Nehru’s Word: We can hardly justify long-continued detention of citizens

"There is no doubt that there's a great deal of feeling among liberal circles against indefinite detention of persons. That is feeling which we have ourselves nurtured in the past, is understandable"

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru
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Mridula Mukherjee

At a time when a spate of recent judgements of the Supreme Court and actions of the Enforcement Directorate have attracted considerable debate and concern and even criticism, it may be educative to look back at how similar issues were dealt with in the crucial years following Independence. As we have cited on many occasions in this column, Jawaharlal Nehru was very emphatic on the need to uphold civil liberties.

And yet, as we know, on certain occasions, the government had placed a ban on some organisations such as the RSS and arrested large numbers of people, who were later released on assurance of eschewing politics. Similarly, the adoption of an insurrectionary line by the Communist Party of India and the adoption of violent forms, especially in Telangana, had also led to the detention of a large number of Communists.

Nehru had however repeatedly made clear that the objection was not to their ideas but to their methods. We bring to you today extracts from a special letter he wrote to the chief ministers of the provinces on 15 April, 1952 urging them to release the detenus as the Communists had fought elections and declared a change in policy.

In the fortnightly letter that I am sending you today I have referred to the question of the detenus. I should like to say something more about this, because action should be taken as soon as possible.

When I was in Calcutta last month, I received a deputation urging upon me the release of all detenus [a deputation of the All Parties Political Prisoners’ Release Committee led by Meghnad Saha met Nehru on 23 March, 1952]. This deputation consisted of one Communist Party member and representatives of a number of other organisations and also some fairly well-known individuals.

There is no doubt that there is a great deal of feeling among normal liberal circles against indefinite detention of persons. That is a feeling which we have ourselves nurtured in the past and is understandable.

I pointed out to this deputation that the Detention Act had not been used merely for Communists, but also for black-marketeers, foreign spies, and, as in Saurashtra, some members of the princely and jagirdari order. I asked them if they would like us to release these people. They said emphatically no.

Then I pointed out that their general proposition about release was not sound and that some such legislation was necessary in special cases. It may be said that the legislation had not been properly used and, if so, we could enter into each individual case.

Then I told them that so far as the Communists and the like were concerned, our policy was based on two considerations: (1) That no one should be detained for holding or expressing any opinion peacefully. It is only when violence was advocated or indulged in that we wished to take action. (2) That in the changed circumstances of today, we were of opinion that we should review the whole position with a view to releasing as large a number of detenus as possible.


Indeed, we would like to release the whole lot because it was no pleasure to us to keep them detained and it was a financial burden on the State. But we had to keep in view the security of the State and, therefore, we could not give up this right. All we could say was that this right would be exercised as infrequently as possible and only in cases involving, in some way, violence.

The position is undoubtedly different today than it was a year or more ago. That does not mean that the Communist Party has abjured violence or its other methods of coercive action. Whatever individual Communists might say, their basic policy remains and, given the chance, will be acted upon. We have, therefore, to be wary and careful.

Nevertheless, it is true that, owing to recent developments, the present policy of the Communist Party in India has undergone a change for the time being at least. On the whole, it might be said that there is at present no violence. There has been practically none for many months. The partial success of the Communists in the legislatures had diverted their thinking to other channels.

It is also true that, in fact, a very large number of Communists and others, who had been detained, have been released, and a relatively small number still remain in detention. Thus, the Communists are in a position to carry on their work, whatever that might be, without any great impediment. The fact that some of them are still in prison or in detention does not make any great difference to the quantum or quality of their activity.

The fact that some are in detention, however, gives them a handle for continuing the agitation which affects many people who are not Communists. They gain general sympathy, and, under cover of that sympathy, they strengthen their position with the public. Hence the fact of some people being kept in detention does not come in their way at all. It rather helps them than otherwise.

In some places I have found that people have been detained for two or three years or even more. Broadly speaking, this does seem to me to be wrong. Probably, if they had been convicted for the kind of offence charged, their sentence might have run out. We can hardly justify this long-continued detention for something that happened or was likely to happen two or three years ago. Conditions have changed….

The result of this line of thought is that it is no longer desirable or advantageous from any point of view to keep persons in detention, except in very special and obvious cases. Generally speaking, this continuation of detention serves the very cause for which the persons detained stand for. The risk involved in releasing them is less than the other risks involved in keeping them. Therefore, it is desirable to take early steps to release them.

Your Government has to shoulder the responsibility of law and order and therefore it is for you to consider this matter thoroughly. We do not wish to force your hands in any way. But it is our considered opinion that the time has come to review this whole matter most liberally….

(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.)

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