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Nehruvianism: Revisiting Visions of India in 1947

‘The Discovery of India’  has lessons India could use while it grapples with COVID-19 and rising communal tensions.

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India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
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Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of India helped guide the country through the crises of 1947. His book, The Discovery of India, his letters and speeches, and excerpts of debates from the Constituent Assembly of India, show us how he grappled with the challenges India faced in 1947, and can give insight into how to respond to the challenges of 2020.

As the architect of Modern India, it is important to not only know of his vision for the country, but the extent to which his vision has eroded this year – a tumultuous year, with riots, protests, national lockdowns, a pandemic that has killed lakhs, wildfires, and cyclones.

In 2020, communal and caste tensions have increased, the notion of Federalism has severely been undermined, and democratic institutions have further retrenched, from Parliament, to the Supreme Court. When compounded with the economic crisis, which was further accelerated by COVID-19, India needs a new vision to guide it through the 2020s to overcome its problems.

While the economic and social context of India leading up to Independence are significantly different than today, some of the challenges India faces today are similar, albeit with a richer country, from rising unemployment and inequality, communal tension, and restive states against a Centre determined to assert its authority.

What is Nehruvianism?

Nehruvianism, broadly refers to the ideology of Jawaharlal Nehru, and his vision for post-colonial India. It was a set of ideas that changed overtime, from Glimpses of World History and Autobiography, published in the early 1930s, to The Discovery of India (1944), and his speeches as Prime Minister. It rested on two pillars. One was a belief that a nation’s success lies in its ability to overcome communal and religious loyalties to unite around common economic aims to develop a sense of belonging to one nation.

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Another was that India’s development lay in its ability to redistribute wealth and include the masses in its political system to become modern, and that a partially planned economy through a Planning Commission of sorts using scientific evidence and rational thinking was the most efficient way to achieve that goal.

Enter The Discovery of India

The Discovery of India provides unique insight into how Nehru viewed the problems facing the country in 1944 amidst the Second World War, and two years after the Quit India Movement’s launch. The problems that stand out to him are poverty, and religious violence.

In his book, he writes, “Yet what could we do, how change this vicious process [of poverty]? We seem to be helpless.” He says that religion “has checked the tendency to change and progress inherent in human society.”

He goes on to argue that it is more “concerned with its vested interests than with things of the spirit, encourages a temper which is the very opposite to that of science. It produces narrowness and intolerance…” This extract indicates that Nehru viewed modern-day science a source of knowledge that countered religious beliefs and communalism. He was wary of putting religion at the forefront of the state and supported the development scientific thinking over religious sentiments, arguing that Indians have remained impoverished because of social structures like the caste system and religious acrimony.

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Moreover, he was firmly opposed to communal rioting and argued that “religion in India will kill that country and its people if it is not subdued.” In his opinion, a remedy to the communal questions was a secular education available to the masses following India’s industrialisation. This belief that industrialisation and education can solve the communal question was central to the way Nehru wished to organise the modern Indian state, the effects of which are seen in the Indian constitution and the creation of various scientific agencies in post-colonial India.

Scientific Planning & Nation Building

To remedy these issues, Nehru argued that the nation needed a “social and scientific consciousness,” in order to overcome these divisive views that pervade all sections of Indian society, which would in turn result in support for a secular, scientific education. Nehru does not explicitly explain what a scientific consciousness is but indicates that embracing modernity and relinquishing traditional beliefs and customs in favour of data and common economic aims could undermine people’s faith in the caste system and would allow for upward mobility. His belief in scientific thinking seems as if he would want to use it as a body of knowledge to counter entrenched religious and cultural biases that existed in India.

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After becoming Prime Minister, Nehru wrote fortnightly letters to his Chief Ministers, which covered a range of topics, including how he hopes to implement this scientific consciousness. He writes that the inability to provide for the poor “would spell disaster for the country” and that food provision programs would be need to be assessed for their effectiveness by asking each provincial government to “take every possible step to mobilise all statistical data lying unused in village and district records and undertake special enquiries for collecting such data as may not be available.”

This realisation that policy can only be effective with accurate data inputs reiterates his support for science and modern thinking in tackling problems of poverty and hunger that millions of Indians faced when independence was achieved.

The notion that poverty alleviation policies in India were not properly implemented because they lacked reliable data shows how he wished to incorporate modernity into the Indian economy.

He explains how he would marry parliamentary democracy and socialism by arguing that it could only be sustained “under a free national government, strong and popular enough to be in a position to introduce fundamental changes in the social and economic structure.” The emphasis on a strong national government, with the support of various sections of society emphasis reveal Nehru’s vision of the post-colonial economy. Resource allocations, though top-down, were made by bureaucrats and ministers in the central government and were based on data provided by state governments.

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While this top-down approach can be seen as a contradictory to the notion of popular sovereignty, the Constituent Assembly made it clear that if India were to remain united, the state would increase its powers to strengthen the country’s foundations.

Patel argued that “it is impossible to make progress unless you first restore order in the country,” a notion supported by the Assembly.

This delicate balance between order and unity was forged and managed by Patel and Nehru during the formative years of independent India, by building consensus and embracing parliamentary traditions, regardless of the majority the INC had in Parliament at the time.

The experience of Partition and the communal violence that erupted before and after it also convinced Indian politicians that the way to ensure political stability was by ensuring Indians developed a national identity that would overcome religious and cultural differences, and also emphasising that the basic unit of Indian life was not the community, but the individual.

A way to overcome these differences was to rally Indians around common economic aims, which could only occur if the state were to provide jobs and invest in building India’s economy.

Politically, stability would be ensured by granting significant powers to the central government, while ensuring that individual rights were at the centre of the Constitution.

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And 131 years since his birth, Nehru’s vision of Modern India is ever important to understanding how India grappled with the challenges it faced when it achieved independence. Rather than denigrating the legacy of the architect of Modern India, we can learn immensely from how to build national unity and communal harmony, while ensuring the country’s rebuilds itself. Let us remember the values that Jawaharlal Nehru left the country with this children’s day: scientific temper, democracy, communal harmony, and equality. Without them, modern India’s essence is under threat.

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. Vibhav Mariwala studies History and Anthropology at Stanford University. His most recent research was on the Origins and Implementation of India’s Planned Economy from 1947-64.)

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