VIJAYALAKSHMI PANDIT (1900–1990)
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was a freedom fighter and politician. She was born on 18 August 1900, the daughter of Motilal Nehru, a nationalist leader, and sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of Independent India. Following her family tradition, she became an active worker in the nationalist movement and was imprisoned three times by the British. She entered municipal government in Allahabad before joining the legislative assembly of the United Provinces and becoming the Minister for Local Self Government and Public Health (1937–39) thus was the first woman to hold a cabinet portfolio at any level. She played an instrumental role in the All India Women’s Conference, being the President from 1940 to 1942. In 1921, she married Ranjit Singh Pandit, a fellow Congress worker, who died in 1944. In 1945 at San Francisco during the founding of the United Nations, she provided through her speeches a clear picture to the world of British Rule in India. She spoke on India’s behalf on her own initiative, travelling abroad on the pretext of visiting her daughters. Her bold policy won her laurels and later a position in the United Nations.
After Independence, Vijayalakshmi embarked on a distinguished diplomatic career, leading the Indian delegation to the United Nations (1946–48 and 1952–53), and serving as India’s Ambassador to the USSR in 1947–49 and to the US in 1949–52. In 1953 she became the first woman to be elected President of the United Nations General Assembly. From 1954 to 1961 she was Indian High Commissioner in London and to Spain from 1958 to 1961. She served as Governor of Maharastra from 1962 to 1964. From 1964 to 1968 she was a Member of Parliament for Phulpur, formerly represented by her brother. Later her relationship with the Nehru family was strained and during Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership it soured irrevocably.
In 1977 she left the Congress Party to join the Congress for Democracy, which later merged with the Janata Party. The following year she was appointed Indian representative to the UN Human Rights’ Commission. In 1979 she published The Scope of Happiness: A Personal Memoir. She spent the last few years of her life at Dehradun. She has been honoured with 15 honorary degrees from universities all over the world. She received the Dorothy Schlozer Gold Medal for her services to humanity and the Padma Vibhushan. She had three daughters; one of them, Nayantara Saigal, is an eminent writer.