Reading Nehru in the Age of Modi

Reading Nehru in the Age of Modi
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There’s nothing right about Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first Prime Minister, if you go by all the slanderous rumors circulating about him on the Internet in general and social media in particular. Nehru was, to believe his online detractors, a chainsmoking, secret Muslim, womanizer who also killed Mahatma Gandhi. He was cunning, manipulative, a willful liar. And, he died of syphilis. Definitely not a good role model nor worthy of being included in school textbooks as at least one Indian state has decided.

The many nefarious things that Nehru is accused of makes him more interesting as a person than as a politician. In fact, I wanted to know more about Nehru the man, the person, rather than the mass leader. In his long political career as leader of the Indian National Congress, the Grand Old Party of the Indian freedom movement from 1885-1947, Nehru traveled a lot, met a lot of people, and wrote a lot. His writings on politics, world history, and culture are easily and extensively available and in these hefty tomes such as his Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History the man has artfully concealed his knavery behind a smoke screen of rather elegant English. So, bypassing the man himself I decided to read those who worked with Nehru, knew him but not so well that they would connive in concealing his crimes, grand or small. What did these writers think of Nehru as the person he was, the colleague before he became the Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy?

J. N. Sahni, journalist, freedom fighter, and one-time editor of the Hindustan Times newspaper in the late 1920s knew many of the leading personalities in India’s freedom movement. There's an intimate feel to Sahni's writing about Nehru in his memoirs The Lid Off: Fifty Years of Indian Politics. This is a welcome change from the grimly statistical terminology of nation-building that usually gets attached to Nehru: "Five Year Plan" "mixed economy" and "States Reorganisation Commission". Also, Sahni promises in his Preface to discuss the major players of the freedom movement respectfully but without glossing over their weaknesses.

From Sahni we learn that Nehru was a man of action but was endearingly not above humble, urgent, and practical tasks. In December 1919, the Indian National Congress held its annual meeting in Amritsar in Punjab province. The city was chosen as the venue of the meeting to express solidarity with the inhabitants who had experienced the horrific massacre of Jallianwala Bagh earlier that year. On April 13, 1919, Brigadier Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to open fire on an unarmed group of demonstrators at the enclosed garden in Amritsar. 387 people died and over 1000 were injured in the atrocity. Adding a fresh layer of trauma, Punjab was placed under martial law with severe restrictions on civil liberties. In this situation, it was very important symbolically that the Congress session be held in Amritsar and that it be a success. Rain, though, played spoilsport and the entire venue became waterlogged. Among the army of volunteers working against the clock to drain the site was Nehru who also helped drag a fire extinguisher pump from the nearby fire station to assist in this task. Unlike the grand and lofty Congress leaders of that era, gentlemen-sahibs of great refinement, Nehru rolled up his sleeves (and no doubt his trouser ends too) and helped physically to ensure the show went on. After independence when disaster struck another Congress meeting venue in Delhi - this time a fire - Nehru did not retire to the safety of his official residence. Rather, he helped push cars parked near the tent out of the fire's path and helped workers who lived in huts behind the burning tent remove their belongings to safety. Those were the early days of the Republic when politicians didn't move around with a small armored brigade of bodyguards so Nehru did have more scope to participate actively in the rescue efforts but both episodes tells us that Nehru was clearly a man you wanted to have at your side when things got tough. He wasn't the sort to turn and run in the opposite direction.

More on Sahni's other observations of Nehru in a later post. And, sure, there were other associates like Jogesh Chandra Chatterji who were critical of India's first Prime Minister on policy matters. But, so far it appears that while Jawaharlal Nehru may have had some personal failings these do not include getting Catholic nuns pregnant or allowing himself to be blackmailed by the Catholic Church.

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