Ever since the ascendance of BJP to the pinnacle of power in India, a visible campaign against one of the most influential leaders India had ever seen – Jawaharlal Nehru – is underway. One may wonder about this vitriolic campaign waged against a man who has contributed so much to the development of a nation and may ask why now?
As Shashi Tharoor has pointed out in his biography of Nehru “Nehru’s legacy is ours, whether we agree with everything he stood for or not. What we are today, both for good or for ill, we owe in great measure to one man”. He was a true visionary who has not only built many of India’s venerable institutions but also laid the foundation for a pluralistic India. However, many in the opposition today are afraid that Prime Minister Modi’s plan may include dismantling the legacy of Nehru while appropriating the legacy of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, another great leader of the Congress Party.
As Indians, we do take pride in the age-old civilization and culture and its lasting imprint on our lives. However, when the nation gained its independence, India was an impoverished country with 80 percent of the people who could not afford two meals a day. The average life span of an Indian was 31 years with only 20% of people who could read or write.
From that Nehru built a country that is democratic and inclusive uplifting the masses that previously held no hopes of redemption from feudalism and Casteism that plagued the land. He was a great advocate for equity and justice in an unequal society used his superb influence to incorporate those protective provisions into the Constitution.
The constitution of India was amongst the largest in the world with 395 Articles and 9 Schedules. The preamble spells out the underlying philosophy and the solemn resolve of the people of India to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all its citizens. What Nehru has accomplished through this document with significant help and support from B.R. Ambedkar also is part of his vision to empower marginalized sections of the society.
Nehru was a strong proponent of self-reliance, apparently recognizing that underdevelopment was the result of a lack of technological progress. Consequently, a new Industrial policy was enacted to develop critical industries. While Independent India was in its infancy, he identified the production of power and steel for self-sufficiency and planning. In collaboration with other countries, India built steel plants in Rourkela (Orissa), Bhilai (M.P.) and Durgapur (W. Bengal). Dam projects were undertaken in various places to produce hydro-electric power, including the flagship Dam at Bhakra Nangal, Punjab. The first oil refinery was inaugurated in Noonmati, Assam in 1962 as another leap forward towards industrialization. Nehru called them ‘the temples of modern India’.
He built IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS for higher level education and thousands of Primary, Secondary and higher-secondary schools that have transformed the lives of millions of its citizens and many of those graduates from these prestigious institutions are heading multi-national corporations across the globe today and it is a matter of great pride and joy to India.
Nehru belonged to the privileged class, and he could have carried on while protecting the status-quo, yet he did not. He was a true visionary who saw the dire need to change the direction of the country in order to have a real transformation in the social order. Seventy years later, many of his dreams have come to fruition and at the uppermost; thanks to his stewardship, India remains a vibrant democracy and a beacon to many nations particularly in the developing world.
However, BJP and the RSS are carrying on a campaign to place blame on Nehru and criticize him for his failure on the partition and the current stalemate in Kashmir. They have not forgiven him either for pursuing a policy of non-alignment globally or upholding the values of secularism at home. For the hardcore Sangh Parivar forces, Nehru has become anathema, a legacy that has to be erased.
Since 2014, the status of Nehru Memorial and library has been diminished, and an earnest effort is underway to change the character and focus of the Museum. The Culture Minister in the BJP government not only approves discussions and seminars opposing Nehruvian ideology within its four walls but openly boasts about the place that it is no longer confined to Nehru. To add insult to injury, Mr. Arnab Goswami, a strident critic of Nehru family, has been added as a member of the Board to oversee the museum. According to some sources, the long-term plan may include converting the Nehru Memorial library into a Museum that houses the memory of all Prime Ministers.
The right-wing bodies including Rashtriya Swayamsevak Samaj (RSS) have been on an overdrive to erase Nehru’s name from history books after the BJP government unveiled a new education policy in 2015. In Rajasthan, a BJP-ruled state, references to Nehru has been already removed from textbooks. Students of Class VIII will no longer learn that Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first Prime Minister. Asked about this serious omission, Education Minister Vasudev Devnani said the following” it was the decision of an autonomous body and the government and I have nothing to do with it.”
Prime Minister Modi, in his first Independence Day address to the nation, although he invoked great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, and Jayaprakash Narayan but omitted any reference to Nehru. He also used the occasion to sentence the planning commission as the relics of the past, the signature machinery, Nehru promoted for making five-year plans for the effective use of the resources for development. The new President of India, Ramnath Kovind did not mention Nehru’s name either in his maiden address to the nation.
Times have changed indeed, and some of the policies Nehru has pursued may have become irrelevant. However, critics would be deluding themselves if they are to deny his extraordinary legacy and his outstanding contribution in building a modern India in a traditional society. Nehru’s wisdom was the wisdom of the time, and we may be able to draw many lessons from that today. Our lives are not merely self-made instead we stand on the shoulders of those who have preceded us. Jawaharlal Nehru may have made his share of mistakes as any other human being, and yet, if we are to deny his rightful place in history, we will be doing it at our peril!
(Writer is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations and Vice-Chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress, USA)