Nehru died this day in 1964 – 27th May. In times when his ideology is under question, one needs to understand him in perspective of the times we live today.
The year was 1928 and Bhagat Singh was writing manifestoes for India’s independence struggle; while analysing new leaders of Independence struggle, Bhagat Singh wrote that “India would achieve freedom and understand the status of freedom in the context of the world through Pandit Nehru’s school of thoughts… We would then be spared of aimless intellectual wandering and saved from frustration.” That was because Bhagat Singh had seen that Nehru not only wanted to break away from the British thought but also from ages of ignorance and unnecessary traditions. Bhagat Singh said that “Nehru’s thoughts were revolutionary and appealed to the mind as well as to the reason, while Subhas Babu’s appealed only to the mind but not reason”. As a thinker of great depth, Bhagat Singh knew that from amongst the upcoming leaders, only Nehru had the intellectual depth to understand the dynamics of a new India that was both entrenched in its ancient beliefs but modern, inclusive and progressive in vision. By the way, in the same essay, Bhagat Singh suggested that Bose was “narrow-minded and tied too much to ideas of past greatness, and his ideas though well intended towards India’s independence as a goal were bent towards the lunatic realm”.
As time went by, after independence, we see that Bhagat Singh’s analysis of Nehru proved true. Nehru not only broke away from British rule but he took India towards a new paradigm of egalitarianism, caste-less society, socialist ideas of a welfare state, freedom of expression to all. Yes, he had his idelogical failings in Kashmir; and we grant him the human frailty of failure.
If one reads his book – ‘Discovery of India’ – one can read his wide vision of India’s past greatness and also his well thought out reasonings for it past failings. When on the driver’s seat himself on on area as big as Ashoka the Great’s, he created systems to bring out the best of Ancient Indian thought and giving it the shape of a modern country, so much so that Nehruvian thought became the idea of everything that was going right in the country.
The ‘welfare state’ ideals of Nehru did wonders and there was a time when a poor farmer’s child could study in the best colleges of India for almost zero fee, and the farmer was assured that his child would get the same education as the child of a business tycoon or a high ranked official. There was a time when the best medical facilities lied in government hospitals while difficult cases were referred by private hospitals to government ones for better treatment. There was no difference in the treatment that a poor person got and a rich person did, given all other conditions of geographical location were same. Yes, not all areas or zones were covered but the direction of progress was positive. Somewhere in the midst of this began the tectonic shift of capitalism, and so any economic policy for the benefit of the poor began to be seen as a ‘dole’ and any economic policy for the benefit of the rich began to be seen as an ‘incentive’. No wonder then that Nehruvian ideals have to be buried under a barrage of onslaught on his policies. And the deeper the assault on his ideas of ‘socialism’, deeper may be the widening schism between the rich and the poor.
Over 350 nation states were amalgmated into India; while one state (J&K) was seemingly mishandled. That one problem is a millstone around the neck of peace; and is also a rallying point of taking away credit for all of Nehru’s successes of amalgmating the rest of the princely states; of war against Hyderabad and its accession; of war against Portuguese and accession of Goa; of conflict with French powers and accession of Pondicherry and Daman-Diu; or the amalgmation of Nagaland which has been an intractable issue since then.
He made blunders with China; support to Dalai Lama was followed up with an almost naive denial of China’s military threat, resulting in a humiliating defeat in the 1962 war.
On hindsight his blunders seem mammoth, but make no mistake, no PM since Nehru has ever touched the heights of global respect commanded by Nehru. His leadership of the Non-Aligned movement is a case in point, where he stood tall and looked both the super-powers of USA and USSR in the eye and challenged them with an independent policy conditioned and controlled by India’s own strength. It meant not to entangle oneself with any kind of alliances or commitments that would lead to war and conflict. He along with Yugoslovia’s Joseph Tito and Egypt’s Nassar initiated the ‘Non Aligned Movement’; which was then a grouping of over 100 countries which were not aligned either with Russia or America. At the height of the cold war, India stood like a rock, not taking sides.
In those times of economic difficulty, when India had almost no money for its development activities; Nehru, with his deft handling of foreign relations managed to get development funds from USA, France or UK while also getting expertise and support of USSR. Today’s new leaders get so ballastic abroad these days and act as if they are the first leaders to get international adulation. Nehru’s international adulation was not manufactured, he was a stalwart in his own right; a world statesman who was counted right amongst the top.
Much has recently been said about his appeasement of minorities. Nothing can be far from truth. Yes, he was even-handed but he was hardly an appeaser. He did encourage inclusion of ideas of a ‘Uniform Civil Code’ in the directive principles of Indian Constitution. Building social order was a work in progress in his time and while blaming him for non-implementation of the uniform code, one must remember that he had his hands full trying to manage the economy and building a sustainable framework of institutions that could take India forward.
And look at the insitutions he created, be they the network of engineering colleges and IITs, or medical institutions and AIIMS, management instutions, research institutes, the space research organisations, atomic centres and robust public sector undertakings laying the foundations of all aspects of a developing economy. What an institution build he was; and what resources did he have? Can any of the latter PMs claim even one-tenth of his contributon in building institutions – they can’t even sustain them.
One can curse the public sector ad nauseum but imagine a country without any of them. Given a free hand then, a small economy like India’s could have totally been colonised by a multinational conglomerate and the entire independence struggle would have meant supplanting the legacy of East India Company with another. Today, when we are one of the world’s three largest economies it is pretty difficult now for any private player to totally roughshod over our insitutions; suffice to say that Nehru laid the framework to protect against it.
Institutions like the Election Commission, CAG, Planning Commissions – all of them have stood the test of time and have sustained India into a state where people can today look back with pride.
It’s fashionable these days to throw all faults of history at Nehru’s gate; I wonder how prudent it is to still blame him for his purported faults but not even stopping to acknowledge his immense contributions.
Lacs of people died in the partition violence of 1947; while blaming him for the violence, do we realise what would have happened if the violence had spread to other parts of India? How many would have died? Nehru ensured that refugees were treated honourably and settled all across India. Muslims who migrated from India into Pakistan are still treated as ‘Mohajirs’, live in ghettos are even now not a part of the mainstream Pakistan society. On the other hand see how seamlessly the migrants from that part were integrated into India. The building blocks of residential blocks spread out across India were put in place, unlike Pakistan where all refugees were allowed to wander into one city i.e. Karachi. In 1947-48, Muslim versus Sikh/Hindu hatred was at its peak on partition. Within two to three years of taking power, the hatred had died down and there was harmony in the country. Nehru was like a balm, like a medicine over the wounds, so much so that by the time he left power, India was already well known as an inclusive secular nation. Nehru had proven Jinnah wrong, the two nation theory had been proven wrong.
When British left, India still did not have a Constitution. Nehru brought his rival – B. R. Amebedkar as head of the Drafting Committee. He himself led the team in the Constituent Assembly and was an enthusiastic steward of debates in the Assembly and in many ways was the final arbiter in the way the Constitution shaped up. Ambedkar by himself couldn’t have achieved anything, since he did not have political support and the numbers on his own. It was the leadership of Nehru that steered through the Constitution through the intricate voting process in the Constituent Assembly, it was his leadership that let Ambedkar have the credit. Again, we must understand that if things would have gone wrong, there would have been NO constitution. Pakistan was able to get the first draft of it’s half baked constitution enforced only in 1956, a second constitution in 1962 and yet another one in 1970 and 1972. They were able to put a Constitution into force only by 1973, by which time India was already a well established democracy. The liberal ethos of the new country was initiated by Nehru, will all sections of the society being given equitable share in the power. Federal spirit of India with a strong Centre was developed, the basic framework including the letter as well as spirit of the Constitution were established through conventions and precedences, somethings which are still followed to this day. Army was kept firmly in the barracks – Pakistan’s army was carved out of the Indian army, its officers and jawans had been trained in the same academies as that of India. Yet, Pakistan had a power vacuum which was quickly filled by their army by 1948 itself.
As people today throw stones at Nehru’s legacy, they don’t realise that they are standing on the shoulders of that giant of a man. He had his faults but we must realise that he put the first building blocks of the foundation for a superpower of the future. Alright, he put a few blocks like Kashmir wrong in the foundation, but the strength of the nation today is test of the robustness of his work.
The current generation need not pay homage to him; but least we can do is try to understand the beauty of his legacy, before we totally destroy it. Fifty five years after his death, if we still can’t solve some legacy issues, it just shows that those issues were too big to begin with and that man needed more time which death didnt offer to him as he died on today’s date.