Nehru and Punjab: The big picture

Sikh historians are critical of Nehru but they may be wrong

By Dr Mohinder Singh

It is generally believed that we inherit prejudice from the past. However, in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru’s relations with Punjab, it is the present which has coloured the past. Nehru took pride in the fact that he was breast fed by a mother, who hailed from Lahore, the romantic capital of undivided Punjab. While Nehru was quite familiar with the political developments in this important province of the Indian state, his first encounter with it was soon after the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy in 1919. During his visit to Jallianwala Bagh, he was shocked at the excesses committed by General Dyer and the army under his control. He carefully counted and noted in his diary the bullet marks on the walls of Jallianwala Bagh. Nehru’s next visit to Punjab was in September 1923, when after a special session of the Indian National Congress held in Delhi, he along with A.T. Gidwani and K.S. Santanum, was sent to visit Jaito, a village in the princely State of Nabha, where the British appointed Administrator had ordered firing on innocent Akali resisters during their struggle for liberation of the historic Sikh shrines from the hereditary control of the Mahants.

Soon after reaching Jaito Railway Station, Nehru and his companions along with a local resident, Darbara Singh Malhan, were arrested for entering the `prohibited territory’. Nehru questioned the authorities as to under what legal provision they were being arrested. The local officials, who were quite ignorant about the legal procedures in a feudal state, gave a simple reply that they were ordered by the British appointed Administrator of Nabha to arrest them. Nehru records in his autobiography that it was during his stay in the Nabha jail that he first experienced the pains of a normal prisoner where he was given no special facilities and was tied to another companion and needed his permission to change the side during sleep.

In an interesting account entitled `Interlude at Nabha’, Nehru records in his Autobiography,

“We were kept the whole day in the lock-up and in the evening we were marched to the station. Santanum and I were handcuffed together, his left wrist to my right one, and a chain attached to the handcuff was held by the policeman leading us. This march of ours down the streets of Jaito town reminded me forcibly of a dog being led on by a chain. We felt somewhat irritated to begin with, but the humour of the situation dawned upon us, and on the whole we enjoyed the experience. We did not enjoy the night that followed. This was partly spent in crowded third-class compartment in slow-moving train, with, I think, a change at midnight, and partly in a lock-up at Nabha. All this time, till the forenoon of next day, when we were finally delivered up at the Nabha Gaol, the joint handcuff and the heavy chain kept us company. Neither of us could move at all without the other’s co-operation. To be handcuffed to another person for a whole night and part of a day is not an experience I should like to repeat.”

However, intervention of his father Motilal Nehru led to his and his two companions’ immediate release though Nehru regrets that his other companion Darbara Singh Malhan, who was arrested simply because he pointed at the direction of Gurdwara Gangsar with his finger. In a long handwritten statement, choked with emotion and highly appreciative of the Akalis, Nehru attacked the British Administrator of Nabha and judicial machinery in the State for their `unscrupulous and crooked ways’. Having gained first-hand impressions about the Akalis, Nehru became their great admirer and wished to prove `worthy of their high tradition and fine courage’. The last paragraph of his original statement drafted in the Nabha Jail on 23rd November, 1923, reads:

“I was in jail when the Guru-ka-Bagh struggle was gallantly fought and won by the Sikhs. I marvelled at the courage and sacrifice of the Akalis and wished that I could be given an opportunity of showing my deep admiration of them by some form of service. That opportunity has now been given to me and I earnestly hope that I shall prove worthy of their high tradition and fine courage Sat Sri Akal.”

While recent day Sikh historians are quite critical of Nehru and generally describe him as `anti-Sikh’ and `anti-Punjab’, a careful study of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru shows Nehru’s special concern for this premier province of the Indian state. Nehru’s opposition to the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state needs to be studied in the light of his opposition to the division of Bombay Presidency into Maharashtra and Gujarat and his strong opposition to the creation of Telengana. It will be interesting to note that Shri Potti Sriramulu, the Telugu leader, who went on hunger strike for the creation of Andhra Pradesh, met a martyr’s death on 16th December, 1952, without his demand being conceded at that time. And again, it was a Congress leader, Darshan Singh Pheruman, who went on fast unto death for the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab and met a martyr’s end like the Telugu leader.

Nehru’s next important visit to Punjab was during the Congress Session in Lahore held in December 1929, on the banks of River Ravi, where the historic resolution for “Purna Swarajaya”, was passed by the Congress with Jawaharlal Nehru presiding over the session. Nehru quite often visited Ludhiana and other cities of Punjab to attend meetings of the Praja Mandal Party, which was fighting for freedom from the rulers of the princely states of Punjab. After the partition of Punjab Nehru made frequent personal visits to express solidarity with the hapless Punjabis who had to leave their hearth and home as a result of partition of their homeland and their migration from west to east Punjab. It was Nehru’s special bond with the Punjabis and the Akali leadership, which was greatly responsible for the Sikhs generally supporting the Congress during various parleys for transfer of power and, finally, the Sikhs casting their lot with Independent India at the time of partition on 15th August 1947.

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