Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, author of Nehru and The Spirit of India
Why this book and at this time?
Nehru has been on my mind since 2014. One of India’s foremost political thinkers and leaders, Nehru faced a barrage of (mostly) narrowly motivated criticisms, and worse, crass insinuations by an active Hindu right-wing troll-army in the last few years on social media. As a political science student in JNU, I wrote my MPhil dissertation on Nehru and nationalism, and in my PhD thesis, I contrasted Nehru to Gandhi. But he was not in fashion in those days (late 1990s and early 2000s), or even later. The Congress had finished Nehru (since 1984).
Just when Nehru had been reduced to a trace in India’s political history, he suddenly occupied centre stage in 2014. It appeared that the new regime was still grappling with Nehru’s spectre and wanted to demolish it alongside establishing their new version of nationalism and India. The problem is, once you erect, or invent, a spectre, you can’t control its image, or fate, according to your fancy. The spectre takes on a life of its own. No demolition squad can erase a spectre. Nehru was bound to go out of hand. And contrary to the intentions of Nehru’s critics and detractors, he was back in the public imagination. I wanted to contribute my scholarly reflections on Nehru and found this the best time for it.
Do Nehru and his complex, self-reflective ideas have any space in today’s Indian society which has progressively been dumbed down to the extent that social media is the source of both information and knowledge?
The thick smog called social media has enveloped urban minds that have no time or inclination to read. The propaganda machinery circulates information and knowledge on social media like pamphlets of old. This is a kind of social engineering through pamphleteering. It does attract a sizable (particular urban) crowd that feeds on technology. This smog can’t be sustained for long, though it can do long-term damage. Complex, self-reflective ideas have always thrived within a far-flung minority.
In today’s anti-intellectual times, that minority faces a serious challenge. We have had a thoughtful education curriculum (but with notable limitations, with the caste problem and regional histories being under-represented). The current atmosphere of crude propaganda seeks to destroy the possibilities of that curriculum. In Nehru’s time, we had a slew of intellectually vibrant political leaders in the world: Sukarno, Nasser, Tito, Nkrumah, Lenin, Castro, among others. We saw such leaders even as late as Vaclav Havel. We also had authoritarian demagogues like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Populist demagoguery is back with a vengeance. Spaces that foster critical self-reflection have shrunk. But people are resisting, and writing. Spaces lost always need to be regained.
Given that Nehru was fighting the charges of appeasement of Muslims as early as 1948, would it be fair to say that even then his social relevance was getting eroded, though he remained a powerful political leader?
Relevance is a complicated word. Nehru has suddenly become relevant today, precisely because of the attacks on him. In his time, he was accused by people with stronger communal sentiments both within and outside his party, of being pro-minority. India is a socially diverse country. People live different political experiences and social realities. Those who charged Nehru with appeasement do not straightforwardly reflect the opinions of that deep diversity.
On the contrary, Nehru’s popularity as a political leader demonstrates his relevance among India’s heterogeneous people. Even today we can feel the force of his ethical and political arguments against communal-centric views. Nehru did not allow Partition to cement a majoritarian logic where Muslims must pay the price because of what the Muslim League did. Millions of Hindus and Muslims suffered Jinnah’s ill-conceived ‘two-nation theory’. Nehru never believed the Muslim League represented all Muslims. He furnished the intellectual ground of our secular legacy. Its social resonance may not always be apparent. But it exists beneath the current spectacle in the service of majoritarianism that is drummed into our ears.
You quote Nehru as admitting in his autobiography that he feels out of place everywhere. Does this not lend credence to the argument of many today that Nehru was too much of a liberal for a conservative society like India and hence out of touch with its realities? Could that be the reason that the Congress party proceeded to diminish after his death, and continues to do so?
Nehru’s admission in his autobiography that he was ‘a queer mixture of the East and the West’ and that his ‘approach to life’ is more western than eastern registers the impact of modernity among the Indian elite. For Nehru, that influence wasn’t simply cultural, but also intellectual. Nehru imbibed modernity’s critical stance against religious thought and practices that was also part of the social structure. In this, Nehru was no different from Ambedkar, and Hindu and Muslim social reformers since the 19th century. All this does not make Nehru a liberal alone, which is an ideological description, but a man who reflects the history of his time.
As a historical being, Nehru was open to cultural encounters, just as people had been influenced by such encounters in the past. Even conservatives in Nehru’s time weren’t impervious to western influences. Everyone had to argue their case by comparing and contrasting their beliefs with the ideas of western modernity. Nehru was very well placed within the heart of reality, as he could both understand as well as welcome the social and cultural changes that seemed inevitable. Societies are more resistant to change than individuals. Social change takes time.
The fate of the Congress has more to do with its failure to uphold Nehru’s robust secularism. It is a failure to understand the importance of its own history, and its political task. This has diminished the Congress.
However, I must add that Nehru’s suffering an ‘exile’s feeling’ in the West and in India has a profoundly poetic and existential ring to it. The German thinker Martin Heidegger had described the modern condition as ‘unheimlich’, uncanny, where we experience (a spiritual and cultural) homelessness. It is a conscious suffering where the luxury of belonging is not easy to accept, or reject. Our task is to probe this feeling of exile with sincerity.
The first Amendment has been held as evidence of Nehru’s intolerance, despite his professed liberalism. You have tried to put it in context. However, won’t the argument of ‘referring to context’ then be used to justify all kinds of decisions driven by political expediency?
Referring to context is not necessarily meant to justify an act but read it critically. If an act is born out of political expediency, the context will reveal it. As I have shown in the book, Nehru’s tampering with the article on free speech was prompted by political circumstances, not of his making. It was certainly not born of political expediency, but rather a concern for how free speech might be ideologically twisted to enable fissiparous tendencies. At the time, Nehru did not have the vocabulary and definition of ‘hate speech’ to make his case. His decision to amend the law wasn’t farsighted. Yet I believe his sole intention was to secure political peace in the public sphere where the atmosphere was rife with post-Partition rancour.
A lot of post-Partition literature has described, often in vivid detail, the insidious growth of the RSS towards which the Congress, including under Nehru, had a diffident attitude bordering on tolerance. How did Nehru regard the Hindu rightwing and how much was he in disagreement with his own Cabinet colleagues?
Let’s take two instances from the book: One, how Nehru countered the accusation of minority appeasement and the condemnation of his secularity during the Constituent Assembly Debates, and two, how Nehru debated with Syama Prasad Mookerjee regarding the First Amendment in Parliament. In both cases, Nehru was well aware of the ideological underpinnings of his opponents. He chose to focus on the values dear to him, and what he thought India should not lose under any political provocation. His was a prudent approach of making the idea of a secular India more central to his concerns and challenging the anti-minoritarian noises around him.
Nehru was surely aware of the disruptive potential of these majoritarian noises and the passions they might ignite in a freshly fractured society. The inclusion of Mookerjee as an important member in his cabinet was an act of open-mindedness (rather than pacification) in welcoming people from other ideological hues to be part of a government motivated by secular principles.
Nehru’s optimism was true to his secular and democratic spirit, even if it may sound naïve to some. To treat fundamental political differences as reconcilable is a democratic idea of politics. It veers away from the friend/enemy idea that ails both communist and fascist politics. Nehru was serious about the ban on the RSS after Gandhi’s murder. But his arguments focussed on the organisation’s activities, rather than its beliefs. The point being made is you can have debates at the level of belief. But actions must be accountable.
For a lot of people, including me, The Discovery of India was the first exposure to the evolution of the idea of India. And hence it made perfect sense for India to be an inclusive, secular state, not a Hindu version of Pakistan. However, you quote from the Constituent Assembly debates many leaders, including from Nehru’s party, insisting that religiously and culturally Hindus had the first right to the country. Could Nehru have done more to counter this kind of parochial reading of India’s past?
During the Constituent Assembly Debates, Nehru did not get into an ideological debate with those who argued that Hindus were first citizens. He addressed the issues behind the arguments based on prejudice against Muslims with clarity. You can’t keep hammering against deep-seated prejudice beyond a point. As a statesman, Nehru did not want to get drawn into narratives of accusation. He concentrated on the ethical demand on a nation to recognise everyone equally. He acknowledged minorities as equal citizens, not just under the law, but also on the basis of affective ties, or an emotional sense of belonging. If there was a P.S. Deshmukh, there was also a Brajeshwar Prasad. I can’t speculate on what “more” Nehru could have done. The fact that he did a lot within the circumstances is evidenced by the hate propaganda he receives today. A certain kind of people believe it is necessary to demolish the figure of Nehru in order to establish a Hindu nation. Fifty-eight years since his death, I would take that as a compliment and proof of his abiding impact on India’s secular consciousness.
Is it fair to say that Nehru misread and mishandled both Kashmir and China and for different reasons?
Nehru was caught between emotions and fairness regarding Kashmir. There is no doubt that Pakistan wanted to take Kashmir by stealth. Nehru saw Abdullah as a progressive leader and tried to ensure he sided with India. Too many forces (both within and outside India) were working to destabilise India’s relations with Kashmir. It is extremely unfortunate that Nehru lost trust in his friend, and Abdullah was imprisoned. Abdullah was Nehru’s best bet, and it will be right to say, he lost that bet. But Nehru’s intentions regarding a future plebiscite and allowing symbolic sovereignty to Kashmir were honourable. No one, including Nehru, had control over what followed.
About China, Nehru’s trust was misplaced. He took historical ties more seriously than Mao’s political designs. India mishandled the border question, but China was responsible for the war. Nehru succumbed to the friend/enemy model when it came to territorial politics. He treated Abdullah as a potential enemy, and China as a potential friend. A wrong approach in politics may lead to errors of judgement. Nehru should have retained a measure of democratic pragmatism on both occasions.
In spirit, what is Nehru’s legacy?
Nehru’s legacy stands on a fundamental commitment to democracy. It is remarkable that he stayed away from the lures of a theoretical model of society that sacrificed the idea of heterogeneity for a totalizing utopia. He took socialism seriously, but not the totalitarian tendencies of communist politics. For Nehru, politics must take into account the complexities of history. Nehru’s idea of a secular state was better than the European model, with special care taken to secure and improve the lives of marginalised communities. Nehru saw India’s cultural history as one that had facilitated exchange of art and craftsmanship and a mutual quest to find the truth. Nehru did not reconstruct Indian history as a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Hindus and Muslims. Despite past conflicts, he believed it was possible to retain the spirit that survived that conflict.