Another forwarded e-mail. And this one really grinds my gears! The e-mail is titled “Look at this idiot”, which is directed to India’s first prime minister Nehru. And it has the above picture as an attachment. There are also some disparaging remarks about Nehru in the e-mail.
First of all, I don’t see anything wrong with this picture. And I fail to see how this makes him an “idiot”.
But this is nothing new. It has almost become a fashion to criticize Nehru (and Gandhi) nowadays. Many proclamations are based on mere speculations and allegations (often driven by political motives). But what really boils my blood is when the allegations moves from policies to personalities. You may disagree with Nehru’s ideas and policies, but questioning his integrity as the prime minister of India and doubting his compassion to create a great democratic and secular India is, I think, quite preposterous.
Yes, he made some bad decisions as a prime minister. His under-estimation of the China threat, manhandling of the Kashmir issue and distrusting businessmen as a class, are among his prime failures as a prime minister. If we look into his personal life, there are many things to criticize too. He mistreated his wife, and he was almost an absent father. Apart from that, the allegation that his relationship with Edwina influenced his policies as a prime ministers is, well, allegation at its best and cheap-shot at its worst. [link]
But one can hardly argue against his vigorous pursuit for economic and social development in pre and post independent India. When we refer to the biggest democracy in the world, it’s difficult not to give this man some credit who held the flag of democracy democratically for 17 years.
But still, we Indians, love to hate Nehru. It’s his failures that interest us more (as they are easy to comprehend), not his achievements (which are difficult to grasp for a common man).
In his fascinating essay Ramachandra Guha calls Nehru and Gandhi “Shock Absorbers”. He points out how we Indians are quite lenient and often eloquent when it comes to criticizing Gandhi and/or Nehru. But for other leaders of the yore, like Ambedkar, Golwarkar, Shivaji, Bose and Tagore, the tolerance bar is set quite low (by specific communal or regional groups). The pride of Ambedkar is protected vehemently by Dalits, the Maharashtrians demand total reverence to Shivaji, Golwarkar (and Savarkar), the Bengalis can not take a slight criticism of their favorite leaders: Bose and Tagore. Most of these protests are on sectarian, communal or regional level.
Guha asks the question “Why this taboo on criticizing, on the basis of solid historical evidence, Bose in Bengal, Savarkar in front of radical Hindus, Ambedkar in a Dalit meeting, or Indira Gandhi in the vicinity of 10, Janpath? [and why do we have license to say anything we want about Nehru and Gandhi?]”. And his answer (below) makes a lot of sense to me:
One reason we are free to dump on Gandhi and Nehru is that neither is, was or ever will be a sectarian leader. Despite the best efforts of the Muslim League, many Muslims, among them such devout ones as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, stayed with Gandhi. Despite the criticisms of Ambedkar and company, many Dalits saw Gandhi as being on their side. The portrayal of Gandhi as either a ‘Hindu’ leader or an ‘upper caste’ leader was made with great determination, but with limited success. No one even tried to represent him as a ‘Gujarati’, since his identification with the other parts and provinces of India was as deep and sincere as with his own.
Likewise with Jawaharlal Nehru. As Rajmohan Gandhi has pointed out, the main reason the Mahatma chose Nehru as his heir — above Patel, Rajagopalachari, Azad, Kripalani, or Prasad — was that his personality and political beliefs transcended the divides of religion, region, gender, and language. No one thought of Nehru as a man of the Doab, or as a Hindu, or as a male chauvinist. He was greatly admired by south Indians, by Muslims and Christians, and by women, large sections of whom saw him as working for and on behalf of their own best interests.
Ironically, and tragically, it is the fact that they so effectively transcended sectarian boundaries while they lived, that makes Gandhi and Nehru so vulnerable to criticism and abuse now.
And Guha ends his essay with this wonderful comment:
And so, of all our icons and heroes dead or alive, the two whom we can most fearlessly criticise are the two who did most to build a free and democratic India. This, to be sure, is a land of paradox and contradiction, but of all the paradoxes and contradictions abroad this one must surely count as the most bizarre. That we can treat Gandhi and Nehru as we do testifies to their greatness, and perhaps also to our own meanness.
Addendum: Shrek proposes an alternate explanation (here) of our love-hate relationship with Nehru/Gandhi. He believes that the reason is psychology, not sociology. The text-book depictions of the freedom fighters are such that we grow up thinking that they were flawless. And when we eventually learn that they were after all flawed, we focus on the negative and revolt. Couple of my friends also opined that “[I]t is indeed a part of human nature that we do sometimes get drawn into biased thinking regarding certain issues or people, conveniently forgetting or bypassing some alarmingly positive facts in the process.” – referring to the blunder Nehru made regarding Kashmir issue. We, Indians, have huge emotional investments in the Kashmir issue and we are extremely sensitive about it, that “the man who made the wrong call on Kashmir” became such a hate-figure. (And not to mention how the right-wing politicians and activists honed our discontent for their own benefits.)
The answer to the question “Why do we love to hate Nehru/Gandhi?” is, probably, multi-faceted. But whatever the explanations are, the roots are in our (society’s) faulty/biased interpretations & thinking.