‘Educated, attractive, charming when she wishes’.

Ros ParrRosalind Parr is a PhD researcher in History at the University of Edinburgh. Using source material collected from archives in India, America, Britain and Europe, her work examines the international activities of Indian nationalist women in the early to mid- twentieth century. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband and two young daughters.

When the Indian independence activist Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit applied for a passport to visit America in July 1944, alarm bells rang across the British Empire. The purpose of the visit, as described in her passport application, was personal, enabling Pandit, who had been recently widowed, ‘to have a quiet period’ with her two daughters who were at college in America.[1] Wartime imperial officials, though, were under no illusions.  Pandit was a prominent anti-colonial activist and, if permitted to go to America, she would undoubtedly use the opportunity to engage in damaging propaganda against British imperial rule.  ‘We must regard Mrs. Pandit,’ wrote one official in Delhi, ‘as an enemy willing to traduce H.M.G. and the Government of India in every way possible in the U.S.A.’[2]

Pandit’s application created a dilemma for the British authorities. If she were allowed to travel she would be at liberty to publicise Indian nationalist grievances before an American audience.  By drawing attention to the injustices of colonial rule, Pandit, it was feared, would undermine the unity of the Allied war effort, which was nominally built on a shared commitment to ‘rights’ and ‘freedom.’  Such a campaign might prompt unwelcome American pressure on Britain to withdraw from India, as well as stir up domestic tensions in India.  On the other hand, British officials feared the propaganda value of any seemingly heavy-handed decision to refuse Pandit’s application. The authorities were particularly wary because the premature death of her husband, a political prisoner in India, a year earlier was understood to have been precipitated by colonial prison conditions. Either way, officials agreed, Pandit was dangerous.

To the British, Pandit was dangerous because of who she was and what she represented. Born in Allahabad, North India in 1900, she was the eldest daughter of a wealthy nationalist family.  Impeccably connected, her family had brought her into close association with M.K. Gandhi, and her brother, the eminent Indian National Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru, was already a well-known figure in America.  For her entire adult life she had been a Congress activist and politician – a career that included three periods of imprisonment and two years as India’s first woman Cabinet Minister in the United Provinces Provincial Government.  A gilded upbringing, followed by years of activism and subsequent political office, had created a formidable communicator – a woman who was, as one official grudgingly described her, ‘educated, attractive, charming when she wishes’.[3] Quick-witted and confident, she spoke English with an authoritative ‘Oxford accent’ and conveyed a passionate sense of injustice making her, according to intelligence officials, ‘the very person to interpret the Congress case to the American public.’[4]

In the exclusively male space of the British bureaucracy, Pandit’s femininity was perceived as a mysterious, somewhat slippery asset. Her ‘undoubted feminine charm’ and ‘“sob-stuff” appeal’, it was implied, marked her out from the rational, reasoned world of male politics and gave her something of an unfair advantage.[5]  Pandit herself was not above using the ‘feminine charm’ her enemies found so dangerous, remarking mirthfully many years later that as a younger woman she had ‘used every weapon in my armory unashamedly.’[6]

As an anti-colonialist, what made Pandit’s personal attributes so dangerous was the powerful symbolic value she possessed. If India could produce such a woman – educated, liberated, modern – the justification for colonial rule as a civilizing mission was easily defeated.  Her very existence refuted the image, so favoured in imperialist propaganda, of the subjugated Indian woman – a victim of Indian culture that could only be saved by European civilization.  Rather, she provided evidence of India’s ability to self-govern.

After weeks of indecision, Pandit’s passport application was approved. Fear of the political capital that might be made from the refusal to grant a recent widow access to her daughters ultimately overrode concerns about the effect of her propaganda in America.

When Pandit arrived in America in December 1944 she found sympathy, encouragement and ample opportunity for publicizing her anti-colonial message. Large receptions were held in her honour by prominent figures, including the novelist Pearl Buck, the Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, and the Chinese Consul General, at which Pandit spoke forcefully on ‘The India Question’. Such high profile connections exposed the contradictions at the heart of the American interventionist project, which at once purported to export American ideals of freedom while allying with the Imperialist power Great Britain.

As a speaker, Pandit consciously tapped into the global ideological ambitions of the interventionist lobby. To an audience of over nine hundred dinner guests at an event in New York in January 1945, for example, she made the claim for Indian independence in the name of ‘liberty’ for ‘suppressed peoples everywhere.’ Linking the Indian cause to anti-colonial movements elsewhere, she argued that ‘unless all people in all parts of the world are declared free and equal, there can be no peace and there can be no progress’.[7]

Conditions in India provided much ammunition. In 1944-45 almost the entire nationalist leadership, and thousands of grassroots activists were imprisoned enabling Pandit to make the damaging claim that India was ‘one vast prison camp where 86,000 men and women have been detained in prison without trial’.[8]  Furthermore, the colossal tragedy of the Bengal famine (1943-44) was still unfolding and Pandit, who had herself done relief and fundraising work during the worst of the crisis, highlighted British failures in preventing mass starvation and the spread of disease.  Such colonial realities lent considerable weight to the nationalist argument that imperial rule was both ideologically unsound and disastrously ineffective.

Pandit’s public utterances sent waves of concern across the Atlantic. At Churchill’s request, Leo Amery, the Secretary of State for India, presented a secret report on Pandit’s ‘undesirable activities’ to the War Cabinet and her statements in America prompted a question in parliament demanding to know what steps were being taken ‘to counteract any harmful effect that such statements may have on public opinion amongst our allies’.[9]

In reality, most Americans were content with the line, put out by British propaganda, that India was gradually moving towards self-government and the issue of Independence would be resolved after the war. Nevertheless, Pandit’s activities in America rattled the British establishment. She was dangerous because she fundamentally questioned the right of Western powers to global dominance.  In exposing the injustices of British imperialism and by asserting the ability of non-Western peoples to rule themselves, she countered the established racialised underpinnings of the international order.  As Western powers jostled for position in the post-war world, her intervention represented a destabilizing challenge to the future ambitions of those who sought to maintain European global influence.

It was in this spirit that Pandit travelled to the Allied-sponsored San Francisco Conference on International Organisation in April 1945 where she demanded a voice for the ‘600,000,000 of the enslaved peoples of Asia [who] may not be officially heard at this Conference’, adding the warning: ‘there will be no real peace on this earth so long as they are denied justice’.[10]

The following year she returned to New York for the First Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Second Part) as the leader of the Indian delegation.  Here she heralded soon-to-be-independent India’s arrival on the international stage with an attack on The Union of South Africa’s discriminatory legislation against its resident Indian population. Through a resolution that framed racial discrimination as a global issue, Pandit led a historic defeat of the South African delegation and earned herself an international reputation as a champion of Asian and African rights.

Pandit’s appointment as the only woman leader of a national delegation at the UN in 1946 was the beginning of a pioneering international career.  She returned to represent India at the UN on several occasions and in 1953 became the first woman President of the UN General Assembly. She also served as Indian Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1947-49) and to the United States of America (1949-51), and as High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (1954-61). This exceptional career was subversive, countering universally dominant assumptions about women’s place and abilities.

During her debut speech at the UN General Assembly in 1946, Pandit expressed the radical hope that ‘women of all countries will have the occasion to participate more fully with men in all departments of life, including the work of this Assembly, thus helping to create a better and more balanced world.’[11]  Neither the role of such rhetoric in normalizing the concept of gender equality, nor Pandit’s significance as a pioneer and role model, should be ignored.  However, her career as a dangerous woman is hardly a straightforward feminist narrative.

Pandit was a product of the struggle between imperialism and nationalism, in which both sides sought legitimacy through their claim to emancipate Indian women. Working amid the competing claims of gender and nation, Pandit regularly traded on her own personal achievements in order to favourably contrast the status of Indian women with the sexism she observed in Western society.  This was a repost, in part, to the condescending attitude of Western feminists towards Indian women, but in her attempt to boost India’s international prestige she passed over both the genuine gender and class disparities of Indian society and the structural disadvantages shared by women globally.

When it came to Indian women, Pandit was undoubtedly conscious of her role as a trailblazer, remarking in her autobiography that ‘as I see the new generation forging ahead, my heart is full of joy because it is my colleagues and I who built the road on which these girls can walk forward today.’[12]  She clearly prized this legacy, planning, in 1984, to write a book entitled Forgotten Women ‘about the several women who have contributed to the national progress on many levels but who seem to have been completely forgotten.’[13]

Although gender equality was guaranteed in the constitution of India (1950), advocates of women’s rights faced strong conservative opposition in the decades after independence.   The Hindu Code Bill, for example, which was designed to overhaul regressive social practices, made slow progress amid claims it signaled the destruction of the Hindu family. For social conservatives, Pandit’s personification as a liberated, professional woman who operated outside traditional social constraints was indeed dangerous.  At the same time, however, an unintended consequence of her international career may have been that it preserved the illusion of real gender equality in India while Pandit, the progressive figure, was excluded from domestic public life.

We can only speculate what impact Pandit might have had on Indian gender politics had she spent more time in India after independence. But if, by working in the global public sphere, she was effectively disempowered in India, social conservatives might have concluded that a detached international space was the safest place for a dangerous woman to be.



[1] File 61/44 Poll(9), National Archives of India (hereafter N.A.I.), 62.

[2] Memo 19th July 1944, File 61/44 Poll(9), N.A.I.

[3] Memo 7th July 1944, File 61/44 Poll(9), N.A.I.

[4] Memo D.Pilditch, Director of Intelligence Bureau, 22nd July 1944, File 61/44 Poll(9), N.A.I.

[5] Report 5th March 1945 and Memo 7th July 1944, File 61/44 Poll(9), N.A.I.

[6] Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, ‘The time of my life’, Radio Interview with Mark Tully, 11th July, 1969, British Library Sound Recordings.

[7] Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, ‘India’s Case for Independence’, quoted in Bimal Prasad (ed.), Towards Freedom.  Documents on the Movement for Independence in India 1945 (Indian Council of Historical Research Oxford University Press, 2008), 241.

[8] Ibid.

[9] IOR: L/I/1/M82, British Library.

[10] Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, ‘Memo to the Secretary General, United Nations Conference on International Organization,’ 2 May 1945, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit Papers, 2nd Instalment, Subject File 1, N.M.M.L.

[11] United Nations, Official Records of the Second Part of the First Session of the General Assembly.  Plenary Meetings of The General Assembly. Verbatim Record.  23rd October – 16 December 1946. (Flushing Meadow, New York), 737.

[12] V.L. Pandit, Scope of Happiness (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.,1979), 313.

[13] Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit to Renuka Ray, 23rd May 1984, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit Papers, 2nd Instalment, Subject File 56, N.M.M.L.