“The future,” wrote Jawaharlal Nehru, “has to be built on the foundations laid in the past and the present.” But mastering the future by denying or obliterating or delinking the past is the norm today. Memory is losing its struggle against forgetting and the relevance of history is being relegated. Seeking inspiration from political stalwarts of the past, their great achievements and greater ideas by a political party is deemed as being comfortable with defeat. Our new Prime Minister finds it necessary to exalt himself as a nationalist by belittling the first Prime Minister as a lesser patriot, and finds it unimportant to pay homage to Nehru on his 50th death anniversary. In these times when looking back is forbidden, nostalgia is ominous and recalling the past is taboo, how does one revisit Nehru in the context of his 125th birth anniversary?
Nehru was an extraordinary giant of our freedom struggle, a prominent maker of modern India, a great believer of pluralism, the chief architect of our democracy, socialism and secular ethos. These were intertwined with science, technology and innovation in his scheme of things. His artistry of crafting and building a new nation from the older version marred by orthodoxy, hierarchy and the wreckage of a decaying empire was remarkable. As things stand today, most people would agree that Nehru was the undisputed hero of his age. But are efforts on to make him an outcast? I would argue that the open, civilised and reformist political system we have today is premised on three principles institutionalised by Nehru in the socio-political fabric of India: democracy, secularism and pluralism. There could have been no alternative to the Gandhi-Nehru framework of the Indian body politic. With each passing day, Nehruvian politics based on the Gandhian ethic gains relevance.
Nehru instilled democratic values in India. He cherished and strengthened democracy, knowing that by opting for the ballot box and propagating ideas of equality, in the words of Walter Crocker, he was abolishing the dominance of ‘upper class Indian nationalists of English education’ like himself from the political system. Nehru’s commitment to democracy was reflected in the respect he showed to Parliament, the Opposition, independence of the judiciary, free elections, and freedom of the press. Underlying this institutional machinery was the value system of Gandhi — based on communal harmony, non-violence, the importance of each individual and the emancipation of the oppressed sections of the society — which Nehru was heir to. He knew democracy required the spirit of tolerance and cooperation, and made Indians believe they had the capacity to sustain the democratic spirit.
It was only because of the secular construct of the state policy envisaged by Nehru — not an anti-religious or non-religious state but a non-sectarian state that won’t privilege one religion over others — that the ‘rule of law’ was established and religious fundamentalism kept away from sabotaging Indian politics. Nehru opted for secularism because he was convinced India belonged to all those who had fought for its independence and its subsequent formation as a nation-state.
One of Nehru’s achievements in carrying forward the secular ethos and rejecting an exclusivist approach has been stated by Sunil Khilnani in his introduction to The Discovery of India . He wrote: “Nehru resisted the argument in which nationalist intellectuals in India and elsewhere commonly indulged: the rebuttal of colonial views through evocations of mystical commonalities among Indians, and assertions of age-old ties to land and place. Nehru never proposed anything like, say, V.D. Savarkar’s views of a Hindu race joined by blood kinship.”
To safeguard secularism Nehru was ready to dismantle the idea of a single national identity through a minoritarian perspective. One of his letters, dated September 20, 1953, (LCM, Vol. 2, pp. 375-80) gives testimony to this fact. Here he warned against an insidious form of nationalism that makes the majority think of itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority actually separates them. He highlighted the need for the psychological integration of our people and said it was the obligation of the majority to safeguard the interests of minorities.
For Nehru, knowing India meant understanding its heterogeneity, multiplicity and complexities. He knew the myriad ‘private universe of thought and feeling’ of Indians is the source of India’s strength, with its capacity to transform divisions into diversity and variety into plurality.
The challenge in his times was to establish the integrity of the Indian past leading to the vitality of the Indian present which was a marvel of plurality shaped by difference and absence of uniformity. So he sought to discover a history that might help unify our people, free them of British renditions, make them conscious of ‘unity in diversity’. How we cope with the clashes within the plurality, resolve them and coexist harmoniously formed the existential dilemma of India for Nehru.
Today, as India’s young, with their hopes, aspirations and energies seek to rebuild the country by reassessing choices, it is more important than ever to re-examine this founding father of modern India — to know him, his fierce imagination and idealistic vision. It is imperative to read him, even with a pinch of salt, to rationalise his ‘Idea of India’, to ask new questions of him and to analyse the strength of his convictions which kept together this large, diverse and divided country. Most of the challenges Nehru faced still exist. Can we say the same of the values and ethos that helped him carry the nation forward facing those challenges? This question he asked should resonate: “Who dies if India lives? Who lives if India dies?”
The younger generation has to seek to know India in order to transform the ideals which went into the making of this nation into substantive reality. Amid this political churn, it is important to contest the singularity of the Indian identity, assert the importance of relegating religion to private space and see Indian secularism, democracy and pluralism as fundamental principles of the polity.