Nehru’s contradictions

Print edition : July 24, 2015

June 1954: Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

September 26, 1960: Prime Minister Nehru and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser meeting in New York when they came to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

D.H. Lawrence, author of "Lady Chatterley's Lover".

Nehru proposed a ban on the novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover".

The four volumes on Nehru that no student of India’s history can do without throw light on different facets of his personality, including his intolerance of dissent.

These four volumes of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru retain the triple features which mark the series. Firstly, indispensability; no student of India’s recent history, its administration and politics can do without them. Secondly, they are excellently produced. The last trait, which the editor Madhavan K. Palat injected distinctly, uniquely, ever since he took over, is a marked lowering of the standard of editing which was also noted earlier. It is a steep fall from the time of previous editors from Sarvepalli Gopal to Mushirul Hasan, who was ousted from the task, without cause, though he had done a far better job than the editors who served in the phase between Gopal and him.

Documents of real value which one might expect in this entire period (January 1-April 14, 1960) are missing. Thanks for small mercies, though—the minutes of Nehru’s talks with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Even the Index has suffered. Palat revels in trivia, and the nuggets he lovingly sets out on the blurbs (Vol. 57–60) reveal that vividly. Here is a sample. “On Mussoorie: ‘It is a place where tourist and pleasure-seekers go for a short while. It has no individuality and it is no place for serious people to live for long.’” Nehru informed the Lok Sabha on March 9 that the cyclone victims of Mauritius would improve their health by eating wheat rather than arhar dal and rice.

Khrushchev told Nehru, “The great news which has shaken the world is that Shah’s wife is now expecting.” Nehru added, “The great question is whether the child is going to be a boy or a girl.” Khrushchev followed up: “Shah is not a wise person. We are indifferent to whether Shah’s wife is pregnant, but will welcome a child regardless of whether it is a boy or a girl.”

Palat records, “Nehru found the time to advise S.R. Das, the Vice-Chancellor of Viswa-Bharati, on how to run the university’s kitchens; and the Vice-Chancellor seemed to need prime ministerial advice on the matter.” This gloss is his, offensively. During an exchange in the Rajya Sabha on February 29, 1960, Bhupesh Gupta asked whether Acharya Kripalani proposed to lead troops against the Chinese. “Delhi is the worst place for any kind of intellectual work,” Nehru wrote to B.V. Keskar.

Krishna Lal Shridharani wrote in Amrita Bazar Patrika: “Mr Nehru can get away with the Bhoodan of Aksai Chin. He is such a darling of the people that he can get away with anything, including murder as the English idiom goes, although he is incapable of committing a murder.” Shridharani remarked about concessions to China: “This will be the Waterloo of ‘N’ (he once had his stationery printed with the Napoleonic ‘N’) if he appeases Chou En-lai.”

Cartoons abound even in the middle of the texts. This was an important and preparatory phase, prior to China’s Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s visit to India. Documentation on this is virtually non-existent. Whatever is the point of reproducing in 26 pages the full text of China’s Note of December 26, 1959, providing detailed historical data in support of its case, which is already available in our White Paper III for anyone interested in the material, now over a century later?

Records of press conferences, on the other hand, are most useful. Nehru became obsessed with Current, a Mumbai tabloid edited by D.F. Karaka, which was critical of him. A question—who in the army leaked information to him? On the other hand, both he and Indira Gandhi encouraged a far worse, irresponsible and salacious, tabloid, Blitz, edited by R.K. Karanjia because he attacked their critics in intemperate language. Both gave him lengthy interviews.

On Tibet

In one, Nehru said, “Tibet, of course, is part of China, but Mr Chou himself told me that it was not a province of China, and would not be treated as such, that Tibetans were not Chinese but Han people different from the Chinese people and that, therefore, the Peking Government would consider Tibet as an autonomous region of China and treat it as such.

“We have, of course, no authority or interest in Tibet, nor do we claim any. At the same time, the fact remains that Tibet is a holy land for Hindus and Buddhists and, as such, it has become part of the consciousness of India. It is a spiritual and sentimental rather than political attachment to Mansarovar and the holy shrines, Buddhism and the institution of the Dalai Lama; and when these come under repression or violence, powerful reactions follow among our people, to which the government cannot remain unresponsive.

“The Tibetans are certainly backward, feudal, maybe difficult and unbending—all that granted, but can you really impose reforms upon such a difficult community without persuasion and consent? It only creates emotional resistance and physical clashes. … The solution, I suppose, is Tibetan autonomy in the Chinese State. Apart from the historical, religious and emotional factors, Tibetan terrain makes it impossible for anybody to dominate or colonise these people.”

Manuscripts from China

On the state’s ownership of documents acquired or produced in the course of public duty, this note by Foreign Secretary S. Dutt on February 25, 1960, is relevant. “During the past sessions of Parliament and the present, there have been questions on the manuscripts which Dr Raghu Vira brought from China. The circumstances in which Dr Raghu Vira secured these manuscripts are stated in the note flagged ‘S’. I would also draw FM’s attention to his letter to Dr Raghu Vira (flag ‘T’) and Ambassador Raghavan’s letter (flag ‘Z’). There is little doubt in my mind that the Chinese government handed over the documents to Dr Raghu Vira and gave him all the facilities which he wanted on the understanding that he was collecting them on behalf of the Government of India. Dr Raghu Vira now apparently regards his collection as his private property. I understand that he has kept the manuscripts in his house at Delhi and does not allow access to outside scholars. Other noted Indian scholars have expressed their doubt as to whether Dr Raghu Vira is competent to make the best use of these manuscripts. It is unfortunate that he has not even furnished us with a list. I think the present position is unsatisfactory. The manuscripts should be properly housed under government and Dr Raghu Vira may be given some special facilities for access to them and their study.”

Nehru agreed. “We feel that in any event such manuscripts and documents should be considered national property and placed in a National Museum where any scholar could see them. He would, of course, have full access to them. If he agrees to the fact that they are national property, we may allow him to keep them for a while, if he is using them. Even so, a full list should be prepared and kept with us or the Museum authorities.” That surely applies to the Nehru Papers, which his heirs claim to be inherited private property and are sitting on. Legislation is called for.

Advice to Nepal

There is an important document, Nehru’s brief to Ambassador Harishwar Dayal on February 27, 1960. Nehru would have him advise Nepal to take the same ruinous hard line on the boundary with China which he took consistently since 1954—there is no dispute; our claim is not negotiable. “The Nepalese should adhere to their stand that their boundary was never in dispute. It is traditional and well known and based on unchanging geographical features. They should not agree to the position that the boundary has not been delimited in the past and has to be agreed upon afresh between the two sides. The Nepal delegation should give the Chinese at the start of their discussion a detailed description of the boundary describing it from point to point and call upon the Chinese to accept this.” Nepal concluded a boundary agreement with China on March 21, 1960, as Burma had done on January 28, 1960. Nehru opposed even a non-aggression pact between Nepal and China. He sneered at Nepal’s “incomplete” accord. It was a prelude to the Boundary Treaty with China on October 5, 1961.

What emerges sharply is Nehru’s reluctance to meet Zhou even to the point of misrepresenting those agreements and Zhou’s conciliatory approach. He told Nasser in March 1960: “Recent Chinese treaties with Burma and Nepal are not complete. They have left it to commission to define the borders. They have gone, to some extent, to recognise Nepalese and Burmese claims. This is being done to put pressure on us. We are not prepared to accept commissions for defining the 2500-mile frontier.

“Nasser: What could be the object of Chou’s visit except to show that he is trying to solve the problem peacefully?

“PM: He invited me first. They are used to ordering people about, but I saw no reason why I should run about at his orders. I refused to go to Rangoon or Peking but I felt that it would not be right to leave the matter there. So I invited him to come here. I have said that we are not going to negotiate on Chou’s terms. The forthcoming talks are intended to find out what is at the back of each other’s mind. Talks may adjourn without any results. As far as I can see, I cannot think of any useful suggestion that Chou may make.”

Agreements with Burma and Nepal settled the boundary dispute by defining the boundary line and leaving it to Joint Commissions of experts to demarcate on the ground. Zhou did not order the prickly Nehru. He pleaded for a meeting. Contrary to Nehru’s prediction, Zhou accepted the McMahon Line provided India conceded Aksai Chin. The exact area was negotiable. Nehru rejected it.

Nehru soon acquired hitherto unsuspected skills in managing Parliament. He told the Lok Sabha on February 22, 1960: “People thought no doubt that I would talk at length with Mr Khrushchev about our troubles with China and that I would appeal to him or beg of him or request him to come to our help or bring pressure on China. I am rather surprised that people should think so. At any rate, that is not my idea of diplomacy or of treating a distinguished guest in this way. As a matter of world survey and our own problems, I did refer to our border troubles, with him, and very briefly in half a dozen sentences perhaps. I told him that this is our case; it is all for your information. Because I felt that not to refer to it was itself wrong when we were discussing our problems. But I did not ask him to do this or that for us; I did not ask him to bring pressure to bear. That, I thought, was none of my business. It is for them to consider what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. There the matter ended. It was a brief talk on this subject, maybe lasting a few minutes.”

Sounding Khrushchev for support

Literally true; but he had, albeit gingerly, sounded Khrushchev for support, when they met on February 11, 1960, in New Delhi. “PM: May I refer to a matter which is of great interest and embarrassment to us? This is our present relationship with China. Mr Khrushchev has friendly relations with both India and China and personally he is a man of great wisdom and experience. So I refer to this matter, because I feel that he will well realise and appreciate that this matter is not only embarrassing for us but for him also. I would like to thank him for his various speeches and tell him that both as a matter of policy and best relations with China, we want to solve the present dispute in a peaceful and friendly way. But I must confess that our respective positions are so different that at present there is no bridge between us.

“Recently our government has sent a reply to China. Although for the moment there is no basis for negotiations, a personal meeting will be generally helpful. China and India are neighbours with a long friendship. It will be unfortunate if tensions were to continue indefinitely. I am not going into the merits of these matters. These are complicated matters involving the border. All kinds of things such as history, custom, tradition are involved, but I will be glad to supply any material which you may like to have.

“Khrushchev: May I say something? You are quite right. It is a most embarrassing question which you have hurled at me. The difficulty is that we think that you and China both are friendly and peace-loving countries. We made a statement, the significance of which you have rightly and correctly appreciated. We took no definite stand and will do our best to hold that line. We would not like our relations with either of our two friends to cool off. It is possible for two wise men to agree among themselves. If the third man appears on the scene, he will only make matters worse, no matter how intelligent or stupid he may be. Even if the two sides requested mediation, it will be very difficult for a third person to mediate. You and China are right in not asking for mediation. Our warmest wishes are that this conflict may come to an end as soon as possible and in a manner which will be to the satisfaction of all concerned.…

“I am happy at the prospect of your meeting with Chou En-Lai. I am certain that when two reasonable people meet, they can find arguments to settle the conflict. The date and time for a meeting is a delicate question for you, China and for us. I know I have not been able to satisfy you, but I cannot do anything more than express my warm wishes for an early settlement of this matter.

“PM: I appreciate your position. I raised this matter with great hesitation. I thought that it would be improper [?] not to mention a subject of importance at a time when you were having a frank and friendly discussion covering a broad range of problems.

“Khrushchev: I value frankness. I request you to understand me right. I wanted you to appreciate my difficulties and my position. If you send me the material on your dispute with China, I will certainly study the papers, but it will be difficult for me to take the position on merits, involving two friends.” It was a gentle snub. Khrushchev did not need “any material” on the boundary dispute. His Embassy would have supplied it for the experts in the Kremlin to read; not for the top leadership.

In a note to Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon on April 7, 1960, Nehru advised: “In any conflict, we shall naturally have to develop a proper strategy and not be lured at various places by the enemy’s tactics. I understand that it is a normal method to distract and confuse the enemy by some operations in various areas, while the real threat may come from elsewhere. We should not allow ourselves to be so misled. We need not, therefore, think at present of making any special provision for the defence of Nepal and should await events. In the main, our thought should be concentrated on the defence of the Indian frontier, more especially where we consider it more vulnerable. We must remember that the new situation that we have to face is not a temporary one but likely to last a considerable time. We have to plan accordingly.” He thought in military terms to the neglect of the diplomatic to resolve the boundary dispute.

Nehru-Nasser exchanges

The Nehru-Nasser exchanges are very interesting. Nasser: “I have come to the conclusion that the policies of the Soviet Union and China are coordinated. When China bites, Soviet Union smiles. We are penetrating the communist party in Baghdad and know that the communists get information not from China but from Bulgaria and Soviet Union. I am aware there are theories to the effect that China has a separate policy from the Soviet Union, but I do not believe it.…

“PM: What would be your appraisal of the Chinese policy generally?

“Nasser: China wants to be a big power and wants to be recognised as such. So China is adopting power politics. In the beginning when they followed Bandung policies, they were very successful. Now there is a change which, I think, has been brought about by two factors: (1) Internal situation and the failure of communes, and (2) China wants to let everybody know that she is there.…

“PM: Our impression is that China and the Soviet Union have a common policy [in 1960?] with two different tactics.… Neither China nor USSR can do away with each other. But maybe, China is Stalinist in its character which perhaps Khrushchev does not like.

“I think that while I will go along with your basic contention that Russia and China are bound together with mutual interests and cannot go against each other, they are still not very friendly with each other. The problems of the future are looming in Khrushchev’s mind. China will be too big and too strong. Vast population, along with industrial power, will make China a tremendous power. Whenever China has been strong, there has been a tendency for it to expand. One place of expansion may be Siberia. On several occasions, Khrushchev has vaguely expressed his apprehension about the future. In the next few years, Russia and China are bound to come closer. All the same, Russia is annoyed at China being independent and for China becoming the high priest of communism….

“In spite of world brotherhood of communism, the Soviet Union does not like the prospect of China being too strong. This is indicated by the fact that the Soviet Union is a bit slow now in helping China, for example, in the atomic field. The Russian atomic scientists told us that we were stronger than China in the field of atomic work.

“Chou is coming here in about three weeks’ time and it will be very tough going. Chou’s position is so far removed from ours that there is little ground for common agreement. The Chinese have the advantage that they are sitting on our territory. If we agree to the status quo, it will mean they will continue to sit there. We cannot possibly allow that.”

Ban on ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’

Pray, to what do we owe the impression of Nehru’s liberal outlook and expertise on world affairs? Nehru proposed a ban on D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In a Note to the Deputy Minister of Law, R.M. Hajarnavis, on April 8, 1960, he wrote: “I am clear that this book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, should be banned. I have read the note of the Deputy Minister of Law and I appreciate what he has said. It may be desirable, for the future, to have an Advisory Committee or Board. We may also consider the amendment of the law on the subject. But I have no doubt in my mind that so far as this book is concerned, it should be banned. In case our order is challenged in a court of law, the matter can be faced. I do not think it is necessary to send this book for opinion to any committee or Board. Our decision should be enough for the present.”

He overruled an excellent note by Hajarnavis, who had opined on April 7, “I feel considerable hesitation in agreeing with the Secretary who proposes to advise the Ministry of Home Affairs that imported and unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover should be prohibited under section 19(f) of the Sea Customs Act. Ban of D.H. Lawrence’s book is likely to be an international literary event. Further, I regard our law relating to obscene literature, which is the same as law in U.K. before 1959, as vague, rigid and out of date. The law in U.K. as a result of vigorous agitation carried on by Society of Authors, P.E.N. Club and progressive Members of Parliament has now been considerably liberalised. I am of opinion that our own law may, with advantage, be brought in line with the reformed law in U.K. In the absence of the Law Minister, I am, therefore, submitting the file to the Prime Minister. …

“I would find difficulty in imposing a ban on the book on the ground that it contains description in detail of the sexual act. How can we justify the exhibition to the tourists, both from our own country and outside, the panels showing sexual orgies in groups and unnatural sexual acts at Khajuraho and other places? It is true that temples and places of worship are exempt from the criminal law of obscenity, but in my opinion, there cannot be different standards for government and private citizen; if skill in carving saves the figures at Khajuraho, many will concede Lawrence’s claim as a virtuoso in handling English language.”

This was not a solitary incident. Nehru was intolerant of dissent on issues that touched him. He was furious with Nirad C. Chaudhuri for writing his book The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951) when he was a government employee in All India Radio (AIR). He expressed this in a Note of July 23, 1952, meant for the Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting: “I do not suggest that he should be given notice to depart. But I do think that we require some kind of an explanation from him.” The result was three notices on him in August by the Director General of AIR demanding figures of his income and surrender of one-third of it to the government! Nirad C. Chaudhuri went to the Ministry of External Affairs and began working on the Canal Water issue. The Commonwealth Secretary B.F.H.B. Tyabji’s defence of the writer infuriated Nehru, who doubted Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s loyalty to India.

Civil liberties were fine; but none had a right “to sit in judgment over” Nehru’s policies. Volume 29 (pages 121-122) contains Nehru’s letter of August 12, 1955, to Dr Zakir Husain pouring out his wrath at the communists. This was apropos of the Union Home Ministry’s objection to the grant of a scholarship to Irfan Habib, now one of the country’s foremost historians, allegedly because of his links with the Communist Party of India. Nehru decided, nonetheless, “in favour of Irfan Habib”, albeit “as a special case”.

Nehru enthusiastically supported amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure, moved by his Home Minister Kailash Nath Katju, which confer special privileges on “public servants” (Ministers as well as civil servants). The amendments are, utterly unconstitutional.

Nehru’s major decisions are not subjected to close scholarly analyses. Khrushchev told him that his country had erred in not signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan. Nehru overruled Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, Secretary General, Ministry of External Affairs, and Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Ambassador to the United States, and refused to sign it, infuriating its architect John Foster Dallas with fateful consequence—he sensed that he did not have in Nehru a friend to lose when he began courting Pakistan.

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