Jawaharlal Nehru's 'Whither India' (1933) remains as relevant today as it was then

Nehru was convinced that India’s salvation lay in social and economic change. “The alternative is fascism,” he insisted, “the last weapon which vested interests can employ to keep what they have"

(Photo by Dinodia Photos/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dinodia Photos/Getty Images)

Arun Sharma

Two months after his release from British prison in August 1933, Nehru wrote a series of articles published in a pamphlet titled “Whither India?” It was his personal manifesto on the destiny he would want his country to follow, while she engaged herself in the struggle for independence from the British rule and thereafter as a sovereign nation.

Although not so widely known as his more famous Toward Freedom, Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History, the pamphlet was published in every major Indian language besides English and elicited tremendous response especially from the young, to whom it was primarily addressed.

As our country is still struggling with poverty, inequality of income and agrarian distress, this pamphlet remains as relevant today as it was eighty-seven years ago when it was published.

Nehru was at his rebellious best when he penned “Whither India?” it was the closest he came to “translating Lenin’s pamphleteering brilliance to the Indian scene”, says Stanley Wolpert in his biography of Nehru (p 157).

Repeated incarceration in British prisons, the last one of twenty months duration, had embittered him and filled him with resentment for the British Raj, which he saw propped up by the twin evils of capitalism and imperialism says the biographer. Nehru was convinced that India’s salvation lay in social and economic change. “The alternative is fascism,” he insisted, “the last weapon which vested interests can employ to keep what they have” (p 153 ibid)

Nehru, the young Cambridge student, who had heard the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw deliver a lecture entitled “Socialism and the University Man”, was now a passionate freedom fighter and an avowed socialist and would expound his own views by writing 'Whither India' on the path his country must follow. Few in the audience on that afternoon sometime in the year 1907 would have imagined, however, that one of the Indian students listening to Bernard Shaw would one day become one of the leading proponents of democratic socialism and one of the most eminent figures of the Twentieth century.

Nehru was writing “Whither India?” at a time when the country was at the crossroads, unable to decide on the path she should follow for the attainment of independence. Nehru “felt let down, ignored for the most part during his long incarceration, his radical program at Lahore all but forgotten between the round tables”.

In a despondent mood, he met his mentor Gandhiji in Poona and, following a long discussion about Congress strategy and tactics, wrote to him, “In our recent conversations, you will remember that I had laid stress on…clearer definition of our national objective…we stand for complete independence. Sometimes a little confusion arises because of vague phraseology.” Complete independence, Nehru insisted, included “full control of the army and foreign relations as well as financial control” (Stanley Wolpert, p 155)

One may point out that most of the Congress leaders found Nehru’s views too radical and the aim set out by him, impossible to achieve. However, Nehru was unyielding. He had “no regard for men afraid of the present inevitable charge of forces” and quoted Trotsky’s “if one is afraid of strife, disorder and revolution, one has chosen the wrong moment to be born” (p 154, ibid)

Nehru would, however, not let his revolutionary fervor get the better of reasoning and cold logic. The long prison term, he claims in the first page of “Whither India?” had enabled him to have a dispassionate view of things. “The newcomer from prison has long been cut off from the rough and tumble of life and politics”, he says, “yet he has a certain advantage on his side. He can take a more detached view; he is not so much wrapped up in the controversies of the moment” (Whither India?, p 01)

So, rising above the limited nationalistic aim of freedom, he explains to the people what would real freedom mean to the Indian masses:

“What then are we driving at? Freedom? Swaraj? Independence? Dominion status? Words which may mean much or little or nothing at all. Again, whose freedom are we particularly striving for? For nationalism covers many sins and includes many conflicting elements. There is the feudal India of princes, the India of zamindars, big and small, of farmers and of workers and the middle class; A more vital conflict of interest arises between these possessing classes as a whole and others; between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ (Whither India? p 04, 05)”

Nehru made it clear where his sympathies lay. “The problem is primarily economic… in India… it is agrarian.” The future prosperity of India’s masses, Nehru insisted, required a complete ‘reconstruction of society’, starting with the diversion of profits and property from the “haves” to the ‘have-nots’ (Stanley Wolpert, Nehru, p 153)

In the later part of “Whither India?”, Nehru explains the journey of capitalism in Europe and America in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, laying emphasis on its limitations, as the world had then seen in the Great Crash of 1929 (p 14-16).

“In India as in other Asiatic colonial countries”, Nehru says, “We find a struggle today between the old nationalist ideology and the new economic ideology… India’s struggle today is part of the great struggle we find all over the world for the emancipation of the oppressed. Essentially, this is an economic struggle, with hunger and want as its driving forces, although it puts on nationalistic and other dresses” (p 18-19, ibid)

Nehru was now the most radical leader of the Congress. He had no patience with and faith in the Round Table Conferences, which Jinnah considered as his brainchild. “The Round Table scheme is almost as dead as Queen Anne”, Nehru said, “and hardly deserves notice. It was not meant to give an iota of freedom to the Indian people; it sought to win over certain Indian vested interests (the princes and the Muslim League) to the British side and in this it succeeded!” (p 19).

Equally was Nehru sick of too much constitutionalism and legalistic approach to things. Taking a dig at Jinnah, he says:

We have got into this extraordinary habit of thinking of freedom in terms of paper constitutions. Nothing could be more absurd than this lawyer’s mentality which ignores life and the vital economic issues and can only proceed on the basis of status quo and precedents…even the lame go slowly forward; not so the lawyer who is convinced, like the fanatic in religion that truth can only lie in the past (P 19)

Thenceforth, Nehru would remain at the forefront of the national movement, guiding the destiny of the nation toward freedom. The AICC resolution for the Quit India movement, which marked the beginning of the end of British rule in India, would be drafted personally by Nehru, as was the Lahore resolution demanding complete independence!

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