Nehru’s Word: 'Be not afraid,' Gandhi told the masses living under oppressing, strangling fear

"So, suddenly, as it were, that black pall of fear was lifted from the people’s shoulders, not wholly of course, but to an amazing degree."

Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru
Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru
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Mridula Mukherjee

The gruesome incidents of attacks on farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri have shaken the conscience of the entire nation. Some have even said that it reminds them of Jallianwala Bagh. More than ever before, we need to recall the insistence of the Mahatma on resistance to any form of injustice. This week therefore we continue to bring to you extracts from Jawaharlal Nehru’s evocative narrative in The Discovery of India in which he captures the dramatic effect that Gandhi’s arrival had on the Indian political scene.

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And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes; like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds.

He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition. Get off the backs of these peasants and workers, he told us, all you who live by their exploitation; get rid of the system that produces this poverty and misery. Political freedom took new shape then and acquired a new content…

The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these....But the dominant impulse in India under British rule was that of fear — pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear; fear of the army, the police, the widespread secret service; fear of the official class; fear of laws meant to suppress and of prison; fear of the landlord’s agent; fear of the moneylender; fear of unemployment and starvation, which were always on the threshold. It was against this all-pervading fear that Gandhi’s quiet and determined voice was raised; Be not afraid….

So, suddenly, as it were, that black pall of fear was lifted from the people’s shoulders, not wholly of course, but to an amazing degree.

Gandhi influenced millions of people in India in varying degrees; some changed the whole texture of their lives, others were only partly affected, or the effect wore off, and yet not quite, for some part of it could not be wholly shaken off. Different people reacted differently and each will give his own answer to this question….

Gandhi was essentially a man of religion, a Hindu to the innermost depths of his being, and yet his conception of religion had nothing to do with any dogma or custom or ritual. It was basically concerned with his firm belief in the moral law, which he calls the law of truth or love.

Truth and non-violence appear to him to be the same thing or different aspects of one and the same thing, and he uses these words almost interchangeably. Claiming to understand the spirit of Hindu-ism, he rejects every text or practice which does not fit in with his idealist interpretation of what it should be, calling it an interpolation or a subsequent accretion.

‘I decline to be a slave’ he has said, ‘to precedents or practice I cannot understand or defend on a moral basis’. And so, in practice he is singularly free to take the path of his choice, to change and adapt himself, to develop his philosophy of life and action, subject only to the over-riding consideration of the moral law as he conceived this to be….

Mahatma Gandhi with farmers
Mahatma Gandhi with farmers

And so, he set about to restore the spiritual unity of the people and to break the barrier between the small westernized group at the top and the masses, to discover the living elements in the old roots and to build upon them, to waken these masses out of their stupor and static condition and make them dynamic.

In his single-track and yet many-sided nature the dominating impression that one gathered was his identification with the masses, a community of spirit with them, an amazing sense of unity with the dispossessed and poverty-stricken not only of India but of the world.

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Even religion, as everything else, took second place to his passion to raise these submerged people. ‘A semi-starved nation can have neither religion, nor art nor organization’. These unhappy dispossessed millions haunted him and everything seemed to revolve round them. ‘For millions it is an eternal vigil or an eternal trance’. His ambition, he said, was ‘to wipe every tear from every eye’.

It is not surprising that this astonishingly vital man, full of self-confidence and an unusual kind of power, standing for equality and freedom for each individual, but measuring all this in terms of the poorest, fascinated the masses of India and attracted them like a magnet.

He seemed to them to link up the past with the future and to make the dismal present appear just as a stepping-stone to that future of life and hope. And not the masses only but intellectuals and others also, though their minds were often troubled and confused and the change-over for them from the habits of a lifetime was more difficult.

Thus, he effected a vast psychological revolution not only among those who followed his lead but also among his opponents and those many neutrals who could not make up their minds what to think and what to do.

Congress was dominated by Gandhi and yet it was a peculiar domination, for the Congress was an active, rebellious, many-sided organization, full of variety of opinion, and not easily led this way or that. Often Gandhi toned down his position to meet the wishes of others, sometimes he accepted even an adverse decision. On some vital matters for him, he was adamant, and on more than one occasion there came a break between him and the Congress.

But always he was the symbol of India’s independence and militant nationalism, the unyielding opponent of all those who sought to enslave her, and it was as such symbol that people gathered to him and accepted his lead, even though they disagreed with him on other matters. They did not always accept that lead when there was no active struggle going on, but when the struggle was inevitable that symbol became all important, and everything else was secondary.

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

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