Note: This article was first published on September 8, 2017 and is being republished on November 14, 2018, Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary.
Spreading hatred against Jawaharlal Nehru and pitying Gandhi for the “dreadful mistake” of choosing him as his political heir has been an integral part of the disinformation campaign by the cultural and economic Right in India, mainly the RSS and its affiliates. Given the RSS’s understanding of the Indian cultural experience, it is quite natural that Golwalkar in his Bunch of Thoughts sees Muslims and Christians as ‘internal threats’; and ridicules the Indian freedom struggle which Gandhi and Nehru led for ‘reducing itself merely to being anti-British’.
On the other hand, there has been a trend in western academia that insists on denying the devastating effects of colonialism, and locates the causes of all problems facing India in its own tradition and culture. In this project, the terrible man-made famines that accompanied colonialism are normalised as a natural calamity recurrent in Indian history; the deliberate de-industrialisation and de-urbanisation which took place is projected as an eternal characteristic of the Indian landscape and ruthless economic exploitation shown as some kind of ‘service charge’ for the civilising mission.
Belittling the leaders of the Indian freedom movement is necessary for both these projects. Gandhi, who has grown too big to be easily maligned, has to be projected as a politically harmless saint; even as a brand ambassador for the fantastical ‘Swachhta Abhiyan’. But his ‘protégé’ Nehru has to be portrayed as a power hungry hypocrite. Some writers love to negatively contrast the ‘compromising’ Nehru with the ‘revolutionary’ Subhash Bose; while others prefer pitting the ‘anglophile’ Nehru against the ‘authentically Indian’ Sardar Patel. Whatever be the ideological impetus – Hindutva, colonial, ultra left or even liberal – targeting Nehru has become something of a cottage industry for analysts trying to explain what has gone wrong in India.
An attack from liberal quarters
Writing for the New York Times last month, Pankaj Mishra recalls the African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois describing August 15, 1947 “as the greatest historical date” of modern history. Mishra tells us, “Du Bois believed the event was of “greater significance” than even the establishment of democracy in Britain, the emancipation of slaves in the United States or the Russian Revolution. The time ‘when the white man, by reason of the colour of his skin, can lord it over coloured people’ was finally drawing to a close.”
According to Mishra, something then went terribly wrong. “Gandhi was determined not to let postcolonial India replicate the injustices built into modern civilisation or, as he put it, ‘English rule without the Englishman.’ From that perspective, Gandhi may seem to have chosen his protégé unwisely: Nehru was the scion of a family of rich Brahmin Anglophiles.”
Mishra gives not even the slightest hint of the gigantic problems – social, political and economic – left behind by colonial rule, which the leaders of independent India had to face. We are told that “Nehru never let go of the British-created colonial state and its well-oiled machinery of repression. The brute power of the Indian police and army was used in 1948 to corral the princely state of Hyderabad into the Indian Union. Up to 40,000 Muslims were killed, and the episode remains the single-largest massacre in the history of independent India.”
This recitation takes no note of the Nizam’s and Jinnah’s intrigues and the activities of the Razakars in Hyderabad. He also keeps quiet about the repression of the communists both by the Nizam and the Indian state. Other aspects of the record that don’t fit well with his thesis – the Nehru-Liaquat pact, for example – are simply ignored.
To be sure, nobody is beyond valid criticism. Nehru himself, writing under the pen-name ‘Chanakya’ in the 1930s, cautioned against the ‘hero-worship of Jawaharlal’, telling fellow Indians bluntly, ‘We don’t need any Caesars’. Naturally, many of his acts and policies have been criticised by serious scholars as well. But serious criticism must take note of the historical context and challenges the nascent nation-state faced. In a multi-religious country like India, no ruler not confident of the support of the majority community can ensure democratic rights for the minorities. The basic reason the Hindutva ideologues hate Nehru lies precisely here – he, the ‘anglophile’, ‘irreligious’ one, had earned this support the hard way, refusing to cater to baser instincts, insisting that ‘politics be conducted on the basis of political principles, not on the basis of religious sentiments.’
Different ways of valorising the past
Ironically, Mishra chooses to bracket Nehru with the Hindu nationalists because he had faith in “the essential continuity of India from ancient civilisation to modern nation.”
Nehru indeed had faith in that continuity but unlike the Hindu nationalists, his was not rooted in ignorant fantasies and distorted imaginations of the past. As he wrote in Discovery of India, “A blind reverence for the past is bad and so also is a contempt for it, for no future can be founded on either of these.” Also, he was aware of the processes of change in this continuity due to which, “while forms often remained, the inner content continued to change.” The awareness of this dynamic of change, coupled with a futuristic perspective and acute sense of the “spirit of age, the Zeitgeist, the Yugadharma”, made Nehru realise the difficulties involved in the gigantic task of transforming an ancient civilisation into a modern nation-state.
Mere recognition of that continuity does not turn one into a believer in or fore-runner of Hindu nationalism, just as making an argument against Islamophobia does not necessarily turn one into an apologist for jihad.
Incidentally, Akbar can serve as a test case for telling the difference between the Nehruvian and Hindutva sense of continuity of Indian civilisation and history. Given the recent, renewed Hindutva attacks on Akbar, it will be in order here to remind ourselves that the Mughal-e-Azam is a villain in the version of the past constructed by ‘Pakistan Ideology’ as well. In fact, Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani – whose signature achievement was the ‘Objectives Resolution’ which foreclosed any attempts to create a secular, liberal state in Pakistan – was fond of condemning the ideas of ‘composite nationalism’ as the modern day form of Akbar’s ‘Sulah-Kul’, and glorifying Jinnah as the modern day Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi leading the jihad against this infidelity.
Nehru’s historical role
Nehru not only had a sense of the civilisational continuity of India but he also could not countenance the idea of India playing second fiddle to any one. This meant nonalignment in foreign policy while domestically he created a strong public sector within the framework of the mixed economy and had a futuristic vision of scientific research and cultural development keeping in view both the continuities and discontinuities of Indian tradition. His policies, broadly speaking, were rooted in the wisdom coming out of the varied cultural experience and memories of the Indian people. The essence of this wisdom is avoidance of extremes—‘Madhyama Pratipada, as the Buddha put it. His policies are paying off today, though those in power in India today ignore this fact. The inclusive idea of India constantly underlined during the freedom movement had to be translated into a modern nation-state, and this is exactly what Nehru and his colleagues did by warding off the designs of those seeking India’s destruction either by its balkanisation or by reimagining the country as a ‘Hindu rashtra’.
The forces of Hindutva have always seen the Nehruvian idea of India and the ideals associated with it as the greatest hurdle in their way. They have been working hard to remove this hurdle and have met some success in recent years. The horrifying results are there for everyone to see. Analysts and scholars who refuse to see the discontinuity between Hinduism and Hindutva have contributed to the success of Hindutva in no small measure. By suggesting Nehru’s sense of India’s continuity has anything in common with the Hindutva reading of the past, Mishra has gone many steps ahead in the same direction.
It is partly irritating, partly amusing to see writers reducing everyone else to the primordial identities of race, ethnicity, caste, religion or gender, while reserving the privilege of individual agency for themselves. Nehru, the ‘scion of a family of rich brahmin Anglophiles” chose to discard the privileges of his caste and class and lead the freedom movement. He chose to spend a decade of his life in British prisons in India. His life is a reminder of the fact that he didn’t just write about democratic values from a safe and privileged perch but actually fought for them in the heat and dust of the times.
Purushottam Agrawal is a writer, academic and political commentator