In her book on Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal has drawn upon a treasure-trove of letters and official documents to write a personal and political memoir of her uncle and his time.

My fellow-PhD student's face lit up when we were introduced. “We admire your country so much!”, he said, to murmurs of approval from one or two other West African students present. I said we had our problems and tried to do what we could, but my interlocutor was having none of it. He came from Sierra Leone, and said India was a beacon for all other emerging nations. A solid democracy, with great institutions of state, and with what leaders too — Nehru, Gandhiji, what an example to the world.

That conversation took place decades ago, in a time apparently forgotten in India, where we are now given to believe that the country did not exist before 1991 and that all that went before belongs to the Dark Ages, or is to be suppressed like the memory of a bad dream. It is in this context that Nayantara Sahgal, whose uncle was Jawaharlal Nehru and whose mother was Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, has drawn upon a treasure-trove of letters and official documents to write a personal and political memoir of Pandit Nehru and his time.

Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilising a Savage World (New Delhi: Viking (Penguin), 2010) is a book both of recollections and of reminders, reminders of what it is for Indians to know and to live in freedom from, in Ms Sahgal's phrase, the barbed wire of doctrine and dogma and to be alert and receptive to the best in the world. Panditji valued the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union had respectively freed themselves from imperialism and feudalism, but in the post-war climate of almost insane fear and hatred between those two superpowers he never hesitated to incur their anger for refusing to take sides with either. For him, collective peace was always better than collective security, and the captivity of empire was not to be replaced by captivity to superpower — or any other — ideologies, or to bribery and bullying. That also meant practical politics; India condemned the British-Israeli invasion of Suez, the Korean War, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and played a key role in the expulsion of apartheid South Africa from the Commonwealth. He also wrote to his sister that many powerful forces in the U.S. did not want an armistice in Korea because they did not know what to do afterwards.

For Nehru, the task meant more than creating an alternative to the view of the world imposed at the end of a European gun-barrel, or perhaps in today's idiom at the end of a western cheque-book. It meant creating a state for all Indians, which in turn meant constitutional and legislative protection against the main evils of Indian society. Nehru had no illusions about the Hindu bigotry of many of the highest figures in the Congress Party of his time, and resisted their strenuous attempts to derail the Hindu Code Bills. It took him a decade to get the bills through Parliament, but get them passed he did, and he knew that in a showdown with the party the Indian public would be on his side. His opponents were of the same background as those who, twenty or thirty years earlier, had vehemently opposed a universal franchise. For Nehru, as for Gandhiji, Indian secularism derived from a “pre-modern memory of religions” coexisting on Indian soil and reinterpreting themselves in contact with each other; there could be no question of superior status for any one religion, and religions would be best respected and protected by a state that had no religion.

Nehru's steel was tempered by bitter experience, and his letters from prison are evidence thereof; unable to write, deep in near-despair, he paced his tiny cell for hours, as he himself said he had seen caged animals do. He also knew far more about conditions on the ground than many seem to realise. His abolition of some of the most oppressive structures of control over land, such as the zamindari system, never meant the collectivisation of agriculture; it meant creating cooperatives, which even Morarji Desai supported.

Confirmation of the soundness of Nehru's strategy comes from, for example, analyses of agriculture, which Nehru once said was more important than any chief minister. As Pulapre Balakrishnan (‘The Recovery of India: Economic Growth in the Nehru Era,' Economic and Political Weekly 42:45, 17 November 2007, 52-66) and Kunal Sen (‘Why Did the Elephant Start to Trot? India's Growth Acceleration Re-examined,' Economic and Political Weekly 42:43, 27 October 2007, 37-47) separately show, Indian agriculture has always been a private-sector activity; so have small-scale services and small- and medium-scale retailing. Despite all its problems, agriculture — inherited as the major area of a stagnant colonial economy — showed by far the greatest expansion of any sector in the period up to 1965, the year after Nehru's death. There would, furthermore, be no featherbedding for the public sector, which would be part of a mixed economy in a social democracy and would have to raise funds and savings for the country through appropriate pricing policies. This was neither populist nor particularly socialistic, and non-departmental public enterprises raised revenues and savings between 1950 and 1964 in a way that has never been matched, outpacing the private sector in the process. Industry, for its part, was meant to support agriculture by producing iron and steel for implements and machinery, cement for irrigation conduits, and fertilizers for farming. Central government tax revenues, as a proportion of GDP, grew at a rate not matched even by the year 2000, and if a disastrous drought and the second oil-price shock in 1979 are removed from the figures for the period, aggregate Indian growth was close to 6 per cent per year.

Those issues are for the analyst. Nehru's standing went far beyond the political, and letters from Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit during her time as the country's most eminent diplomat show the immense liking and respect the world's mightiest leaders had for Panditji, irrespective of sometimes severe differences. Nehru spoke his mind to them and their peoples; he had contact with famous victims of McCarthyism in the United States, and Ms Sahgal renders public for the first time a request from the father of the atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, to Nehru, imploring India not to sell any thorium to the United States, so as to prevent the start of what would be the “greatest war ever fought.”

India, however, was not as committed to non-violence as many thought it then was. Gandhiji had set the principle aside over the Pakistani invasion of Kashmir in October 1947, and over Goa Nehru said in 1955 that under the circumstances no government could be pledged to non-violence. It was not lost on Indians that colonial powers which had conquered the world by violence exhorted their former subjects to abjure violence; and in 1946, British commanders confined their troops to barracks while mass slaughter occurred on the streets of the then Calcutta and spread to other parts of India.

Ms Sahgal, always intertwining the political with the personal, writes with poise about life in the Nehru family. They led spare but not spartan lives, and swadeshi meant swadeshi; they used Indian things exclusively, or did without. Gandhiji's impact on Nehru shows clearly, of course, and Ms Sahgal briefly mentions the two great loves who followed Kamala Nehru into Panditji's life. Those who have lived through India's Nehru era will be reminded of much, and those born after it could learn much from this captivating story.

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