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Launching Into the Lasting (Controversial) Legacy of Nehru

In this edition of The Interview, a historian of Indian politics and a prolific writer discuss the ideologies of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. They speak about Nehru’s key ideas and his political challengers. They also outline how Nehru’s philosophies still influence Indian politics today.
New Delhi - 31 Oct, 2021 - Statue of Jawaharlal Nehru at NIM Uttarkashi

New Delhi – 31 Oct, 2021 – Statue of Jawaharlal Nehru at NIM Uttarkashi © mrinalpal /

March 05, 2023 10:49 EDT

Jawaharlal Nehru was a prominent Indian leader who advocated for India’s complete independence from Great Britain throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1947, India finally gained freedom from the British Raj but it came at a cost. British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, which caused tremendous bloodshed and great suffering, Mahatma Gandhi, the leader known as the father of the nation, anointed Nehru as the first prime minister. Unlike his deeply religious mentor, Nehru was a secular socialist who did not see any place for religion in public life.

While Gandhi encouraged India to return to its ancient roots, Nehru embraced industrialization and modernization instead. Nehru’s deputy prime minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was Gandhian in his approach to politics and economics but practiced realpolitik to unify a nation. During British rule, India had over 500 princely states that had been propped up by its imperial masters as convenient local comprador allies. Patel brought this patchwork of princely states into one political union.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah was an Indian Muslim politician known for his endeavors to unite Hindus and Muslims in the early 1900s. By 1935, Jinnah changed colors and came to head the Muslim League, which increasingly argued for the partition of the country and the creation of a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad led the secular Indian National Congress (INC), which made the case for a united India.

The two political parties made intermittent efforts to cooperate. However, the Congress Party won the 1937 elections and excluded the Muslim League from the limited government allowed under British rule. Relations between Hindus and Muslims began to deteriorate. From now on, calls for a partition and the creation of a separate Muslim state grew stronger.

Sir Muhammed Iqbal, a prominent Muslim poet and philosopher, was one of the first major advocates for partition. Notably, Jinnah originally opposed this idea. Arguably, the exclusionary tactics of the INC forced Jinnah to advocate partition. Some scholars also point to Jinnah’s lust for power that drove him to create a separate state where he would be top dog. The argument for a Muslim state was based on the idea that Muslims in India constituted a separate people and therefore deserved their own nation.

This idea was opposed not only by the top leaders of the Congress Party but also someone who is regarded as the founder of the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. At the time, this Bengali leader was a member of the Hindu Mahasabha but quit and later formed the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the forerunner of the BJP. Mookerjee was also president of the All India Civil Liberties Conference. He went on to serve as the minister for industry and supply in Nehru’s cabinet. Mookerjee had a strong Hindu identity, opposed the partition and insisted upon India remaining united. 

Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussian have co-authored a landmark book, Nehru: The Debates that Defined India. They examine Nehru’s exchanges with four key colleagues and rivals: Patel, Jinnah, Iqbal and Mookerji. These exchanges provide illuminating insights into the thinking that shaped the modern Indian state – and which continue to influence statecraft, diplomacy and the politics of sectarianism.

I spoke to Singh about the little-known dimensions of this period of history. We explored Nehru’s  Nehru’s ideologies and how they remain relevant and contentious. Singh explains Nehru’s blunders vis-à-vis Pakistan and China as well his wilful ignorance of the problems with Indian secularism. He also observes that Nehru was unaware of the vital role that religion plays in the lives of ordinary Indians. 

We also discussed how Nehru’s challengers have influenced India’s domestic and foreign policy. 

Our conversation also delves into the evolution of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—the parent organization of the BJP—over the decades. 

The transcript has been edited for clarity. Words in brackets are my insertions to provide context and clarity to Singh’s words.

Vikram Zutshi: Your book attempts to understand India’s first prime minister through his debates with four influential figures of the time. To what degree was Nehru able to persuade his colleagues—Mookerji and Patel—to go along with his vision?

Tripurdaman Singh: Nehru was a consummate politician and propagandist, and utilized multiple tools to try and get people to go along with his vision. The threat of resigning, for example, was used regularly – especially with [deputy prime minister Sardar] Patel. By and large, it has to be said that Nehru was quite successful at convincing both [Patel and Mookerji], to fall in line with his vision, often against their own instincts or better judgment. 

Now whether that can be termed “persuasion” depends on how one defines it. Could threatening to resign and destabilize the new government be termed persuasion? I don’t know. But [Nehru] largely got his own way. Of course, Patel acted as a crucial check on Nehru because of his grip on the Congress [Party] organization and his own stature.

Mookerji finally quit, unwilling to continue yoking his political horse to the Nehruvian chariot because he couldn’t go along with Nehru’s vision anymore.

Vikram Zutshi: How do you see the fault-lines reflected in these debates playing out in contemporary India, particularly with regards to the specter of  “Hindu majoritarianism”? Given that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) got only 45% of the vote-share in 2019, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scraped through with only 54% in the recently held Gujarat state election, does majoritarianism really pose a threat to Indian democracy?

Tripurdaman Singh: Westminster-style democracy is majoritarian by its very nature, with a minority of votes being able to deliver crushing legislative majorities. That was precisely the reason it was chosen by India’s founding fathers: it would mostly generate a strong government. 

Of course, [the founding fathers themselves] did not want to share power – or engage in the messy negotiation and compromise that characterizes presidential or proportional representation systems. We don’t stress this enough: India chose [the] First Past the Post (FPTP) [electoral system] precisely because it wanted a certain kind of majoritarianism. They simply did not expect that majoritarianism could take a very different turn.

The big question is about what axis the majority is mobilized along. Nehru personally shunned religion, but that did not mean that the Congress did not have its fair share of Hindu nationalists. Until the first election, the right wing in the Congress was still strong enough to thwart Nehru on the issue of the Hindu code bills. Religion was very much alive as a tool of political mobilization, and as a question in political life.

In the context of today, I find the debate with Iqbal particularly relevant because [his]  arguments, even though [they are] made from an Islamic point of view, are being re-deployed with vigor today. Iqbal believed religion alone could produce group solidarity – on which a nation could be built. [He rejected] both secularism and liberalism, as well as the idea of a fusion of communities. Many of the more traditional advocates of Hindutva would find Iqbal conceptually quite palatable.

Vikram Zutshi: In your view, was there a time when Nehru could have dissuaded Jinnah [from separating from India and establishing Pakistan as an independent Islamic state]? Were there any lost opportunities in the build-up to Partition?

Tripurdaman Singh: The 1930s [were] definitely a lost opportunity. The Motilal Nehru Report’s complete [rejected] Muslim anxiety [when it came to] being dominated by a Hindu majority in any future democracy, [calling it] a ‘baseless fear’. 

Nehru’s torpedoing of the proposed Congress-League coalition in UP in 1937, the belief that the Congress’ crushing victory in the 1937 elections demonstrated that the communal question [of Hindu and Muslim unity] had faded into the background and did not require substantive engagement, the unsuccessful Muslim outreach program mounted by the Congress to stamp out the League by riding on the coattails of the clergy – these were all opportunities lost.

 The only way Nehru could have dissuaded Jinnah [would have been] by agreeing to accept this framing of the communal question – and then agreeing to negotiate a political settlement (with a constitutional settlement to follow). Nehru and most other Congressmen were unwilling to do [this,] lest it legitimizes the League and the demand for Muslim political rights. [British viceroy Archibald] Wavell tried his utmost to force [Nehru and Jinnah] to work together and come to a compromise, but ultimately failed because he was handicapped by London.

Vikram Zutshi: Was Nehru too harsh on Shyama Prasad Mookerji for protesting article 370? Mookerji was ultimately arrested in J&K and died while in prison. What are the highlights of the debate between Mookerji and Nehru, and was there anything that foretold the coming tragedy?

Tripurdaman Singh: [The fact that] Mookerji and Nehru didn’t see eye to eye on major issues is well known. Kashmir, the situation in Bengal, the policy towards Pakistan, the question of civil liberties – there were multiple sites of disagreement. In fact, at one point Nehru even contemplated having Mookerji charged with sedition. So it is somewhat unsurprising that he was harsh towards Mookerji, especially given the fact that he saw Mookerji as a communalist or ‘hindu nationalist’. As I have argued in both my books, Nehru was a determined wielder of executive power.

The debate between Mookerji and Nehru that I highlighted was on the question of civil liberties and the First Amendment. Mookerji believed – and he was quite correct in this – that the primary reason for ‘friendly relations with foreign states’ being added as a ground on which the freedom of speech could be restricted was to clamp down on his criticism of the Nehru government’s policy towards Pakistan, of which he was a vocal and searing critic. Nehru [interpreted] such criticism as an attempt to rouse public opinion and force him into military action against Pakistan – something he was disinclined to do.

While there is nothing that really foretells the coming tragedy [of Mookerji’s death], one can see the rancor and bitterness with which the debate is laced, especially from Nehru’s side. It becomes apparent that Nehru did not particularly like Mookerji.

Vikram Zutshi: What did Nehru and Patel disagree on the most, and why did Nehru call him a “communalist”? Many claim that Nehru sidelined Patel because he saw him as a threat. How would Indian history have turned out differently if Patel had ascended to power instead of Nehru?

They disagreed on a fair bit actually, from economic matters and foreign policy to secularism. [To name a few points of contention]: attitudes towards Muslims, the royal princes of India, the zamindars, capital and labor, and so on. I’d guess disagreement was probably sharpest on [matters] concerning Muslims, and then perhaps foreign policy. 

“What ifs” are a minefield, we can never really know how things would have turned out. But if I [were] to speculate, several things are likely to have been different. Patel was more pro-capital than Nehru, so it is likely we would have avoided Nehru’s leftward turn [towards socialism]. Economically, that probably would have generated much better outcomes. Politically, we would have been unlikely to throw our lot in with the Soviet bloc or pursue ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’, our brief alliance with China.

Patel would likely have had a different answer to the Hindu-Muslim conflict as well. In reality, these things – Nehruvian socialism, Nehruvian secularism, Nehruvian foreign policy – were closely intertwined, and a different conception of one would inevitably have led to a different conception of the others.

If we were to go further back, many, including Viceroy Wavell, believed that partition may have been avoided if Nehru and Jinnah were not the key decision makers. But of course all of this is speculation, and tempting as it is to engage in such flights of fancy, we must recognise that history is non-linear and events unpredictable.

Vikram Zutshi: In hindsight, what were Nehru’s biggest blunders as prime minister and how did they affect India’s current relationship with China and Pakistan? How did they affect Hindu-Muslim relations in contemporary India?

Tripurdaman Singh: I’d probably pick two [specific blunders] that I think have constituted, and continue to constitute, a poisoned chalice for [Nehru’s] successors. The first is undoubtedly the inability to solve the Hindu-Muslim [conflict], which has now come to bedevil Indian politics with a renewed ferocity. 

Shaken by partition and constrained by the backlash it generated, Nehru allowed—or perhaps encouraged—Muslims to form political ghettos. [Muslims] were neither encouraged to frame their politics in the language of constitutional freedoms, nor were they given substantive political representation despite being treated as a political category. 

Instead, a pliant Muslim leadership cultivated loyalty to Nehru and planted its flag on the most regressive of cultural rights: four wives, triple talaq, waqf property etc. These defined Muslim politics, and clearly [were] not sustainable [solutions to the conflict].

The second [blunder] would be the passage of the First Amendment, which I believe dealt a body blow to Indian liberalism and to civil liberties more generally. Perhaps [Nehru] was not cognizant of the fact that he was shaping the outlook and expectations of the office he occupied, and of the institutional order more generally. But the long term consequences have been severe. I delineate [this] story in my book Sixteen Stormy Days.

There were of course [other blunders as well]. [To name a few,] the pursuit of a vainglorious foreign policy that led to the disastrous Sino-Indian War of 1962, the pursuit of central planning that proved equally disastrous (chronicled excellently by Ashoka Mody in his recent book), [and Nehru’s] embrace of his own role as India’s thaumaturgic personality. [However,] we seem to have gotten over them, to some degree at least. But the Hindu-Muslim [conflict] and [its] debilitating effects on civil liberties are things we are still living with today.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded in 1925 by KB Hedgewar, a physician from the Maharashtra region of India, who was deeply influenced by the writings of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who advocated for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or Hindu nation.

The RSS is primarily a cultural organization that aims to foster unity among Hindus of all castes and classes. Many leaders from the ruling BJP, including current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been members of the RSS at some point.

Vikram Zutshi: In your view, has the RSS evolved since its inception? The organization is often dubbed “fascist” and associated with Mussolini, given that its early founders lauded the Italian demagogue. What in your view is different about the new RSS, and has Modi been able to curb the extremist factions of the organization?

Tripurdaman Singh: Of course the RSS has evolved – look at its gradually softening position on homosexuality for example. It hasn’t embraced modernity in totality, but there is definitely change. Others might posit that the RSS is pushing back against the more universal assumptions of modernity and replacing them with [a] more culturally and historically-specific version. But no one would deny that there has been change.

There is little doubt that many early Hindutva figures were inspired by Italian fascism. BS Moonje would be a good example. And of course [these figures] never hid [their fascination with Mussolini and the militarism that he fostered. Many others were also equally fascinated with fascism in the early 1930s. Even as late as 1939 for example, on the eve of the Second World War, [a Nazi party in the USA infamously known as] the German-American Bund, could hold a rally and fill out Madison Square Gardens. In the 1920s and 30s, fascism seemed quite fashionable to a lot of people.

[However, a large portion of] Hindutva ideologies were largely  ignorant of what was really going on behind the scenes, in the same way that many of the left were oblivious to the excesses of Stalinism. All were searching for shortcuts to national regeneration. Some thought they had found [reclamation] in the discipline and militarism of fascism. Others felt that rebirth lay in the perpetual revolution and class war of Bolshevism.

The RSS is not easy to describe or understand from the outside. Unlike Mussolini’s fascists or the Communist Parties under Stalin and Mao, the RSS has a structure of internal debate. More importantly, its affiliates often speak in different voices, making the organization’s viewpoints hard to characterize on a host of issues. It is entirely possible for one political affiliate, like the BJP, to champion something, and another, such as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) or the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) organization, to oppose it. At one level, this allows for obfuscation. At another, it makes for a much more totalizing Hindutva paradigm, within which these apparently contradictory impulses are to be resolved.

One thing that is definitely different in the RSS compared to the last BJP government, is the attempt to create more substantial intellectual foundations for its broader political project. [The RSS] has always skated on rather thin intellectual ice, and the intellectual output from that stable had previously been extremely meager – for a variety of reasons.

This time, [the RSS] is definitely [making] an attempt to generate intellectual output with the aim of engaging and challenging the paradigms that had come before. [While these efforts are] nowhere near the conservative intellectual traditions in Britain or America, it is a start. We will have to see how far it goes.

Vikram Zutshi: It is claimed that Nehru was clueless about the vital role that religion played in people’s lives, and that his British pedigree was responsible for this blind spot. What is the problem with the idea of secularism as defined by the Indian liberal establishment, and is Rahul Gandhi capable of correcting it?

Tripurdaman Singh: I wouldn’t say [Nehru was] clueless, [but] maybe willfully blind. [He] thought [religion would be eclipsed [by] materialistic and economic [interests, but he was clearly mistaken]. The horrors of partition were a graphic reminder that Nehru had [grossly] miscalculated, and [finally motivated] him to change course as far as Muslims were concerned.

The problem with secularism, as defined by India’s liberal establishment, has consistently been its inability to confront the Hindu-Muslim [conflict] head-on. Instead, [secularism] has found [a way to accommodate] religious enclaves and [bring] religion squarely into the realms of law and politics – the exact opposite of what secularism is supposed to [do]. 

Now this is not to say that [secularism as defined by India’s liberal establishment] was not well-intentioned. It was definitely [proposed as a] method [to allow] different religious groups [to] live with each other. But it was not secularism as the term or its related institutional arrangements are commonly understood – and has not proved to be a durable answer to the Hindu-Muslim question in Indian politics. . 

Practically every political leader embraces a public and performative religiosity – it is the greatest acknowledgement of the fact that we are not secular at all. The thing is that we have never been [secular], and we may not need to be. What is important is that [we find] a mechanism [which] allows religious groups to live and work together, and supports a robust and democratic political commons.

Contrary to what many believe, I do think Rahul Gandhi is capable of correcting the mistakes of the previous liberal establishment. He has started by embracing Hindu religiosity, something that a profoundly religious country almost seems to demand of its leaders. To me that seems like the quiet burial of the ‘secular’ project, and the beginning of the attempt to find ground for a new social settlement. Whether Gandhi can find [both] the intellectual contours of this new settlement and the political capital to sell it, we will have to wait and see.

[Hannah Gage edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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