Nehru's Word: Overwhelmed by oneness of diverse Indian masses

Nehru explains the rationale for his search thus: “If we were going to build the house of India’s future, strong and secure and beautiful, we would have to dig deep for the foundations”

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

Jawaharlal Nehru’s deep and complex understanding of India stands out in sharp contrast to the many contrived debates we witness today about the nature of the Indian nation and Indian civilisation. This week we bring to you extracts from a passage in the ‘Discovery of India’ in which Nehru likens India to “an ancient palimpsest”. In this fascinating passage he explains the rationale for his search thus: “If we were going to build the house of India’s future, strong and secure and beautiful, we would have to dig deep for the foundations.”

Though books and old monuments and past cultural achievements helped to produce some understanding of India, they did not satisfy me or give me the answer I was looking for. Nor could they, for they dealt with a past age, and I wanted to know if there was any real connection between that past and the present. The present for me, and for many others like me, was an odd mixture of medievalism, appalling poverty and misery and a somewhat superficial modernism of the middle classes….

New forces arose that drove us to the masses in the villages, and for the first time, a new and different India rose up before the young intellectuals who had almost forgotten its existence or attached little importance to it. It was a disturbing sight, not only because of its stark misery and the magnitude of its problems, but because it began to upset some of our values and conclusions. So began for us the discovery of India as it was, and it produced both understanding and conflict within us….

But for me it was a real voyage of discovery, and while I was always painfully conscious of the failings and weaknesses of my people, I found in India’s countryfolk something difficult to define, which attracted me. That something I had missed in our middle classes.

The people of India are very real to me in their great variety and, in spite of their vast numbers, I try to think of them as individuals rather than as vague groups. Perhaps it was because I did not expect much from them that I was not disappointed; I found more than I had expected. It struck me that perhaps the reason for this, and for a certain stability and potential strength that they possessed, was the old Indian cultural tradition which was still retained by them in a small measure. Much had gone in the battering they had received during the past 200 years. Yet something remained that was worthwhile, and with it so much that was worthless and evil.

During the 20s my work was largely confined to my own province and I travelled extensively and intensively through the towns and villages of the 48 districts of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, that heart of Hindustan as it has so long been considered, the seat and centre of both ancient and mediaeval civilisation, the melting pot of so many races and cultures, the area where great revolt of 1857 blazed up and was ruthlessly crushed.

I grew to know the sturdy Jat of the northern and western districts, that typical son of the soil, brave and independent looking, relatively more prosperous; the Rajput peasant and petty landholder, proud of his race and ancestry, even though he might have changed his faith and adopted Islam; the deft and skilful artisans and cottage workers, both Hindu and Moslem; the poorer peasantry and tenants in their vast numbers, especially in Oudh and the eastern districts, crushed and ground down by generations of oppression and poverty, hardly daring to hope that a change would come to better their lot, and yet hoping and full of faith.

During the 30s, in the intervals of my life out of prison, and especially during the election campaign of 1936-37 I travelled more extensively throughout India, in towns and cities and villages alike... I spoke of political and economic issues and, judging from my speech, I was full of politics and elections.

But all this while, in a corner of my mind, lay something deeper and more vivid, and elections or the other excitements of the passing day meant little to it...

India with all her infinite charm and variety began to grow upon me more and more, and yet the more I saw of her, the more I realised how very difficult it was for me or for anyone else to grasp the ideas she had embodied. It was not her wide spaces that eluded me, or even her diversity, but some depth of soul which I could not fathom, though I had occasional and tantalizing glimpses of it. She was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. All of these existed in our conscious or subconscious selves, though we may not have been aware of them, and they had gone to build up the complex and mysterious personality of India. That sphinx-like face with its elusive and sometimes mocking smile was to be seen throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Though outwardly there was diversity and infinite variety among our people, everywhere there was that tremendous impress of oneness, which had held all of us together for ages past, whatever political fate or misfortune had befallen us. The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual conception for me, it was an emotional experience which overpowered me. That essential unity had been so powerful that no political division, no disaster or catastrophe, had been able to overcome it….

I was also fully aware of the diversities and divisions of Indian life, of classes, castes, religions, races, different degrees of cultural development. Yet I think that a country with a long cultural background and a common outlook on life develops a spirit that is peculiar to it and that is impressed on all its children, however much they may differ among themselves…. It was this spirit of India that I was after, not through idle curiosity, but because I felt that it might give me some key to the understanding of my country and people, some guidance to thought and action.

Politics and elections were day to day affairs when we grew excited over temporary matters. But if we were going to build the house of India’s future, strong and secure and beautiful, we would have to dig deep for the foundations.”

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

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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