Remembering Nehru’s younger sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit – a freedom fighter, diplomat and politician

The famous Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, first female President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and sister of independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was one of the leading women in public life. She was born on August 18, 1900 in Prayagraj to barrister Motilal Nehru and Swaroop Rani and lived a life in an elite aristocratic family.

Her father and brother were wholly involved in the country’s freedom movement. She also found herself drawn to the independence struggle and following her family’s footsteps got fully engrossed in it and was imprisoned on three occasions.

She was married to a fellow participant in freedom movement Ranjit Sitaram Pandit in 1921, a successful barrister from Kathiawar  in Gujarat and classical scholar who translated Kalahan’s epic history Rajtarangini into English from Sanskrit .

Her husband was a Maharashtrian Saraswat Brahmin, from Ratnagiri.  He was arrested for his support of Indian independence and died in Lucknow prison in 1944, leaving behind his wife and their three daughters Chandralekha Mehta, Nayantara Sehgal and Rita Dar. Nayantara Sehgal is a well known writer and novelist.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandi was India’s Ambassador to the United States from 1949 to 1951 and later became Governor of Maharashtra from 1962 to 1964. After her brother Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, she represented his constituency Phulpur in Lok Sabha 1967 to 1971.

She was also was elected to the provincial legislature of the United Province in 1937 and was designated minister of local self-government and public health.

After India attained independence, she entered the diplomatic service and became India’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, United States, Mexico, Ireland as well as  the Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Spain.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit had slammed her niece and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose emergency in 1975 and opposed it under the leadership of Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan.

It was in 1987, I was assigned to record her memoirs for the oral history of freedom movement for All India Radio archives. I was cautioned not to force questions but to prompt and remind her of various phases of freedom movement which she had witnessed. She allowed me an hour’s time slot every week at her Rajpur Road residence in Dehradun.

It appeared that the bitterness in her mind and heart towards Indira Gandhi on imposition of emergency had diminished as the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had visited his grand-aunt only a few days ago in 1987 to pay his respect. This made her happy as she never expected the visit. She was also very sad on the assassination of her niece Indira Gandhi.

During her conversation with me traces of long acrimony were evident at times as Indira Gandhi’s dominance in the life and affairs of Pandit Nehru had sidelined Mrs Pandit in all spheres.

During her opposition to emergency, she addressed public meetings throughout the country with Janata Party leaders and her being there gave an impetus to the movement. Being from the Nehru family, she used to be much sought after in public meetings and was a star attraction as people thronged in good numbers to listen to her in the protest rallies.  I was also a witness to her rally at Bhopal’s Sadar Manzil ground attended by a large gathering.  

Vijaya Laksmi Pandit had a sharp memory as she narrated the happenings photographically of successive events she witnessed in her life both in national and global scenario. She passed away in 1990.

(The writer is a veteran broadcaster. Views expressed are personal.) 

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