Why revisit Nehru?

“No tears for what lay behind, no fears for tomorrow’s mayhem and madness.” Thus wrote Stanley Wolpert describing Jawahrlal Nehru’s visage when delivering the Tryst with Destiny speech. Nehru, the crusader for India’s freedom, had come a long way as he stood speaking the stirring words. Freedom had been earned but India had lost her unity. As India awoke to “life and freedom” there laid ahead an uncertain future. But Nehru could afford neither tears for what had been lost nor trepidation for what the future might conceal. There was a nation to build and nurture, now that it was free.

Nehru was a politician and statesman but he was also the romantic. He felt for India with a romantic’s intensity, as is so evident in the Tryst with Destiny speech. Sometimes, his lyrically lilting and expressive prose rendered this intensity in words. Nehru writes in The Discovery of India:

As I grew up and became engaged in activities which promised to lead to India’s freedom, I became obsessed with the thought of India. What was this India that possessed me and beckoned to me continually, urging me to action so that we might realise some deeply-felt desire of our hearts? The initial urge came to me, I suppose, through pride, both individual and national, and the desire, common to all men, to resist another’s domination and have freedom to live the life of our choice. It seemed monstrous to me that a great country like India, with a rich and immemorial past, should be bound hand and foot to a far away island which imposed its ill upon her.

Indeed, Nehru was obsessed with the thought of India as his writings reveal so very often. What was this India that animated his thought and passions? Nehru’s love for India was not only for her sylvan earth and many rivers and hills. It was a love, passionately felt and expressed, for her people. He expresses it in the following words in The Discovery of India:

The mountains and rivers of India, and the forests and the broad fields, which gave us food, were all dear to us, but what counted ultimately were the people of India…spread out all over this vast land. Bharat Mata, Mother India, was essentially these millions of people, and victory to her meant victory to these people.

Nehru had found this love early. Already, about fifteen years ago, he had identified India with her countless children in his autobiography. He had written:

It is curious how one cannot resist the tendency to give an anthropomorphic form to a country. Such is the force of habit and early associations. India becomes Bharat Mata, mother India, a beautiful lady, very old but ever youthful in her appearance, sad eyed and forlorn, cruelly treated by aliens and outsiders, and calling upon her children to protect her. Some such picture rouses the emotions of hundreds of thousands and drives them to action and sacrifice. And yet India is in the main the peasant and the worker, not beautiful to look at, for poverty is not beautiful. Does the beautiful lady of our imagination represent the bare bodied and bent workers in the fields and factories? Or the small group of those who have from ages past crushed the masses and exploited them, imposed cruel customs on them and made many of them even untouchable? We seek to cover truth by the creatures of our imaginations and endeavour to escape from reality to a world of dreams.

Thus, feeling as he did for India and her people, it is no surprise that Nehru, more than anyone else, stands for post-independence India.

The early years. 1889-1920

Jawaharlal Nehru was born in Allahabad on 14 November 1889 to Motilal Nehru and Swarup Rani. The Nehrus were Kashmiri Pundits who had descended to the plains of north India during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar. As Nehru writes in his autobiography, they settled in the then imperial capital of Delhi “about the year 1716.” Kaul was originally their family name and they were granted a Jagir on the bank of a canal in Delhi. Since the Hindustani for a canal is Neher, the Kauls soon came to be known as Kaul-Nehrus. In the course of years Kaul was dropped and only Nehru retained as the family name. The Revolt of 1857 drove the Nehrus from Delhi to Agra where an uncle of Nehru, Bansi Dhar Nehru, attached himself to the newly established High Court. When the court moved to Allahabad, the Nehrus too moved with it.

Nehru was born to Motilal and Swarup after eleven years of marriage. In his own words, he spent his early years “as a somewhat lonely child with no companions.” His two sisters arrived many years after him. Nehru’s childhood was a “sheltered and uneventful one.” The Nehru household had increasingly westernised under Motilal’s influence and a child Nehru was looked after by English governesses. However, even as a child Nehru was “filled with resentment against the alien rulers” of India who often ill-treated Indians. Against individual Englishmen, though, “he had no feeling whatever.”

Still not sixteen, Nehru sailed for England in May 1905. Nehru was put in Harrow and his life turned an important leaf. He wrote home often expressing his schoolboy’s concerns. However, Nehru’s mind was eager and not just engrossed in a schoolboy’s concerns. Sometimes, news from India wafted to him and he reacted keenly. When he learnt of the Swadeshi movement having reached the far hills of Kashmir, he was surprised. Soon, we find him taking an interest in the affairs of the Indian National Congress too.

In October 1907 Nehru joined Trinity College, Cambridge. Back in India there was political turmoil and Nehru wanted to play “a brave part in it.” By the end of October we find him having joined the society of Indians at Cambridge- the Majlis. As we gather, the first impression was good. He communicated to his father on 31 October 1907 (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, First Series, Volume -1)

…I went the other day to a meeting of the “majlis” here just to see if they were as bad as they were painted; but I am glad to say I failed to find anything reprehensible in it. It is curious how the Cambridge Indians have got a bad name on account of the doings of a very small number of gentlemen.

Thus, we have the picture of an intelligent, eager youth growing into manhood in the early years of the twentieth century. Nehru’s coming of age coincided with a growing restlessness in India and the close of the age of the moderates. It was a heady time. Soon, a man called Gandhi would arrive with his never before used political weapons. Nehru was to witness, and be a part of, these changes which gradually led to the non-cooperation movement in 1920. This part of our website will be an attempt in tracing Nehru’s coming of age through his letters and other writings. We will witness an age as witnessed by Nehru and, may be, some of its idealism will pulse through us.

Quest for freedom.1921-1947

“The year 1921,” says Nehru in his autobiography, “was a year of great tension, and there was much to irritate and annoy and unnerve the official.” The non-cooperation movement had bedeviled the British and had caused them much reason to be annoyed and unnerved. Besides, the British also had the Khilafat agitation to contend with. Nehru found himself drawn “more and more” to the doctrine of non-violence and felt it to be the right policy for India with her background and traditions. Non-cooperation bode freedom and an end to misery for the disadvantaged. It offered Nehru hope that could survive failures:

…the non-cooperation movement offered me what I wanted – goal of national freedom and (as I thought) the ending of the exploitation of the underdog, and the means which satisfied my moral sense and gave me a sense of personal freedom. So great was this personal satisfaction that even a possibility of failure did not count for much, for such failure could only be temporary.

Hope Nehru did, through imprisonments and disappointments. The non-cooperation movement was suspended by Mahatma Gandhi on 5 February 1922 when a mob burnt alive a few policemen at a place called Chari Chaura in Uttar Pradesh. An imprisoned Nehru, along with all those involved in the movement, reacted with “amazement and consternation.”

Nehru was released from jail in 1923. The same very year C.R. Das formed the Swaraj Party and experimented with council entry. Nehru found Das’s party to be populated by “careerists and opportunists.” Meanwhile, communal amity garnered during the non-cooperation and Khilafat agitations quickly dissipated. Rancour grew and riots erupted. Nehru’s own home town, Allahabad, witnessed rioting in 1924 as he headed its Municipality. There was strain on the personal front too. Nehru’s wife, Kamala, fell seriously ill in 1925. Kamala was recommended treatment in Switzerland and Nehru, along with her and little Indira, sailed for Europe in March 1926. While in Europe, in February 1927, Nehru addressed the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities at Brussels. Nehru was in Moscow when the announcement about the Simon Commission was made. He returned to India as the year 1927 was drawing to a close.

Nehru immediately found himself in a swirl of activity. The Simon Commission, containing no Indian member, was boycotted and the All-Parties Conference was set up as answer to it. Headed by Nehru’s father, Motilal, it met in Lucknow in 1928 to draw up a constitution for India. The British government ignored all its recommendations. In 1929, the Congress gathered in Lahore for its annual session and Nehru was elected President. The atmosphere at Lahore was “electric and surcharged with the gravity of the occasion.” The Congress passed the resolution setting itself the goal of complete independence.

As the Congress was preparing to meet at Lahore, the British government announced that a Round Table Conference will be held in London. Subsequently, three of them were held from 1930 to 1932. The Congress boycotted the Conference in 1930. Instead, Gandhi gave the call for Civil Disobedience and “electrified the atmosphere.” Gandhi marched to the sea-side hamlet of Dandi and picked up a fistful of salt on 6 April. Civil resistance, as salt making and in other forms, spread like “prairie fire.” Nehru along with many others was again cast in jail.

Civil Disobedience was suspended with the signing of the Gandhi Irwin Pact on 5 March 1931. The British government agreed to release all political prisoners and withdraw all ordinances. Gandhi, on his part, confirmed participation in the second Round Table Conference. The Conference was marked by “scheming and opportunism and futile meandering” and failed in the task of producing a constitution for India. The Congress and Gandhi kept away from its third edition in 1932.

The British government announced some facile reforms under the Government of India Act in 1935. Though grievously disappointed with it, the Congress, under the leadership of Nehru, decided to contest the elections to be held under its provisions. Finally, when elections were held in 1937, Congress assumed office in seven of the then eleven provinces of British India. But Congress’s stay in office was destined to be brief. All the Congress ministries resigned in 1939 when the British government declared India a participant in WWII without consulting the Indian leadership. Events now moved quickly. The out of office Congress plunged into the Individual Satygraha movement in 1940 and thousands courted arrest. Barely had its tremors died that Gandhi decided that it was time the British quit India in 1942.

The Quit India agitation created veritable liberated zones in parts of the country and must have made the British sufficiently nervous for it dispatch the Cripps Mission to India in March 1942. Confabulations with the mission yielded nothing. Real headway towards freedom was made in 1946 when the cabinet mission came calling. An Interim Government was set up with Nehru as the Prime Minister. However, the Interim Government, also containing the Muslim League, collapsed under the weight of its contradictions and partition became an inevitability. Finally, on 16 August 1947 Nehru unfurled the flag of a free but truncated India upon the rampart of the Red Fort.

This, in brief, is the story of a febrile twenty-seven years as a nation marched to freedom and Nehru gradually moved to the very van of this march. This is the story of how, as Indira Gandhi puts it at one place, Nehru grew through “storm and stress.”

Nurturing a nation. 1947-1964

The four pillars of free India, which Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister of Independent India hoped for were, universal franchise, social transformation, economic growth and secularism. If one were to listen to his campaign speeches of 1952, 1957 and 1962 one would realize, that his main aim through the speeches was to educate the masses. Even as he spoke, he repeatedly spoke of the fact that the success of democracy was based on the quality of the human-beings of the country.

The India we know today was birthed by him. Nehru looms like a colossus upon the contemporary history of India. He was a renaissance man, an individual with very many passions and interests. A liberal and a humanist, he left his indelible stamp upon the country he deftly steered through the treacherous currents of the immediate post-independence years. Nehru was a visionary and a builder of institutions. He laid the foundations of Indian industry. But for him doing so, India would not have been the promising economy she is today. Nehru initiated the founding of the IITs, invested in atomic research and built up the AIIMS. He, thus, began the production of the scientific and technical manpower so vital to a developing country like ours.

The strides in technology we have made today would not have been possible without him at the helm. In the field of culture, he was responsible for institutions such as Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi coming into being. Independent India could thus begin to preserve and nurture her precious heritage. One can never cease knowing Nehru for the facets to him are many. Ours will be an exercise in knowing him and making him known. Because, the restless India of today, so riven by prejudice, graft and intolerance, needs to know the man whose words and deeds can be a fount of inspiration. The India of today needs to reminisce and recount a nobler time. Nehru is that time.

Dr. Etee Bahadur is a faculty at Jamia Millia Islamia.

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