What History Can Teach Us About Jawaharlal Nehru that WhatsApp Forwards Cannot

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What History Can Teach Us About Jawaharlal Nehru that WhatsApp Forwards Cannot

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Pandit Nehru, who had few equals to his popularity during his lifetime, has even fewer rivals to his posthumous notoriety today. Those faulting our ruling dispensation for lacking sincerity, haven’t accounted for their efforts in tarnishing the legacy of our first prime minister. The propaganda spewers have worked overtime in casting aspersions on Nehru’s integrity — smearing his personal and professional make-up alike.  

The toil and pace of daily life hardly allows for one to subject every strand of public opinion to rigorous research, and thus, there are many today who seem all too willing to hold Panditji guilty for all of life’s ills. But blessed with the time and scope to dig deeper into the past, and cut through all the clamour, I discovered Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru on my own terms. 

The more I delved into what he wrote, and the more I read of what’s been written about him (and there certainly was a lot to read), the more surprised I was by the portrait of the man that emerged. I read books by KF Rustamji, Nayantara Sahgal, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and Purushottam Agarwal. I read Nehru’s biographies, one written by political scientist and teacher Michael Brecher, another by the Australian high commissioner to India, Walter Crocker, and all three volumes authored by historian Sarvepalli Gopal. These, along with other books including compilations of his letters and transcripts of his interviews, allowed me a glimpse of Nehru beyond the bad press for which he is now famous. The good and bad of his policies and ideologies are for the more scholarly to analyse; the Nehru I grew to know and admire, was the man he was beyond the pall of an everyday politician. 

Amongst an avowedly religious pantheon of figures leading the freedom struggle, one finds Nehru a welcome exception. One sees a man beholden to the most saintly of the saintly personas — the Mahatma — for his political mentorship and mileage, and yet, refusing to yield blindly to his ways, publicly challenging his wisdom on more than one occasion, on issues as far ranging as public policy and marital sex. Nehru, described Gandhi’s advice to newlyweds to stay celibate for the sake of their souls as “abnormal and unnatural”, according to an essay “An odd kind of piety: The truth about Gandhi’s sex life” published in Independent. 

Amongst an avowedly religious pantheon of figures leading the freedom struggle, one finds Nehru a welcome exception.

One meets a man who professes no knowledge of the profound, remarking that he wish he were cleverer, and yet, traces the growth of civilisations and countries in eloquently written letters — later compiled into best-selling books — from the confines of jail, with only a few cursory notes for reference.

One finds a man who is as ready to stand up to a lathi-wielding British officer as to a frenzied Hindu mob running rampant on the riot-riven streets of streets of Delhi, with only his physical self for security. One glimpses a man given to few emotional outpourings in private, and yet, breaking down at the sight of an impoverished man in public, wondering aloud if the man’s vote held any point for the man himself. 

One watches a man keep sedately calm on a flight beset by a burning engine, and yet finds his temper jarred in action by the plainest of reasons. One spots a man lambast the crowds gathered at his rallies for their unruliness, and then, in the same vein, hears him hold them up to their own expectations, by beseeching them to “grab him by his collar” and throw him out of power if his promises went unkept.

One notices a man raised in affluence, shuddering not once at the prospect of long prison sentences — all of which eventually amounted to over nine years spent in British jails. One hears a man talk about his prickly jail companions, from wasps to scorpions, without the slightest hint of abhorrence. One warms up to a man daring to bare his soul on paper, writing about the moods and anxieties plaguing his mind, and of his failure — caring little to maintain the widely-held impression of imperviousness — to think straight in the days following his wife Kamala’s death. 

One savours the man’s sagacity to caution the masses against the act of hero-worship, urging the public — through a write-up under the pseudonym Chanakya — to exercise greater vigilance, in case a certain Jawaharlal gives in to his tyrannical temptations. One comes across a man who expects highly of every individual, exhorting them to “incessant striving” at the stroke of the midnight hour, and yet letting many an individual shortcoming off the hook, citing structural fallacies at play.  

One struggles to grasp a man admitting to being an odd mixture of the East and the West, and yet being irrevocably in love with his people and his land of birth, proposing that he be remembered as a man “who with all his mind and heart loved India and Indian people”. One is stumped by a man who waxes lyrical of the scientific discoveries of his age, and, in the same sentence, faults mankind’s greater apathy on a deepening spiritual void. One senses a man being touchy to a rebuke, and yet imploring the ace satirical cartoonist of his day — K Shankar Pillai — to not spare him his taunts.

One finds a man at fault to not take timely notice of the transgressions of his peers, and yet, watches in disbelief, as he offers his resignation over the impropriety of a sealed envelope meant for another, wrongfully opened by him. In him, one discovers a lover of the arts, engaging cheerfully with the artists of his day — poets and dancers — and being so deferential to their talents so as to say that he was “merely a Prime Minister” in comparison to their masterful selves.

One looks on, with envy, at a man who shuns no joy or sorrow — who is as sensitive to an existential entanglement, as he is to the intoxicating pull of love. One observes a man of towering self-belief succumb to agonising self-doubt, going as far as to declare to his deputy Sardar Patel of the sapping of his confidence. One hails a man with a purity of purpose so staunch that it rips his heart apart, leaving his idealism and his health in tatters. 

The Nehru I’ve grown to know is a man who escapes easy definition, and perhaps strove to definitively remain just that — a man; not a saint, nor a saviour, and not in the very least, a self-appointed chowkidar. He remained until his dying breath, hopelessly human, with — to paraphrase his own words — something godlike, and something of the devil in him. In times of posturing and pretence, one craves the raw, humane authenticity of Nehru.

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