Reclaiming a nation

Urmi Chanda-Vaz | Updated on December 31, 2019 Published on December 27, 2019

Man for the times: One of the most important facets of Nehru is his rejection of the narrow ideal of nationalism   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Purushottam Agrawal’s collection of essays unpacks Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for India

If Jawaharlal Nehru is considered the leader of the club that the Indian right wing likes to malign, then it is worth signing up for it twice. First, because it’s funny how he threatens the followers of Hindutva so much even decades after his death; and second, because once you’ve heard Nehru speak in his own voice, it is impossible to not become his ‘bhakt’. Nehru would balk at this term being used in his context, but if anyone warrants blind admiration, it is he. In the pages of Purushottam Agrawal’s Who is Bharat Mata? On History, Culture and the Idea of India — a collection of essays by and on the former Prime Minister — Nehru rises again like a blazing phoenix, ready to burn down every ridiculous myth, every blatant lie told about him.

Who is Bharat Mata? On History, Culture and the Idea of Inda: Writings by and On Jawaharlal Nehru; Purushottam Agrawal; Speaking Tiger; ₹599


Agrawal, a writer and academic, is a true-blue Nehruvian who presents a compelling case for Nehru even for the staunchest of Hindutva hardliners. But he has been on the other side too. It is interesting to note that he comes with a first-hand experience of the RSS shakha culture — he spent a few months as a young boy at one.

The book collates Nehru’s writings from a wide range of sources, including the seminal Discovery of India and My Autobiography. Agrawal also does not shy away from including contrarian voices in the collection, such as those of Bhagat Singh and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. But even Nehru’s most ardent critics seem to be in awe of his personality, speaking of him with the utmost respect.

There are many things to learn from Nehru’s tall persona, but three things stand out. His exceptional erudition and insights, evident in A Discovery of India, indicate his deep understanding of India’s history, culture and values. But his greatest merit is in being able to do so with objectivity.

Nehru has been repeatedly painted as an anti-Hindu, Western-educated leader who was clueless about the country’s cultural self. But while he was non-religious and relentlessly questioned the blind acceptance of the old order, he understood its place and role in society. Moreover, he asserted the importance of a scientific temperament and saw it as the necessary way forward. “It is therefore with the temper and approach of science, allied to philosophy, and with reverence for all that lies beyond, that we must face life,” he writes in A Discovery of India.

The second is Nehru’s unfailing devotion to MK Gandhi. The two fought and had differences of opinion, but Nehru was Gandhi’s most ardent disciple. His methods may have differed from that of Gandhi’s, but his commitment to the cause was infallible. This is understood best, not by his own claims, but by Gandhi’s confidence in him. In a 1941 speech, Gandhi says: “Somebody suggested that Pandit Jawaharlal and I were estranged. This is baseless. [...] You cannot divide water by repeatedly striking it with a stick. It is just as difficult to divide us. I have always said that not Rajaji, nor Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, but Jawaharlal will be my successor. He says whatever is uppermost in his mind, but he always does what I want. When I am gone, he will do what I am doing now. Then he will speak my language too.”

The third and perhaps the most important facet about Nehru, especially in contemporary politics, is his rejection of the narrow ideal of nationalism. He recognises the polarising effects of nationalism and repeatedly warns his readers and countrymen against its pitfalls. In one instance, he owns up to the Congress falling into this very trap, and thereby failing in its foremost duty: To do good for the people.

Ever the accountable leader, he writes in An Autobiography: “But the real reason why the Congress and other non-official organisations cannot do much for social reform goes deeper. We suffer from the disease of nationalism, and that absorbs our attention and it will continue to do so till we get political freedom.”

Nehru’s words ring especially true today. An entire state has been under lockdown for over four months, people are being ousted from their homelands and being deemed illegal, detention centres are being built, activists are being charged with sedition, and people are being lynched in the name of god. Nehru reminds us in this book that a nation is its people. If her people are suffering, it cannot be for the ‘greater good’ of some imagined entity that we call the motherland. If only we would allow him to speak to us again and remind us truly about who Bharat Mata is.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a writer and researcher focusing on Indian cultural history

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Published on December 27, 2019
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