Each anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth enters our lives as an invitation to revisit him. We frequently accept the offer by reminding ourselves of how poorly we have followed where he led. The commitments of the nation he constructed and the virtues of his own public life are both so strange to ours that their recalling is but urgent. On occasion, we view him with narrower intellectual agendas, studying his outlook on select matters like the economy or foreign affairs to aid our own perspective. Such attempts at recovering the past are unquestionably worthy, but they can engender a new form of historical amnesia.
To limit our labours to these tasks is to ignore the deeper questions that possessed Nehru. However we feel about the man, wherever we choose to place him in that mind-numbing, childish contest for the greatest founding figure, there is one singular fact that separates Nehru from Ambedkar, Gandhi, Patel, Tagore and others. While they each had roles in the attainment of independence, only Nehru experienced it for a substantial portion of his life. His journey ranged as no other did, from nearly 10 years in prison to 17 in Teen Murti. That this furnished Nehru with unfathomable opportunity to shape India is regularly acknowledged; how it, in turn, moulded him is less explored.
We rightly ask how Nehru shaped India; but what might we learn from how India shaped him?
One way to consider Nehru’s own processes of change is through the very idea of freedom. Indeed, a remarkable and neglected feature of Nehru’s thinking is the evolution of his understanding of this idea. Throughout his life, Nehru saw the realisation of freedom in many forms, notably political self-rule for his home country. But his writings, whether on India or the world, bear few traces of victory. Instead, the achievement of freedom becomes salient for the types of unfreedom it reveals. Nehru’s life was an agonising and determined attempt to come to terms with the idea that freedom might well be an inherently tragic ideal. Though freedom could be experienced by some people in some domains, it could never be experienced fully. It involved painful conflicts and was forever in a state of becoming.
His earliest flirtations on this theme were with the Soviet experiment. On offer was a grand and compelling narrative of economic emancipation, in terms of growth as well as distribution. Its naked instrumentalism, the jettisoning of democratic means, always troubled Nehru. But, over time, he found the end itself to present a limited vision of liberation. His trip to the Soviet Union in 1955 left him with amazement and horror. The waning of his economic radicalism upon taking office was not simply, as is sometimes asserted, a product of political constraints. It emerged from seeing that the quotidian routines of a public sphere, such as deliberation and reasoning, itself embodied ways to feel free.
One of the hardest questions for Nehru was how to think of freedom under conditions of religious diversity. He took notoriously long to seriously confront the problem of Hindu-Muslim representation, declaring even in 1938 that there was “no religious or cultural problem in India”. When politics made this question inescapable, as it did a decade later, the overwhelming challenge for the state was communal peace. Nehru’s India was successful in achieving this formal ambition, but as prime minister, he came to see the layers of unfreedom that could exist beneath the absence of violence. The most striking quality of his eulogy to Gandhi was not the immediate worry of riots but the deeper fear of a society in which its members lacked civic reciprocity.
Even in his darkest moments of acceptance, moments during which unfreedom was the only truth that appeared, Nehru maintained the relentless search for how freedom could be made a more perfect reality. Part of Nehru’s charm during the nationalist movement was his resistance to parochialism, his rejection of narrow-mindedness. This was manifest not simply in his political capacity to bring together radically divergent groups and interests, but in his deeper refusal to succumb to any narrative of certainty. What makes The Discovery of India extraordinary is not its capacity to provide a new historical story. That was a feature across several writings, such as Ambedkar’s fresh description of the origins of lower caste oppression or the works of economic nationalists that outlined a novel financial account of colonialism. These works were united by an effort to show that the injustices at issue had contingent rather than essential causes. In contrast, The Discovery of India was special because of its unrelenting ambition. It sought to remake the world in its entirety. History was employed to demonstrate the possibility of the transformation of an entire nation. It is that imagination and sense of possibility that Nehru never lost.
Freedom, Nehru understood, was never going to be as easy as it had once been. We couldn’t simply achieve it by getting rid of religion or noble lords, as Hobbes had hoped, or by addressing underlying economic structures, as Marx had predicted. It would not magically appear with the granting of suffrage or the spread of education.
Unfreedom had an uncanny, nasty ability to exist even under conditions of modernity and democratisation. At the very end, the ultimate misfortune would be to fall prey to the grand vices that Nehru cautioned against — illiberal ideals ranging from intolerance to arbitrariness. But it would be a mistake to believe that victory over such vices marks the complete achievement of freedom. Nehru’s recognition of the tragedy of freedom was, in no small way, his tragedy. It left him with a constant sense of failure. Our blindness to the forms of unfreedom ought not to become our tragedy by leaving us with a false sense of victory.
The writer is a political theorist at Harvard University, and editor of ‘Letters for a Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to his Chief Ministers’
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