What if Nehru had behaved like Modi..

India managed to escape the fate of other newly independent third-world countries only because of Nehru’s firm commitment to secularism


Mridula Mukherjee

If Jawaharlal Nehru, when he, as leader of the Congress party, won 364 seats in the first general elections in 1951-52, had even a quarter of the arrogance of the present regime with a tally of 274, the fledgling Indian democracy might have gone the way of most ex-colonial third world nations where popular leaders soon concentrated absolute power in their hands. It was largely due to Nehru’s firm commitment to democracy and civil liberties, itself a legacy of the freedom struggle, that India escaped that fate. Today, when that legacy is again under threat from authoritarian impulses emanating from the ruling establishment as well as from populist communal fascist forces, it is imperative that we take a close look at that legacy.

It was under his leadership that the task of completing the process of adopting a Constitution for independent India was completed. The next stage was to hold the first general elections with adult franchise. It was a gigantic task, involving over a million officials, with 173 million voters registered through a house-to-house survey of whom three-quarters were illiterate. The elections were conducted over a period of six months, from October 1951 to March 1952.

Far from using the partition and the accompanying violence as an excuse for postponing elections, he was impatient and unhappy that they could not be held earlier. In fact, he fought the elections focusing on the major issue of what was to be the nature of the Indian State. Was it going to be a “Hindu rashtra” as demanded by the assassins of the Mahatma, or was it going to be secular in line with the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom struggle? He posed this question to the estimated 35 million people that he addressed in his public meetings for which he travelled some 25,000 miles. Their answer was to give a resounding defeat to the votaries of “Hindu rashtra” by confining them to 6 per cent of the vote and 10 seats out of 489, while the Congress won 364.

While he did not hesitate to use the authority of the state to counter communal violence in 1946-47, and also fully supported Sardar Patel in imposing a ban on the RSS after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in February 1948, he firmly believed that these could only be short-term steps, and that the long-term counter to such forces could only be through ideological struggle in a democratic framework. And that is what he did in the elections of 1951-52.

Nehru also believed that if India was to remain united as a nation, it could only be achieved within a democratic structure. Unity could happen only if it was based on an acceptance, or better still, celebration, of diversity. A democratic structure could give space to various cultural, linguistic, political, and socio-economic forces to thrive. He once said, “This is too large a country with too many legitimate diversities to permit any so-called ‘strong man’ to trample over people and their ideas.”

Along with democracy, Nehru had absolute commitment to civil liberties, to freedom of expression, a free press, freedom to form unions and associations, and all else that goes with civil liberties, as is evident from the following quotes:

‘if civil liberties are suppressed, a nation loses all vitality and becomes impotent for anything substantial.’ And: ‘The freedom of the press does not consist in our permitting such things as we like to appear. Even a tyrant is agreeable to this kind of freedom. Civil liberty and freedom of the Press consist in our permitting what we do not like, in our putting up with criticisms of ourselves, in our allowing public expression of views which seem to us even to be injurious to our cause itself.’

This is the legacy of which we need to remind ourselves and those who are at the helm of our country today. We all have much to learn.

(Prof. Mridula Mukherjee, taught history at Centre for Historical Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University and was Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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