Jawahar Lal Nehru’s life and the world always fascinated me. He speaks like a ‘teacher’ and one would be glued to him when we watch old videos of his press conferences or speeches. Yesterday BBC reposted Nehru’s first TV appearance recorded in June 1953 with leading editors in London when he had gone to participate in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Look at the way the presenter introduced Nehru as one of the most important voices from Asia and the prime minister of India.
Those who think India became ‘Vishwa guru’ after May 2014 should watch it and see how the veteran editors asked diverse international questions to Nehru right from China to Asia Pacific, Europe and Africa. There are no ‘advisors’ and support when Nehru faces the mighty editors. Remember, India had just got independence and yet he is continuously being referred to as the leader of Asia.
The BBC interview actually gives a lot of insight into Nehru and how calmly and confidently he interacts with the top editors. There is no hype but simple answers. His words are measured and to the point. There is no attempt to reexplain or impose his view. Most of his answers have been crisp and straightforward.
It has become more important to read and listen to Nehru in today’s time. Globally, it is an acknowledged fact that Nehru nurtured democracy in India which today is one of the most successful modules world over despite its different failures.
The public sector that he strengthened, the rule of law, the seriousness with which he attended parliament and respected leaders of opposition parties are reflected in his answer when an editor says that there is no opposition in India to which he responds that out of 500 odd seats of Parliament we only have 350 and rest 150 are with the opposition and they raise their voice. He further says that though it is divided and unable to raise the issue in one voice yet we can not impose a two-party system on our people.
There is an opposition, good opposition within and outside the parliament. Nehru respected Acharya Narendra Dev, Jai Prakash and Lohia, and listened to their speeches in Parliament and outside. It is a well-known fact that he wanted Jai Prakash to be his political heir and wanted him in his cabinet.
Nehru is determined for a ‘secular’ India despite all kinds of divisions and religious polarisation which hurt the subcontinent and he had to accept it along with other political leaders of his time.
Nehru clearly mentions why Muslim League was unable to stay on. He points out that Muslim League was a party of Zamindars who were afraid of land reforms. India introduced the first biggest act for social justice in independent India with Nehru categorically emphasising that Zamindari must be abolished for an equal society. The Pakistani elite protected itself from such reforms. The first reform happened in Pakistan in 1959 under the Martial Law regime of Ayub Khan while the second and third reforms happened during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who himself had a big feudal background.
For the first land reforms in 1959, Pakistan imposed a ceiling on 500-acre land for irrigated land and 1000 acres of unirrigated land. If this can be called a ‘land reform’ then, I have nothing to say. The feudal elite of Pakistan protected its vital interest and that remains true even today. So, Bhutto introduced amendments in the 1970s that brought down the ceiling for irrigated land to 150 acres and unirrigated land to 300 acres per individual.
Unfortunately, the Pakistan Supreme Court declared the Land Ceiling Act as un-Islamic and Unconstitutional. Today, Pakistan is ruled by this landed feudal elite from Sind and Punjab. Compare this with India when in the 1970s Indira Gandhi introduced a ceiling limit of 12 acres for irrigated land.
He says that the relations between India and Pakistan are improving and we are on the right path. Look at the democracy that Nehru nurtured in India, despite all its failure it provided space for the most marginalized communities to reach the top while in Pakistan it will still be a dream where the Anglican feudal elite control the political discourse. Nehru is often criticised for his approach to caste but still, India provided all the remedial matters. Can we Compare it with the other Asian countries where the issue of caste has not been accepted in political parlance except for Nepal? Pakistan’s elite did not even recognise the Dalit question compelling its first law minister Jogindernath Mandal to resign, leave their citizenship and returned to India.
The most fascinating point that I found during the interview was the journalist’s attempt to push him to condemn communism. He did not feel any threat from communism to Indian democracy. He never accepted that violence has any role in democracy but there are issues which make the communist parties popular and we need to develop our own perception of countries and ideologies and not that from the Western lens. He refuses to toe the line of the Western criticism of China and says that India shares a 2000-kilometre border with it and hence knows better about them. Nehru was definitely fascinated by the progress made by China and Russia and felt no threat from communism threatening Indian democracy even though he decried their ‘anarchy’ many times.
He says, “But there is a tendency, if I may say so, for leading statesmen in Europe and America to look at the world from Europe and America. Well, if we look at the same world with the same principles, let us say Delhi or Karachi, the world looks slightly different.” “Geography counts. Take the question of China. China is a distant country to most people in Europe and America. China, the country, having a 2,000-mile frontier with India, well it’s a different picture to us immediately,” he adds.
It is an undeniable fact that the international media and intellectuals looked upon Nehru as a Statesman of the developing world or the countries which were decolonised. His voice had power and courage of conviction. He says there is an ‘awakening and enormous upsurge in a sense after three or four hundred years of European domination in Asia and Africa. It has upset their own order. Asia is coming on its own sometimes rightly or wrongly. We have to understand it, appreciate it or not get angry with it.”
The editors reminded him of the situation in Africa where the anti-colonial struggle continues and tiny white communities dominate politically through racist laws. After decolonisation, there might be unrest and tensions with the white communities in these countries. Nehru responded with great care and statesmanship. “Africa, please remember, is a continent, the most tragic continent. For hundreds of years, it suffered terribly. Maybe they are not as developed as others or because they did not have the opportunity. I am deeply distressed by what is happening in Africa’. He clearly understands that there is a big difference between the problems in East Africa and West Africa. He also knows well that the Western part of Africa was colonised by the French and hence he does not want to poke his nose everywhere. He says, as a prime minister, he has limitations and has to see that all his words are measured as per the government of India policy. He knows that he is speaking as head of the government to a global audience so his words are well-measured.
Actually, one can understand how Nehru as prime minister felt constrained and how he is missing his independence as an author, a journalist or a politician. He says Africa’s problems are different in north, central and south Africa. However, many Europeans may live there but ultimately, they have to work in cooperation with the native African people. They are outnumbered tremendously by the African population. Either they cooperate or try to suppress each other. If Europeans try to suppress Africans, undoubtedly the Africans will push them out.”
An editor reminds him that Indians too have been there in Kenya and other countries and perhaps more than the Europeans so what would be his advice to the Indians living over there? Now, I loved the absolutely candid reply from the Prime Minister without making any ‘nationalistic’ overtures. He says, “ Yes, we have told the Indians there year after year that they must cooperate with Africans, they should not ask for any privilege. They must not exploit the Africans or take advantage of them. I have told them, we will not support them for their demand for any privilege against Africans. If they have to live in Africa they must cooperate with Africans otherwise get out of Africa”.
What an unambiguous reply by asking people to be loyal to their countries of residence and cooperate with the majority in those countries. Look what happened to those who hate Nehru saying today. Yes, they are celebrating the English victory over Pakistan just because the ‘Goras’ have a prime minister with Hindu lineage despite the well-known fact that his family had migrated to Kenya and then to the UK afterwards.
Nehru’s words of advice for Indians and Europeans in Africa would have made the biggest headline. His opponents blame him for the Kashmir crisis and for going to the United Nations without knowing the facts or distorting the history. An editor asks him whether it would be good for the UN or other countries to mediate between India and Pakistan to which Nehru replies that India went to the UN not because it wanted mediation but because Pakistan was the aggressor but he also felt that there is no need for a third-party mediation as the two nations are capable of solving their own issues. Even today, India continues to have this policy as the centre of our foreign policy doctrine despite Pakistan’s attempt to internationalise it and involve third parties from the western world to intervene.
One thing is clear a Jawahar Lal Nehru in today’s time would have been far more popular at least on television channels as people would love his articulation. He would have been far more candid and categorical on the issues that we face today. It is unfortunate that the government of the day suffers from a serious inferiority complex as leader after leader who may not even write ten sentences are writing op-ed pieces condemning Nehru as the sole person for India’s crisis. It is sad that the person who respected the people’s voice in Jammu and Kashmir and worked hard to get Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah released from jail and stands with the idea of India is being targeted in such a shameless way. I always felt that Nehru as a politician was the loss of history and literature. His writings and communications with chief ministers and others show his intellect and capacity.
If India today feels proud of the diversity and achievements of people from the margins and minorities then we can not ignore that the seeds of a modern democratic nation were sown by Jawahar Lal Nehru.
Nehru’s greatness can be understood from the fact that most of the anti-colonial leaders, the heroes of their countries turned dictators and became a law unto themselves. It was Nehru who nurtured democracy. Just look around any of our neighbouring countries in those times, it was India alone which had democracy and political stability.
For today’s bootlickers watching Nehru interacting with top editors of the world or speaking with the students at the universities or meeting with various world leaders at international conferences can be shocking as they have only learnt history through WhatsApp and post 2014. Every interaction gives you lots of food for thought, his selection of words and the lyricism in his language is simply fascinating. India was fortunate to have a prime minister with such a big vision which made us stronger and better comparatively. We have examples of our neighbour where religion intoxicated the political climate and military interventions denied people their legitimate democratic rights. India performed well because political leadership was secular, and respected the diversity of languages, cultures and religions. Today, the vision that Nehru gave to India is under threat. Instead of respecting diversity, the state keeps imposing oneness on this huge country. Oneness for them is the imposition of Brahmanical values on everyone in the form of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. Oneness can happen despite being diverse but the Hindutva’s oneness is through imposed uniformity which is actually threatening our national integrity. India is not just an administrative unit run by the caste elite of north India but an emotion where each one despite being of diverse languages, regions, religions and cultures actually feels for each other and cares for the idea of an inclusive India where all have space to flourish. That way, we need a Nehruvian India where all communities live together, respect each other and enjoy their relationship on the basis of being citizens of India.
Let India remain a republic by focussing on people’s centric issues and not convert it into old forms of Kingdom where Raja Maharaja was least bothered about people’s rights but gave them ‘temples’, mosques’ and dharmshalas in the name of people’s ‘welfare’. A modern secular democratic India is an aspiring India and the thirst of young India can not be quenched through enslaving people more and more into religious rituals but by developing a scientific temper, respecting humanist values and submitting to our modern constitution which our constitutional forefathers led by Baba Saheb Ambedkar gave us.
Jawahar Lal Nehru’s first TV appearance provided us with the power of his personality and convictions as he responded to all the questions aimed at him with confidence and absolute clarity. Remember, it was the beginning of television and he was speaking for the first time. These editors were not there to ‘flatter’ him nor was there any PR agency like what we witness today. Can we expect our leaders to speak to international media in such a simple manner without any ‘assistance’ or ‘makeover’? Frankly speaking, the Nehru conversation proved that those who are abusing him day and night are suffering from a great inferiority complex both politically as well as intellectually. There are huge lessons for all of us when we hear him and we must make use of all his writings and videos in the greater interest of our nation.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat