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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 20, New Delhi, May 2, 2020

Nehru and Nature

Sunday 3 May 2020, by Sukumaran C.V.

by Sukumaran C.V.

We cannot go back to that old pantheistic outlook and yet perhaps we may still sense the mystery of nature, listen to its song of life and beauty, and draw vitality from it. That song is not sung in the chosen spots only, and we can hear it, if we have the ears for it, almost everywhere.—Jawaharlal Nehru (The Discovery of India)

There are plenty of writings on Nehru the secularist and Nehru the democrat. But virtually nothing has been written on Nehru the Environmentalist or on Nehru’s love for and understanding of Nature. In his writings, especially in his autobiography (An Autobiography) and The Discovery of India there are strong indicators that suggest Nehru would be a staunch Environmentalist if he lives today—the age of Global Warming and Climate Change ushered in by the unsustainable development the humans pursue worldwide devastating the Environment that sustains life on earth. The Congress failed Nehru miserably and treacherously when Indira Gandhi, his own daughter, strangled Indian democracy by pushing the nation into the abyss of Emergency in 1975. And since then, the Congress and Nehru’s descendants have had no connection with the secular democracy—the foundation on which Nehru has painstakingly built independent India. As the Congress and the Gandhi family have failed even to protect the Nehruvian secular democracy and Nehru’s concept of welfare state; developing Indian secular democracy, that is the greatest legacy of Nehru, to higher and wider dimensions was not even in the least priority list of the Congress which has become absolutely pro-corporate since 1991 and left the vast majority of the poor and the farmers to the grip of the cut-throat corporate economy that exploits all the natural resources by destroying the Environment and the sustainable livelihood means of the ordinary people of India.

If the Congress had succeeded to sustain the vision and passion of Nehru for bettering the living conditions of the mass, it would have developed even Environmental politics and denied the BJP and Modi, the more aggressive representatives of the corporate economy and die-hard enemies of whatever it is Nehruvian, the chance to further deteriorate the secular democracy of the country and push it into a quagmire of public lynching, pseudo-science and the killing of reason and dissent.

India today wants the spirit and outlook of Nehru who could think and write as the following, even 75 years ago: “Often as I look at this world, I have a sense of mysteries, of unknown depths. The urge to understand it, in so far as I can, comes to me: to be in tune with it and to experience it in its fullness. But the way to that understanding seems to me essentially the way of science, the way of objective approach. What the mysterious is I don’t know. I don’t call it God because God has come to mean much that I don’t believe in. I find myself incapable of thinking of a deity or of any unknown supreme power in anthropomorphic terms, and the fact many people think so is continually a source of surprise to me.” (The Discover of India, Chapter 1, under the subtitle ‘Life’s Philosophy’. Italics added).

Today, it is very difficult to find out even a single Congress politician who keeps such an outlook. The so called communists think in this line, but the problem with them is that they are dogmatic and their dogmas blind their eyes and they don’t see Nature as Nehru sees it. They can understand Nehru the secularist, Nehru the democrat, and Nehru the atheist; but they, just like the Congress politicians, can’t understand Nehru the Environmentalist or Naturalist. The same Nehru who says that “India must lessen her religiosity and turn into science. She must get rid of the exclusiveness in thought and social habit which has made life a prison to her, stunting her spirit and preventing growth,” further says: “The earth and the sun are the sources of life and if we keep away from them for long, life begins to ebb away. Modern industrialised communities have lost touch with the soil and do not experience that joy which nature gives and the rich glow of health which comes from contact with mother earth. They talk of nature’s beauty and go to seek it in occasional week-ends, littering the countryside with the products of their own artificial lives, but they cannot commune with nature or feel part of it.” (The Discovery of India, Chapter 10, under the sub-title ‘The Problem of Population. Falling Birth-rates and National Decay’).

That is Nehru the complete man, Nehru the incomprehensible persona for the Congress party and both the Left and Right parties in India for whom Nature is only a resource to be encroached, exploited, devastated and defiled in the name of progress and development.

Nehru is a man of science; but he thinks beyond science. He says: “Science gives power but remains impersonal, purposeless, and almost unconcerned with our application of the knowledge it puts at our disposal. It may continue its triumphs and yet, if it ignores nature too much, nature may play a subtle revenge upon it.” (The Discovery of India, Chapter 10, under the sub-title ‘The Problem of Population. Falling Birth-rates and National Decay’). Think about the prophetic truth contains in those sentences in the backdrop of the havoc the novel coronavirus wreaks around the world which is highly ‘developed’ by science that ignores nature too much.

Nehru is more a Marxist or communist than any conventional Marxist or communist is. He says in his autobiography: “Marx may be wrong in some of his statements, or his theory of value. But he seems to me to have possessed quite an extraordinary degree of insight into social phenomena, and his insight was apparently due to the scientific method he adopted.” (An Autobiography, Chapter 67—Some Recent Happenings).

But the same Nehru thinks beyond Marxism. He further says: “I dislike dogmatism, and the treatment of Karl Marx’s writings or any other books as revealed scripture which cannot be challenged, and the regimentation and heresy hunts which seems to be a feature of modern communism. I dislike also much that has happened in Russia, and especially the excessive use of violence in normal times. But still I incline more and more towards a communist philosophy.” (An Autobiography, Chapter 67—Some Recent Happenings). And it is interesting to read his insightful observations about the Indian Communists: “Normally speaking, in a country like India with large number of people on the verge of starvation and the economic structure cracking up, communism should have a wide appeal, but the Communist Party cannot take advantage of it because it has cut itself off from the springs of national sentiment and speaks in a language which finds no echo in the hearts of the people.” (The Discovery of India, Chapter 10, under the sub-title ‘The Importance of the National Idea. Changes Necessary in India’). How true, accurate and contemporaneous the observation is even today!!

India today direly needs, but pathetically lacks, politicians of the stature of Nehru who possess clear thought and genuine vision for the benefit of the mass. Compared to the politicians we see in India today, I don’t see Nehru as a politician of their ilk; he was a fine writer, he was a deep thinker and he was a voracious reader too. Our contemporary politicians miserably lack these qualities. Every politician can’t be a thinker and a writer, but each politician can be and should be a good reader, and work for the benefit of the people among whom he lives, and protect the Environment that sustains the people.

All the three literary gems of Nehru—Glimpses of World History,An Autobiography and The Discovery of India—were written while he was in prison. The chapter titled ’Animals in Prison’ (An Autobiography) shows the compassionate Nehru and the nascent Environmentalist in him:

“As I grew more observant I noticed all manner of insects living in my cell or in the little yard outside. I realised that while I complained of loneliness, that yard, which seemed empty and deserted, was teeming with life. All these creeping or crawling or flying insects lived their life without interfering with me in any way, and I saw no reason why I should interfere with them. But there was continuous war between me and bed-bugs, mosquitos, and, to some extent, flies. Wasps and hornets I tolerated, and there were hundreds of them in my cell. There had been a little tiff between us when, inadvertently I think, a wasp had stung me. In my anger I tried to exterminate the lot, but they put up a brave fight in defence of their home, which probably contained their eggs, and I desisted and decided to leave them in peace if they did not interfere with me any more. For over a year after that I lived in that cell surrounded by these wasps and hornets, and they never attacked me, and we respected each other.”

In his writings, Nehru’s prose often metamorphoses into poetry. I have seldom seen poetic prose as Nehru’s elsewhere. The best example is the following description in the above mentioned chapter: “Spring was very pleasant in Dehra, and it was a far longer one than in the plains below. The winter had denuded almost all the trees of their leaves, and they stood naked and bare. Even four magnificent peepal trees, which stood in front of the gaol gate, much to my surprise, dropped all their leaves. Gaunt and cheerless they stood there, till the spring air warmed them up again and sent a message of life to their innermost cells.”

The chapter reveals that Nehru is a compassionate observer of Nature. I don’t think we can see such minutely observed descriptions about birds and other living beings including snakes and centipedes in the autobiographies of any political leader. Even Gandhi nowhere in his autobiography speaks about other living beings. The narrative of the humans gives no space for non humans, except, of course, if and when they encounter them as enemies to be hunted and eliminated. I think the most revealing of Nehru’s personality is seen in this chapter in which he speaks about watching even ants: “I used to watch the ants and the white ants and other insects by the hour. ...Then there were the squirrels, crowds of them if trees were about. They would become very venturesome and come right near us. In Lucknow Gaol I used to sit reading almost without moving for considerable periods, and a squirrel would climb up my leg and sit on my knee and have a look around. And then it would look into my eyes and realise that I was not a tree or whatever it had taken me for. Fear would disable it for a moment, and then it would scamper away. ...Pigeons abounded in all the gaols I went to, except in the mountain prison of Almora. There were thousands of them and in the evenings the sky would be thick with them. ...There were mainas, of course; they are to be found everywhere. A pair of them nested over my cell door in Dehra Dun, and I used to feed them. They grew quite tame, and if there was any delay in their morning or evening meal, they would sit quite near me and loudly demand their food. It was amusing to watch their signs and listen to their impatient cries. In Naini there were thousands of parrots, and large numbers of them lived in the crevices of my barrack wall. ...Dehra Dun had a variety of birds, and there was a regular jumble of singing and lively chattering and twittering, and high above it all came the koel’s plaintive call. During the monsoon and just before it the Brain-Fever bird visited us. It was amazing the persistence with which it went on repeating the same notes, in daytime and at night, in sunshine and in pouring rain.”

We, the people of India, are fortunate to have a person like Nehru who was a born poet, to be our first Prime Minister. If India sustains still as a democracy in the face of the continuous onslaught of strident communal politics of both the minority and majority varieties, it is because of the strong secular democratic foundation on which Nehru built the nation. The communal forces can appropriate even Ambedkar and Gandhi, but they can neither appropriate Nehru because there is nothing common between him and them; nor demolish him because he will burn their fingers if they dare to touch him. And that is why they hate Nehru as they hate nobody else and take care not to mention his name even when it is impossible not to mention him.

The author SUKUMARAN C.V. is a former JNU student now working as senior clerk in the Kerala State Government service. He can be reached via : lscvsuku[at]

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