There are multiple dimensions to the letter that former prime minister Manmohan Singh wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi advising him against changing the “nature and character” of the Teen Murti complex. But none is more serious, and sensational, than Manmohan accusing the Modi government of resorting to “revisionism” to “obliterate the role and contributions” of Jawaharlal Nehru to the national movement and building of modern India.
Built in the 1930s, Teen Murti was the then residence of the Commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army. One of the first things that Nehru did after becoming the prime minister was to order the commander-in-chief to vacate Teen Murti Bhavan, which, it was announced, was supposed to be the prime minister’s residence. For 16 years, until his death on 27 May, 1964, it was here that Nehru lived.
Nehru’s shift to Teen Murti had tremendous symbolical value. It signalled the supremacy of civilian rule over the military, writes academician Steven I Wilkinson in Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence. Thereafter, Nehru initiated a slew of measures to ensure that Indian democracy did not become susceptible to the Army’s interference, a recurring feature in Pakistan.
In an interview to this writer before Pakistan’s general election last month, Pakistani physicist and columnist Perveez Hoodbhoy said, “India must give credit to Nehru for keeping a lid on its generals.” He, too, pointed to the significance of change of occupant at Teen Murti. “This move carried huge symbolism: it said who the boss was,” said Hoodbhoy.
Given Nehru’s contribution to the freedom movement, his erudition and engagement with history, it was only befitting that on his death the Teen Murti complex should have been turned into a museum. It was also decided to build on its campus a library, a go-to resource centre for anyone researching modern Indian history. It is why the Teen Murti complex is now popularly known as Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML).
Indeed, Nehru was more than just India’s first prime minister. He midwifed Indian democracy — it could have been so much easier for him to acquire dictatorial powers than to negotiate through the fractious nature of Indian politics that included intense religious, linguistic and caste competitions.
This aspect of Nehru was appreciated by Turkish journalist Ahmed Emin Yalman, who visited India during its first general election of 1951-1952 and wrote a piece on the country’s emerging democratic politics for The Times of India. Quoting from it, Ramachandra Guha in his book, India After Gandhi, writes, “He (Yalman) admired Nehru’s decision not to follow other Asian countries in taking ‘the line of least resistance’ by developing ‘a dictatorship with centralisation of power and intolerance of dissent and criticism.’ The prime minister had ‘wisely kept away from such temptations.’”
Yalman’s observation sounds deliciously ironical in an era in which centralisation of power and intolerance of dissent and criticism are mistaken for decisive leadership that can turn India into a superpower. It is perhaps symptomatic of the culture of centralisation that the Modi government imperiously decided that the Teen Murti complex should house a museum for all past prime ministers, not just Nehru.
The new museum will certainly take away from the exclusivity of Teen Murti complex being a memorial of Nehru. There are many who will undoubtedly argue that since Nehru the great democrat did not mind sharing political space with others in his own life, why should Manmohan create a fuss over apportioning a part of the sprawling complex to India’s other prime ministers?
Manmohan has ample reasons to suspect the Modi government’s motive in changing the character of the Teen Murti complex. For one, the Bharatiya Janata Party is adept at playing the politics of symbolism. Note the many public places it has chosen to name after leaders the party reveres. It has bestowed an exalted status on VD Savarkar, whose craven apologies to the British are well documented and whose writings overflow with venomous hatred.
Or take BJP’s recent decision to rename the Mughal Sarai railway station after Deendayal Upadhyaya, whose abstruse writings are still unknown to most. The purpose behind renaming the railway station and other government projects after Upadhyaya is to stoke the curiosity of people about him and inspire them to study him.
Or recall its decision to build the 597-feet-high statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Vadodra, Gujarat. Forget Nehru, the BJP did not think of erecting statues of other leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, there. This was because the presence of other statues would have diluted the symbolical meaning of Patel.
From this perspective, the change in the “nature and character” of the Teen Murti complex will reduce Nehru to being one of the many prime ministers India has had. This is to belittle his contributions, about which the late writer Nirad C Chaudhuri wrote, “He (Nehru) has not only ensured cooperation between the two (the government machine and the people), but most probably has also prevented actual conflicts, cultural, economic, and political. Not even Mahatmaji’s leadership, had it continued, would have been equal to them.”
The belittling of Nehru, as Manmohan has pointed out, is a case of revising history to obliterate his contributions. Many will accuse Manmohan of indulging in hyperbole, even of being paranoid.
But two recent instances back the charge of revisionism that the former prime minister has flung against the BJP. In his inaugural speech in July 2017, President Ram Nath Kovind did not mention Nehru even though he did his contemporaries – Dr BR Ambedkar and Patel. Then again, in his Lok Sabha speech on the 75th anniversary of the 1942 Quit India Movement, Modi did not refer to Nehru. It was undoubtedly a shocking and a historical omission.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, of which the BJP is an affiliate, has always nursed a deep dislike for Nehru because he was a bulwark against the RSS’ project of turning India into a Hindu rashtra.
This is borne out by events after the ban on the RSS, imposed in the aftermath of the assassination of Gandhi, was lifted, in July 1949. Then RSS sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar wrote a letter to Patel suggesting that both the Congress and the Sangh should join forces to combat the communists. Patel was open to the idea, but not Nehru, who identified Hindu revivalism as a bigger threat to India than communism.
In a piece in Hindustan Times, Ramachandra Guha narrated a fascinating story about the two meetings Golwalkar had with Nehru. On 30 August, 1949, the two met at, yes, Teen Murti Bhavan for 20 minutes. It enthused the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, to publish a lead story, Two Men of Destiny Meet: A Happy Augury for the Future of Bharat.
The story described the meeting as one between the sage and the statesman and fervently hoped that the cultural force (read RSS) and the political power (Congress and Nehru) will “pave the way for the all round unity of the patriotic forces which is the crying need of the country today.”
Nehru and Golwalkar met again after a few weeks. It had the Organiser to wrongly claim that both the RSS and the Congress had similar objectives. Thereafter, in October 1949, Nehru went to the United States. In his absence, senior Congress leaders said they would allow RSS members to join the party. The Organiser dubbed the invitation as the “surest guarantee of national unity in this hour of crisis.”
The Sangh’s hope, however, was dashed as soon as Nehru returned to India — he rescinded the earlier statement that the Congress would admit RSS members. Guha noted, “MS Golwalkar wanted to be Nehru’s Rajguru himself. And he wanted RSS men to join the ruling party so as to reshape the nation’s priorities. Fortunately, Gandhi’s heir would have none of it. Nehru knew the RSS to be opposed to universal adult franchise, to full equality for women and Dalits, to equal rights for minorities, and to modern science as well.”
It was not as if Nehru was favourably disposed to the communists. This is evident from a story the famous historian Irfan Habib narrated to this writer. In 1954-55, Habib applied for a passport as he had been granted admission to Oxford University. Since the passport was denied to Habib, he wrote a letter to Nehru.
A few days later, Nehru summoned Habib to Delhi. The historian recalled, “Nehru scolded me for being a communist, because, as he said, the communists don’t recognise Constitutionality. He criticised Russia and China, where he had just been to.” (Habib did get his passport two days later.)
Unlike the Left, the Hindu Right never forgave Nehru for rebuffing them, for nixing its game plan of infiltrating the Congress to alter the secular nature of India’s democracy. It sought revenge by spreading canards about Nehru, one of which was that he ate beef.
In his book, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, Akshaya Mukul writes that a delegation of Hindu leaders once met Nehru to convince him to ban cow slaughter. Nehru heard them patiently and then asked, “Why do you people run a campaign that I eat beef?” The delegates denied they had spread this information, but suggested that the best way for him to silence his critics would be to ban cow-slaughter.
Canards could neither diminish the love and gratitude for Nehru nor dissuade three generations from reading and imbibing his thoughts. Holding the levers of power now, the Sangh seeks to trounce Nehru posthumously. Its favoured technique is to symbolically diminish him and undermine the Nehruvian values. In firing a volley against the BJP over Teen Murti, Manmohan Singh, all of 86 years, has underscored why we need to fight for Nehru – and history.