Throughout 2021, history has been contested, reframed and debated, whether it was Partition, the recommendation to revisit school textbooks, or celebrating 75 years of Independence. Jawaharlal Nehru was a favourite punching bag for many who believe they have been misled by Indian historiography. To read Nehru’s approach to history as Leftist is simplistic and reductivist. Instead, his approach to the field is needed today to understand the country and its diversity.
There are three ways Nehru read history.
The first is to avoid the romanticisation of the past by applying scientific tools and rationality. Nehru’s The Discovery of India doesn’t dismiss Vedic past and achievements – he takes pride in it but is against woolly headedness. The second is to learn from past mistakes to envision the future, and the third is to avoid the use of myth to convey a distorted perspective for political ends.
These tools can be used to evaluate the past in various ways while preventing its distortion to achieve political or communal ends. Ignoring history results in “a vagueness of outlook, a divorce from life as it is credulity, a woolliness of mind where fact was concerned” (The Discovery of India, pp 102), and in turn threatens the way society functions.
Avoid revelling in the past
For Nehru, the study of history was a deeply personal and reflective journey of discovery to understand where one is today and to not revel in the past but use it to think ahead. His understanding of the legacy of ancient India is an example. It has become commonplace for politicians and journalists to romanticise the past, especially the pre-Islamic era as the ideal era. Nehru pushes back against this view by acknowledging the greatness of civilisation while highlighting its limitations.
In an essay titled, ‘The Fascination of Russia (1927),’ Nehru says that Indians are “always trying to forget [their] present misery and degradation in vague fancies of our glorious past and immortal civilisation.” Instead, he argues that this romanticisation of the past does not help in solving the “problems of today,” including poverty, communalism, and food shortages. The pride one may have in the country’s past “must never allow us to forget our many weaknesses and failings or blunt our longing to be rid of them,” (The Discovery of India, pp 97). Through his writings, Nehru demonstrates that history is a journey of discovery of identity and a process of reflection and learning to move forward.
This desire to not revel in the past is achieved by developing tools of rationality and objective critique to understand our past. In a speech titled, ‘On Understanding History (1948)’ Nehru contends that one “tries to understand things in an integrated way,” because of which social, economic, and other factors must be analysed to have an accurate understanding of the past, such as his analysis of the Mughal Empire. The arrival of Islam in India is viewed by some as a distinctive part of the country’s history rather than a period of cultural amalgamation and change. Nehru contends that, contrary to the belief of Hindu nationalists, Muslims did not invade and exploit India, but arrived in India and settled in the country, and is now an essential part of its culture. The Mughal Empire had dynasties that “became completely Indianized with their roots in India…Despite political conflict, they were generally considered as such and many even of the Rajput princes accepted them as their overlords.”
If anything, Nehru looked at various aspects of Mughal rule as symbols of religious harmony that he was adamant about seeing during the freedom struggle, whether it was in architecture, food, clothing, music, or language. The Mughal period, contrary to the current discussion, was a period of cultural amalgamation and resulted in the development of new ideas. Nehru notes that Akbar’s reign was a period of blending Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism. “This spirit of synthesis was abroad, and Akbar, with his finely sensitive and receptive mind, must have absorbed it and reacted to it greatly.” Nehru nonetheless criticises Akbar for being an autocrat who was determined to cement his control, while still embracing India’s diversity. Such analysis highlights a recognition that evaluating the past is not a simple task through which snap judgements can be made. This analysis reflects Nehru’s determination to avoid making broad judgements, but an attempt to engage with various sources and perspectives.
Understand past, improve future
The second aspect of his approach to history is to use the past to improve the future. This was best demonstrated when Nehru was trying to overcome the horrors of Partition and build a unified India after Independence. He argued that the Indian freedom struggle was not just a struggle for independence, but one that had various strands of nationalism, with people attempting to stoke communal tensions to consolidate power.
In The Discovery of India, Nehru says that religion “has checked the tendency to change and progress inherent in human society.” It is more “concerned with its vested interests than with things of the spirit, [and] encourages a temper which is the very opposite to that of science. It produces narrowness and intolerance.” The way to overcome this intolerance at a personal level was a secular education that promoted scientific thinking, and at a national level, a State that is “not communal, but democratic, [where] everyone has equal rights.” Nehru’s approach to reconciling the position of individual rights with the broader idea of building national unity was a result of his understanding of communalism in the early days of British rule and during the transfer of power, reflecting a determination to learn from the past to move forward.
Rationality over myth
Overcoming myths in favour of truth and rationality is another tenant to using Nehruvianism to understand history. To Nehru, myths blend fact and fiction, which results in “evil consequences,” characterised by “a vagueness of outlook, divorce from life as it is.” The use of myth as a form of knowledge hinders progress and must be countered by science. Nehru explains this clearly in a speech in 1959, “We have the growth of nuclear and atomic energy in India, and we also have the cow dung age,” indicating that people understood the world in various ways.
His focus on obtaining scientific data to overcome prejudice and myth was evident in letters to his chief ministers. For example, he was concerned that food provision was inadequate in the country. He urged states to “take every possible step to mobilise all statistical data lying unused in village and district records and undertake special enquiries for collecting such data as may not be available.” (Madhav Khosla, ed., Letters for a Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to His Chief Ministers, 1947-1963; Gurgaon: Penguin Books India, 2015; pp 146-147). This approach was a response to widespread misinformation on the status of hunger in the country. In doing so, he hoped to use reliable data to address a glaring policy issue.
In a country as diverse and large as India, understanding and appreciating nuances in various cultures is essential for national unity. Nehru’s approach to history focussed on critiquing it to improve the future of society, to rely on a range of sources to understand society and to avoid the exploitation of myths and false news for political gains. Nehru realised this long before he achieved executive power, as demonstrated in his writings and later in his actions as prime minister. This approach is needed today as India addresses new challenges in its border areas and in responding to crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.
The author studied history and anthropology at Stanford University. He tweets @VibhavMariwala. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)