A classic, for example Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Nichomachian Ethics, is characterised as both a reference point to the past as well as a guide to the future. Nehru, in many ways, stands out as a classic: we read him to understand the intellectual foundations of modern India, and also to know how and why such foundational ideas like equality, liberty and secularism are central not only to our constitution and the State but also to our existence as civilized people, inheritors of a long and rich civilisational past.
Since the time Indian intelligentsia, followed by the new political leadership, began to articulate the vision of a nation in the nineteenth century, two fundamental social fault lines increasingly militated against such imaginings. One was the issue of Hindu- Muslim unity and second, the conditions and treatment of the untouchables and depressed classes as they were called then. Addressing these was in many ways more difficult than challenging the foreign rule.
It took the tremendous effort of generations to bring various communities together in the face of the stiff colonial exercise of a divide and rule policy. It became tougher when democracy, central to the vision of the freedom struggle, itself was challenged. Jinnah famously pronounced that democracy was not a suitable arrangement in the case of India, as it would be heralding a permanent rule of a majority (read Hindu rule). Significantly, sections of the Hindus also wanted it that way with their limited or no faith in the modern day democracy. It had been quite challenging, both politically and intellectually, for the nationalist leadership not only to constantly debunk the colonial arguments against democracy and freedom in the colonies, but also devise political and social arrangements presenting the vision of a polity that would assure everyone a share in the governance of their own society. Serious efforts, like for example privileging the issue of political unity and keeping divisive social questions away from being discussed by political forums of the Congress (1887) to adjustment of electoral seats through Lucknow pact (1916) or C.R. Das’s Hindu Muslim Pact (1925), were undertaken to articulate both intentions and desire to arrive at a political unity of people, when such unity was called a chimera. However, these were not wedded to any large systemic constitutional order but were pious efforts to bring people together. Gradually and slowly, an ‘Indian constitution’ began to emerge from 1928 onwards, and one could increasingly see an overlapping secular principle providing the political and socio-cultural base for inviting communities to be a co-sharer of a future social and political vision.
The idea that India, fashioned as as an administratively united entity by the British from Nagaland to Karachi and from NWFP to Kanyakumari, was a nation and that the people of such diversities as Garo and Khasi of the eastern hills to the Malayalis of the southern coastlines constituted one nation, was a novel one, and needed an emotional, political and ideational umbrella as well as constant nurturing. The forging of this unity of the nation defined by economic and secular ethos was both challenging and time consuming, as it also meant people needed to invest intellectual capital. It was intellectually easy and less demanding to define and invite people to take shelter under a religious and linguistic umbrella, as people exist in them every day. But that militated against the diversity as well as the harmonious existence of Hindus and Muslims, two large communities demanding co-ownership of the idea of the nation. Secularism was also seen as close to the intellectual and socio-religious lives of people while providing a route to the modern civilization imbued with the idea of equality and liberty. It was a world-view allowing cohabitation of diversities of religious groups as well as linguistic and cultural groups, in the space called nation.
Of the leadership, it was Nehru who articulated the world-view of secularism best in his writings, particularly since the time he gave those famous speeches on communalism in 1936. In this he took forward the efforts of the earlier generation of Indian leadership who rejected communal and narrow sectarian ideas and had accepted grandest of the social and political vision for the poor and suffering in India. Fighting communal ideas and anchoring secularism needed intellectual investment and the national leaders were ready for that. Nehru along with his colleagues provided people the intellectual and political route, the constitution, to enshrine secular ideas as a guide to their road to modern and civilized citizenship. His body became a kind of message: it travelled far and wide during the elections of 1952 to root the idea among the electorate. India, notwithstanding what had happened in the recent history, was to be a ‘secular state and a secular nation’. Unlike another great leader, Kemal Pasha who made the military as the protector of secularism in Turkey, Nehru trusted people to take secularism to their socio-political life. Nehru was marrying secularism and democracy: a feat achieved even by the seat of Democracies over hundreds of years.
The inhuman conditions of the untouchable and Depressed classes (scholars now use the word Dalits to refer to the Depresssed Classes, a British statutory connotation) presented the depravity and backwardness of the Indian society. The depressed classes were to be given a place in the new national vision by not only providing a sense of dignity but also by devising ways to uplift them from their socio-cultural and economic morass in the face of stiff conservative social opinion and oppressive feudal politico-economic order. Rammohun Ray in 1827 had said that unless one solved the problem of caste discrimination, one simply could not create a nation. The idea of nation with such inhumanity sounded hollow. All talk of culture and civilisation sounded unconvincing.
Dissent was embedded in the structures of oppression. Minds and hearts worked in myriad ways to address the issue: from individual efforts to alleviate the conditions of the untouchables by thousands of men and women, to Gandhi’s now famous tours of 1924 and 34-35, to B.R. Ambedkar’s articulation of a separate voice of the depressed classes for their separate political and electoral status.
It was however, in Nehru’s articulation that we find along with the emphasis on an inclusive polity which was in the best interests of the poor and the depressed classes, what was equally important was an inclusive economy. It is now quite clear that what is referred to as Nehruvian economy was not merely an economy, it was a path with a message: the idea that a modern and secular society and a modern and industrial economy were not only complementary but essential. This was the national story that Indians wrote taking the cue from the ‘text’ called Nehru.
When Mahatma Gandhi said that Nehru would speak his language, he was expressing his astute understanding of the latter. More than any other contemporary political philosopher and statesman, Nehru alone articulated Gandhi’s two fundamental commitments, i.e., Hindu Muslim Unity and the upliftment of the Depressed classes (the Dalits) through his vision of the Indian nation in its political and civilizational aspect. Nehru was an integrated text.
Today when we refer to Nehru, we do so not only to the man but to the Indian classic which we constantly need to go back to, to assess how far we have travelled away from our cherished path or are we still in command of our own dignity as civilised people.