Reading Nehru in the Age of Modi - 2

   On board packed mass transportation from Boston to Connecticut is a perfect setting to recall Jawaharlal Nehru, his civility, and courtesy. And, humility. There is nothing like sitting in sweaty proximity to your fellow human being (and perfect stranger) to make you aware of the limits of your own greatness. And the boundaries of your own civility and courtesy (lean away from me, grimy lady in the grey sweatshirt before I make you famous on social media).

   This post continues with J. N. Sahni’s memoirs and is about Sahni's 1939 journey to Calcutta with Nehru when the two shared a first-class compartment on a very crowded train. Nehru, still an Indian Congress party leader and not yet the world statesman he would become, had bought a third-class ticket in deference to Mahatma Gandhi’s injunction that Congress leaders show solidarity with the ordinary people of India. Unable, though, to find a place in any third-class coach (traveling third class or unreserved on Indian trains is not at all the same as roughing it out on European trains now or even earlier in the twentieth century ), Nehru’s secretary requested Sahni to share his compartment so that Nehru could make the trip. Traveling with them was Sir Ziauddin Ahmad, mathematician, loyalist, and Vice-Chancellor (President) of Aligarh Muslim University.

   In our era of ferocious personal attacks and personal-insult-as-political discourse, Nehru’s civility to opponents and his ability to see the big picture are a lesson in public behavior. What follows is a summary of Sahni's experience of Nehruvian civility

   After Sahni introduced Sir Ziauddin and Nehru, he anticipated awkwardness because one was a pro-British loyalist while the other was a leading anticolonial activist. Instead, he found that Nehru was civil and interacted with the AMU Vice-Chancellor quite cordially. The second surprise was over the question of food. On long-distance trains in India, one had the option those days to place orders with the dining car. Nehru told Sahni to cancel his reservation and share the food that he had brought from home. Licking his lips, Sahni cancelled his order, looking forward to delicious home-cooked Kashmiri food. His first disappointment came when Nehru told him that he had turned largely vegetarian. Worse, from his capacious basket Nehru pulled out a disappointing array of “boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, a cut cucumber, fresh tomatoes, two large carrots and a bowl of shredded cabbage in vinegar.” I really felt for Sahni at this point. As a food-loving Bengali-Indian, this makes Nehru a great criminal in my estimation. You just do not bait-and-switch in this reprehensible way when it comes to food. 

   As if this was not enough, Sir Ziauddin Ahmad ventured to ask if he might also share the meal. Thinking Sir Ziauddin wanted a share of the spartan spread, Nehru invited the professor to help himself. It turned out that Sir Ziauddin wanted Nehru to share in the meal that he had brought from home. To J. N. Sahni’s astonishment, Nehru who had just told him of his vegetarianism accepted Sir Ziauddin’s rather meat-heavy food and ate it without demur. To the surprised Sahni, Nehru explained – and it is worth quoting in full – “With me, vegetarian food is a dietary preference, not a matter of religion or faith. Having first misunderstood the doctor’s request, I felt he would be terribly hurt if I did not share his food when he put it before us.” Nehru, in other words, understood that the eating of food was supposed to bring people together, not separate them.

   Sahni objected to Nehru's politeness, noting Sir Ziauddin’s sectarian religious leanings and his political collaborationism with the imperial power. Again, Nehru’s reply is worth quoting in full: "You forget,” said Nehru rather abruptly, “he is also one of the most distinguished Indian scholars, the best stuff that Cambridge has produced. He is a man of whom any country could be proud. In a free India, he would be a great citizen. The curse of political domination is, it makes our best brains cheap job hunters and office-seekers." 

   This is how you need to behave to be considered a founder figure of the world's largest democracy. In India where food politics these days has exacerbated separatism, segregation, and the pursuit of very narrowly-defined identity politics sometimes ending in lynch mobs and murder, it is useful to look back at Nehru to learn how to build a nation, rather than to divide and destroy it. Nation-building begins with small acts of accommodation and courtesy towards people you disagree with. Often in crowded public spaces. Like long-distance trains.

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