One of my previous articles on this very portal defended Mahatma Gandhi, in which I mentioned how he and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, given that these two personalities do not particularly represent any region or caste in the public imagination, the way Patel represents Gujaratis and Ambedkar represents Dalits, have conveniently been made verbal punching bags by Hindu rightists, Muslim rightists, ultra-leftist folks (many of whom love to exaggerate Muslim victimhood and make sweeping negative generalizations about upper caste Hindus) etc. and many people, out of sheer ignorance of facts, have fallen for the lies and half-truths circulated about them. While Gandhi and Nehru are indeed certainly not above criticism, myths need to be busted, for the secular and democratic constitutional setup they left us with cannot be bartered for anything. Nehru’s image has also unfortunately come to be tarnished on account of the wrongs of his daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv Gandhi and the lack of intellectual capacity of his great-grandson Rahul Gandhi. I may make it clear that I have no affinity to the Congress party of today and I am a supporter, though not uncritical admirer, of the AAP.
In fact, the leadership in this government has often made Nehru a verbal punching bag and has only occasionally praised him.
Let’s get straight to the myth-busting about Nehru-
1. He supported the partition of India, so that it would enable him to become PM.
This is the most oft-repeated lie that has absolutely no basis. Contrary to what some Hindu rightist propagandists keep repeating, Nehru’s refusal of the Cabinet Mission Plan was not to become prime minister, for that would have been inevitable even in an undivided, independent, Hindu-majority India, but rather owing to his views of central planning, given that the Cabinet Mission Plan was heavily decentralised. Yes, it is true that Gandhi came up with the idea of offering Jinnah PM-ship later, but that idea was strongly rejected not only by Nehru but even Patel (who, by the way, had interestingly by all serious accounts, consented to the partition much before Nehru), and given that Jinnah’s politics had based itself on the partition, letting go of that demand for the sake of PM-ship would have undoubtedly lost him his credibility among his own Muslim followers, who would have then not accepted him as PM (and by way of the partition, he was becoming the head of state of Pakistan in any case), and even the Pakistan he managed to achieve was seen as “moth-eaten” (too small in size compared to what they envisaged) by some Muslim communal zealots, who went to the extent of trying to attack Jinnah in the Imperial Hotel in Delhi; so, it is indeed highly unlikely that Jinnah would have accepted this offer, and also, making it would have strengthened the then Hindu rightists’ claims of the Congress being overly generous to communal Muslims.
2. Nehru died of AIDS.
This lie was circulated by the late Hindu rightist ideologue Rajiv Dikshit. Dikshit was a basher of foreign companies on Indian soil, but was ironically adored by Modi-bhakts (the term ‘Modi-bhakts’ refers to blind supporters of Modi, not all supporters), though their own leader, as the CM of Gujarat and now as the PM of India, has been seeking foreign investment! This only goes to show the intellectual bankruptcy of such Modi-bhakts!
Anyhow, there is a very simple rebuttal to the idea that Nehru died of AIDS – AIDS did not exist in India or even the West when Nehru died. This suffices, and one doesn’t need to question the lack of evidence of Dikshit’s idiotic statement!
Perhaps, once this logical flaw was exposed, the conspiracy theorists shiftyed to attributing his demise to other sexually transmitted diseases, but have absolutely no evidence for the same.
And yes, Nehru did flirt with women, even married women, but only after his wife passed away, and even with those women, there is nothing to suggest that he had any physical relations with them.
Such wild accusations are not uncommon in the Indian political landscape and don’t deserve to be taken on face value, even if they are published in books by random people.
- Nehru was a Muslim with a Hindu pseudonym.
There are indeed all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories circulating all over the social media, one being that Nehru and Jinnah were two Afghan Muslims who came to India to partition it, with the intention of one lording over India and the other lording over Pakistan, and formed the Congress party to this end! A simple rebuttal to this is that Nehru, far from being a founder of the Congress party that came into being in 1885, was born in 1889 (and there were many who knew Motilal’s family in Allahabad before Jawaharlal’s birth), other than the inherently ridiculous nature of the idea of two individuals being so very sure of the destiny they would chart out for the subcontinent back in the 1880s!
There are other crazy theories like Motilal Nehru being a Muslim falsely claiming to be a Hindu to escape being targeted by the British during the Revolt of 1857, as if Hindus didn’t participate in the revolt and were spared British tyranny! Besides, Motilal was born in 1861!
These are just completely baseless rants being circulated on the social media that don’t have the backing of any serious historian, not even the most right-wing ones. These conspiracy theories are typical of loony religious rightists, including Muslim rightists in Pakistan attributing 26/11 to RAW and many genuine liberal Muslim intellectuals in Pakistan are dismissed by conspiracy theorists as agents of the CIA, RAW and/or Mossad! Recently, even the Modi sarkar conceded that there is no evidence whatsoever to justify the Hindu rightist conspiracy theory of the Taj Mahal having been a temple of Lord Shiv. One may add in this context that there is this totally incorrect notion that Muslims are the only ones who stop non-Muslims from entering some of their holiest places of worship like the Kaba in Mecca, but actually, several Hindu temples, like the Pashupati Nath temple in Nepal, too bar non-Hindus from entering them, while many mosques and Sufi shrines have absolutely no problem with non-Muslims visiting them or even praying there. Also, the conspiracy theory about the Kaba being a Shiv temple have their basis in the writings of one Mr. Oak, who was not even a historian, and he is actually not even taken seriously even by those historians, Indian or of other nationalities, who have saffron or other religious right-wing leanings, and in fact, some votaries of this theory claim that Lord Shiv has been ‘imprisoned’ by Muslims, which refutes the logic that God is all powerful! Oak also said that Christianity is Krishna-Neeti (though ‘Christianity’ as a term does not exist in Hebrew, and came about much later in history!) and many other such ludicrous things! There are websites making claims about non-existent Arabic texts to prove their point. While such propaganda (except the bit about Lord Shiv being ‘imprisoned’!) may please the Hindu chauvinist who desperately wishes to imagine ancient India to be the only centre of human civilization, impartially speaking, one ought to thoroughly dissect it before taking it seriously.
Nehru was an avowed agnostic, and a quotation frequently attributed to him declaring himself to be Muslim by faith is a fake one, which cannot be verified from any authentic source.
- Nehru appeased India’s religious minorities.
This is another baseless claim. Nehru strongly opposed the idea of separate electorates for Muslims, and he sought to reform the personal laws of the religious minorities too, but passed away before he could do so. Nehru was a strong proponent of merit and opposed compromising on merit on the basis of caste or religion, and did not agree with Ambedkar’s idea of reservations.
- Nehru didn’t value Hinduism, and promoted Western ideas at the expense of India’s heritage.
Even those not resorting to ludicrous conspiracy theories have tried to suggest that Nehru did his best to undermine the importance of Hinduism in Indian history and culture. While it is true that many left-liberals, in their bid to fight the Hindu right from an intellectually elitist and patronizing position, have tried to lampoon Hinduism as a faith, sparing other religions of any critical deconstruction, and even tried to whitewash the crimes of Muslim extremists from history, even being soft on the likes of Jinnah, who Nehru had opposed as staunchly for his (Jinnah’s) communal politics as he (Nehru) had opposed Savarkar’s (and I am not referring to Jaswant Singh, whose book on Jinnah has actually been very critical, contrary to what those politically targeting him from within and outside the BJP made the case out to be), and have even tried to suggest that Aurangzeb wasn’t intolerant, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this was in line with Nehru’s views on these subjects.
Nehru did not, in the least, shy away from acknowledging Aurangzeb’s bigotry, as you can see here. He even appreciated the role of Hinduism in Indian culture, for which ultra-leftists, who only view Hinduism through the prism of caste oppression (arguably not sanctioned by the Hindu scriptures), are very critical of him.
While the Indian civilization had indeed made its own remarkable strides in artistic, scientific, and to an extent, political creativity, as had other civilizations, no civilization can remain an intellectual island, refusing to learn from others, imagining intellect to be its own sole preserve, or imagining that its own heritage can never have anything worthy of introspection or reform. Nehru, while being proud of Indian culture, among others like Ambedkar, brought in the best of modern institutions that had evolved in the West, to India. Even the BJP swears by the Indian constitution, doesn’t it?
Nehru’s love for Indian culture (which has indeed had atheist and agnostic voices since ancient times) can be summed up in this brilliant piece of poetic prose in his will-
“My desire to have a handful of my ashes thrown in the Ganga at Allahabad has no religious significance, so far as I am concerned. I have no religious sentiment in the matter. I have been attached to the Ganga and the Jamuna rivers in Allahabad ever since my childhood and, as I have grown older, this attachment has also grown. I have watched their varying moods as the seasons changed, and have often thought of the history and myth and tradition and song and story that have become attached to them through the long ages and become part of the flowing waters. The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing and ever the same Ganga. She reminds me of the snow-covered peaks and the deep valleys of the Himalayas, which I have loved so much, and of the rich and vast plains below, where my life and work have been cast. Smiling and dancing in the morning sunlight, and dark and gloomy and full of mystery as the evening shadows fall; a narrow, slow and graceful stream in winter, and a vast roaring thing during the monsoon, broad-bosomed almost as the sea, and with something of the sea’s power to destroy, the Ganga has been to me a symbol and a memory of the past of India, running into the present, and flowing on to the great ocean of the future. And though I have discarded much of past tradition and custom, and am anxious that India should rid herself of all shackles that bind and constrain her and divide her people, and suppress vast numbers of them, and prevent the free development of the body and the spirit; though I seek all this, yet I do not wish to cut myself off from that past completely. I am proud of that great inheritance that has been, and is, ours, and I am conscious that I too, like all of us, am a link in that unbroken chain which goes back in the dawn of history in the immemorial past of India. That chain I would not break, for I treasure it and seek inspiration from it. And, as witness of this desire of mine and as my last homage to the great ocean that washes India’s shores.” (emphasis mine)
Nehru had been critical of the Hindi journalism and literature of his time not being at par with say, its Bengali counterpart, but even this constructive criticism by him has been misused by many people to suggest that he was anti-Hindi.
- Nehru was a hard-core leftist with no understanding of the importance of private enterprise.
This is a critique of his policies and not his intentions, and is partly valid, but only partly. This has been dealt with in some detail in this other article of mine.
I may also add given my interactions with bureaucrats for public policy research that I am personally inclined to think of Nehru’s Planning Commission as being better structured than Narendra Modi’s Niti Aayog, as this article points out.
- Nehru was an autocrat.
On this point, Ramachandra Guha points out-
“(N)o one did more than Nehru to nurture the values and institutions of democracy in India. It was he who first advocated adult suffrage, he who welcomed a constructive Opposition, he who scrupulously maintained the independence of the bureaucracy and the judiciary. Vincent Sheean once pointed to ‘one overwhelming difference between Mahatma Gandhi and Mr. Nehru: the Mahatma would rather retire, fast, pray, take care of lepers and educate children, than go along with a majority opinion in which he could not concur’. Nehru, on the other hand, had in many instances ‘yielded to the majority of his party and of the country…’ . Thus Congress Chief Ministers were always elected by the legislators of the concerned state, regardless of Nehru’s opinion in the matter. And once he saw that both party and country wanted it, Nehru yielded to the formation of linguistic states — a policy he was personally opposed to.”
Nehru is known to have constructively engaged with the opposition. To know more about his tolerance to dissent, you can see this account of how he responded to cartoons mocking him, something the likes of Mamta Banerjee would do well to learn from. He even wrote articles under a pseudonym criticizing himself!
He had even prophesised that the then young MP Atal Behari Vajpayee would be PM one day, and Vajpayee’s admiration for Nehru, including on the point of engagement with political opponents, can be seen here.
8. Nehru was an agent of the British imperialists and aided in having Chandrashekhar Azad killed.
Firstly, Gandhi and Nehru’s methodology of struggle wasn’t about dialogue as the Liberal League desired, but of resistance that involved economic boycott (which led to much economic loss to England including shutting down of textile mills in that country) and entailed much personal suffering by way of bearing lathi blows (which Nehru bore in great measure while agitating against the Simon Commission) and courting imprisonment. The Liberal League maligned Gandhi and Nehru as anarchists and strictly supported the policy of only having negotiations, for which Nehru has been very critical of the Liberal League in his autobiography. Besides, some people who later in the 1940s, resorted to violence to fight the British, like Jaiprakash Narayan, Rammanohar Lohia and Aruna Asaf Ali, continued to admire Gandhi and Nehru and have good relations with them, and even invoked their legacy on a number of issues once they were no more.
Nehru had even suggested in the 1930s in his autobiography implicitly that violence may be considered an option to fight British imperialism in the future.
As for Nehru’s alleged role in Chandrashekhar Azad’s death, while Nehru and Chandrashekhar Azad’s associates have left us with accounts of a meeting between Nehru and Chandrashekhar Azad a few days before Azad was martyred, there are multiple versions of how Azad’s whereabouts came to be accessed by the British, and there is nothing to conclusively suggest that Nehru had any role in the same.
In fact, quite the contrary, many pro-revolutionary historiographers have contended Nehru to have a soft corner for the revolutionaries, something even the British were suspicious of.
For those whose understanding of history is solely based on movies like The Legend of Bhagat Singh (its errors, the likes of which I have pointed out here notwithstanding), I would ask them to recall a scene in that movie in which Nehru is reprimanded by Gandhi for having praised Bhagat Singh in the Congress bulletin.
9. Nehru was Gandhi’s stooge but he betrayed his master
The club that despises Nehru but admires Gandhi often cites this. Firstly, Nehru had serious differences with Gandhi over a host of issues, from Gandhi’s usage of religious symbols to economic development models to Nehru’s objection to the idea of seeking Dominion Status before complete independence, and many passages in Nehru’s autobiography border on mocking Gandhi, written during Gandhi’s lifetime.
Gandhi chose Nehru to become prime minister because, as Ramachandra Guha points out-
“(Nehru) most reliably reflected the pluralist, inclusive idea of India that the Mahatma stood for. The alternatives — Patel, Rajaji, Azad, Kripalani, Rajendra Prasad — had, by contrast, somewhat sectional interests and affiliations. But Nehru was a Hindu who could be trusted by Muslims, a U.P. wallah who was respected in the South, a man who was admired by women — like Gandhi, and like no one else, he was a genuinely all-India leader.”
Patel’s administrative acumen apart, that he indeed had traces of a relatively prejudiced mindset reflects in a letter he wrote to Nehru in November 1950 that exhibits his xenophobia towards the mongoloids-
“All along the Himalayas in the north and northeast, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of potential trouble between China and ourselves… The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices… Bhutan is comparatively quiet, but its affinity with Tibetans would be a handicap.”
Sardar Patel’s assumptions were almost completely off the mark, as I have pointed out here.
Patel is also arguably believed to have had a strain of Hindu rightist tendencies, which had contributed to many Muslims not reposing their faith in the Congress and supporting the Muslim League in its bid to partition the country.
As for C. Rajagopalachari, rightly adored by secular-minded economic right-wingers, many overlook that he was socially conservative and liked women only as being householders.
- Nehru was a Hindu extremist.
This is the most ridiculous myth about Nehru, and one that is peddled by the admirers of Jinnah. Nehru risked his life trying to protect Muslims in Delhi. He was as vocal a critic of the Hindu Mahasabha as of the Muslim League. In his letters to the chief ministers as prime minister, he actually raised the concerns of the Muslim minority time and again.
In fact, he has even written in his autobiography published in the 1930s – “Muslim communal leaders said and did many things harmful to political and economic freedom, but as a group and individually they conducted themselves before the Government and the public with some dignity. That could hardly be said of the Hindu communal leaders. ” And though I am as much against Hindu communalism as I am against Muslim communalism, I wonder if Nehru would have said the same thing in the late 1940s, when Jinnah was fanatically demanding Pakistan citing the most illogical and even inhuman contentions (he told the Cabinet Mission that Indian Muslims’ and Pakistani Hindus’ rights could be safeguarded by inflicting atrocities upon them if their co-religionists in the other country maltreated the minorities there – this is certainly not a dignified position to take, nor was it dignified on Jinnah’s part to not shake Maulana Azad’s hand during the Cabinet Mission deliberations) and his followers even resorted to terrible mass murders (“direct action”) for the purpose.
Some have described Nehru as somewhat prejudiced against Muslims, just considering his (Nehru’s) usage of the word ‘aggressive’ (which really may not always be synonymous with ‘violent’ in its most literal sense and is often used in a more metaphorical sense; consider usages like “he aggressively markets his brand” or better still, to quote Nehru himself from his autobiography to understand his usage of the word – “Gandhiji, of course, continues to be a vital force whose non-violence is of a dynamic and aggressive character”) to describe Christianity and Islam (and in this context, both the religions, going by mainstream interpretations, very fervently advocate that they are, respectively, the only way to God), but that, by itself, doesn’t take us very far in classifying him as being prejudiced against Islam or Muslims.
In fact, in the context of the Crusades, Nehru has written in his autobiography that as much as he tried to examine them impartially, as an Asiatic, he always ended up being biased in favour of the Arabs!
Furthermore, some have quoted Nehru as saying that after the Turks and Mongols took over the mantle of Islam from the Arabs, Islam lost much of its intellectual stirring and was primarily misused for military conquest and also became more rigid in practice. This is something that even many Muslim and Islamophilic scholars accept, and this surely does not translate into hatred for Muslims.
Some also point out that Nehru has also mentioned that the Muslims who came to India did not bring anything substantial in the spheres of polity, economy or science; again, this is indeed true. They did bring with themselves new languages that influenced indigenous ones (Urdu is a product of the confluence of Hindi, Persian and Turkish) and contributions to fine arts, architecture, cuisine and attire (something Nehru fully acknowledged and appreciated), but nothing substantial in the fields of polity, economics or science; this is a fact – have we heard of any political economist like Chanakya or scientist like Arya Bhatt in the Sultanate or Mughal periods? (And I would assert that the achievements of ancient India are as much the heritage of Indian Muslims and Christians as the Hindus; if Iranian and Egyptian Muslims can identify with and appreciate their pre-Islamic heritage and Greeks in their pre-Christian heritage, there is no reason for South Asian Muslims and Christians to not do so, and a good many, in fact, do, not only in India but even Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the Maldives.) So how does mentioning it make Nehru prejudiced against Muslims?
It is ironic how one man is portrayed as anti-Hinduism or even a Muslim pretending to be a Hindu by some, and portrayed as anti-Muslim by others! This shows Nehru’s genuine impartiality.
- Nehru committed blunders when it came to foreign policy.
Yes, Nehru was human and made mistakes when it comes to foreign policy. However, those suggesting that he blundered by promising the Kashmiris a plebiscite are completely mistaken. India had, on principle, sought to integrate princely states on the basis of the assumption that the majority of the populace there were in favour of joining the Indian Republic, than being a part of any sovereign monarchy, and it was on this basis that India integrated Hyderabad and Junagadh against the wishes of the rulers of these two princely states after conducting plebiscites, and so, India had to be consistent when it came to J&K.
In fact, those extreme Hindu rightists who insist that Muslim-majority Kashmir bordering Pakistan is an integral part of India (while ironically, routinely suggesting that Indian Muslims should go off to Pakistan!) would be disappointed to learn that Nehru, who they despise, had an active role in integrating Kashmir with India, and the delay in having J&K accede to India was on the part of Sardar Patel, possibly owing to his reluctance to integrate a Muslim-majority princely state sharing a border with Pakistan. On 27th September 1947, Nehru had written to Patel warning of a possible Pakistani invasion of J&K, but Patel did not take pre-emptive steps till the invasion actually started.
Nehru is also blamed for internationalizing the Kashmir dispute, which could have indeed been an error of judgment. However, as much as war may seem glamorous from a distance, our soldiers were losing their lives, and we had barely attained our independence. Also, Nehru did not internationalize the issue till before all areas of Kashmir where the then strongly pro-India Shaikh Abdullah’s influence extended had been cleared of Pakistani infiltration, and what came under Pakistani control did apparently have a pro-Pakistan majority then. Besides, if the Pakistani generals lusted for Kashmir, they would have ensured that Pakistan didn’t give up its claim over Kashmir, irrespective of whether or not Pakistan actually controlled a part of the erstwhile princely state.
Coming to China, yes, Nehru did blunder big time, but it was not owing to his being too soft on the Chinese and trusting them too much, but actually being overly aggressive (something Hindu rightists do normally adore), keeping the masses ignorant of the basis of Chinese claims over the disputed territories and even provoking the Chinese by posting troops there when the Chinese were willing to negotiate (as they had done over the border dispute with Myanmar). There was no betrayal or backstabbing by the Chinese, and it was, as former Indian diplomats Ranganathan and Khanna, put it, a “stab from the front”! Even Subramanian Swamy, and in more subtle tones, Jairam Ramesh have said the same.