Bastion of Free Speech

Thursday, November 15, 2001

A Stroke of Good Fortune
Niranjan Ramakrishnan

I have recently been reading Jawaharlal Nehru's book, The Discovery of India. Reading it, one is struck by several things - Nehru's simple but elegant style - free from fashionable jargon and devoid of cliches; his remarkable stretch of knowledge; above all, the amount of intellectual, cultural, scientific and political acumen that this individual possessed. The feeling grows in you that India's first prime minister was a person of rare powers of observation, inference, and exposition.

Among the scores of nations emerging from the colonial yoke in the mid-20th century, it is remarkable that India alone started and stayed with democracy (except for a mercifully brief aberration - caused, ironically, by Nehru's daughter Indira). The reasons for this lie no doubt in the unique leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and his genius in expanding the freedom movement to the grass roots while keeping it a peaceful and democratic one. But Gandhi died barely six months after freedom. The shaping of the nascent republic - the Constitution, elections, parliament - all of these bear the clear impact of Jawaharlal Nehru. The book shows this was no accident.

Apart from its content, Discovery of India is significant for what it reveals - how well-prepared Nehru was to become Free India's first prime minister. Unlike a statement to the media, which, if it turns out to be embarrassing, can often be brushed away as a misquote, a book is a permanent hostage to Time. Many come to power knowing how to win an insurrection (or an election, in more recent times), but with nary a clue what to do once they get there - most mouth some populist slogan or the current shibboleth, with little or no thought on what it means and how they would achieve it. Before you tell me that most of our politicians these days have, in fact, written books, let me hasten to add that when I speak of a book, I do not refer to the genre of the self-serving biography written the usual pair of by pol-and-paid-hack.

You have to read the book to realize Nehru's love of India, which shines through page after page. You have to admire his knowledge and curiosity. He writes about Indian Art, Indian prehistory, Indian religions, Indian Drama and Music; he writes about Sanskrit, about War, about Caste, about Economics, about ancient Indian developments in Mathematics and Science, about Indian city planning and shipbuilding, his sweep is mind boggling. Much of it is a distillation of what he knows - a mere glimpse of what he has gathered and digested. He modestly says he had a galaxy of scholarship and erudition around him in prison - including Maulana Azad, Acharya Narendra Deva and Govind Ballabh Pant. But one can appreciate the intellectual curiosity and development required to interact with the best minds, to draw upon their knowledge. Discovery is a tour of India - I feel an indispensable one for every Indian. The problems of the Indian people are examined, their heritage discussed, their historical weaknesses exposed, and their hopes enshrined. Discovery is free from any self-serving language, and shows Nehru as appreciative of the talents of his comrades (small wonder that his first cabinet was hailed as a Dream Team), and boundless in his confidence in the Indian people.

His peers regarded him as lovable, Intellectuals liked him, and the press delighted in him. And the masses adored him. A scion of a rich family, with an English education behind him, he would have been suspect as a leader of a mass movement. But God knows he had paid his dues - some nine years of imprisonment, lathi charges, confiscation of property - all borne with unshakable good cheer. The book explains why - it was simply that he loved the country. Asked how he would describe himself, he once said he would like to be remembered as a man who loved India, and one whose love had been returned several times over.

Certainly love of country would be a facet of almost any national leader - Tito, Sukarno, Nyerere, Castro, almost anyone. But Nehru went beyond that - he also had toured the world extensively - certainly Europe and Asia - prior to his taking office. His knowledge of the world was vast. He knew what India had to offer to the world and where she lacked. He sets down his views on both in Discovery. It is a blueprint for the India he would try to build when in power. There is no trace of bitterness in the writing. The West is admired for its energy and momentum, but condemned for its brutality and greed. China, Russia, South East Asia, the Arab lands, all are examined for their impact on India and how India could learn from them. This was a man who had thought about the problems of the country.

Nehru was also a man of great personal courage. After Gandhi had been shot dead, Nehru climbed on the iron gates of Birla House, where Gandhi had just been shot, and addressed the crowd, asking it to keep calm. In Gandhi's words, he was pure as a shining jewel. John Kennedy spoke of the soaring idealism of Nehru. There were flaws too, many of them. The Kashmir problem is Nehru's legacy to India - many feel a leader less tramelled by considerations of international opinion and just conduct would have fixed the problem once for all. Others would point to the increasing role of government. But these were not flaws of timidity or low vision. He was bold, he looked beyond the present to an India strong and free, playing its role in a just and equitable world. India could have done worse.

Finally, for one who struggles to write a column each week for Swarajya, it is humbling to note that Nehru wrote this entire book in four or five months during 1944, when he was in prison following the 1942 Quit India declaration. Every country should be so fortunate.

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