Note: I had written this essay more than two years ago in the confines of Raipur Central Jail: all I can now remember of that August-monsoon is that the surfaces- walls, ceiling- of my cell leaked profusely, especially after the PWD's efforts to repair them; and ravaging my ration of one (heavily-censored) newspaper per day, and writing about what I had read after lockup, became my only real contact with the world beyond the walls. Not surprisingly, I would sometimes drift into a world inhabited almost exclusively by ideas and imaginings; a world into which I now offer to take the Reader.
In a way, this is also my tribute to the Nation's Founder on his 118th birth anniversary: after all, it was in his peculiar world of ideas and imaginings that India, as we know her now, was born.
From today’s newspaper, it appears that Pandit Shyama Charan Shukla, a three-time former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and the doyen of Chhattisgarh’s lone dynasty, has inadvertedly stepped into a political-quagmire: his utterance that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘western’ upbringing is to be held responsible for India’s many problems is bound to inflame Congresspersons, most of who see India’s first Prime Minister as the nation’s architect-in-chief. Arguably this is not the first time Nehru’s ‘western ideas’ have been criticized : the Mahatma himself was not very pleased when his favorite disciple- along with a certain Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose- labored to incorporate the socialist objective in the ‘Purna Swaraj’ Resolution of the AICC session at Lahore (1929).
For the next two decades, the Congress continued to be influenced by an ongoing conflict between the socialists led by Nehru and the conservatives represented by Sardar Vallabhai Patel. The Mahatma’s conservatism, if anything, became even more reactionary as his anti-imperialist crusade evolved into an all-encompassing ‘critique of the Civil Society’ (Partha Chhatterjee): the railways came to be seen as ‘drain-pipes’, which rob the wealth of self-sufficient villages to enrich cities [it is another matter that the Mahatma first became familiar with the immensity of British India traveling by third class railway coach]; even the corporatisation of khadi under the auspices of ‘Khadi Gram Udyog’ was viewed as subversive to the ideals of the Gandhian ‘Ram Rajya.’
Before proceeding any further, it becomes imperative to make certain observations: first, before and even after Gandhi’s epiphany at Peitermaritzburg, where the young attorney was rather unceremoniously thrown off a first class railway coach, he continued to be ‘a faithful servant of the Empire’ believing in its inherent goodness, and even working on the frontlines as a Red Gross Volunteer during the Boer’s War; like him, both Nehru and Patel had been called to the Bar at the Inner Temple at London. Indeed the Empire at its Victorian Zenith had sown the seeds of its own destruction. To put the blame, as it were, on Westernization is to reverse the argument: the nationalist discourse of the Third World, as Edward Said points out in his monumental ‘Orientalism’, is post and not anti-colonial: Churchill’s ‘half clad naked fakir’ was not too long ago a distinguished gentleman at Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophical soirees. The ‘turning point’- even catharsis- came on a cold wintry day in 1919 with General Dyer’s massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar: henceforth it became obvious that the well being of the Empire was in fundamental contradiction of the interests of the Indian people; for Macaulay’s Anglicized Indians, it was a rude Ending of Illusion.
Secondly, Gandhi & Patel’s embracing of conservatism has to be understood in the context of their anti-imperialistic politics: much of the leadership of the Congress, as the historian Judith Brown explains, was based after all on a rather intricate ‘patron-client’ model. The support base of the Congress was provided chiefly by ‘native’ agrarian and commercial ‘interest groups’: zamindars, petty-traders and even industrialists, all of who felt as unduly bearing the economic burden of Empire. For them Independence- with its promises of cessation of taxation on agricultural income and protectionist fiscal policies, both of which were implicit in Gandhi’s construction of ‘Ram Rajya’- thus became a cherished, much sought-after objective, and Congress under the Mahatma was obviously the best agency to deliver it. It was only natural then that the Congress in the person of Mahatma Gandhi should emerge as the principal ‘patron’, promising his ‘clients’ Independence in return for their support. The ‘falsifiability’ of Prof. Brown’s thesis can be effectively tested at Champaran, where the Father of the would-be Nation launched a satyagraha against the exploitation of British indigo-planters. It would not be far-fetched to assume that peasant cultivators all over India were equally- if not more- exploited and yet no such Satyagraha was initiated against the chief cause of this injustice: the antiquated Zamindari System crystallized under Cornwallis. In retrospect, it becomes clear that Champaran was chosen as the site for Gandhi’s first rural ‘satyagraha’ specifically because here the ‘Zamindars’ were British; there was never any intention to launch a nationwide struggle against the universal practice of Zamindari, simply because it would mean an alienation of a very important ‘client’- something which the Congress could not risk at the time. The entire surmise of this disquisition is not to show an overlooking of the peasant condition by the Congress leadership of the time, but merely to reveal the fact that despite their espousing of different- even vastly divergent- ideas, the founders of modern India remained remarkably pragmatic in their approach to Independence.
Thirdly the ‘catharsis’ of the ongoing conflict between socialism and conservatism- what are now known as the ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings of the ideological spectrum- occurred during the debate on the abolition of Zamindari, land-ceiling and the constitutional status of property rights in general. In the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu fanatic- who felt that the Mahatma’s policy of minority appeasement led to the Partition, something that he could have prevented- the socialist agenda came to dominate the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly, as discussed by Prof. Granville Austin in his book, ‘Working a Democratic Constitution’: the Constitution adopted by the Republic of India on January 26, 1950 resolved the first two aspects largely in favor of the socialists but left the status of property rights ambiguous, mainly due to President Rajendra Prasad’s (himself a landlord from Bihar) fierce opposition. Ultimately, it may be argued that socialism prevailed- although the words ‘socialist’ and secular’ found their way into the Preamble much later, vide an Amendment in 1973 when the Parliament’s power to amend under Article 368 itself had been severely contained by the Supreme Court- in the formulation of the nationalist discourse and identity, and Congress itself became something of a paradox: a party of mostly right-wingers led by an aggressively socialistic leadership, which under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would become even more assertive by enforcing the nationalization of banks, abolition of the Privy Purse given to erstwhile princes of Empire, the 42nd Amendment- all of which came together to give birth to a hugely populist creed called ‘Garibi Hatao’. As the discussion below will show, these three precepts- Westernization as intrinsic to nationalism, Pragmatism of the nationalist leadership, and the growing sway of Socialist ideology over the Congress and the country- illuminate an assessment of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in the shaping of modern India.
As with most other leaders of the ‘Gandhian phase’ of the nationalist struggle, Nehru’s formative socio-economic-political ideas were shaped in the crucible of Victorian-Edwardian England: infact so caught up was he in the ‘esprit’ of the Age that he wrote his father, the eminent lawyer Motilal Nehru, expressing a wish to join the Irish Republican Army (IRA); not surprisingly, he was asked to return. His initial forays into the legal profession didn’t meet with the success his father might have expected: at his first appearance before the High Court at Allahabad, rather than plead his client’s case, he wept. However under Bapu’s tutelage, it became clear that politics came easily to Nehru. Broadly speaking, his role in the politics of pre-Independent India can be categorized as follows: as a ‘socialist-satyagrahi’; as Gandhi’s de facto ambassador abroad; and as the imprisoned-author of ‘Discovery of India’. Infact, the Nehruvian impact on Independent India is a direct outcome of this three fold categorization: the ‘socialist-satyagrahi’, in a typical response against the Totalitarianism and the Depression of the late 1920s-1930s, became a firm believer in the efficacy of top-down, centralized economic planning; Gandhi’s ambassador to Europe realized the value of non-alignment in the bipolar world of the Cold War; and the author of ‘Discovery of India’ set about the business of forging a nationalist identity for the new nation based on the notion of ‘unity in diversity’.
There is a tendency, widespread among contemporary historians and political commentators, to view each of these three outcomes as a product of Nehru’s ‘utopian idealism’, largely a product of his Anglicized upbringing, which they naturally conclude was anomalistic to Indian realities. In making his controversial observation, S.C. Shukla was subscribing predominantly to this view. Needless to say, such a view has only been reinforced by the subsequent juxtaposing of ‘Nehruvian Idealism’ with the ‘realpolitik’ espoused by his daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1967-77, 80-84). In the subsequent section, I shall endeavor to test this hypothesis against the background provided above.
In may be argued that there is a dominance of the ‘Hero archetype’- to use Carl Gustav Jung’s term- in the collective unconscious of the Indian civilization: put simply, this means that Indians have time and again exhibited an almost chronic need for heroes, powerful personalities that they can look upto, and worship; more often than not, such heroes- and heroines- become something of living gods. At the same time, the overpowering influence of Upanishadic (or post-Vedic) thought makes them skeptics, given to excessive criticism. For leaders destined to rule India, this means exposure to both an abundance of adulation but also badgering of prolific-criticisms. Nehru, as the last of ‘the Giants’ - people who won India her freedom- naturally became deified: he himself realized this when, writing under a nom de plume, he warned his countrymen against letting ‘Nehru become a dictator’; even his style of working was more consensual than autocratic as shown in the importance he gave to Parliamentary debates and the frequent letters he wrote to Chief Ministers, soliciting their advice on everything including even foreign policy. Although he inevitably tended to side with the Government (Legislature) when it came into conflict with the Party to the extent of admonishing partymen to keep away from the business of governance, the fact that such conflicts were not infrequent meant that Party bosses (like Puroshottam Das Tandon et al) weren’t exactly docile: infact, Tandon ensured that Nehru, even as India’s Sole Leader, failed to have his nominee appointed as President of the District Congress Committee (DCC) at Allahabad, his (Nehru’s) hometown. The ‘turning point’ for ‘Pandit ji’ came in the aftermath of the debacle of Sino-Indian War when suddenly murmurs of criticism became increasingly audible: here too Krishna Menon, his pro-Soviet, anti-American Defense Minister, took most of the flak, and justly so.
It was much later that Nehru came to be criticized, almost retrospectively, for all of India’s problems, most notably:
(a) Partition (Maulana Azad, a contemporary, in a posthumously published autobiography, described Nehru and Patel as ‘old men in a hurry’ to get power even at the cost of accepting the divisive Mountbatten Plan);
(b) Kashmir (again, Nehru’s eagerness to call back Indian troops from Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) in 1948, and his subsequent granting of special status to the state are held responsible for the present militancy in the valley);
(c) the Sino-Indian debacle of 1962 (despite portentous border disputes over Sikkim, Arunachal, the MacMohan line and the status of Tibet, he let himself be deluded by Menon & the Panchsheel Pact with China);
(d) the ‘Mixed Economy’ (which as one cynic remarked ‘has neither the merits of socialism nor capitalism while having both their disadvantages’);
(e) Nonalignment (all sound and no substance, which made India something of an international untouchable);
(f) the Famine of 1966-7 (Nehru’s prioritization of heavy industry, which he described as ‘Temples of Modern India’, over agriculture in the first two Five Year Plans);
(g) the growth of ‘Hindutva’/Communalism (his socialism, as reflected in ceiling and the abolition of Zamindari, alienated the traditional ‘client’ support base of the Congress, causing them to shift to the Jan Sangh, the precursor of BJP);
(h) Vietnam (B.K. Nehru, his Ambassador to the U.S., laments in his memoir ‘Nice Guys finish Second’ that when President Kennedy sought his advice on the subject, Nehru simply dozed off); and most recently,
(i) Failure to ‘Go Nuclear’ (despite overtures from America before but especially in the aftermath of China’s nuclearization). Indeed the list is hopelessly long.
One way of responding to these allegations would be to provide a comprehensive rebuttal to each of the charges but that will have the inevitable effect of reducing the entire analysis to a ‘for & against’ polemic, much in the fashion of the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl’s brilliant study of Napoleon, also written when he was in prison. For the moment, I shall resist the temptation. Instead, it is better to focus on what can broadly be called ‘Nehruvianism’: a single point of view that explains all of Nehru’s political & socio-economic thoughts and action. That, as will become apparent subsequently, was surprisingly pragmatic. In outlining the course the new nation would take, India’s first Prime Minister categorically laid out what he termed as ‘the Four Non-negotiables’: anti- imperialism; democracy; socialism (‘equal opportunity for all’); secularism (sarva dharma sambhava or equal respect for all religions). ‘Everything else,’ he said, ‘is negotiable’.
For an incredibly diverse country like India, this left a lot of room for ‘maneuver’- in terms of policies it could pursue, institution it could build and its relationship with the world- but equally significantly it identified precisely the Four Pillars on which a common unifying national identity could be built. In retrospect none of this seems particularly innovative: the fact that Indians, or atleast a vast majority of them, have come to accept their ‘Indianness’ as a fiat accompli, even as ‘Non-negotiable’, overlooks the equally pertinent fact of History that prior to Queen Victoria’s Proclamation as ‘Kaiser-é-Hind’ & Mallika-é-Hindostan’ in 1861, India, as we now know it, had never really existed as a single, consolidated politico-administrative entity; prior to this, India was an idea but even after the British left, the possibilities of about five hundred principalities choosing autonomy over accession were pregnant in the Mountbatten Plan for Transfer of Power. Infact the tide of history had actually been on the side of further Balkanization following Partition with ancient differences of caste, creed and community threatening once again to erupt: now that the British had gone, what, if anything, could keep the infantile nation from falling apart; from collapsing under the surmounting weight of its intrinsic disparities?
Under the circumstances, Nehru’s role wasn’t so much as discovering an India but something infinitely more arduous and audacious than even he could have imagined: ‘the Invention of India’. It is in this context that Nehru should rightfully be assessed: the point is not whether he is to be held responsible for India’s banes but whether there could have been an India without him? It is fashionable now to exclusively credit Sardar Vallabhai Patel as the moving force in securing the instruments of accession: ‘Nehru’s Kashmir’ is compared with ‘Patel’s Hyderabad’. This depiction of the Sardar as ‘India’s Iron Man’ is done to show Nehru as something of a ‘sissy’, a man of words, not actions: no doubt, the not-so-invisible hand of the RSS- which, as India’s most persistent right-wing outfit, has paradoxically ‘hijacked’ both the Sardar and the Mahatma as its role-models- can be seen behind this lop-sided portrayal. (It is another matter altogether that it was the RSS that masterminded the cold-blooded assassination of a defenseless Mahatma and that it was Patel who banned the outfit even though later Nehru, as a true democrat in the fashion of Rousseau, lifted that ban.) While Sardar Patel’s single-minded determination in the consolidation of Princely India cannot be underestimated, it is also true that Pandit Nehru’s conciliatory policy created the conditions which enabled the peaceful accession of an overwhelming majority of principalities littered all across the subcontinent thereby making, in these cases, the confrontationist stance of the Sardar unnecessary: that force or threat to use force was a last and not first resort is proof of the commonality of interests- identified by Nehru- which cumulatively brought disparate, often conflicting, entities into the emerging-nation’s fold.
In this, Westernization was not a detriment; infact it may even have been the sine qua non. Writing in a wholly different context- his own rather grim version of Discovery of India- the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul makes an observation, which might be said to apply to Nehru as well: as a species, persons born- or brought up- outside of their home lands look upon themselves as belonging first and foremost to those ancestral lands from where they originated and not in terms of affiliations to any particular region, caste, creed or language. To put it differently, their primary identity is national and all other identities are relegated; become secondary. Thus it was that the Kashmiri Pandit came to see himself firstly as an Indian; and not surprisingly, he went about the business of casting India ‘in his image’, to paraphrase the author of Genesis.
From the above, it is clear that the ‘Indian national identity’ (INI hereafter) is a composite construction: those who think of it as ethereal- something that was always there since times immemorial, unchanging and immutable- abrogate history. Indeed in our own times, less than four decades after Nehru, that identity- of course, he would have preferred the word ‘concept’- has- and is- undergoing cataclysmic transformations: older loyalties and affiliations that had sought to have been relegated have become almost suddenly, resurgent. Is this Nehru’s failure- or the failure of the ‘concept’? The answer is: neither.
The problem lies elsewhere, in the very nature of contemporary- ‘post-modern’- Knowledge, or what Prof. C.P. Snow called ‘The Two Cultures’: the fundamental dichotomies between Science and non-Science (philosophy). It is a long and complex debate, and I shall refer to it here only in context of Nehruvianism. The inventor/creator of the modern Indian National Identity (INI) had very clearly expressed the hope that its continued longevity would depend, more than anything else, on Cosmopolitanism: the techno-sociological growth of urbanization. Cities, he felt, would automatically mutate affiliations to caste, region, language and religion into a composite amalgam of ‘class’ identified exclusively in terms of economic function and bound together by the Four precepts of the INI. It is therefore in the prescriptive (normative) rather than the analytical (positivist) aspects that Nehru is revealed most obviously as a ‘neo-Marxist’. Here, he seems to have grossly underestimated the socio-cultural inertia of an ancient civilization. Nehru’s ‘Temples of Modern India’- heavy industrial townships and mammoth dams like Bhakra Nangal- simply couldn’t- can’t- replace the immense multiplicity of temples and beliefs, based as they are in a space-less, timeless warp of antiquity. However the fault for this does not lie with Nehru but in the very nature of knowledge, where philosophy or wisdom has failed miserably to keep pace with the meteoric advancements in science & technology: the ‘cosmopolitanism’ that he had prophesied has done very little to engulf casteism, communalism, regionalism et al.
Perhaps it’s too early to judge Nehru: awakened, the ‘Elephant’ is marching but slowly; civilizational metamorphoses, more often than not, is spread out over several decades, if not centuries. A better appraisal of the functionality of the INI concept in contemporary India comes from employing Prof. Arnold Toynbee’s “challenge-response” model for historical evolution: every civilization, wrote the great historian, is confronted with challenges and it is the manner in which it responds to these that determines its fate; the process is vicious, unending for each response produces in its wake yet another challenge. Likewise concepts, like civilizations, are constantly challenged by the ever changing ‘force of circumstance’ (to use Somerset Maugham’s phrase): they are adapted and transformed, at times even distorted ad corrupted. This should account for the failure of totalitarian and dogmatic concepts- more commonly known as ‘ideologies’- to become universal. As discussed earlier, taken holistically as an amalgam of the necessary non-negotiables and the mutable negotiables, Nehruvianism, despite the suffix of ‘ism’, is neither totalitarian nor dogmatic: its ‘Gospel’- the Constitution of the Republic of India- is a surprisingly practical Document, which as Prof. Austin has shown can ‘work’ in extremely different ways, determined principally by the machinations & the mood of the times in which it is evoked. To put it differently, there are no fixed answers and no fixed questions. It remains as workable in the liberalized/reformist era as it did during the protectionist regime, and under the Centre Leftists as also the rightists. What the ‘Four Non-negotiables’- inbuilt into the spirit of that majestic, almost magical, Document do- is restrain India’s rulers and her citizens from overstepping the line which once crossed would surely result in the disintegration of the nation while also safeguarding the interests of one against the other. In its sheer workability- admirers call it ‘pragmatic’ while cynics refer to it as ‘ambiguous’- the Constitution- and by implication Nehruvianism- are incomparable.
Ultimately the success or failure of Nehru becomes irrelevant; the only relevant fact- or if one has to be epistemological, ‘truth’- is how leaders choose to interpret him and his ‘concept’ to meet the exigencies of the time when they are called upon to serve the people of India. For better or worse, it is the one mirror that allows Indians- and India- to see themselves as a unified whole; there is no other.
In this final section, I undertake to examine the workability of Nehruvianism in India, and the various transformations it has undergone. To begin with, I look at the evolution of the mind in whose interstices the identity was incubated; a mind that prefaced the million mutinies. It would not be wrong to say that at a very generic level the Nationalist Mind, during the zenith of the freedom struggle, came to view the world in black & white: Imperialism was evil; Independence good. Despite the numerous differences and divergences prevalent among leaders- disparities that resulted in Partition, for instance- there existed a broad unanimity on this bipolar schemata. With the passage of time however things weren’t- couldn’t be- that simple: a lot of it has become Grey, cloudy. The Rationalism that germinated Nehruvianism too was a creature of this simplicity: it subscribed to a view that linked economic development, social equality and democracy with the notion of ‘Progress’. For most part, that view still prevails. Neither the means prescribed nor the end desired are questioned: the ‘linkage’, as it were, is intact. It is simply that the meaning of these ‘means’- economic development, social equality, democracy- isn’t so clear anymore; and the notion of ‘Progress,’ as understood by Nehru, seems rather ambiguous. What has happened ?
Put simply, the rationalist idea of progress is no longer held to be valid: to be progressive no longer implies a movement against the dependencies of nature or the opposition- even if it is in the form of evolution- to the currents of history; neither does it signify a revolt against the intuitive grain of passion. The efficacy of equating economic development with state- planning, construction of Temples of Modern India, and a protectionist self-sufficiency- is unsustainable in the light of radicalized environmentalism and globalization; social equality does not mean a syncretic class-based cosmopolitanism but an increasingly assertive role for traditionally peripheralized castes and communities; the idea of democracy itself has become confused with majoritarianism that is closer to the classical (Platonic) definitions of ‘mobocracy’, which prioritizes, as Sunil Khilnani observes, the pageantry of elections over institution building. Everywhere passions hitherto repressed have returned, with a terrifying vengeance.
What concerns me here is whether Nehruvianism contributed to this repression; or did it simply, like Victorian London at its zenith, sow the seeds of its own revision? The answer is: both. To be sure, Nehruvianism- as a child of obsessive Rationalism- sought to supplant the bedlam of history and tradition in the sense that it envisaged ‘taking India forward’, away from not merely the imperialist experience but also the deeper asymmetries of Dumont’s “homo hierarchicus” society, but in seeking to do so, it brought forth a whole new awareness that made the acceptance of its prescriptions difficult: the primordial instinct for self-survival having been aroused, castes refused to disintegrate and reorganize themselves around the alien concept of class; and the infusion of caste and communal politics metamorphosed democracy into something of a battleground. Not surprisingly, the Prophet has foreseen this: long years ago, Nehru had warned of the dangers of majority-communalism masquerading as democracy; to him, there could be no greater threat than this. Almost six decades before, this threat had resulted in the three fold ‘amputation’ of the Indian subcontinent (the phrase is Salman Rushdie’s); it has never quite left.
The ‘cataclysms’ described above point to a very veritable Insurrection; just as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had announced the End of the Age of Illusion (see section 1) for Gandhian nationalists, one now witnesses an Ending of the Age of Reason as embodied in Nehruvianism; but it is difficult to put a precise date- or even a phenomenon- to it. In many ways, the politics of Nehru’s daughter and eventual successor Prime Minister Indira Gandhi reflects this ending: with the possible exception of the Mahatma, modern India is yet to see a leader more attuned to the primordial sensibilities and ethos underlying this ancient civilization, as reflected in her studied as well as intuitive grasp of its several and severed sensibilities, myths, idioms & legends. Yet unlike her father, she didn’t endeavor to transplant them with a new Rationalism; instead they became a source of unbridled strength, enabling her to establish direct and personal communication with each individual member of a vast and marginalized majority: women, dalits and tribals. The crucial point however is that she did not deviate from the fundamentals of Nehruvianism, its non-negotiables; au contraire, they were radicalized and strengthened by her. More than anything else, this signifies the remarkably enduring adaptability of Nehruvianism: its phenomenal capacity to imbibe the insurrection of passions, and channelize their energies to bring forth a further consolidation of the INI.
What Nehru gave India was an ‘ideal’ that would preserve the independence & integrity of India by identifying a universal commonality built around the lowest common denominator of the four non-negotiables; for better and worse, that ‘ideal’ is the product of an Anglicized (Westernized) mind and Rationalist thought; to subtract from the ‘ideal’ necessarily implies the disintegration of India; thus as long as India is to remain, so must the ideal. The ideal gave rise to an awakening and has and continues to survive the resultant Insurrection of Passion; constantly adapting to it. Any failure, with due apologies to S.C. Shukla, lies not with Nehruvianism but with those entrusted with its legacy- which must necessarily include men such as himself.
Amit Aishwarya Jogi
August 3-6, 2005
Raipur Central Jail