Nehru's Word: Communal bodies denting India’s global image

The harm communalism does to India in other countries is tremendous. Immediately the high edifice that we have built up in their eyes begins to crack up and we appear to them as narrow-minded bigots

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of our independence, it is also a good occasion to look at how the world sees us. Amidst the much-deserved congratulations, there were also expressions of concern about democratic backsliding as, for example, in a statement signed by more than 150 internationally celebrated writers who worried about growing majoritarian trends and weakening of the commitment to civil liberties.

In this context, we bring to you this week an extract from a letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru to the chief ministers on 1st August 1951 when tensions with Pakistan were high. He talks at length of the image of India abroad being affected negatively by the activities of communal and reactionary organisations, of the positive image because of Mahatma Gandhi and the need to strengthen the positive view.

"There is another aspect of the situation which is perhaps not kept in mind by us as much as it ought to be. Our frequent declarations that we are a secular State are appreciated abroad and raise our credit. But they are not wholly believed in and it is often thought that a few leading personalities represent this viewpoint and not the mass of the people.

The picture of India that most people abroad have had is that of a caste- ridden country split up into innumerable social compartments with large numbers of untouchables and the like. Our social habits are not understood and are disliked. We do not mix easily with people. We do not generally eat and drink with them, as Pakistanis do. And so there is a general feeling of dislike and distaste in regard to India.

It is little realised here what great injury to our credit abroad is done by the communal organisations of India, because they represent just the things which a Western mind dislikes intensely and cannot understand. When these communal organisations attack openly the secular idea of the State, this is supposed to represent a prevailing sentiment among Hindus especially and all our protestations about the secular State fail to convince….

Thus, in our contacts and propaganda abroad, we have to contend against a positive, widespread and well-organised propaganda machine of great countries working for Pakistan and often against us; and on the other hand, in negative dislike and distaste for the social habits and many things that are observed in India. In addition to this, the money we spend in propaganda is strictly limited.

I have mentioned the disabilities we suffer from abroad. There are advantages also and they are by no means negligible. The story of India’s long struggle for freedom under Gandhiji has powerfully impressed the world and, more especially, the Asian countries as well as the people of Africa. That tradition and Gandhiji’s name are tremendous assets.

In the eyes of large numbers of people we have stood for certain principles and we have adopted a certain technique and policy which brought us success. Because of that, they still look to our country for a certain kind of lead and for advice based on experience. In the past, India was the chief example of the new colonialism... Then India became a symbol of a struggle for freedom against that colonialism, carried on against great odds, without stooping to objectionable methods.

In many ways we influenced the nationalist movements of other countries and they looked up to us. They still do so, to some extent. The independent policy that we have pursued in foreign affairs has helped to maintain that old tradition and to add to our credit abroad.

Also, the mere fact of our great potential resources, our geographical position and the belief that we are destined to play an important role and perhaps make some difference in world affairs, adds to the respect which comes to us.

All these are valuable assets provided only that we ourselves maintain that old tradition, adhere to our principles and our independent policies. But it is not merely enough to repeat old truths and slogans. We have to live up to them. This is the great test for us...

Whatever harm communalism may do in India, and it can do great harm because it is a disruptive force, the harm it does to India in other countries is tremendous. Immediately the high edifice that we have built up in their eyes begins to crack up and totter and we appear to them as narrow-minded bigots following social customs which nobody in the world understands or appreciates.

We talk of high philosophies and our ancient greatness but act in narrow grooves and show intolerance to our neighbour. These are basic questions for us to keep in mind, for our future depends on the answer that we give to them.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad came back from his foreign tour a week ago. Apart from visiting England and leading our Unesco delegation in Paris, he visited Turkey and Iran. In both of these countries he received a cordial welcome and his very presence there helped to remove many of the misconceptions that had been spread by our opponents. This visit shows that if a right approach is made by the right person, substantial results follow.

Communal organisations, old and new, are functioning with some vigour nowadays, probably because of the coming elections. They appear to have ample funds. There are enough reactionary and anti-social elements to provide them with these funds and they can always exploit the name of religion and ancient culture. Essentially their appeal is more dangerous for India’s future, because it is insidious, than many other appeals.

Whenever the tension with Pakistan increases, these communal organisations take advantage of this to preach their misguided views. As the Muslim League did before the partition, they preach the gospel of hatred and separatism. They go about saying continually that Muslims are not to be trusted and thus creating popular feelings against them. There may be Muslims who cannot be trusted. But I am quite sure that in the case of a conflict with Pakistan, the dangerous element will be the communal Hindu element which will then try to act up to its declared policies against the minorities. Therefore, we have to be particularly careful of the activities of the communal organisations at such a critical juncture.”

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

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