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The enduring relevance of Nehru

If the politics of tomorrow is to be raised to the level of serving causes such as liberating men from poverty, disease and hunger, then Jawaharlal Nehru is, and will be, of relevance

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the Indian public
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the Indian public
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P.N. Haksar

I must have seen him for the first time for barely a few seconds. But the picture I have of him and of the day when I saw him is still sharply etched on my mind. I can see every detail despite the forty-three years which separate the event and its recollection.

I remember seeing the people of Allahabad streaming through its lanes, streets and mohallas, the streams converging and mingling to produce a surging humanity, inundating every bit of land between the Ashram of Bharadwaj and beyond. I see the red brick walls of Anand Bhavan with a bit of history written on it in tar: ‘No Welcome to Prince’. I can still feel the feverishness and the tenseness of long waiting; waiting for the dead body of Jawaharlal’s father, Pandit Motilal Nehru, to arrive.

This happened on 6th February, 1931, when I was a little over seventeen years of age.

I mingled with the crowd on 6th February, 1931, rather more in response to a growing identification with the spirit of nationalism than to satisfy a curiosity or to participate in a funeral. As the afternoon shadows lengthened, the funeral cortege arrived. Suddenly, I glimpsed a face, and a hand resting on the body which was draped in the national tricolour. That is how I saw Jawaharlal Nehru—a mixture of myth and legend. That face and that hand got engraved in my memory even though I saw him from a distance and through the haze of dust raised by a million feet.

The second occasion when I saw Nehru was a few weeks later. I then saw him on a larger scale, as if in close-up, and for a longer duration. He was wearing a dhoti, a kurta and the jacket which has since become associated with his name. He wore a cap. His hands were clasped behind his back. He was looking down, slightly bent forward and listening intently to five or six young men. They were all from the University. I was passing by Thornhill Road and I stopped to look. I knew none of them and none knew me. Apparently, this little group and Jawaharlal had just returned from Alfred Park where they had gone to see the tree which by then had become a shrine. It was the tree behind which Chandrasekhar Azad had taken position to give battle to Nott-Bower and his police force. I cannot recollect what Nehru or these young men said. However, it was Nehru’s face which arrested my gaze, and I kept on looking at it as one might look for hours at the changing shapes of clouds after a monsoon shower. For the first time, I became aware of the importance of a person’s face.

The vast majority of us have no faces to show. We wear masks. Jawaharlal Nehru wore no mask. His face reflected every passing mood, feeling and emotion.


Nehru defined the meaning and content of nationalism, and he saved it for introversion. He gave direction and purpose to the struggle for freedom. He gave a vision of India after freedom. Above all, he discovered India for us, so that we could feel that whichever part of it we might come from, the whole of it was ours. By presenting our own history to us as part of man’s unceasing quest, Nehru helped us to scale narrow ‘domestic walls’.

All that relates to India’s past. The question which is now being debated in India is: Does Nehru continue to be relevant to our contemporary concerns?

One hears a great deal today about the explosion of science and technology; people talk about the annihilation of distances, of the shrinkage of our world, of the conquest of the moon. All these are great and dramatic developments. However, to my mind, the greatest explosion in our contemporary world is the explosion of human consciousness. No longer is man’s care bound by a few paternal acres; we must now take into account the depth and intensity of man’s greater awareness, so that those who are concerned with the designing and engineering of societies and governments may be better able to cope with the turbulence of our times.

I am referring to this explosion of man’s consciousness because it provides a backdrop to whatever I might have to say about Nehru. He was intensely sensitive to the turbulence of the human spirit and the deep yearnings which stir the depth of human beings.

Several questions arise in one’s mind in relating Nehru to our contemporary times, and more especially to the solution of the problems with which India is beset.

What did Nehru seek to do? What did he seek to achieve? What was his design—socio-architectural design—for India? One can answer these questions by reading his books and speeches over a period spanning nearly half a century. One can gather a great deal about his vision by reading through significant resolutions adopted by the Indian National Congress, beginning with its Karachi session in the Thirties, followed by the Avadi session in the Fifties and ending with the resolution passed by the Indian National Congress at its session in Bhubaneswar in the Sixties. One can also get a clear picture of Nehru’s thought and vision, of his passion, of his design for India by reading through the Constitution of India, more specially the Directive Principles enshrined as part of our Constitution.”

One can read all this and yet fail to grasp what the entire pattern was. To understand this pattern, one has to step aside and look at it as a whole. Only then can one see how Nehru wove into a pattern his dreams for India.


Jawaharlal Nehru was trying, in his own way, to consummate three processes of history which have been associated in the past with turmoil and violence. To a British audience familiar with its own history, one could point out that Nehru was trying to span in a relatively brief period of time several centuries of social, economic, political and cultural development which Britain witnessed from the latter half of the seventeenth century to 1918 when women were enfranchised. What he was trying to do was to carry out in India the transformation of a society from feudal to modern; from a society governed by concepts of status to a society governed by concepts of contract.

Our society, thousands of years old, frozen in a static mould for centuries and changing little in its structure, suddenly came face to face with the complex problems of life and living. The society needed change; it was governed far too rigidly despite many protestant movements in India, by concepts of status determined by birth. It was torn by its hierarchical divisions. Such a society could not face the challenges of the twentieth century. Jawaharlal Nehru was aware that he could not even begin to make a dent on our social structure and on the ideas and value systems which sustained it without, at the same time, changing the economy. This, in turn, meant bringing about an industrial revolution in India in a short space of time and carrying it through without causing excessive human suffering. And finally, Nehru was engaged in the difficult task of creating, out of a religio-cultural entity called India, a modern nation state.

Jawaharlal had a picture of the total transformation of India. He was acutely aware of the severe constraints which had no parallel in history and within which he had to function. What were these constraints? From the moment of its birth, the Indian political system ensured the widest democratic rights and liberties. But the Indian economy presented a picture of a wasteland. Whereas in Europe the population as well as democratic rights and liberties grew with the growth of wealth, in India the situation was the other way round.

Yet we began well in India. The state itself was established; its Constitution was evolved with great care providing a realistic framework, and we were maintaining our unity in the midst of extreme diversity. Across our frontiers, another state came into being and the two states started their career at the same time, but on different foundations. Nehru had the vision, the wisdom and the perception to see that a country like India with its linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversities could not survive unless its polity rested on the principle of secularism.

Without secularism as a binding force, as the common denominator uniting the citizens of India, we could not construct the polity of India. Nehru’s constant reiteration of it and insistence upon it are responsible for our continued survival as an entity, even if some like to call India a marvel of organised chaos.


If despite Indian poverty, democratic institutions and democratic processes continue to survive in India and show extraordinary strength even in the midst of extraordinary difficulties through which we pass from time to time, and we are certainly passing today, it is because of Nehru’s insistence on secularism as a guiding principle, not merely of state policy but of our thought processes and behaviour patterns.

The second important thing which Nehru grasped was that democracy in India had to be universal. It could not be restricted; it could not be qualified by some elitist concept on the facile assumption that only those who are educated are capable of exercising the franchise. In fact, the experience of our elections during these twenty-five years has shown that there is no obvious correlation between political wisdom and formal education. And from time to time, the Indian electorate has shown that despite poverty and deprivation, despite a lack of formal education, it can act with remarkable wisdom in times of distress, in times of crises, and more particularly, in recent times when the people of India have been experiencing extreme hardship and turmoil.

And so, Nehru set his face against any doctrine of elitism in limiting or restricting Indian democracy. In a way, the battle for secularism and parliamentary democracy was relatively easy to win though one cannot rest on one’s oars. After all, Nehru had thought about the problems of India and of Indian unification throughout his life. But the most difficult problem was to transform the barren wasteland of India living at the level of subsistence with more than eighty per cent of the people pressing on very limited land, and to convert that wasteland into green fields, to strike a balance between the town and the village. To stimulate economic growth and development in spite of the extreme paucity of resources was and continues to be our most difficult problem, and often an intractable one.

Nehru saw clearly that if we were to span the centuries of backwardness the sovereign remedy lay in a proper application and development of science and technology in India and in making the correct choice of a mix of technologies appropriate to our country.

To develop science is not easy. To grow it in the socio-cultural environment of a traditional India is even more difficult. Some of these difficulties were overcome because Nehru gave to science and technology his personal attention and passionate concern. He chose his men carefully; he sought counsel and advice… In India today there is a vast accumulation of engineering talent of great variety and diversity. Within a short space of time, we have established competence in the field of designing, erecting and commissioning fairly complex industrial plants and machinery in some sophisticated fields. All this constitutes a tremendous national asset.

I have briefly referred to the difficulties inherent in nurturing science and technology in a society where thought processes were governed by traditional mores. Nehru was aware of these difficulties. He, therefore, was never tired of speaking in his own simple way about the scientific temper, or of fighting irrationality. Those of us, whether in Government or outside who had to cope with irrationality and with theological moulds of thinking, had the satisfaction of knowing that in Jawaharlal Nehru we had a final court of appeal. We were never disappointed.


I would like to recall an incident. A young, unknown, film producer in India made a film putting into it all that he had -- not only his own sense and sensibility, emotion and feeling, but also the little money he had (he even pawned his wife’s jewellery). My wife and I happened to see this film and we were both struck by its beauty. We felt it was the kind of film which should be entered at one of the international film festivals. I found that the film had been made several years previously, and that there was a ban against its being shown abroad. I made inquiries as to the reason for this extraordinary treatment. I was informed that as the film showed India’s poverty, it was not suitable for being entered in foreign film festivals. A great battle ensued to have the order banning the film removed. Ultimately, I had to go to the final court of appeal.

Nehru’s reactions were spirited and I recall vividly what he said: “What is wrong about showing India’s poverty? Everyone knows that we are a poor country. The question is: are we Indians sensitive to our poverty or insensitive to it? Satyajit Ray has shown it with an extraordinary sense of beauty and sensitiveness.” And with this final judgement, Satyajit Ray’s film Pather Panchali became world-famous. And Ray emerged as one of the great film producers of the world.

Thus secularism, rationality and a concern for the growth of science and technology imparted to an ancient India a new style of living and thinking.

To assess the continuing relevance of Jawaharlal Nehru, one has to not merely look into what he thought and did in the field of political structuring and the creation of a national state in India, or to his contribution towards national integration, economic development and the growth of science and technology but also to see the impact he made on Indian art and culture. About this one hears so little.

In this field, Jawaharlal Nehru made a distinctive personal contribution. The picture of the arts and culture of India on the eve of Independence was a desolate one. Nehru realised, to utter a cliche, that man does not live by bread alone, though bread is essential especially in a country like ours. He took a personal interest in stimulating the handicrafts of India. Their variety, richness, beauty and quality can be traced to Nehru’s personal encouragement to a wide variety of men and women who are engaged in reviving these dying crafts.

And not merely the handicrafts, but song and dance and drama and literature. He was president of Sahitya Akademi; and as its president he warned the government over which he himself presided not to interfere with the creative activities of writers and artists in India.


As far as I, with my limited understanding, can peer into the future not merely of India but of mankind as a whole, I see that future depending desperately on the triumph of cooperation over conflict. Nehru deeply believed in this. Mankind’s future depends equally on freeing individual nations from the mythology of their own history so that they become part of the universal history of mankind. If this be true, then Nehru is of relevance. If the politics of tomorrow is to be freed from the corrosiveness of purely personal ambition and raised to the level of serving great causes such as liberating men from poverty, disease and hunger, both of body and of mind, then Nehru is of relevance. If kindness, magnanimity, gentleness, concern for others, are the virtues which should inform public life, then Nehru is of relevance. And finally, if the object of man’s existence on earth is not pursuit of private profit and personal advancement at the expense of the community, then Nehru’s vision of socialism combined with democracy at the grassroot level is of relevance.

With the passage of time, Nehru will be of greater relevance, and not merely to my country, but to the world at large. I have no doubt that so far as my own countrymen are concerned, more especially the younger generation to whom Nehru is a mere name, they will, in the fullness of time and in the measure they address themselves to the real problems of India’s historic transformation, look to him and collect his ashes and canonise him as their patron saint.

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