A recent article by the eminent Pakistani physicist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy in Dawn lays out why by burying Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy in India, the Hindu right wing is hurting Indian secularism and therefore making India a mirror image of Pakistan. Reading the article one is struck by two things: First is how ignorant the Hindu right wing is not just of Nehru’s great contributions as the first Prime Minister of India but also to the fact that Nehru has done more to entrench Hindu majoritarianism, perhaps unwittingly, in India. Second is how off the mark people like Hoodbhoy even with the best of intentions are, just like the Hindu right wing, in properly analysing the legacy of a towering figure in South Asian history.
There are of course the stock myths, some bordering on utterly ridiculous, that the Hindu right wing deploys against India’s first Prime Minister. Of course these are so pathetically ridiculous that they deserve no reply. There are of course much better and more valid criticisms of Jawaharlal Nehru that can and should be made. Some of these criticisms might even help rehabilitate Nehru in the eyes of the Hindu right wing though that this is not the primary intention of the present article.
It must be remembered that it was a much younger Jawaharlal Nehru who had been an ally of the Hindu Mahasabha when the amendments to the Nehru Report were being debated in 1928. Mr. Jinnah had worked out a compromise whereby Muslims would give up separate electorates in return for 33 percent reserved constituencies. The elder Nehru, i.e. Motilal Nehru, was on board with the idea. Hindu Mahasabha opposed it. Meanwhile, for reasons that are still unclear to me, having read through the proceedings, the Congress left wing and young Turks led by Nehru threw in their lot with the Mahasabha. Perhaps a good historian — and I mean a historian not a lawyer or a physicist — should investigate why this happened because at this critical juncture a compromise would have helped avoid a lot of heartache for all concerned. It is clear why the Hindu Mahasabha did not want to accede to the demand. The idea of having an organized Muslim bloc, despite joint electorates, was unacceptable to their vision of India and its ancient identity.
In 1937 Nehru displayed arrogance of the highest order, when after having contested elections in a de facto alliance with the Muslim League, he insisted that the Muslim League members who would join the United Provinces’ ministry would have to join the Congress Party. In his famous correspondence with Jinnah, he insultingly told the latter that Muslim League was just one of the many Muslim parties, referring to the Islamic theocrats like Majlis-e-Ahrar and Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind. In an exchange with Dr. Mohammad Iqbal in 1935 on the issue of Ahmadis, Nehru had taken a principled stance but from this point onwards in order to cut Muslim League down to size, Nehru seems to have given Majlis-e-Ahrar and JUH a carte blanche. Majlis-e-Ahrar attacked the Muslim League for having Ahmadis in the League and that is something I have written in detail about elsewhere. The greatest tragedies emerge out of not a clash between good and evil but between good and good. While Nehru and Jinnah did not see eye to eye on many things, they agreed on ideas of religious freedom, civil liberties and minority rights. It is a great tragedy that they, of all the people, could not agree for a future that would keep India united and yet provide the effective safeguards for minorities and specifically Muslims.
It must be remembered Jawaharlal Nehru is the one person actually responsible for the creation of Pakistan at par with Jinnah or any of the so called protagonists of Pakistan. Nehru had, by 1946, come to see the existence of Muslim majority areas on the fringes of British India ruled by parochial regional parties, areas that Congress Party by and large failed to penetrate but Muslim League did. So when the Cabinet Mission Plan was seen as the only hope for the great Indian marriage of diversity and accepted by Jinnah and Azad, it was Nehru who dropped the bombshell by relying on an absurd interpretation of the grouping clause that him and Gandhi thought up. He then declared thoughtlessly that Congress was going into the Constituent Assembly unfettered by any agreements. In 1947 Nehru insisted more than anyone else that the provinces of Punjab and Bengal be partitioned. In the process the idea of an independent, sovereign and secular Bengal that had been endorsed by Jinnah was buried by the Congress. In many ways all of this makes Nehru the greatest saviour of Hindutvas because had Jinnah had his way, a federation of India would have emerged with semi-autonomous Muslim majority areas acting as a strong counter-balance to the Hindu majority centre in Delhi. A united India of Jinnah’s conception — whether Akhand Bharat wallahs want to admit or not- was the biggest nightmare for Hindu majoritarianism. Nehru had thus rescued them from a constitutional counterpoise that would have checked their millennial ambitions forever.
It also must be remembered it was Nehru who usurped — either politically and militarily- Hyderabad, Tripura, Tranvoncore and others. It was Nehru who engaged in masterful double speak on Kashmir. Even Shaikh Abdullah, the pro-India Kashmir leader, who had opposed Jinnah and the Muslim League, was not spared, being imprisoned for more than a decade by his good friend Prime Minister Nehru. State governments in Kerala and elsewhere, mostly of Communist persuasion, were readily dismissed through use of erstwhile dictatorial Section 93 of the Government of India Act 1935. These are legitimate criticisms of Jawaharlal Nehru made by many discerning historians. Unfortunately, as Nehru’s star wanes in the current political climate of India under the BJP, it seems to sadly also find some ascendancy among self-styled secular liberals who are not as well versed in history as they need to be.
Dr Hoodbhoy’s article points out that Nehru’s famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech is being erased from history and that it reminded him of the erasure of Jinnah’s 11 August 1947 speech in Pakistan. In my opinion this is an unfair comparison. Jinnah’s 11 August speech drew on the history of Catholic-Protestant conflict in England as well as divisions within India to lay down in clear and incontrovertible terms why Pakistan must keep religion and state separate. Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech, while finely worded, is high on rhetoric but low on substance. It cannot have the same relevance that Jinnah’s 11 August speech does to the idea of modernity and secularism in either country. Indeed Jinnah’s 11 August speech was also quoted by members of the Indian Constituent Assembly as the perfect summation of what a secular state ought to be.
There is no doubt that Nehru had a fine secular mind. He was a man of enlightenment and in many ways though not all, the Thomas Jefferson of the subcontinent. Like Thomas Jefferson though, he was a man of immense and terrible contradictions. Unlike Jefferson though his contradictions had a direct impact on the history of the subcontinent. When history is written impartially and fairly, Nehru would be, despite his many talents, blamed for having in very real terms provided Hindu majoritarianism and the forces of caste Hindu domination a viable political outlet. The present Modi government is the logical extension of Nehru’s logic of Indian exceptionalism. The very astute Pankaj Mishra wrote an article on this issue in The New York Times on 17 August 2017 which should be must read for anyone who is interested in this stuff. The twin-headed majoritarianism in the subcontinent that plagues both Pakistan and India is a negation of Jinnah’s vision and a triumph for Nehru’s politics despite Nehru’s own secular liberal leanings. I am sure the verdict of history will come down in favour of this contention.