Monday, February 16, 2015

Doing the unfashionable - defending Nehru - II

One reason why Nehru's stock has gone down in recent years is the increasing strength of the Hindu Right. One thing Nehru and his cabinet colleagues were clear about was that whatever India might be it won't be a Hindu Pakistan. Nehru fought all his life to make sure that the RSS dream of a Hindu Rashtra did not materialise which is why they can't stand him. So for example, an RSS functionary in Kerala said that Godse should have targeted Nehru instead of Gandhi. Or that Modi will rarely if ever utter his name. He says, 'Don't Divide History and Legacy on Ideologies'. The barb is aimed at the Congress but the irony seems to be lost on him.And how can I not like what the Hindu Right dislikes?

Nehru had a big role to play along with Ambedkar in bringing the 'Hindu Code Bill' which was stalled by more conservative-minded politicos. However, after winning the first general elections in 1952, Nehru revived the reforms which were passed into law after a lengthy bitter debate in Parliament. Among other things, it gave divorce and property rights to women.Later, he called it his most significant achievement. During a speech in parliament he said (as quoted in Makers of Modern India ):
Sita and Savitri are mentioned as ideals of womanhood for the women. I do not seem to remember men being reminded of Ramchandra and Satyavan, to behave like them. It is only the women who have to behave like Sita and Savitri, the men may behave as they like. No example is put before them. I do not know if Indian men are supposed to be perfect, incapable of any further effort or improvement, but it is bad that this can be so. It cannot remain so...You cannot have a democracy, of course, if you cut off a large chunk of humanity, fifty percent or thereabouts of the people and put them in a separate class apart in regard to social privileges and the like.
This is not calculated to be a hit among the orthodox sections of a hierarchical culture where the Devi paradox still prevails - the more a culture deifies women, the less rights women actually have in that culture. As I heard one economist say, 'Women's lib in Kerala extends from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Once the women are back home from work, the old patriarchy prevails.'

Where Nehru failed was in not extending the rights to Muslim women. He was in favour of a uniform civil code but felt that the time was not yet right to change the Muslim civil code because the wounds after partition were just healing and he didn't want to reopen them. I feel that there is never a right time for this - all religions will protest whenever their civil codes are touched. Perhaps it was easier to do in Nehru's time than it is now. But that is the advantage of hindsight and of being nowhere near the hot seat.

Dazed by shopping malls and mobile phones, one is likely to forget that none of this would have come about if the challenges after independence (none of which have a perfect solution) had not been handled carefully and in a humane manner. (Admittedly, many leaders were involved in this effort; India was very lucky to have several leaders at the time of independence who didn't get carried away by the passion, anger and xenophobia of the time.). As is usually the case, the last person on the scene who provides the goodies takes all the credit. But as Newton said, 'We see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants'.

The challenges after independence were mind-boggling - religious rioting post partition whose psychological scars required sensitive handling, a constitution had to be written, institutions had to be set up and the relationships between them defined (Here is a discussion about Nehru's role in institution building), a fledgling democracy had to be nurtured in a situation where democracy was in Ambedkar's words just a 'top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic', free speech had to be protected... In Imperialist, Nationalists, Democrats, Sarvepalli Gopal says:
Nehru had also, as part of this democratizing, to build up the whole complex of parliamentary institutions. He took seriously his duties as leader of the Lok Sabha and of the Congress party in parliament, sat regularly through the question-hour and all important discussions, treated the presiding officers of the two houses with extreme deference, sustained the excitement of debate with a skillful use of irony and repartee, and developed parliamentary activity as an important sector in the public life of India.
[SNIP]
Outside parliament, Nehru also saw to it that no hindrance was placed in the way of a free press and an independent judiciary. On the one occasion when he slipped by publicly criticizing a judge who was conducting a commission of inquiry, he quickly sent an apology.
In Sujit's school magazine, I  saw a comment by a French philosopher, Professor Raymond Aron saying in 1961 that it was 'ingratitude' on the part of Indians to deny Nehru's role in making India a 'secular democratic republic'. He said that 'compared to the then newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa, freed from the yoke of colonial over lordship, converting themselves in a hurry into miscellaneous autocracies, based on race, religion and hate, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, more than anyone else, led India as  a potentially mature democracy, in the space of less than a decade.'

I have never come across an instance where he tried to muzzle criticism which is a far cry from today's politicians.This is exemplified by his advise to the cartoonist Shankar, 'Don't spare me , Shankar.' I have heard that he was viciously criticised in Parliament for the China debacle and other issues and he sat through the discussions without creating a ruckus. When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, a common reaction was, 'How could Nehru's daughter have done this?' I heard that in one speech, the jurist Fali Nariman said that he was born in a tolerant India but will die in an intolerant one. I am much younger than him but I think the prophecy is true for me also.

There is often talk to the effect that it would have been better if Patel had been PM instead of Nehru. (In this video, Rajmohan Gandhi discusses the controversy.) Maybe Patel would have been a better PM but I think it is  delusional to think that one person will make everything change for the  better in a short span of time.People will always find reasons to crib and would have been as satisfied/dissatisfied as they are now. As says Prof. André Béteille in Anti-Utopia:
One of Max Weber's  most fundamental ideas by which sociology has been enriched everywhere is that the consequences of human action are rarely the same as the intentions of the actors, and that sometimes the two are diametrically opposite.
Perhaps the main mistake that Nehru made was to ignore Machiavelli's advice that a leader should be feared rather than loved.I am willing to accept such a mistake. Icon-bashing is a popular passtime mainly due to ideology and ignorance of history and Nehru has been one of the causalities.


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