Seventy-five years from now, in 2089/90, there will be 200th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nobody in this hall, despite my best wishes, would be present on that occasion. But indeed, would the Indians at that time organize the 200th anniversary of Pandit Nehru? Even now birth and death anniversaries of great people have become mere formalities, often orchestrated as “events” without content or “homage” without purpose.
As for the 200th birth anniversary is concerned, are we even sure that this century is not the last century of the civilization? The world’s great scientists like Martin Rees and even Stephen Hawking have seriously raised this question in the context of climate change, politics of hate and techno-terrorism. Pandit Nehru, in his time warned almost a decade in advance that the world is heading for a global war. The Second World War confirmed his apprehension. But in those days, there were Gandhiji, Nehru and Tagore. Who is guiding the destiny of the world today? Ironically, not any political leader, but the Pope is raising these concerns all over the world!
In the year 1940, when actually Hitler was winning in the first phase of war, Charlie Chaplin made a film titled “The Great Dictator”. I urge you all to see it, if you have not seen it already. It is easily accessible on the net or YouTube. Each time I see the film these days I remember Narendra Modi, when Chaplin caricatures Hitler. Chaplin proved to be prophetic and courageous. Five years after the film was released, the Nazis were defeated and Hitler committed suicide. That was Chaplin’s politics.
Nehru too saw the possibility of fascism spreading its poisonous network immediately after independence. In a letter dated 7th December 1947, that is just about four months after his historic speech of Tryst with Destiny, he wrote to the chief ministers, ” we have a great deal of evidence to show that the RSS is an organization…and is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines, even following the technique of organization…it is not our desire to interfere with civil liberties….but their activities more and more go beyond the limits and it is desirable to keep a watchful eye and to take such actions as they may deem necessary…I have some knowledge of the way the Nazi movement developed in Germany. It attracted by its superficial trappings and strict discipline, considerable numbers of young men for whom life appeared to offer little to attract them. And so they drifted towards the Nazi party because its policies and programmes, appeared simple, negative and did not require an active effort of the mind. The Nazi party brought Germany to ruin and I have little doubt that if these tendencies are allowed to spread and increase in India, they would do enormous injury to India. No doubt India would survive, but would be grievously wounded and would take a long time to recover. His worst fears have come true with RSS Pracharak becoming prime minister of the country. Unless we reverse this dangerous fall into abyss, it would be too late for the country to recover. What Chaplin warned through his film, The Great Dictator, Nehru alerted us 68 years ago. But did we heed to their warnings? Did we make people aware of the fascist spectre haunting India?
Charlie Chaplin and Jawaharlal Nehru shared a lot, not just the year of their birth, (Chaplin April 16 and Jawaharlal November 14, 1889 ) though they may not have actually lived together. Their attitudes and world view, their political and cultural outlook, their ideological leanings and political beliefs were shaped by the period they lived in. Born 25 years before the First World War, they saw the degradation and exploitation of the poor and working class in England, they saw the helplessness of the marginalized and also saw the greed and arrogance of the rich and the capitalists, they saw the silent suffering of the hapless women and men and despite such frustrating existence, they saw hope and life force among those people.
The Kid, which struggles to survive odds of poverty and a kind of orphan hood, the poor blind girl in the City Lights who loves and dreams better life, the mindless greed in the Gold Rush and the little tramp’s pathetic and pleasant fight to overcome misery or the emerging corporate capitalism and the workers’ alienation in the Modern Times. The eloquence and the message of those silent films were louder and clearer than all the hi-tech-hi-decibel-multi-speaker Dolby sound systems.
Though Jawaharlal was in England only from 1905 to1912, for seven years, and that too in the elitist atmosphere of Harrow and Cambridge, he was sensitive to the life beyond those hallowed institutions. That period in England was of intense dialogue and debate which influenced sensitive young minds. From the vantage point in England, it was possible to learn about the upheavals in world. The victory of Japan in 1905 over the Czarist Russia was one such major event. An Asian country had defeated the imperial European nation. Nehru was greatly influenced by this development. In India too there was the rising nationalist awareness, symbolized by Lokmanya Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghose. They had begun to make waves in the Indian community in England. The trigger was of course the partition of Bengal. In the same time spa the Irish Home Rule Movement was challenging the aggressive English imperialism. For the English Ruling class, the Indian, the Irish and even the workers in British factories were same, fodder for their profits. Jawaharlal was trying to establish the link in all these apparently separate but connected events.
It was at that point of time, the idea of socialism hit him as intellectual and compassionate interpretation of the otherwise complex human predicament. The leading academicians and thinkers and the debaters in Cambridge, were influenced by the same idea. Actually, very little of Karl Marx works were in the public domain then. Volumes of Das Capital came in English language after 1897. Indeed, Marx had died in 1883, just six years before Jawaharlal was born. It was left to Fredrick Engels to see the publication of the works of Marx in other languages. Though the idea of socialism was emerging as a major polemical discourse, hardly anyone had gone through the whole works of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. There were several parallel theories of socialism even before Marxism established its intellectual and ideological hegemony. Nehru was influenced by the humanism and idealism in those theories. That was prior to the Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia under the leadership of Lenin in 1917, really opened the ideological floodgates.
But Nehru had gone to England at the age 16 in 1905 and returned in 1912, when he was 23, that is five years before that Revolution and just two years before the Great War. That was the Age of Uncertainty in the life of Jawaharlal, to re-contextualize the expression of John Kenneth Galbraith. When Jawaharlal came back to India, Lokmanya Tilak was in Mandalay jail, serving the term on the charges of sedition. The moderates under Gopal Krishna Gokhale had not been able to take the mantle of the Congress. Neither leadership, nor programme – the Congress was stagnating organizationally and politically. Gokhale had gone to South Africa to urge Gandhiji to come to India to lead the movement. But Gandhiji came only in 1915, the same year Gokhale passed away.
Nehru was not sure as to what he should exactly do. The only thing certain in that period of uncertainty was he had decided to join the freedom movement and not pursue career. Though his father, Motilal, was politically with the moderates, he was a rebel in personal and social life. He would not succumb to the pressures of the ritualistic conservatives in the family. Somehow this personal militancy was compatible with his moderate politics! Jawaharlal refused to be politically moderate, but was impressed by the father’s rebellious approach.
During his England days, Jawaharlal was also influenced by the scientific and philosophical revolution that was taking place in Europe. Einstein’s special theory of relativity had stunned and enthralled the world in 1905. Bertrand Russell and A N Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica had charged and inspired the academic world. The flying machines created by Wright Brothers in America, were opening new horizons. It was only natural that Nehru would be inquisitive and would engage his mind in learning more and more about science. The world of science and ideologies was unfolding in front of him. No other leader in the world has incorporated the notion of scientific temper in the very idea of freedom. Without scientific temper, there would be no inquiry into the nature of things. Without inquiry, there would be no scientific progress. Without progress, it will not be possible to fight and eliminate poverty and injustice. To achieve that people must be free and be able to decide for themselves. For him the ideas of freedom and peace, ethics and economics, culture and civilization were one integrated weltanschauung.
The international mobilization of trade unionists between 1912-14, had created new awareness, that indeed the workers of the world must unite to fight the global capitalist class. The Fabian movement which brought under its fold even George Bernard Shaw, was seen as an alternative to conservatives in England. Shaw’s plays which had not really been successful initially, began to pick up in the first two decades of the twentieth century. No wonder, Nehru could develop literary and political relationship with Shaw. Not many people know or don’t care that Shaw had addressed a labour meeting with Lokmanya Tilak on stage, when he had gone to London in 1919, for a court case. Shaw had declared his total support to the freedom movement in India in that meeting. So the atmosphere was charged with ideas and ideologies. Nehru easily immersed himself into that. He later became president of the All India Trade Union Congress.
Unless we take into account, this mood of the first two decades of the twentieth century, we would not be able to understand Nehru and his world view, his politics and his philosophy of life. As the superficial stability and calm began to evaporate in the second decade of the twentieth century, Nehru began to formulate on the ideas of freedom and peace, social justice and the causes of the misery in the world. The Great War and the Russian Revolution were the triggers, that set him thinking on these issues.
Nehru was continuously evolving, growing and creatively trying to understand the world. He wanted to change it, and so he must understand it in all its splendour. That is why, the teenager Jawaharlal in Harrow, young ” Fabian ” debater in Cambridge, angry and uncomfortable young man when he returned to India, a kind of Marxist-Leninist in the twenties, Dedicated Gandhian in the freedom movement and that too without giving up his socialist ideals, courageous fighter against the British Raj, negotiator in most difficult times of partition and freedom, prime minister and global statesman, mentor to many African countries liberation movements, founder of non-aligned movement–are various stages on the trajectory of growth in his personality, his thinking and action.
His understanding of the symbiotic relationship between Freedom and Peace as expressed in the Discovery of India, is a profound reflection on the history of mankind as well as direct response to the troubled decades of war and devastation in the First and Second World War. Actually, the Discovery was written a couple of years before the war was over and Nazis vanquished. This means that he had not only seen the mindless World War One but also the formation and failure of the League of Nations, whose aim was to avoid wars and establish peace. Within a decade of the collapse of the League of Nations, the Nazis established their Reich in Germany and did not hide their plans of aggressive expansionism. The ominous rise of Hitler and spread of his tentacles, the concentration camps and extension of terror across Europe, the discontents of civilization exploding in the same region which was known for Renaissance and militarized Japan expanding its territories–all this in just a matter of three decades, were his direct encounters with his times. All that became history much later. For him it was living through such volcanic eruptions, though he was in jail contemplating about past and future.
Two years after his release from the jail, came independence but with partition and holocaust. The whole Indian subcontinent was in turmoil. The world had become even more insecure despite the victory of the allies and defeat of the Nazis. The American bombing of Hiroshima-Nagasaki in August 1945 had brought world to the nuclear precipice. Four years later Communist Russia conducted its own atomic tests. Now in the real sense the Cold War began and with it nuclear brinkmanship. From Korea to Cuba and from Palestine to Vietnam, there were tensions everywhere and each with nuclear dimension. Again in almost each global crisis, from Suez to African region it was Nehru’s intervention which proved to crucial. It may sound hyperbolic, but without Nehru, the world could have faced yet another world war. But are we as Indians, as liberals, as internationalists, even grateful to him? What efforts have we made to take his ideas and ideals to the people? We have remembered him on birth and death anniversaries and forgotten that we are a democratic, secular, liberal country today, thanks mainly to him. Most countries which became free after the Second World War, ended up in military dictatorships and civil wars. Let us not take India for granted. India too is on the brink of anarchy and multiple civil strife, which can degenerate into civil war like situations.
When India became free there was hope and people rejoiced in Africa and most of Asia. Jawaharlal Nehru was like a Deepstambha in the turbulent history. Almost whole of Africa was in colonial chains. Most of Asia was under colonial yoke but was awakening to the idea of freedom. The Latin American countries had begun to assert for themselves. But the colonial masters in Europe who talked of Liberty and Equality, Democracy and Plato’s Republic were not ready to give up their imperial hold. The Jewel in the Crown, India, the largest colony of the British Empire was subjected to humiliation, subservience and denial of all freedoms and basic rights. Unless the people in all these continents were free, there would be no peace. Nehru thought that this realization would dawn on the so called civilized nations. But that did not. The struggle then became inevitable.
The End of History is nowhere in sight though. In fact, we are witnessing the repeat of history, but not as a farce, but yet another tragedy. The neo-imperialist and neo-colonial corporate-capitalist control of the world, the the soulless march of the market forces, the superpower hegemony with global policing and half of the world population still half starved shows that Nehru’s dream is yet to be fulfilled. Most of the African and Asian countries were liberated after India became independent and Jawaharlal Nehru was the iconic leader of those people.
Yet, when the India-Africa summit was held in Delhi a couple of weeks ago, the current Indian leadership thought of not even mentioning Nehru’s name, forget his legacy. It was left to some African heads of states to recall the glorious Nehruvian ethos. That is the depth of hatred of Nehru. The present Prime Minister is globetrotting today as if there was no world before he became India’s Fuerer. He and the RSS want to wipe out from history, not only Nehru’s name, but the whole freedom movement. They will not succeed in their bizarre effort, because Nehru’s footprints are all over india and the world. But let us also not forget that these dangerously regressive forces have come to power by using the democratic institutions built by the Independence Movement and Pandit Nehru’s direct personal contribution.
However, there are signs that realization, though belated, is coming. With a little far fetched analogy, I can say that the elections in Bihar will prove to be Stalingrad to the neo-Nazis who have usurped power in India. It was in Stalingrad, that the Nazi aggression was turned back by the Red Army. But for the valour shown by the Russian people in Stalingrad, the history would have been different. If indeed Hitler had defeated the Russian army, it would have been Not only Fortress Europe, but the whole world would have come under the Nazi boot. In next two days the results of Bihar elections will be out. If the NDA-led by the current Prime Minister fails to win Bihar, his saffron fascist forces will be checked. But that does not mean the war will have been won. It took nearly three years even after the Nazis were humiliated in Russia. The price paid by Russia for the world to be free and democratic was huge. Over 30 million Russian people sacrificed their lives so that Nazi evil is destroyed.
We must not remain complacent. Indeed because of our collective complacence, political irresponsibility of all liberal and progressive parties and ideological neglect of Nehruvian legacy, we are in the present predicament. I am not sure whether we have really understood Nehru’s politics, his philosophy and his global perspective. That is what we should preserve and promote so that the people all over the world are able to live in freedom and in peace. That would be the real tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru on his 125th birth anniversary.
(The transcript of the keynote address delivered by the author in the conference inaugurated by Dr Manmohan Singh. Irfan Habib was another key note speaker.)