Walking with Nehru
We are indeed at crossroads. Jawaharlal Nehru is being exhibited as a man who did nothing more than creating the Kashmir issue, losing the war with China, and neglecting the primary education. Ask a globalised Indian of neo-liberal era about Nehru, and the most probable reply would be that he ruined the country's economy with his obsession with socialism, and spearheaded nepotism in politics. The right-wing even regard him as an extension of colonial legacy. Nehru's character is being intentionally assassinated, as a westernised womaniser who stood against everything that is 'Indian'. How much of these are true? And regardless of what is true and what is not, is that all Nehru has ever been accounted for? Is there nothing more to him?
Debunking our cognitive and confirmation biases, Nehru's wonders comprehensively outweigh his blunders, and are very significant to the survival of Indian Democracy.
While the educational and scientific institutions across India emboss their authority, infrastructure and operation with so much finesse, what inevitably gets behind them is the fact that it was Nehru who created many of them. Perhaps, that is how he succeeds. In a successful Democracy, it is those institutions with regulations, checks and balances that should form the base of the State, and not self-righteous messianic individuals. Nehru perfectly understood it. His contribution towards the creation of many basic constitutional, statutory and executive bodies is colossal. Those institutions are the ones that sustain the great Indian socio-political experiment in a multicultural land through the ambitious rule of law. Hence, it is no surprise that his legacy is eclipsed by the achievements of the very institutions he built. He constantly upheld that disregarding the institutions and centralising power is against the very concept of Democracy. It is unfortunate that it was his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who indulged in doing exactly the opposite. Jawaharlal Nehru held the hands of an exhausted, famished and impoverished nation, and led it towards industrial revolution. In his book 'A brief history of India', Judith Walsh observes that Nehru's India clocked 7 percent annual industrial growth at an average, tripled its productivity and managed to become the seventh largest industrial economy within 1964. He successfully brought in the most powerful legacy of the British Raj, the Indian Armed Forces, under complete control of the civilian regime, an unparalleled accomplishment which the relatable Pakistan couldn't achieve.
Nehru's contribution to the survival of India is difficult to be appreciated by those who believe in a homogenous cultural thread supposedly weaving across the sub-continent. After Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru tangibly acknowledged the cultural diversity of India. "I could have it[English] as an alternate language as long as people require it and the decision for that – I would leave not to the Hindi-knowing people, but to the non-Hindi-knowing people", he assured and led to the creation of Indian states based on linguistic identity. States were allowed to conduct their affairs in their own language. It is no exaggeration to comment that when the whole world was watching with utmost pessimism that India will break and balkanise, Nehru gallantly accomplished the miracle of keeping it alive. He didn't create an India that is united in spite of its diversity. Rather, through democratic means, he built a secular India that celebrates its diversity. His extraordinary patience, inclusive dialogue, and outlook of reaching solutions through compromise worked hand in hand to realise that feat.
Understanding the importance of Nehru's actions during the time of partition is very essential for the current generation of Indians. Even at our time when the institutions are stronger and the rule of law is functional, religious bigotry is arrogantly challenging the multicultural Indian identity. Back then, India had just been born, after being partitioned into two. Even though the split happened on religious fault lines, new India adopted secularism against the conception of Hindu fundamentalists, whose passions were at the highest. We can only imagine the muscle with which fundamentalism walked over the tormented land during those troubled times. We learn about the American civil war from our history textbooks and the Syrian civil war from our Twitter feeds. When Nehru assumed leadership as the Vice President of the Interim Government, India was at the brink of a civil war, so massive that the then Viceroy Archibald Wavell named his plan to leave India for good, as 'Operation Madhouse'. Under the guise of reactionary politics against the hate mongering Muhammed Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League, Hindu nationalist groups like the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, which dreamt of a Hindu Rashtra, escalated violence in many parts of India, including at the capital city. Radcliffe line was already covered in blood. While struggling to establish the rule of law in order to subdue Hindu and Muslim bigots on one hand, and meeting the moral obligation to guard the Muslim minority while witnessing the influx of refugees on the other hand, all while keeping India in one piece, Nehru's Government faced immense pressure which no other Government of any country had ever had to handle. To deal with an internal crisis of this scale, there was no protocol anywhere in the world in modern history for Jawaharlal Nehru to emulate. It is at this point that Mahatma Gandhi's decision to announce Nehru as his successor in 1942 gains relevance.
Mahatma Gandhi announced his successor at the Congress Working Committee convened at Wardha. “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and I have had differences from the moment when we became co-workers, yet I have said for some years and say it now that not Rajaji, nor Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel but Jawaharlal will be my successor. You can’t divide water repeatedly striking it with a stick. It is just as difficult to divide us. When I am gone, he will speak my language”. That was the time when Jinnah's repugnant hate started to take deep roots, exploiting the already excited religious tension. Quit India Movement had many of the Congress leaders arrested, which gave Jinnah unopposed access to the sprawling political playground to brew more hate and demand a separate State. That aside, Gandhi and Nehru cared about social justice too. They recognised the need to create a society that treats women, depressed class and religious minorities equally as others. Most importantly, they also had to do that as a reformatory measure without jeopardising the existing social fabric. Gandhi judged, and rightly so, that Nehru - who was inclusive, democratic and likeable - was the best chip on the table to be given the responsibility of uniting the nation and ensuring its survival. The assassination attempt on Nehru during the time of partition ought to be viewed together with this judgement.
A meeting of RSS cadres took place near Delhi on December 6, 1947, summoned by M.S.Golwalkar. The gathering talked about “assassinating the leading persons of the Congress in order to terrorise the public and to get their hold over them”, according to a police report. Another report quotes Golwalkar to have said, "the Sangh will not rest content until it had finished Pakistan. If anyone stood in our way we will have to finish them too, whether it was Nehru Government or any other Government... ...no power on earth could keep them[Muslims] in Hindustan. They should have to quit this country... ...If they were made to stay here the responsibility would be the Government’s and the Hindu community would not be responsible. Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby [our] opponents could be immediately silenced”, in a meeting at Delhi two days later. The seriousness of such calamitous situation back then could be comprehended by looking at some of the letters Nehru wrote during that time to some of his peers.
Nehru wrote a letter to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan on a January day, 1948. “I am glad you think that India’s heart is sound. I confess that some doubts have arisen in my own mind about this. I suppose fundamentally it is sound but it has got hidden in so many layers of the wrong stuff that it is often difficult to feel the heartbeats. There is no doubt that Pakistan and the people behind Pakistan started this terrible business of hatred and killing. But there is also little doubt that both sides indulged in it in equal measure. There is nothing to choose between the inequities of either. Our own present problem here is not so much of what Pakistan does or does not do, but what many of our own people do". Few days back then, Radhakrishnan had addressed a gathering at Rewa comprising of RSS volunteers where he appreciated them to have possessed discipline, self-sacrifice, endurance and courage. He requested them to act in such a way that they fit into the national mainstream. Pointing to that, Nehru continues, “I might say that I was rather sorry to read some time back that you had encouraged the R.S.S. This organization is one of the most mischievous in India at present. Gandhiji’s fast is over and he is keeping fairly well. The fast produced good results and even Pakistan was affected. But the evil is too deep to be cured easily.”
Just a week before Gandhi was assassinated, Nehru wrote a letter to Sardar Vallabhbhai. Hindu Outlook had published an article which suggested that Gandhi and Nehru should be murdered. "Murder Mahatma Gandhi, cut him to pieces and throw his flesh to dogs and crows", an anonymous poster incited. The Hindu Mahasabha condemned the Government and the Congress for supposedly being with the Muslims. Nehru wrote to Vallabhbhai, “Most of the Urdu and Hindi newspapers of Delhi have been writing poisonous stuff during the last few weeks. This was noticeable especially during Gandhiji’s fast. These newspapers or some of them are official organs of the Hindu Mahasabha or are aligned with it. I do not know what steps can be taken about this matter but I think much of our trouble at this end is due to this totally unbalanced writing in the press, just as the Pakistan newspapers write poisonous stuff. In view of the attitude of the Hindu Mahasabha and the R.S.S. it is becoming increasingly difficult to be neutral towards them”. He wrote another letter two days before the assassination. “Lal Bahadur Shastri, Minister, U.P. Government, tells me that they have received information to the effect that R.S.S. men are being trained in Bharatpur with arms. Many of these people go from the U.P. for training in camps or otherwise and then return with arms. We had heard previously of such training camps being run in Bharatpur State. Apparently this kind of thing is still going on to some extent and the U.P. Government are rather worried about it”
Nehru wrote two letters to Syama Prasad Mukherjee, one before and one after Gandhi's assassination. Those letters are significant in the sense that they assist in the revelation of fundamental ideologies being present within the Congress party itself. Hindu Mahasabha delivered speeches that rendered Mahatma Gandhi as an impediment and contended that sooner he died the better it would be for the country. On this backdrop, Nehru wrote, "For some time past I have been greatly distressed by the activities of the Hindu Mahasabha. At the present moment, it is functioning not only as the main opposition to the Government and to the Congress in India but as an organization continually inciting to violence... ...what pains me most is the extreme vulgarity and indecency of speeches being made from Hindu Mahasabha platforms. “Gandhi Murdabad” is one of their special slogans. Recently a prominent leader of the Hindu Mahasabha stated that an objective to be aimed at was the hanging of Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad. Normally one does not like to interfere with any political activities however much one may dislike them. But there is a limit to this kind of thing, and I fear that the limit is being reached if it has not already been crossed. I write to you specially because of your own close association with the Hindu Mahasabha. We are continually being asked in our party, in the Constituent Assembly as well as elsewhere as to your position in this matter. I should be grateful to you if you will let me know how you propose to deal with this situation which must be as embarrassing to you as it is to me”. Nehru was always open to dialogue with those who disagree with him, even if they were associated with an organisation that fanatically wished him to be gone for good.
After Mahatma Gandhi was murdered, Nehru wrote the second letter. “You will remember my writing to you some days ago about the activities of the Hindu Mahasabha or their leaders which were embarrassing alike to you and me. You were going to Calcutta about that time and you told me that you yourself were worried over this matter and that you would discuss it on your return. Since then a great tragedy has taken place and the situation has infinitely worsened. The Hindu Mahasabha is associated in people’s minds in some ways with this tragedy and, as you know, there is a great deal of excitement in the country... ...I myself am convinced that the day for communal organizations in politics is past and we should not encourage them in any way. In particular, it is difficult and embarrassing for all concerned for a Minister of the Central Government to be personally associated with a communal organization like the Hindu Mahasabha which, even on the political plane, is opposed to our general policy and indeed to the Government as a whole. You must have given thought to these matters. It is a little difficult for me to advise you, but, if I may do so, I think that the time has come for you to raise your voice against communal organizations including the Mahasabha and, in any event, to sever your connection with the Hindu Mahasabha. Any such action from you would be greatly appreciated by the party and, I think, the country”, Nehru ends the letter with utmost grief, yet still clings on to an obscure hope that events could still be addressed collectively. This was how 1947-48 unfolded before Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru collaborated with leaders coming from different backgrounds. He interacted with people who had diverse and complex opinions. He was in constant touch with the Chief Ministers. He kept on writing letters to them passionately as though everyday was the last day of his life that he should leave no stone unturned. Within the construct of unitary bias - a necessity of that time - he faithfully valued federal relationship. He respected India's composite culture and showed accommodative attitude to everyone, all to sustain India, a profound idea of peace, acceptance and co-existence that the war-torn 20th century world achingly wanted to adopt. He valiantly steered the ship, balancing diplomatically between the two power blocs of the cold war. Jawaharlal Nehru was not a man without his share of blunders, but his persistent statesmanship united and stabilised a secular, federal, 'improbable democracy' - as Ashutosh Varshney puts - falsifying the global common sense. To put it creatively, he successfully experimented Mahatma Gandhi's vision of ‘One World’.
Today, while selective secularism in electoral politics has to be condemned, there is also an urgent need to challenge the right wing's attempt to redefine secularism itself. Giving secularism a fanciful definition on religious grounds and labelling everyone against it under the 'sickular' tag is not only a politics of exclusion, but also a scandalous effort to homogenise India. We simply cannot reap the benefits of Nehruvian Secularism and simultaneously reject it, because that would be a terrible injustice to the generations to come. We cannot afford to push them in an uncertain, insecure future where the ideas of modernity will not only be lampooned, but also be confronted by the tenets of a glorified, obsolete past. Nehru has answers to today's growing fundamentalism. We should take a walk with him for our own good.
Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru
The Guru of Hate - Ramachandra Guha (The Hindu)
Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence - Steven Wilkinson