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The Light that Failed

Nehru: The First Sixty Years

by Dorothy Norman
John Day, 2 vols., 1354 pp., $27.50

Time with his swinging scythe, the executioner of human reputations, is hard on the heels of Jawaharlal Nehru. The architect of Indian independence, we can see today, was a more equivocal figure than people realized during the rejoicings of 1947; and even before his death on May 27, 1964, the world statesman who loomed so large at Bandung in 1955 had lost much of his glamor. Ten years ago Nehru’s international prestige was at its height; today the “five principles of co-existence” have passed into limbo along with Dulles’s “negotiation from strength.” Nor have events in India stood still. Shastri’s India has drawn apart from Nehru’s India; and inevitably the shift of scene has brought a shift in perspective. Across the sea of political change which India has experienced since May 27, 1964, Indians and others have begun to take a long, bard look at Gandhi’s “favorite son.” The time for panegyric is past; the time for historical appraisal has arrived.

It is against this changing background that Mrs. Norman’s monumental study of Nehru must be seen. Like other great statesmen from Napoleon to Churchill, Nehru has left behind a reputation compounded of myth and reality: and historians will long be busy disentangling the two. They will find Mrs. Norman’s volumes a magnificent quarry of relevant fact; but the overall effect of her book—and, since Mrs. Norman is a devoted admirer of the great Panditji, perhaps its basic intention as well—is nearer in many respects to hagiography than to history. In other words, it is more likely to fortify than to clear away the barrier of legend that stands between us and the historical Nehru.

It does this in two different ways. To begin with, Mrs. Norman’s method of presenting Nehru in his own words and from his own point of view, whatever else may be said in its favor, has one obvious drawback: it shows us the man not as he was and as others saw him, but as he saw himself and wished to be seen. And secondly, whatever practical reasons of length and space may have been involved, her decision to break off the story with the achievement of Indian independence was bound to create a false impression. It is as if a biographer of Bismarck were to stop with German unification in 1871 and leave out the problematical years from 1871 to 1890. The division between Nehru’s first sixty years and his last fifteen is not only artificial; it results in a portrait which is necessarily only a torso, crowned with the laurel leaves of victory, but lacking some of the essential traits which went to make up the historical reality.

If we are to penetrate the overgrowth of myth and legend which surrounds the figure of Nehru today, the first necessity is to realize that we cannot divide his work into two self-contained parts. The years since 1947 are the aptest commentary on the years before independence; the years before 1947 provide most of the keys to the fifteen years that followed. This is true of the conflict with China and the question of the Himalayan frontier; but it is true of many other things as well. Few of the “problems of independence,” of which so much is heard today, are essentially new problems. For the most part they had accumulated before 1947, and the form they took was largely the result of the way they were handled by Nehru—not exclusively by him, but certainly predominantly—at that time. Both the question of Pakistan and the question of Kashmir are cases in point. One of the major difficulties with Mrs. Norman’s book is that, since she presents these and similar issues entirely from Nehru’s point of view, his share of responsibility for the outcome is blurred. Yet we have only to turn elsewhere to see that there is another point of view. The Indian historian Gopal, for example, has traced back to Nehru’s intransigence in 1928 the fatal turning-point “on the road which was finally to end in the division of India,” and Creighton Lacy, in the sensitive and sympathetic review of the Indian scene which he has recently published, does not hesitate to attribute the Kashmir tragedy, in part if not in whole, to “Jawaharlal’s stubborn refusal” to follow his “feeling for justice” and “logic.”1

As these words show, it has become customary in recent years to explain the flaws in Nehru’s work which became apparent after 1947, in terms of his personal character. In part, no doubt, this is true. Mrs. Norman sees Nehru essentially as Gandhi portrayed him in 1929, “a knight sans peur et sans reproche,” “pure as crystal…truthful beyond suspicion.” We do not have to deny this description to perceive that his character was in reality far more complex. The Mona Lisa smile, which enchanted millions, including Mrs. Norman, was for others a mask concealing the supercilious, casuistic, and arrogant Brahmin. Creighton Lacy, for whom Nehru was first and foremost “a scientific pragmatist,” emphasizes his “mercurial temperament.” Nehru himself, in a remarkable piece of self-analysis written in 1937, spoke of his “conceit” and “pride,” and the conviction, which Lacy believes became a dominant trait after 1946, “that no one else could inspire India to unity and strength.” Others have stressed his self-contradictions, his English education, his aristocratic birth, the fact, as he himself said, that he was “a queer mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere.”

All these contradictory elements were doubtless present in different degrees. The difficulty is to evaluate them. But behind Nehru’s contradictory personal qualities—and no doubt intermingled with them in his human chemistry—there is another factor as well, which has received less attention. This is the basic inconsistency of his thought—above all else, his failure to come to a satisfactory understanding with the central problem of his age: Nationalism. In this, of course, Nehru was in no way unique. It was the flaw which brought the Second International crashing down; it affected Sun Yat-sen in China; and it is probably the greatest of the problems facing the Communist world today. Nevertheless it is instructive and important to see how it influenced Nehru’s actions; and it may safely be said that the outstanding significance of Mrs. Norman’s work is the way it enables us to watch, as though under a microscope, the emergence of the ambivalent and contradictory attitudes which frustrated Nehru’s policies after independence and remain an inextricable part of India’s problems today.

Nehru’s confrontation with nationalism was different from that of older Indian leaders, such as Tilak, insofar as he belonged, effectively, to a generation that was disillusioned with nationalism. By the time Nehru emerged as a leader, the operation of nationalist policies, in the aftermath of the peace settlement of 1919, had shown up all its frustrations and inadequacies. Of Nehru himself it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that he rose to the front rank as an opponent of nationalism, or at least of the type of nationalism rife in India at the time. His early political career, as we follow it in Mrs. Norman’s pages, was hesitant enough, not much different from that of any other aristocratic young Indian educated at an English public school and an English university. Like them he was awakened by the Amritsar massacre of 1919; like them he was stirred to enthusiastic response by contact with Gandhi. But it was not until he found his way to socialism that there was anything to distinguish him from the crowd of aspiring young Congressmen; and this, as he himself says, occurred only “painfully” and “step by step.” In 1923, at the Delhi Congress, he had shown a certain tactical dexterity, a capacity to weave his way through factional dissension, which he was not to lose. But even when he was elected Congress President in 1929, it was not, as he frankly admitted, for his own qualities, but as the son of his father, Pandit Motilal Nehru, whose intrigues and pressures, and desire to forward his son’s career, were the operative factors.

Nevertheless, by now the decisive turning point had been reached and passed. It was Nehru’s visit to Russia in 1927. No one who reads Nehru’s speeches and pronouncements in sequence in Mrs. Norman’s volumes can fail to be struck by the change in their tone after 1928. It is as though he has suddenly woken up. Marxism gave a cogency to his thought which had been lacking hitherto. Mrs. Norman, who lays great stress on the fact that Nehru was no communist—and this is certainly true—appears to wish to reduce his Marxism to what she calls “the humane aspect of socialism.” The evidence does not bear her out. Nehru never hid his contempt for those whose idea of socialism was “a kind of muddled humanitarianism.” Many years earlier he had castigated the “entire absence of clear thinking” which marred the Congress movement. For Nehru, clear thinking came with Marx. From Marx he learned that socialism “which has little or nothing to do with the economic framework of society” is “a pitiful hotch-potch avoiding real issues.” He learnt also to evaluate nationalism. “For a socialist,” he wrote in 1936, “nationalism can have no meaning.” And in the great presidential address at the Punjab Provincial Conference in 1928, which marks the turning-point in his thinking, he defined his position clearly:

The idea of nationalism is almost as strong today as it was, and in its holy name wars are fought and millions slaughtered. But it is a myth which is not in keeping with reality. The world has become internationalised; production is international, markets are international, and transport is international. Only men’s ideas continue to be governed by a dogma which has no real meaning today.

From 1928 to the Spanish Civil War the question of nationalism obsessed Nehru. If, in the 1920s, he had been “a pure nationalist,” whose “vague socialist ideas of college days” had “sunk into the background,” by 1933 he had moved on. But Congress, anchored to “the narrowest nationalism,” still “thought along purely nationalist lines, and avoided facing economic issues.” From 1928 Nehru’s strictures on Congress became ever more bitter, by 1936 the cleavage between him and the Congress “Old Guard” under Prasad and Patel had created “an atmosphere of suspicion, bitterness and conflict.” Three times in almost as many months, conscious of his “anomalous position,” he decided to resign; three times, “after much mental conflict,” he changed his mind. It was the second great turning-point in Nehru’s political career.

Many Indians besides Nehru were dissatisfied with Congress leadership in the mid-Thirties. In 1934 the Socialist Party of India had been formed, and if Nehru had wished, it offered him a ready-made platform. But although he himself had founded an Independence League in 1928 to bring pressure on Congress for “a Social Democratic State…and state control of the means of production and distribution,” Nehru did not join the Socialist party. His reason, without doubt, was his fear of splitting Congress; for Congress, “in spite of its vague bourgeois ideology,” was still “by far the most powerful organization in India.”

  1. 1

    Creighton Lacy, The Conscience of India. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 323 pp., $7.50.

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