What were the contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru in achieving freedom?

By Sunil Kumar

Let us take a look at Jawaharlal Nehru’s life story(1889–1964). Cynicism left aside due to the current barrage of information detailing his numerous mistakes; I was a great fan of Nehru as a child. And I managed to do a postgraduate degree close to his old school in Harrow.

That aside; a serious answer to his contribution in achieving freedom. The Congress, formed in 1885 by Allan Octavian Hume was a toothless organization in its early years; as it had an intellectual bunch of aristocrats, lawyers, journalists who were quite distant from public feeling; the oppressed bunch of Indians systematically impoverished by the British empire.

The Viceroy and London’s official policy was to create a grand fiction; the paternalistic benevolence of the British Empire; whose grand mission was to civilize India; while at the same time; caring for nothing much except their monthly loot repatriated to Britain. Even the Indian railways; a good achievement; was deliberately designed to be costlier than equivalent projects in America etc; generate more money from the Indians; and confiscate it again.

An instructive quote from a certain Ruskin; a British government official clearly outlining loot as the main motive:

“Every mutiny, every danger, every terror, and every crime, occurring under, or paralyzing, our Indian legislation, arises directly from our national desire to live on the loot of India’.

To cut a long story short; there’s a huge litany of crimes attributed to the Empire; Nehru’s early education was similar to a British aristocrat. Motilal Nehru’s aspirations, connections and wealth meant that Jawaharlal lacked for nothing.

It was only when Gandhi came back from South Africa in 1914; making a name for himself with his valiant struggle against racist Boers and Brits; that India’s freedom movement really connected with the people.

The Empire had now upped the ante on creating more divisions among the Hindus, the Muslims; and the Dalits; by the partition of Bengal(Curzon, 1905) and the introduction of separate electorates.

Apologists for the Empire stress on existing divisions; but they conveniently overlook the fact of centuries of relatively peaceful co-existence. Also; political unity in the subcontinent was not a new concept; the Mauryan empire, the Guptas; the Mughals all had nearly the entire place(including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh; most parts of South India); under their sway. Kings and emperors largely decided the fate of millions.

This from a people who kept fighting till 1548(England and Scotland); and were formally united only in 1707; when Scotland realized that it had missed the robbery and looting boat to India. Catholic and Protestant struggles in Britain and the Continent; Henry VIII and his illegitimate brood also kept them busy. Also; the fact that Spain had large colonies in the Americas, rankled their egos; and played a large part in England’s greed and avarice.

A brilliant quote from Alex von Tunzellman’s Indian Summer; “In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, driven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India, the second one was England’. No other testimony needed to explain how much an initially divided Britain extorted from the subcontinent.

Nehru first met Gandhi during an Indian National Congress session in Lucknow(1916). Motilal Nehru was already a member; and had a cordial relationship with Gandhi. Nehru was impressed; and gradually the relationship between them blossomed; as Nehru became Gandhi’s best protege; and led to him overlooking a fellow Gujarati Patel; and the Bengali firebrand Bose; to plump for Jawahar.

The Rowlatt act(1919) was seen as a justified great betrayal by Indian nationalists and the public at large; as the British imposed draconian laws of sedition; once their work had been done( The First World War ended; where Gandhi had pledged support for the Brits.

Indians formed the single largest foreign fighting contingent for the Empire; deployed in various sectors; including the largest number in Mesopotamia(present-day Iraq); where many Indian Muslims had to fight their co-religionists in the destruction of Ottoman Turkey.

Even in Europe; the British Indian Army was pressed into action in Ypres before white soldiers to fight Germany. The official narrative later was expectedly racist, one-sided and conveniently neglected to give any credit to the Indian forces.

Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 was another striking and sordid example of British brutality when innocent people were mowed down by a vicious Reginald Dyer. In a remarkable display of insensitivity; his men following his orders, fired into the chests, the faces, and the wombs of an unarmed and defenceless crowd. This incensed Nehru and the nationalists even more. Tagore; another noted Anglophile returned his knighthood. News of his barbaric behaviour was suppressed by the British for six months.

Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement and satyagrahas had now morphed into a political means of protest; and were gathering steam.

By 1921; Nehru began one of his familiar stints in jail; where he penned now famous books including “The Discovery of India”, “Glimpses of World History” and his autobiography. Jawaharlal criticized Gandhi’s withdrawal of the movement in 1922; after a violent incident in Chauri Chaura.

While Gandhi was more of a believer in ancient religious values; and a more ascetic social construct; Nehru was impressed by the socialism and collectives then emerging in the Soviet Union. He believed in state control; the rationing of individual freedom; concepts which he got a chance to execute when he became Prime Minister.

The 1922–1937 period saw the beginnings of a bigger nation-wide popular movement against the Brits; Gandhi attending meaningless Round Table Conferences; economic depression and the rise of fascist movements in Europe; also their appeasement by respective British Governments.

Unlike the self-effacing Gandhi; Nehru was bold and frank enough to disagree with his mentor. In a 1927 Indian National Congress meeting; Nehru got a demand for “complete independence” passed; something which Gandhi felt upset by.

In the meantime; Jinnah; initially hailed as “The Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” was disgruntled by increasing attention to Gandhi; and his world-wide fame. It was also apparent that Nehru’s stature was beginning to eclipse his own.

So; the pork-eating, alcohol drinking, Havana- cigar smoking Muslim lawyer headed to London; resuming his practice.

India’s greatest enemy; a man of extreme views; the descendant of robber barons; idiocy personified Churchill now sensed an opportunity for the Empire.

If the “jewel in the crown” was no longer the cornerstone of the imperialist loot factory; it made sense that other colonies would soon follow India’s example. The Union Jack was about to be trampled on; and burnt from the West to the East.

Engineering and enhancing existing divisions came easy to the Viceroys; coming from a country where landed gentry and class consciousness was an ingrained habit. Jinnah and Churchill corresponded; with the former informing him about his intentions to foment riots on Direct Action Day(1946).

If the British could repress people who looked like them(the Irish); India was a distant land; with its alien customs and values; a pain to understand and administrate.

Nehru; an anglophile; believed in idealistic virtues of liberty; and recognized English duplicity when it came to sharing this with their Indian subjects.

Biographer M.J Akbar mentions that initially Nehru was an Indian sahib with a hat and silk underwear. Contact with Gandhi altered his attire; but he was still enamored by new-fangled ideas.

The British gradually realized that Indian aspirations were growing; and so the first provincial elections were held in the winter of 1936. The results were a landslide victory for the Congress; which even managed to win many Muslim seats reserved for the league.

A Congress government was formed even in the Muslim-majority NWFP; leading to considerable heartbreak for the League and its British instigators. The Empire had deliberately encouraged the League as a counterbalance for the Congress; perceived as a largely Hindu party.

Indian Muslims; who were still wary of the two-nation concept were now increasingly being provoked by the League; and the Empire; which saw that “divide and rule” may still extend their decaying edifice; now tottering without emergency ER.

So was Gandhi Yoda; and Nehru Luke Skywalker against the scheming Darth Vaders in Whitehall? The bigger evil on the horizon; the swastika sceptre of Hitler was now engaging British attention.

With World War II breaking out in 1939; Viceroy Linlithgow’s actions in making India a belligerent without consulting the people; made Nehru take a stand. The first elected Congress ministries resigned in 1939; and the party was again cast out into the political wilderness. The move was a blunder; as the League realized that Muslim-majority areas could still be successfully turned; and the Congress defeat hurt them blindly.

The “Quit India” movement in 1942 meant that most of the Congress leaders were again in jail; with Jinnah and the League again getting an opportunity to regain lost ground. Nehru’s connect with the people was strong; but he was not as popular as “Bapu”; who had acquired the halo of the Mahatma. Like Gandhi; prone to strong likes and dislikes; Nehru nevertheless tried to retain a balanced outlook.

English: Jawaharlal Nehru, circa 1927

Visit sunil-kumar.co.in English: Jawaharlal Nehru, circa 1927 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nehru’s positive ideas included a rational and scientific temperament; which he believed could overhaul the shackles of traditional orthodoxy. The idea of a centralized Planning Commission; to be much critiqued later; was Nehru’s interpretation of Fabian socialism.


Visit sunil-kumar.co.in Cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the President of the Congress; a charming, well-read and erudite spokesman; Nehru was Gandhi’s modern face.

Their personal equation was remarkably warm; and the 26 years as part of the freedom movement(1921–47) meant his ideas gradually developed with a large number of interactions with a wide cross-section of people; forming the backdrop for his role as the first Prime Minister.



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