‘Nehru: The Debates That Defined India’: A promising Nehru and contemporaries

Nehru: The Debates That Defined India by Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussain. HarperCollins. Pages 292. Rs599

Book Title: Nehru: The Debates That Defined India

Author: Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussain

Sunny Kumar

The re-emergence of Jawaharlal Nehru as one of the most talked about political personalities in the last few years has exposed the dearth of serious academic studies on his life and politics. There are more rumours than verified information about his relationship with his various contemporaries. It is in this context that ‘Nehru: The Debates That Defined India’ by Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussain looks promising. This selection of sharp exchanges between Nehru and his most articulate contemporaries like Muhammad Iqbal, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Sardar Patel and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee fills its readers with excitement. However, the editorial introduction and analysis could have been more comprehensive and incisive.

The selection of sharp exchanges between Nehru and his articulate contemporaries fills the readers with excitement.

In the introductory chapter, the authors acknowledge the limitation of assessing Nehru, as has been done hitherto, as either purely an idealist or a hardcore pragmatist. But they fail to suggest a way out of this binary which, to my mind, was due to their incomplete critique of the extant assessments. Both who see Nehru as an idealist or a pragmatist find a host of his writings which attest to the opposite. Such a problem, emblematic of most political figures, gets magnified in Nehru because of his political transition from leading Indian masses in their struggle against the mighty colonial state, to governing them as the head of a similarly powerful state. The study of such a person cannot be divorced from a close evaluation of the changing nature of his politics.

Coming to the debates, the first chapter is on the exchanges between Iqbal and Nehru regarding the former’s opposition to the Ahmadiyyas. Nehru saw Iqbal’s appeal to the British for excluding Ahmadiyyas from the religious category of Muslim as obscurantist. In his response, Iqbal argued that Ghulam Ahmad was no reformer. By declaring himself as the prophet, he had rejected the most central belief of Islam that Muhammad was the last one to be bestowed with that status. For Iqbal, filled with pre-Islamic ‘mysticism and theology’, Ahmadism was the most absolute repudiation of Islam and, therefore, opposing Ahmadiyyas “did not make him an obscurantist”.

The editorial attempt to connect Iqbal’s critique with the current state of persecution of Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan and to say that Nehru’s ‘sober predictions turned out prescient’ is an avoidable extrapolation. The authors could have dwelt more on the questions central to this debate, like the relevance of the idea of ‘blasphemy’ in a politically liberal yet avowedly religious society, or the limits to a modern state’s interventions in such instances.

The exchange with Jinnah follows a similar pattern where Nehru seems to have invited him for a dialogue but, like Iqbal, the former was not convinced of the sincerity of Nehru’s invitations. Whereas for Iqbal, Nehru was intervening in matters pertaining to Muslim theology and history without any intention of understanding them, for Jinnah, Nehru was wilfully oblivious to the history of Muslim opposition to any notion of Indian polity which renders them as a permanent minority and, consequently, politically insignificant and easily liable to persecution. Nehru’s ‘secular’ positions were, for Jinnah, primarily Hindu majoritarianism and his ‘tone and language again display the same arrogance and militant spirit as if the Congress is the sovereign power’.https://11f379699858eff6f875f6e48f3472fa.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The widely known debate between Patel and Nehru on India’s relationship with China shortly before the former’s death in December 1950 has been included in the third chapter. Rather than anachronistically extrapolating these exchanges to understand the war in 1962 and citing the likes of Shashi Tharoor, the historians could have more closely investigated Nehru’s seemingly obsessive Sinophilia and offered some explanation.

The authors are at their best in discussing the debate between Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Nehru over the first amendment to the Constitution, probably owing to the fact that Tripurdaman’s last book, ‘Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment of the Constitution of India’, was based on the same theme. The authors appropriately amplify Mookerjee’s exposition of the hollowness of Nehru’s fearmongering in defence of such wide-ranging limitations on civil liberties imposed by the amendment. But in holding Nehru primarily responsible for the sedition law, the authors misinterpret the integral presence of authoritarian laws in liberal regimes as the handiwork of a few politicians. It is also interesting to see Mookerjee as playing quintessential liberal. At the risk of being speculative, it can be argued that in a Parliament dominated by the Congress and at a time when the RSS was much-maligned post Gandhi’s assassination, Mookerjee had little choice but to drop his ‘Hindutva’ discourse to mobilise Parliament against Nehru’s authoritarian avatar.

source https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/reviews/story/nehru-and-contemporaries-359489

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