‘Who is Bharat Mata’ — On History, Culture and the Idea of India, Writings by and on Jawaharlal Nehru review: Nehru’s idea of India

How the first prime minister formed his views on the nation and her culture

Published - August 10, 2019 05:38 pm IST

Selections are invariably subjective. Purushottam Agrawal makes his subjectivity abundantly clear in his introduction. He believes Jawaharlal Nehru is deliberately being made a target of misrepresentation and distortion.

Through this selection, he wants to redress that by showing through Nehru’s writings that the latter represented maanavnishtha Bharatiyata, which he translates as ‘humane Indian nationalism’.

The phrase maanavnishtha Bharatiyata , Agrawal borrows from Dada Dharmadhikari, the freedom fighter and social reformer. This selection provides a very comprehensive survey of Nehru’s ideas about India — her civilisation, her traditions and her culture. This volume and the learning that has gone into it deserve to be lauded.

Evolving view

In spite of being greatly enriched by Agrawal’s selection, I cannot but point out one shortcoming. Nehru’s views on India and her culture were not static: they evolved over time. Agrawal’s selection is not arranged chronologically so one misses the sense of change and evolution.

When Nehru returned to India in 1912 as a graduate of Cambridge University and as a qualified barrister-at-law from the Inner Temple, he was a thoroughly westernised oriental gentleman utterly unconnected with the people of India and the conditions in which they lived.

All this changed dramatically under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru’s own experiences as he moved around the villages of south eastern Uttar Pradesh and saw their poverty in the early 1920s. This radicalised Nehru, a process that was hastened by his exposure to socialist ideas and intellectuals in Europe.

This phase of his life was best articulated in his autobiography, written in jail and published in 1936. The book is austere in style and reflects Nehru’s growing awareness of social and economic issues as well as his reservations regarding obscurantist views, even those of Gandhi. He is self conscious enough to admit that his lack of affinity with things religious and spiritual alienated him from the vast majority of the people of India. His ‘wanderings among the kisans’ and his radicalisation notwithstanding, his approach to life remained that of a left-leaning European intellectual. Bharat Mata was not a phrase in Nehru’s rhetoric and beliefs in this phase of his life.

This changed as he served his longest prison sentence in the early 1940s.

He wrote another book during this phase of imprisonment: The Discovery of India . It was in this book that Nehru set about presenting to himself and to his readers a view of Indian history culture. This book lacks the austerity and the objectivity of his autobiography. It is an emotional book, the style florid and prolix. He sought solace in the past and its traditions. The remembrance of India’s history became for Jawaharlal an emotional cradle. He carried this emotional charge with him as he took on the mantle of prime ministership.

‘Parts of Bharat Mata’

It is in The Discovery of India that Nehru recounted an incident that helps explain his conception of Bharat Mata. Agrawal uses this as his first excerpt and takes the name of his book from Nehru’s description of the incident. Nehru wrote that as he moved across India addressing gatherings and political meetings, he would often be greeted with the roar ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and he would ask who was this Bharat Mata. His audience, Nehru wrote, would be bewildered and seek an answer from Nehru himself. Nehru would explain that, “Bharat Mata was essentially these millions of people.” You are parts of this Bharat Mata, Nehru would tell his listeners, “you are in a manner yourselves Bharat Mata.” And Nehru recalled, “as this idea slowly soaked into their brains, their eyes would light up as if they had made a great discovery.”

A powerful image that had been invoked by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Aurobindo Ghosh and other nationalists of the country as mother was transformed in Nehru’s rhetoric as something more substantive. It had come to be identified with the people of India.

This transformation of an image enabled Nehru to define for himself what he had dedicated his life to when he had made nationalism his calling. It was not only the freedom of India from British rule that had called him. As he worked for that freedom, he came to the realisation that he was actually working with and for the people of India. It brought to him a profound sense of belonging. Tradition had become an integral part of his individual calling.

Readers are in debt to Agrawal for putting together this collection which has a distinctive focus and purpose. It is a timely volume which will also stand the test of time.

‘Who is Bharat Mata’: On History, Culture and the Idea of India, Writings by and on Jawaharlal Nehru ; Edited by Purushottam Agrawal, Speaking Tiger, ₹599.

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