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Theatre Of The Absurd: How Nehru Bashing Became The Flavour Of The Season

From his linens sent to Paris for cleaning to his affairs, the public discourse on Nehru has become personal

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Theatre Of The Absurd: How Nehru Bashing Became The Flavour Of The Season
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An ironical comment that often appears on social media—“Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India who passed away in 1964, does not let the present prime minister do anything”—underlines that Nehru still remains a great obstacle for the fundamental cultural and political project of the current regime. It is not a recent phenomenon. Nehru was one of the targets even before Independence. And as the PM, he became the prime target. He was trolled even before this term got currency; there was venom spewed against him in his lifetime, and he was not spared even in death. The intensity has multiplied manifold in this ‘post-truth’ era of taking advantage of mass credulity. “Linens of Nehru household being sent to Pairs for cleaning” is a telling example.

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This legend has been in vogue since the 1930s, and reflected appreciation for the great sacrifices made by Nehru’s family. He was aware of it and dismissed it with characteristic irritation in his book An Autobiography: “Anything more fantastic and absurd it is difficult for me to imagine, and if anyone is foolish enough to indulge in this wasteful snobbery, I should have thought he would get a special mention for being a prize fool.” But, these days, this ‘legend’ is presented as a cold ‘fact’ on national TV by spokespersons of the ruling party with no probing from the host(s) of the show.

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Nehru bashing is so much the flavour of the season that even some academic studies read like troll posts. A historian duo curating ‘the great debates that shaped modern India’ holds Nehru responsible for the shrinkage of liberal space in today’s India. According to them, he was solely responsible for the First Amendment Act, 1951, of the Indian Constitution that puts ‘reasonable restrictions’ on free speech. His law minister, B R Ambedkar, whose ministry drafted the amendment and who eloquently defended it, is totally ‘exonerated’, sacrificing the historical accuracy at the altar of political expediency. The ‘historians’ ignore the historical context of the said amendment—the need to protect the anti-zamindari measures and, in some instances, the very existence of the nascent state of independent India.

A retired foreign secretary to the government, explaining ‘how the Chinese negotiate with India’, informs his readers: “In spite of mutual bickering and recriminations, Mao Zedong himself was the chief guest at India’s first Republic Day celebrations in January 1951.” As is common knowledge, Mao never visited any foreign country, except the Soviet Union. The chief guest of India’s first Republic Day celebrations was President Sukarno of Indonesia, and in 1951, it was King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal. But again, why bother about even rudimentary facts when the idea is to prove that Nehru went to any extent to please the Chinese?

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No amount of calumny is too much, no low is low enough to denigrate Nehru. some academic studies read like troll posts. From his family life to his eating habits to his personal tragedies—everything is fair game.

At the informal level of gossip and rumour mongering, as conversation with any right-wing supporter or a visit to social media space reveals, no amount of calumny is too much, no low is low enough to denigrate Nehru. From his family life to his eating habits to his personal tragedies—everything is fair game. Political Hindutva has attempted with some success to appropriate leading lights of the freedom movement—Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose—all Congressmen, due to the inexplicable apathy towards the Congress party. But Nehru is an object of visceral hatred. Why is that so?

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Because Nehru indeed is the greatest obstacle in the way of political Hindutva, which, far from being an organic evolution of the Hindu tradition, is its cynical manipulation in favour of a totalitarian politics inspired by a narrow version of nationalism of the European kind. The defining characteristic of Indian genius has been diversity and multivocality, while Hindutva is defined by ekchalkanuvartitva (follow the leader). That is why it remained indifferent to the freedom movement, which aimed at transforming the variegated and multi-vocal Indian civilisation into a political community suitable for the modern ‘nation state’. ‘Unity in diversity’ is not merely an emotional appeal, but the sine qua non for the survival of India as a nation. Gandhiji came to epitomise this great attempt of transformation, the reason why Bose was the first person to call him the ‘father of our nation’. After all, with all the differences with Gandhiji, Bose was also inspired by the same attempt.

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Rabindranath Tagore’s metaphor for India is well known—“the great ocean of humanity, but the ocean devours up the individuality of the rivers joining it. As a result of his own ‘discovery of India”—metaphorically and literally, Nehru came up with a much more nuanced metaphor. To him, India was like an ancient palimpsest “on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. All of these existed in our conscious or subconscious selves, though we may not have been aware of them, and they had gone on to build up the complex and mysterious personality of India” (The Discovery of India). He also takes note of the crucial fact: “Those who professed a religion of non-Indian origin or coming down to India, settled down there and became distinctively Indian in the course of few generations.”

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Our freedom movement was also a project of ethical regeneration of society, it preferred to do with some self-criticism, instead of diffidence masking itself as an advocacy of the glorious past and shying away from social evils. This orientation is best articulated in the resolution on the ‘Fundamental Rights and Economic Policy’ of the Karachi session of the Congress in 1931. Nehru was destined to implement this project of ethical regeneration, while preserving India’s unity in diversity. This is the gist of the ‘idea of India’ generally associated with him, but shared by all the progressive leaders, including critics of the Congress like Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. Those opposed to this idea are expectedly in the lead of the hate Nehru campaign of all kinds.

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The mixed economy was not just his fad, but a logical culmination of the ‘Bombay Plan’ drawn up by Indian big business expecting state intervention and planning in independent India.

Given his cosmopolitan outlook, Nehru was not inclined to any politics of cultural and religious identity, but he never used the inane self-description falsely attributed to him—‘Englishman by education, Muslim by culture, Hindu merely by accident’. This ‘quote’ was imposed on him by Hindusabha leader N B Khare—a fact duly noted by M J Akbar, among others. The idea behind this spurious quote and other such troll attacks is obviously to discredit Nehru among Hindus, because he was aware of the ominous potential of majoritarianism. How true his caution rings today—“that the Muslim organisations have shown themselves to be quite extraordinarily communal has been patent to everybody. The (Hindu) Mahasabha’s communalism has not been so obvious, as it masquerades under a nationalist cloak” (An Autobiography).

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In spite of his aversion to “superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs” and “uncritical credulousness” going with religion, Nehru knew “religion had supplied some deeply felt inner need of human nature… It had produced many fine types of men and women, as well as bigoted, narrow-minded, cruel tyrants. It had given a set of values to human life, and though, some of these values had no application today, or were even harmful, others were still the foundation of morality and ethics” (The Discovery of India).

Being a modern Indian rooted in his tradition, Nehru was also acutely aware of “the need to find some answer to the spiritual emptiness facing our technological civilisation,” as he told R K Karanjia in a conversation (The Mind of Mr Nehru). No surprise then that Nehru’s India showed the same alacrity in establishing academies for literature, and the fine and performing arts, as was shown in the case of the IITs and the IIMs. Obviously, Nehru wanted people to look for ‘spiritual’ in the human imagination and creativity, going beyond organised religion.

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That is all very well, but one could reasonably ask: “Is Nehru still relevant, given the peculiar problems and issues faced by India and the world at large?’

His or any historical figure’s relevance (or lack of it) cannot be determined in a copycat manner, but only by assessing the basic concerns and orientation. How does Nehru weigh on this scale?

Interestingly, he was not market-friendly enough to the ‘marketist’ and not socialist enough to the ‘socialist’. And both were right as Nehru, the quintessential Indian, discarding the lure of doctrinaire exactitude of either side, looked for the Samyak—the enlightened middle born out of dialogue amongst multiple viewpoints. The mixed economy was not just his fad, but a logical culmination of the ‘Bombay Plan’ drawn up by Indian big business expecting state intervention and planning in independent India. When the Congress, in its Avadi session, adopted the goal of ‘socialistic pattern of society’, Nehru hastened to reassure big business and asked them to play their own role in national reconstruction. It is fashionable to glibly dismiss the entire idea of planned and mixed economy these days. But without going into many statistics and details, let us just recall that in the 17 years that Nehru ruled India as prime minister, the average life expectancy in India went from 31 to 45 years, and consider if this remarkable feat was possible with the policies ‘unsuitable to India’. Does it not indicate the overall economic growth along with the betterment of people’s lives?

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Even though it will be very hard for Nehru baiters to admit, the fact remains that the Nehruvian foreign policy template has stood India in good stead in spite of cataclysmic changes in the world situation. Till today, India has refused to toe the line of either the US or Russia, for instance, on the conflict in Ukraine, and rightly so. Similarly, in spite of the PM’s hurried tweet in favour of Israel, the official position of the Union ministry of external affairs was nuanced and in line with the Nehruvian template.

If the search for Samyak and moral capacity to implement it can be considered of any use, then, Nehru today remains a very relevant source of learning.

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(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'Theatre Of The Absurd')

Purushottam Agrawal is a historian of literature engaged with popular religiosity in Northern India for over four decades

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