Why they demonise Nehru

Making sense of the ongoing project to vilify Nehru, discredit his ‘idea of India’ and supplant it with a Hindu supremacist fantasy

Jawarhalal Nehru with Albert Einstein at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, during a trip to the US in November 1949
Jawarhalal Nehru with Albert Einstein at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, during a trip to the US in November 1949

Purushottam Agrawal

Many commentators failed to comprehend the real significance of the 2014 election result. It was not a mere regime change, it was—as PM Modi himself put it back then—the culmination of ‘five generations of sustained work’ by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Since then, all government institutions and a pliant media have been enlisted to carry on the ‘sustained work’—through institutional subversion, silencing or shouting down dissent and an ideological blitzkrieg through electronic and social media, of which the demonisation of Nehru is a crucial component. \

The 2014 election verdict, which gave the BJP a full majority on its own, was an important stage in the journey towards ‘the Hinduisation of all politics’, to quote the ‘father of Hindutva’, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. For Savarkar, ‘Hindutva is not identical’ with ‘that vague, more limited, sectarian term Hinduism’. What Savarkar desired and what the RSS and the entire Sangh parivar has been attempting for ‘five generations’ is not to make people more religious or more nationalistic, but to make them ‘Hindu nationalists’. Their true cause is neither Hinduism nor nationalism, but Hindutva—and their aim is to use the state apparatus to consolidate the Hindutva idea of India, which is necessarily opposed to a democratic Indian nationalism. This is where Nehru becomes a problem: his idea of ‘Bharat Mata’ is a powerful challenge to the idea of ‘Bharat Mata’ that the Sangh parivar has used to try and claim India for itself, and itself alone.

Our freedom movement was unique in the sense that it harnessed patriotic feelings and anti-colonial sentiment to build a democratic, inclusive nationalism. It was described by the remarkable freedom fighter and social reformer Dada Dharmadhikari as ‘Maanavnishtha Bhartiyata’ (humane Indian nationalism)…. Nehru is vilified by the Hindu right because after Independence, he had the historic opportunity and responsibility to [forge] an Indian nationalism that was forward looking yet rooted in our tradition and heritage; which was inclusive and assertive of national interest and pride. And in this he succeeded spectacularly, defying the doom and gloom predictions of many political pundits within and outside India.

In the Hindutva view, Nehru’s main crime was, and is, unwavering commitment to and a pragmatic vision of such an enlightened nationalism. The Hindutva generals realise fully well that without distorting Nehru’s memory and tarnishing his image, without belittling his towering personality—in fact, without erasing his impressions on the Indian mind— the Hindutva project cannot have lasting success….[It] is not merely Nehru the person who has to be ‘finished’; the very ‘idea of India’ associated with this person has to be destroyed. The question all democratic-minded citizens have to ask themselves is: Is the inclusive, enlightened and genuinely modern idea of India—which has come to be known as the Nehruvian idea of India—worth defending and preserving or not?

In late 2017, the head of the BJP’s IT cell, Amit Malviya, tweeted a collage of pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru with different women in order to portray him as a philanderer. In three of the nine pictures, Nehru is hugging his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit and being kissed on the cheek by his niece Nayantara. In a fourth, he’s congratulating a family friend, Mrinalini Sarabhai, after her classical dance performance. In the rest, he is receiving or seeing off public figures and official guests like Jackie Kennedy and the Mountbattens’ young daughter Pamela.

The RSS, BJP and their ideological associates have, of late, realised that they cannot publicly denounce and denigrate Gandhi, Patel, Bose and Ambedkar, so they have tried to appropriate these icons. But Nehru remains anathema to the Hindu right. Even after half a century of his death, he continues to give them nightmares. Why? It is because he was a rationalist and a moderniser but also deeply rooted in his tradition, and hence very effective with the people. Despite his ‘atheism’ and ‘western ways’—two attributes overemphasised by friends and foes alike— Nehru could connect with the Indian people magnificently: he could describe dams and industries as the ‘temples of modern India’ without leading to any hurt sentiments. He could speak openly about the dangers of both Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism and remain popular across communities.

Despite his supposed indifference to religion and his insistence that ‘the country must conduct itself through political principles, not through religious sentiments’, Nehru won the faith and respect of his deeply religious compatriots and even today continues to be a figure of reverence and fond remembrance. But it is also true that as India’s population gets younger and first-hand knowledge of the freedom struggle and the early years of independence fades, the hate campaign has succeeded to the extent that misconceptions like Nehru’s ‘ignorance’ of Indian culture and ‘contempt’ for Hinduism, and his ‘rejection’ of religion have become widespread.

In The Discovery of India (1945), Nehru elaborates upon his understanding of religion which he had put forward in An Autobiography (1936) in the context of Gandhi’s fast against untouchability. He writes of his aversion to the ‘superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs’ and ‘uncritical credulousness’ that often go with religion. At the same time, he also notes that ‘religion had supplied some deeply felt inner need of human nature, and the vast majority of people all over the world could not do without some form of religious belief. It had produced many fine types of men and women, as well as bigoted, narrow-minded, cruel tyrants. It had given a set of values to human life, and though some of these values had no application today, or were even harmful, others were still the foundation of morality and ethics.’ (The Discovery of India, Penguin Books, 2010, p13)

This nuanced understanding is rooted in the insight that ‘Life does not consist entirely of what we see and hear and feel, the visible world which is undergoing change in time and space; it is continually touching an invisible world of other and possibly more stable or equally changeable elements, and no thinking person can ignore this invisible world.’ (ibid, p13-14). Along with this insight, Nehru also felt a ‘sense of the mysterious, of unknown depths’, and confessed, ‘[b]ut the way to that understanding seems to me essentially the way of science.’ (ibid., p15-16)

Nehru had a far truer and more mature understanding of Indian culture and tradition than the Hindutva lot. What he could not really tolerate was the political use of religious identity. He continued to fight against the use of religion for political power—‘communalism’, as it is known in the politics of modern India. It is singularly important to remember that Nehru sought to counter communalism—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or any other—not merely with ‘secularism’ but with ‘Indian nationalism’, which for him was based on diversity and was much more than mere emotionalism. Being a keen observer of the world, and with his robust ethical sense, Nehru, more than many of his contemporaries, could see through the emotional manipulation underlying the ‘nationalism’ of Hitler and Mussolini, and also understood that ‘communalism’ (of whatever variety) in Indian politics was the Indian version of that same politics. Six years before World War II erupted, Nehru was telling his daughter Indira about the ‘strange Nazi philosophy’ which propagated by all means fair or foul not only German superiority but also the ‘culling’ of the inferior races, and held that ‘the age of pure reason and unprejudiced science is over’. (Letter dated 31 July 1933, Glimpses of World History.)

Nehru noted repeatedly that not only Hindu but also Muslim communalism was full of admiration for Hitler. Both shared (as they continue to share) antipathy towards democratic nationalism, but with a difference (which is as crucial to understand today as it was then), clearly articulated by Nehru: ‘That the Muslim organisations have shown themselves to be quite extraordinarily communal has been [apparent] to everybody. The [Hindu] Mahasabha’s communalism has not been so obvious, as it masquerades under a nationalist cloak.’ (An Autobiography, Penguin India, p. 484; emphasis added.)

Nehru suffered from no sense of inferiority as an Indian; to him, the story of our great civilisation was not one of unending loss. His favourite metaphor for India is that of a palimpsest, a page from a manuscript reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. Reflecting on its ‘depth of soul’, he writes about India: ‘It was not her wide spaces that eluded me, or even her diversity, but some depth of soul which I could not fathom, though I had occasional and tantalising glimpses of it. She was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. All of these existed in our conscious or subconscious selves, though we may not have been aware of them, and they had gone to build up the complex and mysterious personality of India.’ (The Discovery of India, p.51).

Indians need to gratefully celebrate the political and intellectual leadership of the national movement, even if with some reservations. The Indian freedom, or national, movement had an ethical side to it which made it confident enough to criticise its society and try to purify it of evils like untouchability, misogyny and bigotry. The freedom fighters and founding parents of the Republic of India respected the real nature of cultural memory and resisted the attempts to turn it into an instrument of regressive politics. Those liberals and radicals who bracket Nehru with the Hindutva lot for having a sense of the cultural continuity of India are not likely to realise this, but all sensible citizens must know that no political community can live with cultural amnesia. And no progressive and egalitarian nation can be built without a confident, rational and enlightened engagement with culture. This was what Nehru attempted.

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