Nehru: 132nd birth anniversary History & Culture

Nehru: In the spirit of revolution

Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a crowd from the balcony of his house in Shimla, circa 1945.

Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a crowd from the balcony of his house in Shimla, circa 1945. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Jawaharlal Nehru is not thought of as a revolutionary, yet he imagined himself as one, living in revolutionary times. What did he understand by revolution and why was he so keen to project himself as a revolutionary? He understood it in many different ways, and he pursued multiple objectives by adopting the term.

In the early years, especially in the inter-war years, Nehru summoned the spirit of revolution. In 1928, he published his little book on a week-long visit to Moscow in November 1927; and for the epigraph he chose the words of Wordsworth’s ecstatic reception of the French Revolution:

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven.”

Nehru, after becoming Prime Minister of independent India in 1947.

Nehru, after becoming Prime Minister of independent India in 1947.

He exhorted student audiences to recall Danton’s call to France in the crisis of September 1792 to be “daring and daring and still more daring”; that even thinking was revolutionary as the youth of the country faced their timorous elders and a government of India “strangely lacking in intelligence”. He denounced colonial law and order as a crime and as “the last refuge of the reactionary, of the tyrant”. He addressed conferences urging a “revolutionary spirit”, “revolutionary outlook”, and “revolutionary changes” while ridiculing dominion status, reformism, violence, and terror. He confided in his prison diary in 1930 that “Normalcy or normal conditions are the very reverse of revolutionary conditions. Our object is to have abnormality and to make it impossible for the government and people alike to revert to normalcy.” He was prepared to wave the revolutionary banner, but he refused to consider a Leninist seizure of power. The revolution was to be non-violent.

Revolution vs. reform

Before Independence, Nehru seemed to advocate revolution-as-event, as the Russian Revolution was then understood. He made the conceptual and strategic distinction between revolution and reform, spelling out the difference at length in 1928 in the style of any radical student. He reasoned that reform would be futile, as nobody would surrender power peacefully, and he grew ever more despondent in the 1930s when European politics was descending into its fascist abyss and India was approaching its moment of reckoning. During these inter-war years, he imagined the forthcoming transition not only as a revolution but also, in all probability, a violent one.

But he shrank from actual revolution and its inevitable violence. He reassured an anxious bourgeoisie in 1928 that the proposed labour reforms were not revolutionary, that “even from the capitalist point of view they are recognized to be essential in order to increase the efficiency of labour.” He was prepared for illegality without violence. He argued that violence was impractical, that it would provoke counter-revolution, and eventually lead to the fragmentation of the nation. All of Gandhian tactics entailed violating the law peacefully, be it refusing to pay taxes or making salt.

He stoutly declared, “The moment violence becomes necessary, I will not hesitate to use it”, but it would not achieve Independence, which required “discipline,” that is, unity. But he added, almost wistfully, that he did not possess the resources for effective violence. He tossed about ideas of extolling revolution, being revolutionary, toying with the idea of violence at times, but opposing it for practical reasons and for fear of fragmenting the nation.

Nehru left the question of a revolutionary reordering of power tantalisingly open. He could not imagine inciting class and other social hatreds in order to achieve his objectives. He fulminated against feudal magnates, but he recoiled from revolutionary expropriation. He was clear that there could be no socialism without the majority supporting it. If Independence was to be gained through democratic mobilisation and negotiation, social restructuring would follow the same logic.

Nehru with Gandhi in 1942

Nehru with Gandhi in 1942

In spite of that strategy, Independence came with a bloodbath. There were too many forces, both national and global, that he could not control, however impressive Gandhian mobilisation was. He was all too conscious of the bitter resistance he would face and the compromises he might be compelled to make. Coerced change entailed heavy political costs, and democratic change may not occur at all. It was a dilemma for which he found no satisfactory resolution; in the event, he made his choice by pursuing his democratic and consensual instinct rather than his revolutionary one.

After 1947, Nehru argued that democracy had made revolution superfluous. With the limited franchise, insurrection was possibly the sole means to dramatic change; with democracy and universal franchise, it was possible both to come to power through electoral majorities and to carry out such transformations legally. One of his favourite polemical themes was that Marx was outdated and that communists were “reactionary,” for relying on anachronistic texts. He remained faithful to the conceptual binary of reform and revolution, and again and again resorted to the socialist and conservative argument that timely reform pre-empted revolution.

Life and freedom

Nehru inverted the colonial and orientalist staple that the Orient had been unchanging until the civilising mission revolutionised its existence. To nationalists, especially to Nehru, colonialism was stultifying and nationalism was revolutionising, and with Independence, India would “awake to life and freedom.” But it was not mere inversion by mimicry. The colonial argument had rested on an asymmetry of resources so extreme and a dynamism of industry so overwhelming that the Orient could be represented convincingly through architectural ruins, overgrown jungles, and languid human beings.

Nationalism however engaged with modernity positively and it faced to the future; and while the imbalance of power remained acute, nationalism fashioned political and cultural instruments of such energy as to represent the colonial experience convincingly as stagnation. The pictorial image of poverty, squalor, disease, and famines under colonialism completed the argument. Both colonialism and nationalism were imagined by their agents in their respective moments of triumph as the revolutionary resuscitation of mummified corpses. Curiously, Nehru endorsed both the orientalist and nationalist accounts of sluggishness, and gave himself and his followers the dual task of overcoming both variants simultaneously.

But Nehru, as always, had his doubts. The Indian tyrant replacing the British species was not enough, as Gandhi had warned. Major structural changes had to follow. The most enduring of these and the truly revolutionary change, in Nehru’s eyes, was the empowerment of the people as voting citizens. With Independence, the logic of democratic mass politics triumphed. Nehru ensured adult suffrage, the Constitution guaranteed fundamental rights to the citizen, protection to minorities, and affirmative action for the most deprived of the social hierarchy. Electoral party politics were firmly instituted, and hopes and aspirations soared. All of this was revolutionary to him.

With Subhas Chandra Bose at the All India Congress Committee meeting in 1938

With Subhas Chandra Bose at the All India Congress Committee meeting in 1938

But beyond citizenship, the revolution was a promise of much to come — social and economic reform in terms of land tenure and tax, protection of labour, freedom of unions, progressive and inheritance taxes, free primary education, protection to industry, state control and regulation of key sectors, reduction of military and administrative expenditure, secularism, and above all, economic growth. From the late 1920s, Nehru spelt these out in speeches, Congress resolutions, plan preparations, reflections and soliloquies, and correspondence, with some of it distilled into the Constitution in 1949. These were undoubtedly sweeping in scope, but they were left-liberal or progressive reforms that parliamentary majorities could carry out: and they contained almost no element of one structure being set in place of another, except of course the expulsion of the British.

Passivity of India

Nehru regretted at times that what he had imagined as a revolution had not in effect been one. The stasis that he feared seemed to be coming about, of Indians merely replacing the British in an unchanging colonial structure. He confessed unhappily to Sampurnanand in 1950 that Gandhi’s genius was peculiarly suited to the passivity of India, which was now a hindrance to social change. But he also asked: if the colonial structure were to be dismantled, what would he replace it with; more precisely, if the bureaucracy were to be sent packing, what would he find in its stead? The human resources in the Congress were far from inspiring.

Whether his revolution had been half-baked or total, Nehru was saddled with the universal post-revolutionary problem of revolutionary enthusiasm being no substitute for the bureaucracy of state, military or civil, however hateful or despicable they may have been. As so often in such circumstances, dictatorship beckoned; and as generations of Indians were to do subsequently, he succumbed to the myth that China had ensured change through zealotry and despotism, both sadly, or otherwise, lacking in India. He, however, wisely resisted the temptation.

Beyond the drama of revolution as a single event or as spirit and fervour, Nehru was inspired by the vision and dream of modernity as the relentless churning that had begun with the industrial revolution continued through periodic technological and scientific bursts of innovation, as with electricity, the wireless, radar, or atomic power and inter-planetary travel, and would not, indeed could not, come to rest. In his dissection of the Nehru years, Rajni Kothari called this the “incremental revolution” as opposed to a single overpowering event. Trotsky was remote from the consciousness of both Nehru and his journalist audience when Nehru defined this condition as a “permanent revolution”.

This world seemed fated to renew itself daily, and in the course of it came close to destroying itself through technological excess. But Nehru plunged headlong into these revolutions, freezing Gandhi’s cautions against the dangers of industrialism, yet ceaselessly warning of a nuclear holocaust. He yoked his Gandhian non-violence to the routinisation of progress and innovation and to evolutionary capitalism and socialism, marrying the conservative ideal of stable adjustment with the revolutionary one of radical and ceaseless change. With this, Nehru inverted the meaning of revolution as it has been understood since the 18th century: “Gandhiji, of course, conceived and brought about this revolution of ours in terms of continuity and not in terms of a break with the past,” he said in an interview.

Nehru’s revolution was not to be an event or a cascade of events, a seizure of power or of one class overthrowing another, but a process that would be permanent to the human condition. By aligning himself with this vision of the future, Nehru regarded himself as a true and sincere revolutionary and invited his followers to immerse themselves in its purifying, if turbulent, waters.

The writer is the editor of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru . This is the first in a series of essays the Magazine will carry.

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 7:52:01 am |