It is easy to understand the tearing hurry of Jawaharlal Nehru's ideological and political critics to gleefully jump at anything that gives them an opportunity to malign India's first Prime Minister.
But what makes others — especially those who are trained to be cautious, circumspect and sceptical — to insult their own common sense while attacking Nehru?
On Saturday, soon after the Central government declassified 100 files related to Subhas Chandra Bose, many newspapers and websites worked up a quick storm, citing a letter "written by Nehru" calling Netaji a war criminal.
The impugned letter was purportedly written by Nehru in November 1945 to the then 'PM of England Clement Attle'. In the letter, Nehru complains to Attle that 'Suhas Chandra Bose', his (Britain's) 'war criminal' has been allowed to enter Russian territory, an ally of his (Attle's) and US government. Nehru then allegedly asks Attle to look into it and do something about it. (You can find all the letters here)
Fact: Clement Attlee (not Attle) was the PM of Britain, not England. The official residence of the British PM is 10, Downing Street (not Down Street, as mentioned in one of the many versions of the letter). Joseph Stalin was the leader of USSR (not just Russia or Russ, as the letter claims). And in 1945 the USSR was not an ally of the British or the Americans.
Common sense dictates the letter should have raised the antennae of sceptics because of its terrible grammar, poor spelling, glaring errors and geographical and historical inconsistencies. It would have been wise to ponder, how could a man of Nehru's erudition and impeccable grasp of history, geography and the written word have written a letter that seems to be the work of a mal-educated, semi-literate upstart with the gall of writing to an English PM?
Then there were the other questions: In what capacity could Nehru have written to the British PM in 1945? He was, after all, just a leader of a political party in a country colonised by the British. And even if he did, assigning to himself the role of India's PM two years before Independence, why would he call Bose a war criminal when the British had never declared Netaji one. And, still assuming he did write it, how did it make its way from the office of the 'PM of England' to India?
Even if all this could have been somehow overlooked, who on earth would consider an unsigned letter — yes, the alleged missive didn't have a signature, all it bore as evidence of the late PM's work was his misspelt name at the end — authentic?
But, some in the media did. In a bid to argue that Nehru 'hated and feared' Bose so much that he was angry that the 'war criminal' had escaped to 'Russia' almost a year after his (Netaji's) rumoured death in a plane crash, they believed something that sounded fictitious.
The media perhaps jumped the gun because the existence of such a letter has been speculated for long. In 1971, when the Khosla Commission had probed Netaji's disappearance, it had looked at the deposition of Shyam Lal Jain, Nehru's stenographer.
According to India Today, Jain's deposition finds mention in the declassified file 'Disappearance/Death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose 915/11/C/6/96-Pol' from the Prime Minister's Office. This file encloses a 10-page explanatory note on Netaji by author Pradip Bose, in which the reproduces Jain's recollection of the letter that Nehru purportedly wrote to Atlee. "I understand from a reliable source that Subhas Chandra Bose, your war criminal, has been allowed to enter Russian territory by Stalin. This is clear treachery and a betrayal of faith by the Russians. As Russia has been an ally of the British-Americans, it should not have been done. Please take note of it and do as you consider proper and fit."
Notice the chain of events: An author writes about what Nehru's stenographer had told him about a letter that the Congress leader had written to Attlee. A perfect game of Chinese whispers!
Just as someone we know had heard from someone that his friend had somehow made Ganesha's idol
sip milk, right?
If the media, including some of its well-known faces and top editors, can fall for a story that would have aroused the suspicion of an ordinary primary school student, India has become inconceivably credulous. (You can check out names of the naive among us here).
In an intelligent democracy, the media's role is to question, cross-examine and challenge everything in a bid to separate fact from fiction, truth from propaganda; its responsibility is cut through the maze of lies, deceit, mischief and spin to empower people with credible information. It is a tragedy when it, instead, ends up helping those intent on making myths, spreading canards and assassinating characters.
Nehru isn't the first victim of the media's failure, though. It often becomes an unsuspecting ally
of those peddling lies and half-truths, which then get established as irrefutable truth and gospel.
For instance, we still believe that former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had called Indira Gandhi an avatar of Durga (he hadn't, someone else had said this in his presence but it got attributed to the BJP leader). For almost two decades, the media contributed to the myth of Kiran Bedi being the IPS officer who had towed away Indira Gandhi's car (a myth that was busted by Firstpost in 2015 ).
In 1998-99, during a press conference, home minister LK Advani advocated a pro-active approach while dealing with cross-border terrorism. "You mean hot pursuit?" somebody asked. Advani replied by saying words should not be put in his mouth. And the exact opposite happened.
Next day, the media first claimed that Advani was in favour of hot pursuit of terrorists from across the border and then dissected the pros and cons of his policy. Even today he is referred to as one of the proponents of hot pursuit.
In the 90s, Lalu Prasad Yadav was repeatedly pilloried for saying "Bhura baal (Bhumihar, Rajput, Brahmin) saaf karo." Even today the Yadav leader denies coining or using that slogan.
Around the same time, Mulayam Singh Yadav's "Yahan (Ayodhya) parinda bhi par nahin mar sakta" boast was used as a red-rag to kar sevaks. The other Netaji has always denied using such provocative words.
Not so long ago, the media had debated ad nauseam how: a) Polonium-10, a radioactive substance, had been used to poison Sunanda Pushkar; b) AAP leader Kumar Vishwas had been caught by his wife in a compromising position; c) two Rohtak girls had made the nation proud by beating two boys on camera in a moving bus; d) Modi had swept floors, sold tea and fought with crocodiles before becoming the PM and e) Rahul Gandhi had accepted British citizenship and betrayed India.
From Nehru to his fourth generation, from one PM to the other, very little seems to have changed.