The Indian freedom struggle helmed by Mahatma Gandhi witnessed many women taking center stage against the colonial power. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was one such woman who played a vital role in the nation-building process and became one of the most distinguished figures of the 20th century.
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was a prominent freedom fighter, diplomat, and politician. She was the first woman to be elected as the Governor of Maharashtra and the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly.
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was born on August 18th, 1900, as Swarup Kumari Nehru in Allahabad to Motilal Nehru, a prominent lawyer who served twice as the President of the Indian National Congress and Swaruprani Thussu. She was the younger sister of the first Prime Minister of independent India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Growing up, she never received any formal education but was tutored privately in India and Switzerland.
Inspired by her brother, Nehru, who was very active in the Indian political front, and Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit joined the freedom struggle and was imprisoned by the British during the Civil Disobedience Movement. She first ventured into politics in the 1930s through the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), a non-governmental organization founded by the Margaret Sisters. She actively advocated for the rights and freedom of women and led the organization between 1941 to 1943.
In 1936, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly of the United Provinces but resigned from office two years later to protest against the British in World War II. In 1937, she became a minister of local self-government and public health, making her the first woman in pre – independent India to hold a cabinet post.
Pandit soon entered the diplomatic arena and took to the global stage representing India, and in a way, helped in shaping the country in its post-colonial era. She led the Indian delegation at the United Nations Organization Conference as her first official diplomatic mission. During her tour of the United States, Pandit openly condemned colonial rule and the inherent problems attached to it. She was vocal about countries being responsible for human dignity, equality, and rights.
Soon after India gained Independence in 1947, Pandit became appointed as the first Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union (1947-49), the United States and Mexico (1949-51), Ireland (1955-61), and Spain (1958-61), and high commissioner to the United Kingdom (1955-61). In 1953, she became the first woman to serve as the President of the 8th session of the United Nations General Assembly and the first woman to become the Governor of Maharashtra from 1962 to 1964. From 1964 to 1968, Pandit served as a member of the Lok Sabha, representing a constituency that her late brother had won. In 1978, she served as India’s representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
After a glorious stint as a diplomat and politician, Pandit retired from politics in the 1960s owing to personal reasons. She soon returned and became a relentless critic of Indira Gandhi, her niece and the prime minister of India, confronting her actions during the emergency era. Pandit has written two books, So I Became a Minister (1939) and Prison Days (1946). She died on December 1st, 1990, in Dehra Dun. After her passing, President Ramaswamy Venkataraman described Pandit as a “luminous strand in the tapestry of India’s freedom struggle.”
“Education was not merely a means for earning a living or an instrument for the acquisition of wealth. It was an initiation into the life of spirit, a training of the human soul in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue.”
– Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was one of India’s greatest assets. Her diplomatic and political career spanning over several decades is remarkable, and her achievements before and after the independence were commendable in the harsh world of politics. She was a firm believer in the freedom of India and broke many barriers for women, and is an inspiration to many.