Way back in 1948, an American journalist, Vincent Sheean, went to a Mumbai meeting addressed by Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru and spoke to the Sardar about the immense crowd that had turned out.
“They come for Jawahar, not for me,” Patel told him. Later that year, the Sardar said: “Mahatma Gandhi named Pandit Nehru as his heir and successor. Since Gandhiji’s death we have realised that our leader’s judgment was correct” (Patel Centenary Volumes, 2:327). But perhaps it was not. Humans err. Gandhi may have made a mistake.
Patel too may have been mistaken in saying that Gandhi was correct. We can question our forebears’ judgments. But we cannot, from where we are, invert or flip-flop the facts of their times.
There was no call by Gandhi, Nehru, Subhas, Patel or Ambekar to return India to a vedic age, or restore Hindu supremacy within India, or demonstrate to the world the glories of a Hindu Rashtra
In naming Nehru as India’s “future helmsman”, which he first publicly did in 1935, Gandhi did not foist an unwanted leader on an unwilling people. He only facilitated what the people of India seemed to want. Their grandchildren may disapprove of the choice made, but in the 1930s and 1940s the people of India wanted Jawaharlal.
Looking back at August 15, 1947, that stained yet lifegiving dawn, we can only marvel at the leadership which, in partnership with thousands of the less famous, brought us to that day: Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose (whose death two years earlier was unacceptable to a loving people), C Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, others who had died, others continuing to play their part, and BR Ambedkar, for years a resolute foe of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and company, but joining free India’s first cabinet in response to their call.
At times the leaders named, and others who could have been named along with them, fought with one another, but bonds between them did not break. Not even in 1939, when Subhas, elected Congress president earlier in the year, was in effect voted out of the Congress in a move initiated by Patel, Rajaji, Rajendra Prasad and Govind Ballabh Pant but not opposed by either Gandhi or Nehru.
A year later (six months before his escape from Kolkata), Subhas and Gandhi had a long cordial meeting, and in 1944 it was Subhas, speaking on a radio from “somewhere in southeast Asia”, who addressed Gandhi as “the father of the nation”. Was he mistaken too? And was Subhas also wrong in keeping the name ‘Nehru Brigade’ for a section of his Indian National Army? Apart from the Swaraj goal which the leadership team shared, and the friendships forged in battle and in prison, there was another glue: a united resolve, repeated with regularity and put down in ink, that a freed India would assure certain fundamental rights to all its citizens. Such as: Freedom of expression, religion, thought and assembly. Equality regardless of caste, sex or creed. A minimum wage. A secular state. The abolition of untouchability and serfdom.
These specified pledges for independent India were made at the 1931 Karachi Congress, held within weeks of the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Patel presided over the session. Gandhi, Nehru and Subhas addressed it.
The values and goals named above were the values and goals of India’s nationalism from the 1920s through and beyond 1947. Ambedkar made sure that the norms were reflected with clarity in the articles of the Indian Constitution. Until recent years, those values were upheld without ambiguity by almost all political leaders, the media and the judiciary. We may discern that the foundation for these norms was respect for the individual, his or her freedom, his or her worth. Though flawed like all human movements, and not always remembering its source, our freedom movement sprang not from revenge or love of power or glory but from a longing, a dream if you like, to restore the dignity of the vulnerable individual, no matter of what kind.
Not every participant was conscious of this deepdown motivation, and even the finest of them would not have remembered it all the time. But it was this unselfish root, nourished by Gandhi’s astonishing personal role, that gave our varied leadership team its unity. India, however, was larger than the freedom movement. Many an Indian felt left out of it. In 1909, Gandhi asked the elites who started it, and were overrepresented in it, to recognise the harsh truth that “those in whose name we speak we do not know, and they do not know us”.
Incomplete as it was, the movement strove with fair success to include and represent an ever-expanding circle. From 1919-20, its doors were unreservedly open to all Indians and to sympathising non-Indians. No one in the movement’s leadership team ever promised that “this” caste, class, province or religious group would dominate the nation, or that “that” group would be shown its place.
There was no call by Gandhi, Nehru, Subhas, Patel or Ambedkar to return India to a Vedic age, or restore Hindu supremacy within India, or demonstrate to the world the glories of a Hindu Rashtra. Some (or many) in today’s India may choose to think that these were unfortunate omissions. They are free to set fresh goals and norms for themselves. The Indian people can be invited to judge their forebears, including the leaders mentioned above, as having erred grievously.
But the people cannot be told that Nehru wanted one basic thing and Patel the opposite, or that the Sardar was for a Hindu state. That would be deceptive.
Addressing Congress workers in Bengaluru in February 1949, Sardar Patel spoke of “Hindu Raj” as “that mad idea” (Hindustan Times, February 26, 1949). As for Dr Ambedkar, he wrote in his famous book, Thoughts on Pakistan: “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country” (2nd edition, 1945, Part V).
One can of course insist that the Sardar and Babasaheb were both mistaken. But were they? Those who imagine that on core issues Nehru and Patel stood on opposite poles should know one more thing.
On January 29, 1948, a day before the Mahatma’s assassination, Rajendra Prasad, Gandhi’s teammate from Champaran 1917, who would go on to become India’s first president, wrote a letter to his cabinet colleague at the time, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee of the Hindu Mahasabha. The letter drew Syamababu’s attention to a speech in which a Mahasabha leader in Bihar had said that Patel, Nehru and Azad should be hanged (Dr Rajendra Prasad’s Correspondence, Allied, New Delhi, vol 9, p 48).
Climate of Zabardasti Hindu nationalism and hyper-nationalism are distinct but mutually compatible attitudes. People may embrace one or the other or both. The leadership team of our national movement embraced neither. Proud and passionate Indians as they were, they were responsible world citizens too. Even as he proclaimed Quit India in August 1942, Gandhi said he wanted “this vast mass of [Indian] humanity to be aflame in the cause of world deliverance”.
Seventy-five years later, as the planet shrinks and humanity merges, would a call to return to the Vedic age galvanise our earth’s Africans, Japanese, Chinese, Arabs, Europeans or Americans?
Hindu nationalism and hypernationalism may seem attractive to persons wishing to project a militant India on the world stage. But Hindu nationalism is not the way to defeat Islamic fundamentalism. As for hypernationalism, we should keep the fingers crossed. A contest in that sport is the last thing the people of India and China need.
Polarisation may be a global current today, and some may ride it to power, but what afterwards? We can ignore what polarisation has done to Syria and Iraq in recent years, forget what it did to our people in 1946-47, and shut our eyes to what it continues to do today to vulnerable innocents.
But currents and waves do not stop where we want them to. And hatred is a glue which for a while unites some against others (or many against some) before exploding in the faces of those we love.
The climate of zabardasti must end. It will end one day. The many who are troubled, not inspired, by the drumbeat of a polarised India, who are deeply disturbed by the reported targeting of a great minority institution like the Jamia Millia and the proven targeting of the finances of opposition parties, place their faith in the future. And in the consciences, freed from pressure, of India¡¦s millions, whose forebears, stirred by their consciences, shouldered a path-breaking national movement.