Madhav Khosla’s edited compilation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Letters to his chief ministers could not have been published at a more opportune moment. Three generations of Indians have grown up taking India’s stability, its unselfconscious diversity, and its democratic freedom for granted. Today, all three of these, its most prized attributes, are under threat. Khosla’s intelligently selected compilation, from out of nearly 300 letters that Nehru wrote over 16 years, is a timely reminder of how much we owe to this one man’s foresight, sagacity, self-restraint and generosity of spirit.
We do not owe this to him alone. But if Mahatma Gandhi was the father of free India, and Sardar Patel its architect, Nehru was the devoted caregiver who brought their dreams to fruition. For on August 15, 1947 India was only a cartographic entity. The political and economic society that had been created over more than 2,000 years, with its integrated economy and market, its clearly defined frontiers, and its single continuum of culture and religion had been torn into not two but three. The task of nursing India through the long years of its neoteny fell upon Nehru alone.
Paradoxically, Nehru has himself made the task of assessing how well he did this unnecessarily difficult. His speeches in Parliament were frequent, long-winded and, in later years, rambling and disjointed. Our best guides to the core of his thinking have therefore remained his autobiography, his letters to Indira Gandhi, and Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History. But these were written before 1947, and before Nehru had to face the challenge of turning his ideals into action. His letters to his chief ministers therefore provide the most consistent, and, being private correspondences, honest account of the development of his thoughts on nation-building and statecraft. Khosla’s compilation fills a gap in our understanding of how free India survived its troubled birth.
Through all the letters runs a common thread. All deal, at every level of statecraft, with the perils that beset nation-building. The guiding beacon of Nehru’s policy-making was the restoration of peace in order to facilitate the consolidation of nationhood. His abiding preoccupations were the need to repair the severe damage inflicted upon the Indian identity and its body politic by partition, the need to repair the ravages it caused to the economy, and the need, above all to avoid war, especially war with Pakistan. In all of these endeavours Nehru had constantly to choose between conflicting advice, and to do so with little previous experience of government, relying upon political intuition alone. His letters are a record of the dilemmas he faced daily, and the fundamental beliefs that guided his decisions. They are also a record of extraordinary wisdom.
Nehru’s letters were intended to keep his CMs abreast of the thinking behind central policies. But read between the lines, they reveal how perilously close India came to becoming a ‘failed State’. Although he had promised to write to the CMs every fortnight even before the formal transfer of power, Nehru wrote his first letter on October 15, a full two months after he assumed power. The reason, he explained was “We have all of us, I fear, been somewhat overwhelmed by the pressure of events since August 15, 1947”.
The ‘events’ he referred to were not what have come to be known as the ‘communal riots’. Far more accurate is Nehru’s description of them as ‘The Punjab tragedy’, for most of the killing was confined to the old Punjab, and created by the departing British. For, ignoring the pleas of Punjab governor Evan Jenkins, London decided to draw the new border along the Ravi and not the Chenab.
Placing the border on the Chenab, Jenkins had argued, would put 90 per cent of Sikhs in India. Putting it on the Ravi split them, and forced the community to choose between mass migration and self-annihilation. It chose migration, and became prey for bandits. Retaliation followed, but Nehru never lost sight of the its origins. The population exchange in Punjab, he explained to his CMs, was designed to stop the spread of chaos: “If the disturbances had not been halted in Western UP,” he wrote, “they would have spread eastwards right up to Bihar and West Bengal and the whole of northern India would have been in chaos.... We would then have faced, quite apart from the butchery of innocent lives...wholesale disruption of communications, disorganisation in food supply and the spread of epidemics. We would, in fact, have faced...the destruction of all constitutional government”.
One of Nehru’s abiding concerns is the need to repair the severe damage inflicted on Indian identity by Partition.
Nehru wrote his October 15 letter only when he felt he could report that “we have overcome this danger”. But he left none of them in doubt that all India had gained was a reprieve. His constant preoccupation in the next three years remained with the need to avert a Hindu backlash that could restart the cycle of violence, and to “preserve the public services from the virus of communal politics”. Contrary to a view fostered tirelessly by the Sangh parivar, Nehru was never ‘soft’ on Pakistan. “It is not necessary for me to write to you about the disastrous results of the evil policy (of communal polarisation through ‘direct action’) followed by the Muslim League and the Pakistanis during the past few years”. He wrote, a bare five weeks later: “We have to continue to be vigilant, for the consequences of that evil policy have not exhausted themselves yet”.
But with Pakistan having been formed, Nehru’s focus had shifted to containing the backlash of its communal policies on Indian Muslims. And he found that he was not getting the expected support from his own colleagues. On December 7, 1947, he wrote: “Reports have reached me of big demonstrations organised by the RSS in some provinces. Often these...have been held in spite of prohibitory orders like section 144.”
But Nehru did not give up. Instead, he unleashed his considerable powers of persuasion to make his CMs recognise the need not to compromise with Hindu communalism. “We have a great deal of evidence to show that the RSS is an organisation which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines.... It is not our desire to interfere with civil liberties, but training in arms of large numbers of persons with the obvious intention of using them is not something that can be encouraged.”
This foreboding intensifies in his next letter, dated January 17 1948. Its purpose was to explain Gandhiji’s fast: “The fast he has now undertaken is less easy for the general public to understand...but quite clearly its main purpose is to make the majority community in India search its heart and purge itself of hatred and the desire to retaliate.... Gandhiji’s approach is not only morally correct but is also essentially practical.... In the atmosphere in which it has been undertaken, it displays a degree of heroism of which only Gandhiji is capable.” Thirteen days later, Gandhiji was dead.
Gandhiji’s assassination led to the banning of the RSS. To justify this action, Nehru was forced to reveal information gathered by the intelligence agencies. In a letter of February 5, he stated that “...the act was not just that of a single person or even a small group. It is clear that behind him (Godse) lay a fairly widespread organisation and deliberate propaganda of hate....”
The February 5 letter therefore completes the depiction of the daunting challenge India faced at birth. To sum up, Punjab was in flames before India’s first cabinet held its first meeting. Nehru and Patel checked the conflagration from spreading by arranging an orderly exchange of populations. But this opened the Congress to charges of appeasement by the RSS.
The influx of refugees from Punjab overwhelmed the administrative capacity of an infant government, especially in the armed forces where loyalties had become uncertain and lines of command weakened by uncertainty. For weeks, then months, millions of Sikh and Hindu refugees could only grieve for their lost ones and foment a colossal desire for revenge. The RSS fed and fed on these. Of this anger and hate was born a plan to assassinate some leaders, create a general breakdown of order and seize power. That policy found a target in Mahatma Gandhi.
After 66 years of democracy, we can see that this absurd plan was doomed to fail. But in the surcharged atmosphere of 1947, without the benefit of hindsight, this would not have been apparent to Sangh leaders. Nor would it have been apparent to Congress leaders. Nehru and Patel had to face the terrifying uncertainty of taking decisions in a situation in which passions and conspiracies raged, with limited information and little experience of government. That 67 years later, despite all its flaws, Indian democracy is still flourishing is the unambiguous proof of the soundness of their instincts. Khosla’s book helps us to remember what we should never have allowed ourselves to forget.