Why must we remember Nehru?


27th February, 2021

Written by Amatullah Batterywala

Artwork by Rachel Mathew

He was a firm believer that religion had no place in politics and policymaking. He was very clear about not letting India turn into a Hindu Pakistan.

A country’s present, much like an individual’s, is determined by its past. The seeds that were sown decades and perhaps, centuries back is what you and I see today. Some countries bear the scars of colonization while some still suffer from the aftermath of looting and plundering. That’s why history is so important. I used to believe it was important only in the context of the past, but that’s not true. It is important for nation-building today and it will be in the future too. 


It is said that history is written by the victor. I have come to realise that history is not only set down by the victor of a secluded event but also the victor of the general elections in India. This was true in the case of the UPA government as well as the current BJP government. School textbooks are the easiest targets.


The importance of history is precisely the reason that history textbooks, in particular, are tinkered with. A few years back there were reports of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru being erased from momentous chapters of Rajasthan’s history textbook including the chapter on Quit India Movement. As pointed out by an article, this has led to a strange conundrum where one generation of a country remembers a particular history and another one learns a different version. 


However, in this particular article, I would like to focus on independent India’s first Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and his contributions to this nation that I am constantly seeing being undermined today. In the past few years, a lot of instances have come to light where targeted efforts are made to vilify the persona and the legacy of our first prime minister, including a very active online propaganda industry.

Despite this, Nehru as a man cannot be forgotten. His influence not only in India but on the world was highlighted when upon his death the New York Times equated ‘the story of Nehru’ with the ‘story of contemporary India’. That is an apt comparison because, whether it is for the better or for worse, the man led the country through the tumultuous aftermath of the Independence movement,the partition and created the nationhood as we see today.


Why does Nehru matter?


One has to appreciate the circumstances which Pt. Nehru was granted when he first took oath as the Prime Minister of India. He shouldered the responsibility of stitching together a fragmented nation and brave through the tides of poverty, large scale immigration and internal strife. Along with his trusted aide Sardar Patel, he brought together 9 British principalities and approximately 600 princely kingdoms. Nehru was adamant about full independence instead of British dominion. 


According to historians, Nehru was a staunch nationalist. His ideologies were strongly anti-imperialistic. Additionally, he was a firm believer that religion had no place in politics and policymaking. He was very clear about not letting India turn into a Hindu Pakistan. His idea of secularism was conceptualised in the form of equal respect to all religions. 


His contributions to the field of technology and science are also commendable. Nehru is credited with setting up the 5 IITs and also AIIMS. These are the finest technological and medical institutions in the country today. Aside from this, he also managed to bring back Dr Homi Bhabha which led to the foundation of Bhabha Space Research Centre.

However, according to me, one of the most inspiring contributions of the late Prime Minister was the role he played in the initiation of the non-aligned movement. At a time when the world was forced to choose sides between the USA and the USSR, Pt. Nehru had the courage to stand up and affirm India’s position as a non-aligned state. It allowed India to receive benefits from both the power blocs and stopped it from becoming a mere puppet in the hands of either side.


In spite of all this, Nehru was not without faults. He made erroneous decisions, especially when it came to relations with China and the subsequent Indo-Chinese War. He also did not pay enough attention to the military, which resulted in its degradation. Apart from that, he is also criticised for the way he handled the Kashmir conflict.


Nehru’s controversial legacy


The charges laid against the man by modern politicians include him being ‘anti-Hindu’, ‘too European’ and trying to turn India into a carbon copy of the West. I believe if the last part were true, he would have happily aligned himself with the Western powers during the cold war. Additionally, a man who wasn’t given to his culture, wouldn’t have penned down a book like ‘Discovery of India’. 


Nehru is also seen as the poster boy of dynastic politics. The current Congress leadership feeds into that narrative. Due to this, everything that his successors do wrong is ultimately blamed on him. One of the most recent examples is the vilification of Nehru’s contributions in ushering in the Green Revolution in India. 


Aside from all this, there is a very active slandering industry on social media that aims to refute his contributions by laying personal attacks against his. There are videos on YouTube and posts on Twitter that lay baseless claims against India’s first Prime Minister. With pictures taken out of context and over-the-top imaginative attacks, layers are being added to make some of the most ridiculous claims seem true. 

Assessing Nehru’s success and failures


If we are to judge a person’s success it must be done so by contemporising the times that they lived in. Nehru wasn’t perfect, I don’t claim he was. However, what is right today, wasn’t right back then. What was right back then, isn’t right today. Situations and circumstances are seldom understood in hindsight. What is to be retained are only lessons.


It is essential for us as a country to realise that the victories we celebrate today were not achieved overnight. The symbols of our nationalistic pride, right from dams to space centres and educational hubs to food security, have had contributions from the long line of leaders that came before us. It’s on their groundwork that we are building our country today; it’s on their shoulders that we stand. It would do us well to remember that benefaction bestowed upon us before hastily crediting a single man for all our victories and blaming all our problems on another. If you don’t accept and acknowledge others’ mistakes, when the time comes, no one will accept yours.


As for me, I wish school students could learn about the role that each Prime Minister played in building the country as we see it today and take pride in those contributions.