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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 10, New Delhi, February 20, 2021

A meeting with farmers that changed Nehru | Naved Ashrafi

Saturday 20 February 2021


by Naved Ashrafi

More than two years back exactly from these days when farmers have now inched their way towards the national capital of India vociferously protesting against new farm laws, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while campaigning for the upcoming assembly elections in Rajasthan in 2018, said that a Congress leader used to wear a rose on his jacket but had no knowledge of farming. Modi didn’t name Jawaharlal Nehru. He has always been quick at peremptorily hurling political jibes targeting the prominent freedom fighter and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Congress party; and he do so more unhesitatingly in election rallies and electoral campaigns in a flamboyant panache.
Modi’s peculiar remark was about a person who started his own kind of political journey of ‘democratic socialism’ only after he felt traumatised and stunned by the awful condition of peasants in the British India when he met a group of peasants in Allahabad in 1920; and about a person who wished after his death his ashes be scattered from aeroplanes over the agricultural fields in India!

Nehru passed through a continuum of socio-political life. He spent a ‘sheltered and uneventful’ childhood who was never made to visit a kindergarten and whose primary education was outsourced to governesses or private teachers. Latter would visit Motilal’s house every day to make the little Nehru learn.

In his childhood, he remained ‘filled with resentment’ on the misbehaviour meted out to his countrymen at the hands of the British in public places; and would be more than happy whenever an Indian hit back!

Nehru would feel ‘lonely and homesick’ initially at Harrow but later developed an interest in reading books and newspapers. He was attracted by General Election in England and now used to talk about politics. Also, at Harrow, stories of early growth of aviation and that of Wright Brothers fascinated him greatly.

Later, when he moved to the Cambridge, he was equally mindful about what was transpiring in India on the political horizon. Though he proudly called himself a Tilakite, he was still filled with ‘shyness and diffidence’ to speak in the sessions of Majlis—the debating society of Indians at the Cambridge. Nehru used to criticise the ‘moderate politics’ of his father and wrote him ‘an impertinent letter’ that earned him ire of Motilal Nehru.

Initially in England Nehru was influenced by Fabian ideas up to some extent which remained only an intellectual business with no operative ground. When Nehru returned to India in 1912, a feeling of nationalism overwhelmed him. Politics, to Nehru, was ‘aggressive nationalist activity’ against the British rule and Nehru was in a state which he called ‘all nationalism and patriotism’. ‘... I was a pure nationalist and my vague socialist ideas of college days having sunk in to the background’, wrote Nehru in Autobiography. 

When Russia witnessed the Kerensky Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution, he felt happy and lend his sympathies and solidarity with Russian revolutionaries. By then Nehru had not read anything about Marxism. Nehru’s real encounter with socialism was in the wake of his meeting with farmers in Allahabad in June 1920, and unlike the European experience, it was on operative ground. Nehru met an opportunity which can be better expressed by a couplet from Allama Iqbal’s poem Tālib e Ilm (The Student),

Khuda Tujhe Kisi Toofań Se Aashna Kar De
Ke Tere Beher Ki Maujoń Meń Iztarāb Nahiń

(Tr.- God bring you acquainted with some storm!, No billow in your sea break in foam.)

A storm had now devastated Nehru which was brought about by vagaries and vicissitudes of semi-naked sons and daughters of India, their indigence, their privations and their penury. As a tālib e ilm, who recently encountered a turbulence, Nehru was to embark upon the promising journey of socialism.

Before meeting the farmers Nehru had a bourgeoisie outlook and so was his politics. It is evident from his observation in An Autobiography,

“My politics had been those of my class, the bourgeoisie... In 1920 I was totally ignorant of labour conditions in factories or fields and my political outlook was entirely bourgeois...”

In May 1920, Nehru visited Mussoorie with his mother and wife who were ill and needed a rejuvenation. He stayed at Savoy Hotel where an Afgan delegation was already present for some negotiations with the British. Nehru was served a letter by Superintendent of Police advising him not to meet any member of the Afgan delegation. Nehru defied and was served an externment order. He left Dehradun district and returned to Allahabad where he stayed for two weeks. Nehru recollects,

“... a new interest developed in my life which was to play an important part in later years. I was thrown almost without any will of my own, in to contact with the peasantry... As a result of externment order from Mussoorie I spent about two weeks in Allahabad, and it was during this period that I got entangled in the Kisan movement. That entanglement grew in later years and influenced my mental outlook greatly.”

In June 1920 hundreds of farmers marched from Pratabgarh to Allahabad city to make urban leadership acquainted with their miseries and woebegone conditions. They demanded the leaders from Allahabad city to accompany them to the countryside and take a stock of agrarian distress. On their insistence, Nehru accompanied them and spent three days in villages. This visit proved to be a ‘revelation’ to Nehru as he earnestly confessed in Autobiography. 

Nehru observed that villagers were in tatters but their eyes were brimmed with hope and expectations as if Nehru and his colleagues would end all of their miseries. He was welcomed as a bearer of good tidings for farmers and their faith in these ‘casual visitors from the distant city’ filled Nehru with a sense of responsibility that frightened Nehru.
Jawaharlal Nehru was ashamed and shaken to the core! Ashamed of spending an easy-going and comfortable life and of petty politics of city that ignored countryside India living in rags and shreds. Nehru recounts,

“I listened to their innumerable tales of sorrow, their crushing and ever-growing burden of rent, illegal exactions, ejectments from land and mud hut, beatings; surrounded on all sides by vultures who prayed on them—zamindar’s agents, money-lenders, police; toiling all day to find that what they produced was not theirs and their reward was kicks and curses and a hungry stomach.”

After the Pratapgarh visit, Nehru’s outlook was completely changed and these hungry and naked masses always remained in his mental picture of India. The picture that Nehru saw stayed indelibly on his mind.

Nehru became bold and his shyness and diffidence was purged of. He started addressing public gatherings earning a great appeal and command. People started listening to him, following him. To end the sufferings of masses, Nehru devised a technique of socialism which was unique to Indian settings. He was not inspired by Marx but by indigent masses of India. Perhaps, this was the reason why Mahatma Gandhi—champion of village-based swaraj—had said that not Rajaji but Jawaharlal would be his successor and that when he (Gandhi) was gone, Nehru would speak his language.

Jawaharlal Nehru was a true connoisseur of beauty. He was an eternal learner and never claimed to be an expert on anything under the sky. Graduated with second class honours in Natural Science tripos with Chemistry, Geology, and Botany, he believed that to appreciate an article of beauty one needn’t be an expert on it.

In the inaugural meeting of Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), Nehru exhorted the expert audience and civil servants that there was a need to develop ‘human element’ in the public administration which was inherited from the colonial era. He alarmed about the prospective danger that experts who were good at many things might become rather inexpert in understanding even a single human being. ‘It is just like a botanist good at his science but have no pleasure in flowers’, said Nehru. To Nehru, entertaining and admiring an article of beauty (like a flower) was a human trait, and it did not command expertise, vocational finesse or professionalism on the part of the beholder. Wearing a rose on jacket, thus, seems to be a ‘human act’ of admiring beauty.

* (Naved Ashrafi is a faculty member at Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU), Hyderabad. He can be reached at navedashrafi[at]

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