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Speaking volumes

BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA
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BOOKMARK Six new volumes of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru illuminate the mind of the leader and invite the reader to reconsider his role in significant events of the time

Remembering NehruMadhavan Palat, the editor of the
Remembering NehruMadhavan Palat, the editor of the "Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru", with one of the new volumesPhoto: Monica Tiwari

Six new volumes of the “Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru” were launched at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in the Capital recently. Edited by historian Madhavan Palat, volumes 50-55 cover the year 1959, a momentous one in Indian history, marked by the dissolution of the world’s first democratically elected Communist government in Kerala and escalation of tensions with China, among others.

The volumes comprise a comprehensive selection of Nehru’s speeches, writings and letters and come with detailed appendices and cartoons. Explaining the process of compiling these volumes,

Palat said, “What we have is being brought out with complete fidelity to Nehru, and as comprehensively as possible.” In case of interviews and letters in languages other than English, the original has been reproduced with a translation. If Nehru was engaged in a discussion or an interview, the interlocutors’ words have also been included, to provide the necessary context.

“Fidelity also means preserving the errors… If Nehru has made a spelling mistake or a grammatical error, I have kept it and pointed it out in a footnote. It doesn’t diminish the great man if an error shows up. We all make mistakes in our haste, he also did so,” Palat added.

The most difficult part of the project lay in Nehru’s speeches. “Nehru spoke extempore. And although he spoke well, as often happens with speakers, you change your thought in the middle of a sentence. So you have an incoherent sentence that has been recorded, and it is our job to decide what to do with the incoherent sentence. You can’t leave it incoherent, then the reader has to suffer. If you change it too much, you are being unjust to Nehru. So we had to work this out, and it takes a lot of effort…”

Launching the books, Karan Singh, chairman, Executive Council, NMML, pointed out that the situation after Partition, “with lakhs of people pouring in everyday, with lakhs of people having been massacred, with the whole sub-continent in turmoil”, is not easy to grasp today.

“It is important to recapture some of that. People take everything for granted, not realising that stabilising the ship of the State was itself a major achievement…”

His words were echoed by Peter Ronald deSouza, director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, who observed that the volumes, apart from illuminating the mind of the man, also perform the function of a primer on how to run a State. Through a few examples, he showed how Nehru was engaging with norms of governance, and defining official propriety and impropriety.

Apart from a preoccupation with the architecture of the state, the volumes also reveal Nehru's attention to even the smallest of matters.

“Even a small matter was not too small for him,” de Souza said. These include meeting a sweepers’ delegation and discussing the running of the canteen in Visva Bharati University, as Palat pointed out earlier.

For Srinath Raghavan, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, the project is the “single most important documentary collection dealing with contemporary India.”

These new volumes present an account that will “complicate and force us to rethink many of our accepted notions of what was happening in that period.” Focusing on the then simmering dispute between India and China, Raghavan pointed out how Nehru’s role in it had been understood in the polarities of critique from the Right, suggesting Nehru was caught off guard, and the Left, suggesting that he brought the war on himself through his uncompromising stance.

BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA

People take everything for granted, not realising that stabilising the ship of the State was itself a major achievement

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