Knowing Nehru Through His Letters —Not Via WhatsApp Forwards
The year is 1939, and Jawaharlal Nehru has turned fifty years old. In between the routine congratulatory notes and correspondences, he receives a touching letter from India’s poet-nightingale, Sarojini Naidu. She addresses herself as his “poet sister and fellow seeker” and writes that he is “a man of destiny born to be alone in the midst of crowds, deeply loved, but little understood.” The letter concludes by expressing her belief that Nehru will transmute “the predestined gifts of his life, that of sorrow, sacrifice and strife”, into “the very substance of ecstasy and victory.”
In many forms and senses, modern India continues to enjoy a similar relationship with one of its most primary architects. Nehru is much discussed, his political and personal life scrutinized and deconstructed for the furthering of all sorts of historical, political and ideological causes — but he is little understood. The nuances and layers of his life and character, often in perfect alignment with the character of our then nascent nation, is simplified or ignored.
Jawahar And Kamala
Jawaharlal Nehru wrote prolifically, and the breadth of his interests, reflected in his letters and that of its eclectic recipients, makes them an insightful lens to view integral episodes of Indian history, and the global context of the times. They unveil the portrait of a fascinating and sensitive man, deeply conscious of the delicateness and fragility of the times he is living through.
In 1936, Romain Rolland, recipient of the 1915 Nobel Prize for Literature wrote to Nehru, who was then travelling to tend to his ailing wife Kamala, wishing him to “return with a calmer spirit to the “great fight against all obstacles to the independence” of his “dear country”. The letter concludes rather poignantly with the following lines: “look after yourself, my dear friend and may your cause, which is that of the best India, triumph.”
Kamala Nehru passed away in 1936 at the young age of 36 and Nehru would dedicate his autobiography written almost entirely in prison and published soon after to “Kamala, who is no more.”
Having read this book, the prominent painter Amrita Sher Gil wrote to Nehru, expressing her admiration for the lack of exhibitionism in its pages. She writes of how he is capable of saying “When I saw the sea for the first time, while most others would say when the sea saw me for the first time.”
Tagore, Nehru, and Their Mutual Admiration
On the autobiography, Rabindranath Tagore, who Nehru held in great reverence, would write in May 1936, that through the humanity shining through all its details and facts, the book ultimately leads to a person “who is greater than his deeds and truer than his surroundings.” As Kamala ailed and Jawaharlal was imprisoned, their little daughter Indira would spend time living with Tagore at his ashram. Later after Kamala’s death, Nehru would write to Tagore, thanking him for his words on her memory, published in the Visva-Bharathi News, and conveying that he was strengthened by Tagore being present to “keep us, erring ones, on the straight path.”
In the article, Tagore writes of Kamala, that he was impressed by the “atmosphere of serenity and heroic fortitude that she carried around her.” Of Nehru, Tagore continues “he has kept unusually high, the standard of purity in the midst of political turmoils, where deceptions of all kinds, including that of one’s self run rampant”.
Nehru and International Affairs
In another letter written in 1937, Ernst Toller, the acclaimed German playwright writes to Nehru of his tours in the United States lecturing against Hitler and the rising influence of the Nazi ideology. Toller states that he has followed Nehru’s life with “deep interest and attention” and inquires if the Nazis were trying to spread their propaganda in India as well. As trouble ensues in Spain, he ominously warns of the errors committed by the democratic European nations of the time, by declaring themselves to be neutral, for what he considered “economic reasons.”
Toller concludes by stating that he hopes that their intervention “will not bear the motto: “too late.” After his brother and sister were sent to concentration camps in Germany, Toller would commit suicide in 1939.
During the civil war in Spain, Nehru visited Barcelona upon the invitation of the then incumbent Spanish Republican Government. He would later keep correspondence with Juan Negrín y López, the Prime Minister. In 1938, Negrín y López writes to Nehru expressing his gratitude for the visit and reflecting on the “unequal odds we have to struggle against, fighting not only against the declared enemies of democracy, but unfortunately handicapped as well, by those who pretend to be our friends.” After the defeat of the Republican forces to the Francisco Franco led faction, Negrín y López later died in exile in 1956.
Nehru’s Love-Hate Relationship With Subhash Chandra Bose
In India, especially during the later stages of the freedom movement, Nehru’s correspondences cover a wide range of historical Indians from all corners of the ideological spectrum and affiliations of the period. Letters exchanged with Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jayaprakash Narayanan, Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Sarojini Naidu among others reveal the intricate and practical details and discussions that defined the freedom struggle.
These include long letters to and from Subas Chandra Bose, who in 1938 writes to Nehru, then travelling in Europe about how there were splits within the Congress between the “right and the left”. The letter concludes “I hope you will accept the Chairmanship of the Planning committee. You must if it is to be a success.”
Bose and Nehru write and deliberate in detail about differing positions and visions for the freedom movement and the functioning of the Congress. This would end in Bose leaving the Congress, particularly after disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi, following Bose’s victory against Pattabhi Sitaramayya in the election for the Congress Presidency.
Nehru himself was also against Bose’s vision of seeking the help of the Axis Powers to fight the British. Despite the severity of their disagreements, the two men shared mutual respect and Bose would later name one of the brigades of his Indian National Army after Nehru.
Gandhi’s Love For Nehru
The human and temperamental side of these figures now known more dryly through history text books is also visible in these letters. In one such exchange in 1939, Patel writes to Nehru about an incident, when Nehru lost his temper at Gandhi. “He feels hurt when your feelings are wounded”, Patel continues, before concluding “I don’t think he loves anybody more than he loves you”.
After India’s independence and Nehru assumed office as our first Prime Minister, the frequency and amount of his correspondences greatly reduced. Nehru himself would later write that he lost a lot of his papers and letters due to the police raids during the independence movement and the considerable time he spent in prison, retuning to discover that “termites had made a feast of my papers.”
Those that survived remain treasures, shining light on the heritage of our freedom movement and a man, who became an inseparable part of its consciousness.
(Kiran Mohandas Menon is a lawyer who specializes in international law, currently working at the International Nuremberg Principles Academy in Nuremberg, Germany. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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