(Originally published on 27 May 2022, this article is being reposted from The Quint's archives on the occasion of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's birth anniversary.)
We lost Jawaharlal Nehru today in 1964. As an 11-year old, I did not understand the seriousness of this tragic loss but do remember the shock and sadness writ large on the faces of my family and village elders. That spoke hugely about the significance of the man, not only as the first Prime Minister of India but also as someone who touched people’s lives in so many ways. We have traversed a huge distance since he left us decades back. However, some of us cannot imagine a day without reminiscing about him.
Why is Nehru with us 24/7, and always in a context where he can be blamed for current failures? He is projected as one of the key culprits for anything that goes wrong with India nationally, or even internationally.
“No tradition which makes one a prisoner of one’s mind or body is ever good,” said Jawaharlal Nehru. This critical objectivity to understand our past is a precious Nehruvian inheritance, which should be reiterated.
While Nehru wanted to salvage whatever was constructive in India’s tradition and culture, he battled against the hegemony of religious dogma and orthodoxy.
Nehru was conscious of the fact that we are prone to thinking too much of our past and endow the ancients with every virtue under the sun. We can learn from them, but we should know that the world has not remained stationary during the past few thousand years.
Nehru Imagined a Modern Nation Committed to Indian Civilisation
In the midst of such an abusive tirade against him, the worst danger emanates from the attack on the very idea of India he bequeathed to us – an idea that evolved around a consensus of core values that grew out of the experiences of our freedom movement. All those who cherish and respect this consensus may find its vandalisation outrageous. But it’s obviously trivial or even irrelevant to those who stayed away from this experiment or were even antithetical to most of those values.
When I talk of Nehru’s idea of India, I do not talk of Nehru alone. Nehru articulated and put together a consensus, as said before, amongst stalwarts like Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Baba Saheb, Sarojini Naidu, and even scientists like Homi Bhabha, Meghnad Saha, Vikram Sarabhai, and others. All of them got together under the Nehruvian gaze and with active participation to imagine a modern nation committed to a pluralist ethos of Indian civilisation.
This consensus also articulated a framework of democracy, which encapsulated modernist thinking and respect for cultural, linguistic and all other diversities. This is one of the most vulnerable legacies of Nehru that needs to be protected from the regressive forces that threaten to undo it day in and day out.
I call it vulnerable because we can see attempts being made to create one homogenous India that will bulldoze all diversities. This whole idea is intrinsic to exclusiveness and denigrates our heterogeneity, the core of our nationhood and the idea of togetherness.
'A Dabbler in Many Things'
Jawaharlal Nehru famously called himself a “dabbler in many things”, which explains why he should be called a man with an eclectic vision. He not only wrote about a range of subjects from politics, nature, history and poetry to science, but also drew inspiration and sustenance from diverse sources, emanating from his wide travels and manifold readings. His understanding of nationalism and culture was surely rooted in India, but it went beyond a tunnel vision. He always remained committed to a secular, pluralist and non-discriminatory nationalism. As someone whose mind was more in tune with Gurudev Tagore, Nehru was, most of the time, a bit suspicious of nationalism.
Among our nationalist leaders, he was one of the most articulate and prolific writers with a broad vision for an independent and forward-looking India. Nehru pursued science in the beginning but ended up as a barrister. He pursued legal practice for a while but politics drew him in soon, and he spent the rest of his life in the freedom struggle and later as the first Prime Minister of independent India. Nehru wrote extensively on diverse subjects, including nationalism and the idea of India. His was a cosmopolitan mind, open to diverse influences, which is clearly reflected in his writings. While he wanted to salvage whatever was constructive in India’s tradition and culture, he battled against the hegemony of religious dogma and orthodoxy that were obstructive to the country's development and modernisation.
On Knowing What Not To Take Forward From Our Past
It is generally propagated, particularly in the current times, that Nehru had a condescending view of our history and culture. Nothing can be far from the truth. He surely looked at the past critically and was an unabashed advocate of borrowing everything worthwhile from anywhere in the world. While in prison in 1934, he wrote an article titled "The Past and the Present", saying it is good to think of the past and to gather strength and courage from the examples of the great men of old times.
However, he was conscious of the fact that we are prone to thinking too much of our past and endow the ancients with every virtue under the sun. We can learn a great deal from them, though we should know that the world has not remained stationary during the past few thousand years. The world progresses and advances in knowledge and culture even though there are occasional lapses and retrogression. Nehru knew well what is worth ignoring in the past because it had outlived its utility, and what we should salvage and take forward from our history.
For Nehru, India Was Not a Monolith
Nehru was quite prolific in raising such issues. In another lecture titled “Synthesis is our Tradition”, he said “Hardly any language in the world has probably played that vital part in the history of a race which Sanskrit has. It was not only the vehicle of the highest thought and some of the finest literature, but it became the uniting bond for India, in spite of its political division.” His mantra for defining India was based on a synthesis of diverse religious and cultural practices. Continuing in the same lecture, he said “India was powerfully influenced by the coming of Islam and Muslim invasions. Western colonial powers followed, bringing a new type of domination … and at the same time, the impact of fresh ideas … that was growing in Europe”. We finally got independence, and Nehru believed that “We have all these ages represented in us and our country today”.
This was the idea of a nation Nehru bequeathed to us, and in it, India was not a monolith but a palimpsest of diverse races, religions and linguistic groups.
For him, scientific thinking and tradition and culture were intertwined as he said, “No tradition which makes one a prisoner of one’s mind or body is ever good.” This vision and critical objectivity to understand our past and culture is a precious Nehruvian inheritance, which needs to be reiterated today.
(S Irfan Habib is a historian of science and modern political history. Till recently, he was Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. He tweets @irfhabib. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)