People forget Nehru struggled for freedom for 30 years, spending nine of them in jail

Historian and Prof Mridula Mukherjee speaks to Sanjukta Basu on how the first Prime Minister ought to be remembered and says no contemporary Indian leader can match Nehru's understanding of the Vedas

People forget Nehru struggled for freedom for 30 years, spending nine of them in jail

Sanjukta Basu

A historian known for her work on the role of peasants in India’s freedom struggle and who selects every week excerpts from Jawaharlal Nehru’s works for NHS readers, Prof Mridula Mukherjee speaks to Sanjukta Basu on how the first Prime Minister ought to be remembered. Excerpts:

How do you think Jawaharlal Nehru should be remembered in 2021?

People tend to forget that before becoming Prime Minister, for 30 long years, from 1917-18 till 1947, he was out in the field, mobilizing people against British colonialism. Nine out of those 30 years were spent in jail.

We must remember him as the founder of the independent Indian state and the architect of modern India. Nehru was not a sectarian person, he pulled in professional talents from various walks of life, some of them were freedom fighters but some were intellectuals and experts like CD Deshmukh, John Mathai.

In 1947 India was a poor nation viewed as a land of snake charmers, how did he want the world to see India?

It is not really true that world only saw India as a land of snake charmers. India was already seen as the leader of the colonised world and one of the strongest fighters against the colonial powers. India’s freedom struggle was already being seen as the turning point in the history of colonialism.

Under Nehru’s leadership during the late 40s and 50s India played an active role in international diplomacy, in UN peacekeeping and negotiations among big powers as for example in the Korean War and the conflict in Indo-China. Unfortunately, today we are not playing that role anymore even though we are a richer nation. For example, consider the Israel-Palestine conflict, India is completely silent. I cannot imagine this under Nehru’s leadership.

Are you saying we were already a ‘Vishwa Guru’ under Nehru’s leadership?

Nehru wanted India to be equal to any other nation not anybody’s superior or ‘guru’. Nehru did not believe in being bigger or better than others.

You said we have lost our voice. Are there other cherished values of Nehru that we have lost over the years?

Yes, firstly the ability to stand up for the oppressed and the underdog in international relations. South Africa has such high regard for India even today because at a time when nobody else was willing to support them, India stood up for their struggle against white supremacy. India had a moral standing which Nehru got from Gandhi.

Nehru believed that India should not become another subservient cog in one of the power blocs, and would rather work towards reducing conflicts, and lead the colonised countries who were newly gaining independence. That is how the idea of Non-aligned movement (NAM) emerged – an idea that was one of his greatest legacies and one that is still relevant despite radical changes in world affairs.

Nehru’s 17 years as Prime Minister seem to have been very productive. Has there been an equally productive period in India’s contemporary history?

Nehru believed that to secure economic independence it was necessary for the State to invest in heavy industries so that we are not dependent on bigger nations for capital goods. He also believed crucial sectors should remain in the Public Sector partly because the private sector did not have that kind of money to invest, and also because it was desirable to have them under public control.

Educational institutions were set up with research components, be it atomic energy, space research, or medical research, because he believed that India should not just copy knowledge from the West but become a hub of knowledge creation. This was also true of the field of films, art, culture, as seen in the setting up of the Sahitya Akademi, The Lalit Kala Akademi, the NSD, FTII – all these formed the foundation of India as not just as an industrial nation but gave India its soft power.

How have the media been of late used to trash and tarnish his role, image and legacy in India and international area?

It is one thing to criticise him over Kashmir or China, but what can you do about complete falsehoods which are spread on social media? I was shocked to see how in one instance they have picked up his photos with his nieces and sister from different moments in history to prove he was a womanizer. It is horrifying.

The lies are designed to feed into a very vicious agenda to project Nehru as a westerner, womanizer, alienated from Indian culture or ‘bhartiyata’ etc.

But one has to only read his “Discovery of India” to know just how deep his knowledge and appreciation of Indian history and culture was, including of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the epics.

I can guarantee no contemporary leader, especially those who claim to uphold Indian culture, can match his knowledge.

What are the books on Nehru that you would recommend?

Nehru’s own books are so easy to read and accessible, one should start there. There is no better introduction to Indian culture and history, including the ancient or so-called “Hindu” culture, than Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’ which also gives an insight to his thoughts and views. It was written when he was in Ahmednagar Fort jail in 1944. He wrote in long hand, the beautiful manuscript is kept at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, one should go and see it.

Read his Autobiography, where he is constantly arguing with Gandhiji. It shows the Indian freedom struggle from within and how the closest comrades disagreed, debated, held dialogues, and built consensus. Also read Glimpses of World History, still among the best introductions to world history for students. These three are classics.

(The video interview can be accessed on

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