Taylor Sherman, a professor of history at the London School of Economics in her book Nehru’s India - A history in Seven Myths discusses perceptions of India during Jawaharlal Nehru’s prime ministership, widely held to be true even by historians but which, according to her are myths, arrived at “not by the careful assemblage of contemporary evidence but by repetition over time, especially by those in authority.”
The ‘myths’ Sherman expands on are that (1) Nehru is the architect of independent India, (2) Non alignment is the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy (3) India is a secular state (4) India is socialist (5) India is a strong state (6) India is a successful democracy (7) post-Independence India pursued a single Nehruvian vision of a modernising India.
Sherman’s is a convoluted albeit deeply researched work. Her first contention that Nehru, far from being the architect of independent India, was a mere facilitator who shaped post-colonial India through “supporting projects that were proposed by energetic people around him,” however, flies in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the views of well-known historians such as Judith Brown and Ramachandra Guha.
Nehru, in fact, had long had a vision of a strong, industrially advanced, secular democratic India. What Sherman misses out on is the fact that Nehru had the perspicacity to support projects and initiatives that fitted with his dreams of a new India rather than merely supporting “projects that were proposed by energetic people around him,” as she contends.
Role of S&T in development
Nehru was aware of the role science and technology could play in development. It was only with his full backing that Homi Bhaba and Vikram Sarabhai could get India’s atomic or space programmes up and running. He brought in talent from everywhere. On his invitation, the famous American designer couple, Charles and Ray Eames, travelled across India. Their famous India Report led to the establishment of the National Institute of Design—still the country’s best—in 1961. It was Nehru again who brought in Le Corbusier to realise his dream city of Chandigarh.
By the time of his death Nehru had built more dams, steel plants and institutions of science and technology than ever in India’s history. But none of these things would have come about without Nehru steering his country with deft confidence through very challenging times in the years following Independence. In very unpromising circumstances Nehru proceeded to frog-march India into the modern age surprising the world but not Sherman.
Nehru’s foreign policy based on non-alignment enabled India to have enough strategic autonomy to steer clear of alliances. This in turn helped him lay the foundations of a modern industrial state with support from the Western and Eastern bloc of nations caught up in a long cold war. This is a view surprisingly endorsed by Sherman. However, she qualifies her statement by stating India’s non-alignment had a Western tilt.
A third aspect of the Nehruvian era Sherman challenges is the secular character of the Indian state under Nehru especially since Indian Muslims did not have a fair deal. Against what standards is Sherman judging one wonders for secularism anywhere is always a work in progress. However, the fact that India could incorporate secularism in a Constitution that came into force soon after a bloody religion-driven partition is remarkable for the way in which it made India’s Muslims feel secure as a minority.
Challenges to integrity
Sherman also contests the notion that India was a Nehruvian socialist state since private enterprise thrived in a period of state-led development of the economy. On that, few who lived through the Nehruvian era, doubted that India was anything but a mixed economy with special consideration towards its poor and marginalised. What then is Sherman trying to get at?
Another of Sherman’s contentions is that the Indian state was not as strong as it claimed to be. As she observes, “Encompassing the assassination of two Prime Ministers and multiple regional insurgencies, there was a widespread perception that India was suffering a ‘crisis of governability’ in this period. Its state was said to be omnipresent but feeble.” Once again Sherman highlights as a weakness what in reality is its strength—India’s ability to overcome a crisis and unite.
The Indian state is strong because it could see off so many challenges to its integrity including insurgencies in its North East, the separatist Khalistan movement in Punjab and terrorism in Kashmir. If India wasn’t a strong state none of this would have been possible.
Another aspect Sherman runs down is India as an example of a successful democracy. According to her, India’s democracy is compromised since caste plays a big role in it. What Sherman ignores is the fact that special interests play a huge role in determining democratic outcomes in all democracies and India is no exception. That doesn’t make it any less of a successful democracy than the United States or Israel.
The last of the seven perceptions Sherman debunks is one of “a singular, authoritarian modernism,” coming from a Prime Minister “who wielded enormous power by pulling the levers of a “centralising homogenising state.” In states like India, transformational infrastructure projects like dams, airports, roads and railways have been initiated by the government starting with Nehru. To call these projects authoritarian modernism is to miss the point.
One redeeming feature of Sherman’s book is that it is richly researched and alerts us to the fact that there were other Indians apart from Nehru who distinguished themselves in diverse fields. That, of course, is a splendid thing to know!
The reviewer teaches public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bangalore
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Title: Nehru’s India: A history in Seven Myths
Author: Taylor C Sherman
Publisher: Oxford: Princeton University Press -UK 2022