At a time when studied forgetfulness has reached epidemic proportions, a diligent exercise of recalling the life and times of an iconic personality in recent history is to be commended. Professor Purushottam Agrawal has done so in this very readable volume with an eye on a new generation of citizens and readers.
Nehru was a prolific writer. He did this in jail when he was a freedom fighter. He continued doing so when shouldering the burden of office. His selected works now run into two series, the first consisting of 15 volumes and the second, still unfinished, in 78 volumes. By a happy coincidence, the 79th volume is to be made available tomorrow, July 1 and covers the period up to November 30, 1962. So another 2 or 3 volumes can be expected to cover the remaining period. Last year the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Trust took the decision to digitize the whole set and so make access to them readily available.
Jawaharlal Nehru was independent India’s first Prime Minister, a close aide of Mahatma Gandhi, an important leader in the freedom movement, a thinker and a visionary who read and reflected on the history of our land, a modern man who appreciated the relevance of science and technology in solving the problems of national development, and a citizen of the world who visualized the role that India could play in the comity of nations. On each of these counts, Nehru’s imprint is indelible.
Rajni Kothari, our most eminent political scientist and social activist of an earlier era, wrote an essay entitled ‘The Meaning of Jawaharlal Nehru’ a few weeks after Nehru’s death. It began with the following words:
The greatest contribution of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, to the development of the Indian nation was neither the policy of non-alignment nor the conception of the five year plans, but the practical achievement of providing a durable basis to India’s democratic institutions and of endowing them with an aura of legitimacy.
It is an achievement more lasting and pervasive than any of the doctrines by which he used to move India’s intellectuals from time to time.
Nehru’s life work was not so much of having started a revolution as of having given rise to a consensus. Curiously, he did not himself see the real significance of his work.’
Nehru was a realist and conscious of the challenges confronting him. When the French philosopher Andre Malraux asked about the greatest difficulty faced by him since independence, Nehru’s response was candid: ‘creating a just state by just means; perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country.’ In a society of immense diversity, he sought to give shape to his vision through a democratic polity based on Rule of Law and a secular state structure. To him, secularism was both an empirical proposition reflecting the plural reality of our society as also a normative principle of being good in itself.
He sought to persuade his fellow citizens to cultivate a scientific outlook and eschew superstition and prejudice.
Nehru’s role in de-colonization and in the great global crises of the 1950s has been written about at some length. His role was appreciated by some, resented by others. Particularly terse was US President Truman’s comment on India’s role in the Korean conflict: ‘Nehru has sold us down the Hudson. His attitude has been responsible for us losing the war in Korea.’
His successes were many; time and experience have also shed light on his limitations. Seven decades after Independence and over half a century after Nehru left the scene, a younger generation of citizens needs to be reminded of his multifaceted personality and his contribution to the shaping of modern India.
Prof. Agrawal’s book is a good introduction to this process.