Jawaharlal Nehru’s Place In History
It was Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) who said that world history is the sum total of the biographies of great men. Another thinker, Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), said that world history is the world’s court of judgment.
Notwithstanding the objection, not to be dismissed, that in 2021 it might be too soon to locate Nehru’s place in history, let us make an attempt. It is all the more necessary, and even urgent, as a cottage industry to debunk Nehru, is flourishing with the generous support of the establishment, particularly since 2014.
Covid-19 came to the world in 2020, a world led by political leaders in office, lacking a 20-20 vision, with a few honorable exceptions, countable on one’s fingertips, in the 190 odd countries. President Trump dismissed it as a variation of a ‘common cold’.
In India, a comprehensive lock-down was imposed at a few hours’ notice without a cabinet paper detailing the actions to be taken before it and after the announcement, a requirement that is obvious, especially in a country as large and diverse as India.
What we in India and the rest of the world have lacked is the ‘scientific temper’, a phrase coined by Nehru in 1946. He wrote in 1946, “What is needed] is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory , the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems." (The Discovery of India, page 512.)
India has in the recent past deviated with alacrity from the path of cultivating a scientific temper. If the leaders assert that ancient India had airplanes and ballistic missiles, obviously they want to demolish the scientific temper. Certainly, an important ingredient of the Nehru legacy is struggling to survive.
Reflection shows that the fault is not Nehru’s. The fault lies with a set of people who hold power and believe foolishly that they can dismantle the ideal of India and its freedom for which generations of Indians fought, non-violently under Gandhi, and otherwise.
The current holders of power and their forebears did not fight for freedom, and therefore they believe that they have to re-write history blaming Nehru for India’s comparative lack of progress since 1947. Is it not utterly absurd for anyone to say that today’s India is suffering from Nehru’s omissions and commissions? Let us look at one or two concrete issues.
One of the manufactured grouses against Nehru is the Kashmir issue: he should not have taken it to the United Nations; and he should not have pledged to conduct a plebiscite.
The case of Nehru-baiters is pitiably weak. If India had not taken the issue, Pakistan might have taken it to the U.N. Of course, it is true that the perfidious Britain did its utmost to dis-inform the United States and the issue became caught up in the cobwebs of the Cold War. But decision-makers on the spot, obviously, cannot have the benefit of hindsight.
The pledge to conduct a plebiscite is based on India’s timeless values, not easily understood by those who have chosen to abrogate article 370 without a proper discussion in the Parliament. Incidentally, it was Mountbatten who begat it and compelled the cabinet that included Patel to accept it. But the idea of a plebiscite when it was advanced made sense.
In the case of Junagadh, with a Muslim ruler and a Hindu majority, India did hold a plebiscite. Briefly, the Nawab, prompted by his Dewan Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s father), declared accession to Pakistan on August 15, 1947.
Later, the Nawab fled to Pakistan fled to Pakistan with his army of dogs and all the money in the state treasury; Bhutto pleaded for assistance from Jinnah, to no avail; on November 7, 1947 Bhutto formally asked India to take over the state; on November 9 when N.M. Buch, I.C.S. and an Army Officer reached Junagadh, it was learnt that Bhutto had fled to Pakistan on the 8th. In the referendum held on February 20 1948,190,870 out of the 201,457, only 91 voted for joining Pakistan.
It is repeated ad nauseum by Nehru-baiters that he complicated the Kashmir issue by unnecessarily offering to hold a referendum. The fact of the matter is that by the end of 1953, when Pakistan signed a military alliance with the United States, Nehru told Pakistan that the plebiscite was off the table. In February 1954 the Kashmir Constituent Assembly ratified the accession to India formally closing the plebiscite option.
Another myth being industriously propagated is that in India had the option to choose an alliance with Washington in the early years of independence as the Cold War developed between U.S. and U.S.S.R., once allies against Nazi Germany. Let us first figure out what the Cold War was.
Henry Kissinger, a high level actor who waged the Cold War is the best guide. In his book The White House Years (1997), Kissinger wrote: The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision… Of course, over time even two blind men can do enormous harm to each other, not to speak of the room. Nehru wisely chose to follow neither of the two blind men.
Yet another myth is that Nehru rejected twice the offer of a permanent seat on the Security Council. The facts speak for themselves. There was no valid offer.
In 1950 John Foster Dulles offered to India to take the permanent seat of China. Nehru did not jump at the offer for two sound reasons. First, it was an offer by Washington without consulting with Moscow; the Charter needed to be amended to replace China by India and an amendment was possible if only the two agreed.
Second, India had correctly advocated People’s Republic of China’s admittance to the U.N. as V.K. Krishna Menon put it and it would not make sense for India to usurp China’s place.
The second ‘offer’ was from U.S.S.R. in 1955 when Premier Bulganin sent out a feeler as to whether India would like to be the sixth permanent member. Nehru responded that he did not want the Soviet Union to proceed further.
Once again, it was an offer by one super power without consulting with the other. There was no reason to believe that Washington would have agreed.
Incidentally, Nehru recorded a note on the matter on his return from Moscow. Incidentally, Prime Minister Modi would do well to record notes of his one-on-one talks with Chinese President in Wuhan and elsewhere.
It is not my thesis that Nehru did not make mistakes. He signed the Panchsheel with Mao Zedong who openly proclaimed his belief that power comes from the barrel of the gun. Let us invent a new acronym, KYC, Know Your China. Nehru’s KYC score was low. I leave it to the reader to figure out whether Modi’s score is better.
Shakespeare’s Marc Antony in his funeral oration for Julius Caesar said, “The evil that men do lives after them; but the good oft is interred with their bones.” Well, in real life the good and the evil survive the doer.
In the balance sheet of history, the good that Nehru did outweighs by a large measure the mistakes he made. We need to judge a man by taking a holistic view of his life and work. Let me end with a quotation from Nehru:
Greatness comes from vision, the tolerance of the spirit, compassion and an even temper which is not ruffled by ill fortune or good fortune. It is not through hatred and violence or internal discord that we make real progress. As in the world today,so also in our country, the philosophy of force can no longer pay and our progress must be based on peaceful co-operation and tolerance of each other.
Former Ambassador K.P. Fabian is retired from the Indian Foreign Service.