Nehru's Word: Taking Gandhi’s message to the US

"Almost magically, his influence spread, and we saw a change come over our countryside. The peasantry straightened its back. It could look you in the face. It had self-confidence and self-reliance."

PM Jawaharlal Nehru replies to President Truman’s words of welcome on his arrival in the US, October 1949. (Photo courtesy: Truman Library Institute)
PM Jawaharlal Nehru replies to President Truman’s words of welcome on his arrival in the US, October 1949. (Photo courtesy: Truman Library Institute)
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Jawaharlal Nehru

The violent Israel-Palestine conflict has led to at least one commentator saying in desperation: “We need many Gandhis!” Indeed, one major reason for the inability to effectively intervene is the dearth of leaders with a high moral standing whose voice is universally respected and who could show the way to resolution and reconciliation. There is no Gandhi, no Nehru, no Martin Luther King, no Mandela. Here is a portion of a speech that Jawaharlal Nehru delivered at the University of Chicago on 27 October 1949, in which he explains the Gandhian technique that could be applied in the realm of international relations as well to bring about peace.

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"You know that during the last 30 years or so, we carried on rather intensively our campaign for India’s freedom. We did not begin it; it was there. But it came more to the world’s notice then, because a world figure stepped into the arena of Indian politics, that is, Mahatma Gandhi. And he produced a very remarkable change in India.

I was much younger then, but still I have the most vivid memories of that change, because it affected me as it affected millions of our people. We were at that time a very frustrated people, hankering and yearning for freedom and not knowing what to do about it.

We were helpless, unarmed, unorganised and totally incapable of facing a great imperial power that had been entrenched in our country for over 150 years. Further, this was a power that was there not merely by force of arms, but which had dug down deep into the roots of India. It seemed an extraordinarily difficult task to remove it.

Some of our young men, in the depths of their frustration, took to violent courses that were completely futile. Individual acts of terrorism took place, which meant nothing at all in the wider context of things. On the other hand, the politics of some of our leaders then was so feeble that it could produce no result. So, between the two, we did not know what we could do…

At that time, Gandhi came on the scene and he offered a way of political action to us. It was an odd way, a new way. What he said was not new in its essence. Great men had said it previously, but there was a difference in that he applied that teaching to mass political action. Something that the individual had been taught to do in his individual life was suddenly sought to be adopted for mass action.

Mass action in a vast country of people who, from the educational point of view, were illiterate, untrained and thoroughly frightened; people who—if I may refer to the peasantry of our country that formed about 80 per cent of our population—were kicked and cuffed by everybody who came in contact with them, whether it was a governmental agency or the moneylender. They never had any relief from the tremendous burden they endured.

Gandhi came and he told them that there was a way out, a way of achieving freedom. “First of all,” he said, “shed your fear. Do not be afraid, and then act in a united way but always peacefully. Do not bear any ill will in your hearts against your opponent. You are fighting a system, not an individual, not a race, not the people of another country. You are fighting the imperialist system.”

Now, it was not very easy for us to understand all this; and much more difficult it must have been for others, our peasantry, for instance. But the fact remains that there was some power in his voice, something in him that seemed to infuse other people with courage and make them feel that this man was not an empty talker, that he meant what he said and that he would be able to deliver the goods if I may put it so.


Almost magically, his influence spread. He was well known before also, but not in this way. And within a few months, we saw a change come over our countryside. The peasantry began to behave differently. It straightened its back. It could look you in the face. It had self-confidence and self-reliance.

This did not happen automatically, of course, for Gandhi’s message was carried to these peasants in the countryside by tens of thousands of young men and women. Within a few months, the whole situation in India changed.

Now, it is simple enough to say, “Do not be afraid”. There is nothing magical about that. Of what were we afraid? What is a person normally afraid of? Many things. We were afraid of being put in prison. We were afraid of our property being confiscated for sedition. We were afraid, if you like, of being shot at and killed as rebels.

Gandhi argued with us: “After all, if you are so frightfully keen on freedom, what does it matter if you go to prison, if your property is confiscated or even if you are killed? It does not matter much, because you will get something infinitely more. Apart from serving a great cause and apart from possibly achieving results, the mere act of doing this will fill you with a certain satisfaction and joy.”

Somehow or other, that voice seemed to convince masses of people; and there came about a tremendous change.

Thus started in India what might be called the Gandhian era in our politics, which lasted until his death and which, in some form or other, will always continue. I mention this so that you may have some kind of a picture of how we behaved. Large numbers of us gave up our normal professions and went to the villages preaching this gospel. We also preached other things which our political organisation demanded, and we forgot almost everything else that we used to do.

Our lives changed, not very deliberately— they simply changed, automatically and completely, so much so that it was a little difficult for us even to interest ourselves in those activities with which we had been previously associated. We were absorbed in the new activity of the moment—and not just for a moment but for years.

Obviously, we could not have done so if we did not find a great deal of satisfaction in it. We did find satisfaction; and when people imagine that I have gone through a great deal of pain and suffering because I went to prison for a number of years, they are perhaps partly right.

They are, however, fundamentally wrong in another sense, because most of us who endured privations felt that period to be the most significant in our lives.

It was not a period that might be measured in terms of normal happiness, it was something deeper than that—a period in which we felt a certain satisfaction. Why? Because, for the moment, our ideals were in conformity with our actions or, to put it the other way, we acted in accordance with our ideals. And there can be no greater satisfaction to an individual than when there is such a synthesis of thought and action in him. Then he becomes, for the moment, an integrated individual and he functions with power of conviction and strength.

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

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