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