A prime minister who valued writers

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When a person of my generation thinks of Jawaharlal Nehru, the memory that would be rising uppermost is of the first-ever demonstration (Samaram as it was called in our school days) one participated in, shouting, “Up, Up Nehruji, Down, Down Chou En-lai,” in October 1962.

Then again, the sombre 27 May 1964, one distinctly felt something akin to being orphaned upon hearing the news of his death. None of these feelings had anything to do with the Congress or the government in power at the Centre. They had to do with the man whose image was so lively in the mind of a 12-year-old, like that of a close relative — a benign uncle.

If ‘Grandfather Gandhi’ was a more distant memory of a mildly admonitory kind, Nehru was the never-do-bad, real role model. The dreams to which he opened the doors were the first of their kind. The first rockets that rose into the night sky from Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in 1963 leaving a bright, orange smoke trail seen from our village in Kottayam district, the nuclear reactor at Trombay and the heavy industries that sprang up all over the country as reported in the newspapers and over Akashvani — all these filled us kids with the excitement of being privy to mysterious worlds filled with unknown powers. When one grew up and was able to think for oneself, these memories remained as the mark of Nehru’s preoccupation with his country’s glorious future.

On taking account of Nehru’s contributions, one comes face to face with his many contradictions too— his idealistic, visionary approach which tended to accommodate and compromise for the common good in the long term, left him in the short term with rank indecisiveness when the situation demanded quick action, as is revealed by historians and several of his biographers, the latest being Shashi Tharoor in his Nehru: The Invention of India.

Nehru, Tharoor writes, was also a poor judge of character, letting himself be surrounded by opportunists and sycophants, often putting his open, passionate approach at grave risk. His moodiness and mercurial temper would leave even distinguished foreign visitors baffled. While Che Guevara admired him and remembered him as ‘showing an amiable familiarity of a patriarchal grandfather’(Om Thanvi, The Scroll, 4 December 2014), Pablo Neruda found his stony silence and deliberate aloofness too much to handle, as narrated in his Memoirs.

Nehru’s youth and middle age were punctuated with frequent imprisonments during the nationalist struggle; in fact, he served at least thirteen prison terms, short and long. His time in prison was mostly spent in serious reading and writing. Reflection over sustained periods in the solitude of his cell had played an important role in providing Nehru with a vision of India as a unified nation.

He also had the opportunity to share valuable time with some of the best minds of India at that time. As he describes in his 1945 preface to The Discovery of India, which he wrote in five months in the Ahmednagar Fort prison in 1944, “My eleven companions were an interesting cross-section of India and represented in their several ways not only politics but Indian scholarship, old and new.” Among the illustrious writers and thinkers serving time along with him, were the likes of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Gobind Ballabh Pant and Acharya Narendra Dev.

“Nearly all the principal living Indian languages, as well as the classical languages which have powerfully influenced India in the past and present, were represented and the standard was often that of high scholarship,” he wrote.

In his essay, ‘The Question of Language’ (The Bombay Chronicle, 11-13 August 1937), he had defined India’s ‘great provincial languages’ as he called them, as ‘ancient languages with a rich inheritance’ and not ‘dialects or vernaculars, as the ignorant sometimes call them.’

He listed these languages as ‘Hindustani, with its principal aspect of Hindi and Urdu, and its various dialects’; then (in addition to the languages already listed above) Assamese, Punjabi, Pushtu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. The idea of setting up a National Academy of Letters which he would name ‘Sahitya Akademi’, modelled on the French Academy, would have been sown in his mind during this time.

AJ Thomas | Poet & former editor of Indian Literature
AJ Thomas | Poet & former editor of Indian Literature

Setting up of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Lalit Kala Akademi, the National School of Drama, and also institutions like the National Book Trust, apart from the Indian Councils for various disciplines and ensuring the continued prevalence of the English language in India by helping it to be adopted as one of the Indian Languages approved by Sahitya Akademi. This was a part of his efforts to mould a free and robust intellectual and aesthetic climate in his newly independent country.

The deeply committed nationalist that he was, Nehru had seen his own role as an indispensable one in shaping India’s destiny. Conceiving India as a single nation situated within plural discourses of regional languages and cultures, he put forth the concept of a tolerant, inclusive, secular public culture that would ensure equal opportunities of expression for all communities and groups, irrespective of caste or religion.