The great Nehruvian myth-making: How Nehru wasn’t that secular, humanist and democrat as made out to be

Acharya Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani was close to Jawaharlal Nehru at the time of Independence. Nehru had supported Kripalani for the Congr...

Acharya Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani was close to Jawaharlal Nehru at the time of Independence. Nehru had supported Kripalani for the Congress presidency in 1950, but Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s candidate, Purushottam Das Tandon, easily won the day. It’s another matter that Sardar Patel died that very year and Nehru, becoming all-powerful in the party, forced Tandon to resign.

Cut to 1955, and five years can be a long time in politics. Kripalani then found himself standing against Nehru. During a debate in Parliament on the Hindu Code Bill that sought to reform personal laws for Hindus, he took on Nehru. “I charge you (Nehru) with communalism because you are bringing forward a law about monogamy only for Hindu community. Take it from me that the Muslim community is prepared to have it but you are not brave enough to do it,” he said.

Kripalani wasn’t alone in exposing Nehru’s secular double standards. MC Chagla, noted jurist and Nehru’s Cabinet colleague, wrote in his memoirs Roses in December how Nehru showed “great strength and courage in getting the Hindu Reform Bill passed, but he accepted the policy of laissez faire where the Muslims and other minorities were concerned”. He questioned the Nehru government’s refusal to reform the Muslim personal law “on the plea that minorities will resent any attempt at imposition. Unless they (Muslims) are agreeable it would not be fair and proper to make the law applicable to them”. He continued, “I wholly and emphatically disagree with this view. The Constitution is binding on everyone, majority and minority.”

It was Nehru’s idea of secularism — often seen to be bending backwards to appease minorities and felicitating them to have “their own laws and ghettos”, as Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri write in A New Idea of India — which his successors in the Congress pushed forward with much gusto and zeal, turning secularism into a sort of minorityism. And when this Nehruvian notion of secularism combined with vote-bank politics of the 1970s and ’80s, it created havoc in Indian politics as seen in the Shah Bano case in the 1980s. Manmohan Singh’s ‘minority-first’ interpretation of secularism was the rightful descendant of Nehruvian secularism. It is this idea of secularism that turned Muslims into permanent minorities with perpetual Hindu phobia.

Nehru’s idea of secularism/liberalism was inherently shaped by his distrust for Hinduism. He saw it through his former master’s eyes. Australian diplomat Walter Crocker, who served twice as Ambassador to India between 1952-1955 and 1958-1962, wrote a largely admirable biography of Nehru. But even he couldn’t miss Nehru’s pet prejudices, which include ‘Hinduism’, along with Maharajas, moneylenders, certain American etiquettes, et al.

Is it, therefore, any surprise that Nehru found Hindu communalism a greater threat to India than Muslim fundamentalism? So extreme was his abhorrence for what he called the “RSS mentality”, writes Swapan Dasgupta in Awakening Bharat Mata, that he “subordinated the challenge posed by the communist parties to the more pressing battle against ‘Hindu right-wing communalism’”.

One gets a sense of this mindset in a letter Nehru wrote to Sardar Patel in October 1948, soon after his visit to London to attend a Commonwealth Conference. “We are criticised considerably for our detention without trial and other repressive activities of the state, in so far as trade unions and labour people and the like are concerned,” he stated. Incidentally, the same letter Nehru conveyed his distrust for the RSS. “Regarding RSS, there is a widespread impression in England that they are Fascist, communal-minded people”, he wrote, adding: “If at this juncture we remove the ban on the RSS… this will be widely interpreted as encouraging certain Fascist elements in India.”

Following these pieces of evidence, some recorded by Nehru himself and others by his colleagues, there remains no iota of doubt that Nehru was secular only when he was dealing with Hinduism. When it came to the Muslim community, he followed a more conciliatory path, allowing and, in some cases, felicitating their ghettoisation. He would also adapt two different, often contradictory, policies while dealing with the Right-wing and the Left.

His humanism too would be decided by his ideological leanings. Nehru’s China/Tibet policy disaster is a well-known saga. How with his geostrategic naivetĂ© and ideological stupidity, he handed over Tibet to Mao’s China on a platter! What’s little known is Nehru’s hostility for any outpouring of Tibetan frustration, anger at the Chinese persecution in Lhasa and elsewhere.

In September 1953, for instance, a few people came together to organise Tibet Day in Delhi. But when Nehru got to know about this, he was furious. He just couldn’t comprehend why Tibetans should protest. (So much for his humanism!) Nehru asked condescendingly, “Why anyone should proclaim a Tibet Day passes my comprehension, more especially at this juncture. Who was the genius who suggested it or whose bright idea it was, I do not know?”

Nehru then mocked the Tibetans. “But anyhow here was this Tibet Day about 10 days ago — nobody has noticed it — but a dozen to two dozen persons marched through the streets of Delhi to proclaim their love of Tibet and marched to the Chinese Embassy and demonstrated in front of it with loud cries. Well, it is rather childish…” Well, there couldn’t be a grosser representation of insensitivity and intolerance than mocking those who had lost their homeland!

The fact is — and it has been concealed by historians from the days of S Gopal to Ramachandra Guha — Nehru was a closet communist. Yes, of course the communists of his days targeted and abused him, calling him the “running dog of imperialists”, but it was primarily because he was seen as a compromised Leftist. One must look at how Nehru went out of the way to woo Stalin through his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, even when the Soviet strongman refused to meet her.

Nehru’s admiration for Stalin and Soviet communism remained undiminished. He wrote, “I believe that his (Stalin’s) influence was exercised generally in favour of peace. When war came, he proved himself a great warrior, but from all the information we have had, his influence has been in favour of peace.” And in 1955, during his Soviet trip as a state guest, he described the visit as a “pilgrimage”. How can a democrat find a pilgrimage in an authoritarian state which killed more people than Adolf Hitler’s Nazi dispensation?

Nehru’s authoritarian streak in the political sphere is comparatively well-known. Soon after the demise of Sardar Patel in 1950, he forced an elected Congress president to resign. Interestingly, he took over the party’s control, forgetting the convention of one-man, one post. It took Nehru three years to realise the error of a Prime Minister holding the party president post. And by then, there was no one left in the Congress to challenge Nehru and Nehruism. Even his admirers like Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, former Cabinet colleague, and Frank Morales, his biographer, openly said that following Patel’s death, “there is no one to restrain or guide Nehru”.

History may expose Nehru’s secular, liberal and democratic credentials, but his fellow historians continue to swear by him. Guha, a self-confessed Nehru admirer, in a recent article, accused the Narendra Modi government of weakening the federal structure of India. He began the article by reminding the readers how during Nehru’s long tenure of 17 years as prime minister, Article 356 was invoked only eight times. The idea of federalism hit a nadir during Indira Gandhi’s time when this constitutional provision was used “a full 50 times in the two periods as prime minister — 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984”. Narendra Modi, in contrast, in the past eight years, invoked Article 356 eight times.

On the face of it, the above data should stop Modi baiting, at least on the issue of federalism. But not Guha, who conveniently shifts the goalpost: He acknowledges the above statistics but adds a few hypothetical assessments — such as “collaborative spirit” and “increasing powers over states” — to reach the conclusion of his choice: That Modi “undermined and weakened” Indian federalism far more than any previous prime minister!

Statistics often tell half the story. As one looks at the numbers closely, it’s obvious that Modi’s record on Article 356 is far better than it appears. For, the devil is in the details. And when one looks at the details, it becomes obvious that except in the case of Arunachal Pradesh, the Modi dispensation has mostly invoked Article 356 when the state government lost its majority in the Assembly. This was not always the case during Nehru’s time, and this was definitely not a predominant feature when Indira Gandhi was in power.

Nehru’s role in distorting federalism is a well-guarded and least-analysed myth, except in the Kerala fiasco, where again his daughter is predominantly blamed for arm-twisting her poor papa! In 1958, the Kerala Governor pushed for the President’s Rule in the state without letting the first elected communist government test its strength in the Assembly. The Governor was convinced that the state government “has lost the support of the majority of the people”. And that was enough to dismiss the state government in the Nehruvian federal set up.

Kerala wasn’t an exception. Even in Punjab (1951) and Andhra Pradesh (1954), the state governments were dismissed while they enjoyed a majority in the Assembly. The main consideration all this while was, as historian Granville Austin wrote quite scathingly, the Congress blending “its interests with questionable national needs to take over a state government”.

So, how do we analyse Nehru. His credentials as a secular, liberal democrat are no doubt flawed, but then he was not a unique character. According to Sita Ram Goel, such persons have been seen in all societies subjugated to alien rule for long. “There are always people in all societies who confuse superiority of armed might with superiority of culture, who start despising themselves as belonging to an inferior breed and end by taking to the ways of the conqueror in order to regain self-confidence, who begin finding faults with everything they have inherited from their forefathers, and who finally join hands with every force and factor which is out to subvert their ancestral society,” he wrote.

Nehru, born in the pre-Independence era, still had reasons to carry the colonial hangover. He also belonged to an era when being a Leftist wasn’t just fashionable but also lucrative. But what explains the intellectual honesty of our ‘liberal’ intelligentsia? Do they have any moral authority to swear by democracy, liberalism and even secularism when they have signed the Faustian bargain with the Nehruvian order to paint an idyllic scenario of the 1950s when there was none, and then condemn the current dispensation on similar parameters?

It’s time for the so-called liberals to smell the coffee and wake up to new realities. Else, they should be prepared to go gentle into that good night!

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Click here to read the first part.

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