That Jawaharlal Nehru’s life has been narrated through a huge body of apocryphal stories isn’t a big surprise. For, the story of his life began with a tale that sounds more like a myth, a metaphorical argument meant to lend a certain aura to his personality.
The story goes that his father Motilal once visited a yogi in Rishikesh to find out if he would ever be blessed with a son. By then, Motilal had lost his first wife with his first-born, and also another son from his second marriage.
The ascetic who, as the legend goes, lived in a tree and had acquired the reputation of having great powers earned through penance and meditation. But, for the senior Nehru he had bad news—that he was not destined to have a son.
When pressed for a boon, the yogi sprinkled some water over Motilal and blessed him with a son. “By doing this, I have sacrificed all the benefits of all the austerities I have conducted over many generations,” the yogi told Motilal. The next day the yogi died and 10 months later Motilal was blessed with a son—Jawaharlal. (Nehru: The Invention of India, Shashi Tharoor).
If you had the opportunity of telling this story to Jawaharlal Nehru himself, he would have laughed it off. In case you were daft enough to persist with it, Nehru, the agnostic with a scientific temperament, would have rebuked you for believing such stories, even when its objective was to ascribe a dramatic, larger-than-life beginning for him.
But, ironically, 130 years after his birth, Nehru has become a subject of stories that are fantastic, fictitious and egregious examples of calumny and hatred perfected by his ideological and political rivals. Unfortunately, much of this slander has survived because of the inability of his political and ideological heirs to stand up for Nehru.
Lies and deceit
The biggest canard about Nehru—and this deserves the first mention because of its topicality—is that he was willing to give away Kashmir. The lie that was initially just a misinformed judgement, has recently been given a seal of authenticity by the BJP and its government that has portrayed Nehru as the villain of Kashmir, as the man who let the Valley drift away from India.
The fact is that India would have lost Kashmir if not for Nehru. It was Nehru, and Nehru alone, who wanted Kashmir to accede to India in spite of the logic of Partition that automatically implied border states with Muslim majorities could opt for Pakistan. Even in the home ministry led by Sardar Patel, Kashmir being the ‘K’ in Pakistan was considered a bit of fait accompli. Patel’s secretary VP Menon, the man who was to later get the signature of the Maharaja of Kashmir on the Instrument of Accession, writes that a few months before Independence, Lord Mountbatten told the Maharaja of Kashmir that even if he were to go with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, India would not have any problem, and on this, he had the “firm assurance of Sardar Patel”.
“We left the state (Kashmir) alone. We did not ask the Maharaja to accede, though at that time, as a result of the Radcliffe Award, the state had become connected by road to India,” writes Menon, the ICS officer who was Patel’s eyes, ears, and even brain. (The Story of the Integration of the Indian States: VP Menon).
Nehru wanted Kashmir to be part of India for two reasons. One, he was sentimentally attached to the land of his ancestors. (His ancestors were Kashmiri Pandits who later settled down in Allahabad via Delhi and Agra. Motilal changed the original surname Kaul-Nehru to just Nehru). Two, Nehru believed Kashmir was a counterpoint to Jinnah’s two-nation theory based on religion. Nehru believed that the secular Muslims of Kashmir brought up on Sufi traditions would prefer India and, in this, he had a willing ally—Sheikh Abdullah.
Before the Partition, Nehru badgered Mountbatten—and perhaps even Mahatma Gandhi—to convince the Dogra ruler of Kashmir to remain with India. On his insistence, the then-Viceroy went to Srinagar to cajole Hari Singh, but the Maharaja wriggled out of the meeting citing ill health.
When tribal militias led by Pakistani officers entered Kashmir in October 1947, it was Nehru, as Menon writes, who asserted that Indian forces be airlifted to Srinagar without any delay even when the British commanders of the army were averse to join the war. In the end, Nehru prevailed.
Nehru has simultaneously been vilified for accepting Kashmir’s accession on the condition that it be later ratified through a plebiscite. But this decision was taken by the Defence Committee—headed by Mountbatten and comprising Patel, Nehru and the army chiefs—before accepting Kashmir’s accession to India.
Kashmir turned into a mess within a few years. But, it was primarily because of the peculiar problems caused by the composition of population, the reliance on Abdullah to convince a Muslim population to stay with India and the meddling by the Western powers intent on setting up Pakistan as their client state. And, unfortunately, the man who is single-handedly responsible for not letting Kashmir fall into Jinnah’s basket like a “ripe apple” in 1947, became the punching bag for all this.
Many other lies, some of them malicious fibs about his lineage, have replaced his heroic, valuable contribution to India in the minds of the later generations fed on propaganda and half-truths. Through forged letters, whose writers couldn’t even get the basics of grammar and history right, it has been argued that Nehru wanted the British to arrest Subash Chandra Bose as a “prisoner of war”. Some have hilariously argued that he rejected the offer to India for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (ill-informed gossip) way back in 1945, and also the US requests for accepting its technology for making nuclear bombs in India. In essence, he has been blamed for everything that happened or didn’t transpire in Indian history, including his own death.
Nehru’s romantic-idealism, of course, led to many blunders, the biggest of them being the humiliation at the hands of China in 1962. And he is partially responsible for ushering in the culture of dynasty politics in India by anointing his daughter Indira Gandhi as president of the Congress during his lifetime. (Partially because of two reasons. One, the subcontinent was to later adopt the culture of political succession by heredity. Two, Indira became a power centre largely through her own tact and machinations; she didn’t automatically succeed Nehru). But, an impartial assessment of Nehru has been unfortunately blighted by rightwing propaganda that wants Nehru to be seen only as a man whose touch was the exact opposite of Midas—it turned Indian gold into dust.
You can only pity a country that detests its own past on the basis of falsities, hearsay and ignorance of history.
Nehru’s real legacy
One of the biggest qualities of great people is that they are loved by admirers and respected even by their fiercest rivals. The greatest—and perhaps relevant—tribute to Nehru arguably was paid by his political rival (but closet admirer), Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who mourned that with the Prime Minister’s death, “a dream has been shattered, a song silenced, a flame has vanished in the infinite. It was the dream of a world without fear and without hunger, it was the song of an epic that had the echo of the Gita and the fragrance of the rose. It was the flame of a lamp that burnt all night, fought with every darkness, showed us the way, and one morning attained Nirvana”.
In this context, it is relevant to mention what Muhammad Iqbal, the poet considered the pioneer of the idea of Pakistan, said about Nehru during a meeting in 1938: “Jinnah is a politician and you (Nehru) are a patriot. That’s the difference between you two.”
Nehru was indeed a patriot, a man who wanted India to be admired for its secularism, syncretic culture, heritage, history, tolerance, scientific approach and achievements. Tharoor argues that the fire in Nehru for making India a great country was first lit by Winston Churchill’s dismissal of India symbolised by remarks like, it is “merely a geographical expression…no more a single country than the Equator”.
Nehru wanted India to build great institutions, centres of learning—the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, for instance— and industrial towns. He dreamt of secularism (where the state has no religion), liberalism and socialism as the edifices of a modern nation. For him, unlike other countries that simultaneously became independent, democracy was a sine qua non and dictatorship an anathema, a belief that was proven correct by events that were to later unfold in the neighbourhood.
It is a travesty of history that today’s India—majoritarian, intolerant, stripped of critical thinking and obsessed with a magical past based on Hinduness—is an anti-thesis of the Nehruvian dream. But Nehru towered over the collective Indian psyche for four decades, he was the symbol of India and Indianess for a long time. With such deep roots, there is absolutely no guarantee that his ideology, at least of India being a land of rational, liberal, secular and forward-looking people, will not make a grand return some day.
For, history runs in circles, even if sometimes the arc of evil tends to appear bigger than that of the ideal.