How should India remember Jawaharlal Nehru?
November 14 marked the 132nd anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth and on that day part of the Indian public took to Twitter to mock him. How should India remember Nehru?
Let’s go back to August 1947, a catastrophic period in India. The partition left hundreds of thousands of people dead, millions of people were forced to flee their homes; friends and neighbors had turned on each other. The treasury was in ruins, and a vast and diverse country lacked peace, brotherhood, or the resources to rebuild itself.
When Nehru gave his famous date on the rendezvous with fate on the eve of independence, it was unclear what this fate held in store for India.
As the first Prime Minister of independent India, Nehru had heavy responsibilities. He had to deal with community violence; the princely states negotiated with the Indian Union, the basic needs of the people had to be met. When Nehru finished his first term, there were glimmers of hope that India would realize its potential.
Congress honors Jawaharlal Nehru on 132nd birthday
We inherited a 0.72% growth rate from the British. It climbed to 3.6% in five years. The dream of a unified India had taken shape. Nehru realized that India could only move forward if it took a scientific approach. At a time when there weren’t enough roads or trains, he laid the foundation for space and nuclear institutions. In the field of education and medicine, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institute of Medical Sciences have been established. All this in a country that started independence with a literacy rate of 12%.
It was to give India its rightful place in the world that Nehru, along with the Yugoslav Josip Broz Tito and the Egyptian Gamel Abdel Nasser, conceptualized the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He did not espouse the radical communism that the former Soviet Union adopted, but he opposed the creeping capitalism of the United States. The countries of NAM called themselves the Third World. Nehru, whose popularity transcended geographic boundaries, was among the rulers of the newly independent countries of the time.
Did that make him overconfident? Was this why he believed in the slogan “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” when dealing with China? The ignominious defeat of 1962 partly revealed his naivety.
This was not the only mistake made by Nehru. He did not properly assess the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. It was a big mistake to promise a plebiscite in Kashmir. The situation, which worsened after the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah, has not returned to normal to date. However, Nehru later publicly admitted that the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah was a bad decision and, in this, he showed his ability to recognize his error in judgment and accept criticism.
When the Hindu Code Bill was enacted, its critics said it should not have forgotten about minorities. Was he the only one to blame? We must not forget that Congress was a party of strong leaders at that time. Nehru has often faced challenges within the cabinet as well as in party forums. There was a discord between him and Purushottam Das Tandon, a resident of his town, Allahabad (now Prayagraj). Tandon had become president of Congress without his consent and was then forced to resign by Nehru. In protest against his policies, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee also resigned from the cabinet and founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh from which today’s Bharatiya Janata Party eventually emerged. What if Mookerjee hadn’t left Congress?
Nehru’s differences with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Govind Vallabh Pant were well known. Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, a member of his cabinet, also separated later. The then Congress was a democratic party in the proper sense of the word and Nehru was the first among his peers. He was the leader of his party, but not the last word. This pernicious trend started with Indira Gandhi.
Despite this, Nehru considered himself responsible to all Indians. It is said that he once went to Kanpur during an election campaign where a person at a public meeting told Nehru that he gave a ticket to a corrupt person. He listened and replied that he may have made a mistake giving the ticket, but was confident that the person who made the claim would not make the mistake of voting for a dishonest person.
It is perhaps to clean up politics that he established grassroots democracy. Today, millions of people have been elected into more than 2.5 lakh panchayats, many of whom are women and Dalits. It is a unique experience of empowering people at the grassroots through democratic methods. India shaped largely by Nehru has never experienced a military coup, as our neighboring country has repeatedly witnessed.
We cannot assess Nehru through the prism of contemporary events. We can only get a true picture if we take into account the events of his time. This is something his detractors often overlook.
Shashi Shekhar is Editor-in-Chief, Hindustan. The opinions expressed are personal.
- Key words: India, Jawaharlal Nehru