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Nehru was way ahead of his time. Seeing him through a 20/20 lens is wrong

Nehru defined the spirit of India that shaped the nationalism of its people. Not the small-minded, vulgar and bigoted version we see on display today.

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The 132nd birth anniversary of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was observed on 14 November. I say “observed” because it was not celebrated as it should have been. His contributions to nation-building, to planting deep the roots of democracy and to ensuring that India’s voice was heard with respect in the councils of the world — all these are part of a precious legacy that deserves to be cherished and nurtured for future generations of Indians.

There were flaws in his leadership, some of which left enduring and negative consequences. I would fault his handling of the Kashmir issue, just as I would his misreading of Chinese intentions in 1962. But one should be careful not to approach such history through a 20/20 vision offered by hindsight, but try to analyse the overall situation and context in which decisions were taken.

We sometimes fail to appreciate the immense odds that India faced at the moment of its “tryst with destiny” on 15 August 1947. The country had been partitioned on the basis of religion and was soon engulfed by the violent, sometimes barbaric, exchange of populations across newly etched borders. There was the challenge of consolidating over 500 princely states, which could technically claim independent status.

Then came the war with Pakistan and the near loss of Jammu and Kashmir. The post-war world was already moving from the promise of enduring peace to a prolonged confrontation between two powerful ideological and military blocs, with the constant threat of a nuclear holocaust.

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Nehru was a visionary

Nehru navigated this complex and dangerous geopolitical terrain to retain India’s space for independent action and leadership. He put in place an enduring template for India’s foreign policy and diplomacy that has evolved and adjusted to a changing international landscape but whose underlying principles have remained remarkably consistent over the decades. He was a nationalist but also an internationalist and a humanist. He was ahead of many political leaders of his time in his prescient understanding that the dawn of the atomic age was making national boundaries progressively irrelevant; that most of the challenges facing humanity would be cross-national and global in dimension and would need to be tackled in a spirit of internationalism and through multilateral cooperation. That is why India became a strong champion of the United Nations and participated actively in the negotiation of a series of international instruments such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

India led the struggle for decolonisation, the movement against apartheid in South Africa and the promotion of nuclear disarmament. Nehru spoke and wrote extensively on the concept of ‘One World’ which would ideally have overarching institutions of global governance. He was of the view that given the growing salience of challenges that transcend national and regional borders, there was no alternative to a world government and that countries would have to surrender some of their sovereignty to such an institution. In our globalised and densely inter-connected world of today, his ideas have acquired contemporary relevance.

One of Nehru’s greatest contributions was to put India firmly on the path of modernity. It was his vision that inspired the launch of nuclear and space programmes, the setting up of centres of excellence such as the Institutes of Technology, expanding the network of scientific laboratories under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the building up of the infrastructure for a modern economy. He emphasised the importance of inculcating a “scientific temper” among the people of India. But primary and secondary education was neglected and this remains a serious weakness in our quest for modernity.

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A true Indian

It is said that Nehru was more an Englishman and less an Indian. Yet his Discovery of India testifies to his deep understanding of Indian history, of the philosophical and intellectual currents across ages that have shaped Indian worldviews and the rich cultural tapestry that binds the people of India together. He was fascinated by India’s rich heritage of arts and crafts and the aesthetic sensibilities of our people and promoted their revival.

Nehru celebrated India’s great diversity, its multi-cultural personality and understood the need to reconcile multiple identities with a sense of national unity. That is why the Indian Constitution does not suppress different identities that Indians cherish but seeks to transcend them in shared and equal citizenship based on individual rights and freedoms. This also lies at the heart of the concept of secularism, of the State avoiding its association with religious rituals and practices.

A multi-cultural and multi-religious country could not be anything but a secular State if it also had to uphold the principle of equal citizenship. Being aware of the sectarian and communal demons that always lurked under the surface, Nehru understood the importance of secularism and lived it in spirit and practice. We see the ugly consequences of the State departing from the secular norm. No over-arching national unity can be built upon a Hindu-Muslim binary, and this lesson from India’s past is discarded at our peril.

Nehru was a modern leader but fully immersed in India’s civilisational heritage. In his Discovery of India, he paid eloquent tribute to his beloved country but also displayed his profound understanding of its civilisational attributes:

“Yet India with all her poverty and degradation had enough of nobility and greatness about her and though she was over-burdened with ancient tradition and present misery and her eyelids were a little weary, she had a beauty wrought from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Behind and within her battered body one could glimpse a majesty of soul. Through long ages she had travelled and gathered much wisdom on the way, and trafficked with strangers and added them to her own big family and witnessed days of glory and of decay and suffered humiliations and terrible sorrow, and seen many a strange sight, but throughout her long journey she had clung to her immemorial culture, drawn strength and vitality from it and shared it with other lands.”

I cannot think of any Indian leader who so truly understood the soul of India and committed his whole life to its service. This is the expansive spirit of India that should shape the nationalism of its people, not the small-minded, vulgar and bigoted version we see on display today.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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