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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 23

Some Memories of Nehru

Thursday 31 May 2007, by Renu Chakravartty

The following are tributes to Jawaharlal Nehru by some noted public figures, members of the National Committee for the Commemoration of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centenary; these were published in a collection Nehru: The Nation Remembers brought out by the National Committee on the occasion of Nehru’s birth centenary (November 14, 1989).

It was the winter of 1928. The session of the Indian National Congress was being held in Calcutta. My uncle, Dr B.C. Roy, being the General Secretary of the Reception Committee, our house on Wellington Street had become a centre for all India Congress leaders to come and go. I was only eleven years old, but I clearly remember Pandit Motilal Nehru who was the President-designate for the session being pulled in a horse-drawn carriage in a huge procession of lakhs of people. We had a verandah hanging out overlooking the road and large numbers of people had gathered there to have a glimpse of that grand spectacle from that vantage ground. Among them was the family of Motilal Nehru—Saruprani his wife, his daughter-in-law Kamala Nehru, his daughter Krishna, Mrs Sarojini Naidu’s daughter Padmaja and hosts of others. We didn’t see Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru with them. But just a little later, Padmaja had fainted, possibly due to over-exhaustion, and then suddenly we saw a handsome young man in kurta pyjama and wearing on top of it what came to be known as the “Nehru waistcoat” rush in, pick up Padmaja, put her on a bench and call for the doctor. That is the very first glimpse I had of the ever-restless, energetic Panditji with his flashing eyes, yet gentle behaviour. When the session began, there was great excitement over the news that thousands of jute workers were marching to the Congress pandal to lay before the national leaders their demand for Purna Swaraj and an end to the exploitation of the poverty-stricken working class, an important part of whom were the jute workers of Bengal. Those were the days when the Purna Swaraj resolution had not yet been passed by the Indian National Congress. People had not yet seen the organised working class as a phalanx of the freedom fighters led by the Indian National Congress. We youngsters that day in December 1928, were in the pandal as a part of the chorus who were singing the national songs at the session and I remember how there was a nervous expectancy as to what those jute workers would do! There was Gandhiji, the President-elect Motilal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad all huddled in conclave on the dais. We could hear the shouts of “Inquilab Zindabad” outside. As we looked out, we saw Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on a black horse, riding to keep the workers in line, helping the volunteers to see discipline was maintained, and also with him we saw Subhas Chandra Bose, the General commanding the Congress volunteer force. It was a grand sight for me, hardly in my early teens, to see symbolically the working class trying to join forces with the national mainstream in the struggle for independence, and at its helm on the one hand Bankim Mookerji, the Communist trade union leader, and on the other side, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who had just seen the force of the workers revolution in the Soviet Union and who was to popularise more than anyone before him, the tenets of socialism and its potency in our struggle for independence. I was too young to understand the full portent of this symbolic event, but this picture comes back to me again and again as Nehru unfolded himself before us and our generation.

As a student in England, I witnessed the awesome march of Fascism right across Europe. In our own country the struggle against British imperialism went on unabated. It is due to the clear-sighted vision of Nehru that he grasped what many others could not: that fascism was the extreme form of imperialism and, therefore, all freedom fighters must, with all their strength, defeat it. We were witness to the great anti-fascist unity achieved, which brought together forces as wide apart as Winston Churchill and Harry Pollit, the Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The students were a leading force in this front. The International Brigade had been formed and they went to fight in Spain, many laying down their lives. The heroic struggle of the Spanish Civil War was on, fighting against Franco-fascism. At such a time there was a huge meeting in Paris to protest against the bombardment of open cities by the fascists, and students from all over Europe, including us students studying in England, were also there. The great orator Dolores Ibarruri, called lovingly ‘La Passionaria’, was to speak. It was such a joy to see right in front of us, standing with Krishna Menon, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira and Feroze Gandhi. Nehru was not one of those who thought that Indian independence could be brought about by allying with Hitler or Togo fascists-just because it happened that they were fighting Britain. To him the fight against fascism was one and indivisible with the fight against imperialism. This accurate political analysis gave him a breadth of vision, of never allowing nationalism to deteriorate to blind narrow national chauvinism in the field of international affairs and which enabled him later to become the grand architect of the foreign policy of independent India which has served India so well.

When we Communists entered the first Parliament in 1952 and became the main Opposition, we saw Panditji’s parliamentary practices at the closest quarters—so to say, across the well of the House.

When Parliament was in session he made it a point to be in Delhi and often rejected appointments on the plea that parliament was on. In spite of being an extremely busy man, he was in Parliament throughout the day either in the House or in his parliamentary office room and we could see him from the lobby deep in work, as he left his windows wide open, refusing to use air conditioners. He could listen in to the debates going on in the House on the radio he had on his table and if any furore took place, we would find him immediately walking down the stairs to his seat. I remember one such occasion. It was on a Friday which is allotted to Private Members’ bills and resolutions, and as such was not considered an important day. Attendance was generally thin. But the subject to be debated had not escaped Panditji. It was the time when the Sadhu Samaj was raising some dust over the issue of cow slaughter, demanding a ban on it. It was a sensitive issue with communal overtones. Even in the Cabinet there were important Ministers who were in favour of a ban. At the time of the debate Panditji was not in the House. The debate, as was to be expected, raised sharp controversies. When the time for voting came there were very few in our benches. I and the late Sarjoo Pandey were there and we had to take the decision regarding how to vote. We decided to take the line of least resistance and decided to remain neutral.

Immediately after I got a little note from Panditji saying: ‘Renu, it is surprising that Communists should remain neutral on such an issue.’ I immediately acknowledged to myself that I had been wrong. What expectations he had from Communists in their adherence to secularism!

One could go on remembering many of Nehru’s progressive thoughts. But I will end on the note which became the most painful to him—the Chinese attack on India which brought down the entire edifice he had built of “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai”. There were virulent attacks on him and his government. His Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, was under attack. There was a wave of bitterness throughout our country and anger, more so because the attack had come from a neighbour, whom the people had regarded as their friend for centuries and the revival of which had been furthered by Jawaharlal Nehru’s adherence to and signing of the principles of Panchsheel. Panditji stood up reiterating the Indian people’s determination to face the attack and protect the freedom of the motherland. But Panditji did not forget, in the midst of those troubled times, to stand up against all those who spoke of ‘brutalising’ ourselves, as some spoke in Parliament, to resist the “hordes of Central Asia (who) are again on the march”. With great emphasis he stated:

There is a definite distinction between being strong and being brutalised….I would like to stress that I do not want that aspect of the Cold War and the hot war which leads to hatred and dislike of a whole people and looking upon them as something beyond normal…We have nothing against the Chinese people. We regret many things their Government has done. We think their Government has acted infamously towards us. We regret many things their Government has done in their country. We cannot help them. Anyhow we must always distinguish between the people of any country, great in size, great in history, and its Government, and not transfer somehow our anger and bitterness at what has been done by the Government to the people.

Even in the moment of the greatest crisis he faced, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who, physically we could see, could not survive much longer, never lost sight mentally of the correct perspective of history. Addressing the students of Viswabharati University at their Convocation in November 1962, Panditji spoke feelingly of his respect for Cheena Bhawan in Viswabharati. Standing face to face with the Chinese attack on our borders he could say with such firmness:

Here is a symbol of co-operation. We want international co-operation—the co-operation between India and China as in Cheena Bhawan, and I hope it will flourish; it will grow and show to the world that while we fight the aggressor, we do not fight culture, we do not fight people who are friendly to us and look forward to a time when we shall again have friendly relations with all the people. We have no quarrel with the people of any country—we will have quarrel with those who attack us and we will resist them.

That was the strength and clarity of vision of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru even at the moment of his greatest trial. To him we pay our respect on the occasion of his birth centenary.

The author was a former Deputy Leader of the Communist group in the Lok Sabha.

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