Nehru for our time

India needs to recall its first prime minister for his love and passion for personal liberty

Written by Rajmohan Gandhi | Updated: November 14, 2016 11:06 am
jawaharlal nehru, nehru, nehru birthday, jawaharlal nehru birthday, jawaharlal nehru history, nehru news, nehru history, nehru policies Nehru was not only close to his 74th birthday but also unwell, impacted by the war the previous year with China. (Source: Express Archive)

The 17-year span, from 1947 to 1964, of Jawaharlal Nehru’s premiership, took this writer from being an 11-year-old schoolboy to age 28. That youngster was cheeky enough, in his twenties, to find fault with some policies of “Panditji”, which is how almost everyone then addressed a much-loved prime minister who had spent his life toiling for India’s freedom.

In the late 1950s, I found it hard to understand how a lover of individual liberty like Nehru could overlook the Soviet state’s oppressions. And although socialism, which Nehru was advocating, held an appeal for me, so did Rajaji’s critique of the emerging licence-permit-quota raj over which, it seemed, Nehru was presiding.

However, an instinctive adulation dwarfed these critical reactions, and I was quite touched by the first serious conversation I had with Nehru. This took place in the late summer of 1963, in what everyone now knows as Teen Murti Bhavan, but what many then thought of, remembering pre-1947 times, as the British commander-in-chief’s house.

Before this meeting, I had seen Panditji. But, to use the modern phrase, I had not met him one-on-one.

Here is why I had to meet him. Some of us planning an international Moral Re-Armament (MRA) event in Delhi tried to book Vigyan Bhavan for half a day in November 1963, but no one in any government office was willing to say how we could go about it. Told eventually that only the prime minister could decide whether the prestigious venue could be rented by non-governmental persons, I sought an appointment and was lucky enough to get it.

Vimla Sindhi, remembered by many as the cheerful person receiving visitors at Teen Murti, greeted me. I was ushered into Panditji’s presence. He was seated on a sofa in a ground floor room. I was offered a seat opposite his. Nehru was not only close to his 74th birthday but also unwell, impacted by the war the previous year with China.

“Kahiye,” he said to 28-year-old me.

I informed him of the reason for troubling him. He showed little surprise that India’s Prime Minister had to decide whether the Vigyan Bhavan auditorium could be made available for a non-official event, asked me the date, wrote it down, said it was OK, and told me whom to contact.

The meeting lasted only a few minutes but I felt stirred as I left, struck by his state of health and his helpful response, about which I had not been confident for I was aware Nehru entertained reservations about MRA. Yet, I found him willing for the MRA event to be held in what perhaps was the capital’s finest venue then.

When the event took place, attended by many (including Rajaji, a sharp Nehru critic then), Panditji acceded to another request from me. This was for an appointment for Peter Howard, the British writer heading MRA.

When, accompanied by me, Howard called on him in his South Block office, Nehru seemed frailer. He had to swallow a couple of pills while talking to us but seemed quite interested in what Howard had to say and also in photographs I showed of young Indians interested in a bid for, “a clean, strong and united India”.

Six months later, on May 27 1964, I was at a camp in the Nilgiris with numerous young Indians when word arrived of Nehru’s death. While conveying the news, I choked. Everyone felt bereaved.

More than 52 years later, persons like me are hurt by the false stories disseminated about that astonishing, if also human and flawed, figure whom millions loved and were proud of.

Crucially, Nehru’s ceaseless concern for the mind of India is missed. He wanted that mind to be innovative, rational and free. When a coercive call was made anywhere in the land, Nehru rose at once to denounce it. More than his 14 years in prison, his 55 years of tireless service, his accomplishments as prime minister for 17 years, it was his love of personal liberty that India needs to recall today.

And also his flair with words. Not many books stimulated a couple of Indian generations the way Nehru’s Autobiography and Discovery of India did. Few speeches were more affecting than “A tryst with destiny” or “The light has gone out’. Both were connected to a passion for personal liberty.

The world knows a state can coerce. Or elements in society can. A government may allow non-state intimidators to lead the way until the time is ripe for the government to coerce directly — or for the bullies to take over the government.

Today, we hear calls for silencing brave human rights activists, threats to ruin those who make films that include Pakistanis. Humiliating promises have been extracted. Policemen are glorified when they act against “bad” extremists but may be prosecuted if they confront “good” extremists. Calls for transparency on alleged encounter killings are shouted down.

We are becoming a mirror image of our neighbour and can expect to see demands for newspapers, TV channels, films, schools and universities to exclude material unwelcome to vigilante groups.

Lovers of liberty should prepare themselves.

The writer, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, is research professor at the Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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  1. A
    Astha
    Nov 14, 2016 at 5:17 am
    you just brought tears to my eyes
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    1. M
      MyTake
      Nov 14, 2016 at 7:34 am
      Gift of Nehruvian India is the slave mentality that if has developed/cultivated on national level which even stan finds it amusing to kick around the subcontinental big brother's a s s! lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;stan got so much used to it that in absense of that opportunity it thinks India is messing around with stani "human rights"! Less talk about Nehru the better!!
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      1. M
        MyTake
        Nov 14, 2016 at 7:42 am
        Nehru wanted to cultivate a new breed of Indians who would hate anything that is inspiring and glorious of India's past! lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;I don't know how many real Indians need that half baked moth eaten and termite ridden India that inspired mostly the criminals! Even Narasimha Rao did not get a space among the Nehru-mites because he wanted to do some thing different but useful for the people!
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        1. Z
          zizek
          Nov 14, 2016 at 3:02 am
          Either Rajmohan hi is trying to be modest or he is stupid. Why should he be surprised on getting an appointment to meet Nehru? After all, isn't he the gson of the Mahatma? lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Also, I think he has hushed off many weak points about Nehru's governance. So, although I see Nehru in high regard for he was a brave freedom fighter, a PM who held India one when it was the most vulnerable but I would not want a Nehru today because his idealist policies would ruin the country today, as it did in his own time. You just have to look at China, Kashmir, the neglect of education, the 50 year estrangement with US - a work of "Panditji."
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            Aditya
            Nov 14, 2016 at 2:53 am
            Good person doesn't mean good prime minister. President Mao o China is considered a brutal person but he left a much stronger and better country. India was in m better shape than china. In 1952 china was poor than India ref Wikipedia I can't believe persons like you feel that Nehru was great for India based on the small interaction you had with him. Looks at George Washington of USA - His troops and well hers wanted him to become king of USA when he defeated Bruisers He sternly warned them - never in future wants to hear about this not only this he became president and let the presidency on his own after second term. He believed in democracy. Nehru was a power monger and didn't leave power till his death and is not worth to be called Chacha Nehru. Also he was poor from nationalistic point o view - 1) he was responsible for losing UN seat in security 2) he was responsible for Kashmir issue 3) he was responsible for losing of China and Tibet 4) he was responsible for division of India - he had let Jinnah become PM - there might be no parion 5) He was self centered and was afraid of subash Chandra bose coming back based on files released. 6) Not a hard worker and lived a easy affluent life and didn't knew the harsh realities of like President Mao did.
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              Ajay G
              Nov 14, 2016 at 11:37 am
              How that brilliant and patriotic RSS took 50 years to get mandate of people !!!
              Reply
              1. A
                Ajay G
                Nov 14, 2016 at 11:33 am
                Nehru's policy may seem obsolete and destructive now. Let me ask those RSS people What they had been doing when nation got independence ???
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                1. A
                  Ajay G
                  Nov 14, 2016 at 11:35 am
                  Why Sardar Patel, then home minister, banned RSS ?
                  Reply
                  1. A
                    Ajay G
                    Nov 14, 2016 at 11:34 am
                    Why nation and people of India did not give them an ear ?
                    Reply
                    1. B
                      Bhakt
                      Nov 14, 2016 at 4:33 pm
                      Army should be let loose on those opposing such a bold and revolutionary step taken by Great PM Modiji.
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                      1. B
                        Bhakt
                        Nov 14, 2016 at 11:58 am
                        Nehru was born to Muslims. Indira Married to Muslim shopkeeper. Sanjay was son of a Muslim Chacha ....
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                        1. S
                          Saroj Mishra
                          Nov 29, 2016 at 4:49 am
                          The most important thing about neharu ji was that he lead the country when it was in most difficult time
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                            G V
                            Nov 14, 2016 at 6:48 am
                            Point is that someone not in agreement to you should not be coerced. An open minded person only can, rather, listen to what opponent has to say and even facilitate a discussion and event on the issue.
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                            1. A
                              avatar
                              Nov 15, 2016 at 1:39 am
                              Hindus did not know whether to call themselves Bhrtians or Indians? Today it is same.lt;br/gt;As usual Indians looked at WEST for Dams Irrigation Projects Factories Defence armaments and ammunition, when Bharat could not manufacture a pin and bankrupt after British slavery. But was denied an were forced to go to secondary markets.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Quota Sarkar was deadly. Socialism was necessity as Hindus were bankrupt starving desute and surrounded by Chinese and stanis and world hostile.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Today Bharat is a tinsy winsy better. Cannot compare past with present. Founding Fathers made many good and many bad things. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Change and dynamism are elements of progress and preservation. Do learn from past and do not repeat mistake an never be enslaved to alien religions like Judeo Christian Islam.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;There were 5% Muslims at parion in Bharat-Mahatma hi never told the generations after to let Islam Christians to take our Kerala, Bharat or Rajya Sabha again and enslave you in different disguise.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;YOU must change legislate what is good for Bharat and act and act and act dynamically. STOP whining.
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                                BOBBY
                                Nov 14, 2016 at 5:16 pm
                                A Fine article by Mr hi On The 1St great indian prime minister Mr Nehru on his birthday.
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                                  Brahm Gaur
                                  Nov 14, 2016 at 5:27 am
                                  Sir at the time of Pandit Neheu the MPs used to raise hands and they were made to agree on whatever Nehru said. He gave tickets to illiterate people. They won in the name of Congress. So where is pion coming from? Maybe Nehru was very pionate for his own freedom. You are wrong. Stop giving wrong information.
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                                  1. R
                                    Rohit Shah
                                    Nov 14, 2016 at 5:49 pm
                                    Agree with several of those who made comments that India is in this state because of Nehru. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;If it was in hands of Sanghis, it would have broken long back....
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                                    1. S
                                      Solo
                                      Nov 14, 2016 at 4:46 pm
                                      Why Raj Mohan is writing about an obsolete legacy (If it can be so called) !! A futile attempt to remind of those not so glorious days. lt;br/gt; lt;br/gt; For whatever Nehru stood and whatever his philosophy, there is no place for it in Modern India.
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                                      1. G
                                        goldy
                                        Nov 14, 2016 at 11:06 am
                                        YOU CAN TELL ALL THE WOGS TALKING RUBBISH BELOW HAVE SEEN GREAT POVERTY. DID ANY OF YOU SLUM DWELLERS KNOW PUNDIT NEHRU.THE ANSWER IS NO.SO DONT TALK OF THINGS YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THIRD WORLD PUNKS.
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                                          Chawla G
                                          Nov 14, 2016 at 9:15 pm
                                          Nehru was Nehru. Unmatched. Unparalleled.
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                                            Dr Kanayalal
                                            Nov 14, 2016 at 5:09 pm
                                            A truly great person. Nehru began to practice law with his father. It was not until 1917 that Nehru was stirred by a political issue, the imprisonment of Annie Besant, an Irish theosophist devoted to Indian freedom. As a result, Nehru became active in the Home Rule League. His involvement in the nationalist movement gradually replaced his legal practice. In 1916 Nehru was married to Kamala Kaul, of an orthodox Kashmiri Brahmin family. They had one daughter (later Indira hi, third prime minister of independent India).lt;br/gt;In 1945, as Congress president, Nehru was pressed into negotiations with the Moslem League and the viceroy. Congress-Moslem League negotiations were marked by communal killings in Calcutta, followed by sympathetic outbreaks throughout India. Final decisions were reached in conversations between the last British viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and Nehru, hi, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. According to the Mountbatten Plan, two separate dominions were created. Nehru became prime minister and minister of external affairs of independent India in 1947.lt;br/gt;Following hi's ination in January 1948, Nehru felt very much alone facing economic problems and the possibility of the Balkanization of India. In 1949 he made his first visit to the United States in search of a solution to India's pressing food shortage.lt;br/gt;Free India's first elections in 1951-1952 resulted in an overwhelming Congress victory. Economic planning and welfare were the first claims on Nehru's attention. He inaugurated a diluted version of socialist planning: concentration of public investment in areas of the economy that were free from private interests. The Planning Commission was created in 1950 and launched the First Five-Year Plan in 1951, stressing an increase in agricultural output. Nehru also took pride in the Community Development Program, established to raise the standard of living in the villages. He saw the Third Five-Year Plan operative before his death on May 27, 1964, in New Delhi.
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