The fight for freedom led by Mahatma Gandhi was India’s first countrywide movement, linking regions, religions and languages, cutting across caste, class and gender. It forged a political and emotional unity and a pride revolving around Indian nationhood perhaps for the first time in history. The India that emerged into independence drew its inspiration and rationale from this inclusiveness, equality and secularism, and these became the foundation of Nehru’s governments.
Translated into policy, universal suffrage in the first general election gave every adult Indian the right to vote. It was the first time in world history that democracy had been given priority over development, giving rich and poor, men and women the right, at the very start of nationhood, to decide their government. The strength of democracy was dramatically reconfirmed in 1977, when Indians dislodged Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule. The fact that a man of humble origins has been elected prime minister in 2014 is another sign of the continuing health and vigour of the democratic foundation laid by Nehru’s government. But like all institutions, democracy needs nurturing. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s imperial style of functioning, and what amounts to the midnight knock, transferring inconvenient civil servants, are not healthy signs for the future of a democratic government. Nor is the atmosphere of servility that his leadership breeds. Indians were appalled when Dev Kant Barooah coined the slogan ‘Indira is India’. What can we now make of the statement by the chairman of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations that Modi is God!
Secularism—to lift it out of its current tortuous debate—simply means that religion is a private affair. The state has no role to play in who, how, or in what manner we worship, and no religion has preference over any other. Accepting this as an article of faith and converting it to policy, India did not become a religion-ruled country at independence, though it remained a devoutly religious country of many coexisting religions, and one which voted an agnostic prime minister to power in its first three general elections. Secularism was dealt a shattering, tragic blow when Nathuram Godse murdered Mahatma Gandhi five and a half months after independence for Gandhi’s unshakeable belief in ‘Ishvar-Allah tero naam’. The new government, coping with the problems and traumas of the Partition, was alerted to the fact that religious fanaticism must be shown no quarter. Godse was arrested, tried and hanged. The then Union home minister, Sardar Patel, declared that “the activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the government and the state....” He also said, “There is no doubt in my mind that an extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in this conspiracy.” Hindu extremism lay low during Nehru’s years in power. The noises we now hear of its arousal do not augur well either for democracy or secularism, and are a looming threat to the inclusiveness India has prided herself on. Our unique multi-cultural, multi-religious heritage now stands in danger of being shrunk into a Hindu monoculture.
As a founder-leader of NAM, Nehru made India a factor on the world scene. Until then, ‘the world’ had been the West.
The full and main stream of the national movement for freedom lasted 26 years, from 1921 to 1947. Of these years, Nehru spent 10 in jail and his jail-free years travelling the country, involving and enlisting his fellow countrymen and women in the freedom struggle and in the Congress’s campaigns. Other leading figures covered their own territories and left their indelible stamp on the campaigns associated with their names. Nehru covered India, and after Gandhi, became India’s most familiar political figure. He also shared his own concerns about what was happening in the outside world with the rural and urban masses he addressed. His international awareness led the Congress party to send aid to a beleaguered China suffering under Japanese occupation and attack. Likewise, he extended his party’s support to the Abyssinians fighting Italian invasion and occupation, and to the countries of Asia and Africa fighting colonial domination.
As foreign policy, this awareness translated first of all into the Asian Relations Conference held in Delhi before formal independence, showing the importance he attached to Asian communication and cooperation. Later policies made relentless efforts to seat the People’s Republic of China at the United Nations, assured India’s support for a Palestinian state, and for the fight against apartheid in South Africa. As a founder and leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, Nehru made India a factor on the world scene. Until then ‘the world’ had been the West. Non-alignment brought about a historic shift in that Eurocentric perspective by bringing the hitherto powerless emerging nations of Asia and Africa to the high table of decision-making, in a combine to be reckoned with at the UN. It is worth quoting one of many contemporary views of this achievement: “But above all, Nehru’s most outstanding contribution to the anti-colonial struggle and world peace lies in the development of the policy of non-alignment.... (The Evening News, Accra, May 25, 1964)” Nehru gave India, a nation without economic or military clout, its respected and influential place in world affairs. This is an inheritance which has stood us in good stead ever since.
There is constant talk of development these days, giving the strange impression that development is a process which is yet to happen. It is also a sign that we are in the hands of people who are ignorant of our recent history. Once rid of two hundred years of stagnation under colonialism, a huge surge of development under Nehru’s governments laid the foundations for the progress we have been making since. A policy of self-reliance ensured that India kept control of her own natural resources, taking outside help on her own terms. The agricultural universities, the institutions of technology and the nuclear establishment set up soon after independence have made their ongoing mark in the green revolution, in our technological accomplishments, and in our achievements in nuclear science and space exploration.
The Hindu Code Bill freed Hindu women from their inferior legal status in matters covering marriage and divorce, property and inheritance. The contemporary world thought highly of India: “She (India) starts her tenth year as a mighty power, as one of the strongest pillars of the commonwealth of nations, as the most dependable bastion of Asian security, as a bulwark of peace, progress and democracy throughout the world.” (Straits Echo & Times of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, January 27, 1959.)
The ground was laid in Nehru’s time for what he called ‘the scientific temper’, essential for becoming a modern nation. PM Modi is not helping to promote a scientific outlook by telling a medical gathering that advanced surgery in ancient times grafted Ganesha’s elephant head onto a human body. At best, he must have been joking. At worst, we are being dragged backward into outlandish thinking. A few years of this and Indians will become scientifically illiterate. There is ample evidence that mythology is substituting history and that textbooks now in circulation will make children historically illiterate. Can Nehru’s enlightened legacy of a modern scientific outlook survive this onslaught on science?
Perhaps the question is not one of Nehru’s legacy or its survival alone. The real question is will India’s legacy—the inclusiveness and secularism on which modern India has been built—survive? Or will Nathuram Godse and his ilk have the last laugh?
(Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, Nayantara Sahgal is the author of, among others, Mistaken Identity and Rich Like Us)