The maker of modern India

Updated on: May 25, 2017
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For a younger generation to truly appreciate the visionary Nehru was, our historians need to recast him more credibly

Jawaharlal Nehru died 53 years ago this month — May 27, to be precise. His memory continues to dim in an increasingly young country that hardly remembers him. There is very little informed appreciation of the man, more responsible for conjuring the India we live in today than any of his contemporaries, Patel and Bose included. Incomparable Gandhi of course, stands a class apart and a step above, belonging to a different order altogether.

As legacies go, Nehru’s is a mixed bag of spectacular achievements and humongous failures — just as we continue to reap the benefits of the former, we have never ceased enduring the ill-effects of the later.

Building new India

The India that Nehru took charge of in 1947 was miserably poor, hardly literate and unable to feed itself. It was also traumatised by a violent partition. Incredibly, Nehru, while fire-fighting to bring together and consolidate our country, found the time to do things that transformed it.

He had a lot to show for his 17 years as Prime Minister among them the reform of India’s antiquated Hindu laws for instance, and an empathy-loaded approach to India’s marginalised tribal communities believing that “People should develop along the lines of their own genius.”

All the institutions that India is proud of today were founded in his time — our IITs, IIMs, NID, the Atomic Energy Commission the precursor to ISRO, the Indian National Committee for Space Research to name a few.

The country’s first atomic reactor Apsara, went critical in 1956 and India successfully tested its first rocket from Thumba in late 1963. Critical as one might be of the now defunct Planning Commission, under Nehru, it undoubtedly brought a sense of purpose as well as focus to the task of transforming India into a modern state.

Of all his successes, the greatest was the creation of the modern Indian state. It was his personal achievement. Nehru worked hard to ensure a major portion of British India emerged as one country and, equally importantly, as the successor state to the British Indian Empire. That India became a secular democratic republic with a modern constitution and universal adult franchise can, almost entirely, be credited to him.

Nehru’s stellar record as Prime Minister was, however, marred by two major failures: the manner in which Partition happened, resulting in the emergence of a hostile Pakistan; and his inability to quickly settle the border dispute with China. Thanks to Nehru, we now have two formidable enemies, joined at the hip, on our frontiers, when, with some deft handling, neither ought to have been our foe.

Recipe for mayhem

In the final negotiations leading up to Independence, Nehru and the Congress held nearly all the aces. Freedom from a Britain, bled and impoverished by World War II, no longer had to be wrested for it was now available for the asking. Instead of leveraging a British desperation to get out of the sub-continent, Nehru acquiesced to a hare-brained scheme to split the British-Indian empire into two- within a matter of weeks — a guaranteed recipe for mayhem on a mass scale.

He would have done well to ‘hasten slowly’ ensuring a velvet- divorce that would not have required the movement or death of so many millions, generating the kind of long-lasting inter-communal hatreds which destroyed religious accommodations built over a millennium in the sub-continent. Our historians, unpardonably avoid a discussion on this even as most of the documents relating to the transfer of power are now in the public domain and read together contradict all commonly accepted accounts of partition.

A second great failure of Nehru was not to have seriously renegotiated our borders with China. What came in the way was his exaggerated notion of India as a continuum, improbably asserting that ‘India’s northern frontiers are not the result of any British imperialistic expansion, achieved in violation of China’s rights or interest, but have their sanction in the facts of geography and history, and the generally accepted principles of international law’.

Here, the observations of a British intelligence officer’ that he shares with ‘De Vallera a habit of drawing upon the centuries for his arguments,’ was spot on.

Contrary to popular impression Nehru was ruthless and decisive, a tough and worthy successor to the imperialists he succeeded and whose mindset he inherited. He retained colonial India’s most repressive laws and used them, convinced that ‘When the vital needs of the state demand such suppression, it has to be undertaken.’ As we all know, Nehru did not hesitate to lock up his friend Sheikh Abdullah, for nearly 11 years — the longest political incarceration of anyone in free India, and, unethically, moved to swiftly remove a fairly elected Communist government in Kerala.

Foreign affairs

Nehru fancied himself an ace in foreign affairs. He took personal charge of India’s external relations and proceeded to wring it of all professionalism by bringing in dilettantes like his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit and rude, abrasive VK Krishna Menon to deal with the world.

In the Non-Aligned Movement, NAM, he co-founded, Nehru sat uneasily with strongmen like Tito, Sukarno, and Nasser. From its inception, NAM remained a talking shop, never taken seriously by anyone, not by the Russians and even less so, the Americans.

As a person, Nehru was sensitive and thin-skinned. An aside in a British intelligence report recorded that he ‘gave the impression that he would not stand up well to anything in the nature of serious heckling.’ How true! While Nehru encouraged Shankar to good humouredly lampoon him through his cartoons, he could take serious offence when a minister observed that ‘The Prime Minister is like a great banyan tree. Thousands shelter beneath it, but nothing grows.’ His letters to chief ministers were remarkable for their naivety and concern for what foreigners thought of us. But these were foibles that caused no lasting damage.

As a leader, Nehru was much less toxic than Mao or Stalin. The free hand he gave Sardar Patel to integrate the princely States into the Indian Union worked wonderfully well. The India he left behind was more secular, its Muslim citizens more secure, than ever before, all without making the country’s Hindu majority feel desperate or lost.

It is no exaggeration to state that Nehru was indeed the maker of modern India. For a younger generation to truly appreciate him, our historians need to recast Nehru more credibly, warts and all while junking the hagiographies in circulation today. Anything less would be an affront to his memory.

The writer is visiting faculty at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, IISc, Bangalore

Published on January 12, 2018

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