My dear Jawaharlal ji,
Greetings from an India you loved and which loved you immensely in return. On your 125th birth anniversary, I had written to you narrating the life and times of the nation. I had promised in the closing lines that if the regressive trends then seen in several spheres come to an end, I shall not write to you again. But that was not to be and hence I hereby sit down to write to you again.
Contrary to my fragile hope, in the last three years we have been witness to an unfortunate vilification campaign around you and your ideas about freedom, secularism and socialism. The campaign managers have gone to the extent of putting you perpetually in an adversarial position with your colleague Sardar Patel and are using all kinds of propaganda techniques to convince the ‘New India’ that this alleged rivalry beset this nation the day Gandhiji chose you over Patel as his political heir. But then I shudder to imagine whether they have the capacity or even the inclination to appreciate the width and depth of the relation you shared with both of them.
The methodical and structured campaign to vilify your legacy and replace it with the more ‘organically patriotic’ legacy of Sardar Patel is undoubtedly the most dangerous design the collective memory of this nation has ever come across. We are being led by people who have no understanding of the nuances which made the freedom movement richer on account of differences over crucial issues during the struggle for the liberation of India. We know there were palpable differences between two different view-points represented by two equally dominant factions after the Lucknow Congress of 1936. You were perceived to be close to the ‘Socialist Block’ – a perception which did not go down well with the other faction represented by Rajaji, Rajendra Babu and Sardar Patel. Both the group wrote to Bapu and as always he read and responded to each and resolved the differences. I wish to share a few lines from the letter written to you by Bapu in response to yours:
Your letter is touching. The fact is that your colleagues have lacked your courage and frankness. The result has been disastrous. I have always pleaded with them to speak out to you freely and fearlessly. But having lacked the courage, whenever they have spoken, they have done it clumsily and you have felt irritated.” And still further he tells you so very affectionately… “Resume your humour at the committee meeting. That is your most usual role, not which of a care-worn, irritable man ready to burst on the slightest occasion… How I wish you could telegraph me that on finishing my letter you felt as merry as you were on that New Year’s Day in Lahore when you were reported to have danced around the tricolour flag.
Jawaharlal ji! Of late, our politics is dominated by people who cannot fathom the trajectory of relationship you all enjoyed in spite of differences over strategic matters and priorities in pursuance of the goal of freedom. In your country, politicians have declared themselves as ‘counterfactual’ historians and they wish to rewrite the chapters/phases of our history with most regressive ideas and ideologies. These politicians-cum-counterfactual historians fail to discern (historically) the conspicuous presence of ‘differences’ of Gandhi with Gandhi himself, of you with yourself and of your colleague Patel with himself. Annals of history revealed to us that there were palpable differences between the Gandhi of 1916-17 and the Gandhi of 1931, or between the Patel of the Bardoli satyagraha days to the Patel of the Dandi March. We learnt that such ‘differences’ never agitated either the history or the historians; and they certainly they did not have to quarrel with the historical data. They all believed that history is not constituted by mono-causality and even great people within the folds of history had the freedom and the prerogative to appear less consistent at different points of time.
As a child, growing up with an inherited memory derived from a well-read and politically informed family, and also having been a recipient of historical memory from the text books in the mid and late 1970s, the counterfactuals never appealed to people of my generation. Probably, the idea of ‘what-might-have-been’, was an indulgence that was not accessible to us who sailed through government run schools, and were taught using a pedagogy which aimed at nurturing the ‘seeds of unity in diversity’ in us. Perhaps, and fortunately so, the ones, who decided the contours and content of the history to be transmitted to us, believed that the brutalisation of collective memory based on ‘speculation’ can only damage the possibility of a diverse yet inclusive India.
What shall I tell the votaries of this ‘New India’, which is keen to pit you against Subhash babu after they are done with denigrating you in the context of their imagined rivalry tales with Sardar Patel? I should tell them to read the most versatile and lovely correspondence of Subhash babu with you. In each of those letters he mentions you as the ‘most trusted comrade’. After your Europe trip in 1938, Subhash babu wrote to you:
You cannot imagine how I have missed you all these months. I realise, of course, that you needed a change very badly. I am only sorry that you did not give yourself enough physical rest…
Of course, I know the hopelessness of my own request to these people to read and develop a nuanced narrative of history. The people who use the expressions like ‘termite’ for their political opposition shall never be able to understand the inherent warmth defining the relationship amongst the leaders who were instrumental in shaping the value-frame of the idea of India.
The politics which thrives on hatred for freedom, secularism and socialism cannot simply accept that in spite of their disparaging campaign, you still occupy a central position in the cognitive framework of a huge majority of Indians, not only as a writer, a thinker, and a statesman but also as a youthful dreamer, who tried bringing the ideas of liberalism to a nation deeply divided on all possible parameters of birth and belonging. I read a letter written to you by the outstanding painter Amrita Sher-Gil, on receiving your autobiography. She was frank in saying… “As I rule I dislike autobiographies… They ring false. Pomposity and exhibitionism. But I think I will like yours… (because) you are capable of saying ‘when I saw the sea for the first time’, when others would say ‘when the sea saw me for the first time’.” In these words she really captured your spirit, Jawaharlal ji!
We needed such youthful dreamers like you in plenty to remind us that if the economy and the society remain aloof or were kept insulated from the democratic processes, we shall invariably lose the battle against poverty, hunger and inequality. To you democracy did not mean merely a political doctrine but a committed and continuous engagement in the shape of lived reality. You were at times a lonely voice which refused to weigh an opinion based solely on the anticipation of whether it shall shake the foundation of a popular belief or a venerated tradition. While proud of the rich heritage of India, you were conscious of the ills prevalent in the Indian society and lamented the deterioration of public life and inter-community engagement in newly independent India. You clearly attributed it to preferring irrationality over reason.
Dealing with the dangerously new garam hawa (hot gust of wind) of our times, we now realise how difficult it must have been for you and your friends to ensure that this nation does not become a sectarian Hindu Pakistan. You knew that the best safeguard to counter such reactionary sentiment lay in vigorously promoting a culture of accommodation and committing the state to safeguard the uniqueness of each religious group and its culture, apart from promising equality in every sphere. You were acutely aware of the dimension communal politics had acquired.
Just two days before the assassination of Bapu you wrote to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee sharing your concerns regarding the nefarious activities of the Hindu Mahasabha. You wrote:
…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 Mahsabha stated that they aimed at the hanging of Nehru, Sardar Patel and Mualana 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 especially because of your own close association with the Hindu Mahasabha.
While I finish this letter (promising to write another one), on behalf of millions and millions of Hindustanis, I wish you a very happy birthday and take the liberty of sharing the birthday wishes for you by Sarojini Naidu in 1937:
What shall I wish you for the coming year? Happiness? Peace? Triumph? All these things that men hold supremely dear are but secondary things to you…almost incidental…I will wish you, my dear… unflinching faith and unfaltering courage in your via crucis that all must tread who seek freedom and hold it more precious than life… Not personal freedom but the deliverance of a nation from bondage. Walk steadfastly…if sorrow and pain and loneliness be your portion. Remember Liberty is the ultimate crown of all your sacrifice…but you will not walk alone.
Manoj K. Jha
Manoj K. Jha is a professor in Delhi University and national spokesperson, Rashtriya Janata Dal.