Father and Nehru: From the attic of my memory


Political morality was very high amongst the leaders of 1950s. For instance, when the governor of Punjab invited Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit as a guest for a vacation in Simla (then capital of Punjab) in 1954, she was put up in the government guest house and a bill of 2064 was sent to the governor because she was his guest. The governor however, didn’t pay the bill and the chief engineer brought this to the notice of my father. On his next visit to Delhi in May 1955, my father brought that matter to Nehru’s notice. Imagine a cm is discussing a small amount of money with his leader. But father was very strict on his principles. And Nehru’s response was equally commendable. He opened his drawer and wrote a cheque of 1000 and said: “I am giving this now. I am going to Europe and once I come back I will pay the remaining amount.” Later on, the governor was so ashamed that he paid the balance from his discretionary fund.

I myself had a personal experience in 1955 when I was the chairperson of the Socialist Party (Punjab) and the general secretary of the Punjab High Court Bar Association. In 1955, the Punjab High Court was shifting from Simla to Chandigarh. It was to be inaugurated by Nehru and he had come to Chandigarh the evening before. My father, who was then the cm of Punjab, invited Nehru for an informal breakfast at our residence. I was staying with my father though my office was in another sector. It was a rare occasion for a young man like me, who admired Nehru a lot. But, I had grown up by then. Our party was convinced (rightly or wrongly, time alone will tell) that Nehru, who had shown the vision of socialism to us, had not kept that pace following wrong policies. Our differences with his policies were deep. I was a small fry in part of that milieu. So I told my father that I will not be at the breakfast table to receive Nehru, though my wife will be there along with my mother to play the hostess. My father and I had a beautiful understanding and respected each other’s view. He realised my reluctance but mentioned that I was being childish.

I went to my office before Nehru arrived. I continued to admire Nehru and I could not think of being at home and be rude by not joining him for breakfast. Of course, we received Nehru with all the dignity and deference due to him when he came to the high court inauguration.

Now I laugh at my presumptuousness — a chit of boy, whom Nehru will not even notice beating his chest by not attending and denying himself a rare close breakfast meeting with one of the greatest of leaders of India and who had been a hero of our family. But then I take it as the peculiarities of a radical youth, the devil I may I care attitude and the almost fatalistic belief in the rightness of the cause of one’s own party. But then I believe that is the real difference between youth and old age – one may laugh now, but one does not demean conduct because at that time it represented what I like to feel was a youthful, genuine and unshakeable faith in socialism – which fortunately, I have still not lost.

My father resigned from his post on 17 January 1956 due to disagreement with Nehru government’s policies. Back then Chandigarh was then being built. Le Corbusier, the French architect, who was in-charge wanted Verma, the chief engineer to be given post retirement extension. But father had taken a decision not to give any such extension. At this time Nehru at the insistence of Corbusier wrote to father asking him to grant an extension to Verma because it would involve departure from the rules, but my father refused. Nehru somehow felt bad and so expressed it in his letter dated 4 January 1956 “only sorry that he wrote to him in the first instance”.

np-Ashley“A product of colonialnative elite interactions, a participant in the rationality narrative of the Soviet kind and a leader deeply sensitive to the historical habits of the collective on which the State was to be built, Nehru’s remarkable success in keeping the nation together was a mix of these so are his failures. Instead of a politically relevant critique and investigation, personality erasures and legacy rejections are what we are left with. The Nehru versus Modi proposition thus becomes a shorthand for a long drawn out dispute about India”

NP Ashley | Assistant Professor, St Stephen’s College, Delhi


Father replied to this on his letter dated 9 January 1956 reiterating his earlier views and explained his rationale thus: “I have tried to keep up to the high standard set by you of judging all issues objectively and expressing opinions fearlessly. Nothing could have been simpler for me than to accept the view conveyed by my leader and implement it without demur even though I held a different opinion. That I did not so was because I was convinced that the sycophancy implied in following such a course was totally alien to the principles you stand for”.

Nehru somehow did not expect such a refusal by the cm and in his reply letter dated 10 January 1956 expressed it thus: “Also, it indicated to me a certain irritation on your part that I had interfered in this matter at all and your desire to make it clear that you would stand no nonsense from me, if I may put it crudely”.

Father had earlier sent his resignation letter on 7 January 1956 while he was in Delhi. He did not consult the family nor did he consult his Cabinet. To him it was personal because his hero had hurt him. Even Maulana Azad much closer to my father tried to placate him by speaking in a language he alone could use in Urdu ‘Talley ki chabi doosray ke haath me nahin dete’ (“You should never give the key in someone else’s hand”).

Nehru in his farewell letter to my father on 18 January 1956 wrote: “I have no doubt that we shall have many opportunities of cooperating together in the future thereafter”.

Nehru was indeed doing some inner thinking and so expressed it to Maulana Azad thus: “we should do something for Sachar”. He soon appointed father as the governor of Orissa in 1956 and wrote to the CM saying “Your governor is a very good administrator and you will find him so.”

Father thereafter left active politics and engaged himself in the Khadi movement. But his spirit of freedom was still strong as ever when he wrote to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency reminding her of what Nehru had said about total freedom of the press and informing her that he and others would start satyagraha from 15 August – this letter was written on 23 July 1975 and within two days he and seven others were arrested. He spent a month in jail and was released when the Delhi High Court held his detention illegal. He was then 81-years-old and Nehru’s quote was still his sheet anchor.