Nehru’s India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation

It is a co-incidence that we are talking about a book on Jawaharlal Nehru by Nayan Tara Sehgal at a time when she has become  the leading voice in defense of the values Nehru cherished most: Secularism and Democracy. It is remarkable that  writers of Indian languages accepted her leadership despite her being a writer of English. She set right the moral compass of our collective conscience . The moment she published her letter to the Sahitya Akademi informing it about her decision to return the Sahitya Akademi award in protest against its silence on the killing of writers and thinkers by the forces of Hindutva, she was attacked for indulging in cheap populist game of moral superiority and she was doing it as she belonged to the Nehru clan. Nothing could be cruder. Sadly, it is crudity which defines our times. And Nayan Tara Sehgal fights it with her gentle civility.

Nehru is then rightly an out-of-place figure today. The book on him  edited by Nayan Tara Sehgal is a tribute to the person who was described after his death by his arch critic C. Rajgopalachari as the last civilized man of his generation. Nehru would have differed. When addressed by journalist R K Karanjia as the new statesman of the world, he corrected him, “The new statesman was really Gandhiji, who, long before the atom-bomb destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thought and functioned in terms of peaceful solutions and co-operative adjustments.”

The essays that are brought together in a book form by Nayan Tara Sehgal  titled Nehru’s India( Essays on the maker of a nation) are from writers of different generations and professions. Politicians, diplomat and writers like Mani Shankar Aiyer and Gopal Krishna Gandhi, academics like Aditya Mukherji, Mridula Mukherji  Shiv Vishvanatahn and Rakesh Batabyal , fiction writer Kiran Nagarkar and journalists Inder Malhotra, Kumar Ketkar and Aakar Patel talk about different aspects of Nehru but all of them are in agreement with their editor, who in her introduction says, “ The ‘making of a nation’ cannot quite convey the immensity and diversity of the enterprise undertaken by Jawaharlal Nehru that lifted a subcontinent out of political and economic serfdom and set it on the rod to modernization. That this endeavour—starting with the brutal conditions confronting the first government of independent India –took place in an open society, without sacrificing individual freedom, make it the first of its kind in history.”

Open society and individual freedom could have been unthinkable for a society which was divided in religious and caste lines and was trained in a communitarian language. Fashioning of individual was also a task of  our national struggle. Openness and individuality cannot cohabit with conformity. Remarkably, Gandhi and his disciple Nehru never demanded conformity with their fellow travelers. Nehru had been a critic of his Guru and mentor Gandhi and Gandhi never demanded Tagore not to air his  disagreements with him in public. In a way, both of them were not inhibited with the logic of priorities. Openness or development? Soviet Union and China had made their choice. The so called open world seemed to champion individuality but its greed for unhindered growth did not allow majority of the people to even live humanly lives.

For Nehru the act of criticism was central to his project of nation making. He, in fact invited it. In his essay Interpreting Nehru in the 21 Century, Mani Shankar Aiyer recalls  the debate in the parliament after the dismissal of the Communist government of Kerala. He was in the visitors’ gallery as a young boy of eighteen: “Spellbound I heard Comrade Dange denounce Nehru, as he sat impassive opposite, deeply attentive through the speech. Dange ended with a peroration in which  he compared Nehru with Yudhishtir who won a major battle in Mahabharata by pronouncing a white lie.In consequence, his chariot that always rode above the earth for his never telling a lie, fell to the ground. Pointing to Nehru, Dange said his chariot too had now fallen to the ground…..the image graven in my memory if of his listening with profound care to the cascade of criticism poured on him.”

Listening and Care are two words important to understand Nehru. Self-doubt should be added to the list. It is said that Nehru failed as a leader of a nation as in decisive moments he was often assailed by doubt. He is also ridiculed as a dreamer who could not come to terms with hard realities of his times. Shiv Vishwanathan ,on the contrary feels that “ Nehruvian world was a failure of story-telling, lacking anecdotes of doubt. It was a bit like the silence of partition. The pain of the refugee, the stories of rape, went underground while a progressive generation talked about Nilokheri and community development and transfer of power. In some ways, Nehruvianism  was incomplete as a sensorium. … it discouraged doubt and listening.”  Pain does not readily lend itself to wither poetry or fiction. An immediate transfer of experience to the realm of imagination renders makes superficial.

A lived reality has to be re-imagined to give it the kind of universality fictional word aspires for.  Pain must give shape to a human word or it is useless for writers.  Shiv Vishwanathan forgets it or he’ll have to seek an answer to the question of why it took twenty years for Bhisham Sahni to recall his lived pain of the partition days. Also, he ignores writing of those times, fictional works and poetry in Hindi and urdu by writers like Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chugtai, Krishan Sobti, Ajneyaya, Yash Pal and Phanishwarnath Renu. Maila Anchal and Parti Parikatha are two masterpieces of post independence or Nehruvian Hindi world which give voice to the hopeful, yet pensive youth confronting its Nehruvian moment. Jhoota Sach by Yash Pal is literally a monument of violence and the human striving not only to survive but overcome it.

There was not one single world that was coming up in the days of Nehru. There were multiple modernities, often conflicting with each-other. Partition had, in a way, turned into a loss of home for lakhs. Even those who were not displaced suffered the trauma of a home broken.Nehru had before him the most enormous and difficult task of creating a feeling of home for those Hindus and Sikhs who were displaced by the partition violence and also giving an assurance to the Muslims of India, in whose name Pakistan was made, that they are not be blamed for partition and they would continue to have a claim on India equal to the numerically lager masses of Hindus. Rakesh Batabyal invokes home as a metaphor and calls Nehru a home maker of sorts. Home not, as in the traditional sense, a place for developing blood-relations but as  a possibility for new kinships to evolve.

Nehru had not experimented as Gandhi in expanding the notion of home by establishing Ashrams. It is also to be noted that he, despite calling him a child of the Gandhi-era, never sought to be an Ashramvasi. Nehru was more interested in transcending boundaries which define and often restrict one’s self. Rather than asking others to mould themselves in his image, he aspired for new and difficult relationships.

Negotiating difficult relationships is the hallmark of the era of Gandhi. He, his friends and followers like Nehru seldom had the comfort of agreement and conformity. The most fascinating aspect of our anti-colonial struggle is its sheer cerebrality. Nehru, quintessentially modern, was quite aware of the problem of invoking the image of home while shaping India as a nation. One needs to check his writings and speeches to see how many times he uses terms like family or home while appealing Indians to act as one people. We do find him warning people frequently against ‘fissiparous’ tendencies. Home does have a certain pulling factor, but can we see democratic institutionalization as a home making process?

Nehru has been dead for fifty years : long if seen from the mortal eyes a human being and too short a period humanity which ages rather slowly. We have generations who have received Nehru through his writings, hagiographies, images constructed in popular media. The image transferred to the new generation is not very pleasing. Novelist and dramatist Kiran Nagarkar and journalist Hartosh Bal talk about their encounters with Nehru’s ideas through his writings and institutions he initiated. Nagarkar thanks Nehru for having created spaces “to think”. He would like to remember Nehru as one of those “aesthetes and stylists (who won) independence for our country.”

The book should not be seen as an assembly of Nehru apologists when efforts are being made to erase his trace from our national memory. They remind us that Nehru was essentially engaged in the creation of a cosmopolitan, internationalist nationalism. Do not forget that he as much a student of Tagore as that of Gandhi. Tagore, a poet could afford that. Nehru was never forgiven for refusing to succumb to the temptation of a masculine, majoritarian  nationalism.He is also resented for having challenged  the Indian masses to think in new ways, for not allowing them to take shelter in the comfort of given traditions. Nehru, is like the character of Muktibodh’s poems who disturbs us, wakes us up, beckons us to come out and seek ourselves anew. We shun him and yet long for him.



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