By Dr Mohammad Sajjad,
During his tenure as the first Prime Minister of India, notwithstanding the immense charisma of Nehru, he was seen with great dissatisfaction by the Left. So much so that the most acclaimed of the Marxist historians of India, D. D. Kosambi (1907-66), while admitting to be a ‘humble admirer of Nehru’, subjected Nehru to criticism in his comprehensive review of Nehru’s Discovery of India.
Though Kosambi also said, in the very same review, ‘no person knows India better than Nehru’, he also went on to caption his review: ‘the bourgeoisie comes of age in India’. The ‘Socialists’ such as Jai Prakash Narayan (1902-79) and Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia (1910-67), the biggest defender of the backward castes, remained biggest of Nehru’s critics, to the extent that Nehru’s obsessive concern with the economic category of class made him almost oblivious of the deeper dynamics of the social category of the caste as an institution of oppression. On the issue of Dalits therefore, his relations with B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) remained far from cordial. Simultaneously, for his ‘socialistic’ leanings, India’s big capital always remained apprehensive of Nehru. The conservatives, bigots and religious reactionaries remained critical of him for his efforts towards secularization.
The interesting thing about Nehru therefore is: with all the reservations against Nehru among so many quarters, how could he create a ‘fine balance’ and wielded a charismatic influence upon the millions of Indian masses?
Precisely, this was something which provoked the AMU to host a talk on him in, November, the month in which Nehru was born in 1889! The Centre for Nehru Studies of the Dept of Political Science under the leadership of suave and articulate Prof. Asmer Beg, invited few scholars, historians, and speakers to deliver a talk on Nehru, by way of paying a tribute to this great nation-builder. The unflinching Congressman Mani Shankar Aiyar, an erudite diplomat turned politician, elaborated upon how Nehru’s vision of India’s civilisational journey is articulated in his vision of history—the Idea of India—in his Discovery of India (1946), which he wrote during his incarceration during 9 August 1942-23 March 1945. [Interestingly, at the same time, Wilfred C. Smith brought out his Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis. Nehru’s Discovery had benefitted from the pamphlet, Influence of Islam on Indian Culture (1922) [of Tara Chand (1888-1973) who would later be commissioned to write three volumes of the History of the Freedom Movement in India (1961)], and M. N. Roy’s Historical Role of Islam (1939), which shaped Nehru’s imagination about polychromatic India].
Ironically, this was the period when Nehru’s ideological adversaries, among his own countrymen, now asserting as the only biggest patriots, and also occupying the seats of power, were shamelessly indulging in fifth-columnist activities, collaborating with the alien rulers. Today, from certain quarters of the powers-that-be, there are worrisome instances of attempts by these very sinister forces to obliterate Nehru’s unforgettable contributions. As Aiyar’s articulation were laced with intermittent wit and sarcasm, in simplest and lucid Urdu, there were huge applauds (and laughter too) among the riveted audience which was overflowing the auditorium. The Pro-Vice Chancellor, Brig. Ahmad Ali, gracing the event, and belonging to Allahabad, hence a “co-villager” of Nehru, must have been recalling certain nostalgic anecdotes from the Anand Bhawan. After all the Anand Bhawan once belonged to the AMU’s founder Syed Ahmad (1817-98).
Prof. Irfan Habib (b. 1931) chose to remain anecdotal about Nehru. In his late 80s, he is much anecdotal these days. Would he bring out his autobiography? Just as another great historian of largely the same ideological persuasion, Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), wrote Interesting Times. Here is a disappointment for many. He remains reluctant about writing his autobiography. This disappointment could be partly compensated by those around him if they would pen down their impressions about the intellect and persona of their teacher-mentor. But we are yet to see any such things. These associates surround him for their own personal academic benefits—taking suggestions about themes, titles, sources—to write on, get them checked, rather drafted, almost thoroughly, by him, mostly for publication in the ‘Proceedings of the Indian History Congress’. Will they take time out of these and will write about their mentor, who laboriously writes for them, to enhance their scores of Academic Performance Index (API) for their academic promotions?
By Irfan Habib’s own admission, Nehru was somebody who sort of “re-founded” the AMU after India’s Partition. This aspect of history, largely unknown to the people, according to him, was worth-sharing. What he didn’t tell is that, in one of his essays, he has already evaluated Nehru as a writer of history and also because this theme was already taken up by Mani Shankar Aiyar.
Main Entrance of the AMU
Irfan Habib ‘revealed’ how, the migration of large number of AMU teachers to Pakistan at the time of Partition, had pushed AMU on the verge of closure. The worried Maulana Azad, the then Education Minister, rushed to Nehru, the Prime Minister, and who showed prompt seriousness of ‘reviving’ AMU to let it continue not only as a university but also as an institution symbolising India’s civilisational characteristics of plurality and adequate concern for minorities.
The bustling campus of AMU then added what is now the Medical College, named after none but Nehru, the huge magnificent library named after Maulana Azad (1888-1958), and the Engineering College, named after another architect of modern India, Zakir Husain (1897-1969). Most importantly, all these generous steps were preceded by legislating an Act for AMU in the Parliament in 1950.
Irfan Habib shared his personal memories associated with Nehru and his warm relationships with many distinguished individuals of Aligarh including Irfan Habib’s father, Prof. Mohammad Habib (1895-1971). His was more an indulgence in nostalgia, though he didn’t share how Nehru had helped him out in removing some obstacles when he was to fly to the Oxford University for his doctorate on the agrarian system of Mughal India, a work which earned him tremendous laurels greatly envied by many of his worthy contemporaries.
Prof. Mridula Mukherjee, among the ablest of the students of Bipan Chandra (1928-2014), spoke at length on how Nehru dealt with communalism and communal riots, particularly in 1946, when the yokes of colonialism were yet to be thrown out completely. This was both a tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru as well as to Bipan Chandra. Because Bipan Chandra’s take on communalism, as a product of colonial modernity, is basically an elaboration of what Nehru expounded in his Discovery of India. In the Mughal and Pre-Mughal India, communalism as an ideology was just unthinkable.
However, as it was no occasion of subjecting Nehru to criticism, the learned speakers quite aptly, didn’t talk of something which Nehru missed—-putting the criminal justice system in place towards punishing the rioters. Mridula didn’t talk of why didn’t the Congress ministry of Bihar appoint Justice Ruben Commission of enquiry into the communal riots of 1946? Despite her deep explorations on the theme, she did not even show an awareness of the fact that any such decision was taken and was pushed aside by Shri Krishna Sinha (1887-1961), the chief minister of Bihar, on the plea that its findings and indictments would embarrass and create misgivings among the Hindu Congressmen.
Prof. Aditya Mukherjee, spoke on the Nehruvian model of economic development with pro-poor social protective network, anti-imperialist independent internationalist outlook for the Third World, and pluralist democracy in domestic as well as foreign affairs, which enabled India to self-confidently go for a calibrated liberalization of economy in 1991. This was something the quintessential Marxist in Irfan Habib disagreed. As these talks were coming after the results of the Bihar elections, the audience expected him to talk on how much Nehru succeeded in achieving the goal of balanced regional development. Why does Bihar continue as India’s “Internal Colony”, as said way back in 1973 by a greatest living socialist thinker, Sachidanand Sinha (b. 1927)?
Did Nehru pay adequate attention to flood control, agricultural development, and hydro-electric power projects in eastern parts of India? These questions are being raised not by those bigots and reactionaries who want that the Nehruvian ideals should recede away from the historical memory. These are the concerns of those who identify with Nehru and his ideals, and are “today buffeted about in a sea of despair”. In the words of the distinguished speakers, no leader, howsoever great, in this world has solved “all the problems once for all”. The most enduring legacy of Nehru is to abhor and fight out the religious bigotry, majoritarian homogeneity, violent intolerance, and all such diseases. Long live the beautiful heterogeneity of India which endures because of the resilient institutions he created and the values he inculcated.
Dr Mohammad Sajjad is an Associate Professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.