May 29, 2016

India: Attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru's legacy will only strengthen his legacy (Apoorvanand)

scroll.in - May 27, 2016

Forged in adversity: Attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru's legacy will only strengthen his legacy
On his death anniversary, reflections on the leader's enduring contributions to India.


The recent erasure of Jawaharlal Nehru from school textbooks in Rajasthan created some alarm in the media, but it was left largely to the Congress Party to protest this deletion. It was as if the man who led India for its first 17 years was a Congressman and not much more. That seems obvious from the fact that last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party government chose to ignore his death anniversary on May 27.

Looked at another way, it’s a good thing that the country’s first prime minister is finally getting detached from the mythology of the Indian state. The official narrative about Nehru after his death gradually turned him into a kind of legitimiser of the state. Over the past half-century, Nehru has become so synonymous with the state-building project that we’ve forgotten the debates between him and his guru Gandhi and other leaders of the Congress party where he often comes out as a dissenter and rebel. It isn’t surprising that many Gandhians resented Gandhi’s fondness for Nehru because for them, Nehru was not sufficiently Gandhian. They have often tried to explain away Gandhi’s judgment about Nehru as the Mahatma’s fatal personal weakness.

Nehru, however chose to describe himself a child of the Gandhi-era. Once while being interviewed b RK Karnajia, he refused to be described as a statesman, saying that the last statesman had been Gandhi.

There were many things that bound Gandhi with Nehru but in their last years, it was largely the commitment to the dream of an anti-majoritarian nation- state that they shared, which drew them even closer. Nehru was not particularly enthusiastic about the economic vision Gandhi propounded in his book Hind Swaraj and the old man was well aware of this. Yet, he could confidently say that Nehru would speak his language when he was no longer around.

Gandhi’s trust in Nehru’s firmness about anti-majoritarianism had greatly to do with his awareness of the younger man’s cosmopolitan mind and his individualism. Nehru was not sufficiently Hindu but had an agonising relationship with this aspect of his life. This distance gave him a rare advantage over other Congressmen and women who were either fully Hindu or Muslim or were atheists. Gandhi knew that Nehru would not allow himself to submerge in a larger, abstract identity and would also encourage India’s people to fashion selves that had not been given to them.

What is most interesting in this relationship is that Gandhi could put away the organisational tag of the Congress when he chose to but Nehru remained burdened with a party he often found himself uncomfortable with. The petty worldliness of members of his party and their narrow outlook put him off and he tried to find sources of goodness and hope in the unlettered masses of India.

Gandhi had his Constructive Programme to go to whenever he felt stifled with the political struggle. Nehru welcomed the solitude of prison over the hurly bury of politics.

In his letters to his daughter from various prisons, he seems to suggest that he does not want to come out of jail. Jail was for him an opportunity to be fully with himself. In a letter of the Naini Central Prison, he wrote:

"I am in what is called an association barrack ‒ that is we do not have separate cells. Each of us has tried to have a corner to herself so as to ensure at least a minimum of privacy. It is strange ‒ here we are all together and yet each a world to herself, separate and aloof. More alone than if one had been in solitary confinement. I even feel that I am developing the awkwardness that comes of being companionless.

Alone… The word is life endured and known.

It is the stillness where our spirits walk

And all but the inmost faith is overthrown."

Nehru never complains about the hardship or lack of facilities in prisons. Instead, he wrote:

"...what a powerful effect jail has on our mental make-ups. It makes us grow up mentally and gives a different, and perhaps a truer, perspective on life and the world…It is curious that jail life, which is terrible narrowing of the world of experiences and sensations, often gives us deeper experiences and sensations."

The toughening of souls that both the disciple and the guru achieved through their long stints in prison away from the public made them gave them the strength to face and fight the temptations of giving into the demands of the public.

India’s people moulded Nehru’s personality in a vital way, just like it did his mentor’s, but it was his companionship with nature and books that also helped him to analyse them critically and not succumb to ordinariness. It was his repulsion for crudity that made him turn away from all calls to herd India’s people. He believed that it was important to achieve humanity for and on one’s own.

Nation building was like swallows building a nest. Nehru observed them in his Ahmedbad Fort Prison and wrote to his daughter:

"The swallows have grown in number and have made their nests inside rooms and verandahs. I like them, they are so swift and quiet, so unlike the noisy and quarrelsome sparrows. It is rather fascinating to see a swallow’s nest being built up, quietly, efficiently and without fuss. It seems to stick on to the bare wall or a corner without any visible support. All feathers, soft and downy, collected from different places and stuck together with some kind of cement."

Nehru was not destined to achieve this quietness in public life, which for him was another name for civility. But he was also not pardoned by his contemporaries nor by generations for reminding them that they too lacked this quality too.

It is not surprising that Nehru is remembered and applauded for his technocratic vision that built dams and industries but his call for civility and humanity is ignored and resented.

It is good, in a way, that Nehru is facing hostility again. During his lifetime, it was in such conditions of adversity that his unique qualities became apparent. It's very likely that Nehru’s banishment from contemporary spaces helps burnish his legacy. It’s almost as if he predicted his fate in his letter from the Ahmedabad prison, which he concluded by quoting Ghalib:

When the tavern itself we were made to leave,
Why restrain in a specific place?
A seminary, a monastery or else a mosque,
Any place it may now be!
When professions of the greed worshipers
admiring beauty soar,
The grace of the truly discerning ones
Finds respect no more.