An erased Nehru looms large over this regime’s Azadi Mahotsav

Jawaharlal Nehru presenting the national flag of India during a meeting of the Constituent Assembly on 30 July 1947. Nehru took over a country in flames and left it one with stability and a sense of direction. Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
13 August, 2022

During his visit to India in 1938, John Gunther was confronted with the same question everywhere across India, “Have you seen Jawaharlal?” The American journalist and author then wrote an article with this as the title in the February 1939 issue of the Asia magazine. In a twisted way, the same question could well be posed in today’s India.

As the union government insists on celebrating 75 years of India’s independence as “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav,” a twitter update by the official Twitter handle of the event posted the original letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru to the Viceroy stating the names of the members of his cabinet in independent India. The tweet read, “On 4th August 1947, the then Hon’ble Prime Minister of India presented a few names…” showed the extreme lengths this government goes to avoid taking Nehru’s name. Nehru’s photo is also absent on a web poster of the Indian Council of Historical Research, meant to celebrate 75 years of independence.

The current dispensation’s desire to erase Nehru is well known. It converted the Teen Murti Bhawan—which served as a memorial to Nehru—into a memorial for all of India’s prime ministers, as if to somehow diminish his role. With 3,259 days in colonial prisons across nine different stints, Nehru played an outsized role in India’s independence movement.

Nehru stood for everything that is an anathema to the current ideology ruling India. He opposed the Hindu Rashtra and warned of majority communalism being mistaken for nationalism. A staunch believer in a plural, modern India, he was proud of India’s numerous diversities—religious, ethnic, regional, linguistic and cultural—which were rooted in its ancient and medieval history. He promoted science and modern education and was opposed to obscurantism. Proficient in Sanskrit and an avid practitioner of Yoga, he was not enamoured of religion or religious practices. His personal beliefs and political convictions were progressive, liberal and humane—rooted in rights and freedoms. The country that he shaped and created, from the days of the freedom movement, is the India the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wanted, and is working hard, to dismantle.

During the freedom movement, the call for Purna Swaraj or complete independence was given by Nehru as the Congress president. He had been opposed to the idea of a dominion status for India, something a commission under his father had proposed in 1927. Arun Asaf Ali remembered it as “a thrilling spectacle” where Nehru “looked every inch the knight errant of the Freedom Movement.” On the midnight of 31 December 1929, a pledge of independence was read out and “on New Year’s Day 1930, Jawaharlal unfurled the national flag on the bank of the river Ravi.” The declaration of independence was officially promulgated on 26 January 1930, which was celebrated as Independence Day. The day was subsequently designated as Republic Day.

Nehru also presented India’s case for independence abroad. He travelled extensively to Europe and wrote articles for influential US audience in Foreign Affairs in 1938 and The Atlantic in 1940.

His popularity among the masses knew no bounds. Vallabhbhai Patel told the American journalist Vincent Sheean, who wondered at the crowd of more than three lakh that had gathered in Bombay, “They come for Jawahar, not for me.” Patel said, “Mahatma Gandhi named Pandit Nehru as his heir and successor. Since Gandhiji’s death we have realised that our leader’s judgement was correct.”

Even the communist revolutionary Bhagat Singh was unequivocal in supporting Nehru over all other leaders. In an article published in the Kirti magazine in July 1928, Singh stated firmly that India would achieve freedom and understand the status of freedom in the context of the world through Nehru’s school of thought. “We would then be spared of aimless intellectual wandering and saved from frustration,” Singh wrote. In the same article, he found the nationalism of Subhas Chandra Bose narrow and self-obsessed.

Despite their political differences, Bose and Nehru had great regard for each other. Bose named one of the four brigades of the Indian National Army after Nehru. Nehru’s first speech from the ramparts of Red Fort on 16 August 1947 was a nod to Bose’s call to raise the national tricolour at the historic Red Fort. His speech, as paraphrased from the media reports because no original recording or transcript exists, was devoted to Bose. As prime minister, soon after Independence, Nehru sought to arrange financial help for Bose’s wife and his daughter in Vienna. The Bose files, declassified by the current government, could unearth nothing to show Nehru in a bad light, a fact that had been repeatedly highlighted by Bose’s daughter Anita Pfaff.

Nehru took over a country in flames. India was reeling from Partition, unprecedented communal riots, massive waves of distress migration, Gandhi’s murder and a war with Pakistan over Kashmir. He left it a country with stability and a sense of direction. His own personal courage during the riots in Delhi was legendary. Nehru was already prime minister when he was passing by a mob that was attacking a Muslim tailor at Chandni Chowk. He ordered the car to stop and jumped in to save the man, swinging a lathi that he reflexively borrowed from the police.

Despite the presence of a strong conservative Hindu section within his own party, Nehru ensured that India did not become a Hindu Pakistan. Innumerable Muslim families stayed back in India because Nehru held its highest office. The Hindu Reform Bill became a major point of contention during the 1952 general elections, but Nehru won the elections and subsequently piloted the bill’s passage. It is no surprise that there were five recorded attempts made on his life after Independence. Patel disclosed to parliament in August 1950 that “Pandit Nehru was intended to be the next target of that group of people who were responsible for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi.” According to another news report, Patel said, “L.P. Bhopatkar, former president of All India (Hindu) Mahasabha, a Hindu militant body, had confessed to a plot to kill the premier last spring at the time of the disorders in Eastern Pakistan.”

Nehru’s influence went beyond the freedom movement and the office of prime minister. A man of letters, he initiated the setting up of the Sahitya Akademi, the National School of Drama and the National Institute of Design. He established the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. The very basis of everything Indians today take pride in globally comes from Nehru. He was the force behind the setting up of dams, plants and factories, which he called the temples of modern India. All the public-sector units that have been sold in the past few years were created by Nehru. When the current dispensation stresses strategic sovereignty as a principle of its foreign policy, it is only aping the principle of non-alignment Nehru formulated.

Under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist Party did an appraisal of Mao’s legacy. They classified his record as being 70 precent correct and 30 percent wrong. A similar appraisal ought to rate Nehru even higher. His haters would invoke the Kashmir crisis, but the historian Srinath Raghavan set the facts right in 2019. Nehru’s failure in the 1962 border war would always be a blemish, but, unlike today, he did not hide facts or run away from a parliamentary discussion. Raghavan’s War and Peace in Modern India provides the context for the defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. Nehru’s introduction of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Naga hill tracts and the internment of Chinese-origin Indians to Deoli during the 1962 war can never be justified. But Nehru, to use an essayist’s phrase, was “bigger than the sum of his imperfections.”

Even his critics of the past recognised that Nehru could not be a figure who was written away. “He was a devotee of peace and yet the harbinger of revolution, he was a devotee of non-violence but advocated every weapon to defend freedom and honour,” a young Atal Behari Vajpayee had said in parliament after Nehru’s death in 1964. “He was an advocate of individual freedom and yet was committed to bringing about economic equality. He was never afraid of a compromise with anybody, but he never compromised with anyone out of fear.”

The definitive word, however, comes from his niece and acclaimed writer Nayantara Sahgal, who penned, “No Nehru, no modern India. The ground we stand on was laid in Nehru’s time.” Nehru’s greatness has survived the test of time and the more viciously he is attacked, the more we are bound to discover about his importance. Attempts at invisibilising him exist because his persona and influence are too overpowering to fight, other than through falsehood and innuendo. His long shadow on modern India gets longer despite these attempts. By trying to wipe him off—diminishing his achievements and erasing his memories—the present establishment only reveals its own pettiness.