Letters for a nation: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Chief Ministers

Nehru wrote to his Chief Ministers on the 1st and 15th of each month and he had written 400 letters from 1947 to 1963.

Published : Nov 26, 2014 12:30 IST

1948: Jawaharlal Nehru announces Gandhi's assassination to a crying crowd.

1948: Jawaharlal Nehru announces Gandhi's assassination to a crying crowd.

On October 15, 1947, just two months after Independence, free India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had spent about a decade in prison during the freedom struggle, chose to be in constant touch with the heads of provincial governments. The reason, in his own words: “[I]t is in times of exceptional stress like the present that it is more than ordinarily incumbent on us to keep in close touch with each other, so that we can put forth concerted efforts to overcome the grave dangers facing us.” The political practice initiated by him continued until a few months before his death in 1964. He wrote to his Chief Ministers on the 1st and 15th of each month. He had written 400 letters from 1947 to 1963. The last letter was written on December 21, 1963, taking the total number to 400. Here, Frontline presents three letters from “Letters for A Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to His Chief Ministers (1947-1963)”, edited by Madhav Khosla and published by Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books), 2014.

From a letter dated December 7, 1947

Reports have reached me of big demonstrations organised by the R.S.S. [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] in some provinces. Often these demonstrations have been held in spite of prohibitory orders like Section 144. Some provincial authorities have taken no action in this matter and apparently accepted this defiance of orders. I do not wish to interfere with your discretion in this matter. But I would like to draw your attention to the fact that this acquiescence in defiance is likely to have grave consequences.

We have a great deal of evidence to show that the R.S.S. is an organisation which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines, even following the technique of organisation. It is not our desire to interfere with civil liberties. But training in arms of large numbers of persons with the obvious intention of using them is not something that can be encouraged. The fact that the R.S.S. is definitely and deliberately against the present central and provincial governments need not be considered enough for any action to be taken against them and any legitimate propaganda might certainly be allowed. But their activity more and more goes beyond these limits and it is desirable for provincial governments to keep a watchful eye and to take such action as they may deem necessary.

Some provincial governments have taken action against periodicals for promoting hatred between communities. Probably the newspapers of the R.S.S. are more to blame in this matter than any other newspapers or periodicals outside Pakistan. It is amazing how they carry on this communal propaganda in its extremist form.

I have some knowledge of the way the Nazi movement developed in Germany. It attracted by its superficial trappings and strict discipline considerable numbers of lower middle class young men and women who are normally not too intelligent and for whom life appeared to offer little to attract them. And so they drifted towards the Nazi party because its policy and programme, such as they were, were simple, negative and did not require an active effort of the mind. The Nazi party brought Germany to ruin and I have little doubt that if these tendencies are allowed to spread and increase in India, they would do enormous injury to India. No doubt India would survive. But she would be grievously wounded and would take a long time to recover.

From a letter dated February 5, 1948

When I wrote to you last, Gandhiji was in the middle of his fast. A little more than two weeks have elapsed since then, and yet it seems as if it was distant ages ago, for so much has happened and all of us have experienced shock and unutterable pain. The suddenness and magnitude of what has happened benumbed us for a while, and yet we felt immediately that we have to take action and swift action.*

You are already aware of some action that we have taken. You must have seen the resolution issued by the Government of India on this tragedy and know that we have banned the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh organisation. Investigations are proceeding. But enough has come to light already to show that this assassination was not the act of just an individual or even a small group. It is clear that behind him lay a fairly widespread organisation and deliberate propaganda of hate and violence carried on for a long time. It is significant that for the first time after a long period we should have political assassination in India and that too on the highest level. Even apart from Gandhiji’s death by such assassination, the fact that there are people in this country who have adopted this method to gain political ends is of the gravest import. Perhaps we have been too lenient in dealing with these various elements in the country. We have suffered for that. But it is time that we gripped the problem fully and dealt with it adequately. There can be no half measures.

It would appear that a deliberate coup d’etat was planned involving the killing of several persons and the promotion of general disorder to enable the particular group concerned to seize power. The conspiracy appears to have been a fairly widespread one, spreading to some of the States. It is not proper for me now to say much more about this except to warn you of its widespread ramifications.

I am and have been a believer in civil liberty and the democratic processes, but it is absurd to talk of democracy when the very basis of it is challenged by terroristic activities; it is equally absurd for civil liberty to be granted to those who wish to seize power by murder and violence. Therefore, we are compelled to take action to restrict certain liberties of groups and individuals in order that the people generally should not be deprived of all liberty. I will suggest to you therefore to take every possible step to meet this grave situation and to root out the evil that confronts us. We must remember that the people opposed to us are thoroughly unscrupulous. They will say one thing and do another. I have had messages of condolence from some persons of note who are believed to be associated in this conspiracy. I cannot, therefore, just take any person’s word for granted. It is fairly well-known that attempts have been made, and these have met with some success in having cells of these conspirators in all manner of governmental places, services, etc. We shall have to purge these and purify our administration and services.

The popular reaction to the murder is understandable. It was scandalous in the extreme that any person in India should have the temerity and the meanness to celebrate by distribution of sweets or by slogans the assassination of Gandhiji. If the mass of the people resented this and took action of their own accord, I can understand it, and even appreciate it to some extent. But it is clear that any widespread disorder plays into the hands of our enemies and weakens such action as government might take and are taking. Unfortunately some people have encouraged this disorder and rather exploited it for particular purposes. While one can understand spontaneous action for a while, one cannot appreciate the exploitation of this sentiment. This kind of thing can only lead to civil strife on a large scale and a confusion of issues. We have many currents and cross currents agitating the stream of Indian life today. The ending of British rule released many forces and we saw the terrible Punjab disaster. Some of these forces gathered strength exploiting that disaster and they have now done this evil deed. The death of Mahatma Gandhi, who was the tremendous cementing force of India, has again weakened our political and social fabric. At this moment, the first essential is that we must hold together and subordinate our minor differences in order to face the common peril….

Your Governor has been given an urn containing a small part of Gandhiji’s ashes. He has been asked to deliver this to you. The major part of the ashes will be immersed at the junction of the Ganga and Jamna in Allahabad on the 12th February. It is suggested that some part of the ashes should be immersed on the same day, if possible, in the other major rivers of India. It is for this purpose that we have sent you these ashes through your Governor. I hope you will make suitable arrangements for this ceremony.

* Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948.

From a letter dated September 28, 1953

Planning has now become inevitable and even the ardent exponents of private enterprise in the United States of America have been compelled to accept planning, more especially in underdeveloped countries. But the question still remains: what kind of planning and what are the ultimate objectives to be aimed at? It is admitted now that governments, even in the so-called capitalist countries, have not only to plan, but have to extend governmental functions. Private enterprise becomes more and more hedged in by state enterprise, and even that private enterprise is controlled and powerfully affected by state action. The nineteenth century idea of private enterprise has faded away completely, and there has been a dramatic shift in Western countries towards governmental control. The world capital market no longer exists, and world trade is restricted and managed and controlled in a variety of ways.

If planning is inevitable, what do we plan for? What kind of picture of society do we have in view? There is much argument and a great deal of passion spent in discussing these problems. Some people, notably in the U.S.A., want to divide the world into Communist and non-Communist. That is a simplification which has little justification either in politics or economics. There are many gradations between the two. Apart from a few countries, the general approach of socialism is accepted. We have what is called communist socialism or social democracy. But, on the whole, the final picture of both is not very different, though the approach and the methods employed certainly differ. In India, most progressive groups, and certainly the Congress, have talked of socialism in more or less precise terms for the last thirty years or more. We have thought of it more in terms of social democracy, keeping in view the special characteristics and outlook of India. The Congress, as a great national movement struggling for political freedom, drew into its fold various groups with differing economic ideologies. But the dominant approach and objective was that of social democracy. There is no essential difference in this respect between the Congress and the Socialist Party in India, except that the socialists tend to be rigid and doctrinaire. They called themselves some kind of Marxists, although they are bitterly opposed to Communists….

Ultimately, any kind of progress, including economic progress, depends on the desire of the people for that progress and the social structure in which they live. Is that structure—political, social, economic, legal, etc.—favourable to such progress or does it impede it? The great era of material progress in Europe and America came when the old belief, encouraged by religion, in a predetermined fate, gave place to a belief in man’s power to control his environment and to change it. This was the spread of the modern scientific outlook. Such a background helps change and progress. If, on the other hand, a people believe in fate, in predetermination, in the effect of the stars on our activities, in astrology and the like, obviously the urge to progress and change is not there. The atmosphere is not favourable to it. I am not, for the moment, interested in decrying the virtues, such as there might be, of astrology. I am merely saying that this  mental approach is not conducive to creating an atmosphere which vitalises human beings and brings about change. Take again our general caste outlook or cow protection. All these may have some virtues, but they are uncertain factors. Caste petrifies society, prevents the mobility of labour and the change of occupations. Cow protection, oddly enough, leads to the lack of protection of the cow. In India cattle protection and the improvement of breeds of cattle are of great importance. But progress can only be made if we approach this scientifically and constructively and not in some negative and narrow-minded spirit….

In any state, and more especially in a democratic state, the psychological appeal to the people is important. They have to feel that they are partners in the great enterprise of running the state machine, and that they are sharers in both the benefits and the obligations. The test of democracy is to create this sensation among the people. It was thought that elections under adult suffrage were adequate for this purpose. They go some way. But in a swiftly moving scene, something more is necessary than mere elections at stated intervals. In planning, especially, this sensation has to be created so that the people may feel that the plan is something that has been evolved with their cooperation and that they are responsible for its success. It was inevitable that in the first attempt planning had to begin somewhere at the top. Even so, there was, as is well known, a great deal of consultation. In future we should evolve some method of making the smallest unit in the village feel that it is consulted in regard to its particular problems and is thus helping in evolving or in varying the plan. This is still more necessary in implementing the plan. The official approach, though necessary, is not enough and has to be linked with this non-official approach and widespread attempt at cooperation. We have now in most States vast numbers of panchayats. If these panchayats could be drawn into the network of planning and its implementation, that would bring the plan to the doorstep of the villager.

Democracy has meant political equality. It means also a progressive economic equality. Our professed aims are to develop a society where there are no great differences and where opportunity comes to all.

Any vested interests and vested privileges do not fit in with such a plan of society. And yet, even our Constitution and more so our economic and social structure and customs, protect many kinds of privilege and vested interest. There is some justification for them in the context of history, but we must always remember that they are anachronisms and the constant irritants to the people. In an economic sense, they might not make much difference, but they create an atmosphere of conflict and frustration and thus come in the way of our work. I have no doubt that these relics of old privilege will have to go. The question is whether we have the wisdom, as a people, to solve this problem peacefully and cooperatively.

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