For a proper understanding of Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister who was as much revered as he was reviled, we have to shed some of preconceived notions about him He was a dreamer, yes, in contrast to Sardar Patel who was a man of action who in one fell sweep made all princely states fall in line and used force when Junagadh and Hyderabad showed resistance and coolly called it police action. It was Nehru who took the Kashmir issue to the UN after the Indian troops beat back the Pakistani tribesmen and the Pakistani army. The result was a ceasefire to be followed by plebiscite to ascertain the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The two countries differed on terms of the ceasefire and on pullback of troops. Since then we have one part under Indian control and another part in Pakistan’s hands.
Why did Nehru take the issue to the UN after Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to accession to India? Was it because he was too much of a democrat to force an unwilling people be a part of India? The UN resolution said the accession should be ratified by the people. Nehru wrote: “When Kashmir acceded to India in October 1947, there was no mention of plebiscite by India. What India said was that the people of Jammu and Kashmir would be consulted. The first mention of plebiscite came long afterwards in a resolution of the U.N. Commission, which we accepted. That resolution contained various conditions to be fulfilled before the question of plebiscite came up. Among these conditions was the withdrawal of the Pakistan forces.”
In May 1956, he said:” “My justification for being in Kashmir primarily is because the people of Kashmir or a great majority of them, the national leaders, invited us and because I think that a very large section of them want us to be there. If nobody wants us there in Kashmir, we shall have no place there. We can't keep an army of occupation in place there. So that, both for practical reasons and other reasons, the natural result is that we should seek a settlement of the Kashmir issue as it is today in the ceasefire line, subject to some changes here and there.”
In another setback to Nehru’s policy, the UN did not accept election held in Kashmir under India’s control as a substitute for plebiscite. The UN said the wishes of the people of the entire state should be ascertained. In the first election, Sheikh Abdullah won and became Chief Minister. Later, he called for self-determination and fell afoul of New Delhi and was kept under preventive detention in Kodaikanal. When Mohammed Jinnah insisted on partition and Mahatma Gandhi’s determined opposition delayed grant of independence by the British, it was as Rajaji predicted in 1946.
Contrast this pragmatist’s view with Nehru’s stand. He said well into independence:” “So far as the two-nation theory is concerned, we have never accepted the fact that Pakistan was a result of the two-nation theory. It may be so in the minds of the people of Pakistan but we did not agree to it even then. Our position has been that we cannot consider a nation and a religious community as the same thing. Nations contain more than one religious community. Even if all the Muslims in India believed in this theory, we would not accept it or even if all the Hindus believed in it.”
Being a true secularist, Nehru found the very idea of a theocratic state repugnant. No wonder the Sangh Parivar despise him. Another misconception is that Nehru felt betrayed when China invaded India in 1962, inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Indian army and later unilaterally on Arunachal, having made a point that it was a disputed territory. A stand that China sticks to this day. The fact was the border issue was discussed when Nehru visited Peking in 1954 and when Chinese Premier Chau-en-Lai made a return visit in 1956. No agreement was reached, though.
Cited as a crowning glory of Nehru in foreign affairs was the non-alignment policy, coming together of Asian and African countries that had just gained independence from colonial rule –the central pillar of which was keeping equal distance from both the super powers. The first conference in Bandung, Indonesia, saw participation of Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, Egyptian Premier Abdul Nasser and host Sukarno, besides Nehru. The panch sheel, five principles of coexistence enunciated at Bandung suffered a blow when China, which joined the movement at Nehru’s urging, sought to settle a territorial dispute through use of force.
In domestic issues, a blot on Nehru’s democratic credentials was the dismissal of the world’s first democratically elected communist government in Kerala. It was the fallout of a mass agitation against the government of EM S Nambodiripad against an education bill that sought to regulate the wages and working conditions of teachers in private educational institutions. Up in arms was the Catholic Church as well as the Nair community, both of whom ran several institutions and a saw the bill as an encroachment on their rights. Nehru relented in the face of mass protests.
Most controversial was Nehru’s policy of democratic socialism or mixed economy with emphasis on public sector commanding the heights of the economy. Rajaji, his long associate during the freedom struggle, turned a bitter critic of what he called the “licence-permit-raj” system which said was the root cause of corruption.
Rajaji stood vindicated when P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh opened up the economy leading to liberalisation and globalisation. But when foreign majors came to India the so-called Bombay Club of big industrialists, pleaded for protectionism. If they are able to stand up to competition from MNCs, it was because of the foundation laid by Nehru on industrialisation. Maybe, he neglected agriculture, which Gandhi said should be the focus with villages as fulcrum of growth.
But then it was a different where the nation was ruled by stalwarts who agreed to disagree and yet remained best of friends. When Nehru died in May 1964, a year or so after the Chinese invasion from the shock of which he could not recover, Rajaji paid a glowing tribute. He said: “Eleven years younger than me, eleven times more important to the nation, eleven hundred times more beloved of the nation, Sri Nehru has suddenly departed from our midst and I remain alive to hear the sad news from Delhi — and bear the shock... .The old guard-room is completely empty now... I have been fighting Sri Nehru all these 10 years over what I consider faults in public policies. But I knew all along that he alone could get them corrected. No one else would dare do it, and he is gone, leaving me weaker than before in my fight. But fighting apart, a beloved friend is gone, the most civilised person among us all. Not many among us are civilised yet. God save our people”
— The writer is a Chennai-based senior journalist and political analyst...