Nehru's Word: The dilemmas of a mass leader and the uncompromising truth

"Once you start compromising, you are on a slippery slope and it may land you anywhere. So, what is one to do?"

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru
India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru
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Jawaharlal Nehru

In a world torn by conflict, hate and war, there is much to be learnt from Gandhi’s political practice. Jawaharlal Nehru repeatedly drew people’s attention to this, in India and abroad. On his first visit to the US in 1949, he spoke on this theme on multiple occasions—at the US Congress, at the United Nations, at universities. What follows is the second part of Nehru’s address at the University of Chicago on 27 October 1949 in which he explains the nuances of the Gandhian method of resistance based on non-violence and a combination of mass mobilisation and individual action.

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"We had ups and downs, apparent failures for the moment. But such was the nature of the technique of action which Gandhi had taught us that even in a moment of apparent failure there really was no going back.

You may have heard that a large number of us—a hundred thousand—were in prison and apparently nothing was happening in India. The movement for freedom was suppressed. It was so in a superficial sense. Six months later or a year later, suddenly one would find that the movement was very alive.

Repeatedly, the British government was amazed. It would think that it had put an end to this business; and then it would find that the movement had started off at a higher pitch than ever. A movement, which was a peculiar mixture of mass activity and individual action (that is, each individual doing something regardless of whether others did it or not), is a type very difficult to crush. It may be suppressed for a while; but whenthere is the individual’s own motivation and the individual wants to act regardless of whether others act or not, and when tens of thousands feel that way, it is very difficult to suppress them.

How do governments function? A democratic government, in the ultimate analysis, functions largely with the goodwill of the people and with their cooperation. It cannot go very much against them. Even an autocratic government has to have a measure of goodwill. It cannot function without it. In the ultimate analysis, a government functions because of certain sanctions which it has and which are represented by its army or police force.

If the government is in line with the thought of a majority of the people, it is a democratic government and only a very small minority of the people will feel its pressure. Now, if an individual refuses to be afraid of these sanctions, what can the government do? It may put him in prison. He is not afraid; he welcomes it. He may be shot down. He is not afraid of facing death.

Well, then a government has to face a crisis; that is, a government, in spite of its great power, cannot really conquer an individual. It may kill him but it cannot kill his spirit. That would be a failure on the part of the government. A government, which is essentially based, apart from the other factors that I have mentioned, upon the sanctions it has, comes up against something—the spirit of man which refuses to be afraid of those sanctions.

Now, that is a thing which normally governments do not understand. They are upset by it. They do not know how to deal with it. They can, of course, deal with the individual in the normal way of treating him as a criminal. But that, too, does not work, because that man does not feel like a criminal, nor do others regard him as a criminal. So, it does not work.

This process, this technique of action, was not one of overwhelming a government so much by mass action—although there was that phase of it—but rather one of undermining the prestige of a government before which an individual would not bow. Many of you, no doubt, have read something very like it in Thoreau’s writings. This was developed on a mass scale by Gandhi.


Naturally, the people of India were not very well-trained; nor did they understand too well the philosophy of this technique of action. They were weak and frail human beings. They slipped and made mistakes. Nevertheless, on the whole they did function according to that technique, and ultimately, they triumphed. That is one thing I should like you to bear in mind…

We have to face very difficult problems and those people who are in positions of responsibility have really a terrific burden to carry… As a political leader, you do not function as an individual; you function through other individuals whom you lead. You have to make those other individuals also understand the truth as you perceive it. It is not enough for you to perceive it. They are the material through which you act and, therefore, the measure of their activity is governed not by your understanding but by their own understanding of what you say.

Difficult questions, political or moral, thus arise. That you have to function through a medium is a limiting factor. You have to function through masses of men or governments or groups, and not as an individual. You may be a very great leader—a prophet if you like—but you are functioning as an individual, no doubt influencing others, no doubt influencing succeeding generations tremendously but, nevertheless, functioning as an individual.

Political leaders are not prophets, nor are they great seekers of truth. Even if they choose to follow what they consider the right path, they are limited by the fact that they have to make others move and not themselves alone. And so, they inevitably have to compromise. They have to compromise because there are so many forces at play which they cannot control.

Now, once you start compromising, you are on a slippery slope and it may land you anywhere. So, what is one to do? On the one hand, there is this danger of your losing all touch with reality or truth, and on the other hand, unless you compromise, you do not acknowledge reality, you are cut off from it and function merely as an individual and not as a leader.

This is a difficult problem that each one of us in his own small or big way has to face. I know no answer to it, because there can be no general answer and each case has to be considered separately.

But I would say this: even when one compromises, one should never compromise in regard to the basic truth. One may limit the application of it, remembering always the basic way, the basic objective and where the aim lies. But if we forget the basic objective, then the smallest step may lead us astray."

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

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