Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit – Casting a Flood of Light on India Masters of Diplomacy (II)
What does it take to fight for the freedom of your country? Some may say it takes courage, strength of character or faith. Some may say you need to be a hero, but The Great Daughter of India, as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (photo: right) was often called, was of all these things. Only she did not solely belong to India, but to the whole world. By shedding light on the essential social and political issues of her country and promoting equality for all “subject races”, she gained the title of an international democrat. A walk through her life will therefore be an adventure unravelling far beyond India’s borders.
An uphill battle
When a woman is elected Minister of Local Government and Health, in an India still under British rule, things inevitably change. Over time, there have been countless battles for women around the world to overcome barriers and build a career in politics. The key positions in most societies of the world were occupied by men, and the obstacles that a woman had to overcome seemed insurmountable.
Born into a family in which politics occupied an important place and in which the struggle for independence was ingrained, the fight for the ideal of emancipation became preordained.
India’s independence movement began to take shape in earnest, after World War I, when some of the largest campaigns against British rule were organized. The name that stood out in organizing a non-violent movement called “Quit India” was Mahatma Gandhi himself, who, through this campaign, put pressure on the Great Britain and gained the support of the entire Indian nation (Naqvi, 2017).
In an attempt to compromise yet not lose its authority over the Indian people, the British government tried to make certain concessions, but they were not sufficient for the Indian nationalists. In turn, one of the major consequences of these actions was the arrest of the initiators of these pro-independence campaigns.
A key moment came when Britain mobilized Indian troops for World War II without consulting the government. This thoughtless act of arbitrary exercise of power was the turning point in India’s independence. At that time, all Indian ministers chose to resign, with the emergence of an unprecedented civil movement campaigning for India’s independence (Jha, 2018).
When the struggle for freedom is above all other obstacles, the results will always be memorable. Despite the complicated past, the two states now have a special relationship, economically, politically and educationally, and the relations between them are based on mutual aid and grounded inn a common history. The two nations are the proof that when the past is left behind, the future can be promising and prosperous. (Ankit, 2015)
Setting the stage
When she was born, on the 18th of August 1900, she was given the fateful name of “Beautiful Princess”, or Swarup Kumari Nehru. Her family, prominent Hindus, was formed by her father, Motilal Nehru, who developed a flourishing career in law, from which the prosperity of the family was derived, and his wife, Swarup. They lived in what was, in some ways, a typical Indian household, which was nevertheless unconventional in others. Her father’s strong views on the status of women led him to the decision that his daughter should receive the same education at home as her brothers, Jawaharlal and Krishna, under the tutelage of an English governess, Miss Hooper.
Nevertheless, her family followed the Indian traditions when it came to the marriage of their daughter and, thus, they requested the services of a matchmaker. He suggested that Vijaya read an article by a talented young barrister, Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, published in the journal Modern Review, named “At the Feet of the Guru”. This way, after she showed interest in what she read, Pandit was invited to the Nehru’s house, where, after a stay of three days, he proposed. Their marriage meant that they would share their lives together on an equal basis, whether it was raising their children, fighting for the freedom of their country, or even going to prison (Haag, 2020).
The national movement to obtain India’s independence from British rule through peaceful means had made progress at the time of the Pandits’ marriage in 1921, and both the father of Vijaya and her brother Jawaharlal Nehru became deeply involved. Mohandas Gandhi, respectfully called the Mahatma, who gave his blessing to the young couple, was the great leader of the movement (Haag, 2020).
Vijaya’s devotion to the family was a very important constant throughout her life, the egalitarian attitudes instilled by her father prevailed over the years and she and her siblings sacrificed themselves for the political involvement of their parents and were committed to these high ideals which, in turn, brought them certain difficulties.
The time of affirmation
The first steps of her political career were in the early 1930s, when she organized numerous conferences and took part in the national movement for obtaining India’s independence through non-violent means. Although her involvement in such actions had unwanted consequences, such as her arrest for one year, along with her sister, in 1932, her political career was in a continuous rise.
Consequently, in 1937 she was designated Minister of Health and Local Government in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. In 1945, when she unofficially represented India at the first UN conference in San Francisco during the post-war period, she had already assumed important responsibilities within the Indian Congress Part (Sarfaraz, 2018).
Throughout her tenure as Minister of Public Health, she continuously campaigned for the improvement of the public health system. In fact, she was noted for her active participation alongside her husband in protests and actions against Britain’s decision for India to take part in World War II. Hence, fighting for this cause was the reason for their arrests during 1940 and 1942. Regrettably, her husband passed away in January 1944, after being released from prison early due to health problems.
The high point of her career manifested in 1953, when she was representing a nation that was among the non-aligned countries, and so she became the first woman and the first Asian elected President of the United Nations General Assembly (Laut, 2018).
Offering an insightful image of her career, the British diplomat Philip Noel-Baker firmly stated: “If India could produce such women, India could herself most assuredly control her national affairs” (Laut, 2018).
Earning her wings
Not many people can turn their passion into a fruitful career. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit found her passion for diplomacy through the political environment she grew up in, with her childhood inspiring her to engage in the struggle for her country’s independence.
She switched to being a diplomat after India achieved its independence, using her remarkable spirit and tenacity to persuade her allies. More prestige was provided to her by the fact that her brother was Prime Minister, an advantage she needed at a time when woman diplomats were few and far between.
At that time, she managed to become an ambassador in Moscow, London and Washington, all important capital for the fledgling nation. Therefore, she was already renowned and revered when she became a representative to the United Nations. She drew attention to inequality, suggesting that the United Nations should act as a bridge to reduce the divide between developed and developing countries.
During her fifteen-year-long diplomatic career, she stood out on at least three different continents, being a pioneer with a global thinking, succeeding to be the first woman in history to ever become a cabinet minister, ambassador and President of the General Assembly of the UN.
The fearless woman who laid the foundations of her career in a world dominated by men passed away on the 1st of December 1990. Although she faced resistance and people claimed that politics was no place for women, she managed to break all the patterns and change mindsets throughout her journey (Mallik, 2006).
Drawing the picture
Through her valiant actions, over the years, The Great Daughter of India supported the cause of the former colonial empires and was one of the few women who at that time brought to the attention of the whole world the concept of gender equality, especially in terms of holding political positions in various organizations.
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was a brave woman who did not let obstacles stand in the way of achieving the desired result and made a significant contribution to India’s independence in 1947. (Chacko, 2017). Her entire career ultimately revolved around supporting India in earning its well-deserved place among the independent nations around the world.
Ankit, R., 2015. Between Vanity and Sensitiveness: Indo–British Relations during Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s High Commissionership (1954-61). Contemporary British History, 30(1), pp. 31-32.
Chacko, M., 2017. Karl Rock’s Blog. [Online] Available at: https://blog.karlrock.com/history-of-indian-independence-how-to-celebrate-it/ [Accessed 03 January 2021].
Haag, K., 2020. Encyclopedia. [Online] Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pandit-vijaya-lakshmi-1900-1990 [Accessed 28 December 2020].
Jha, A., 2018. The Print. [Online] Available at: https://theprint.in/theprint-essential/vijaya-lakshmi-pandit-a-freedom-fighter-diplomat-and-politician/100649/ [Accessed 27 December 2020].
Laut, J., 2018. “The Woman Who Swayed America”: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, 1945. Deportate, Esuli, Profughe, p. 47.
Laut, J., 2018. “The Woman Who Swayed America”:Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, 1945. Deportate, Esuli, Profughe, pp. 30-42.
Mallik, A., 2006. Nations Unies Chronique. [Online] Available at: https://www.un.org/french/pubs/chronique/2006/numero3/0306p06.htm [Accessed 28 December 2020].
Naqvi, R., 2017. Inuth. [Online] Available at: https://www.inuth.com/india/women-freedom-fighters-of-india/vijaya-lakshmi-pandit-the-first-ever-woman-cabinet-minister-and-first-asian-president-of-un-general-assembly/ [Accessed 27 December 2020].
Sarfaraz, K., 2018. Indian Express. [Online] Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/gender/vijaya-lakshmi-pandit-diplomat-activist-freedom-fighter-also-nehrus-sister-5040070/ [Accessed 02 January 2021].