What is India?

The country’s most popular and enduring political text, The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru, started as an idea in Ahmednagar Fort jail in 1942

Photo courtesy: Prakash Book Depot, Bareilly
Photo courtesy: Prakash Book Depot, Bareilly

Rohit Prakash

The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, is one of the most enduring and popular books from the national movement. Few know that the genesis of the book took root in Ahmednagar Fort jail where he was imprisoned for his role as one of the organisers of the 1942 Quit India movement.

As the vigorous and often violent struggle against British rule raged outside, he struggled to write a book that re-imagined the past and present of India and Indians.

India in 1942

The World War II gave a fillip to anti-colonial forces across the world.  India was forced into the War on the orders of an alien administration. The Cripps Mission of March 1942, led by Stafford Cripps, offered Indians self-rule, a promise of a Dominion status after the War.

But this proposal did not specify the time of Independence. It also failed to transfer the responsibility for defence of India to Indians and kept all military powers with the British Commander-in-Chief. The Indian National Congress rejected Cripps offer and soon after on July 14, 1942 passed the “Quit India” resolution at Wardha, which was ratified three weeks later by the All India Congress Committee in Bombay. The resolution announced the launch of a mass movement against British rule which promised to continue till Independence was achieved.

Gandhi called for the slogan “Do or Die” as the main motivation for the masses. Congress President, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and other members including Jawaharlal Nehru, Govind Ballabh Pant, M Asaf Ali, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, all endorsed this resolution with enthusiasm.

During the early hours of August 9, 1942 the leaders of the Congress were arrested by the British authorities as part of a pre-emptive move. Several of them were put in different jails. While Gandhi and a few others were incarcerated in Bombay, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and M Asaf Ali were put on a separate train to Poona.

The Government closely guarded the information about the  jails leaders were imprisoned in, and their locations were not disclosed to the Press for months. Jawaharlal Nehru, along with his companions Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Narendra Deva, Govind Ballabh Pant, M Asaf Ali, and a few others were imprisoned in the Ahmadnagar Fort jail in Poona.

Writing ‘Discovery of India’

Nehru started writing the book on the April13, 1944, one year and eight months after his imprisonment began. His 11 companions in prison, who he dedicated The Discovery of India to, expected him to write another book like he had during his previous terms of imprisonment. Nehru considered the feelings of his friends, but restrained from writing anything for a long time because of two reasons. First, he could not decide if he should write about India’s past or present, and second, he did not want to write something in prison, where time stands still compared to the world outside.

When he finally picked up the pen, he relied on the extensive reading he had done in his earlier stints in jails, to answer the questions he had often asked himself while travelling across the country – what is India? Derived mostly from secondary sources and his experiences, The Discovery of India was written as a testimony of the struggle Indians had gone through the ages, especially during the British colonial period.

The Discovery of India was first published in 1946. This book has an immense significance for its political theory, aesthetics and socio-economic insights. Refusing to see India’s history as being necessarily entwined with Britain, Nehru established the integrity of India’s past and proved the nation’s right to be independent. He also traced India’s many links to the rest of Asia, thereby laying the foundations of his lifelong dedication towards Asian cooperation and resurgence. The central questions that Nehru posited in this work resonate with all Indians even today, as we all struggle to make sense of our choices, to sift the necessary from the indulgent, to connect rapid changes to more enduring continuities. This is one of the reasons why The Discovery of India has had an enduring appeal through the seven decades.

The book has been translated into all the official languages of India and adapted into a 50-part nationally broadcast television serial Bharat Ek Khoj directed by Shyam Benegal.

Children’s versions of the book have also been issued. While The Discovery of India might be a small part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s vast legacy, it is probably one the most influential books written on the history of modern India. As Sarvepalli Gopal, one of Nehru’s many biographers has noted, the book “carried not a precise, scientific argument but a buoyant message.”

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Published: 09 Aug 2017, 6:35 PM