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Nehru's overlooked legacy
Nehru. The Invention of India
by Shashi Tharoor

"We are terribly narrow in our outlook and the sooner we get out of this narrowness, the better." - Jawaharlal Nehru

Reviewed by Chanakya Sen

In The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), novelist Salman Rushdie cheekily named a dog Jawaharlal. But for a handful of enraged Congress party politicians who raised a brouhaha and went to court in vain, most Indians did not bother to react. The general indifference to yet another act of iconoclasm by Rushdie revealed how much the India that Jawaharlal Nehru had laboriously constructed has gone astray and has forgotten his legacy. Nehru was after all a secular prophet in his own right, "incorruptible, visionary, ecumenical, a politician above politics ... a peerless global statesman". (Preface) Shashi Tharoor's reinterpretation of Nehru's extraordinary life doubles as a commentary on how and why present-day India frittered away beneficial parts of his inheritance.

Destiny's child
Nehru's father, Motilal, one of the most successful lawyers of late 19th century India, saw his son as a child of destiny, one made for outstanding success. Born into a prosperous Kashmiri Hindu family in 1889, Nehru imbibed cosmopolitan and pan-Indian values. His earliest caretaker, Mubarak Ali, was a Muslim. Aged five, Nehru stole and hid his father's pen, leading to a spanking from Motilal. The lesson for the young scion was never to assume he could simply get away with something - a trait that later was to manifest as the famous Nehru sense of responsibility. The young Nehru voraciously read Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, besides the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

At 15, Nehru was enrolled in the prestigious British public school Harrow, where he excelled at ice-skating, calisthenics and athletics, portending his lifelong faith in physical fitness. At Harrow, Nehru found the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi inspiring and criticized his father for being "immoderately moderate". (p 13) He went on to Cambridge and the London School of Economics, leading, in his own words, "a soft life and pleasant experiences". He qualified as a barrister in 1912 with modest academic achievements and returned to India, where a stint practicing law in his father's chambers flopped.

Political entry
Enchanted by nationalist stirrings, Nehru joined the Home Rule League run by an extremist faction of the Congress party. In 1917, he published a letter in a leading newspaper calling for non-cooperation with the British government. In 1919, he signed a pledge not to obey the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of the colonial authorities. Alarmed at Nehru's inclination to make extremist politics his career, Motilal got the rising star of the Indian independence struggle, Mahatma Gandhi, to advise his son to "put his love for and duty towards his father ahead of his commitment to satyagraha [non-violence]". (p 30) But only one month later, Motilal was appointed by the Congress to head a public enquiry into the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and Nehru was sent to Amritsar to fact-find. Nehru realized "more vividly than I had ever done before how brutal and immoral imperialism was". (p 34)

In 1920, as Gandhi spearheaded the Khilafat movement, Nehru wrote articles in the Independent depicting it as "an integral part of the ongoing political struggle for Asia's freedom". (p 35) Global consciousness was already present in Nehru's brilliant mind. The non-cooperation movement of the early 1920s turned Nehru into the principal galvanizer of volunteers and party workers in the United Provinces. He embraced Gandhian austerity, travelling in third-class railway carriages and living among landless peasantry. Looking at the undignified conditions of the poor of India, Nehru was "filled with shame at my own easygoing and comfortable life". This Buddha-like epiphany was to form the core of Nehru's strivings until his last breath.

Symbol of new India
Nehru was increasingly visible in the Congress for his oratory, organization and leadership. Arrested for the first time in 1921, he declined special privileges offered to him in jail cells and fell "in love with sacrifice and hardship". (p 45) In his post-sentencing speech in 1922, Nehru said: "Jail has become a heaven for us, a holy place of pilgrimage." This turned him into a national celebrity and a hero of Indian youth. Spending plenty of time behind British bars, Nehru relished the role of the unjustly imprisoned martyr.

The growing communalization of politics worried Nehru as early as 1923, when he wrote "senseless and criminal bigotry struts about in the name of religion". (p 48) After being elected chairman of the Allahabad municipal board, Nehru displayed traits of hard work, incorruptibility and refusal to play the patronage game. As a delegate at the Brussels International Congress Against Imperialism in 1927, Nehru affirmed his faith in socialism, but asserted fearlessly: "I have the strongest objection to being led by the nose by the Russians or anybody else." (p 58) At the Madras session of the Congress, he explicitly called for the complete independence of India, an aspiration that Gandhi himself thought was too radical.

As general secretary of the Congress in 1928, Nehru received several blows from police batons while protesting the Simon Commission, enhancing his national popularity. Made Congress president in 1929 by party elders who hoped it would "rein in the younger man's tendency to hot-headedness", Nehru held his own and steered the full independence resolution. In the heat of the 1930 civil disobedience movement, Nehru broke salt laws and inspired Indians with stirring calls such as "Who lives if India dies? Who dies if India lives?"

Gandhi's successor
The 1930s confined Nehru mostly to British prisons, where he embarked on the ambitious endeavor to educate his daughter Indira about the history of humankind through letters. Glimpses of World History is a testament to Nehru's intellect and compassion for humanity. Motilal's death in 1931 veered Nehru ever closer to Gandhi. However profound his issue-based disagreements with the Mahatma, Nehru decided not to risk losing another father figure.

At the Karachi Congress session, Nehru authored a "minimum program" for the Congress, guaranteeing Indians constitutional liberties after freedoms. Economic rights were included in it, but couched in anti-British terms and not as a form of class warfare. This was done with a view to "articulating his views in terms the Mahatma could live with". (p 92)

In 1936, Nehru published his autobiography, compiled while serving prison sentences. It was an astounding success in the West and established him as the leader of modern India in the eyes of the global community. He was "the glamorous face of Indian nationalism just as Gandhi was its otherworldly deity". (p 99) In 1936, Benito Mussolini asked for a meeting with Nehru when he was transiting through Rome. The invitation was firmly turned down, marking Nehru as an uncommonly principled figure of his age at a time when blimps like Winston Churchill were ambivalent about fascism.

Against Nehru's wishes, Congress ministries were formed in six provinces of British India in 1937. In his home province of Uttar Pradesh (UP), he dissuaded the Congress from entering into a coalition with the Muslim League that was demanding separate voting freedom on "communal issues". There was no question of giving the league respectability as the sole representative of UP's Muslims in Nehru's mind. He was "troubled at the growth of this religious element in our politics". (p 107) When league chief Mohammed Ali Jinnah referred to Nehru's "own people, the Hindus", the latter retorted: "I think of my people as the Indian people as a whole." (p 109)

In 1938, Nehru went to Spain and was tempted to join the International Brigades battling fascism there. He tried to arrange settlement of European Jewish refugees in India and refused to meet Nazi officials despite the Third Reich's entreaties. In 1940, he wrote poetic paeans to France on the fall of Paris and increasingly turned to the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy. He also attempted to enlist American sympathy for the Indian case in negotiations with the British.

Sentenced to imprisonment once again, Nehru wrote the monumental work, The Discovery of India, an articulation of Indian nationhood that transcended petty nationalism. Nehru was equally at ease as a broody intellectual who wrote magnificent prose and as a steely man of action. On the way to jail during the Quit India movement in 1942, he leapt out onto the platform of Poona railway station to remonstrate against unarmed civilians being assaulted by the police.

Freedom amid despair
Emboldened by British patronage and pelf, the Muslim League swept Muslim reserved seats in the 1945 provincial elections and began the clamor for partition. Even Viceroy Wavell, who was hostile to the Congress and sympathetic to the league, had to admit contempt for league leaders' "hymn of hate against Hindus". Nehru rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 on the grounds that India's future would be decided by Indians and not by the British, though some portrayed this as Nehru's intransigence on an issue that could have averted partition.

As vice president of the Interim Government of India, Nehru continued to derecognize the league as the sole spokesman of Indian Muslims. Jinnah instigated communal violence and declared that the killing would not stop unless Pakistan was created. Nehru and Sardar Patel agreed to the partition plan in March 1947 after noting that the league would never work in a united government of India and that Jinnah could set the whole country ablaze in hatred. Tharoor has not tried to explain why Nehru rejected Gandhi's plea to make Jinnah prime minister of a united India, but it is clear that Nehru did not want to jettison the ideals and visions of the nationalist movement by handing India on a silver platter to communalists.

Rebuilding India
Prime Minister Nehru's ability to protect minorities and assure them justice at the bitter dawn of independence, often at great personal risk, was a reminder that the two-nation theory was never acceptable to the Indian leadership. The very notion of "Indianness" was given meaning by Nehru's championing of pluralism and tolerance. Like Thomas Jefferson, Nehru was "forever trying to accommodate and reconcile the country's various and disparate tendencies". (p 227) Nation-building through inclusiveness and consensus are his greatest gifts to posterity.

Why the Nehru who was ever eager to redefine Indian nationhood and Indian interests failed to clearly act on India's interests in the 1947-48 Kashmir war is not so puzzling, considering that Nehru was in the dark about British manipulations at the United Nations.

With Patel's passing away in 1950, Nehru was the unchallenged figure in Indian polity with the prospect of near dictatorial power. But because he was a true liberal and democrat, Nehru showed due deference to the office of president, accountability to parliament, never interfered with the judiciary, and was in his own words "accessible to every disgruntled element in India". (p 181) He virtually fathered India on minutiae of democracy. He did not appoint his daughter Indira to his cabinet and also discouraged her re-election as president of the Congress in 1960. Dynastic politics never appealed to this quintessential democrat. Wary of the risks of autocracy, Nehru strengthened free and fair elections and constitutional principles, placing India above the challenge of would-be tyrants.

Nehru was ever suspicious of communism and convinced that its loyalties were extra-territorial. His brand of Fabian socialism was constructed on the pillars of self-reliance and centralized planning, strategies that impeded rather than facilitated the country's development by breeding inefficient industry, bureaucratic corruption and protectionism. The flip side of this is the creation of the world's second largest pool of trained scientists and engineers without parallel outside the developed West as a result of Nehru's emphasis on the "scientific temper" and research and development.

In international affairs, Nehru dictated India's foreign policy straight from his head. It was high on idealism and values, but also tremendously pragmatic and utilitarian. Tharoor unfairly limns Nehruvian non-alignment as not intended to be linked to concrete benefits to the Indian people, though the record is quite to the contrary. Nehru fashioned a foreign policy that complemented his domestic development strategy, however faulty that was. Scientific and technical assistance, particularly in relation to industrialization, came from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Nehru approached the American construction giant Bechtel for the first massive steel plant of India and also invited British and West German expertise for two other steel plants in the late 1950s. India did not merely reverse-engineer Soviet borrowed industrial ideas. Nehru also began to get American food aid from 1951 to meet shortages and emergencies. Low military budgets and avoidance of entanglements in distant conflicts like the Korean War are other concrete benefits to the people that Tharoor has not credited Nehruvian foreign policy.

Tharoor does set the record straight about Nehru's twilight years, which are conventionally presented as ones out of touch with reality. Separatism in the Northeast, Punjab, Madras and Kashmir was dealt with in Nehru's later days as prime minister. French and Portuguese enclaves that survived decolonization were amalgamated. Nehru's Himalayan blunder in managing India's relationship with China and the subsequent military defeat of 1962 were grave mistakes, of course, and some of it may have arisen from his personal weakness of being blind to the faults of those he considered friends.

Legacy in the doldrums
Today, Nehru's mistakes are magnified and his achievements belittled. Criticized and derided by the same Indians whose forebearers swore in his name, Nehru looks a curious relic of the past. "India has failed to create a single Indian community of the kind Nehru spoke about." (p 239) Politics based on primordial identities of caste, ethnicity and religion was not the freedom for which Nehru had fought. Appeasement of conservative elements among minorities was not the secularism that Nehru stood for. Power as an end in itself and not as a means for a larger good was not what Nehru tutored in his democracy class. The India of today has shrunk in intellectual heritage by disowning its great architect.

Though not originally researched history, Tharoor's biography uses interesting techniques, like interpreting photographic expressions and little-known anecdotes. For readers who interpret the past as a reflection of the future, this is the ideal book.

Nehru. The Invention of India by Shashi Tharoor. Penguin Books, New Delhi, November 2003. ISBN 0-67-004985-9. Price US$6.50, 261 pages.

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Jan 10, 2004


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