Nehru phobia

Print edition : February 20, 2015

November 1954: Jawaharlal Nehru at the kindergarten of the China Welfare Institute, Shanghai. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

August 1959, Thiruvananthapuram: E.M.S. Namboodiripad, with his family, leading a procession of party workers after the first State government led by the Communist Party of India was dismissed from office in Kerala. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The Nehru phobia will last as long as the battle for India’s soul rages.

IN 1977, two Nehru baiters came to power in New Delhi—Morarji Desai as Prime Minister and Charan Singh as Union Home Minister. Inebriated with power, they let loose, overtly and, more so, covertly, a volley of attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru. Both were communalists to the core. In Morarji Desai’s case personal pique made the venom more virulent.

In this clime, an able journalist, Kewal Verma, remarked, in an interview, to External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, their Cabinet colleague in the Janata Party government: “In the corridors of the External Affairs Ministry, there is still a portrait of Nehru, a rare thing in government offices nowadays. Some of your Cabinet colleagues never miss an opportunity to run down Nehru.” Vajpayee’s swift reply revealed much of this complex man. “And I never miss an opportunity to pay tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru” (March 16, 1979).

In the same interview, incidentally, Vajpayee said “The RSS has no political ambitions. It is a cultural organisation. … I feel that the RSS should open its doors to all Indians irrespective of religion. …It has to be reformist in character, and not revivalist.”

The upstarts of 2015, who comprise the present regime headed by Narendra Modi, follow the precedent of 1977-79 when another bunch of upstarts, as drunk with power, but better educated, take to officially sponsored Nehru baiting. The Sangh Parivar and its fellow travellers in the Congress hate Nehru because at a crucial juncture in Indian history he stood up for the ideals propounded by the Congress since its birth and foiled their plans for a de facto Hindu Raj. Thanks to Nehru, the secular ideal, however battered, enjoys national acceptance today. But, make no mistake about it, the Nehru phobia will last, as long as the battle for India’s soul rages. It will end only when the battle ends decisively in, one hopes and prays, the total defeat of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its political offspring, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Absence of informed critique

However, the cause is poorly served by those who seek to prosper in the name of Nehru. In their eyes, professedly at least, he could do no wrong. In between come some, particularly Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) retirees, who, while lauding the great man, brand him a “nationalist” or “idealist” and thus betray the arrogant ineptness that marked them when they were in service.

Absent, alas, is informed critique that shuns shrill denunciation as well as uncritical adulation. As Foreign Minister, Nehru’s record is studded with grave errors that owed a lot not to his romanticism but to an unreal and arrogant notion of India as a great power, and were also inspired by personal hubris. He was no romanticist or idealist. In his dealings with all our neighbours —Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China—he was a hardliner who cared not a bit to reckon with any interest except India’s.

How does a student embark on a fuller study of a person of such historic significance and importance except by a close study of the records? In no other democracy is so retrograde a policy on archives followed as in India; even China and Russia are more liberal. The student has the doors shut in his face in the National Archives of India at Janpath; in the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in Teen Murti; and in Sonia Gandhi’s fiefdom at 10 Janpath in New Delhi.

As this writer pointed out in an article “Copyright in Nehru’s State Papers” ( Frontline, August 8, 1997), the copyright in the documents he wrote in the service of the state—be they letters, notes, or memoranda— vests entirely and exclusively in the Union of India. They did not fall part of his estate to be inherited by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her heirs. To a clear lack of legal title to them, Sonia Gandhi added characteristic arbitrariness in according or withholding access to the Nehru Papers.

A particularly gross case was grant of access to an American academic. Access was interrupted thanks to the protests of an Indian scholar.

In the sheer interests of scholarship, all the state papers composed by Jawaharlal Nehru should be brought under one single roof and their administration, on behalf of the Union of India, should vest in a body established by an Act of Parliament and comprising academics and public figures of unblemished repute. The entire exercise should be conducted in a non-partisan spirit with the cooperation of, of course, Sonia Gandhi, and the Trustees of the Nehru Memorial Fund. The same applies also to the papers of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and their successors in office as Prime Ministers.

Leaving the job to Modi and his aides will be disastrous. A Narendra Modi who can impose his crony Zafar Sareshwala, a Gujarati businessman, as Chancellor of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University at Hyderabad, on January 2, 2015, reveals, in a flash, an utter ignorance of matters academic; a proneness to abuse state power to promote favourites; and indifference, borne out of contempt, for the welfare of the university. Apart from the Urdu that Zafar Sareshwala speaks, the remarks he made on his appointment reveal him and his patron in their true colours. This is what Zafar Sareshwala blurted out: “I don’t know much about Maulana Azad Urdu University” ( The Indian Express; January 4, 2015). What respect can such a person command from the faculty, the students and, indeed, the society of which the university is a part?

There are two wider questions on this assault on the nation’s academia. Has such an appointment ever been made by any government? Secondly, how can one trust the Nehru Papers to the sole custody of a government which behaves thus?

Meanwhile, we have to fall back on the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. It has been noted in earlier reviews that the quality of editing has registered a steep decline under Madhavan K. Palat. The tit-bits published on the dust jackets, unprecedentedly, are inappropriate for such a serious compilation. They would please unsophisticated adolescents.

The graver flaw is selectivity. These volumes cover six months in the second half of 1959, an important phase in India’s history. All we are given on Kashmir, for instance, is a total of 15 documents; none of any significance. Two volumes have one document each; one has none at all. The rest have documents of little significance, such as Nehru’s travel schedule. Included is his reply to an obscure Member of Parliament who made the bright suggestion of a big power summit on Kashmir and its neutralisation. It is inconceivable that the six months yielded no documents of worth; Palat evidently decided not to include them. Such a selection is unprecedented in earlier volumes edited by scholars far more competent, one is constrained to conclude.

Crisis over EMS government

The volumes cover the crisis created by the agitation against the Communist Party of India (CPI) Ministry in Kerala headed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. On June 6, 1959, Nehru made a categorical statement: “So far as I am concerned, I do not propose, nor intend, nor look forward to, nor expect governments falling except through democratic process.” However, on the same day, Indira Gandhi said, “I am not saying that the State government has to go, but if the people there feel aggrieved, something should be done about their grievances.”

On July 25, 1959, she met the President of India and told newsmen after the meeting: “It is high time for the Central government to act in Kerala. In fact, Central action is long overdue in view of the hard facts of the situation.”

Six days later, on August 1, 1959, the President of India dismissed the Kerala government and imposed President’s Rule in the State. The agitation had completely paralysed the machinery of the government and Kerala was in near-anarchy. Ironically, Indira Gandhi was to face the same situation in Bihar and Gujarat, with JP’s movement, in 1974.

The report of Kerala’s Governor to the Centre said: “The legal and constitutional question is whether the Kerala government has lost the support of the overwhelming majority of the people and whether the allegations made of maladministration and subversion of democracy are substantially true. … The allegations made against the government are substantially true and I am convinced also that the government has lost the support of the majority of the people.”

Governor Burgula Ramakrishna Rao could not have arrogated to himself the right to judge whether a Ministry had forfeited public confidence without knowledge of Nehru’s support. He implied also that the Assembly, which backed the EMS government, had ceased to reflect popular support. The Assembly was not convened to give its verdict.

Nehru, the hardliner

Nehru, of course, approved both of the ouster and the agitation, as his letters to Subhadra Joshi on July 24 clearly implied—though, true to form, he lamented both. The selected documents in the pertinent Volume 50 tell little about the decision-making process.

The boundary dispute with China erupted in the open during the months covered by these volumes. Most of the documents they include, such as debates in Parliament, were already in the public domain. One should be grateful for the few others. Nehru took a hard line from the word go.

In a confidential note to the External Affairs Ministry Secretary-General and the Foreign Secretary on September 13, 1959, Nehru laid down the line and stuck to it. “The Aksai Chin area has to be left more or less as it is. We have no check-post there and practically little means of access. Any questions relating to it can only be considered, when the time arises, in the context of the larger question of the entire border. For the present, we have to put up with the Chinese occupation of this North-East sector and their road across it.

“Broadly speaking, we should be prepared for talks in regard to any minor deviation from the border as accepted by us throughout the three areas mentioned above. That is, we can discuss these matters if the time arises. But any question relating to major changes such as are envisaged in the Chinese maps cannot be considered by us in this way.”

He had hopelessly misunderstood the reality of a long-standing and genuine boundary dispute and imagined that “the new rigidity and aggressiveness of Chinese foreign policy is partly associated with developments within China”. In fact it was China which sought a meeting and offered a compromise, only to be rebuffed by Nehru.

In another such note to those officials dated October 14, 1959, Nehru offered his overall assessment. “One of the basic facts of the situation today is the emergence of China as a great power. She is not strong enough perhaps today to function in opposition to the other great powers. But there can be no doubt that she will grow in strength. She is already past the stage when she can be suppressed. With her tremendous population and the rapidity of her industrial advance, she may well become, in course of time, the strongest power in the world. We have also to keep in mind that the Chinese have always tended to be expansive and even aggressive.

“It is, on the whole, likely that the Soviet [Union] and the U.S.A. will come a little nearer to each other in the course of the next few years. What effect this will have on China, I do not know. But it will be a check. As a matter of fact, the rapid pace of advance in modern weapons and fighting power is such that it might upset all calculations. There really is no choice left in the world but of a firm peace and disarmament or moving fairly rapidly to vast wars and destruction.

“Looking at this picture, it seems to me that the policy we have thus far pursued has not only been right in the past and the present, but will be even more so in the future. We must not be swept away by momentary passions or public excitement into any adventurist line of action. We must, at the same time, strengthen ourselves, and that really means industrial strength which can be reflected in the defence forces. I hope we shall never have to use those defence forces in war, and if there is a real widespread disarmament, we should welcome it and abide by it. But I fear that a mere desire for peace is not adequate for maintaining it or even preserving our independence and integrity. While, therefore, we should quietly and without fuss strengthen India industrially and otherwise, we should, at the same time, strictly adhere to a policy of peace and friendliness with other countries. We cannot surrender in any sense to Chinese claims or threats. But we must also remember that China is our permanent neighbour and to invite trouble from China is wisdom neither in the present nor in the future.” The reality of a genuine dispute eluded him in these banalities.

He was averse to meeting Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. Home Minister G. B. Pant suddenly sprouted as an expert on the dispute, taking advantage of Nehru’s weak position, politically. Nehru wrote to him: “I did not particularly like the reference to the Aksai Chin in the previous draft. And yet, I am not quite sure in my mind if all reference to this area should be omitted, even though we might be prepared to take this matter up later. To expect the Chinese to withdraw from the road in the Aksai Chin area is beyond the bounds of probability. This might become a complete stumbling block at an initial stage.” His confusion was palpable, as ever.

A note to an official for drafting a reply said, “As for my being aware of the Chinese challenge, in a sense, every thinking person, whether in Europe or in Asia, realised that a vast country like China would be a formidable power once it is industrialised. Also that there was a tendency in Chinese history to expand.

The slogan ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ was not started by me. This is an ordinary phrase used in Delhi or elsewhere whenever any high personality comes from abroad. There was no reason for me to try to stop it. It is always good to try to be friendly with everybody.” In Beijing Zhou had a cordial meeting with Ambassador G. Parthasarathi, in which he stressed the need for a rapprochement. But in a letter to Tito, on December 22, 1959, Nehru dismissed Zhou’s proposal for a meeting as insincere and “for the sake of propaganda”. All evidence including minutes of Nikita Khrushchev’s talks in Beijing then establish that Zhou as well as Mao Zedong were determined to settle.

It is not surprising that Nehru rejected Zhou’s offer of a fair compromise in New Delhi in April 1960. One hopes the volumes to come will be more helpful than these.

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