Why Nehru matters

Cover of Who is Bharat Mata? On History, Culture and the Idea of India: Writings by and On Jawaharlal Nehru. Credits: Amazon.in
Jawaharlal Nehru is not a man for all seasons, at least not in India 2019. But it was striking in the course of the election campaign, given the way his legacy was reviled by critics and defended by admirers, that his mark on the Indian polity, society and culture are undeniable. It is a pity that few in the public realm have bothered to delve deep enough into his vast corpus of writings, speeches and letters to do justice to his many-faceted public persona. 

This gap is being remedied to a great extent since 2011 with the regular publication, at the rate of one volume a month of <i> The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. Each volume is about 750 pages long and till October 1962, the rate at which he spoke or wrote remained remarkable. Each letter, no matter from whom, was answered within three days. 

But only the scholar or the student of history will pore over these tomes. For intelligent lay person, there is the gift of a fine volume of Nehruana by a leading scholar of Indian languages, of Hindi literature in particular, Professor Purushottam Agrawal.  

The volume has two parts, texts by Nehru and writings about him. It is here that another Nehru emerges, a freedom fighter inspired by his mentor , Mahatma Gandhi (with whom he differed on much), and a state builder, which he became from 1946 as Vice Chair of the Executive Council of the Viceroy and then as Prime Minister of independent India for 17 years. 

When Andre Malraux, the Gaullist Minister of Culture of France, asked Nehru what his greatest challenge was, he named not one but two. Forging a secular state in a religious society was one. Creating a just state by just means was the other. It is fascinating that more than half a century on, these two themes run through the selection put together by Prof Agrawal.

This leads to a more revealing insight: The deep roots in and familiarity with Indian traditions. Many know that in the course of the early 1920s, Nehru immersed himself in the Kisan or peasant movement in Awadh. It was in one such meeting that he asked a crowd who Bharat Mata was. It was in response to their queries that he asserted that the country was made up not only of rivers, mountains and other physical features but of its very people. 

What is more important is the varieties of the Indian self that Nehru was at ease with. He read and studied the Discovery of India, written in long hand in Ahmednagar Fort drew from fellow political prisoners including Maualana Azad who was versed in a dozen languages. The tributes to Nehru by a Ramanandi sage, Bhagavadacharya and by no less than Rashtra Kavi Ramdhari Singh Dinkar show a man familiar with the many worlds of Hindi as much as of Hinduism.

This may be a discovery for many, given how Nehru is now often seen as a Westernised elitist ill at ease in a vernacular India.  The tributes in the volume stand out for their clarity and warm appreciation. Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad were of an older generation in terms of political work, with an association with Gandhiji that was deeper and longer. Both record Nehru’s central contribution in giving democracy a firm base.

The excerpts from his own works draw home a message he repeated to all who cared to listen: there was no such thing as a Nehruvian. He was, as he said in an interview to Russi Karanjia (of the weekly newspaper Blitz), also included in the book, a follower of Gandhiji. But he was adapting approaches in the face of new challenges. 

This explains why the fascination with modern technology and calls for a “scientific temper” went with respect for faiths, cultures and traditions.  India was not and never tried to be like say Mao’s China. There is a remarkable letter 1949 from Shankar’s Weekly to children where he asks they enter forests not with a gun in hand or intent to harm animals. Were they to do so, they would not only conquer fear but find animals and birds to be their friends and neighbours. Change the terms and he could be writing not about humans and animals but the diversity of cultures within, the comity of nations without.

Nehru’s tragedy was not his achievements but the standard he was held to then as now. His first major election campaign was in 1937: as Congress President he was the lead speaker in the provinces of British India. He played the same role in 1946. In independent India, he led his party to a two- thirds majority in three successive general elections. 

But as much as his political record (including controversial choices), or his economic performance, he was also instrumental in trying to forge a new democratic ethos in a society marked by privilege. 

This is a timely volume. The introduction does a fine job of locating Nehru in context of his times. It is as much a reminder that in some ways he remains one for all times and places. None perhaps more than our own.
The reviewer teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University 

The review was updated to correct some errors: The site of Nehru's imprisonment; the name of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and the descriptor of Blitz

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