Nehru: The writer, the historian

Whosoever is in power, Jawaharlal Nehru’s memory must be kept alive in the interest of our democratic and secular values. Students of Indian history will benefit from his writings, which embrace the creative thrust and splendour of the Continental and Indian civilisation

November 13, 2014 12:57 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:40 pm IST

Certain segments in our society are engaged in a futile and odious comparison between the tall leaders of our freedom struggle; some others are out to diminish Jawaharlal Nehru’s stature and repudiate his legacy. Without being swayed by the rhetoric of the publicists or the ill-informed mediamen, we need to bolster Nehru’s position as the second best leader after the Mahatma. “Swachh Bharat” will not do. Whosoever is in power, Nehru’s memory must be kept alive in the interest of our democratic and secular values. Students of Indian history, on the other hand, will benefit from his writings, which embrace the creative thrust and splendour of the Continental and Indian civilisation.

Nehru was a voracious reader: he read 55 books from May 21, 1922 till January 29, 1923 alone. He delved into philosophy, and turned the pages of history to illuminate his understanding of the ideas and movements, which stood apart as the catalyst for momentous changes. In so doing, he looked through other people’s writings to understand how simple, ordinary men and women became heroes, and how their strivings made history stirring and epoch-making. Prison had made a man of him, he told the Socialist leader, Acharya Narendra Deva (1889-1956), while they were in jail for the last time in 1942.

Writing to regenerate Why did he write? Who did he write for? He had no archives to consult; so he relied on his recollections and on bits of information that he could conceal. He disliked being called a writer, and yet, armed with a varied experience of affairs, writing became a congenial occupation. Sometimes he didn’t write for weeks, now and again he wrote daily. His letters from jail represented his moods and thoughts at the time of each event; they were also his escapes from gaol.

He wrote to regenerate his generation, to render them capable of following Gandhiji’s non-violent satyagraha, and to put before them the tangled web of current affairs in Russia, Germany, England, America, Japan, China, France, Spain, Italy and Central Europe. It was a tangled web no doubt, difficult to unravel and difficult even to see as a whole. Yet, he presented the many-coloured life of other ages and countries, analysed the ebb and flow of the old civilisations, and took up ideas in their full flow. The superimposed loneliness empowered him to turn to himself for fellowship and guidance, arrange his thoughts, and evolve his political creed undisturbed by external influences. This exercise affected the whole gamut of his emotions.

In enchantment of history Jawaharlal Nehru’s writings transmit the enthusiasm and animation he felt for the discipline of history. In fact, there is something uncanny about the way in which a self-taught and amateur historian like him explored the unbounded universe in full variety. True, his vision was far from settled, but it was being etched out in conjunction and in contention with other voices.

He lived in the enchantment of the ancient and medieval histories of India, and sought to understand it in terms of the present and even of the future to come. Why should there be so much misery in the world? This question troubled him. Why do people argue and quarrel among themselves as a sect or a religious group? Why are they blind to the vision of freedom? His comments on political affairs, many of which tend to corroborate or supplement, to a fair degree, with the information that is available to us from some other sources.

Nehru asked what he was heir to, and answered that he was heir to all that humanity had achieved over tens of thousands of years, to all that it had thought and felt and suffered and taken joy in, to its cries of triumph and its bitter agonies of defeat, to that astonishing adventure, which had begun so long ago and yet continued and beckoned to man. Besides commenting on the wisdom of India’s great inexhaustible spiritual heritage, he talked of the vital necessity to apply it intelligently and reasonably to the present and the future.

His vision was hardly ever trapped in the exclusivist, culturological mode; far from it; it was supremely inclusive and driven by a belief in the existence, even the necessity of cultures constantly interacting with each other, of cultures working on and transforming the other and their own through a live contact. In fact, he talked of a whole people becoming full of faith for a great cause, and brought to the fore their treasures of knowledge, learning, heroism and devotion. He looked at the entire world with a fresh eye and gave a balanced view of man’s life on many continents. His was a global view — not an Asian view any more than it was a European one.

Understanding ideas With this eclectic approach, he called for breaking down national histories and constructing a more relevant world history as a means to understand the global exchange of ideas in the past and the necessity of exchange for a better future. He wanted books not for specialists alone but also for the general, interested lay reader in a popular and accessible mode. He wanted books on the daily lives of ordinary men and women who lived in the past (family budgets from hundreds of years ago, he suggests could show us how life was organised in that age!). And he wanted Asia’s history to be read as widely as possible so that the readers should think of all the countries and all the peoples, and not merely of one little country.

Without being swayed by the rhetoric of the publicists or the ill-informed mediamen, we need to bolster Nehru’s position as the second best leader after the Mahatma. ‘Swachh Bharat’ will not do.

Glimpses of World History is not a standard textbook, but it still makes an impression of sustained intellectual power. Received with a chorus of admiration, it has become standard reading in India, Africa, Europe, and the United States. Fenner Brockway (1888-1988), a friend of India and for many years Secretary of the Independent Labour Party, mentioned that his daughter learnt more from Glimpses than any other history book she had studied at school.

Written almost entirely in prison in the 1930s, it bears the mark of a passionate, albeit humane, nationalism. Others have also put pen to paper on their life and times, but the biography glows with patriotic feelings. There is no cover-up, and no concealment of facts. As for the “self,” the influences are too subtle, too diffused, to be easily identified or measured. The author loved India tenderly, and, in the words of Monod, to him that loved, much may be forgiven.

Autobiographical confessions cannot be regarded as accurate descriptions of a consistent life, and yet Jawaharlal Nehru’s narrative is out of the ordinary precisely for its tropes and figures of thought, without which he would not have turned the real events of life into a narrative and transform them from a chronicle into a story.

The Discovery of India is a hymn to the glories of India. He mapped the metaphysical and philosophic approach to life, idealised ancient India as a world apart, independent of and superior to the rest of the civilisations, toning down the barbarism of the caste system and throwing the warm colours of fancy around his narrative. At the same time, with his eyes set on India’s infinite charm, variety and oneness he worked ceaselessly for a synthesis, drawing on the best, and breaking with the worst. He consciously followed Gandhi and Tagore in the direction of the universal. Consequently, India appears in The Discovery as a space of ceaseless cultural mixing, and in the past as a celebration of the soiling effects of cultural miscegenation and accretion.

The Nehruvian legacy While the romantic in Nehru drew on the old and new interpretations to buttress an ecumenical and universalistic point of view, some of the other Indian writers did so from a rather narrow perspective. He conducts the reader through the labyrinth of a colonial era, narrates the most complex events, and recreates portraits of outstanding fellow countrymen. By and large, his writings make public the spirit and substance of his many-sidedness, the deep-seated urge to freedom, and the negative response to the concomitants and consequences of colonial rule.

What is the Nehruvian legacy? Those living in a vibrant parliamentary democracy and amid creative institutions should not ask this question unless they wish to be identified with the Nehru-debunkers. They must remember that Nehru kept the country together, established secular ideals, propelled it forward with the thrust of science and modernity, healed some of the wounds of Partition, and stood before the world at the head of the non-aligned camp. “Men may break,” Gandhi was to say on the eve of the Quit India Movement, “but they should not bend beyond brute force.” His political heir did just that through his public life. He shared with tens and thousands of prisoners the changing moods of exaltations and depressions, of intense activity and enforced leisure. He buttressed the idea that man is not just a simple individual but a crowd of thoughts and ideas.

What raised Nehru in public estimation was his concern for the poor and the underprivileged. The life of the people, which flows in a dark current beneath political events, attracted his attention — the circumstances, sorrows and joys of millions of humble men and women. Even if his personal misfortunes had a melodramatic tinge, there was, always, a constant element of moral austerity to serve as a counterweight.

Also Read: >Abandoning the idea of India

(Mushirul Hasan is Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow and, formerly, Vice-Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia, and Director General, National Archives of India.)

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