Learning to love Nehru


Jawaharlal Nehru awaiting his sister at the airport in Palam, India, in 1954. PHOTO/ Alkazi Collection of Photography

I grew up with an aversion to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

He was the towering figure of the postcolonial world. Harrow- and Cambridge-educated, he was one of the architects of the Non-Aligned Movement, which sought a third way through the odious binaries of the Cold War. In India, he dominated the political landscape and is credited with laying the foundation for our country’s democracy.

The cult of Nehru continued through his heirs. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson, Rajiv Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), both went on to be prime minister. Nehru died in 1964, and by the time I was growing up, some two decades later, the brand of socialism he had championed was failing. The impression that came down to me of this father of Indian democracy was of a fey creature, embarrassingly Anglicized, making grandiloquent speeches in an Oxbridge accent about light and freedom and “trysts with destiny.”

By then, India was changing. The economic reforms of the 1990s had empowered a new class of Indian, less colonized, more culturally intact. We entered an age when authenticity was prized above all else, and Nehru, by his own admission, was not authentic, not culturally whole. He was a hybrid, forged on the line between India and Britain, East and West. The reputation of Mahatma Gandhi, though he was no less a hybrid, survived the change. Nehru’s did not.

Nehru today is a figure of revulsion on the Hindu right, which governs India. The era of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party is in every respect a repudiation of Nehru. Mr. Modi represents authenticity and Indianness; Nehru is the quintessential foreigner in his own land.

Every year, around Nehru’s birthday on Nov. 14, a battle rages in which the bedraggled remains of India’s left try to defend the first prime minister, even as an increasingly louder chorus of voices on the right portray him as having been soft on Muslims and having betrayed the interests of the Hindu majority.

His ease with Western mores and society is a liability, for it implies an apparent contempt for Hindu culture and religion. Nehru comes to seem almost like a symbol of a country looking at itself through foreign eyes, and in a newly assertive India, his legacy is being dismantled. In at least one B.J.P.-controlled state he is being completely written out of textbooks; he is maligned daily on social media, with hashtags like #knowyournehru.

Which brings me to an embarrassing confession: Nehru is one of those people I thought I knew without ever feeling the need to read. He was among the great literary statesmen, and his output was prodigious: letters, speeches, famous books like “The Discovery of India” and “Glimpses of World History.” And there is his autobiography, “Toward Freedom,” in which he truly comes alive.

The New York Times
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