Jawaharlal Nehru died on May 27, 1964. A major moment such as this inevitably gives rise to the “Where were you?” question. Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? Where were you when Indira Gandhi was killed? Where were you when the World Trade Center was brought down? The shock of the event magnifies the immediate around you and imprints it in your mind. I can still vividly recall the day Nehru died and the moment I learnt about it. He had a stroke that morning at 6.25 am. He lost consciousness almost immediately. He died without regaining consciousness and, according to a member of his household, his death was due to “an internal haemorrhage, a paralytic stroke and a heart attack”. He had returned the previous day from Mussoorie, “hale and hearty”, but Nehru was clearly ailing. Parliament, then in session, and the nation were told about his death at 2.05 pm. Like I remember the moments when I read in the Deccan Chronicle about Kennedy being killed in Dallas, and when I learnt about Indira Gandhi being shot dead from Jaipal Reddy, I remember the moment of Nehru’s passing. I was in Poona, studying German at the Goethe Institute, and after class was cycling into town to meet a friend. As I passed a government building, I saw a flag flying at half-mast. I asked and when told a great fear descended over me.
Like many young Indians, I too was unwilling to contemplate India without Nehru, despite having read many a speculation about who next. The most widely read book on the subject was by the American journalist Welles Hangen, After Nehru, Who? Hangen speculated on a list of personalities and wrote: “Many people in India who concede that Nehru can now be replaced have told me that only he could have held the country together in the early days after the Partition of British India.” Clearly, to many, Nehru had outlived his purpose, particularly after the disastrous India-China War of 1962. Not knowing what was in store next sent me scurrying back to my hostel, where a radio set was reporting the mourning as only AIR and Melville de Mellow could. We began discussing the succession. Even though Gulzarilal Nanda was appointed the interim Prime Minister, few took him seriously as a successor. By late in the night our fears took over. One refrain was that the military would take over. Another was that either the communists or the CIA would set off a coup. None of this happened. Nehru had built a modern and democratic India to last.
India was fortunate to have his leadership in the formative years of the republic. We took the road less travelled and it made all the difference. Recall Robert Frost who wrote: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by, /And that has made all the difference.” We could have done better, but we could have done worse like many other countries in our situation did. The India conceptualised by Nehru and the founding fathers still endures. Nehru was a man with a towering intellect and a broad vision. No one who has read The Discovery of India will think otherwise. He tried to forge a new, all-inclusive nationality for us. I have often tried to explain this notion in simple terms. This is to make the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai or the Taj Mahal in Agra or the Golden Temple in Amritsar equally our heritage. The raga and ghazal were ours just as Bhimsen Joshi and Bismillah Khan were our very own.
Nehru made mistakes. When big people make mistakes, they are often monumental. He misunderstood the nature of the dispute with China. He tied the economy in the ropes of central planning which only helped spawn very many tycoons. But he had a bigger vision. He contemplated the new India to be guided by reason and infused with scientific temper. Instead, we are now increasingly a people driven by dogma and blind faith. Religion and blind faith are our biggest fault lines and the cause of much social friction and breakdown of orderly public behaviour and order. Our unique diversity and common perception about ourselves bound by a modern and egalitarian Constitution is now being challenged. India has weathered worse. We are, after all, the people of India, that is Bharat. And we still live in the house that Nehru built.