The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Nehru's Letters to Chief Ministers is still relevant

Jawaharlal Nehru wrote three major books: Glimpses of World History, which began as a series of letters written from jail to his daughter Indira; his autobiography, which was most informative on politics but somewhat reticent about the author's personal life; and the Discovery of India, a very moving but perhaps excessively romantic look at his homeland. All were published before India became independent, and all have been more or less in print since. Just before the 2004 elections, the rights to these books were transferred from one leading Delhi publisher to another. The latter publisher is now exultant, and the former expectedly morose; for with the installation of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, sales of these Nehru volumes have been brisk, especially (but hopefully not exclusively) in sarkari offices.

Nehru was an intelligent man who led an interesting life in most interesting times. And he could write. I will not therefore begrudge these books being in print. May they be read, and re-read. But I still think it a shame that Nehru's most relevant works are unavailable for love or for money. These are the five volumes of his Letters to Chief Ministers, published in the mid-Eighties, edited with loving care by the scholar-diplomat G. Parthasarathi, yet long out of print. The greatest living authority on Nehru, Sunil Khilnani, once described these volumes to me as models of contemporary history, where this man of action and contemplation tried to make sense of his times. That they undoubtedly did; but, as we shall presently see, they make much sense in our times too.

These letters were written and dispatched every fortnight. They reflected on events of the moment, be they national or international; a food crisis, a communal riot, an atomic test, a United Nations resolution. Politics and economics were the major themes, but Nehru also wrote on literature and culture. He never failed to note the deaths of people he admired, be they an unsung patriot from Uttar Pradesh or great global writers such as George Bernard Shaw.

The first letter in the series is dated October 15, 1947; the last, December 31, 1963. For this column, however, I shall focus on the letters written in the first two years of independence; and on two themes in particular, communalism and communism. These, as I noted in my last column, were the twin threats Nehru and his new nation had to meet and overcome. Angered by Partition, the Hindu right was calling for revenge and retribution, calls which fell on very many receptive ears. Meanwhile, emboldened by the imminent victory of Mao Zedong's forces in China, and egged on by their masters in Moscow, the Communist Party of India had launched an armed insurrection against the Indian state.

Of these two challenges, Nehru was prone to take the first more seriously. For, as he told his chief ministers in his very first letter, 'We have a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State. If we fail to do so, we shall have a festering sore which will eventually poison the whole body politic and probably destroy it.'

Nehru observed that 'Muslim communalism functions now as a State in Pakistan. Within India the communalism we have to deal with today is essentially Hindu and Sikh communalism which has lately become more and more aggressive and intolerant.' He insisted that those 'who preach communal hatred are doing a very grave disservice to the country.... We cannot and must not do what Pakistan does in its territory' (that is, drive out the minorities).

The Hindu communal organization that Nehru was most concerned about was, of course, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A letter of December 7 characterizes the RSS as 'an organization which is in the nature of a private army and which is proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines'. In Germany, the Nazi party had 'attracted by its superficial trappings and strict discipline considerable numbers of lower middle class young men and women who are normally not too intelligent and for whom life appeared to offer little.... And so they drifted towards the Nazi party because its policy and programme, such as they were, were simple, negative and did not require an active life of the mind.' The Nazis, wrote Nehru, had 'brought Germany to ruin'; and he had 'little doubt that if these tendencies are allowed to spread and increase in India, they would do enormous injury to India. No doubt India would survive. But she would be grievously wounded and would take a long time to recover'.

In the last week of January 1948, Gandhi was murdered by a former member of the RSS. The Mahatma's martyrdom stalled the chauvinist upsurge; appalled by the deed, Hindus turned away from extremism towards moderation. A year later, on January 17, 1949, Nehru could write that 'the RSS movement has practically faded away though some arrests continue. At no time did it arouse any public enthusiasm. It has represented extreme reaction and an immense limitation of vision. Its lack of success is a healthy sign for India. But we must not be over-confident and allow this evil to remain'.

The challenge from the left did remain. Many CPI leaders and cadre were in jail; but many others remained underground, carrying on their armed struggle against the Indian state. On April 1, 1949, Nehru remarked that 'the Communists in India have, even from the Communist point of view, adopted a very wrong course. They have gone in for terrorist activities and sabotage and raised a volume of feeling against them in India. It is manifest that they cannot succeed by these methods in making much difference to the Indian scene, though they can create trouble'. The next fortnight, he noted once more 'the highly injurious activities' of the CPI, which had 'increasingly taken the shape of sabotage or even terrorism'. Writing in February 1950, just after the country had marked its first Republic Day, Nehru commented that 'the Communists'have become bitter enemies of society and order in India and have practically become terrorists'.

I am told that the present prime minister has resumed the practice of writing fortnightly letters to chief ministers. These will naturally remain 'official', but the government would do well to publish, for the general public, a selection from Nehru's letters, these so relevant in their own time and, regrettably, still relevant in ours.

Email This Page