Nehru’s Word: Despite temptation & necessity, govts must desist from curtailing civil liberties

"Once large powers are given to executive and police officers, they are likely to be misused. I have had instances of such misuse. The reputation we acquired as defenders of civil liberty is fading"

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

In the last few days, various groups of citizens have expressed concern about the growing threat to civil liberties as evidenced by arrests of activists and journalists, as have representatives of international human rights organisations. The government’s response has been to ignore the domestic protests and to dismiss the international response as unwarranted. In this context, and in contrast, we find that Jawaharlal Nehru, even when his own government and various provincial governments took action which restricted civil liberties, was extremely concerned that it should not exceed what is absolutely necessary. He was also very sensitive to international criticism, and warned that India’s image would be damaged if unnecessary and unjustifiable restrictions were placed on civil liberties. The extracts below are from letters he wrote to the Chief Ministers in the first year of independence.


“The strike of Central Government employees in Calcutta has ended. We have decided that there should be no victimisation and only those who have functioned as ringleaders, and more specially those who have been guilty of violence, will not be taken back, and serious cases might be proceeded against.

As you know a number of members of the Communist Party have been recently arrested in various provinces. The Communist Party as such has not been banned except by the West Bengal Government, and there is no intention of banning it or interfering with its legitimate activities. But some of the activities in the recent past have been far from legitimate and have created grave disorder. It was with the greatest regret that action of this kind of arresting and interning people was taken by government.

As you will realise, this goes against the grain, and we want to limit it as far as possible. In spite of all efforts, mistakes are made by local officials and one glaring case of such a mistake was in one province where a leading member of the Communist Party [Rudra Dutt Bhardwaj] who had long been ill and who was actually under a high temperature, was arrested. He died a few days later in prison.

It was, of course, totally unnecessary and undesirable to arrest a man who was very ill and government’s case is necessarily weakened when such instances occur through thoughtlessness. We have to be very careful in having recourse to repressive measures because the appetite grows with use and it appears a simple way out of a difficulty. But as believers of civil liberty know, the consequences are apt to be bad, and a popular government like ours has to be particularly careful.” (15 April, 1948)

“This leads me to the various security measures that have been taken by the Central and provincial governments. I have no doubt that essentially these have been necessary….

Nevertheless, the fact remains, that once large powers are given to executive and police officers, they are likely to be misused. Indeed, I have had instances of such misuse. I am sorry to say that all the reputation that we acquired in the past as defenders of civil liberty and freedom is fading away. Our stock in the world had been high. It is not so high now, and deputations and complaints have gone to our Ambassadors about various happenings in India.

The Government of India suggested to provincial governments some time back that special individuals suspected of dangerous activities leading to sabotage might be arrested and detained. The situation was a difficult one and there was a possibility then of big scale trouble. In making these arrests provincial governments adopted a varying procedure. Some arrested a few persons whom they especially suspect, others made large-scale arrests which could hardly be justified on individual grounds.

I am rather worried about this tendency all over India to use special measures against people we may not like. Even when temporarily justified, this creates the wrong kind of background, and more and more we depend upon these special measures and the police. In the long run, and even in the short run, this is bad for the country, for the people, and for the Congress, which is held responsible. I would, therefore, beg of you to examine this matter carefully. The responsibility for your provinces is, of course, yours and we should not like to interfere with it in any way.” (5 May, 1948)

“I continue to receive from foreign countries, especially trade unions and labour organisations, letters of protest and surprise at the internments that have taken place, especially of trade union and labour leaders. I do not know what the exact position is in any province, but I know that some of the activities of these labour leaders have been very injurious and have had little to do with labour. The matter is for each provincial government to consider. I do not want India to get a reputation among progressive circles abroad of a country which does not permit the fullest liberty in regard to labour work or other work.

We are living in difficult times and anti-social forces are working all round us. On the one hand, we can take no risks when the very basis of freedom and security is involved, on the other hand, a tendency to suppress the individual without adequate cause is bad. Some High Courts have criticised governmental action in regard to detention and many people have been freed under the writ of habeas corpus.

In some provinces, it has been made difficult by ordinance for habeas corpus applications to be made. I have no doubt that the provincial governments have taken action after the fullest consideration of the situation but I should like to point out to them that the reputation of India as a champion of freedom is suffering somewhat because of these happenings.”

(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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