My uncle and Eleanor Roosevelt

Omair Ahmad | Updated on May 08, 2018 Published on February 05, 2016

The good ol’ days:Pandit Nehru andEleanor Roosevelt(right) during adinner in October1949. - The Hindu Archives


Once upon a time in India, questions of gentlemanly honour (as opposed to shallow posturing) used to vex politically conscious young men

A couple of months ago, I was in my hometown, Gorakhpur, in eastern Uttar Pradesh. As is usual during my visits back to a town where I have lived only during my college days and vacations, I catch up with uncles and older cousins to understand the town that I never knew. Habib Ahmad, my father’s elder brother, is usually a fount of information. It is not just that he is now hitting 90, but through his long legal practice, he has seen a world that has now disappeared over the horizon, as time and the helter-skelter development of India have wiped out much of what the old world was — while leaving little traces of it in good writing. We hear the stories of Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, but rarely of the smaller towns of Kozhikode, Jhansi, Aizawl or Gorakhpur.

This time, I do not know why, we ventured to his student days. He had studied at Allahabad University at a time when it was still called the Oxford of the East. The Indian Republic had just been created, and there were high expectations of what we could achieve — and with those expectations came the inevitable disappointments. In 1952, the Allahabad University Students’ Union was dominated by Communists, and they were more than a little angry at the state of the world, and India. The Korean War was in its second year of brutal, bloody stalemate, and then Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President, arrived for a month-long visit to India in March.

On her tour through Allahabad she received a degree from the University and subsequently, was supposed to address the students’ union. Before that could happen, a letter arrived from the students. It had the most scathing condemnation of US policies, both within the US — “discrimination, colour prejudice and Negro lynching” as well as the paranoid search of “Reds-under-beds” — and abroad, most prominently in the bloody Korean War. Roosevelt was advised by the Indian government not to go to the students’ union. The cancellation of the talk provoked the students even more.

My uncle chuckled as he recalled how one students’ union member came to them and declaimed in fiery tones, “Gentlemen! We have not been judged gentlemen enough!” The students, led by the union members, decided to gherao Anand Bhawan, where Roosevelt was staying. In response, the mounted police were called out. In a bid to make sure that they were not trampled, the students lay down on the ground, so that the horses would avoid them. My uncle ended up next to an open drain, and ruefully mourned his newly stitched shirt being soiled — even for so good a cause.

Roosevelt, who was taken by surprise by the demonstration, and despite being miffed at “the vice president of the union who was one of the foolish boys who had signed the open letter”, agreed to give a talk. The students dispersed, and the next day gave her a nice scroll as a gift before the talk. Roosevelt would go on to write about it — rather honestly and candidly, my uncle said approvingly, in her book India and the Awakening East.

In the hullaballoo, the students had expressed their displeasure at the Indian government in another, more personal manner. Jawaharlal Nehru was an honorary member of the Allahabad University’s students’ union, but protesting at the government’s action, the union cancelled his membership. A few weeks later, when Nehru visited the University, he let his anger show, and said, “ Main jaanta tha ki yeh students’ union mein gadhe bhare hain, aur tumne yeh sabit kar ke dikhaya…” (I knew this students’ union was filled with donkeys, and you proved it…)” In response, one of the union members demanded of Nehru why he had run to the same donkeys when he was being persecuted by the British.

Writing about these events now brings with it a strong sense of nostalgia, and a sense of what has been lost. It is impossible to imagine a Prime Minister addressing a students’ union in any university, especially one so against him. Recently, when Narendra Modi was heckled by Dalit students at Bhimrao Ambedkar University, they were arrested for their protests. They are now out on bail. Allahabad University has fallen so low from grace that when the senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan went to meet the vice chancellor after a talk he had given nearby, the ABVP surrounded the VC’s office and threatened violence until the police could extricate him. I wonder what Nehru would have thought of these new donkeys. Also, where did that world go, the one in which people could take offence at not being considered “gentlemen enough”?

(Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for the Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas)


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Published on February 05, 2016
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