We are repeatedly told by friends and foes alike that India has changed.
It is now a country of aspirant youth and millennials with minds that need to be understood. Yet, 25 years ago, I was invited to a top American university to participate in a face to face interaction between immigrants of Indian origin and their children, born and brought up in the US. ‘Dad give me a break’ was the commonly repeated phrase.
So our world was changing then and indeed is changing now. It is dangerous to assume that the change now is the last and lasting change. All we know is that some people change time, some change with time and some refuse to change and become irrelevant. But to borrow from constitutional jurisprudence, everything can change in society, including its mores and institutions, except the core described in legal jargon as the Basic Structure. It is that part of our social existence without which we lose our identity. Some people might think that this is a clever ploy to preserve status quo but serious philosophers will explain it to be an intrinsic element of thought.
Somewhat in that manner, Jawaharlal Nehru and his Discovery of India are indeed that immutable and intrinsic part of modern India’s psyche that we can ignore and erase at the cost of losing the identity we have cherished since the first War of Independence in 1857. Of course Nehru’s place and contribution remains contextualised within the larger Gandhian landscape.
This is not the occasion to delve into the debate about the philosophical and political approaches of the Mahatma and his faithful disciple, Nehru; it would suffice to recall the words of the Mahatma: ‘When I am gone, he will speak my language’. Yet it would be useful to consider Mahatma Gandhi as the harbinger of a message of peace and salvation of the human soul but with an acute understanding of the political mind, and on the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru as a social visionary to reshape a pre-modern polity into a modern, egalitarian and scientific society.
I must confess that as a child, I discovered Nehru with considerable romantic aura through public events and stories that I heard from people who worked with him. My earliest awestruck recollections of the gentle and elegant presence of Panditji was getting photographed with him and Indiraji when they stayed at the Raj Bhawan.
A couple of years later, my sisters and I had the good fortune to be invited to afternoon tea at Teen Murti Bhawan. I recall Nehruji as a benevolent Father Christmas like figure, easy to communicate with and truly a delight for children. His passing away came as a great personal loss. Throughout the day, we were getting bits of information about attempts to save him and prayed as little children do to keep chacha Nehru alive. We could not have imagined that we were indeed praying to stop the passing of an age.
With passing years, as I gathered more information about Nehru and his works, read voraciously his letters to remarkable contemporaries, put together arguments made both in support of his world view as indeed others that seemed irrationally opposed to his ideas, I sensed that our generation had indeed been fortunate to have seen that great man walk upon this earth.
But we have come a long way from the time when any stray remark against Nehru felt like a gratuitous insult to someone very dear and precious and the speaker of the blasphemous thought was mentally condemned for it, to recent times when the highest in the land do not think twice before heaping wild and vicious ideas at the historical doorstep of Nehru.
The world must wonder that despite phenomenal changes, the impact of NAM and India’s quest for Afro-Asian cooperation and unity, not to mention the stirring words Nehru spoke for the oppressed and disadvantaged, there are few takers amongst the people who claim to shape the destiny of India since 2014.
On the flip side, comparing the Nehru-Kennedy picture to the Modi-Trump snapshot tells its own tale about the journey from then to now. Two great leaders bonded for democracy and humanity then in contrast to two powerful leaders holding hands to push commerce. We have moved from vision and values to transactions and treats. Aspirant India certainly endorses cash and carry opportunities but in forgetting Nehru, we will forsake our claim to spiritual leadership of the world.
Nehru and Jinnah embarked together to steer their respective nations to a future beyond Partition. While Pakistan ground down to a State unable to secure peace at its borders or happiness at home, Nehru’s India grew to be a stable democracy and, despite a few setbacks, found a place at the economic high table of the world. It is another matter that some people think history and economy of India began in 2014!
India’s vast higher education edifice, its cutting-edge technology, including nuclear capability, green revolution, military might, industrial and service sector, are but few areas of human endeavour in India that would have remained untouched by the Nehru spirit.
The greatness of a civilisation and a nation depends as much on the quality and substance of its product as the spirit of its worldview. As India strives to rub shoulders with the top stars of the world economy, its unique role in facing challenges like climate change, global terrorism, nuclear proliferate, needs a revival of the Nehruvian spirit. It will be sad if the world looks for Nehru even as India tries to obfuscate his presence. Democratisation of traditional polities is essential and desirable. We are lucky to have seen that take place in modern India despite periodic aberrations. But it is important to flag Nehru as the best outcome of democracy to underscore the significance of class and quality in evolution of our national identity. Similarly when it comes to unwholesome injection of religious fervour in democratic choice, Nehru had long ago warned of its adverse consequences.
The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.
Nehru will thus remain a constant guide for the Idea of India that I and millions of Indians have accepted, internalised, cherished and will our last for. Defiling Nehru’s memory will not diminish his contribution to India. Keeping him in our hearts and minds will preserve India’s scientific temper and a touch of culture and elegance in our democracy.