The Tortured Legacy of Pt. Nehru

Happy birthday, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru.

Today, even a simple thing like wishing the first prime minster of India on his birthday is enough to invite scorn and abuse on social media as I discovered today. Well, that’s the way social media works. People hide behind anonymity and abuse away with impunity.

But with Nehru, it is quite different. The amount of hate he inspires, at least among the netizens of the country, is enormous even by the madcap standards of the internet. As I noted in a piece I wrote back in May this year, Sangh Parivaar is the biggest culprit in this revilement of a remarkable figure. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and later its political offspring BJP have had a special place for Nehru in their “People Who Could Replace The Devil When They Go To Hell” list.

The reason is simple. The ideals and beliefs Nehru subscribed to were utterly discordant to Sangh and its ilk. Their minds worked (and continue to work) along the lines of European dictators like Mussolini and Hitler. Of course, they have chosen new heroes now, even appropriating Ambedkar, who would have loathed them from the depth of his soul.

Now with BJP at the centre, and Sangh’s insidious propaganda machinery rapidly eliminating voices of reason and actual scholarship, the narrative that Nehru is the source of all of India’s problems has entrenched itself firmly into the minds of general public. I find myself at loss when faced with accusations like, “why would you support a firangi traitor like him?”

Thankfully, I’ve read a lot. I’ve read Nehru and about Nehru. My opinion of him is of a great, but flawed man. He made some spectacular blunders for which he should be rightly criticised. But at the same time he was a true statesmen, a man who refused to compromise with the ideals that he held dear. His “scientific temper” gave us several premier educational institutions, as did his advocacy of children and youth education. He led a huge, extremely divided and even more populous country during its most turbulent years.

When one allows personal judgement to interfere in their view of a historical figure, and begins to treat it in an extreme manner – either reviling or deifying it – problems arise. It is important to evaluate historical figures and living and breathing people with the same yardstick. Only then it can be studied objectively. But the objective treatment in India is left to selected scholars, everybody else leans one side or the other side.

Nehru has a tortured legacy. That does not diminish the man himself but it does shed a poor light on the modern political discourse. No matter what anybody may say or believe, or is forced or taught to believe, Nehru remains a great figure to me. That he committed mistakes only reassure me that he was a human and not the devil Sangh deems him to be and the larger-than-life figure Congress has turned him into.

I salute the Jawahar of India.

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He Who Must Not Be Named

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, continues to inspire revulsion in Hindu right-wingers even after more than half a century of his death. He’s been blamed him for almost everything bad India is going through today – terrorism, poverty, corruption, sluggish economy, and so on. So it hardly comes as a surprise when they insist that Nehru should not have been the first prime minister of India, and that Sardar Vallabhai Patel deserved the post more. India, they argue, would have been better off, politically and economically, under Patel’s leadership.

This narrative has always been there – it was there even during Nehru’s tenure, but it gained prominence only after Narendra Modi, who would go on to become India’s prime minister, endorsed it in his 2014 election campaign. And why not? After all, Modi had been an RSS man through and through right from his adolescence. And the name of Patel seemed to win him votes. The tide of public opinion had overwhelmingly turned in Patel’s favour. The first Union Budget of the Modi government announced allocation of money to an edifice they had promised in the manifesto: the construction of “Statue of Unity,” said to be the tallest statue in the world when completed, dedicated to the memory of Sardar Patel. The word ‘unity’ in the name of the structure is a reference to Patel’s contribution in ‘unifying’ India by convincing, through force or otherwise, about 500 princely states to join the Indian Union.

The constant rhetoric spewed over Sardar Patel’s role in ‘unification of India’ by Hindu right is another veiled attack on Nehru. Comparing the role of Nehru and Patel in the integration of India, Nehru’s perceived failure is repeatedly pointed out in securing Kashmir – apparently the one task that he had had. It is anybody’s guess if Sardar Patel would have been the better prime-minister, or if he would have handled the Kashmir issue better. He was, no doubt, a capable diplomat but according to most analysts Nehru was the better choice as PM as he was more sophisticated and worldly. One is free to agree or disagree. But for the Hindu right, Nehru was the Devil who escaped hell.

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Recently, this pathological hatred of Nehru has been taken to another level. The Hindu fundamentalists these days are not satisfied with just obscuring Nehru’s achievements and making him look as evil as possible, now they want to simply erase Nehru from Indian history altogether. The new Social Science textbook for class VIII in Rajasthan state board does not have a single reference to the first prime minister of India. Yes, you read that right. Nehru is not directly mentioned. Not even once. This is really strange, and one can’t help but wonder how students are supposed to study modern history of India without learning about the existence of the man who first graced its highest office, and who led it for more than a decade. The government probably believes that removing Nehru from textbooks would make future generations forget that a man called Jawahar Lal Nehru was ever born. It is the most repugnant form of brainwashing. It is like Nehru was a gaffe that India had made and wiping off his name would save India from past embarrassment.

Granted, Congress is not entirely blameless. Every government – Congress, BJP or otherwise – has tried to teach students its own version of history. And one must also keep in mind – no version of history is ‘true’, really. Napoleon Bonaparte was right when he rhetorically asked the world, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” The NCERT History and Social Science textbooks written in Congress rule have traditionally deified Nehru and undermined the role of other freedom fighters and leaders, especially those who were not associated with Congress, and that is what partly prompted the Sangh Parivar to undermine Nehru in the first place, (one of the other reasons being Nehruvian secularism was anathema to their Hindutva – the dream of a Hindu Rashtra or Hindu Nation). But denying the very existence of arguably one of the biggest figures of 20th century is something only the most twisted and bigoted minds could manage.

The present government would do well to keep in mind that refusing to acknowledge historical figures or events does not actually alter history. If it did, European countries would have eliminated Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini from their history long ago.