Nehru was aware of his limitations, says LSE professor Taylor C. Sherman, author of Nehru’s India: A History in Seven Myths

India’s first prime minister’s vision was centred on secularism, socialism and non-alignment; but some of those ambitions remained a dream, says Sherman

Updated - March 02, 2023 02:05 pm IST

Published - March 02, 2023 12:00 pm IST

‘The diplomat in Nehru had a much bigger ambition: to reorder international society in a way that was underpinned by Indian norms and ideas.’

‘The diplomat in Nehru had a much bigger ambition: to reorder international society in a way that was underpinned by Indian norms and ideas.’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In her book, Nehru’s India: A History in Seven Myths, Taylor C. Sherman examines several central concepts associated with the first prime minister of India. Jawaharlal Nehru’s admirers and critics broadly use the same codes to make sense of his tenure: secularism, non-alignment, strong state, and socialism. Placing Nehru on a pedestal was part of the nation-building narrative, particularly after his passing, says Sherman, who identifies herself as an admirer.

With the Nehruvian order being berated by dominant Hindutva politics of the day, there is a tendency among secular historians to be defensive about Nehru. Sherman, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, explains that the realities of India were quite different from the common perceptions that Nehru’s admirers and critics propagate about the decades after Independence. More importantly, Nehru himself was deeply aware of these realities, she claims. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Professor Taylor C. Sherman in New Delhi, February 2023.

Professor Taylor C. Sherman in New Delhi, February 2023. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

How did you think of writing this book, and why?

Thirteen years ago, I was working on a project on understanding secularism in independent India. Curious about the incorporation of the princely State of Hyderabad into India with the help of police action, I turned to Nehru’s speeches and letters to understand what had happened. As I delved into various historical records, however, I became aware of a disconnect between Nehru’s words and what I was discovering. I found that the way people spoke about Nehru’s idea of secularism today or in the early 21st century did not match with what I was finding. Then I thought that maybe all the things associated with the Nehruvian period, like socialism or non-alignment, need a relook. And the title actually is a provocation in today’s India.

How is your book different from the large-scale Nehru-bashing that is happening these days?

My project is not about Nehru-bashing. I actually admire Nehru. In today’s India we have two narratives about Nehru, we either bash him or defend him, but I am a scholar, so I just want to understand him. Actually, I am not interested in the man himself so much, but I am interested in his ideas and how they were debated at that time. I am interested in how the then elites understood these terms, how they debated and disagreed over the definitions

Nehru was not doing anything to create myths about him. How did these myths then emerge?

Jawaharlal Nehru with his daughter Indira Gandhi in October 1961.

Jawaharlal Nehru with his daughter Indira Gandhi in October 1961. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It’s been a project and some of it is the product of circumstances. The project is a Congress project. And it began emerging almost as soon as Nehru died. There were crowds of people pledging allegiance to Nehru’s ideas and I assume that people had proposed similar kind of ideas even when he was alive. There was a certain amount of myth-making happening as soon as Nehru died and Indira Gandhi is responsible for more myth-making. She attached herself to Nehru’s myths by commissioning his selected works, producing documentaries, etc. I wouldn’t see it as a wholly nefarious project. Political parties and governments do it all the time.

While there are myths that would emerge after his death, during his lifetime, Nehru was aware of the limits of his power, wasn’t he?

I think he was actually aware of his limitations and that made him quite introspective about his power. And so rather than amassing as much power as possible, he was very aware of what he couldn’t do. At the inauguration of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, he said: I may be the head of administration, and you are the tail, but the head is so far removed from the tail that I have no idea what is happening or where it is, I can’t see it at all.

Once he wrote to his sister about people disobeying him, and that in the Soviet Union these kinds of people get liquidated. It’s a tongue-in-cheek comment about how in an authoritarian regime, things might seem easier but he would never contemplate that.

What is in common parlance Nehruvian India was a reference to what he had articulated in his writings or speeches and there is a real world that is quite apart from the ideal. He thought of it as a promise to be realised?

I think so. As a historian I create my own narrative. Reality is difficult for all of us to grasp. But Nehru articulated a vision and it centred around a lot of these abstract nouns: non-alignment, secularism, socialism, and the reality is that those ambitions were not achieved. Nehru’s version of secularism was not hegemonic. Large numbers of civil servants and ordinary people just didn’t agree with his version of how Hinduism as a religion and civilisation was side by side. That’s an ambition not realised. In the early decades after Independence, India’s savarna elites had reached the height of power: they got to that power by the success of the national movement for independence and they were intent on using that power. They did not want to do away with hierarchies. They were very comfortable with hierarchy and social differentiation.

The diplomat in Nehru had a much bigger ambition: to reorder international society in a way that was underpinned by Indian norms and ideas. I call it Indian Internationalism. He called it ‘one world’. To a certain extent ‘one world’ does not quite capture it. But nobody has acknowledged this larger ambition, which is very creative.

You examine the notion that it was a socialist era. Nehru wasn’t really trying to demolish Indian capitalism as it existed at that time; can we assume he was working with it or he was facilitating its functioning?

Absolutely. It is entirely a messy idea that Nehru wanted to monopolise the whole of the economic activity by the state. It is untrue that he wanted government control over everything. This notion was created by the Swatantra Party. That’s not what Nehru and Indian socialism stood for. The Nehru years totally accepted the existing social hierarchy and the existence of private property.

Will your book make both the groups — the Nehruvians and his Hindutva opponents — disappointed and angry?

I don’t expect anyone to be really happy with my book. The title is a provocation, but the tone of the book is not meant to provoke. It is not supposed to make anyone angry.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in

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