Undoing Nehru’s legacy, are we?

Sanjay Kapoor

As the BJP government runs a vitriolic campaign against one of the most influential leaders India had ever seen—Jawaharlal Nehru—and tries to discredit his ideals of secularism at a time when the Indian society is more fractured than ever, one must stop and ask where are we headed

On August 15, India and Pakistan—midnight children in the words of famous author Salman Rushdie—completed 70 years of their noisy, unstable and tumultuous existence after gaining independence in 1947. This landmark event became an occasion for introspection as well as crystal ball gazing about what is really in store for the two nations that are finding it difficult to reconcile to the violent partition that destroyed millions of lives and indelibly scarred the social and political fabric of these countries. 

For 70 long years, the two countries have nursed conflicts and differences and used them to deepen their identities. This is more so in the case of Pakistan that tore away from India after its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and other members of the Muslim League firmly believed that after India gained freedom, there would be no space for Muslims in a nation that was expected to be preponderantly Hindu. Muslims needed a separate country—Jinnah and his vast legion of supporters demanded. 

British rulers seemed too ready to accept this demand without really bothering about its murderous implications. Questions were not asked about how people belonging to different faiths would move from one country to another. Also, why should they leave their homes and their livelihood, all because some politicians decided that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together? Answers to these questions came in the form of a large scale violence that was unleashed in unified India and more so in its northern and eastern part—geographically the areas that went to Pakistan. It became impossible for members of the two religions to stay any longer in each other’s neighbourhoods. The violence was organised, heinous and barbaric. Murderous gangs populated by soldiers that had returned from the Second World War were used for religious cleansing. More than a million died and 15 million were displaced. Stories of brutalities still influence conversations on building peace between the two neighbours that have not been able to eradicate poverty and illiteracy but are armed with nuclear weapons. 

Partition’s bloody legacy plays out in communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in different parts of the country as well as in the disputed area of Kashmir. Communal violence has shaped the political discourse in both the countries and has contributed to the rise of the religious right wing.

India, whose leadership comprised of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, courageously sought to make India a secular Republic despite grave provocation from those who demanded that it should be declared a Hindu state as the Muslims had got their own country. That idea has been particularly hit.   

Nehru managed to have his say and that is the reason why 51 years after his death a vitriolic campaign has been unleashed against him by the Hindu right wing that is now in power. Nehru, in their view, is the person responsible for holding back India from reaching its full potential as he pursued policies of non-alignment and secularism, which in their reckoning, made the country weaker and clueless. Also, it made Indians ashamed of their religion.   

Nehru’s policies are again blamed for the continued instability in Kashmir where almost a million Indian security persons are stationed. At the time of partition, the Hindu King of Kashmir decided to opt for India much to the ire of its Muslim majority. Nehru had then agreed for a plebiscite to ascertain from the people of the state where they wanted to stay—India or Pakistan. However, an attack by Pakistani troops dressed up as tribals, who occupied large parts of the Valley, gave another spin to the dispute. 

Now some Kashmiris want to join Pakistan, others want to stay with an economically rising India and many want freedom from both. Nehru’s detractors claim that this issue would not have become a festering sore, had he not taken the matter to the UN and promised a plebiscite. Now the BJP government in Delhi is trying to figure out how to undo the special status that had been granted to the Kashmir valley at the time it merged with India. Government agencies have become extremely tough with those who want ‘azaadi’ (freedom) and are causing problems for those who articulate the Opposition’s narrative. Kashmir has become a seething cauldron of rage and unending misery for its people. 

In the central district of Delhi, contemptuously referred by right wing followers of PM Modi as “Lutyens Delhi” as it is a crucible of secular conversation in the capital, is located the Teen Murti Bhavan. This was the official residence of Jawaharlal Nehru. After his death, it was turned into a library and museum that housed his memorabilia. 

Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, the status of Nehru Memorial and Library is being progressively diminished. Ironically, it is hosting more discussions and seminars involving people and issues that are opposed to Nehruvian ideology than about him. India’s culture minister who oversees the Nehru Library has made it amply clear that the place is not confined to Nehru, but other Prime Ministers too. Surely, there is a tender out in Delhi newspapers seeking design consultants to turn Nehru Library into a museum that houses the memory of all PMs. Some Congress leaders like Jairam Ramesh have resented this move, but the grand old party is so feeble that it is not able to put up a decent demonstration to protest over the manner in which their iconic leader’s image is being sullied. 

As a reflection of changing times, the new President of India, Ramnath Kovind, did not mention Nehru’s name in his maiden address to the nation. There was no applause for that except sharp reminders in editorials to Kovind about Nehru’s contribution in building a post colonial democratic society and imbuing it with pride and purpose at a difficult time in a young nation’s life. 

The aggressive manner in which right wing nationalist and their front organisations are engaged in ridding this country of inclusive and secular Nehruvian beliefs suggests forbidding thoughts about the direction India would be made to take in the coming days. These fears find a reason for aggravation, as much of the challenges that the two countries faced at the time of partition seem largely unaddressed. Worse, the objective conditions that resulted in the partition have not really gone away.