Writing in the Sunday Times of India, Amulya Gopalakrishnan recently brought out the huge Nehru vilification industry that exists across cyberspace. In Rajasthan, India’s first prime minister is being wiped out from schools since it is more easy to fiddle with textbooks than write academic tomes based on verifiable facts, footnotes and peer-review.
But what would India have been minus Nehru ?
It is very difficult to separate one or the other of the towering
individuals who fought for India’s freedom. But there are specific
issues in which the personality of the leader played a distinct role.
And so it is with Nehru. A counterfactual on India minus Nehru emerges
from the consideration of the following eight points.
First, in 1927, he attended the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities
in Brussels and gave the freedom movement an international outlook. His
anti-imperialist cosmopolitanism certainly gave a modern patina to
India’s freedom struggle.
Second, in 1928, Gandhi proposed dominion status for India, but Nehru
is the one who demanded complete independence. In line with this, he
opposed the Government of India Act of 1935, demanding a popularly
chosen Constituent Assembly. Keeping with his views was the decision to
move the historic Objectives Resolution of December 13, 1946
which categorically declared India’s decision to become an independent
sovereign republic, notwithstanding the British desire to keep the
country as a dominion.
Third, and this is perhaps the most intriguing example, in May 1947,
Lord Mountbatten sent a plan for devolving power in India to the
provinces – Bombay, Madras, UP, Bengal, etc. – allowing them to create
confederations and only then transferring power. In other words,
opening up the possibility of the emergence of several successor states
in British India. This was the plan the British Cabinet approved and
sent back to Mountbatten in May of 1947. On the eve of a meeting of
Indian leaders announcing the plan, Mountbatten showed it to Nehru who
was his house guest in Simla. Nehru was stunned and told Mountbatten
that the Congress would under no circumstances accept this and wrote a
long note to the Viceroy saying that this would be tantamount to the
Balkanisation of India. Indeed, in this note he attacked a number of
proposals, including one for the self-determination of
Balochistan. Mountbatten postponed his announcement and, subsequently,
the plan prepared by V.P. Menon to partition India and transfer power to
two dominions was announced. There can be little doubt about Nehru’s
role, detailed in Menon’s Transfer of Power, in compelling Mountbatten to stay his hand on a course that could have been disastrous for India.
Strengthening the Union
Fourth, as prime minister it was not possible for him to play a major
role in drafting the Constitution, yet his chairmanship of the Union
constitution committee and the Union powers committee was a crucial
determinant in determining the balance between the powers of the states
and the Union government which has managed to maintain the unity of this
extremely diverse country. But there can be little doubt that his
political outlook and philosophy, primarily his supreme faith in
democracy, was reflected in the document which did not have to mention
the word “secularism” to make its point because by making the individual
citizen the focus of the constitution it bypassed the tangled issue of
caste, community and religion.
Fifth, there are many who criticise Nehru for his handling of Jammu
and Kashmir. What the critics don’t realise is that but for Nehru and
his relationship with Sheikh Abdullah, at least till 1952, it would have
been difficult to keep Kashmir in the Indian Union.
Sixth, he advocated the pattern of the economy which balanced the
private and public sector. Indeed, this was in line with what Indian
industrialists had put forward in the Bombay Plan. The critique of his
socialistic leanings must be weighed against the fact that militant
communism was the major opposition in the country, at least till the
mid-1950s. By adopting a socialistic line, he helped encourage the split
in the communist movement and outflanked their appeal.
Seventh, Nehru played a key role in passing four Hindu code bills
which carried out the most progressive and far-reaching reform of the
community. These had been originally mooted in the constituent assembly
but were vehemently opposed by the conservatives and Hindu nationalists.
Though the man behind the reform was a man who rejected Hinduism – B.R.
Ambedkar – it was Nehru’s key support that ensured their passage in
the first parliament. This modernisation, which removed the most
oppressive aspects of Hindu society, was vehemently opposed by the RSS
and its sister organisations. Among other things, the bills outlawed
polygamy, enabled inter-caste marriages, simplified divorce procedures,
placed daughters on the same footing as sons on the issue of
inheritance of property.
Eighth, Nehru’s personal imprint is also visible in India’s nuclear
and space programmes. The father of Indian nuclear science, Homi Bhabha,
met Nehru on a voyage back from the UK in 1939 and began a life-long
association. Nehru gave him the charge of India’s nuclear programme and
he was answerable only to the prime minister. He actually piloted the
Atomic Energy Act in the constituent assembly which gave rise to the
Atomic Energy Commission chaired by the PM.
Of course, there are also negatives in the Nehru ledger. For example,
sending the Kashmir issue to the UN, and his handling of the border
dispute with China. Perhaps, minus Nehru, there might have been a
different outcome, though it is not easy to discern what it could have
been. However, on China it would most certainly not have been a military
option. Nehru is on record asking General Cariappa whether India had
the capacity to intervene in Tibet and he was told in writing that it
was not possible given the weakness of the Indian military and the
Another negative is the handling of the military itself. Nehru’s
pacifist leanings and idealism made him a poor leader of the military.
He allowed an important instrument of state power to run down and did
not pay the kind of attention that was needed. And his final fault here
was to overlook the impact of Krishna Menon’s abrasive personality on
That said, it is clear that trying to erase Nehru’s imprint on the
country is a tall order because he is part of modern India’s DNA. Throw
Nehru out of the equation and you end up undermining India.
The Wire May 24, 2016