Nehru’s Word: Can’t our democracy be improved upon?

Jawaharlal Nehru, in his letter to CMs, warned that ‘the most dangerous development today is that of communalism’

Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru
Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

We are witnessing desperate attempts to polarise the electorate ahead of the next round of state elections. Allegations of Muslim appeasement with fantastic claims that all food rations had earlier been cornered by those who said ‘Abbajan’ are making the rounds. The narrative has not changed much. On 21st October 1951, when the first general elections were round the corner, Syama Prasad Mookerjee had accused Nehru of ‘the new policy of Muslim appeasement’, and declared “there is no communalism in India today”. Countering Mookerjee, on 1st November 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru, in his letter to the Chief Ministers, warned that ‘the most dangerous development today is that of communalism’ and that partition had resulted in encouraging Hindu and Sikh communalism and ‘these flourished in the name of nationalism and culture’. Excerpts:

My dear Chief Minister, I confess that I find this electioneering business most depressing and I wonder sometimes if this particular form of democracy cannot be improved upon — something that brings out the undesirable features in a man’s nature, his desire for power and position, his acquisitiveness and wish for self- advancement even at the cost of others, his losing all perspective of the larger issues and judging everything by some petty and personal electoral victory. These individual reactions apart, a serious development is the importance that caste groups are likely to play in the elections…

I still think, as I have said on many occasions, that the most dangerous development today is that of communalism and separatism. Some people have criticized me because of this and declared that there is no such thing as communalism in India. That is a thing of the past. Most of these critics happen to function in communal organizations today and themselves play an exceedingly narrow-minded and communal role. It is understandable that they do not find any fault with themselves and their own activities. They could only see the communalism of some other group, and not their own.

The fact is that the Partition and its consequences, while it largely pushed out Muslim communalism and sent it to Pakistan, where it flourished exceedingly, also resulted in encouraging Hindu and Sikh communalism in India and many other separatist tendencies. These flourished in the name of nationalism and culture. They demanded loudly what they called strong action against Pakistan, which included war, and criticized governmental policy as one of appeasement ofPakistan. These people, most of whom had done little in the struggle for India’s freedom, become her aggressive champions— their India being limited of course to those who agreed with them…

This narrow-minded upsurge spread the spirit of separatism in various forms throughout the country and imperilled the national unity which it had been the aim of the Congress to build up and which it had largely succeeded in doing. The Sikhs demanded a separate State or at least a separate province. Demands for linguistic provinces became more vociferous, regardless of certain basic facts and agreements. Caste groups began to think more of themselves than of any larger national issue. Even the Congress was affected by these tendencies and many in the Congress succumbed to them…

Of course, the primary problem of India is economic and everything else has second place. But in order to tackle that problem effectively, there must be some unity of conception and effort. If separatist and sectarian ideas increase, they make it difficult to tackle that principal problem. If chaotic conditions exist in some parts of the country, then the energy of the nation is largely absorbed in dealing with them, and other matters, however important, become secondary.

Therefore, it is of primary importance to scotch and try to put an end to these communal and separatist tendencies in order to go ahead with the primary problem of India’s economic ills. The two are interrelated and affect one another and, to some extent, have to be tackled together. But if we allow the communal spirit to grow, then inevitably social reaction will also grow and prevent economic progress.

I can understand these criticisms from non-Congressmen, who have had some communal background in the past. But it amazes me that any Congressman should so mislead himself and others as to think that we can ignore these dangerous tendencies. Because we partly ignored them, they grew and cast a shadow all over the country and created an inner weakness in the Congress itself…

A change has come now because of a straightforward and frontal approach to this problem and most people who had allowed themselves to drift in a wrong direction, have pulled themselves up. There should be or can be no relaxation in this effort. I would like to repeat that it is better to lose elections than to give up something which has been the basis of our national movement and that is the foundation of all progress in India…

The election campaign, which is gradually taking shape all over the country, largely consists in attacks on our Government and on the Congress. Every party has the right to criticize or condemn present-day Governments but, in reading these criticisms, the dominant reaction is of their emptiness and barrenness. Instead of any positive approach to our problems, the easy and negative way of condemnation is adopted, and even this usually takes the form of personal attacks, sometimes bordering on indecency, and utter falsehoods…

If India had something in the nature of warlords fighting for mastery over their respective areas, then the issue would have been clear enough. We have not got those war-lords, but we have something rather similar to them in the ideological sphere and we have to deal with them lest they delude the people and injure the country’s cause by false slogans.

(Selected & edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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