Nehru’s Word: Power to detain is often misused

The farmers’ protests have revived discussion on civil liberties, an issue that Jawaharlal Nehru had been much concerned with. He expressed this concern repeatedly in his letters to the CMs in 1948

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru

NH Web Desk

The recent arrest of two very young women, Disha Ravi, a climate activist, and of Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit trade union activist whose parents work as agricultural labour, as well as charges of sedition levelled against prominent journalists and even a Member of Parliament, along with other measures employed to deal with the kisans’ protests have revived discussion on civil liberties. It was an issue that Jawaharlal Nehru had been much concerned with, having been a founder of the Civil liberties Union in India. He expressed this concern repeatedly in his regular letters to the Chief Ministers in 1948. He continually stressed on the need to keep a balance and keep restrictions on civil liberties to the minimum:

We live in India in a strange and abnormal atmosphere, the aftermath of the occurrences in the Punjab and elsewhere. There are vast masses of refugees full of bitterness. Any relaxation of vigilance may lead to disastrous consequences.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that once large powers are given to executive and police officers, they are likely to be misused. I am sorry to say that all the reputation that we acquired in the past as defenders of civil liberty and freedom is fading away. Our stock in the world had been high. It is not so high now, and deputations and complaints have gone to our Ambassadors about various happenings in India.

The Government of India suggested to provincial governments some time back that individuals suspected of dangerous activities leading to sabotage might be arrested and detained. The situation was a difficult one and there was a possibility then of big scale trouble. In making these arrests, provincial governments adopted varying procedures. Some arrested a few persons whom they specially suspected, others made large-scale arrests which could hardly be justified on individual grounds.

I am rather worried about this tendency all over India to use special measures against people we may not like. Even when temporarily justified, this creates the wrong kind of background, and more and more we depend upon these special measures and the police. In the long run, and even in the short run, this is bad for the country, for the people, and for the Congress, which is held responsible. I would, therefore, beg of you to examine this matter carefully.

I continue to receive from foreign countries, especially trade unions and labour organisations, letters of protest and surprise at the internments that have taken place, specially of trade union and labour leaders...I know that some of the activities of these labour leaders have been very injurious and have had little to do with labour.

The matter is for each provincial government to consider. I do not want India to get a reputation among progressive circles abroad of a country which does not permit the fullest liberty in regard to labour work or other work...

On the one hand, we can take no risks when the very basis of freedom and security is involved, on the other hand, a tendency to suppress the individual without adequate cause is bad. Some High Courts have criticised governmental action in regard to detention and many people have been freed under the writ of habeas corpus...

I have written to you often enough on the subject of detenus or people kept in prison or detention without trial. Circumstances may compel us to do this, and circumstances in India today are bad, and we will not take a risk which may lead to violent repercussions. Subject to this, I would again ask you to consider how far it is desirable to keep people for long in detention without trial.

This has a bad effect on our reputation and I continue to receive large number of protests from every part of the world...I only wish to point out to you the dangers of continuing a policy which ultimately probably depends on the judgement of police officers or the like, and which tends to become stabilised as a method of government.

It must always be remembered that this is not a normal or proper method of government or administration and that it can only be indulged in cases of grave emergency.”

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)