Nehru, Vajpayee and Modi
There are several reasons for the Indian left to be critical of Nehru. But why does the Indian right hate him ever so intensely?
MAURICE Hallet served as home secretary to the British government in India and occupied the governor’s post in Bihar and the United Provinces as part of his assignments between 1932 and 1945. His hatred of the Congress party was startlingly similar to Prime Minister Modi’s today. During the Quit India Movement, Jawaharlal Nehru suspended for three years the publication of the National Herald, which he had founded as a newspaper with a liberal slant, unrelated to the Congress.
In a signed editorial, when the paper resumed publication on Nov 30, 1945, Nehru remembered the interruption as “years of solitude in prison cells, and of thousands driven underground, homeless and disinherited wanderers, keeping the flag of resistance high amid tremendous odds”.
In the editorial, he recalled how governor Hallet had threatened to kill the Congress summarily. “We wish to destroy the organisation and render it impossible for the movement to grow and expand.” Hallet was using Modi’s idiom of a ‘Congress-free India’. That was not the only place where the Hindu right and colonialism worked in tandem.
Nehru the editor had more to say on the subject. “Sir Maurice Hallet is soon leaving this province and India,” he wrote. “What does he think now of that declaration, backed as it was with the armed legions of a mighty empire? Who flourishes today? Who will flourish tomorrow in India?” Nehru was, of course, describing a movement and not a party. Gandhiji wanted to disband the Congress after Independence. For better or worse that didn’t happen.
After Independence, Nehru faced criticism from two fronts, the Hindu right and the communists. Anyone who has to run India with its myriad contradictions has to face the music. The communist poet Majrooh Sultanpuri was jailed for two years for describing Nehru as a serpent loyal to the British Commonwealth and being an enemy to the Indian people. (Khaddar ki kechul ko pehen kar ab ye nagin lehraney na paaye/ Maar le saathi jaaney nap aye.)
The left did see the Commonwealth as a backdoor method of entry for the British economic and defence interests in India. Nehru favoured it. Majrooh was asked to apologise. He didn’t and famously penned his memorable songs for the movie Andaz from prison.
Similarly, it was under Nehru that the first communist government in Kerala was torpedoed. Yet, it was under Nehru too that the Communist Party flourished as the main opposition group in parliament following the 1952 polls. Democracy followed its hallowed way to find equilibrium.
There are several other reasons for the Indian left to be critical of Nehru. But why does the Indian right hate him ever so intensely? Is there a day when Prime Minister Modi fails to mock the legacy of Nehru? The answer is simpler than most Indians feel equipped to imagine. Nehru had a particular and instinctive dislike for the Hindu right. He never missed a chance to underline this thought. Nehru’s writings are peppered with examples of his unalloyed vitriol against the Indian Hindu right, against the Hindutva brand of nationalism in particular.
Let’s consider two examples to see why so much bile is spewed against a rare Indian leader whose intellectual prowess and books are a subject of study in universities around the world. Atal Behari Vajpayee to his credit was an unusual Hindutva politician who openly admired Nehru. In Shades of Saffron, a new book by journalist Saba Naqvi on the BJP’s journey from Vajpayee to Modi, there is a reference to this quaint soft corner Vajpayee displayed for Nehru.
In 1977, Vajpayee became the external affairs minister. As a Jana Sangh MP, he had made many speeches criticising India’s foreign policy, chiefly the ones concerning Pakistan, Tibet and China. But Vajpayee surprised everyone by not yielding to the apprehensions he had himself sparked. Asked about the apparent change of heart, according to the book, Vajpayee said: “Then I was in the opposition. Now I am occupying Nehru’s chair.”
Hindutva is not a party but a worldview, which in Nehru’s days was, as it is today, present even within the Congress. Nehru fought the right wing tooth and nail. In a letter to Gandhi, Nehru praised his patience with right-wing nationalists. But he also advised his revered Bapu to read Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, the play in which she made the author’s rebelliousness look miniscule in comparison. Not only did Joan challenge the place of women but her actions attacked the entire power structure of mediaeval society.
Nehru asked Gandhi to commandeer a copy from his daughter Indira who he had presented it with. And here is a passage from that letter, which may be of interest to Rahul Gandhi and his advisers who are determined to make him visit temples to win votes.
“It is all very well for the likes (of a fellow Kashmiri Pandit colleague) and me to talk pompously and in a superior air … or for us to bless the movement for temple entry when neither has the remotest desire to go within a hundred miles of a temple except, so far as I am concerned, to see the architecture and the statuary!”
On cow slaughter on Aug 7, 1947, Nehru put his foot down with Babu Rajendra Prasad, the future president of India.
While he opposed the slaughter of milch cows an overall ban, according to Nehru, would be disastrous. “Our better breeds will be swamped out of existence and there would be a general degradation.”
There was a paramount political factor too. “I find myself in total disagreement with this revivalist feeling, and in view of this difference of opinion I am a poor representative of many of our people today. I felt honestly that it might be better for a truer representative to take my place. That would do away with the unnaturalness and artificiality of the present position.” But that was Nehru.