As the events around Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary draw to a close, it is perhaps an appropriate occasion to revisit the Nehruvian construct and understand why it is under a sustained ass
As the events around Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary draw to a close, it is perhaps an appropriate occasion to revisit the Nehruvian construct and understand why it is under a sustained assault today.
The genesis of the Nehruvian construct lies in the Indian liberation struggle, a battle that led to Nehru’s incarceration for close to a decade and, perhaps, provided him with the time and space to write some great books. The ideology that underpinned that battle rested on three pillars: sovereignty rooted in anti-imperialism, commitment to a secular and inclusive democracy and an economic vision that embraced the emancipation of the last person in the last row. Taken together they constitute what is referred to as “the idea of India”.
The India that Nehru inherited in 1947 was in a global context, where on one hand imperialism and colonialism were being swept away by the tide of liberation, with over 150-odd countries becoming independent in Fifties and Sixties, while on the other 51 member states that founded the United Nations in 1945 were, within one year, with the onset of the Cold war, united in blocs rather than peace. This reality was underpropped by a nuclear holocaust in Japan that signposted the pecking order post World War II.
Nehru chose the non-alignment paradigm as it organically grew out of the rejection of the dominance model that had characterised India’s quest for Independence. Not only did it provide India a platform to emerge as a leader of the new world, but the large swathe of newly emerged Asian and African nations provided a counterbalance to the Euro-centricity of global affairs.
From the Asian Relations conference in 1947 till this moment in time, non-alignment has provided us with the flexibility of taking positions based upon “enlightened” national interest. From the treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971 to the US civil nuclear deal of 2008, this policy has stood India in good stead. As the world moves towards multi-polarity and India has to nimbly navigate a conundrum of conflicting interests on issues like climate change, the mayhem in West Asia and belligerence in the South China Sea, it helps not being tied to a bloc.
The economy that Nehru inherited had had virtually zero per cent growth from 1900 to 1947. Per capita income had shrunk by 0.2 per cent, agricultural output by 0.72 per cent and foodgrain production by 11.4 per cent on an annual basis between 1917 and 1947.
Three million people had perished in a famine in undivided Bengal alone. The British rulers diverted grain to the war zones during the Second World War without trepidation for the starvation and suffering that it caused in India. In 1947, the illiteracy rate was 84 per cent, and higher at 92 per cent among women. The average life expectancy was about 30 years and the poor died younger. At the time of Independence, 90 per cent of machines and machine tools were being imported from abroad.
What did the Fabian Socialist Nehru achieve Between 1951 and 1965, the Indian economy grew at an average of 4.10 per cent annually. During the same period that coincided with the three Five-Year plans, industry grew at 7.1 per cent per annum. The Index of Industrial Production grew three-fold between 1951 and 1969. There was a 70 per cent increase in the consumer goods industry, quadrupling of intermediate goods and a tenfold increase in the output of capital goods in that decade and a half. Social development and human life indices also started a positive march.
These numbers are perhaps a fitting riposte to all those neo-liberal economists who preach that the first 40 years of Independence were the locust years.
How did India remain democratic when a bulk of the newly Independent states of Asia, Africa, and even Latin and South America, either fell victim to a military dictatorship or the tutelage of one party rule While the flame of democracy burnt bright in the souls of the leadership of the Indian liberation movement, Nehru as Prime Minister set an example by showing exemplary tolerance to criticism by his parliamentary and other peers both in the Opposition and within the party.
That India did not become a Hindu Pakistan after Partition is perhaps best summed up by Nehru himself in his very first letter to the Prime Ministers (Chief as they were then called) of the provinces on October 13, 1947, while the nation was still engulfed in a communal cauldron.
Nehru wrote: “I know there is a certain amount of feeling in the country — how strong it is in your province you can judge better than I can — that the Central government has somehow or other been weak and following a policy of appeasement towards Muslims. This, of course, is complete nonsense. There is no question of weakness or appeasement. We have a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want to, go anywhere else. They have got to live in India. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilised manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic state. If we fail to do so, we shall have a festering sore which will eventually poison the whole body politic and probably destroy it.”
Nehru was a pragmatist. He understood that given the sheer demographics, if some lunatic wanted India to become a “Hindu Rashtra”, it would be at the cost of a bloodbath that would make the horrors of Partition look like a picnic. Moreover, though he may have acquiesced to a communal Partition, he was intellectually opposed to the idea that religion was anything more than a private space activity. His definition of secularism began and ended with the strict separation of the church and state unlike the fuzzy “Sarv Dharm Sambhav” that it morphed into and which became the cause of a lot of India’s problems subsequently.
It is often overlooked that far from being a Muslim appeaser, Nehru was the one who had opposed the appointment of only Muslims belonging to the Muslim League as ministers in the Provincial governments in 1936. Many believe that this became the trigger for the subsequent Partition of India. For Nehru this was an article of creed of not conceding a veto over public affairs to religious bigotry represented at that point in time by political Islam.
This is the Nehruvian narrative that has held the field for the past 67 years that is now under a systematic, calibrated, sustained and diabolical assault by the present dispensation, which believes that history began the day they assumed office on May 26, 2014. In its place the National Democratic Alliance/ Bharatiya Janata Party government, and their ideological mentors and fellow travellers want to establish a historical narrative which emphasises that the Aryans, Harappans included, were Indians and they did not come from Central Asia.
They want to delegitimise adivasis — the eternal inhabitants of this ancient land — by turning them into Vanvasis (forest people), thereby creating a quixotic mythology of evolution. This is in direct contra-distinction to the historical narrative of India articulated by Nehru in his book
The Discovery of India, and other distinguished historians who have written about South Asia.They want to cast Indian nationalism in a uni-racial, unilingual and uni-religious framework that challenges the diversity and plurality of India and its struggle for Independence which was a multi-religious and multi-ethnic affair.
They want to create a clash of religions by making common cause between Hinduism and the so-called Indic religion and juxtapose them against Islam and Christianity. A “Clash of Civilisations” — indigenised.
They want to unify the Hindu faith by de-emphasising caste differences by changing the basis of affirmative action, while foregrounding Sanskrit as the mother of all languages, thereby creating linguistic hegemony, completely overlooking that some of the south Indian languages like Tamil, Malayalam, etc., may even predate Sanskrit.
The shrill and sharp conflict in the public discourse over intolerance is, in fact, the public manifestation of a confrontation against a larger and more insidious agenda that is to change the basic ethos and storyline of India. From a liberal, pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive ethos to a majoritarian, intolerant, misogynist and exclusivist social more.
In the coming three and a half years, the Nehruvian narrative will face a robust challenge. The tragedy, unfortunately, is that many of the defenders of Nehru’s legacy, his ideological inheritors, have not cared to read, much less understand and absorb, Nehru’s beliefs.
The writer is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari