Revisiting Nehru's understanding of 'disasters' important in the context of COVID

The statesmanship displayed by Nehru in articulating a vision for Indian leaders to deal with disasters with a stout heart constitutes a categorical imperative for the COVID ridden times

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SN Sahu

Nehru in his famous tryst with destiny speech delivered on 15th August 1947 said, “Peace is said to be indivisible, so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.”

Those words uttered seventy four years back on the occasion of India’s independence from British rule sounds contemporary in the context of COVID pandemic which has shaken the world and made India one its worst victims because of the follies of Modi regime, which prematurely celebrated victory over it even as experts predicted a calamitous and lethal second wave and the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health flagged the concern for augmenting oxygen supply in November 2020 itself.

Nehru had prefaced those words by saying, “And so we have to labour and to work, and to work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart.”

He thus located the dreams and aspirations of India in the context of the dreams and aspirations of humanity and at the same time underlined the point that apart from those aspirations there is also disaster which is indivisible and would strike all nations. What he implied was that collective endeavour would be indispensable to deal with the disasters to save humanity.

Modi regime which tried in vain to stigmatise Nehru through fake narratives during the last seven years should learn lessons from his worldview of which his understanding of disasters and their mitigation constituted an integral part.

Three years later Nehru wrote a letter to Chief Ministers on 1st September 1950 and reflected on the series of disasters faced by India in the formative stage of nation building. Acknowledging that “... India has set up some kind of a new record, not a record to be proud of” he wrote with anguish, “It is a record of disaster and calamity, one following another in quick succession, bringing sorrow and misery to vast numbers of human beings ….”. Then he added, “...we do not yet know the full extent of this disaster in which millions of people are involved."

Nehru was talking of disasters caused by drought, flood and even the earthquake which had hit some parts of India. He was candid enough to say that recurrent disasters hitting India were never matters of pride and glory for our country. Such utterances brought out his honesty and truthfulness in accepting the problem and not denying it .

His another statement that there was dearth of knowledge about the full extent of the disaster underlined the absence of reliable data base. Such frank admission on the part of Nehru, the Prime Minister, stand in sharp contrast to the present day ruling leadership of India which suppresses COVID infections and even the number of people dying of COVID in our country. Such suppression of COVID data has emerged as a major stumbling block in the fight against the pandemic and makes people more vulnerable to the deadly virus.


Nehru made a distinction between man-made and natural disasters and described the flow of refugees to India following the partition of our country as a disaster attributed to human blunders. He famously wrote to the Chief Ministers in the aforementioned letter, “And now, after we have battled with man’s folly and fear and greed, we have to meet nature, red in tooth and claw.”

He described the prospect of meeting the challenge as “overwhelming” and instructively noted that “... it does no good to feel overwhelmed.” “And the only way to look upon it”, he wrote, “is to consider it as a challenge to our nationhood, and our courage and capacity to work.” Such a bold stand by Prime Minister Nehru in face of the challenge of disaster to our nationhood brought out his statesmanship.

All those who are engaged in tweets targeting the so called tool kit of Congress for vilifying Modi regime in the context of COVID crisis and description of such tweets by twitter as “manipulated media” should learn lessons from Nehru to behave themselves and accept facts when the country is facing a disaster of apocalyptic proportions because of their follies and blunders.

Prime Minister Nehru wrote in 1950 that his Government would help the States in meeting the challenge to the extent possible and stressed that “We are forced to think, more than ever before that our only safety and security lie in pulling together and in the fullest cooperation between all the States and the Centre.” That spirit articulated by Nehru stood demolished by the Modi regime which talked ad nauseum about “cooperative federalism” and acted contrary to its letter and spirit while dealing with the deadly second wave.

The massive oxygen shortage faced by millions of victims of COVID and even hospitals across the country and the resultant tragedy manifested in numerous deaths brought out the negligent attitude of the Union Government in supplying oxygen to severely affected COVID patients. The absence of cooperative federalism was blatantly evident in the vaccine policy of the Government of India which asked the States to buy vaccines at a price which was higher than the price it is supposed to pay.

The way leaders of India mandated to rule have been found wanting in facing the challenge of the lethal second wave of COVID defines their poor standard of governance.

Again on 31st December 1950 in another letter to Chief Ministers he made a reference to the sad passing away of Sardar Patel. He wrote, “In our own country we have had shock after shock and it would almost appear that some perverse fate was pursuing us or the Gods wished to punish us. What a succession of calamities we have had and, to top them all, we lost a great captain of our forces who, with consummate skill, had steered the bark of India between many rocks and through stormy seas. The seas continue to be stormy and now rocks appear all around us and we wanted that stout heart and strong arm more than ever before to meet these new crises.”

The statesmanship displayed by Nehru in articulating a vision for Indian leaders to deal with disasters with a stout heart constitutes a categorical imperative for the COVID ridden times. In India data concerning COVID infections and death has been suppressed. The Union Government has failed in providing people as basic as oxygen and usual medicines and health facilities. As a result millions have died and dead bodies are floating in the river Ganga. The Government of India prematurely celebrated victory over COVID and became complacent and negligent.

It is in these trying times we need to revisit Nehru’s enduring articulations on disaster and calamities and derive lessons to save India from those whose calculated follies have diminished its image at the domestic and global level.

(Shri SN Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan)

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