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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 47, November 15, 2014

Reclaiming Nehru’s Legacy

Sunday 16 November 2014

by Sucheta Mahajan

On the eve of the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, it is time to pause and recall some aspects of his contribution to the freedom struggle and the transition to a modern, independent India. He was the quintessential democrat, the upholder of civil liberties, the doughty fighter against communalism, the builder of the republic, the world statesman.

In recent months we have seen in the press a questioning of Nehru’s contribution and legacy. In the past he has been dubbed as a pseudo- secularist. Today he is sought to be depicted as the antithesis of Patel, the ‘nation builder’. We often hear unfounded criticism in the press emanating from BJP quarters that the Kashmir problem would have been quickly sorted out had it been entrusted to Patel. The ‘pragmatic’ Patel, who brought the princely states into the Union, is built up as a counterpoise to the ‘trusting’ Nehru, who, it is alleged, complicated the situation by referring the dispute to the UN.

The BJP, with its lip-service to market-oriented policies, has criticised what they describe as Nehru’s emphasis on state control and a closed economy, though they have not yet moved away from such policies. (Nalapat, The Sunday Guardian, November 7, 2014). In reality, Nehru was not for state control but for a planned economy, which he ushered in after an extensive debate with economists the world over. He did not merely impose his own predilection on the country.

Narendra Modi in a speech made at Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, on November 15, 2013 ( mocked at Rahul Gandhi for seeking to change the system which his family had initiated and entrenched. Modi put the responsi-bility on Nehru for starting the system which his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, continued. On the eve of Nehru’s death anniversary this year, Nehru’s association with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was said to be the reason why Nehru was the hero of his age, but an outcast in ours. (Guha, Hindustan Times: May 24, 2014) One fails to understand how Jawaharlal Nehru, who passed away in 1964, can be held accountable for the weaknesses and mistakes of the Congress party a full half-century later.

Nehru the Democrat

Nehru’s contribution to parliamentary demo-cracy and democratic institutions has stood the test of time. India has had free and fair elections, including the present one in May 2014, and the baton has been handed over peacefully from one government to the other. This is often in contrast to some of our Asian neighbours, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Nehru the democrat does not go back only to his years as Prime Minister. The Objectives Resolution that he framed for the Constituent Assembly in 1947 spelt out the importance of democracy in the republic on the lines of the vision of the Indian national movement. Later, having learnt his lesson from partition that communalism can extract such a heavy price, he, along with Patel and other colleagues, saw to it that separate electorates were ruled out, that there were no communal parties and that there was no reservation for minorities.

But his concern for democratic functioning goes back to 1937 when he was the President of the Congress, when, under the pen name of Chanakya, he wrote an article titled ‘The Rashtrapati’ in the Modern Review. This article warned people about a certain Jawaharlal Nehru who, as the President of the Congress, was arrogant and showed tendencies towards being dictatorial.

For Nehru, election campaigns were a means to educating the masses about the importance of democracy. Much is written about the 1952 elections, the first in free India, when he reached out to 35 million people. Few know that in the 1937 elections he travelled 80,000 kms, often by horseback, road, rail and even foot, taking the message of anti-imperialism and socialism across the land. And this was an election he felt the Congress should not participate in, as it was under the aegis of the Government of India Act, 1935.

Fighter against Communalism

A special feature of Nehru’s political commitment was how it was woven as the warp into the woof of pluralism, indeed secularism. Nehru of course understood the danger of communalism. He saw glimmerings of Fascist tendencies in the Muslim League’s National Guards. But he recog-nised that in India the greater danger came from majority communalism. When riots broke out in October 1946 in Bihar, he was appalled at how the Hindu peasant masses had run riot, chastised them and even threatened to bomb them from the air if they did not retreat to their homes and cease attacks immediately.

When the creation of Pakistan was announced on June 3, 1947, some Hindu communal-minded people and organisations raised the demand for a Hindu state. It is important to note that Gandhi, Nehru and Patel were of one view in ruling out a Hindu state—they were clear that regardless of the way Pakistan went, India would not be a theocratic state and Hinduism would not be a state religion. They stressed that India would be a secular state which would not recognise any caste or creed. It is totally ahistorical to break up the unity of their position and place each one in a separate box with distinct labels: Gandhi, the anti-secularist; Nehru, the pseudo-secularist; and Patel, the nationalist.

In the halcyon days of 1947, he would often jump into a crowd to pull up rioters, daring them to kill Jawaharlal first before they hurt the hair of an innocent person. (Ironically, an RSS activist in Kerala wrote on October 17, 2014 in the RSS mouthpiece, Kesari, that Godse should have killed Nehru, not Gandhi.) While he was forthright in condemning communal violence and hate speech, he was so committed to civil liberties that he did not suppress the virulent speeches being made. He sternly warned the communalists to stop their hate campaign but stopped short of repression as he did not want that the newly established Congress regime should be criticised for muzzling free speech—something they had criticised the British Government for. However, once Gandhiji was assassinated by a Hindu communalist, Nehru and Patel worked together to ban the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha and 25,000 of their activists were sent to jail. Units in the princely states were disbanded and the Hindu Maha-sabha dissolved itself.

The best in Jawaharlal Nehru came to the fore in the aftermath of Gandhiji’s assassination. He distilled the determination to remove communalism from the Indian body politic from the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. He stressed that two grievous blows had been dealt to the country—first the partition and then the assassination of the Mahatma. From there must come the resolve to root out communalism, he exhorted his people. The people in response moved away from the communal forces they now regretted they had turned to in the wake of Pakistan. India got a lease of life for almost two decades in terms of a polity free from communalism.

In these Nehruvian years democratic institu-tions in India were embedded firmly in her secular polity and pluralistic society. In contrast to her neighbours, which were embroiled in military coups, parliamentary democracy grew roots with every election conducted freely and fairly. In Parliament, Nehru led from the front, participating actively in every debate.

Of late we have seen the stand of the BJP on the issue of observance of Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary. (Suroor, F. India, August 28, 2014) While there is some lip-service, including the formation of a committee to oversee the affair, the contrast with the government sponsored celebration of Sardar Patel’s birth anniversary on October 31 stands out. Patel is sought to be selectively appropriated by the BJP. Though Gandhi, Nehru and Patel were united in their stand against imperialism and communalism, the BJP has isolated Patel from Nehru. The Prime Minister recently stated, on Patel’s birth anniversary, that Gandhi was incomplete with-out Patel. Nehru’s name was not mentioned, though he was a crucial part of the triumvirate of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel.

Despite the BJP’s attempts to consign Nehru to obscurity, those of us who have been schooled in the values he stood for, must make a bid to reclaim his legacy. This would be the best way of observing his 125th birth anniversary.

The author is a Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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