Happy Children’s Day!
When my son was very little, he came home from school and went straight into the kitchen, clearly looking for something. Disappointed, he stood in front of me and demanded to see the cake. What cake, I asked. “It’s Children’s Day, Mamma! You are supposed to celebrate having children!”
Today, it isn’t very different. My son just came home from school where his teachers worked really hard to make him and his classmates feel special and cared for. I appreciate the sentiment even though the day had a very different point of origin.
Significance of Children’s Day
Growing up, I knew that we celebrated Children’s Day on Nehru’s birthday. The reason I had heard was that Nehru loved children, but I later found that Children’s Day was really an awareness and fund-raising drive.
In 1951, a United Nations Social Worker Fellow V.M. Kulkarni who had been studying the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents in England liked how the Queen of England’s birthday had been used to focus attention on children’s issues and raise funds for Save the Child Fund. He proposed that Pandit Nehru’s birthday, November 14, be used to bring awareness to children’s issues and child rights. It is said that the proposal embarrassed Nehru but he agreed to have his birthday attached to the cause.
Perhaps Nehru’s reluctance at Kulkarni’s suggestion was warranted. Soon political bootlickers and sycophants would gather children and have them sing songs in Nehru’s honour and he would pose obligingly with little children. The original intent was forgotten and a new legend grew about Nehru’s great love for children. He certainly had a great love for his own daughter, to whom he wrote wonderful letters from prison that not only outlined Indian and world history but also explained his humanist ideals and values. I often wonder how young Indira felt on receiving these letters. Did she groan at the heavy topics he chose to write about, and wish he would talk more about prison food or other ordinary things – not a draft of a chapter?
At any rate, Nehru’s birthday became Children’s Day from 1956. I looked around for pictures of the first official Children’s Day but the first official interesting material I found was the President’s address on the occasion in 1957.
In a speech titled A Plea for a Better Deal for Children, Prasad said that “it is a welcome idea to have one day every year to be celebrated as Children’s Day when all questions pertaining to children and child welfare would receive special attention.” The theme in 1957 was child hunger. The International Union of Child Welfare declared that “a child that is hungry must be fed”. Prasad extended the theme, by saying “If we put a wider interpretation on this theme, it should encompass wider needs such as hunger for play, hunger for love and hunger for security. After all a child needs these as much as nutritious food.”
Today, India’s President welcomed students from various schools and her speech was simply about the beauty of childhood. The original intent is long forgotten. It is now just a day when we celebrate children and Nehru.
Growing into Nehru
The slide show above covers Nehru’s childhood from infancy to his college years at Cambridge (the last picture is of him with his parents and two younger sisters, who later became famous in their own right – Vijaylakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesing)
Born on November 14, 1889, as a child, Nehru did not hunger for food, love or security. He was born to extraordinary privilege. His family home, Anand Bhavan, in Allahabad had a swimming pool. Of course, do not imagine Nehru living alone with his parents in this palatial estate. The Nehru clan lived together. He was the youngest and his sisters followed much later, so while Nehru might not have hungered for the basics, he did hunger for companionship. Home schooled for nearly most of his education with governesses and private tutors, he did not have a peer group of classmates or playground friends. His much older cousins had neither time nor interest in him, and so although he was part of a bustling household he grew up rather alone.
In his autobiography, Nehru begins his story with refreshing candor and self awareness “An only child of prosperous parents is apt to be spoilt, especially so in India. And when that son happens to be on only child for first 11 years of his existence there is little hope for him to escape this spoiling.” His parents certainly spared no expense on his education. Annie Besant, the great educator and founding member of the Theosophical Society, recommended a tutor – Ferdinand T. Brooks – who, Nehru believes, had a great influence on his thinking. Brooks developed in Nehru a taste for reading and introduced him to a vast variety of literature and philosophy (including Theosophy). He also set up a lab in their home where they performed experiments to explore basic chemistry and physics. At 15, his parents and his infant sister accompanied him to England, where he was dropped off at the famous English public school – Harrows.
Clearly Nehru did not have an average childhood. He was keenly aware of the great difference between his experience of India versus that of the common Indian. This difference is often used against him. While many like to pull Nehru down for his elitism or his post-Independence leadership choices (both valid points), Nehru’s writings from prison in the 1930s reminds us that he was human, with the same human frailties that affect us regardless of income, education, gender, caste or creed.
In fact, I am glad for his intellectual upbringing. India was blessed to have an independence movement led by thinkers rather than wild and spontaneous actors (think of the rather haphazard birth of Pakistan). The men and women who organized our freedom struggle developed democratic ideals and a vision for equality that came from a conversion of intellectual vigor to actual action. The outcome, among other things, is our Constitution. Imperfect though it might be, it has provided us with a stable democracy for 75 years, while our neighbours have floundered. Most of the people who helped put the Constitution together were intellectual giants.
Recently, on social media, I read comments wishing that the India had a military dictatorship. They felt that this would help improve infrastructure and law and order. I wonder if Indian classrooms should spend more time exploring Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Burmese or Sri-Lankan history. All our neighbors have had experiences with military coups (successful and failed) and the outcomes were never positive for the country. In India, Nehru and his colleagues can take some credit for military-proofing Indian democracy. To read more check out this article. His understanding of the potential threats to democracy has often helped us tremendously, and while we might disagree with his politics, we should be grateful that we have a democracy that allows (at least in theory) for dissent.
So this Children’s Day let us not conflate the two events. Nehru probably did like children (it is very difficult not to like children, and even if he did not like them, it would have been political suicide to admit it) but Children’s Day is not to celebrate his love for children. It is to draw awareness to important children’s issues in our society today, as Rajendra Prasad did in his very first Children’s Day address – serious issues concerning children’s health, children’s rights, access to quality nutrition and education.
It is also Nehru’s birthday. We are still a young nation and his legacy is still up for debate and political wrangling but perhaps in a hundred years the man will be remembered for both his contributions and his failings in a more balanced, objective and less divisive manner. That he was extraordinary is hard to deny if you delve into the man’s writing and look carefully at his influence in a myriad issues that concern modern India today. It is also hard to deny that he was not perfect. We should never be satisfied with the legacy of our ancestors – growth and forward movement are our constant civic duties.
Joshi, S. (2005) How did Children’s Day begin, The Tribune India. Available at: https://www.tribuneindia.com/2005/20051112/saturday/main4.htm (Accessed: November 14, 2022).
Prasad, R. (1958) “A Plea for a Better Deal for Children,” in Speeches of Dr. Rajendra Prasad, President of India, 1957-1958. India, pp. 98–99.
Nehru, J. (1982) “Descent from Kashmir,” in Jawaharlal Nehru, an autobiography. Tehran: Bahman Pr., pp. 1–26.
All images from Wikimedia Commons