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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 23, May 31, 2014

Jawaharlal Nehru as a Kashmiri

Sunday 1 June 2014

by Mohd Yousuf Dar

Jawaharlal Nehru is widely acclaimed as the architect of modern India. He played an important role in the long struggle for national freedom, and later as the greatest political leader of free India. Jawaharlal Nehru was born at 11:30 pm on November 14, 1889 at Allahabad. Nehru was the eldest child and the only son of a very prosperous lawyer-politician, Motilal Nehru, who practised law at the High Court of Allahabad. His mother’s name was Swarup Rani Kaul. The young Jawaharlal Nehru’s mind was shaped by two sets of parental influences that he never saw as contradictory: the traditio-nal Hinduism of his mother and the other womenfolk of the Nehru household, and the modernist, secular cosmopolitanism of his father.1

The Nehrus were Kashmiri Pandits, scions of a community of Brahmans from the northern- most reaches of the subcontinent who had made new lives for themselves across northern and central India since at least the 1700s.2 The family’s original name was ‘Kaul’. Jawaharlal Nehru’s ancestor ‘Raj Kaul’ settled in the Mughal Darbar in Delhi in the 18th century and, perhaps because there were other Kauls of prominence in the city, assumed the hyphenated name of Kaul-Nehru, the suffix indicating the family’s residence on the edge of a canal, or nahar in Urdu.3 The Kaul-Nehrus moved to Agra in the mid-19th century; while the compound form soon disappeared, it was simply as a Nehru that Motilal made his name at the Allahabad Bar.4

According to Nehru,

We were Kashmiris over two hundred years ago, early in the 18th century; our ancestor came down from that mountain valley to seek fame and fortune in the rich plains below. Raj Kaul was the name of that ancestor of ours and he had gained eminence as a Sanskrit and Persian scholar in Kashmir. He attracted the notice of Farrukhsiar during the latter’s visit to Kashmir, and probably at the Emperor’s instance, the family migrated to Delhi, the Imperial capital, about the year 1716. A jagir with a house situated on the banks of a canal had been granted to Raj Kaul, and, from the fact of this residence, ‘Nehru’ (from Nahar, a canal) came to be attached to his name. Kaul had been the family name; this changed to Kaul-Nehru; and, in latter years, Kaul dropped out and we became simply Nehrus.5

There is another view that the Nehrus were Saraswati Brahmins from Kashmir: some forefathers of theirs had at some time been engaged in the digging of a canal (nahar); there-after his descendents took on the family name Nehru—canal-makers.6 Some say that that it is also possible that the name came from the village of Naru in the Budgam district of Kashmir, where his ancestors lived.7

Among the events that made a deep impre-ssion on Nehru during his childhood were the celebrations of Naoroz, the Kashmiri Pandits’ New Year’s Day, and his birthday. He enjoyed the celebration of both these events as do the Kashmiri Pandit children to this day. He says:

Amongst us and the other Kashmiris were also some celebrations which were not observed by most of the other Hindus. Chief of these was the Naoroz, the New Year’s Day according to the Samvat calendar. This was always a special day for us when all of us wore new clothes and the young people of the house got small sums of money as tips.8

Nehru even wrote his date of birth in the Kashmiri Samvat calendar. He wrote: I was born in Allahabad on the 14th November 1889, or, according to the Samvat calendar, Marggshirsh Badi 7, 1946.9 

Among the diversions that he indulged in during his youth Nehru mentions shikar but he hastens to add that he had no special aptitude or inclination for it. He says:

I liked the outings and the jungle and cared little for the killing. Indeed my reputation was a singu-larly bloodless one, although I once succeeded, more or less by a fluke, in killing a bear in Kashmir. An incident with a little antelope damped even the little ardour that I possessed for Shikar. This harmless little animal fell down at my feet, wounded to death, and looked up at me with its great big eyes full of tears. Those eyes have often haunted me since.10 

Early in his life Nehru noted how Kashmiris differed from other Indians. He writes:

Kashmiris have had one advantage over many others in India especially in the north. They have never had any Purdah, or seclusion of women, among themselves.11

The Kashmiri Pandit community derived certain incidental advantages which distingui-shed it from the other Hindus. Among the Hindus of Kashmir there were no castes below the Brahmins; and so while the Pandits were very conscious of their status, inter-caste antagonisms did not enter deeply into their lives.12

The Nehrus launched an extensive search within the Kashmiri Pandit community for Jawaharlal Nehru’s marriage and after years of search, in 1912, just before Jawaharlal Nehru’s return to India, Motilal chose Kamala Kaul, a young girl of thirteen belonging to a Kashmiri Brahmin middle-class family that ran a flour mill in Dehli.13 The marriage took place on the auspicious ‘Vasanta Panchami’ day which marks the first full moon of spring, which fell that year (1916) on February 8. Jawaharlal Nehru was twentysix and Kamala Kaul was only sixteen.14

That summer, Jawaharlal Nehru spent a number of months in Kashmir. During this period he spent some weeks in the mountains and came very near to losing his life. This was his first experience of narrow and lonely valleys, high up in the world, which lead to Ladakh. At Matayan, beyond the Zojila, he was told that the sacred shrine of Amarnath was only eight miles away. The young mountaineer decided to make it. So they left their camp, at about 11,500 feet. They had a local shepherd for their guide. Description of this hazardous trek was best told by Nehru himself.

We crossed and climbed several glaciers, roping ourselves up, and our troubles increased and breathing became a little difficult. Some of our porters, lightly laden as they were, began to bring up their blood. It began to snow and the glaciers became terribly slippery; we were fagged out and every step meant a special effort. But we still persisted in our foolhardy attempt. We had left our camp at four in the morning and after twelve hours’ almost continuous climbing we were rewarded by the sight of a huge ice-field. This was a magnificent sight, surrounded as it was by snow-peaks, like a diadem or an amphitheatre of the gods. But fresh snow and mists soon hid the sight from us. I do not know what our altitude was but I think it must have been about 15,000 to 16,000 feet, as we were considerably higher than the cave of Amarnath. We had now to cross this ice-field, a distance probably of half a mile, and then go down on the other side of the cave. We thought that as the climbing was over, our principal difficulties had also been surmounted, and so very tired but in good humour, we began this stage of the journey. It was a tricky business as there were many crevasses and the fresh snow often covered a dangerous spot. It was this fresh snow that almost proved to be my undoing, for I stepped upon it and it gave way and down I went a huge and yawning crevasse. It gave a tremendous fissure and anything that went right down it could be assured of safe keeping and preservation for some geological ages. But the rope held and I clutched to the side of the crevasse and was pulled out. We were shaken up by this but still we persisted in going on. The crevasses, however, increased in number and width and we had no equipment or means of crossing some of them. And so at last we turned back, weary and disappointed, and the cave of Amarnath remained unvisited.15

The higher valleys and mountains of Kashmir fascinated Nehru so much that he resolved to come back again soon. But that was not to be. He got so involved in the vortex of political activities that he had little time to gratify his cherished desire of visiting the celestial Valley again. But the desire to do so could not be suppressed forever. He paid a visit to the Valley again in 1940, that is, after a lapse of nearly two dozen years.

The loveliness of the land enthralled him and cast its enchantment all about him. Nehru describes the Valley’s beauty in the following words:

Like some supremely beautiful women, whose beauty is almost impersonal and above human desire, such was Kashmir in all its feminine beauty of river and valley and lake and graceful trees. And the another aspect of this magic beauty would come to view, a masculine one, of hard mountains and precipices, and snow-capped peaks and glaciers, the cruel and fierce torrents rushing down to the valleys below. It had a hundred faces and innumerable aspects, ever changing, sometimes smiling, sometimes sad and full of sorrow. The mist would creep up from the Dal Lake and, like a transparent veil, give glimpses of what was behind. The clouds would throw out their arms to embrace a mountain-top, or creep down stealthily like children at play. I watched this ever-changing spectacle, and sometimes the sheer loveliness of it was over-powering and I felt almost faint. As I gazed at it, it seemed to me dreamlike and unreal, like the hopes and desires that fill us and so seldom find fulfilment. It was like the face of the beloved that one sees in a dream and that fades away on awakening.16

Jawaharlal Nehru’s genealogical link and personal attachment towards Kashmir played an important role in Kashmir’s politics. The policies which he took regarding Jammu and Kashmir have been shaped and fashioned by this link to a great extent. He never ceased to be a Kashmiri. 

References (Endnotes)

1. Shashi Tharoor, Nehru: The Invention of India, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2003, p. 3.

2. Nehru: The Invention of India, p. 4.

3. Nehru: The Invention of India, p. 5.

4. Nehru: The Invention of India, p. 5.

5. Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography, John Lane, The Bodley Head Ltd., London, 1936. Reprinted by Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, Teenmorti House, New Delhi, 2002, p. 1.

6. Khushwant Singh, India: An Introduction, Harper Collins Publishers, New Delhi, 2003, p. 257.

7. Nehru: The Invention of India, p.5.

8. An Autobiography, p. 9.

9. An Autobiography, p. 5.

10. An Autobiography, p. 30.

11. An Autobiography, p. 10.

12. Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1989, p. 1.

13. Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, p. 11.

14. Nehru: The Invention of India, p. 19.

15. An Autobiography, pp. 37-38.

16. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, First Series, Volume XI, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1978, p. 403.

Mohd Yousuf Dar is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Political Science, University of Kashmir and can be contacted at myousufdar-082@gmail.com