On November 20, 1959, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an immensely influential document enshrining a list of child rights ranging from health to education, to safety, and to play. In honour of its passage, the UN declared November 20 as International Children’s Day, a holiday that continues to be celebrated throughout the world.
Here in India, though, our Children’s Day is November 14, Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthday. Fondly called “Chacha Nehru”, our first prime minister was famous for his faith in our children’s ability to lead the fledgling nation into greatness. Nehru was particularly invested in children’s right to education, establishing India’s free, publicly-funded government school system and the Indian Institutes of Management.
Our choice to use Children’s Day as an opportunity to mark India’s historic freedom struggle over international events is typical of our nation, which has elevated our founders as perfect, unblemished heroes since 1947. Growing up, I considered Nehru and his fellow freedom fighters to be magical beings — almost too mythological to emulate, let alone become.
Nehru was, undoubtedly, an extraordinary man, gifted with a remarkable capacity for perseverance, intelligence, and compassion. But he and many of his fellow freedom fighters also possessed something we rarely acknowledge: privilege.
Let’s be honest. Nehru was a wealthy Kashmiri Pandit who had several estates to his name. He was educated abroad, fluent in English, and endowed with fair skin and European good looks. As a Hindu Brahmin, he never faced caste struggles like BR Ambedkar, or religious discrimination like MA Jinnah. As a person free of disabilities, he never faced ableism like Sarojini Naidu. As a straight, cis-gender man, he remained respected, despite rumours of affairs with multiple women, including Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last governor-general, who held much of the responsibility for Partition. It is hard to imagine Nehru’s wife, Kamala — whose impressive contributions to the freedom movement remain largely overlooked — being forgiven for the same dalliances.
I say this not to belittle Nehru’s achievements, but, to point out that his success was, at least partly, due to his position. In India, too many families must navigate a daunting web of intersecting oppressions to just stay alive. Indians of all classes contend with sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia. Indians born into poverty often face disparities because they have faced generations of discrimination due to their caste, faith, or status as indigenous people.
Children, regardless of their backgrounds, share an additional oppression: age. As minors, children have little to no control over their lives. Their ability to achieve their ambitions are curtailed by their parents’ circumstances. How can a young girl who wants to study law in England do so if she, like almost half of Indian girls, is married before the age of 18? How can a young boy who wants to become prime minister do so if he, like one in 10 Indian children, is forced to drop out of school to work to feed his family? And how is it fair of people who come from incredible privilege, to expect these children to overcome impossible barriers that they never had to face, to pursue greatness as defined by the wealthy?
Nehru was not interested in preserving his position by reproducing oppressions. He believed in equity, and he used his privilege to fight for it. Nehru oversaw legal reforms that strengthened women’s property and inheritance rights, rendered caste discrimination punishable by law, and granted adivasis a measure of self-governance. He was a champion of land reforms and secularism, two stances that directly benefited minorities and the poor. This Children’s Day, rather than telling our children about Nehru’s greatness, let us be honest about his advantages, and how he used them. Then, let us talk about our advantages, and how we can use them. Let us ask them to imagine themselves as allies of their less advantaged peers — just like Nehru did, so many years ago.
None of Nehru’s efforts were perfect. Many of his decisions continue to be criticised today. But this, too, is important to discuss with children. Talking about imperfections not only liberates them to critique what they see on the news, it also empowers them to believe that they, too, could one day become leaders.
These conversations are not easy. Neither was forcing the British to leave, dealing with the aftermath of Partition, or establishing a free public school system for the largest democracy in the world. I do not believe Nehru would have wanted blind adulation. The best way to honour his legacy is to do exactly what he did: to think and talk critically about injustice and, when we have done so, to use our power to dismantle it.
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