By Dr Satish C Aikant
It is the sad irony of our times that as one observes the birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru one has to think in terms of being politically correct. Nehru’s stock is low in public mind, so the perception has been created, thanks to the persistent efforts of those on the far right of our political spectrum. Nevertheless, putting aside my scruples and braving the current political climate I must set out to express my opinions knowing that my words will be anathema to those in power today when there is a systematic campaign to wipe out the legacy of Nehru and wilfully ignore his contribution to the making of modern India. Perhaps his detractors realize that without belittling his towering personality and erasing his impressions on the public mind they cannot run their own narrative of rewriting history.
It can hardly be disputed that we live in a world mainly shaped by Nehru and his compatriots. No other leader has had such lasting influence on the polity and institutions of our country. He was the pre-eminent voice of Indian freedom movement and one of the key architects of modern India. If one were asked to name three most important twentieth century Indians who have left their mark on political and cultural terrain of India and have been recognized globally, they are Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore. They frequently disagreed among themselves, but together they represented the genius of India and who could rise above limited concerns to embrace humanity in their expansive vision.
Writing for Nehru Abhinandan Granth published in 1949 when Nehru turned sixty Patel called him ‘the idol of the nation, the leader of the people, the Prime Minister of the country, and the hero of the masses, whose noble record and great achievements are an open book, hardly needs any recommendation from me.’ He wrote further: ‘Contrary to the impression created by some interested persons and eagerly accepted in credulous circles, we have worked together as lifelong friends and colleagues, adjusting ourselves to each other’s point of view as the occasion demanded, and valuing each other’s advice as only those who have confidence in each other can.’ This should be a rap on the knuckles of those who have been trying to pit Nehru against Patel.
Nehru appeared on the political horizon of India just at the right time and he was fortunate to have found his mentor in Mahatma Gandhi who in several ways complemented him. ‘When I am gone he will speak my language.’ These words of Gandhi about Nehru were almost prophetic. No single person except Mahatma Gandhi has had a more abiding and enduring impact on the Indian people in recent history than Jawaharlal Nehru so that when Gandhi’s mantle passed on to Nehru no one questioned its appropriateness.
Nehru was without religious faith but he was in possession of the deepest moral sense; he believed in the moral life as sustaining not just private life, but also as necessary for the living of any kind of political life. Unlike Gandhi, he set himself no superhuman moral feats. But like Gandhi, he possessed a remarkable steadfastness of faith. He was a man of the people and empathized with the toiling masses. Not surprisingly Gandhi, aware of Nehru’s sterling qualities, chose him to lead the country. We talk about Gandhi-Nehru era, conjointly. If Gandhi has so far not faced frontal attacks from the BJP and RSS it is because he is a universal figure and has left a mark on the world consciousness inspiring global leadership. But if Nehru is being attacked today, the attacks on Gandhi may not be far off. He is already within the firing range of the Sangh Parivar. The signals are ominous. In a radically changed scenario Nehru and everything associated with him are abhorrent to the Sangh affiliates. The problem for BJP/RSS is that they cannot claim a lineage that can be associated with the freedom movement. The RSS was never its part and in fact collaborated with the British. They are therefore desperately in need of inventing their heroes by appropriating the leaders of the freedom movement whether it is Saradar Patel or Ambedkar or Bhagat Singh or Subhash Chandra Bose who, incidentally, had nothing in common with the Hindutva ideology.
The political landscape we inhabit today seems to have become the territory of those who question the fundamentally plural and secular ethos of India by making new claims to identity – couched in divisive terms using coercion and violence to assert their dominance. We lack Nehru’s intellectual ability and wisdom to see what it takes to keep a nation going. Nehru believed with Tagore that India was a mix and melange of cultures, the diversity of ideas, faiths and ways of living.
It is time that we ensured that the nation-building process that began with Nehru does not degenerate into a nation destroying strategy, and ethnic and religious pluralism become a source of sustenance rather than of dissonance for the Indian federation. It is time for the abolition of socio-economic discriminations that draw strength from the existing exploitative and oppressive system. We should remember that the broader notion of democratic politics goes beyond elections. Without the three freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religious practice, and freedom of association – everyday politics can become authoritarian, despite free elections. Popular leadership should not be allowed to degenerate into populist leadership.
Nehru was one of the greatest internationalists of his age. While he was deeply steeped in nationalism his overall outlook was a combination of cosmopolitanism and secular ethic. The Western influence made a significant contribution to his intellectual development. In his inimitable and forthright way, he might have stated that he had become ‘a queer mixture of the East and the West,’ but he was overwhelmed by the civilizational currents of India. His Will and Testament makes it abundantly clear how deeply connected he felt to ‘that unbroken chain which goes back to the dawn of history in the immemorial past of India. That chain I would not break, for I treasure it and seek inspiration from it.’
To be sure, Nehru was only human, not superhuman, and was prone to human weakness and errors of judgement. He has been vilified for his intransigent stand on the Kashmir issue. There may be some truth to this criticism. His own misreading of the Chinese, too, needs no elaboration. It led to the most traumatic and humiliating episode in his career. Also, it can be reasonably argued that despite certain obvious outward changes in forms of governance the Indian government under Jawaharlal Nehru represented in many respects represented a continuation of British attitudes both in form and substance. It retained the repressive state apparatus and maintained more or less the political and administrative structures inherited from the British instead of developing alternative structures. Yet nurturing of multiparty democracy and religious and linguistic pluralism and gender equality must count as notable successes of Nehru and his government. India is virtually alone among post-colonial states in Asia to have adopted secularism as a key feature of her constitution and the cornerstone of her strategy of nation building. Today it has become fashionable to decry secularism as an outmoded concept.
Nehru believed in the scientific method and temper. He believed that industrialization was essential for the modernization of India and emphasized in particular, both heavy and basic industries, river valley projects, atomic research and exploration of the farther frontiers of scientific knowledge. His interest lay as much in the culture of science as in its material achievements, and he repeatedly invoked what he termed the ‘scientific temper’ and the ‘spirit of science’. This philosophical understanding of science enabled him to present his own social ideals and political convictions as being grounded in rationality. Science alone ensured that society did not revert to the kind of barbarism that fundamentalism and reactionary obscurantism witnessed sometimes in mixing history with mythology and science with superstition. What are we trying to prove by the NCERT removing Darwin’s theory of evolutionary biology from the school curriculum?
Today, when India is faced with challenges to its economic and political sovereignty and threats to the democratic credentials of Indian constitution, we need to revisit the basic Nehruvian values of secularism, pluralism and dialogism to help the country out of its predicament. What we need is an updated version of Nehru’s idea of India in sync with the modern times and initiate a democratic renewal to ward off authoritarian tendencies that are surreptitiously entering in the name of democracy and hyper nationalism.
(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B.Garhwal University)