Manu Bhagavan is associate professor in the Department of History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. He is the author or (co-)editor of four other titles, including Heterotopias: Nationalism and the Possibility of History in South Asia and Claiming Power from Below: Dalits and the Subaltern Question in India.
Here is an extract from his new book, 'The Peacemakers,' published by Harper Collins India.
Chapter 2 India in New York
ENTER MADAME PANDIT
Among those who were jailed as a result of the Quit India Resolution was Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru's younger sister, the middle one of three siblings. This was not her first confinement. A committed, if less famous, nationalist fighter and Gandhian, Nan, as she was affectionately known, had spent several terms in prison for her political activism. After the 1935 Act that created a new constitutional framework, she had stood for election and won, becoming the first woman cabinet minister in India, holding portfolios on local self-government and medical and public health in the Government of the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh). She was talented and respected, and unbelievably courageous, but few knew in the 1930s just what a force she would become.
In the summer of 1938, having just led an effort to contain a cholera outbreak in her state, and having lost her mother and her aunt, Mrs Pandit was near physical and mental exhaustion, and needed a brief respite abroad to tend to her own health. She and her husband, Ranjit Pandit, also a committed Gandhian nationalist, planned a trip to Europe. But just as the date for travel neared. Ranjit was elected to an important leadership post within the Congress and was unable to travel. As it turned out, Jawaharlal Nehru was departing for Europe to attend a peace conference in Paris, so Mrs Pandit decided to join him. The trip took her to Czechoslovakia to discuss her work in the United Provinces with the Czech Minister of Health, and she was there as the Sudeten crisis unfolded.
Nehru in the 1930s was vocally and unwaveringly anti-fascist, and he and his sister both expressed repeated concerns about the threat the new right-wing governments of Europe represented. By the time British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact with Hitler in September 1938, famously appeasing the Nazis by tolerating their actions in Czechoslovakia in a naive attempt to ward off armed hostilities, Mrs Pandit and her brother were in England. She was startled to see packed churches, with people thanking God that war had been averted. She was near tears, wishing they were right, but filled with foreboding of evil tidings to come. While on this trip, Mussolini reached out twice to Nehru, inviting him to Italy as Il Duce's guest. Nehru declined.
By the time the Nehrus got back to India, the situation in Europe had turned from grim to deadly. War had begun. Britain brought India into the war without consulting the region's newly elected representatives. In short order, Indian troops were sent into battle in various foreign theatres. The elected legislators were incensed and resigned en masse in protest in 1939. The Congress explained that it was willing to support the Allied war effort in exchange for independence but was rebuffed. The British government in India then abrogated the 1935 Act, eliminating elected governments and empowering regional governors with greater control. Gandhi instructed select individuals to provide civil resistance. The government swiftly arrested anyone they thought implicated. Both Mrs Pandit and her husband were incarcerated in this sweep.
But as the war progressed, and Japan advanced towards British India's eastern borders, Churchill (who had succeeded Chamberlain as the prime minister in 1940) grew more agitated about the chances of success. He desperately wanted India's support. The Indian leadership was released in order to negotiate with Cripps in March 1942.
While discussions with Sir Stafford were underway, Nehru's daughter Indira returned to India from her studies at Oxford University. She was engaged to her long-time friend Feroze Gandhi, and the wedding was held in March.
Coinciding with the wedding, the Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife visited India. They bore an unofficial message from President Roosevelt. The three of them wished to convey the severity of the world situation and their sincere hope that the Indian leadership would hold off any further disobedience campaigns. In return, the Chinese and the Americans would apply pressure on Churchill to free India.
While this message did not resonate, the Chinese leaders were a huge personal success in India. At this point, Mrs Pandit was the president of the All-India Women's Conference. Madame Chiang was a potent symbol for many, a strong and charismatic Asian woman striving to defend her people from Japanese imperial aggression. The two women shared good chemistry when they met several times in Delhi. During one of these visits, Madame Chiang suggested that Mrs Pandit send her daughters abroad for their education. The war had made things dangerous, and opportunities in India were few. Madame Chiang encouraged Mrs Pandit to think about Wellesley College in the United States, her alma mater, and offered to look into the possibility during her forthcoming American tour. She did, but by then Mrs Pandit was in prison again as a result of the Quit India declaration.
Gandhi had written warmly to the Chiangs in June 1942, thanking them for their visit, wishing them well, and explaining to them why he felt demanding immediate independence for India was necessary. Chiang Kai-shek replied by reiterating his concerns and urging restraint. In his speech in Bombay on 8 August, Gandhi was much more fiery, insinuating that the Chiangs and the Americans might be colluding with the British to keep India in bondage, though he hoped that this was not true.
The Chiangs did not seem to take the criticism personally. When Mrs Pandit was briefly released on parole after seven months in prison to look after her health, she quickly cabled Wellesley to see if her two eldest daughters, Chandralekha and Nayantara, might get admission to the prestigious institution. Nayantara was very young but had already acquired enough credits to qualify. To her surprise and delight, Wellesley cabled back almost immediately to accept. Chandralehka would attend on a scholarship provided by Madame Chiang.
On the night she was released from jail, Mrs Pandit was astonished upon returning to her home in Allahabad to find teams of police officers ransacking her house. She demanded to know what they were doing and was told that they were searching for a copy of a letter that Nehru had written to President Roosevelt in April, just after the failure of the Cripps mission.
She assured them that the letter was not in the house and that they had to leave after restoring things to order. They obeyed. Most importantly, she had boldly protected Nehru's letter, which she indeed had. The letter implored President Roosevelt to support the cause of Indian freedom as a means of bolstering the Allied war effort. Nehru promised to organize a strong and forceful resistance to the Axis.
Mrs Pandit had to return to prison once her health leave expired, but she continued to fare poorly and was formally released in July 1943. She soon learned that her daughters had reached the eastern United States safely, no small thing in the midst of a world at war. They had travelled with troops by ship across the Pacific to California, stopping in Australia, and then had journeyed across the vast landscape of the continental US.
Mrs Pandit was overwhelmed by the news of her girls' safe journey, and she felt that service was the best way to express the gratitude she felt. So she travelled in haste to Bengal, where one of the worst famines of the twentieth century was underway. She immediately perceived that this was a manmade issue, caused by poor governmental policy, but she could hardly know that Churchill was actively preventing resources from reaching the desperately needy people. She was horrified by the gruesome scenes she witnessed, even as she led efforts to redress them.
The work in Bengal was staggeringly difficult but Mrs Pandit kept at it. She returned home in late 1943 for a much-needed break. She had not seen her husband Ranjit in quite some time. He had been imprisoned for the Quit India campaign. Mrs Pandit had been allowed a few visits, but had not had such opportunity since her travel to Bengal. She finally managed to see him during this break and was shocked to find that he was at death's door. Although it was against his wishes, as he did not want any uncommon treatment of any kind, she got special permission to have him transferred to a hospital. It was too late.
He died in mid-January 1944.
Ranjit Pandit's death took the floor out from under his wife's feet. While she had always been a confident and capable person, the next few months rattled her thoroughly. She had had a most loving relationship, so it came as a devastating shock to her when she learned that her husband's relatives were claiming Hindu customary law to exclude her from all of her family's assets. She suddenly found herself with very few resources. She moved to cut back her expenses and was warmed to receive an outpouring of support from all corners, as business associates waived fees and promoted familial affinity above profit.
But Mrs Pandit was furious at the turn of events, and that women generally could be treated this way. The fact that she was the president of the All-India Women's Conference made the situation all the more ironic, and biting. Gandhi offered her comfort, which she found helpful. Then she steeled herself and worked with her old family friend, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, to file a lawsuit against her husband's family. It was an unwinnable case, since customary law was quite clear on the matter. So her stand was in many ways unthinkable. But Sapru was one of the most eminent constitutional thinkers and lawyers in all of southern Asia, widely respected, and his presence assured the suit would draw considerable attention. Her husband's family did not like the glare of the spotlight cast on them, and they conceded to pay Mrs Pandit a certain sum, though it was nowhere near her due. Gandhi and her brother, but not Sapru, counselled her to accept the offer and, further, to make peace with her husband's family. She was bitter and found this a very difficult road to travel but ultimately concluded that the counsel was wise and formally agreed to the terms.
Gandhi had been released from prison and was in Bombay.
His life-long partner, wife Kasturba, had passed away in prison in February, just after Ranjit, and he was heartbroken. He was freed in May due to poor health. Nehru remained in prison and, though he got the news, the channels of communication were too slow for him to stay involved in most matters. Mrs Pandit stayed with Gandhi for two weeks once she had brought her case to a close and she found the Mahatma to be of great comfort. From there, she went back to Bengal and redoubled her efforts to aid those stricken by the famine. She created a chapter of Save the Children, an international organization dedicated to bettering the lives of young people around the world, and in mere weeks raised considerable resources. Among the most notable contributors were Madame Chiang, first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Pearl Buck. Buck was the Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author of the celebrated book, The Good Earth. She was a lifelong admirer and friend of China, and Asia more generally.
In 1944, she was also the honorary president of the India League of America, a prominent pro-Indian independence organization founded in 1937 'to interpret India and America to each other'. Together, these three women contributed $25,000, the equivalent of approximately $320,000 in 2010 purchasing power terms.
Mrs Pandit's success brought her significant attention and renown. Gandhi suggested that she might consider making a trip to the United States to advocate for the independence of India. The trip abroad would also help her to move past the troubles of the previous months. She found this to be an interesting challenge, and a potentially welcome escape. The Allies had scheduled a meeting of the Pacific Relations Conference to take place in Hot Springs, Virginia, to discuss the future of Asia in a post-war world. Mrs Pandit would attend the Conference as an observer, along with a small delegation.
The only problem was that her passport had been impounded by the British. Their search of her house for Nehru's letter to Roosevelt was only a small part of a much larger concern. The British, led by Churchill, were dramatically opposed to the very idea of Indian independence at this stage. American antiimperialism, eloquently championed by FDR, was well known and was getting on Churchill's nerves. The last thing the British wanted was someone of Mrs Pandit's calibre speaking in the United States and holding personal meetings with American power brokers.