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  Opinion   Columnists  26 May 2024  Mohan Guruswamy | India’s good fortune to have had Nehru at the beginning

Mohan Guruswamy | India’s good fortune to have had Nehru at the beginning

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : May 27, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : May 27, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Remembering Jawaharlal Nehru: Sixty years since the passing of India's first Prime Minister

 Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, whose vision and leadership laid the foundation for modern India. (DC File Image)
  Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, whose vision and leadership laid the foundation for modern India. (DC File Image)

Jawaharlal Nehru died sixty years ago on May 27, 1964. He was seventy-four. He had a stroke that morning at 6.25 am and lost consciousness almost immediately. He died without regaining consciousness, and according to a member of his household, his death was due to “an internal hemorrhage, a paralytic stroke, and a heart attack”. He had returned the previous day from Mussoorie, “hale and hearty”, but Nehru was clearly ailing. Parliament, which was then in session, and the nation were told about his death at 2.05 pm.

A major event such as this inevitably gives rise to “where were you?” questions. Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? Where were you when Indira Gandhi was killed? Where were you when the World Trade Centre in New York was brought down? The shock of the event magnifies the immediate around you and imprints it in your mind. I still can vividly recall the day Nehru died and the moment I learnt about it.

I was in Pune (then Poona) studying German at the Goethe Institute, and after class that afternoon I was cycling into town to meet a friend. As I passed a government building, I saw a flag flying at half-mast. I asked and when told a great fear descended over me.

Like many young Indians, I too was unwilling to contemplate India without Nehru, despite having read much speculation about “who next?” The most widely-read book on the subject was by American journalist Welles Hangen After Nehru Who? Hangen speculated on a list of personalities, and wrote: “Many people in India who concede that Nehru can now be replaced have told me that only he could have held the country together in the early days after the Partition of British India.” Clearly to many, Nehru had outlived his purpose, particularly after the disastrous India-China war of 1962. Not knowing what was in store next sent me scurrying down back to my hostel, where a radio set was reporting the mourning as only AIR and Melville de Mello’s dulcet voice could.

We began discussing the succession, even though Gulzarilal Nanda was appointed the interim PM, few took him seriously as a successor. By late in the night our fears took over. One refrain was that the military would take over. Another was that either the Communists or the CIA would set off a coup. None of this happened. Nehru had built a modern and democratic India to last.

India was fortunate to have his leadership in the formative years of the republic. We took the road less traveled and it made all the difference. Recall Robert Frost who wrote: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…/I took the one less traveled by, /And that has made all the difference.”

We could have done better but we could also have done worse, like many other countries in our situation did. The India conceptualised by Nehru and the founding fathers still endures, weathering blows from the philistines opposed to the foundational philosophy of modern India.

Nehru was a man with a towering intellect and a long vision. No one who has read his Discovery of India will think otherwise. He tried to forge a new all-inclusive nationality for us. I have often tried to explain this notion in simple terms. This is to make the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai or the Taj Mahal in Agra or the Golden Temple in Amritsar equally our heritage. Every invasion or migratory wave, every musical instrument and kind of music, and every literary form and style that flourished in India was equally ours. The raga and ghazal were ours just as Bhimsen Joshi and Begum Akhtar were our very own.

Nehru made mistakes. When big people make mistakes, they are often monumental. He misunderstood the nature of the dispute with China. He tied the economy in the ropes of central planning, which while giving us an industrial base, helped spawn very many undeserving millionaire tycoons. But he had a bigger vision. He contemplated the new India to be guided by reason and infused with the scientific temper. Instead, we are now increasingly a people driven by dogma and blind faith. Religion and blind faith are our biggest fault lines and the cause of much social friction and breakdown of orderly public behaviour and order.

In recent years, the assault on Nehru’s memory has become vicious. It is led by small men, men who don't know history and who confuse Taxila with Patna, Indus with the Ganga, and Alexander with Selucus; who don't know science and think Ganesh was real and not a symbol and who can't tell between a transplant and plastic surgery; who cannot distinguish between history and mythology, science and superstition, and fact and fiction. They are now trying to define our identity in narrow and divisive terms, and hence excluding the majority.

Our never-ending economic malaises and the seemingly intractable problem of Jammu and Kashmir serve as ready sticks to beat the memory of Nehru. And in the hands of the half knowing and politically vicious politician these become deadly weapons, however false they may in fact be. Then of course there is the myth perpetuated that it was Jawaharlal Nehru’s eagerness to become Prime Minister that forced the agreement for the Partition of India. There is a good deal of irony in this for those who seem to castigate him loudest on this are those who hate the Muslims the most.

The attempted deification of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who supposedly disagreed with Nehru on all these and other issues, serves the political purpose of those who having got their day in office, misused it, and now are desperately hoping to get another term. It is sad to see few willing to stand up and take a position in defence of Jawaharlal Nehru these days. In my time I have been a frequent critic of Nehru, yet even I will have little hesitation in stating that he was the greatest statesman this country has known for several centuries. We were fortunate to have had him in the beginning.

Our unique diversity and common perception about ourselves bound by a modern and egalitarian Constitution is now being challenged. India has weathered worse. We are, after all, the people of India, that is Bharat. And we still live in the house that Jawaharlal Nehru built.


Tags: jawaharlal nehru, nehru death anniversary, nehru legacy