Despite repeated efforts to undermine Jawaharlal Nehru by Sangh Parivar, his legacy of nation-building endures
Let's remember the India Nehru envisioned, which makes India a civilised and sometimes respected member of the international order of not just nations, but of peoples as well
Ad hominem attacks by the constituents of the Sangh Parivar, especially the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), against Jawaharlal Nehru are numerous enough to defy listing. Cyberspace, home to the world's most credulous, is the preferred site for the circulation of crackpot vilification of India’s first prime minister.
Even otherwise, a person holding a post that should carry with it a modicum of responsibility, former RSS chief KS Sudarshan, had once claimed that Nehru had killed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. In a sense, however, these personal attacks are just a footnote to the grand parivar project: The obliteration of Nehru’s legacy, ideological and institutional, from India’s political space on the basis of a perversion of history.
One of the BJP's refrains (echoed by other Hindutva champions) has for long been that India would have been a different sort of country had Vallabhbhai Patel become India’s first prime minister rather than Nehru. Conceptually, yes, it would have, practically, not really, because Patel died in 1950, before the first governments in the states and at the Centre assumed office only in 1952 after elections based on adult suffrage and other constitutionally-mandated conditions were held. Sticking to the conceptual theme, had Patel become prime minister, India could — not necessarily would — have been a country with a political space much less tolerant of dissent and difference, much more dominated by the Hindu majority and the fantasies of a section of it, much less supportive of minorities, and, thus, much more robust and muscular, in mainly pejorative senses.
One historical example will demonstrate the kind of difference we could have expected. In 1950, there were two serious contenders for the Congress presidency: Purushottamdas Tandon and Acharya JB Kripalani. Tandon was known mainly as a peasant leader and mobiliser, but he was also part of the Hindu right in the broad church that was the Congress, playing the principal role in setting up an organisation called the Hindu Raksha Dal in the wake of Partition. Kripalani was a mainstream Gandhian, who had resigned as Congress president in 1946 following serious differences with Nehru about the directions in which the nascent postcolonial polity should take.
Yet, Nehru backed Kripalani, but given his position in governance and his pre-eminence did not overtly campaign for 'his' candidate. Patel backed Tandon, whose sympathies he shared at least in part, and he did not share Nehru’s qualms. He campaigned for Tandon, who became the Congress president. In many ways, this encapsulated the differences in temperament between Nehru and Patel.
Nehru’s legacy can be seen in two spheres: That of the government and its functioning and that of the more elusive thing we call 'nation-building'. In the sphere of government, Nehru could be, and was to an extent perforce, somewhat autocratic. Thus, it has been well documented that within the government, including the Cabinet, Nehru tended to be an irresistible force, especially after the death of Patel, which left no leader really capable of standing up to him. As a result, when Nehru expressed an opinion, not many had the gumption to challenge him.
The only people who did, mostly within the confines of their ministerial remit, were the non-party finance ministers. All finance ministers under Nehru were non-party ‘technocrats’ and two of them, John Mathai and CD Deshmukh, had serious, public differences with the prime minister and, thereafter, put in their papers.
But Nehru was too quintessentially a democrat and liberal to use his pre-eminence (and predominance) to inaugurate an authoritarian regime. He consulted his colleagues extensively even if he did not always follow their advice and prescriptions. He took Parliament very, very seriously; all important matters were discussed threadbare in Parliament; the quality of parliamentary discussion and debate was famously of high quality until it started degenerating in the 1960s as democracy deepened and broadened itself and people of much more diverse backgrounds came into the mix.
It was, however, in the arena of nation-building that Nehru’s legacy endures, still, despite the attempts by the BJP and its ideological fraternity to dismantle it. This is not to say that Nehru was infallible. His failure is most conspicuous in his inability, arising out of a certain kind of policy optic, to translate his liberal dreams into reality, rather than in more commonly cited, and specific areas, for instance, his China policy. We shall return to this theme in a bit.
What Nehru has bequeathed to us is a fundamental respect for dissent and difference; an awareness that it is only through public discussion that we can move ahead, especially when the issues at hand are contentious. This is the basic liberal paradigm. Alongside, Nehru inscribed in the political space the values that the Constitution, after much discussion, enshrined: The values of the freedom of the individual and liberty; the ineluctable necessity to respect the minorities and their cultural practices, and the need to make them feel secure in times that were vitiated by communal passions (stoked, lest we forget by the BJP’s political and ideological forbear, the Jana Sangh, and the RSS); the need to create a more inclusive public sphere in which those hitherto neglected, oppressed and dehumanised by the Brahminical order and its obscurantist values could more fruitfully participate; and, not least, the absolutely critical importance of upholding the value of cleansing state institutions and practices of even a hint of communal (or confessional) partisanship and steer away from a putative theocracy.
India's postcolonial historical chronicle has recorded that Nehru failed in many ways to create a nation in his image, in the liberal imagining. This was not just Nehru’s failure. Unless one signs up to the more jejune versions of the great-person-in-history theory, it would be obvious that no one person or small group of persons could swim against powerful social (and political) currents, however strong their commitment to a new order may have been. Nevertheless, the Nehruvian framework can be held responsible for failing to spread through the agencies of the government and the puissant Congress of Nehru's times the political and civic values of an ideologically liberal order by creating an educational system far more sympathetic to the needs of grassroots and primary education.
But the importance of holding aloft the standard of the liberal order and its values and working towards universalizing them in however flawed a manner can hardly be overstated. And it is precisely that order and those values that are under threat from the RSS, the BJP and the governments it runs, and others. Too much, one could submit, is being made of the BJP’s stated intention of turning the Nehru Museum and Library, or Teen Murti Bhavan, into a memorial for all prime ministers rather than Nehru exclusively. As long as this changes just the museum side of things rather than the library as well, and the academic commitments it enshrines, the issue is just a sideshow.
If it matters at all, one could argue counterfactually that had Nehru been alive he would have wholeheartedly given the plan his imprimatur. Hero worship of the kind some envisage, whether for a Winston Churchill or a Nehru, is inimical to a liberal ethos. What the Sangh Parivar is doing, or trying to do, in other arenas of public life are far more important.
Fundamental to the parivar and BJP project is closing down liberal spaces. Thus, the criminalisation of dissent, the unabashed attack on minorities, especially Muslims, the cavalier disregard of individual freedom and liberties, the grievous attacks against and subversion of institutions, including the judiciary, a professed and practised disregard for the rule of law, and, again not least, the attempts to use the agencies of the state to promote a particular, and singularly illiterate, view of ‘Indian’ history, or the history of the subcontinent, only a part of which has been India in any meaningful sense for a historically determinate and relatively short span of time.
For reasons of space, and since the other issues have been expatiated upon at length elsewhere, let us concentrate on the last mentioned theme. This theme is well illustrated by the project of building a ‘grand’ temple to Rama at the ‘disputed’ site in Ayodhya. First, though not chronologically, came the decision to rename Faizabad district Ayodhya, itself an attempt to obliterate the historical record to promote the cause of one set of disputants, the fundamentalist Hindu. (It should be recorded here that only a small number of ‘Hindus’ are fundamentalist and a similarly small number sign up to the religion-based political project we abbreviatedly call Hindutva.)
Prior to that was the destruction of a historically and archaeologically significant structure called the Babri Masjid, which was an anterior attempt to rewrite history, which is further in evidence in the attempt to rewrite history textbooks taught in schools and colleges. Having destroyed the structure, the BJP and others have continually pressed for the construction of a temple. At present, it has been attacking the judiciary for not pronouncing a verdict in favour of the construction of a temple at an early date, ie before the Lok Sabha elections due around May next year.
A huge project of mobilisation has been initiated to get the government to short-circuit the judiciary and facilitate the construction of the temple. The BJP government is not averse to doing so but is minimally aware of its responsibilities and has not caved in. All this is despite the fact that the BJP and the disputants, along with the RSS and others, having professed for a quarter of a century or so that they respect the judiciary, which they don’t, and will be guided by the judicial verdict when it arrives.
More important, however, are the arguments adduced in favour of the temple. BJP and RSS leaders and some of their ideological fellow travellers, including, unfortunately historians, state vociferously and incessantly that a temple must be built because the Babri Masjid had been built after destroying a temple at the site which is the birthplace of ‘Lord Rama’. Rama is a mythological figure who could not have been ‘born’ anywhere. Even conceding that there was some historical figure corresponding to the mythological Rama, it is not possible given the current state of scholarship and the availability of credible sources to discover who exactly that figure was. So ditto, pretty much, for the question of birth first and birthplace later.
So, the whole issue is a matter of faith. But the facts cannot change, however many Hindus believe that Rama existed and that he was born at that precise site in Ayodhya. Even conceding, once again, that faith, especially religious faith, is an important element in the lives of individuals or peoples, it is hardly conscionable to make some kind of leap of reasoning to conclude that this faith must become the basis of state policy and actions, even when building a temple would be a blow against a minority community, to wit the Muslims, already alienated and beset by a siege mentality because of the destruction of the temple and the majoritarian attacks of Hindu fundamentalists aided, abetted and encouraged by the BJP and the governments it runs.
BJP leaders somehow also conclude that everyone must sign up to this demand. Those who don’t are branded traitors. Thus, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath’s statement last Saturday 'blaming' the Congress for the delay in the construction of a temple in Ayodhya. In his febrile and fanciful imagination it is a matter of the Congress clarifying whether it is more concerned about Rama or Babar. The Congress should, but won't because of what it possibly perceives are electoral compulsions, that it faces no such choice. What it is doing is waiting for a judicial verdict on a property dispute.
All this amounts to an amount to inaugurate a theological state based, as such states invariably are, on blind faith, the perversion of history and a penchant for obscurantist doctrines. It flies in the face of how the ‘founding fathers’ conceptualised postcolonial India (as evident from the Constitution) and the ways in which Nehru tried to make these conceptualisations a reality.
The Ayodhya movement encapsulates practically every aspect of the project of dismantling the India Nehru envisioned and which makes India a civilised and sometimes respected member of the international order of not just nations, but of peoples as well.
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