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.”

This decision was comprehensible in terms of strategy, but its consequences in other respects were fatal. Above all else, it involved Nehru in a series of compromises which first of all affected his thinking and later had irremediable repercussions on his policies.

It is, of course, in his attitude to nationalism that the change is most apparent; for it was around the question of nationalism that Nehru’s conflict with Congress had crystalized. As late as 1933 he was attacking “the Indian national movement” as “a bourgeois movement” whose objective was “not a change of the social order, but political independence.” But even from the point of view of securing independence, he argued, this was not enough. “No effective pressure” could “be brought to bear on the British government without mass support,” and the only way to secure mass support was “an economic programme” which “paid heed to the needs of the masses.” His opponents argued that it was inopportune to confuse the issues; such problems could be settled later. But precisely this was what Nehru denied. By 1933, however, he was veering round; by 1939, he had taken the plunge. In 1933 he posed the question: “were we to jump to economic freedom at the same time” as political freedom “or take them in turn?” In 1939 he answered:

Our immediate objective is political independence. We must remember this and not confuse the issue, for else we will have neither Socialism nor independence.

At the same time his attitude to Congress changed. “Nationalism can only go far in a socialistic or proletarian direction,” he said in 1929, “by ceasing to be nationalism.” By 1937 he had convinced himself that “Congress represented not only the nationalist urge of India…but also…proletarian urges for social change.” He had squared the circle. But if he was right in 1929 he could not have been right in 1937; and, more important, having espoused the nationalist cause to get rid of the British, how did he expect to escape its embraces when it had served its purposes?

The answer, in all probability, is that he never made the attempt. It would be fascinating to watch how, after his agonizing reappraisal in 1936, Nehru got caught ever more inextricably in the nationalist coils. It is more important to see, in a few cardinal instances, how this involvement affected his attitudes and policies. There is no doubt, to begin with, that his judgment was blurred by his mounting hatred of Britain—the result, perhaps, of his repeated imprisonments—which reached a hysterical climax in the long, ranting letters he wrote to Lord Lothian in 1935 and 1936. It was blurred also by the decision of the majority of Congress leaders, in 1937, to participate in government—a decision which, he believed, would divert the movement from the sacred goal of independence to co-operation with the British and some form of “dominion status.” And it was blurred, finally, by the emerging conflict with the Muslim League. In all three respects Nehru’s utterances become shriller, more authoritarian, more doctrinaire, as time passes. And, behind the growing rigidity of his views, it is impossible to overlook a mounting will to power, a sense of his own indispensability. When Subhas Bose attacked him, in 1939, for “interfering from the top,” he conceded that he was “an interfering sort of person.” And two years earlier he made the revealing remark: “I like to be at the storm center of life.” Once he had attained it—unlike Gandhi—he did not quit it voluntarily until his death.

It is in regard to Indian national unity that the hardening of Nehru’s attitude is most obvious. Earlier he had stated, reasonably enough, that Indian nationalism was “a composite force,” behind which “could be distinguished a Hindu nationalism, a Moslem nationalism partly looking beyond the frontiers of India, and, what was more in consonance with the spirit of the times, an Indian nationalism.” Now, what had been a cautiously stated preference became a dogma. A common, overriding Indian nationalism was necessary, otherwise there would be no “common action against the common adversary.” Therefore Moslem nationalism had to be written off as simply the instrument of “Moslem political reactionaries,” religion as simply a divisive force. Such assertions perhaps served the purposes of party politics; they were certainly not true. The historic unity of India may not have been an empty dream, but it was something altogether more equivocal than Nehru was willing to admit. Nor was it true that Congress was “an all-inclusive body” which did “not concern itself with religion.” Ideally, as Nehru pictured it, this is what Congress should have been. In reality, there were “Hindu nationalists” as well as “Moslem nationalists,” and the Moslems had good reasons for fearing that, “under a democratic system, they might be ignored by a Hindu majority.” In 1937, after the elections in the United Provinces which Congress and the Muslim League fought on a common front, their fears were justified. Successful enough to rule alone, Congress rejected co-operation, demanding instead the dissolution of the Muslim League, and Nehru launched an all-out attack on Jinnah, the advocate of compromise. The consequences were incalculable. Jinnah, his policy in ruins, threw his weight behind the adherents of a separate Pakistan, and a breach was opened which could not be healed.

The alienation of the Indian Moslems was only the start. Once Nehru had capitulated—whether he knew it or not—to Hindu nationalism, other consequences, scarcely less momentous, were bound to follow. First of all, the attempt—to which Nehru lent open support in 1937—to make Hindi “the all-India language,” an attempt supported by carefully manipulated statistics, which has given rise to repeated communal riots, the death by fasting of the Telugu leader, Potti Sriramalu, and the imprisonment in 1960 of 20,000 Sikhs, agitating for a Punjabi-speaking state. Secondly, the oppression of racial minorities, like the Nagas, victims of the myth of Indian unity. Thirdly, the forceful occupation of territories like Goa, which so shocked western opinion, though in fact the Goan operation was easier to justify than the annexation of Junagadh in 1947. And finally—in some ways most remarkable of all, for here was Nehru appropriating the territorial claims of the British imperialists he had spent his life denouncing—the conflict with China over India’s northern boundary. Only those who view all current questions in the light of the cold war, who forget that Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese nationalists were as adamant as Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese communists in opposing a boundary imposed upon a helpless China by the British Raj, and who ignore the ease with which Pakistan and Burma solved their frontier disputes with China, will suppose that right in this issue is wholly on the Indian side. By refusing “to concede that China has anywhere along the disputed border any case at all,” Nehru adopted a line of extreme nationalism for which it is hard to find any historical justification.2

For Nehru, of course, the justification lay not in history but in his fear that any concession to minorities or any surrender of disputed territory would undermine India’s precarious unity. In a country with some twenty main regional languages, subdivided into hundreds of dialects, it might well seem that to give an inch was to yield a mile. Nehru’s fear of “Balkanization” is comprehensible enough. There was—and perhaps still is—a possibility that India would break up linguistically, religiously, emotionally, and politically. The real question is whether Nehru’s intransigent policies did not, like those of Metternich in the multilingual Habsburg Empire a century earlier, increase rather than diminish the danger. The other question—and in the long run perhaps the more important one—is the effect of Nehru’s pre-occupation with Indian national unity on the social question.

Earlier, Nehru had argued with cogency that India’s real problem was “poverty and misery,” that merely to “Indianize” the existing political and economic structure was no answer, and that until India found a solution to the problem of social and economic equality “her political and social structure cannot have stability.” After 1937 his references to social change have, increasingly, the air of pious platitudes, jam tomorrow, pie in the sky; and the problem of India’s “submerged masses,” of the “silent people,” the “depressed classes,” and the “untouchables”—which is India’s problem of the future—remains for all practical purposes where it was in 1947. It was characteristic of Nehru that he could see in “communalism” nothing but a divisive tactic of the British Raj, and that when the fifty million Untouchables under Ambedkar demanded separate representation, he should have dismissed their claims, together with those of other minority communities, as “merely a problem created by the middle or upper classes for the sake of a few seats in the legislature.” The reality was more prosaic. If the fifty or sixty million Untouchables, along with the ninety million Moslems, had become a separate political force, any claim by the Hindu-dominated Congress to speak for India would have been undermined.

We see here the way in which, unconsciously rather than consciously, Nehru became the spokesman of Hindu interests. Once he had decided that the only way to get rid of British rule was to harness Congress nationalism to his will, he was caught in an inescapable dilemma; and it was this dilemma which lay at the heart of the unresolved dichotomy that runs through Nehru’s work. Ideologically, he belonged in the Indian Socialist party. But because “the middle classes,” as he put it in 1939, were so “strong” that it would be “folly to estrange them”—because a socialist policy might “force them into opposing [i.e. the British] ranks”—he threw in his lot with Congress, although it meant postponing indefinitely “vital social change.”

It would, of course, be wrong to ignore the pressures under which Nehru worked. There was no simple solution to the problem of reconciling the wish to maintain a united front, at least until independence had been achieved, with the imperative need for social change and modernization. But it is no service to Nehru’s memory to shirk the question whether the road he took was the only possible road, and still more whether, from the point of view of India’s future, it was the best possible road. There is a certain irony in the fact that, when the moment for decision came in 1947, Nehru swung over to the position of the Indian moderates whom previously he had denounced, and that Congress accepted a solution it could have had for the asking ever since 1942. Even tactically, in other words, Nehru’s uncompromising policies, which drove the Muslim League and other minorities into irreconcilable opposition, may not have been necessary. Independence would have come anyhow—as Nehru once said, if not “through our strength,” then “through the weakness of Europe and England.” The cost at which it was bought must largely be scored up to Nehru’s account.

By now, however, Nehru was the great tactician, manipulator of majorities, skilful reconciler of disparate elements in Congress, as his alliance in 1947 and 1948 with Patel, the right-wing leader, so triumphantly demonstrated. Above all it was he who transformed Congress, which Gandhi had seen as “an instrument of moral and spiritual regeneration,” into an irresistible political machine. It was as though the tactical qualities which had first distinguished him at the Delhi Congress in 1923 had reasserted themselves. This, essentially, is the Nehru who meets us in Mrs. Norman’s second volume, or at least in its second half, as power comes within grasp. And here is foreshadowed the Nehru of the years after 1950, where Mrs. Norman’s volumes stop. It would be wrong to suggest that Nehru had simply jettisoned his socialism. It persisted as an intellectual conviction, but had ceased to be a motivating force. Now what was left of the old fire was channeled into a fierce internationalism, represented by Pancha Shila and the doctrine of “non-alignment.” Meanwhile, so far as India was concerned, all that remained was a fund of political experience, the elder statesman’s accumulated knowledge of the mundane game of politics.

It was devoted, above all else, to a jealous guardianship of the monolithic Congress bloc. But this—whatever justification it may have had before independence—was after 1950 rapidly becoming a liability to India rather than an asset. Beginning with the expulsion of the Socialists in 1948, Nehru’s personal authority was constantly invoked to quell opposition, every time any attempt was made to infuse a new spirit into Congress. No doubt he was honestly convinced that Congress rule was as indispensable as his own supreme authority. The fact remains that his identification of Congress with India became the more inflexible, the more it teased to be true. For independence had, in fact, resulted in exactly what Nehru had earlier foreseen and denounced—the “Indianization” of the existing apparatus of government, the replacement of middle-class Englishmen by middle-class Hindus, and, as the inevitable corollary, the emergence of a new class of “organization men” and “managers.” The gulf between the educated elite and the silent masses remained as sharp as ever; and the result, in Creighton Lacy’s words, was that it was no longer to Congress, but outside Congress, that people looked “for the sources of India’s social conscience.” Not Nehru, but Kripalani and Narayan and Ambedkar—particularly Ambedkar, the great leader of the Untouchables, who parted from Nehru in 1951, claiming that Congress had merely used him as a figurehead—were the leaders who, in the 1950s, were pointing the way into India’s future.

It is only when we take into account Nehru’s last fifteen years, which themselves were the embodiment of the compromise of 1936, that we can assess his place in history. Mrs. Norman sees in him the statesman who brought about “the greatest peaceful, democratic, social revolution of our time.” It seems to me, with respect for her learning, that this is just what Nehru did not achieve. India’s social revolution has still to come. When it does—when India’s silent masses finally awaken—India will pass on into an age which leaves the world of Nehru far behind. We do not need to question Nehru’s stature as a nationalist leader, nor the integrity which distinguished him from some of his contemporaries. But he remains essentially a figure of an age of transition, incapable of bridging the gap between the era of middle-class nationalism into which he was born, and the age of proletarian mass society, whose first stirrings he saw. This is why so much of his work seems ambivalent; it is also why (as a historian of modern India has written) Indians are likely to see, not in him, but in Ambedkar, the “prototype of the proletarian politics of the future.” Nehru’s tragedy lay in his failure, at a crucial moment in Indian history, to transcend the ideology of nationalism; and so he is anchored, as an historical figure, to an age which is already passing into the mists of time.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Alistair Lamb, The China-India Border (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), has provided the fullest and most objective survey of the question.