The subject of this Conclave is "Nehru’s legacy and its relevance to contemporary India". And in that context I am asked to speak on "The Idea of India". So let me go over how what is known as "the Idea of India" came about; how it came to be handed down as our modern inheritance; and why this legacy is inseparable from Nehru. We need reminding of it since the Idea of India we have taken for granted is now under attack by a diametrically opposed Idea of India. Will Nehru’s legacy survive this onslaught is a question Indians will have to answer in a global political climate, now replicated in India, where democracy, pluralism and human rights, are being replaced by an enforced uniformity and a criminalisation of those who will not conform.
As a political creation, present-day India dates from 1947 when the subcontinent became a single political entity for the first time in its history. Earlier, it had been regionally ruled under different regional powers. The British occupation divided it into British India and the Maharaja-ruled states. And finally the Partition divided it into India and Pakistan.
The Congress party that then came to power had been the first political formation to demand independence from British rule and to build a countrywide movement under Gandhi to fight for it. Allegiance to the movement and active participation in it spread across region and religion, class, mass, language and gender and its inclusiveness gave the movement its unique character. Gandhi was the architect of this first-ever national consciousness and national unity, and it was Nehru’s accomplishment, as leader of India for its first seventeen years of independence, to take this consciousness forward, make it an everyday experience for Indians, and become the meaning of modern India. During Nehru’s twenty-six years of participation in the national movement – ten of those years spent in different jails – the country had come to know him better, and he had come to know Indians better than any political figure apart from Gandhi.
A fight for freedom is always accompanied by the frame of mind that inspires it. It identifies its goals in the course of the struggle and makes clear its stand on issues. The new government’s avowed commitment to equality, pluralism, and secularism came out of this experience of a unity above differences, and a shared Indian identity. After the bloodshed and devastation of Partition, Nehru’s immediate and overwhelming priority was communal harmony. His personal pledge to safeguard religious freedom left no room for doubt. Speaking to a public gathering in 1951 he said: “If anyone raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether from inside the government or outside.” The makers of the Constitution, led by Ambedkar, had given this declaration constitutional authority. For Ambedkar, liberty and equality were not gifts to be granted, but the birthright of every human being, and ensuring these had been his lifelong crusade. The Hindu Right and the Muslim Right had taken no part in the unifying experience of the national movement and pluralism was foreign to their thinking. Both based identity and nationality on religion, making the partition of India inevitable. The Muslim claim to this unbreakable bond fell apart when East Pakistan broke free to become Bangladesh. In India succeeding general elections rejected the Hindu Right until 2014.
The conditions in which the Idea of India was carried out by Nehru’s governments, and the immensity of the enterprise that lifted a subcontinent out of political and economic slavery and set it on the road to recovery and modernisation, were daunting, and that this massive endeavour took place in an open society with no sacrifice of individual freedom, made it the first of its kind in history. India had been drained of resources and impoverished by two centuries of plunder and exploitation under British occupation. An economy designed for British profit had halted indigenous growth. The 1930’s had seen a series of famines and during the Second World War when Indian grain was diverted to British armies in war zones, the Bengal famine had killed nearly three million Indians. By 1947, fifty percent of nearly 400 million Indians lived in miserable poverty.
It was a moment when the world’s critical, skeptical, and judgemental eyes were watching India. Assessments of India’s development by informed observers are of value because they were contemporary, and they are of interest because they tell us the opposite of what Indian critics are now saying, which is that nothing happened under Nehru and that the first twenty years of independence were wasted years. India watchers at the time took a different view. Here are two opinions. One is from Percival Griffiths, a retired British civil servant who had had no confidence in India’s abilities. In 1957, he wrote that foodgrain production since independence had been "spectacular" and that India had succeeded in doing what he and other observers had thought was impossible. Economist Barbara Ward who followed India’s development closely wrote in 1961 of the growth of the private sector, from Tata’s steel plant in Jamshedpur producing half a million tons of steel a year to the villager selling his first maund (roughly equivalent to 37kgs) of rice in the market. She wrote: “Never has private enterprise expanded or diversified so quickly as in the last decade. Its investment in all sectors, including agriculture, nearly doubled between the First and Second Plans…” A later Indian assessment by Pulapri Balakrishnan concluded that from zero percent growth between 1900 and 1947, the first fifteen years of independence, until the Chinese attack in 1962, saw the economy grow to 4%, bringing India in line with the successful economies of the time, and ahead of China, Japan and the UK.
India-watchers of the Nehru period noted from their individual national perspectives the cooperation of government and people, the mood of shared adventure that inspired a surge of national effort, and that the prime mover in this enterprise was the Prime Minister. In his detailed assessment of the successes and failures of the first two Plans, Michael Brecher, Nehru’s biographer in Nehru’s lifetime, wrote, “Indeed he is the heart and soul and mind of India’s heroic struggle to raise the living standards of its … people.” How India fared under Nehru was seen as a striving against gigantic odds, in an open society with no curtailment of rights and freedoms. At Nehru’s death this view was movingly summed up in the tributes paid to him worldwide. I am quoting two. Adlai Stevenson, American statesman, wrote: “He (Nehru) was one of God’s great creations in our time. His monument is his nation and his dream of freedom and of ever-expanding well-being for all men.” In India, a young member of Parliament, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, mourned Nehru’s passing in these words in the Lok Sabha: “…a dream has remained half-fulfilled, a song has become silent…like Ram, Nehru was the orchestrator of the impossible and the inconceivable…he too was not afraid of compromise but would never compromise under duress…the leader has gone but the followers remain. The sun has set, yet by the shadow of stars we must find our way.”
The ultimate tribute to Nehru’s India was paid by one of the 20th century’s leading scientists, J.B.S. Haldane of Britain, when he emigrated with his scientist wife to India in 1957 and took Indian citizenship. He did this not only because of Nehru’s commitment to train young minds in science, but because in India, he said: “One has the absolute impression of being in a highly civilised community.” He said he could not say this of some cities in Europe, and most cities in America.
Nehru’s legacy is now up against an Idea of India defined as Hindutva which is the reverse of the inclusiveness India has stood for, both as a civilisation and as a nation. The Hindu Right which took no part in the national movement for freedom and found itself better served by Britain’s division of Indians on religious lines, now divides Indians into Hindus and Others. Hindutva’s first defining political act, making public what it stood for, had been the assassination of Gandhi in 1948. Gandhi had long been targeted as Hindutva’s chief enemy for his espousal of all religions and his blasphemous mantra: Ishvar-Allah tere naam. Hindutva’s campaign against Nehru is now manifest in the elimination of Nehru from history and the takeover of the Nehru Memorial Museum (along with all key institutions). Those now in charge are putting their Hindutva stamp on it.
The curious aspect of the agenda to Hinduise India and convert it into a Hindu rashtra is that this proposition has never been straightforwardly put before the public. It has not found mention in a manifesto or in election speeches, as is usual in a democracy. Nor has a referendum been put before the country to say Yes or No to it, to find out whether Indians agree to this enormous foundational change. The agenda has, however, been made clear through the war that Hindutva is waging through its Nazi-style stormtroopers against those whom it calls Others, and official attacks on all Indians who do not toe its line.
The choice today between one Idea of India and another is, in fact, a choice between fiction and reality. We are living in a situation where centuries of recorded history never happened, where all knowledge and scientific invention stems from the Vedas, and Indian identity is exclusively Hindu, going back to a glorious bygone era when the country was religiously, ethnically, culturally and racially pure, with no outside influences to soil its Hindu purity. Is it possible that fantasy can replace fact? Of course It can, and we have seen it happen in the pursuit of power, as in Germany under the Nazis. We can no longer say it can’t happen here. What we are now seeing of state-sponsored mob rule, of summary arrests and imprisonments, and the shutdown of democratic processes, may well make the choice between two Ideas of India a choice between democracy and autocracy, and in essence, a choice between civilisation and barbarism.
As the world once saluted Nehru’s absolute commitment to humane and inclusive government, it may now have to look to New Zealand’s young Prime Minister for the same civilised leadership.
This is the text of Nayantara Sahgal's keynote address delivered at the conclave on 'Nehru's Legacy: It's relevance to contemporary India', March 30, 2019, at the Indian Social Institute, Delhi.