It is fashionable nowadays to criticise Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, juxtaposing Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Bhimrao Ambedkar, or some other figure in their place. Supposedly, it demonstrates that one has the ability to peer past the propaganda and hype that flooded Indian history textbooks in the euphoria of independence. And to be fair, these icons of modern Indian History may deserve more criticism than they have so far received. However, criticism must be based on facts in evidence at the time and not be a condescension of posterity. Let us take the example of Nehru – he has been the favourite whipping boy of many self-styled nationalists of Liberal Era India. Arguments have attacked his personal life as much as his role as the Prime Minister of India, particularly his economic policy, his defence and foreign policy, and his domestic organisation of the country. In each case, mistakes were undoubtedly made, but we cannot expect Prime Ministers to be gods. Furthermore, what one ought to have achieved must always be factored against what one is capable of achieving. Let us examine these grievances in greater detail.
Domestic Policy: Congress and Nehru inherited a large and hyper-diverse state from the British in 1947. Home to over 250 languages, seven world religions, and innumerable cuisines, dress, and social customs, India was any nationalist’s worst nightmare. No other state in the world was formed from such a dizzying array of characteristics. Nehru managed to comprehend the problems of keeping India together and got it right the first time, and although it seems like a sure thing today, let us not be fooled by our own success – Weimar Germany fell apart despite a common language, religion, and culture. The battle for the French hexagon went on well into the nineteenth century despite Louis XIV’s and Napoleon’s valiant attempts to create a French identity. The Soviet Union disintegrated within 74 years despite Stalin’s brutal attempts to Russify the country.
India in 1947 was far more complex. Separatist tendencies were present in almost every corner of the land from Assam to Tamil Nadu. In addition, no one could agree to how the various states of India were to be created. In an effort to foster an Indian spirit, Nehru was adamantly against creation of states on a linguistic basis. However, almost everyone else disagreed – Potti Sriramulu fasted unto death in the name of his cause, the creation of Andhra Pradesh. Even then, there was some acromonious debating on whether Madras would be part of Tamil Nadu (Madras presidency as it was then called) or be a part of Andhra. Bombay did not wish to be a part of Maharashtra, and demographically, there was some solid basis for this. There was much contention over the borders between some states, Karnataka and Maharashtra, for example. Water rights became an issue between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In short, creating a united state in which the provinces would not feel neglected of slighted was in itself a Herculean task. This process is not yet over, as was evidenced by the creation of Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh in 2000. Indeed, many provinces were established after Nehru’s death (Haryana in 1966, Himachal Pradesh in 1971, Manipur and Meghalaya in 1972, Tripura in 1973 and Mizoram in 1987) and Jammu & Kashmir retain their special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
Of course, this did not mean that there were no factions wishing to leave the Union – Mizoram even declared independence in the 1960s and AN Phizo tried to carve out an independent Nagaland. In the south, the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) of Periyar EV Ramaswamy and its offshoot Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had as their primary goal an independent Dravida Nadu (southern India which included Tamil Nadu) separate from India. Following the 1963 law enacted by Nehru that banned parties and individuals demanding independence (freedom or separatism or secession) from India, the DMK abandoned this issue. In the imagination of the founders of this Movement, the new state would be dominated by Tamils – indeed, the first meeting of separatist Tamils was in 1939, even before independence. And not to forget the north, the problems in Jammu & Kashmir and the demand for Khalistan in the 1980s need no introduction.
In these tumultous times, compromises were made and fires extinguished before they were even started – the Hindu Marriage Act (1955), the Hindu Succession Act (1956), the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956), and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act (1956) were part of that compromise. These statutes have scarred the name of Indian secularism but even a cursory look into the parliamentary debates and social movements around these laws would reveal the strain under which these bills were agreed upon. Had Nehru insisted on a thoroughly secular application of law, he would have created even more trouble for himself and perhaps endangered the unity of the newly formed republic. It is worth noting that despite a “pro-Hindu” BJP government in the Centre from 1998-2004, these laws still remain on the books, denying Hindus an equal status under law that minorities in India are privileged to. Was Nehru guilty was being a part of this? Most certainly, as Prime Minister, he bears the ultimate responsibility. However, what were his options? Enforce secularism and create militant Muslim and Christian communities to add to the already existing fissiparous tendencies? What was settled for was whatever would keep the Union together, leaving for later the task of perfecting the country. In fairness to Nehru, he was generally anti-religion, be it Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity and it is unlikely that he allowed special privileges to minority religions to spite the majority. His fault was that he took the majority for granted, and correctly so for they followed where he led.
Economic Policy: The India Nehru was given to lead was destitute. As historian Angus Maddison reveals in The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, India had the world’s largest economy from the 1st to 11th century with a 32.9% share of world GDP. From the 11th until the 18th century, India maintained a 28.9%, and by 1700 was responsible for 24.4% of world trade. By 1952, that number had fallen to a low of 3.8%. As Mike Davis has claimed, India’s real GDP remained the same between 1757, when the British emerged as the dominant power in the subcontinent, and 1947, when they left. India made its tryst with destiny in the garb of not a maharaja but that of a mendicant. There existed no individual who could invest money in infrastructure and development in the scale India needed – not even the Indian treasury could handle such a burden. Central planning was the only option, at least for a few years. Without the good fortune of having wealthy patrons such as the United States (who gave over $21 billion to European recovery from 1945-1951 in context of its own GDP being around $258 billion in 1948), India could not afford to set up schools (12.2% literacy in 1947), hospitals, and universities, build roads, dams, and power plants (India generated about 1,350 MW of electricity in 1947 as opposed to over 185 GW today), construct steel mills and coal factories overnight as was witnessed in Japan and West Germany in the aftermath of World War II. No group of industrialists existed in India (or anywhere in the world) who could undertake such a massive project of feeding, clothing, educating, and employing 345 million people. State planning buttressed by heavt international borrowing was the only viable option available and that is what the Government of India decided to do. The first Five-Year Plan was highly successful in as far as attainment of objectives go. Agriculture production targets were surpassed, national income rose 18%, per capita income 11% and per capita consumption 9% during the plan period. The second Plan was more ambitious and only a moderate success. Unfavourable monsoons in 1957-58 and 1959-60 adversely affected agricultural production. Also the Suez crisis cut off international supplies leading to a jump in commodity prices. Indian economic growth was derailed during the third Plan as the plan period was marred by two wars – the Chinese invasion in 1962 and the Second India-Pakistan War in 1965. Furthermore, the monsoons failed each year of the Plan except the first. Many economists agree that the time to reduce central planning and move towards a market-driven economy was during Lal Bahadur Shahstri’s tenure as Prime Minister or during Indira Gandhi’s first term. However, Indira Gandhi systematically ran the country into the ground with the nationalisation of banks, an absurd corporate tax structure, and disincentives for higher production – one could actually get fined for producing more than one had targetted (Gurcharan Das explains this Tragedy of Errors in his India Unbound). Nevertheless, the anti-Nehru brigade gives Indira Gandhi a clean chit for her role in the Third India-Pakistan War of 1971. With Indira Gandhi and then Rajiv Gandhi at the helm, India was reduced to mortgaging national gold reserves and liberalising the economy in 1991. And yet we blame Nehru.
Defence and Foreign Policy: Nehru gets the most flak for his foreign policy and India’s defeat in 1962 at the hands of Communist China. Undoubtedly, this was a failure on his part in the absolute sense but it must be contextualised for it to hold any meaning. We have already discussed India’s dire economic situation upon independence. It was inconceivable to divert what little financial resources we had into defence production. Moreover, it would not stop at manufacturing a few rifles – for a full-fledged defence along the Chinese frontier, India would have needed aircraft, radar, artillery, small arms, trained manpower and all that would have been required to support them in the extreme climate of the Himalayas. This sort of defence outlay was simply impossible and having seen Chinese resolve in Korea against a nuclear superpower, the United States, in 1950-53, anything short of a complete gearing up for war would have been inadequate…if it would have been adequate at all. The policy Nehru followed was a policy adopted by weak powers with stronger powers – minimal antagonism with professed friendship. Although the Panchsheel is sometimes seen as India’s Munich, it must be said in defence of Neville Chamberlain and Nehru that had they had the benefit of hindsight and foreknowledge of their opponent’s aggressive designs, they might have also come off as smart as we sound today.
For propaganda reasons perhaps, the Chinese invasion was portrayed in the Indian media as a stab in the back, the betrayal of India by a nation whom India had only wished the best. To any concerned citizen, the falseness of this claim would be obvious. The proceedings of the Lok Sabha, published by the Central Secretariat, clearly shows increasing Chinese violations of India’s borders and subsequently increasing alarm on the Indian side. Since at least 1957, maybe ven a year earlier, Chinese actions had been anything but friendly. By 1959, it was clear to anyone that war clouds were gathering. After the failure of the high-level talks with Chou Enlai in 1960, with no abatement of border skirmishes, it was only a matter of time before war broke out. On Nehru’s part, he attempted to improve road and rail links to the border areas but the terrain was difficult and the costs quite high if speed was to be achieved. nevertheless, Nehru persisted but to no avail. It must be remembered that India faced on ordinary foe – here was a state that had no humanity, a state that did not mind losing near 100 million of its own people in its Cultural Revolution (estimates vary from 35 million to 100 million but neither number is comforting), or for that matter a state willing to lose 300 million people if nuclear war ever broke out against the imperialistic and decadent West. The situation along India’s northeastern borders was no different – Chinese troops overwhelmed the small Indian border patrol (that had been somewhat strengthened since 1961) and swarmed southwards. The Indian defeat cannot be seen as a failure any more than, for example, an American invasion of Mexico a failure of Mexican defences.
Nehru had been fully aware of the Yellow Peril far ahead of 1962. Although he did not like Chiang Kaishek personally, he preferred him immensely over the Chicom alternative. Indeed, Nehru wrote in a letter to the Burmese leader U Nu in 1949 that the Communist victory in China must be accepted as a fait accompli as no nation is Asia was in any position to wage war against the Communists. With the invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the brutal suppression of the revolt there between 1956 and 1959, Nehru was again resigned. He expressed sympathy in a meeting with the Dalai Lama but said that India was in no way ready to provide any material help but would do whatever else it could. In letters to his Chief Ministers, Nehru expressed as early as 1952 that he was fully aware that though invasions of India had previously always come from the West, the next one would come from the East. Further, he pleaded with them to push industrialisation of their respective states very hard as that would assuredly provide for the best defence in the long run – breaking the country’s back with the burden of armament manufacture was no way to defend a county but to make it dependent on others for its daily livelihood. In a meeting with Chester Bowles, the US Ambassador to India, Nehru minced no words when he expressed hope that he could have at least 25 years to prepare India for what seemed like inevitable conflict with China – he only hoped he could put it off for a little while. He got only ten.
It has been suggested that one sure way to avert the disaster of 1962 was to join an alliance after independence. This was perhaps the best solution for India, but even this was fraught with problems. Given Nehru’s English education and the political leanings of many Indians around him, the pact would most probably have been with the Soviet Union (it was in August 1971). The Communists in India were the best organised political party other than the Congress and they could wield some influence. Their ascension to the leadership of Kerala is an indication of the strength of the early Leftists in India. In the second national election (1956), the Communist vote increased in Kerala and West Bengal and they were the second-largest party in the Lok Sabha. In the state elections, the Communists swept to power in Kerala in March 1957. In this climate, it is unlikely that India would have leaned towards the market-loving West. It is unlikely that even non-Leftists would have liked to see an alliance with the West. Nehru certainly weathered some stormy parliamentary sessions after deciding that India would join the Commonwealth. The West, guilty by it association with the United Kingdom, the power that had enslaved India for 190 years, was not altogether a palatable option for the overwhelming majority of Indian leaders.
Personal Life: India does not hope to emulate the regime of either the theocratic totalitarian Arabia or the Communist dictatorship of China. In that light, it is, therefore, not a matter of concern to the Indian citizen what the Prime Minister does in the personal sphere. As long as it breaks no laws, it must be accepted that the national leader is not only a post but a person as well. Much has been made about Nehru’s relationship with Lady Edwina Mountbatten. Alex von Tunzelmann writes, “I honestly believe the scandal would have dwarfed the abdication…It would have decided the fate of nations.” Apparently, the affair was, “for obvious reasons, politically explosive. Had the world known, in 1948, of the love between the former vicereine of India (husband of a viceroy who was perceived as being markedly pro-India) and India’s first prime minister, the effect could have been to spark an all-out war between India and Pakistan.” Unfortunately, it is not clear to the rest of us why India and Pakistan would wage an all-out war over Lady Mountbatten when they haven’t done so even over Kashmir yet. Von Tunzelmann has clearly visited all the right archives in India and the United Kingdom and it is reflected somewhat in her portrayal of Britain’s urgency in getting out of India but sadly does no service in shedding more light on the personal life of Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten or how it was even relavent to Indian independnece, let alone the cause of an all-out war between India and Pakistan.
In conclusion, it can only be said that Nehru was only mortal and he made mistakes as much as any man. However, he does not deserve to be vilified as he is by a new generation of Indian nationalists. It would do well to remember that the former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, an icon for many a young nationalist, held Nehru in great esteem. In any case, given the tumultous times India was going through and the resources available to her, there were few options Nehru could have taken to ensure a brighter future for India. It is well to criticise in hindsight or be armchair generals and demand that the Chinese be thrown back over the Himalayas, but the view of the world was not so simple and black-and-white from Teen Murti.