In the backdrop of reports streaming in of how the name of the architect of Modern India and her first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has been missing from the chapter on the country’s freedom struggle in the new class VIII social science textbook of the Rajasthan government prepared under the aegis of Prof. K S Gupta, the ‘chief patron’ of the Chittor wing of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, an RSS project on history, it becomes pertinent to question the attempts made by communal forces to sideline the legacy of Nehru by making him a social and political outcast. The reasons why that would prove lethal in the complex socio-political fabric of a pluralistic country like India are plenty and can be unearthed by revisiting Nehru’s idealistic vision of what constituted India.
Occupying a unique position in the history of India as a freedom fighter, writer, thinker and statesman of eminence, Nehru virtually built the foundation of Modern India. As the first Prime Minister of India, he laid down the basic features of Indian society and polity. According to Sudarshan Agarwal, Secretary-General, Rajya Sabha, 1981-93, in Jawaharlal Nehru and the Rajya Sabha, ‘A democrat by temperament and training, Nehru endeavoured to nurture parliamentary institutions in this country. He wanted that people must have their full say in the governance of the country. He wished to involve them in the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes aimed at alleviating poverty and ensuring social and economic justice to all irrespective of caste, creed, colour, sex or status. He held Parliament in high esteem because in his view it was through Parliament “alone that people’s will could be truly reflected. Not only that; he tried to build a system whose four main pillars were Socialism, Secularism, Democracy and Panchayati Raj - a system capable of ensuring justice and equality to all and carrying the message of democracy to grass-root levels.’
In a lecture delivered at the University of London on 12 November 1970, Vengalil K. Krishna Menon recalled how Nehru tried to mould the national movement of India into a socialist instrument. The attempt was worthwhile because there is no future for India except in a society which is socially developed, because you cannot have millions and millions of people without the means of survival, without opportunity Beating poverty, for Nehru, was possible only when there was the implementation of distributive justice. That is why, asserted V.K. Menon, we find Nehru not in 1947 or 1949, but in much earlier years, seeking a method for the development of the national movement where the base of it was the people and the people were mobilised to support it.
By people, Nehru meant individuals regardless of their religion, caste and gender. It is through this concept of people comprising a nation that we find Nehru’s ideas of nationalism constantly challenging the ideas put forth by the communal forces in both pre and post-independence, that of India being a nation based on religion, that Indian culture dominated by Hindu religion circumscribed a nation and therefore defined Indian Nationalism.
This aspect of Nehru’s thought acquires prominent significance in the current political scenario where attempts have been made increasingly to undermine the pluralistic character of the nation. Secularism, defined by Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence that the multiple faiths of India can and must coexist peaceably in a free nation, a belief shared by his most prominent follower, Nehru, underlay the very foundations of free India. The Indian national movement refused to define itself in religious terms. Nehru defined a ‘secular state’ thus:
‘In a country like India, which has many faiths and religions, no real nationalism can be built up except on the basis of secularity. Any narrower approach must exclude a section of the population and then nationalism itself will have a much more restricted meaning than it should possess ... We have not only to live upto the ideals proclaimed in our Constitution, but make them a part of our thinking and living and thus build up a really integrated nation. That ... does not mean absence of religion, but putting religion on a different plane from that of normal political and social life. Any other approach in India would mean the breaking up of India.’
Jawaharlal Nehru saw communalism of all hues as a divisive force that posed a great danger to the unity of independent India and a betrayal to the cause of India’s freedom. In his introduction to The Discovery of India, Sunil Khilnani observes, ‘Nehru resisted the argument in which nationalist intellectuals in India and elsewhere commonly indulged: the rebuttal of colonial views through evocations of mystical commonalities among Indians, and assertions of age-old ties to land and place. Nehru never proposed anything like, say, V.D. Savarkar’s views of a Hindu race joined by blood kinship.’ He told the All India Congress Committee in July 1951, ‘Let us be clear about it without a shadow of doubt in any Congressman’s mind, we stand till death for a secular state.’
Nehru carried forward the secular ethos by rejecting an exclusivist approach and to safeguard this he was willing to dismantle the idea of a single national identity through a minoritarian perspective. In one of his letters, he warned against an insidious form of nationalism that makes the majority think of itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority actually separates them. He highlighted the need for the psychological integration of our people and said it was the obligation of the majority to safeguard the interests of minorities.
During the late 1930s and 1940s, Nehru had begun to discern the close resemblance of communalism to contemporary fascism particularly in the application of same methods and techniques of hatred and violence through the use of blatant lies and similar organisational structure and style of leadership. He said in 1939, ‘Definitely fascist ides [sic] are spreading not only in the Muslim League but also in the Hindu Mahasabha’. Referring to the Muslim League and Jinnah, he wrote in October 1940 that theirs was ‘a negative programme of hatred and violence reminiscent of Nazi methods’. For Nehru, Muslim communalism was in its nature as bad as Hindu communalism, ‘But Muslim communalism cannot dominate Indian society and introduce fascism. That only Hindu communalism can.’ This old warning of Nehru’s sounds particularly appropriate today when attempts are being made to convert India into a Hindu Rashtra. His insistence on secularism presented serious challenges to the competing claims to nationalism made by communal forces which further renders an explanation to the deliberate attempts to derecognize him by certain sections of the society today.
From 1947 on, Nehru began to describe the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with its Hindu majoritarian exclusivist approach as a fascist organization. Eminent historian Aditya Mukherjee explains, ‘It was a threat to the very ‘idea of India’ as a secular country and Nehru was not about to let it succeed. With the full support of his Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel, he banned the RSS and put 25,000 of its activists in jail. Even when the ban on the RSS was removed in July 1949, after it gave written assurances that henceforth it would function only as a cultural organisation and have nothing to do with politics, he warned the Chief Ministers of the fascist nature of the RSS and the threat of their renewing their activities.’8 (Jawaharlal Nehru: Letters to Chief Ministers, July 20, 1949 and August 1, 1949, vol. 1, pp. 412-13, 428)
Jawaharlal Nehru was a statesman of the tallest order and this is evident from his thoughts on international relations. V.K. Menon recalled how Nehru envisioned a world order based on the doctrine of coexistence. For Nehru, ‘However long it takes, if the world is to survive, then they have got to learn to live together’. Yet, for Menon, Nehru did not take a romantic view: ‘If you are a Good Samaritan you should also have the base of selfinterest’. Mutuality of interest was another basis of international co-operation. But in all this, in the twentieth century world, he was dominated by the conception that without world peace it was not possible to accomplish anything, and peace to him, as to Mahatma Gandhi also, was not the peace of the grave nor the absence of war, but the establishment of equilibrium inside communities and between communities.
Nehru was a prolific writer. The long periods of imprisonment to which he was subjected by the British colonial government, monumental works like the Glimpses of World History, Autobiography and The Discovery of India were accomplished. Apart from these, he wrote several letters to his fellow nationalists and contemporary functionaries of the Indian state throwing light on his ideas of India. To read these is to know Nehru and to know Nehru is to be educated on what real India or Bharat should be all about.
http://inc.in/CongressSandesh/379/The-legacy-of-Jawaharlal-Nehru-will-Endure-the-ravages-of-time-forever, 24 September 2017.
- Richa Raj is Assistant Professor of History at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi, and is the President of National Movement Front.