His book on post-traumatic stress disorder will be published by HarperCollins in 2022

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This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine