Nehru is still remembered beyond the frontiers of India
Remembering Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964)
At the outset I would like to pay tribute to Pandit Nehru on his death anniversary. He was not only the first prime minister and architect of modern India, but also an outstanding statesman of all humanity.
I started reading the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru under the instructions of President K.R.Narayanan under whom I worked in the Rashtrapati Bhavan from 1997 to 2002.
In fact Mr Narayanan would always tell me to bring in Nehru in almost all his speeches. He asked me to find out from that vast collection of writings, about Nehru’s vision and views on environment, gender justice and many other aspects which are assuming critical importance across the world.
It is, therefore, important to recall that vision which is inseparable from our history and the history of humanity, and to celebrate Nehru’s legacy and worldview.
Scientific Thinking and the Age of Electronics
Much is said these days about Digital India. Nehru predicted the advent of the age of electronics or the digital age in 1943. He wrote that mankind had passed through the steam age, was passing through the age of electricity, and would inevitably pass through the age of electronics.
In India the electronics age began with the telecommunications revolution in the mid-1980s, when widespread application of computers was undertaken across the country in different sectors of our collective life.
While relying on frontier areas of science and technology and laying down the foundations of modern India, Nehru remained tuned to the ancient wisdom of our civilisations and stressed its significance in restoring the sanity and strength of life, which is often stressed by the fast-paced march of progress.
If we read Nehru’s monumental piece “Basic Approach” written for Congress party members in 1955, we find he remained anchored to ancient wisdom while employing science, technology and the scientific temper for material progress as much as the progress of mind and spirit.
Secularism and the Vedantic Outlook
In the last portion of “Basic Approach” he wrote that a Vedantic outlook remained a fundamental necessity to finding solutions to the mounting problems caused by modern civilisation.
It is instructive to note that Jawaharlal Nehru who never visited religious shrines and who stressed on secularism as the bedrock of our State, also wrote about the indispensability of Vedanta.
In fact the Vedantic approach underlined by Nehru in 1950s is deeply relevant for the twenty-first century world as it confronts fears and conflicts based on religion and other factors.
One gets the deep impression that humanity is driven now by diabolical forces of hatred and violence. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there is a demonic upsurge of these forces in the world today, as indicated by what happened in the USA since the last presidential elections there.
We get the same impression from the sinister developments taking place in our society.
Only a few days back the prominent Marathi newspaper Sakal carried two advertisements claiming that the first surgical strike in independent India was conducted by Nathuram Godse on 30 January 1948. Such is the shocking celebration of violence in a mindset aligned to exclusion and extermination.
It is in this context that Nehru's vision and legacy assume critical significance in stemming the tide of bigotry.
I think Nehru is even more relevant for our time than his own, when he led India through Partition and Independence, and the opinion was expressed in the colonial world that India could not be kept together as one country for it was too diverse.
Today the whole world is in a passionate quest for gender equality. Nehru had reflected deeply on this in the 1950s.
In 2009 when the Manmohan Singh government introduced a bill in the Rajya Sabha in to reserve for women 33 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies, none referred to Nehru and his vision to have more women in our legislatures.
In a letter to chief ministers dated 4 January 1950 Nehru regretted that there were very few women members in the Constituent Assembly, and wrote about the necessity of having an adequate number of women members elected to Parliament.
He noted that a sufficient number of women, at least as competent and suitable as men, were available and it was desirable from every perspective to have more women in Parliament.
Such a far-reaching statement made by Prime Minister Nehru even before the adoption and enactment of the Constitution affirmed his ardent desire for gender equality and women's empowerment through adequate representation in our collective political life.
After the general election of 1951-52 when only a few women were elected to Parliament, Nehru wrote at length to express his regret that despite his requests not enough women hadn’t made it to Parliament.
Nehru remarked with pain that laws were made by men, that they subordinated women to men, and their under-representation would go against them to perpetuate this inequality.
And at the end Nehru wrote that eventually the future of India would depend more on women than men.
Such concern for getting more women elected to Parliament should be highlighted and flagged to trace the spread of such ideas in India, and we should educate the rest of the world about it. It will give the much-needed Indian perspective to the cause of gender justice and equality.
It is not only Nehru of course: Mahatma Gandhi too stressed the need for greater representation of women in the legislature, in 1931 and in 1947. He is on record as having said that he would prefer women candidates to men so as to increase their representation, even if such a preference led to the total displacement of men.
The large presence of women now in our universities and workplaces, the 50 percent reservation of seats for women in panchayats, and the growing consensus for 33 percent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies, represent the fruition of Nehru's vision that India's future would depend more on women than men.
Another fascinating dimension of Nehru’s thought is his reflections on the environment, even as he was pursuing the goal of nation-building by constructing several big industrial and river valley projects.
On 15 August 1957 he wrote a letter to chief ministers in which he noted that there is a subtle balance of nature, and therefore, an environmental assessment should be done before setting up such projects.
This was implemented only much later. And I recall that on a visit to Pondicherry University to participate in a conference on Governance and Sustainable Development, almost all the participants referred to the Limits to Growth Report of 1970 of the Club of Rome, or the Brundtland Commission Report of 1987, to trace the idea of sustainable development. None referred to Nehru.
We need to talk about that letter of Nehru on the environmental balance, to drive home the point that he provided leadership on matters to which the rest of the world hadn’t yet applied its mind.
Secularism and Equality
Another matter on which Nehru assumes importance is the matter concerning secularism. The Bommai judgement delivered by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 1994 declared secularism as part of the basic structure of our Constitution. While doing so the apex court profusely quoted Nehru.
In fact when the great French philosopher André Malaraux asked Nehru what he would find it most difficult to do in India, Nehru pithily said, “To create a just society by employing just means, and to create a secular State in a religious society.”
We all know that the vision of a just society has been badly impaired by rising levels of inequality: this has been adequately documented by Thomas Piketty and others in recent times.
And now the secular State has also come under pressure, because of unacceptable developments arising out of hatred for the religious faiths of many of our citizens.
At a time when secular values are being challenged, we need to defend secularism which is part of the basic structure of our Constitution.
In fact the very Constitution has to be defended from those formations which pose danger to it.
Back in his time, Nehru was keen on the passage of the Hindu Code Bill, and admitted in many letters to the chief ministers that the majority’s inclination to pass the said bill had met with failure in the face of opposition from a minority.
Here minority did not mean religious minority.
Eventually the Nehru government broke the Hindu Code Bill into small pieces of legislation such as the Hindu Marriage and Divorce Bill, Maintenance Bill, Adoption Bill and so on.
After the passage of each bill Nehru would say that by giving equal rights to women through the instrumentality of law, India was raising her status at the global level.
By linking legislative mechanisms for guaranteeing the rights of women with the glory and prestige of India, Nehru was conveying a powerful message for nation building, at the heart of which gender justice remains.
Such a man, who raised India’s stature at the global level in face of many challenges during the formative stages of our Republic, has left behind an enduring legacy. His stature and his vision are celebrated beyond the frontiers of India. Such a man was not just the leader of India but also a leader and statesman of humanity.