Friday, January 13, 2012

From the Annals of Hagiography: A Slight and Forgettable Addition to the Shelves of Nehruana

Review Article
Nehru Centre, Witness to History, Transition and Transformation of India, 1947-1964, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2011, pp xiv + 162, Rs 445.

A basic existential question would virtually leap out at the reader, a few pages into this volume. Does India’s first prime minister deserve another celebratory volume? Jawaharlal Nehru is acknowledged as an epochal figure in the struggle against colonialism, with perhaps the most successful record among the leaders of national liberation, in building a polity that functions by basic norms of democracy. The high tide of the celebration of his life and times, was his centenary year over two decades back. It has since been recognised that the time for celebration – or for its opposite – has long passed.

Yet the mood of celebration stretches on, bearing testimony perhaps to the ample funding available for burnishing the image of a statesman who remains a source of legitimacy for the country’s dominant political dynasty. Further, there are signs that the political forces claiming most ardently to protect Nehru’s legacy are unsure of their footing and unclear about strategy. A powerful argument meanwhile builds up, which puts down the prevalent mood of turmoil and anxiety in the country entirely to Nehru’s legacy.

Veteran journalist Inder Malhotra expresses an anguish felt by all who retain the faith: “…there is a group of people that are full of hatred for Nehru and his philosophy and legacy. Ideologically driven, they are determined to dismantle his greatest achievements – the founding and nurturing of the modern, democratic and secular Indian society and Indian State, committed to protecting and preserving the country’s plurality and its inclusiveness”. The ideological offensive against the Nehruvian bequest of secular statecraft, he concludes, has failed. The mass hysteria over the Ayodhya issue, the rants about “minority appeasement” and the barbs freely hurled about the Congress party’s alleged “softness on jihadi terrorism”, have failed as political ploys. Indeed, says Malhotra, the “voters’ overwhelming verdict” in the country’s most recent parliamentary general elections must be regarded as an “endorsement of Nehru’s legacy”.

It may be of some interest to pursue this inquiry. How far can one electoral verdict be construed as an endorsement of secularism, when several reliable accounts – the most recent being the Sachar committee’s – have shown that the State remains in default on the broader promises inherent in the principle, such as equal treatment under the law and fair opportunity for all? Malhotra does not pause over this question, but rather, moves on to a defence of Nehru against the two critiques most often levelled against him: his policy on China and his indecisiveness on Kashmir.

The charge that he was no statesman but a trusting naïf in respect of China is brushed away with a few extracts from the diary of G. Parthasarathi, at the time India’s ambassador to that country. The Nehru that emerges in this narrative is a robust and realistic judge of geopolitical realities, clearly aware of the dangers of Chinese duplicity and the conflict potential inherent in its looming presence across the Himalayas. He is recorded even urging Parthasarathi to keep V.K. Krishna Menon, a trusted lieutenant whose judgment on China he had reason to doubt, out of key deliberations.

In terms of utility, this manner of anecdotal evidence could be seriously questioned, especially in the evaluation of a world statesman on the broad sweep of historical time. But that unfortunately is the status of Nehru scholarship today. As far as his legacy is concerned, the past is not quite dead. It is not even past. It lives on in contemporary political contests.

Unsurprisingly, Nehru’s record on Kashmir comes in for extensive attention. India’s first Prime Minister is often faulted for an inadequate military response to Pakistan’s provocative tribal raid into Kashmir during the cataclysmic partition of the sub-continent. Critics believe that he stopped military operations rather too early, without evicting the marauders from the entire territory of Kashmir (as it existed then). To have then taken the matter to the United Nations was to grievously compound the error.

Rehashing a fantasy that refuses to die, journalist M.V. Kamath says that Nehru should “have waited for the Indian Army to capture Lahore and then (asked) Pakistan to come to terms”. This version of history enjoys a certain vogue in circles committed to a muscular military posture in neighbourhood relations. Yet there is no escape from its utter naivete and wilful disregard of a point that K. Natwar Singh alludes to in his contribution: that the armies of both India and Pakistan functioned under British command and Governor-General Louis Mountbatten had managed to foist himself on both as Chairman of the Joint Defence Council.

Malhotra finds the critique of Nehru’s record on Kashmir seriously askew. But the reasons he advances offer an oblique and unflattering commentary on aspects that remain for the most part unexplored by Indian commentators. The complete eviction of Pakistan’s tribal raiders from Kashmir, even if feasible in a narrow military sense, would have been political folly, he argues. To a crucial degree, India depended for its legitimacy in Kashmir on Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, leader of Kashmir’s liberation movement against the Dogra monarchy in the state. And the Sheikh by Malhotra’s account, advised against a complete mopping up operation in the state, since his following was confined to the Kashmiri linguistic community in the valley. Pushing beyond the territory of the valley would have been a gamble on the loyalty of the Punjabi speakers in the region now called “Azad Kashmir”.

Rather carelessly, without great regard for the broader implications, Malhotra compares the possible outcome of an aggressive military strategy to the very palpable disaster that Israel’s occupation of all Palestine has become. By presumable analogy then, taking all of Kashmir in 1948 would have burdened India with a restive population and a long-term security headache.

It is an unintended irony here that the situation in Kashmir, without quite approaching the dimensions of the existential struggle in Palestine, has today plunged into a state of endemic unrest. If this has been the outcome of what is today read as Nehru’s strategic foresight in 1948, the reader could be forgiven for wondering how much worse things could be. P.C. Alexander, the long-serving bureaucrat whose career began in the years immediately following independence, reflects rather dolefully on the current situation: “Kashmir continues to be a problem even sixty years after Nehru chose this path”.

Alexander leaves the final judgment on Kashmir for a future generation, but unsurprisingly, virtually every other contributor to the volume has an opinion to vent. On the referral to the U.N., Malhotra argues that there was no real choice. If India had not, other interested parties, notably Britain and Pakistan, would have exercised that option. Alexander believes that Nehru’s decision was made under pressure from Governor-General Mountbatten and its legacy has been uncertain, in part because the U.N. as a collective body, was never inclined to give India a fair hearing.

For Natwar Singh, a former diplomat and member of the union cabinet, Nehru’s handling of Kashmir was among the least edifying aspects of his leadership. He was hustled into a reckless course by Mountbatten, whose record Natwar Singh judges to have been extremely dubious in this and various other respects. It took Nehru’s passing from the scene in 1964 for a more robust policy to emerge. And Natwar Singh identifies 1965 as a key moment, when India’s foreign minister led his delegation out of the U.N. Security Council in protest at his Pakistan counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s strident assertion of a claim on Kashmir. The U.N., Natwar Singh says, never took up the issue of Kashmir at any point after that.

Jagmohan, another bureaucrat who later found a successful niche in politics, thinks differently. Though the initial referral was an unequivocal mistake, Nehru showed a sure touch and deep conviction in every subsequent action. He knew that the U.N. was compromised and bitterly polarised by Cold War calculations and avoided these with practised assurance. And in doing all this, he never retreated from a deeply held conviction that Kashmir belonged with India.

Karan Singh from his unique perspective as a scion of Kashmir’s ruling dynasty, identifies Nehru’s misplaced belief in Sheikh Abdullah as a problem. While the Sheikh had a loyal following in the Kashmir valley, the region under dispute was larger and more complex. To have viewed the entire issue through the prism of Kashmir did little justice to the interests and aspirations of the distinct cultural units of Jammu and Ladakh. Karan Singh is unsure about matters of detail, such as the composition of the States Reorganisation Commission appointed in 1953, dismissing the matter with a regal “if I remember right”. But he is positive that the far-reaching recommendation made by the commission on the creation of linguistic states, was key to the consolidation of the Indian Union. For the commission to have stopped at the borders of Jammu and Kashmir, ostensibly “because it had a separate situation”, was a grievous error.

Approaching this issue from a rather different perspective, Balraj Puri, the veteran political activist and public intellectual from Jammu, suggests a gaping democracy deficit as the root of the problem. The dominant Indian historical narrative puts the problem down to the Dogra Maharaja’s indecisiveness and Pakistan’s effort to settle the issue by force of arms. Puri looks deeper and finds a more complex reality, in which the upsurge of communal violence in Jammu at the time of the Indian partition figures as a determinant influence. This aspect is generally left out of the official Indian narrative, but was at the time significant enough for Mahatma Gandhi to publicly question the legitimacy of the Dogra monarchy and demand that all power be yielded to the ultimate sovereigns: the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Quite plainly, the tribal incursion from Pakistan, then a nation in process of formation and self-definition, did not occur in a political vacuum. Reasonable observers have inferred that a state without a clearly established chain of political or military authority could not have undertaken the agenda of snatching territory by force, even less of entrusting this project to tribal raiders unlikely to submit to any form of civilian control (as understood in the modern sense).

Any reader who exercises the limited privilege of stretching the valuable insights offered by Puri’s contribution, would see that the armed raid into Kashmir was part of a sequence of events in which the Dogra dynasty’s perceived atrocities against the Muslims in Jammu was an inescapable ingredient, quite possibly a trigger. Over the years that followed, Puri points out, Nehru allowed his robust democratic instincts to be trumped by the palpable sense of insecurity occasioned by the circumstances of Kashmir’s accession. In seeking to square the impossible circle of Sheikh Abdullah’s rebellion and the Dogra dynasty’s long discredited claims to pre-eminence, Nehru allowed the voice of the people of Kashmir to be drowned out.

There was evidently a calculation underpinning this sequence of questionable decisions by a sworn democrat, whose respect for parliamentary institutions and procedures is the subject of a celebratory contribution by Subhash Kashyap. What could that calculation possibly have been? There was a larger Nehruvian world-view within which all contingent decisions were justified with an abundance of hope, if not with complete democratic conviction. And the Nehruvian vision of India involved the evolution of a modern enlightened citizen with no greater loyalty than the civic bond with fellow citizens. Narrow identities of religion and language would be submerged in the march towards that end, in a shared pursuit of “progress” as defined in European enlightenment terms. To quote a rather telling Nehruvian locution from the 1930s: “the real thing to my mind is the
economic factor. If we lay stress on this and divert public attention
to it we will find automatically that religious differences recede to
the background and a common bond unites different groups”.

This book of rather loosely organised reminiscences has little space for the Nehruvian legacy on economic planning. In a rare moment when the critical instinct triumphs, Natwar Singh describes Nehru’s understanding of economics as “inadequate” and frets over his failure to inject this element into foreign policy calculations all through the seventeen years he held the portfolio. Striking a contrary note, Muchkund Dubey looks back on the philosophical underpinnings of Nehru’s foreign policy and celebrates its cardinal principles of fairness and equity, in which the economic dimension was integral. But as he scans the horizon of world affairs today, Dubey is assailed by a sense of alarm. The Cold War has ended, but military force continues to be the currency of global politics. “The nuclear arms race”, he warns, “has acquired ominous proportions” and “India itself has emerged as a de facto nuclear power”. Diplomacy itself leaves little room for the ethical element and is a slave of narrow calculations.

With all these despairing pronouncements behind him, Dubey affirms the need for a retrieval today of the Nehruvian vision. As with all other contributions to this volume, this is a statement made in faith, without any manner of engagement with the reasons why the optimism and idealism of a newly independent nation -- embodied in the personality of its first prime minister -- has through cycles of crisis and retrieval, ended up as a scarcely recognisable mutant.

This book of often contrary views is given an element of coherence only by the deep reverence towards its subject that all contributions share. The anecdotes and personal remembrances that it strings together might interest the serious student of the Nehru years, but need better sourcing and authentication to be of enduring value. This book will add bulk to the overflowing shelves of Nehruana without seriously raising the average quality of scholarship. Though all uniformly well-intentioned and devoted to a worthwhile political cause, few among the contributors has achieved the distance and dispassion that would that a possibility.

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