New Delhi: It is true that Jawaharlal Nehru saw Partition as an inevitable part of India’s independence, but if India emerged a stable democracy — one that just elected its 17th Lok Sabha successfully — it is in large part due to his leadership, the effects of which are visible even today. Despite the chaos that followed Partition in 1947, general elections were held in India in 1951-52, for the first time and India has continued as a vibrant democracy since.
The idea of a India for Nehru was a country that played a role in the global arena but remained independent if the Cold War between USA and Russia. He also laid the foundations for institutions that continue to serve India well. Nehru’s vision for a modern India translated into its “temples” — dedicated to scientific reasoning and research. It is this that gave us the some of India’s most prestigious institutions: the IITs, IIMs, and ISRO’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, to name a few.
For Nehru, the Bhakra Dam, which was among India’s first river development schemes in the country, was worthy of worship: “This dam has been built with the unrelenting toil of man for the benefit of mankind and therefore is worthy of worship. May you call it a Temple or a Gurdwara or a Mosque, it inspires our admiration and reverence”, he said in 1963, when it was laid.
However, for all his contributions to the country, Nehru’s name is fraught with controversy. With a Right-wing government in place, Nehru has come under incessant attack, from the ruling BJP, its supporters and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organisation Nehru considered dangerous for its Hindu fundamentalist beliefs.
Nowadays, Nehru is routinely vilified on social media with aspersions cast on his religion, his life and even his death. Such is the cannon of misinformation designed to malign India’s first prime minister that the fact-checking website, Alt News, says he is the “favourite target” for disinformation under the current political climate.
On his death anniversary, ThePrint revives the facts of Nehru’s life and recalls India’s first Prime Minister.
Nehru was born in Allahabad on 14 November, 1889, to a family of wealthy Kashmiri Brahmins — his father was the renowned barrister and freedom fighter Motilal Nehru.
By his own admission, Nehru’s early life was “sheltered and uneventful”, comprising private tutors and an education abroad in England — first at Harrow School, then Trinity College and finally he practiced as a barrister at the Inner Temple.
Nehru returned from Britain in 1912 but only joined politics after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, which saw thousands of Sikhs killed under British rule. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s call for resistance, Nehru joined the Congress in 1919, and stayed faithful to the party throughout his life. His closeness to Gandhi is said to be the decisive factor in his appointment as India’s first PM ahead of other leaders like Sardar Patel.
When Gandhi, Nehru’s friend and compatriot died in 1948, he delivered his most powerful and moving speech memorized by millions of Indians. In the ‘The light has gone out of our lives”, he said, “We must hold together, and all our petty troubles and difficulties and conflicts must be ended in the face of this great disaster. A great disaster is a symbol to us to remember all the big things of life and forget the small things of which we have thought too much. In his death he has reminded us of the big things of life, the living truth, and if we remember that, then it will be well with India”.
Nehru’s rise within the Congress saw him become the party president within 10 years, a position he was elected to in 1929. While presiding over the Lahore Session of the Congress in 1929, it was Nehru who demanded Poorna Swaraj, or complete independence, as opposed to a dominion status from the British, a condition Gandhi and the Congress soon accepted.
Between 1921 and 1945, Nehru was sent to prison nine times for resisting British rule, and spent nearly nine years of his life in jail. The last time in incarceration was when he signed the Quit India resolution in 1942, which demanded that the British leave India. It is during his years in prison that he wrote his famous, The Discovery of India.
It is from Naini prison in Allahabad that he wrote to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who would herself rise to take her father’s position as prime minister in 1966. “In India today we are making history, and you and I are fortunate to see this happening before our eyes and to take some part ourselves in this great drama,” he wrote.
By 1947, Nehru became India’s first Prime Minister and held the post for 17 years. In its obituary, The New York Times said that “almost single‐handedly held the reins of government”.
Historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in Patriots and Partisans that “Nehru was without question the chief architect of our democracy. It was he, more than any other nationalist, who promoted universal franchise and the multi-party system”.
Nehru’s vision of democracy was inextricable from the idea of secularism, which he saw to be “social, economic and political justice, equality of status and opportunity, and freedom of thought, religion and association”.
It is this Nehruvian secularism that continues to be under attack today. After he emerged victorious from the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “no party was able to fool voters with the mask of secularism,” an obvious jibe at the Congress, which under the leadership of Indira Gandhi in 1972, enshrined secularism into the Constitution.
Nehru was also a champion of the Non-Aligned Movement, whose establishment he was a part of in 1961 alongside Egypt’s Abdul Nasser and Yugoslavia Josef Broz Tito. It sought cooperation from the great powers — the US, Soviet Union, China — but resolved to be “non aligned”, or not engaging in “power politics”.
With it, he became an articulate critic of imperialism and racism. Historian and Biographer Judith M. Brown writes in Nehru: A Political Life that in spearheading the non-aligned movement, Nehru “created for his country a distinctive, independent international identity”.
China, legacy, death
Nehru was most recently invoked by outgoing finance minister Arun Jaitley after the 14 February Pulwama attack, attributed to Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist Masood Azhar.
Jaitley claimed that Nehru had passed on the opportunity for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council in place of China and had hence committed the “original sin”. In other words, the BJP insinuated that it was because of Nehru’s poor judgement in 1950 that Masood Azhar continued to be protected by China, which had moved to block blacklisting him as a global terrorist.
In a piece in The Hindu, however, professor Mohammed Ayoob of the Michigan State University argued that Nehru’s decision was guided by realpolitik. “Nehru refused to consider the American feeler not because he was a wide-eyed Sinophile but because he was well aware that all Washington was interested in was to use India for its own ends,” he wrote.
Nehru did attempt to promote peace with China. In 1954, he signed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence or Panchsheel treaty with his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai. He also promoted the slogan of “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” to foster a spirit of brotherhood between the peoples.
The treaty, though, didn’t hold and the border skirmishes between the two countries transpired into war in 1962, in which Indian forces were decisively beaten.
Nehru considered it a grave mistake, the brunt of which is said to have weighed on his health, which began to deteriorate.
He passed away of a heart attack on 27 May 1964, leaving behind a legacy that has since been subject to, in equal parts, admiration and attack.
Of Nehru’s posthumous reputation, Ramachandra Guha wrote in Verdicts on Nehru: “Over time, his posthumous career might come to resemble Napoleon: rise, fall, and rise again. And so on, in an endless and endlessly fascinating cycle.”