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The Rediff Interview/Historian Ramachandra Guha

'Nehru paved the way for extinction of Nehrus'

November 18, 2008


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Nehru's birth anniversary brings to light an old biography, which is perhaps the best-written work on him, historian Ramachandra Guha tells Rrishi Raote.

Walter Crocker spent eight years in Delhi [Images] as Australian high commissioner to India during Jawaharlal Nehru's premiership. He found himself mesmerised by the PM. Two years after Nehru's death, Crocker published an 'estimate' of Nehru as a politician and as a man, and of his role in shaping independent India. Crocker's excellent little book went out of print decades ago, but was recently rediscovered by historian Ramachandra Guha, and this new edition is out in time for Nehru's 119th birth anniversary. Guha answers our questions on the book by email.

Where did you first come across this book?
About 10 years ago. I picked up a copy on the pavement in Daryaganj, and read it with fascination, and then read it again.

After so many biographies, why are biographers still drawn to Nehru?
Nehru had a profound influence on the history of modern India -- as another foreign diplomat, the Canadian Escott Reid, once remarked, in terms of his impact on his country Nehru was like Napoleon, Washington and Lincoln rolled into one. Given this colossal influence, and given India's size and diversity, it is only natural that we are so interested still in Nehru's life and legacy.

What does Crocker catch about Nehru that other biographers have not?
Essentially, his book is the most judicious and balanced of the works on Nehru. Crocker recognises the enormity of the task Nehru set himself and his colleagues -- the building of democracy in a poor, divided, hierarchical and largely illiterate society. He praises Nehru for this principal achievement -- the nurturing of democracy -- while criticising him on other counts. This may also be the best-written book on Nehru. Crocker has a dry, ironic, understated style which effectively brings Nehru down to earth.

You read Crocker's diaries. Is there any plan to publish them? Do they cast a different light on events and people than his book?
The diaries are not in publishable form. But there are some personal insights that did not find their way into the book -- as, for example, an account of a dinner hosted by Nehru the day Edwina Mountbatten died, when, in a magnificent display of self-control, he attended to the visiting dignitaries with his usual charm and hospitality. I did not have the time to examine his diaries systematically. But from what I did see they appear to be rich in insight and information, not just about Nehru but also with regard to other individuals he met in India. There are some wonderful passages where he summarises J B Kripalani's memories of Gandhi, as well as accounts of his meetings with C Rajagopalachari, whom Crocker regarded as the most remarkable human being (not just Indian) he had ever known.

What is the level of interest among PhD students in Nehru and the Nehru years?
I can speak only for historians. In general, historians of India, whether living here or in the West, are far too obsessed with the colonial period -- there has been little interest thus far in the social and political history of independent India.

What are some of the limiting factors in studying Nehru?
A major impediment is the close (and possibly illegal) control exercised by Mrs Sonia Gandhi [Images] over Nehru's official papers -- these should, by law and by tradition, be open to all bona fide scholars, but so far only three individuals (one Indian and two foreigners) approved by Mrs Gandhi have been granted access.

The real challenge for a biographer is to set himself apart from the debates of the present, wherein Nehru is demonised by free-marketeers and Hindutva-wadis, often unfairly, and at the same time praised in a mechanical and sycophantic fashion by Congressmen. One has to see Nehru in the context of his times, to remember that what is now in the past, for us, was once in the future, for him. That is to say, we have to judge his domestic and his foreign policies in terms of what he knew in 1950, or 1960, rather than with the help of hindsight.

Crocker is full of admiration for Nehru the man, but writes that much of what he did as a ruler was predestined to fail. Is that a fair judgement?
See my answer to question 3. The most remarkable tribute to Nehru in the book is when Crocker says that by introducing adult franchise, the aristocratic, upper-class leader laid the way for the ascendancy of politicians from lower-caste and working-class backgrounds. In other words, Nehru paved the way for the extinction of the Nehrus.

Do you at any point find yourself in disagreement with Crocker?
One point on which I do disagree with Crocker is with regard to his criticisms of Nehru's policies on Goa [Images]. He underestimated the depth of anti-colonial sentiment in India, did not take account of the freedom struggle in Goa itself, and did not pay due regard to Nehru's patience (after all, he waited a full 14 years for the Portuguese to follow the British and the French and leave their colonial possessions in India).

While I believe that Crocker's is the best short study of Nehru, the serious student should also read Sarvepalli Gopal's three-volume biography, which is far richer in terms of its use of primary source material. Moreover, with the distance of time and the availability of new archival materials in India, the United Kingdom and the United States, we can expect an even more authoritative account of Nehru's life and legacy. This is likely to come from Professor Sunil Khilnani, author of the marvelous The Idea of India, whose next book is a study of Nehru.

NEHRU A CONTEMPORARY'S ESTIMATE
Author: Walter Crocker
Publisher: Random House
Pages: xxiv + 216India
Price: Rs 250
Buy the book today!

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