While looking for a ray of sunlight to pierce through the dark clouds that hang over us, one is reminded of another time, immediately before and after independence, when even darker clouds, brought into being by the Partition and its accompanying horrors, were dispelled by the determined battle fought by Jawaharlal Nehru, whose 130th birth anniversary we celebrate this year.
His was not a lone battle. Till his assassination in January 1948, Gandhiji himself led the battle from the front, and after he was gone, Jawaharlal was ably supported by Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad and countless others. Gandhiji himself had set the highest example of non-violent courage in his almost four-month long campaign for communal harmony in Muslim-majority Noakhali, a remote district of Bengal, from November to March 1946-47.
When violence erupted in a few Hindu-majority districts of Bihar in October 1946, Nehru as head of the Interim Government accompanied by his colleagues Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Acharya Kripalani, Jayaprakash Narayan, and others went deep into the rural areas and stayed on for almost two weeks till the violence was quelled.
Nehru’s commitment to fighting communalism and building a secular society were put to further severe test in the days immediately following independence. But his resolve was clear from day one. Independence came on 15th august 1947 and Nehru was sworn in as the first Prime Minister. The next day, 16th August, saw the Prime Minister proudly unfurling the Tiranga on the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, initiating a ritual that symbolizes Independence Day for crores of Indians today. The solemnity of the occasion did not prevent Nehru from issuing a stern warning:
“The first charge of the Government will be to establish and maintain peace and tranquility in the land and to ruthlessly suppress communal strife…It is wrong to suggest that in this country there would be the rule of a particular religion or sect. All who owe allegiance to the flag will enjoy equal rights of citizenship, irrespective of caste or creed.”
On the 19th, in a broadcast to the nation from All India Radio, he pointed to the secular democratic foundations of the new national state: “Our state is not a communal state but a democratic state in which every citizen has equal rights.
However, his bold pronouncements were soon put to test as thousands of refugees flooded Delhi. On 4th September, violence had broken out
in Delhi and continued till the 11th, during which time some 2000 people were reported killed. A military force of 5000 was brought in to patrol the streets of Delhi.
HM Patel, then Cabinet Secretary, describes in his memoirs at great length the conditions in Delhi at that time. The conditions in Old Delhi were so bad that life was all but paralysed, “…for days together, shops remained unopened, offices ceased to function, health services were disrupted, and communications were disorganised.’ Muslims fled to the refugee camps for security.
The Emergency Committee of the Cabinet formed the Delhi Emergency Committee with Cabinet Minister C. H. Bhabha as Chairman and H. M. Patel as Secretary, which in turn set up a Central Control Room to organise all the law and order and relief efforts. In two weeks, the situation in the city was brought under control. One and a half lakh Muslims were in camps, and ‘the sense of insecurity among Muslims took longer to disappear, though it would be correct to say that by the first week of October, a Muslim could move about the city without any real danger to his life or limb.’
Nehru was also very clear that minorities had to be given total protection and there should be no pressure on them to leave for Pakistan. He was countering a growing feeling that since Hindus and Sikhs were not welcome in Pakistan and were being pushed out, the logical corollary was that Muslims should be sent to Pakistan.
Nehru also showed exemplary personal intervention during these trying times. Stories abound of his rushing to the spot, on receiving news of communal clashes, as well as personally visiting the sensitive places. One of these has been recounted by Mohammad Mujib, who was an eyewitness.
Once the Prime Minister came [to Jamia Millia] at about midnight, inspected the arrangements made for protection and stayed till the early hours of morning.
A public speech by Nehru in Delhi on September 29 shows how he put all he had into the battle for what he called “secular democracy”. He reminded the people that Muslims had played a large part in India’s freedom. He explained that the Hindu communal demand for Hindu Rashtra was acceptance of the two-nation theory: “The Congress always refused to subscribe to the two-nation theory and has been supported by the people in this matter. But today the people of India are doing the very thing for which they blamed the League…. All talk of Hindu raj is an aspect of narrow-mindedness. Hinduism is strong enough to stand by itself without artificial ideological crutches….”
It became clear to Nehru very soon that the communal disturbances in Delhi were not just a spontaneous reaction by an angry people. At a meeting of the Cabinet Emergency Committee, attended by Mountbatten, Patel, and Sanjeevi, Nehru stated his view that “the disturbances had been organised, taking advantage of the psychological state of affairs….A number of notices and leaflets had been circulated in Delhi about a week before the disturbances broke out. This has been done by some organization.”
That the organization he was referring to was the RSS, becomes clear very soon. In his fortnightly letter to the chief ministers, dated 7 December 1947, he elaborated the nature of the danger posed by the R.S.S.:
“The R.S.S. is an organisation which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines.” In another letter a little later, he warned that we should not be taken in by the claims that the RSS is not a political organisation: “It is openly stated by their leaders that the R.S.S. is not a political body but there can be no doubt that their policy and programme are political, intensely communal and based on violent activities.”
On January 30, 1948, barely five and a half months after independence, and before the country had recovered from the communal fires that threatened to engulf it, Nathuram Godse, a product of the RSS and a follower of V D Savarkar, pumped bullets into the frail body of Gandhiji.
Nehru was very clear about the identity of the assassin: “It was one of the votaries of this demand for Hindu Rashtra who killed the greatest living Hindu.” Gandhiji’s assassination left Nehru in no doubt that the votaries of Hindu Rashtra were planning a seizure of power, no less: “it would appear that a deliberate coup d’etat was planned involving the killing of several persons and the promotion of general disorder to enable the particular group concerned (RSS) to seize power. The conspiracy appears to have been a fairly widespread one, spreading to some of the states.” (Nehru’s Letter to chief ministers, dated February 5, 1948.)
It was this conviction that enabled him, with the full support of Sardar Patel, to ban the RSS and put around 25,000 of its activists behind bars. He defended the ban in his letter to the chief ministers, wondering aloud whether they should have been much firmer earlier on.
The government communiqué dated February 4, 1948, issued five days after the assassination, declaring the RSS unlawful, stated:
“It has been found that in several parts of the country individual members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have indulged in acts of violence involving arson, robbery, dacoity and murder and have collected illicit arms and ammunition. They have been found circulating leaflets exhorting people to resort to terrorist methods, to collect firearms, to create disaffection against the government and suborn the police and the military.”
Sardar Patel, in a letter to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee on 18 July 1948, also clearly stated that “the activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of Government and the state.”
In fact, in the period following Gandhiji’s assassination, Jawaharlal Nehru was relentless in his condemnation of the RSS. He repeatedly warned the chief ministers that they must not let down their guard. He used the strongest possible words to characterize them, and alerted them to their duplicitous nature.
Immediately after Gandhiji’s murder, he wrote in his fortnightly letter of February 5, 1948: “We must remember that the people opposed to us are thoroughly unscrupulous. They will say one thing and do another. I have had messages of condolence from some persons of note who are believed to be associated in this conspiracy.”
He further warned: “It is fairly well known that attempts have been made, and these have met with some success in having cells of these conspirators in all manner of governmental places, services, etc. We shall have to purge these and purify our administration and services.”
Such was the first Prime Minister’s conviction about the gravity of the danger posed by communal forces that it is difficult to locate a single fortnightly letter to the chief ministers that he wrote during the first two and a half years of independence in which he did not highlight the issue and urge continuous vigilance and action. In addition, he also wrote special letters on the subject.
In November 1948, he refused the RSS chief Golwalkar’s written request for a meeting and told him that the information available with the Government on the activities of the RSS was at variance with his claims. “It would appear that declared objectives have little to do with the real ones and with the activities carried on …by people associated with the RSS…The activities, according to our information, are anti-national and often subversive and violent.”
Nehru himself was never in doubt about the absolute necessity of holding firm to the secular principle. He never gave up on his basic faith in the people, and went right ahead with the first general elections late 1951 and early 1952.
He was in fact unhappy they were delayed due to difficulties in preparing the electoral rolls. He converted the election campaign into a campaign against communalism. He travelled nearly 40,000 kilometers and addressed an estimated thirty-five million people or one-tenth of India’s population. The result was that the communal parties, the Hindu Mahasabha, the newly formed Jana Sangh, and the Ram Rajya Parishad won between them only 10 Lok Sabha seats in a house of 489, and polled less than six per cent of the votes polled.
The tide of communalism that was threatening to submerge the nation was thus pushed back with a Herculean effort on the part of India’s national leadership. For almost a decade, communal forces remained on the back-foot. They made a poor showing in the 1957 elections as well.
We can take heart from the fact that though what we have faced in recent years and are facing today in India is bad enough, it is not a patch on what our people went through in the years just before and after the Partition.
If the tide could be turned then, when independent India had just been born, can it not be done now? There are lessons to be learnt, cues to be taken, the resolute spirit to be imbibed, from those early tumultuous years. Our ancestors have gifted us a rich legacy; it is for us to fashion it to our purposes.