Nehru’s Word: ‘To us, any suppression of civil liberty is painful’
The granting of bail to poet Varavara Rao and young climate activist Disha Ravi reassures us that legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was particularly committed to the cause of civil liberties, is alive
“I write to you the day after our celebration of Independence Day….I have written to you on several occasions about the growing tendency to restrict individual and group freedom. In a crisis, much can be said in justification of this, and we live in days of crisis. Nevertheless, it is a dangerous path to tread and governments get used to very special measures which they cannot do without later. For us, with our past record in regard to civil liberty, this is a peculiarly distasteful course.
In any event, any attempt to limit the powers of a High Court or to prevent it from judging executive action in the normal way is fraught with grave consequences. The judiciary are supposed to be the defenders of freedom within the law….I would, therefore, earnestly request you to keep this in mind and not to interfere with the High Court’s discretion or to put too many restrictions on individual freedom. [Nehru wrote to the Madras Premier on 10 August that “it is better for some mischief-makers to be free than for the whole government to be condemned by moderate and reasonable people.” ]
This is particularly applicable to habeas corpus applications and to the freedom of association in trade unions, etc. In many countries in the world today there are labour or semi-labour governments. For them it is a creed that trade unions must have freedom. Anything that lessens it, therefore, is objected to by them.
I continue to receive from foreign countries, and especially from trade unions in foreign countries, letters and telegrams of protest expressing their surprise and dismay at some things that our Government have done….
While we cannot go far in suppressing activities, even those considered objectionable, there is no doubt that in existing circumstances, we have to take every precaution against the revival of anti-social elements. Reports have come to us from many parts of India that the activities of the R.S.S. are again growing.
The R.S.S. method is often to speak softly but their whole ideology and activity is different and opposed to the ideology which has governed us for so long. We cannot, therefore, so long as we are the Government, tolerate the encouragement and spread of this wrong ideology. I hope that provincial governments are wide awake in this respect and will not permit the spread of communal doctrines in whatever shape.”
“While we must be careful in checking all violent manifestations, we must be equally careful in drawing the line at peaceful agitation. I have frequently written to you to exercise care and restraint in the suppression of civil liberties. To us, who preach civil liberty at a thousand occasions, any suppression is painful. When the vital needs of the State demand such suppression, it has to be undertaken, but there is always a danger of exceeding the necessities of a situation. A government with the power to change laws quickly by ordinance is apt to use that power too frequently.
I have noticed legislation by ordinance or otherwise becoming progressively harsh in regard to civil liberties. I must confess that I am greatly perturbed at this prospect. Such legislation should normally not be proceeded with without
reference to the Government of India, that is to say the Home Ministry.
We must remember that what our governments are doing today will set the tone for future administrations. The very powers that may be exercised, perhaps for adequate reasons today, may be exercised later for totally inadequate and perhaps even for objectionable reasons. It is always unsafe to weaken on principles.”
Labour is obviously restive and is often exploited for wrong ends…. But it must always be remembered that mere repression is no remedy for such a contingency. Labour must, therefore, be treated with all friendliness, and the situation explained to them. They should be consulted, wherever possible, so that a part of the responsibility might be shouldered by them.
Where it is necessary to arrest or detain people encouraging unsocial action, this has to be done. But this must not be overdone and, as soon as the necessity for it is passed, those who are detained for this purpose, might be released. I have already drawn your attention to the reactions abroad in regard to any action that we take against trade unions or labour generally.
A suppression of the strike does not lead to ending of the conflict which continues below the surface. We have to aim at cooperative action for production and for higher standards.”
(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.)