‘The crowds come for Jawahar, not me’: had said Sardar Patel

Sardar Patel had told American journalist Vincent Sheean, when the latter marvelled at the huge crowd of more than 3L that had come to hear him and Nehru in Bombay: “They come for Jawahar, not for me”

Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru
Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru

Arun Sharma

The exclusion of Nehru’s photo from the web poster of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), meant to celebrate 75 years of independence, although a disgrace to the high institution, is also distortion of history, a crime akin to book burning.

It is a curious and unpardonable omission of a man who was at the forefront of the struggle for India’s independence. For, Nehru was not just one of the leaders of the freedom movement. He was ‘The Leader’ of that historic endeavour, next only to Mahatma Gandhi. There can be no dispute about it.

Evidence to corroborate this claim is strewn over in thousands of libraries spread across the world, in books written on contemporary Indian history.

Comparisons might appear odious in a casual conversation. Nevertheless, comparison is the soul of any historical research and would reveal Nehru’s pre-eminent place in the freedom movement.

Nehru, more than any other leader except Gandhi had a mass following. Lacs of people would throng to hear him every time he addressed a public meeting across the length and breadth of the country. Sardar Patel was great enough to tell the American journalist Vincent Sheean, when the latter marvelled at the huge crowd of more than three lacs that had come to hear him and Nehru in Bombay: “They come for Jawahar, not for me.”

Those attempting to rewrite history would do well to note that the magnanimous Iron Man acknowledged Nehru’s pre-eminent place. He said: “Mahatma Gandhi named Pandit Nehru as his heir and successor. Since Gandhiji’s death we have realised that our leader’s judgement was correct”.

When the American journalist and author, John Gunther was visiting India in 1938, the one political question asked of him everywhere he went was: “Have you seen Jawaharlal?” Gunther, then sent to Asia magazine an article published under this title in February 1939.

No other national leader commanded as much respect abroad as Nehru did. He was well known across major capitals of Europe, several of which he visited in 1935 to garner support for India’s Independence during his European tour. Returning by plane via Rome, he very diplomatically avoided the importunities of the Fascists, who tried for their own purposes to get him to meet Benito Mussolini, which he refused lest they use it for fascist propaganda.

His relationship with eminent British scholars, notably Bertrand Russell, Harold Laski and other members of the India League, as also prominent Labour and Liberal politicians, including Sir Stafford Cripps and Clement Attlee, later Prime Minister, was of a very special kind, which helped in influencing British opinion in favour of granting early independence to India.

“The esteem with which Nehru and his programme are held by liberal Englishmen is shown by the proposal soon after the war began in Europe, that he be made a Premier of India ‘in fact if not in name’, as it was put in the New Statesman of London,” writes Richard J. Walsh in the foreword to the American edition of Nehru’s autobiography, Toward Freedom.

The proposal added, he says, that if Britain gave India liberty, she would win the leadership of all free people, but if she met India with force, nobody in Europe or America would mistake her for the champion of democracy.

Again, it was Nehru rather than any other national leader, who presented India’s case for independence for the informed American audience in articles written for Foreign Affairs in 1938 and the Atlantic Monthly in 1940. The American edition of his autobiography was out and received much acclaim.

After US’ entry in the war, Roosevelt repeatedly pleaded for India’s independence, much to the chagrin of Churchill.

Not just Jawaharlal Nehru, other members of the Nehru family were now famous in the US. On a visit to the US in December 1944, Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit generated a lot of interest when she undertook a cross-country tour speaking for India’s independence.

Partly in response to the pressure Mrs Pandit generated, the State Department reaffirmed US interest in a political settlement in India. When the President was attending Yalta conference, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt invited Mrs Pandit to lunch at the White House. (Dennis Kux, India and the United States: Estranged Democracies, page 37)

Nehru was the principal player on the Indian side in the long and thorny negotiations with the British leading to the grant of independence to India. Nehru’s equation with the Labour and liberal British politicians, especially his friendship with Stafford Cripps he lobbied with was an important factor in Britain’s favourable inclination to grant freedom to India. Nehru argued that Britain, seemingly fighting against fascism to preserve freedom and defend democracies around the world, could not at the same time keep India enslaved. But for Nehru’s friendship with Sheikh Abdullah and his influence with Mountbatten, Kashmir could not have become part of India.

The two leaders shared between them their belief in secularism and in a socialist pattern of society. Influenced by Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah changed the name of the Muslim Conference he headed, to National Conference. Nehru’s unspoken views on Kashmir seemed to be so inclined in her favour of joining India that even his liberal friends, notably Bertrand Russell thought he had set aside his pacifist and liberal standpoint at least this time.

It is on record that Nehru’s emissary V. K. Krishna Menon briefed Lord Mountbatten about the intricacies of the Indian situation during weeks before the latter was to leave for India to take up charge as India’s Viceroy. Mountbatten has been often criticised by historians sympathetic to Pakistan’s viewpoint, not perhaps unjustly for openly siding with India, especially on Kashmir owing to him being influenced by Nehru.

Would you exclude such a man from the main web poster of the ICHR and relegate him to “another poster”? The lame excuse given by the secretary of the ICHR Omjee Upadhyay that there will be a poster that will include Nehru’s photo is not acceptable. They should apologise to the public and replace the poster.

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