Nehru's Word: Our actions today are setting precedent for future govts
We bring to you this week some more extracts on the issue of civil liberties from letters that Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to the chief ministers in the first year of independence
We bring to you this week some more extracts on the issue of civil liberties from letters that Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to the chief ministers in the first year of independence, in the hope that they may illuminate the dark patch we are currently passing through, which, if not corrected, can threaten the foundational values of our republic. These passages show how he was at pains to warn about the long-term impact of actions taken in the early years by the newly independent state: “We must remember that what our governments are doing today will set the tone for future administrations. The very powers that may be exercised, perhaps for adequate reasons today, may be exercised later for totally inadequate and perhaps even for objectionable reasons.”
While we must be careful in checking all violent manifestations, we must be equally careful in drawing the line at peaceful agitation. I have frequently written to you to exercise care and restraint in the suppression of civil liberties. To us, who preach civil liberty at a thousand occasions, any suppression is painful. When the vital needs of the State demand such suppression, it has to be undertaken, but there is always a danger of exceeding the necessities of a situation. A government with the power to change laws quickly by ordinance is apt to use that power too frequently.
I have noticed legislation by ordinance or otherwise becoming progressively harsh in regard to civil liberties. I must confess that I am greatly perturbed at this prospect...I have found that the provincial governments proceed with legislation without any reference to the Government of India. It is only later that they inform them. I do not challenge the authority of the provincial governments in doing this, but I would like to point out the propriety of always consulting the Centre before any such step in the nature of legislation is taken...
It is particularly undesirable that the power of the High Courts should be set at naught in regard to individual liberty. That is always a sign of weakness for an executive.
It may be that normal proceedings in a High Court are not desirable in all cases as this involves placing of secret matter before the Court. But it should always be possible to consult the High Court judge privately. Indeed some such procedure has been laid down in many of the ordinances or acts of provinces. I do not understand, however, why this consultation should be delayed. As it is in many cases, sometimes, indeed, the period of delay has been extended by legislation. This indicates a fear of the High Court or of the judge of the High Court which is not becoming of a provincial government. We must remember that what our governments are doing today will set the tone for future administrations. The very powers that may be exercised, perhaps for adequate reasons today, may be exercised later for totally inadequate and perhaps even for objectionable reasons. It is always unsafe to weaken on principles.” (4 October, 1948)
Labour is obviously restive and is often exploited for wrong ends….Any anti-social action must necessarily be met by Government with all its strength, if necessary, so as to protect the community and in order to prevent all-round deterioration. But it must always be remembered that mere repression is no remedy for such a contingency. Labour must, therefore, be treated with all friendliness, and the situation explained to them.
They should be consulted, wherever possible, so that a part of the responsibility might be shouldered by them. Where it is necessary to arrest or detain people encouraging unsocial action, this has to be done. But this must not be overdone and, as soon as the necessity for it is passed, those who are detained for this purpose, might be released…. A suppression of the strike does not lead to ending of the conflict which continues below the surface. We have to aim at cooperative action for production and for higher standards. Mere repression will not lead to this though repression is necessary occasionally. We must, therefore, keep the larger end in view all the time.” (16 November, 1948)
We have had to deal in the past two years with very difficult law and order problems, and we have been forced to enact legislation both at the Centre and in the provinces, which is in the nature of repressive legislation.
We have done so with the greatest reluctance because the safety of the State was the paramount consideration for us. On the whole, we have succeeded in checking dangerous anti-social elements. It is true, however, that we have been strongly criticised for this legislation both at the Centre and in the provinces, and the fact that large numbers of people have been kept under detention has not added to our general credit as governments.
I think it is time that we reviewed this position fully. It is true that there are dangerous elements abroad….We can take no risk where the interests of the State are concerned. More particularly, any attempt at violence must be severely put down. It must be made absolutely clear that any violent methods against the State will be dealt with with the greatest firmness. At the same time, where violence is not involved, we should adopt a far more generous attitude.
We have been criticised a great deal by High Courts, and many people who have been detained, have been released by High Courts, on applications being made under the habeas corpus provisions. We have to take note of this fact. It has also been stated that certain provisions in our security legislation come in the way of labour organisations, etc. These must also be reviewed.
In other words, while we should proceed firmly with every attempt at violence, in regard to other matters we should refrain, as far as possible, from repressive action. Naturally, it is for provincial governments to judge what is absolutely necessary and what is not. In judging, they have to bear in mind the effect on public opinion, as also the fact that continued repression is apt to lose its particular value as a preventive.” (1 July, 1949)
(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library).
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)