We live in an an avowedly post Nehru age. Few if any ills that afflict India today are not laid at his door. Debate and dialogue are more than welcome. To his credit as much as to other founders, India is a vibrant and live electoral democracy. But there is more to his legacy than this alone.
The coming of Independence to India in August 1947 and the formation of a democratic republic three years hence was no doubt a moment of historic import for the world at large. India like the United States was not a direct battle ground for the most part, save for Nagaland and Manipur in the course of the Second World War. But this was a country deeply involved in the great contest for world domination between the Axis and Allied powers.
At the heart of this war to end all wars were two critical ideas: whether a people had the right to rule themselves or not and also what mode of rule was best for the world.
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How India chose it to be
It is a testament to history that India chose to follow the democratic path and while there were inclinations to socialism, these were strictly to be along lines of a plural democracy, allowing for checks and balances unknown in the only one party socialist state that then existed, the Soviet Union. But India was more than a country emerging from the shadow of British imperial rule: its path would be one of a plural democracy.
That differences could exist at the very apex of the leadership but be settled via dialogue, debate and consensus had long been clear. Speaking on January 25, 1942, Gandhiji had remarked that (though) Nehru had been resisting him ever since they had met, they stood as one in the face of odds. Dividing them was like dividing water by striking with a stick.
In his perhaps most clear endorsement of the man who he had mentored for more than two decades he said, “When I am gone, he will do what I am doing now. Then he will speak my language too.” His reference was to the steadfastness of principle but also to the willingness to compromise. The leader had to bind over and rule, not divide and reign.
We do not know if this was on the mind of the Mahatma when he broke his last fast on January 18, 1948. His last message to the Prime Minister was on a post card. “ Apna upvass chod do . Bharat ke Jawahar bane raho, ” it said. “End your fast. May you remain the jewel of India.”
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This was sent from Birla House where the fast for peace in the capital of the new India had brought together the very groups at the forefront of the riots. Unknown to most in India or the world at large, Nehru too was on fast in sympathy with his leader.
At stake were the life and liberty of Delhi’s own inhabitants, most so Muslims who had opted to stay on after Partition. Twelve days later the assassin struck.
As Sardar Patel wrote in the Abhinandan Granth of October 1949, it was the untimely death of “the Great Master” that evoked in his associates a deeper sense of unity. Reminiscing about his long association with Nehru, Patel was warm, appreciative, and open in his affections. Their very intimacy and closeness as co-workers made it, “difficult for me to sum him up for public appreciation.”
The idea of a nation
There was and is more to democracy than the peaceful passage of power via the ballot box. Equally audacious was the idea of nation where all would be equal as citizens. This was all the more so given the rise of fascism in the 1930s.
The idea of a superior ruling race had been explicit in the case of the Axis powers. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and the violent campaigns of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan left scars among conquered peoples that were known to the world.
But even the most powerful of the Allies, the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt still practised segregation on a third of its territory. The Soviet Union, committed to working class unity, acted like any imperial power in using the Red Army to impose its preferred regimes in much of east central Europe.
The idea of India was at odds with such notions of legally sanctioned inequality at home or colonialism abroad. Much more than that when Gandhiji spoke of “his language” it was one of the coexistence of faiths and cultures seeking peace and harmony.
No book illustrated this as well as one written during Nehru’s longest ever jail term. He had been taken into custody on August 9, 1942 and stepped out of gaol on June 15, 1945. This over 1,000-day-long prison term had enabled him to write a treatise of India’s past and future, The Discovery of India .
The most recent edition runs to 642 pages but the original was longer still, written in long hand by a political prisoner on that most precious of rationed goods in war time: paper. It was here that Nehru wrote of India as akin to a palimpsest where one layer of new comers could join another. Each layer was added to the older one. This process had frictions, a fact he freely acknowledged, but the result was the composite fabric that was India. India’s democratic sensibilities ran deeper than the Constitution. It was in contrast with Ceylon which after an election based on universal suffrage in 1948 stripped the Indian Tamil plantation workers of citizenship. Nor was it like Burma where Indians who had lived there for generations fled the advance of the Japanese armies, never to return. India was envisaged as inclusive, plural and democratic. The roots of this lay in the freedom struggle but was a conviction deepened by the years of the Second World War. This was as much the case with Nehru as his fellow inmates in Ahmednagar in the long night of 1942-45: Narendra Dev, Maulana Azad or Govind Ballabh Pant.
There is no doubt much of this dream was shaken to the core by Partition. But it did not lead India to ape other states narrowly based on faith, clan, lineage or language. The record was far from faultless but there is no doubt of the effort to move on.
There was and is much to dispute about Nehru’s record and legacy. But it is astonishing how easy it is to take it for granted. A commitment to liberal democracy and a plural society was exceptional among Asia’s leaders. He stood out in a continent where rival ideas of rule by one party or one ethnie were vying for power.
This was a man with wider horizons but a deep sense of India’s history, culture and context. In his testament he wrote of the Ganga as living entity. The river connects us to, “a memory of the past of India, running into the present, and flowing on to the ocean of the future”.
A plural society has much to learn from Nehru’s record. Critical engagement with his record is a must. An India sans Nehru’s legacy of democratic values stands to lose far more than it will gain.
Mahesh Rangarajan teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University