A prime minister who valued writers

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Muhamed-RiyazPraveen-Morchhale“Though Nehru had no literary ambitions while he proclaimed, “I am not a man of letters,” he was really domesticating the colonial tongue, and Indianising a foreign language in order to redefine a new category of Indian literature”

Muhamed Riyaz | Student, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

“Cinema of past borrowed heavily from the idealistic romance of Nehruvian era which we rarely see in Indian cinema anymore. Thus, present cinema is far from the reality of the Indian society”

Praveen Morchhale | Filmmaker


He was a brilliant writer of English prose and had the standing of a leading author. Works like The Discovery of India are the best examples of creative prose; his ‘Will and Testament’ is lyrical and poetic, bringing out the mystic in him, and his nature-oriented spirituality.

As the first President of Sahitya Akademi, he would memorably say, “I would never allow the prime minister of India to interfere in the work of the president of Sahitya Akademi.”

He stressed his standing as the president of the Akademi rather than his position as prime minister while talking to Nikita Khrushchev in 1958 over telephone, interceding on behalf of Boris Pasternak who was harassed by the Soviets after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. He even told Khrushchev that he would ‘head the Committee for Pasternak’s Protection’. Khrushchev permitted Pasternak to travel to Sweden to receive the prize.

He would try his best to take part in all the meetings of the Executive Board and the General Council of the Akademi, despite his punishing daily schedule of running a nation. Excerpted below is a speech he made on the occasion of the annual Sahitya Akademi Awards in 1963, a year before his death (‘Indian Literature’ Volume 6–1, 1963; included in Best of Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi, 2010).

In this speech he dwells on how translation of literature among Indian languages will bring about national integration and also asserts the writers’ importance to the country.

“Sahitya Akademi deals with all the languages of India and tries to encourage them and to bring about as much as possible, not a synthesis of them, but a mutual understanding and comprehension of them by translations from one language to another. It deals with many other problems in an objective, literary and more or less scientific way, which sometimes excites people in the political field. Thus, I believe this is a far better way of dealing with it than the politician’s.”

He then describes how Indian languages, which were several centuries old, were stifled in their expression by hegemonic languages like Sanskrit, and then Persian, and goes on to say, how the last one in that line, English, is serving a different role in independent India. “And so we find an interesting aspect of this question, that, in a period when English was more or less the official language of India under the British Rule and was affecting large numbers of our people, the coming of English affected the Indian languages in a different way by indirectly encouraging them, because English happened to be the vehicle through which we came into contact with the new world. And, therefore, modern ideas and concepts began to enrich our languages through English.”

Even in this speech, he has touched upon his pet theme of ‘unity in diversity’ as the guiding spirit of Indian culture.

“Anyhow, I think that the Sahitya Akademi has done fairly good work in encouraging our languages and bringing them nearer to each other and bringing eminent writers in these languages together and thereby contributing not only to the variety of India, to the diversity of India but to its essential unity, because both are essential, the variety and the unity.

“Persons who think that unity can be maintained by suppressing variety are, I think, completely wrong. On the other hand, if variety means separateness and break-up of the unity, that is fatal even for the various aspects of India.”

A clearly prophetic warning, indeed, for those who seek divisiveness through the promotion of a monolithic culture.

Now, even after six decades of the Akademi which has passed through many vicissitudes, its status as a repository of the various Indian literature is indisputable, especially in this age of corporatisation of intellectual ‘products’. Working in the Akademi for more than a decade has given me a ringside view of the kind of service it has rendered to Indian literature, especially the small and marginal ones, to survive, develop and flourish, in an otherwise ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario.

How several Sahitya Akademi awardees chose to return their awards as a gesture of protest against the climate of rising intolerance and stifling of freedom of expression in the country in recent times, is itself a mark of the high esteem they had for the ideal conditions the Akademi should have been functioning in, as conceived by Nehru.

It was not only in ensuring the freedom of writers and artists that Nehru strove hard. His was the most prominent voice in advocating a ‘scientific temper’ for modern Indian minds. He called factories and laboratories, the ‘new temples of India’.

He is the architect of the culture of democracy in the country which nurtured respect for the opposition in a parliamentary system though this value has eroded over the last six decades. When PK Sreemathy MP made an impassioned plea in Parliament about the plight of the ordinary people’s suffering during the recent Chennai floods, there were some who ridiculed the faulty English she spoke.

Many others upheld her sincerity and remembered how in the early 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister enjoying overwhelming majority in Parliament, supported the legendary Communist leader AK Gopalan (AKG), almost a lone voice in the Opposition raising fundamental objections, while he was being shouted down for his ‘bad’ English. He retorted, “My English may be bad, but what I am saying is for the good of the country.” Nehru made it clear that he could understand AKG perfectly.

In fact, nurturing the slim Opposition consistently was a mission Nehru undertook to ensure a healthy parliamentary tradition in the fledgling democracy that was India then.