Part 2 | Wives of Political Leaders of British India-SWARUP RANI NEHRU
PART 2: POLITICS AND LATER LIFE
Politics was not all that Swarup had on her mind. Her husband had already found an ideal match for their son while he was still studying in Harrow. The 16-year-old Kamala Kaul and the 26-year-old Jawaharlal were a match made in heaven at least in one way— Swarup’s trustworthy pandit had assured her that they were compatible with regards to their horoscopes. The wedding was ‘the grandest event of 1916’. The celebrations lasted a week in Delhi and were repeated in endless rounds of parties and concerts in Allahabad. Kamala soon took over the reign of the household. Krishna, Swarup’s youngest daughter, said that though her mother was fond of Kamala, they had disagreements because ‘mother was quite a queen in her own domain, and Kamala, for all sweetness, was a free-spirited girl.’ On November 19, 1917, a daughter was born to Jawaharlal and Kamala. Swarup, unable to bring herself to say that a girl was born, could only utter ‘Hua’ (happened).* Motilal chided her, rightly predicting that ‘this girl is going to be worth more than a thousand grandsons.” Though Swarup pampered her granddaughter Indira, it is said that her lifelong regret was that Jawahar had no son.
The Nehrus fully supported Gandhiji’s call for Non-Cooperation. For Swarup, the religious impulse behind this movement had its appeal. She became a strict vegetarian and sold almost all her jewelry for public works. By spring 1919, Krishna was pulled out from school and Jawaharlal and Motilal had wound up their practice at the bar. Their dogs, carriages, chinaware, horses were disposed oﬀ. The army of servants was curtailed, and foreign fineries were tossed in the bonfires. Swarup was quick to adapt to these drastic changes, the transition smoothened by the fact that the author of these changes was a holy man. Alongside, she was also engaged in the motherly duties—organizing wedding celebrations of her older daughter Sarup Kumari (later Vijaylakshmi Pandit). The wedding saw a host of politicians in attendance.
Jawaharlal and Motilal were arrested by the government in December 1921. Swarup admitted that though her heart was not free from the ‘wrench of separation’, in her own words ‘rejoiced in the great privilege of sending my dear husband and the only son to jail.’ Though heavily charged with emotion, she added, ‘Mahatma Gandhi told me there are others in the world who also have their only sons.’ The Nehru men were awarded a few months of imprisonment and a fine of a small sum, which they refused to pay as non-cooperators. Consequently, the police raided Anand Bhavan carrying away furniture and carpets worth thousands. On Gandhiji’s invitation, Swarup, Kamala, Krishna, and Indira went to Ahmedabad, traveling for the first time in third class. Though comforted by Gandhiji’s presence, life at the ashram was hard: waking up at 4, assembling for prayers at Sabarmati, partaking simple (‘tasteless’) meals, sleeping on the floor, cleaning the dishes, and washing clothes.
Despite ill health, Swarup had accompanied her husband and son on many political arrangements all over the country. By 1930, her daughter-in-law Kamala had also been taken into political life. Even when Motilal lay on his deathbed, Jawaharlal and Kamala were locked away, Swarup was by her husband’s side when he breathed his last on February 6, 1931, at the age of 70. He had often joked with Swarup, about going ahead of her and waiting in heaven to receive her. Of the thousand’s sympathies received, it was Gandhiji’s presence that had the most soothing eﬀect on her. When Civil Disobedience started, Swarup participated with even greater vigor. During one such demonstration in April 1932, Swarup was severely beaten about the head in lathi charge—nearly dying at the hands of the police. Her daughters were sentenced to one year of imprisonment. On recovering, Swarup wrote to Jawaharlal, ‘the mother of a brave son is also somewhat like him’.
Political mistreatment had become a part of her life. When once she had gone to see her son-in-law, Ranjit Pandit, in Allahabad jail along with Kamala and Indira, the Nehru matron was insulted and ruthlessly hustled out by the jailor. Undeterred, Swarup insisted on attending the March 1933 Congress session but was arrested on her way and sent to prison for a few days. Pandit Nehru wrote, ‘I was amazed at the energy and vitality mother showed, frail and ailing she was. The prison was really of little consequence to her: she had gone through a harder deal. Her children and others she loved spent long periods in prison and the empty house she lived in had become a nightmare to her.’ The subsequent years were a greater torment. Jawaharlal languished in one prison or the other whilst Kamala’s health deteriorated. Swarup was anxious about her daughter-in-law, who despite her delicate health, took no care of herself. Swarup had even written to Kamala’s guru Swami Abhyananda about it, in the hope that Kamala would stop neglecting her health.
Meanwhile, Swarup was in a hospital in Lucknow all the time and was attended to by the infirm Kamala and her daughters on weekends. Irritated by the hospital life, Swarup was taken to Allahabad, where her daughter Krishna married a ‘Non-Brahmin’ in a civil ceremony in presence of her family in 1933. A couple of days after the wedding, Jawaharlal was arrested again. As he was getting into the police van, an ailing Swarup, ran to him, her arms outstretched. That face of Swarup, her son admitted, haunted him ‘for long’. When Swarup visited her son in jail and found that he had no access to a fan in the scorching heat of Allahabad, she refused to use the electric fan herself henceforth, bearing heat as long as her son ‘rotted in the hot prison cell’.
During one of his periods in prison, Pandit Nehru had written, ‘The real burden was not mine, it had to be shouldered as always by my ailing mother, wife, and sisters.’
Due to her deteriorating health, Swarup was shifted to a hospital in Bombay. Here she suﬀereda a major stroke. Around the same time, gravely ill Kamala died in Switzerland in 1936. We do not know yet how Swarup received the news of Kamala’s passing. In January 1938, Swarup, 70, passed away, with her son and daughters by her side.
Swarup Rani Nehru was not just the wife of an experienced politician or the mother of the first Prime Minister of India and the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly. She had, despite being invalid most of her later life, never hesitated in making sacrifices for the country and made an indelible mark for herself in a politically prominent and significant household. The Swarup Rani Nehru Hospital in Allahabad is named after her in her honor.
Kalhan, Promilla. Kamala Nehru: An Intimate Biography
Nanda, BR. The Nehrus: Motilal and Jawaharlal
Nehru, Jawaharlal. An Autobiography
Tharoor, Shashi. Nehru: A Biography