Home > News > Columnists > Arvind Lavakare
Invention of history
December 19, 2003
Three rituals are performed every year in India on November 14 -- the birthday of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister who passed away in 1964. Ritual number one is that our morning newspapers that day publicise it as 'Children's Day' -- so labelled because Nehru had great affection for children who called him 'Chacha Nehru.'
The second ritual of the day --- publicised with a photograph the next day --- is some member of the Nehru dynasty paying homage to Nehru's so-called samadhi at Shantivan in New Delhi. At least some Congress acolytes in attendance complete this ritual.
The third ritual is that on or around Nehru's birth anniversary some loyal Congressman or the other writes a newspaper article singing hosannas to Nehru's role in today's India.
This year, November 14 conformed to the scripture's rigour. The newspapers did their duty towards children. Sonia Gandhi did hers along with Sheila Dixit in tow. And the job of singing a paean was done by veteran journalist H Y Sharada Prasad, who had long ago edited selected speeches of Nehru to the latter's satisfaction, and who was information adviser not only to Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, throughout her entire reign as PM, but also to Nehru's grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, when the latter was PM.
Prasad performed his part through an edit-page article in The Asian Age titled 'Inventor of India.' Therein he first very briefly reviewed a recent biography titled Nehru -- The Invention of India by Shashi Tharoor, whose theme lies in the two sentences that Prasad quoted: 'Creating Indians is what the nationalist movement did. And Nehru it was, above all else, who wielded that India into a plausible nation --- the man who through his writings, his speeches, his life, his leadership, can be credited with the invention of the India we know today.'
Now Tharoor hasn't either read the late Janardan Thakur's last book named Prime Ministers -- Nehru to Vajpayee (Eshwar, 1999) or chosen to ignore that veteran political journalist's scathing criticism of Nehru in that book.
Civil liberty severely curbed as in an emerging police State; creation, in the name of democracy, of oligarchic pockets to safeguard his despotism called the Republic of India, vagueness and fuzziness about political colours such as socialism; an administrative record that was nothing to write home about; over-involvement in the world of words and dreams leading to often superficial knowledge of many affairs of the State; harbouring dozens of shady characters, fools and corrupt men among fawning courtiers; creation of linguistic states that led to fissiparous tendencies; leaving villages to stagnate. That report card of his on Nehru made Thakur conclude in his book that 'Most of the evils that have corroded India in the last fifty years had their beginnings during the Nehru Raj.'
If Tharoor nevertheless chooses to dub Nehru as the Inventor of India, Prasad excused him from proving his appellation by saying that Tharoor does not claim his biography to be a scholarly work. Quickly, Prasad himself proceeds to invest Nehru with a milestone achievement that few, if at all, have ever recorded.
That achievement of Nehru, Prasad wants us to believe, is that 'he prevented the creation of 500 Indias.' Prasad would have us believe that during the tortuous negotiations for transfer of power, the one last trump card which the British had kept up their sleeve was the question of paramountcy over the states. He says that when the British viceroy hinted at the idea of transfer of paramountcy to the princes, it was Nehru's 'fury' and 'uncompromising stand' that scotched the idea. Without this stand, Prasad wants us to believe, Sardar Patel's glorious achievement of eventually integrating the princely states into an India governed one Constitution would not have been possible.
In order to assess that stunning viewpoint of Prasad, it is vital to understand the relevant background of the British rule over India. As stated by Anthony Read and David Fisher in their 565-page book titled The Proudest Day -- India's Long Road to Independence (Pimlico, 1998), that scenario of India was briefly ---
1. 'Two fifths of the land area and 100 million of its 400 million inhabitants were ruled by the princes -- Maharajas, Nawabs, Rajas and so on. These were medieval monarchs, complete autocrats... They had wrecked the central government provision of the 1935 Act by refusing to enter a federation, and now they threatened the successful conclusion of the transfer of power.' (Page 476)
2. 'In all there were 562 princely states in India, ranging from Hyderabad and Kashmir, each as big as mainland Britain, to mere dots on the map.' (Page 476)
3. 'The states were not directly ruled by Britain, but were looked after by her for defence, foreign policy and communications in return for which they each acknowledged British 'paramountcy' through individual treaties.' (Page 477)
If complete political freedom to British India (comprising provinces and constituting 60 per cent of the land area) also meant full independence to the 562 princely states, what was in store for India was fragmentation and chaos. In store was untold damage to India's fragile infrastructure because the British had welded the states and provinces into an administrative whole, enabling railways, postal and telegraph services to cross boundaries without any problems. Food and agriculture policy too was conducted on a national basis, as was the control of narcotics, arms and ammunition, the extradition of criminals etc.
It was that fragmentation and chaos which, Prasad wants us to believe, Nehru prevented.
4. 'On 8 April (1947), Nehru told Mountbatten that he thought all provinces, including partitioned ones, 'should have the right to decide whether to join a Hindustan Group, a Pakistan Group, or possibly to remain completely independent.' Mountbatten seized on Nehru's suggestion and asked Ismay (Mountbatten's chief of staff) to begin drawing a new plan based on it -- though he omitted to mention Nehru's insistence on a strong centre. For the next few days, Ismay beavered away at producing...what everyone referred to as 'Plan Balkan.' (page 435)
5. 'When Nehru read Plan Balkan, he raised only comparatively minor points -- much of it, after all, followed his own suggestions.' (Page 441)
6. 'The official version of the approved plan was cabled from London on Sunday, 10 May (1947), and Mountbatten joyfully announced to the press that he would officially present it to Nehru, Jinnah, Patel, Liaqat and Baldev Singh at a conference on 17 May. But as the day wore on, he began to have doubts. The amendments made to the plan (sent by Mountbatten) in London could be seen as fundamental changes... Before bed that night, Mountbatten invited Nehru to his study... took out the revised plan from his safe, and gave it to him to read.' (Page 446)
7. 'On the morning of 11 May, Mountbatten found disaster staring at him... in the shape of a letter... which he described as "Nehru's bombshell." In it, Nehru denounced the entire plan.' (Page 447)
8. 'What Nehru most objected to in the revised plan (received from London) was that it encouraged the Balkanisation of the country by allowing individual provinces such as Bengal and NWFP to break away as independent sovereign states... Atlee (the then British PM) had struck at the very roots of Congress by removing from the plan (sent to it by Mountbatten) any recognition that the provinces... represented the Union of India, the successor state to British India... As for the princes, the revised plan was a direct invitation to them to remain independent kingdoms...' (Pages 446-447)
9. 'Mountbatten sent a stream of cables to Ismay in London, telling him to hold everything, that the draft plan was cancelled, that he was to stand by for a revised plan.' (Page 448)
Thus it was that the Partition Plan was finally accepted, creating the two Dominions of India and Pakistan based on Hindu/Muslim majority areas of British India, and stipulating that political arrangements between the princely states and the British Crown will simultaneously be ended, with the void being filled by 'States entering into a federal relationship with the successor or Governments in British India, or failing this, entering into particular political arrangements with it or them.' (Page 65, of Dr A S Anand's book The Constitution of Jammu & Kashmir --- Its Development & Comments (Universal Law Book Publishing Co Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, third edition, 1998).
It is Nehru's bombshell letter above that probably made Prasad believe the target of Nehru's 'fury and uncompromising stand' was the fate charted for the 562 princely states.
That it wasn't so is reflected by Nehru's approval on April 8, 1947 of even provinces choosing to remain independent. (See 4 above). Moreover, Nehru's reaction of 'fury' was not on the basis of the Viceroy's 'hint,' as Prasad says, but against the official plan sent by the British government from London on May 10, 1947. To further disprove Prasad's contention, read on from Read and Fisher's book.
10. 'At a meeting of party leaders called by Mountbatten on 13 June (1947) to discuss the problem of the States... Nehru approached the situation as an emotional politician rather than a punctilious constitutional lawyer... he argued that in order prevent the spread of anarchy within the sub-continent, the existing British political and administrative machinery for the States must be preserved until it could be taken over in toto by the new government.' (Page 479, emphasis provided.)
11. 'The old Political Department, under Sir Conrad Corfield, believed that the longer the princes held out, the stronger their bargaining position would be; indeed, it would be best for them if they could hold out until after partition when they could, he believed, name their own terms... Corfield had been diligently working to sabotage the efforts of Mountbatten and the party leaders to persuade them to accede quickly to one or other of the new dominions.' (Page 479)
12. '(Sardar) Patel was blunt: Mountbatten could offer them what he liked as long as Patel got his 'full basket of apples'. In other words, all the rulers must sign their instruments of accession and abandon their claims to independence, before the transfer of power.' (Page 481, emphasis provided.)
It is thus invention of history to believe that Nehru stymied the creation of '500 Indias.' What he had opposed was only a draft plan received from London on May 10, 1947 that Mountbatten showed him a week before he was to discuss it with other Indian leaders. Gandhi and other Congress leaders were sure to throw it out in any case because they had always opposed a loose federation of states and demanded, instead, a strong central government. On the other hand, if the princely states had been allowed to hold out under the prevailing arrangement till after Partition (as Nehru wanted, see 10) and as provided for in the Balkan Plan approved by Nehru, then there might well have been, who knows, half a dozen cousins of Kashmir causing agony to Mother India today.
As it transpired, Patel got the Instrument of Accession ready by July 31, 1947 and, by August 14, 1947, his basket was almost filled with 'apples.' Of the 548 states in or adjacent to India, only three were missing: Hyderabad, Jammu & Kashmir and Junagadh.
The likes of Sharada Prasad and Tharoor are welcome to hail Nehru all they want. But please let them not play the inventors of history.