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Did Nehru write mercy plea to get out of jail?

May 27, 2022 09:39 IST

Social media posts and articles falsely suggest that Jawaharlal Nehru 'signed a bond' or 'used his father's influence' to escape from serving a prison term in Nabha in 1923.
Utkarsh Mishra reveals the true story.
The first of a series of occasional columns correcting social media's false take on History.

IMAGE: Jawaharlal Nehru -- who passed into the ages on May 27, 1964, 58 years ago on Friday -- spent 3,259 days of his life in prison.

'Did you know that Jawaharlal Nehru had also filed his own mercy petition before the British administration to get out of jail?'. I have read several social media posts and articles over the past few months asking this question, juxtaposing it with the criticism of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar for writing clemency pleas while serving a life term in the Cellular Jail.

These posts and articles refer to Nehru's imprisonment in the then princely state of Nabha in Punjab in 1923.

Now, they didn't have to dig for any secret documents or explore some hidden 'files' to find about this incident. It was elaborately described by Nehru himself in his autobiography, who dedicated a whole chapter to it, and later by his biographers.

At the outset, I should make it clear that while I detest the communal leader of the Hindu Mahasabha that Savarkar became in his later years, I do not for a moment look down upon him for writing the mercy petitions.

While it is true that many revolutionaries braced the harsh conditions of the Cellular Jail and never gave up, many of them died and their bodies were thrown in the ocean, it is also true that no human being should be blamed for breaking under those circumstances.

However, sections of agenda-driven individuals on social media try to present the Nabha incident as an instantiation of Nehru 'breaking' under unwholesome conditions in jail 'within two weeks'.

As is typical of conspiracy theorists, they take a fact and spin a false narrative around it, making their assertions look credible and rendering it difficult for an unsuspecting reader to sift through the nonsense to reach the truth.

The incident being referred to here happened in 1923, when the Akali movement in Punjab was getting stronger against the British government who were seeking 'fundamental reforms in the control and operation of Gurdwaras'.

Nehru's biographer Michael Brecher describes the situation as follows: 'In the middle of 1923, the Maharaja of Nabha abdicated under British pressure after a protracted quarrel with the Maharaja of Patiala, largest of the Sikh princely states. The Akalis resented this deposition and launched a campaign to restore the fallen ruler to his throne. The agitation took the form of sending jathas (groups) of men to Jaito, the capital of Nabha, where protest meetings were held.'

Brecher says that the 'Akalis proclaimed satyagraha against the government and merged their movement in the Congress'.

Another biographer of Nehru, and unarguably the most prominent one, Sarvepalli Gopal also says, '...influenced by Gandhi's leadership of the non-cooperation campaign, the Sikhs had pledged themselves to non-violence; and they abode by their pledge despite severe provocation.'

It is in these circumstances that Nehru was invited to join one such jatha to Jaito, which he 'gladly accepted'. He was accompanied by Congress leaders A T Gidwani and K Santhanam.

Nehru recounts in his autobiography: 'On arrival at Jaito, the jatha was stopped by the police and immediately an order was served on me, signed by the English Administrator, calling upon me not to enter Nabha territory and if I had entered, to leave it immediately.'

When the leaders refused to comply with the order, they were promptly arrested and were taken to prison. Apart from the fact that Nehru and Santhanam were handcuffed together, which the former says was 'not an experience I should like to repeat', the prison cell was 'small, damp and most unsanitary'.

Gopal cites a note by the then special commissioner of the Home Department to allude that the condition of Nabha jail was 'horrible even by official admission'.

In his autobiography, Nehru describes the sham of a trial to which he and his colleagues were subjected. He also says that they were given an offer to sign an undertaking to express regret and go away from Nabha if they want charges against them to be dropped.

This offer was summarily refused and Nehru, in his statement, called upon the administration to apologise instead.

Seeing the nature of the trial and the ordeal it was causing to his son, Motilal Nehru was very upset. He left for Nabha and wrote to the Viceroy that he was going to see Jawaharlal. The Nabha administration refused to allow him, but the Government of India overruled and ordered that Motilal be allowed to enter Nabha only after he gives an undertaking not to indulge in political activities and that he would leave the state as soon as his meeting with Jawaharlal gets over.

Gopal writes: 'Motilal naturally refused to give any such undertakings and … [left the state] without meeting Jawaharlal.'

However, the government later partly modified the conditions and allowed Motilal to stay till the conclusion of the trial. As per Gopal, 'This was still much to demand, but so intense was Motilal's anxiety... that he agreed to abide by these restrictions and returned to Nabha'.

Motilal's visit did not please his son. Gopal writes that Jawaharlal had 'shown his irritation at his father's intervention'. He says, 'the officials at Nabha flattered themselves that both father and son looked dejected', as they thought the duo had realised that Nehru junior would not be able to 'escape conviction'.

Nehru recounts in his autobiography that 'he begged' his father to 'go back to Allahabad and not to worry'.

Motilal complied, but was very unhappy.

Soon thereafter, Nehru and his two Congress colleagues were sentenced to 18 months in prison. But the sentences were suspended the same evening and the trio was expelled from Nabha. 'We were escorted to the railway station and released there,' writes Nehru.

It is this point that the conspiracy theorists pick up to suggest that either Motilal 'pulled some strings' to get their sentences suspended or Nehru 'signed an undertaking to leave Nabha and never to come back'.

They take the advantage of the sketchy recollection of Nehru of this particular part in his autobiography to spin a false narrative around it.

It should be noted that Nehru wrote his autobiography in the early 1930s while he was still in prison. As he himself recounts, they were never given copies of any order or judgments pertaining to the case and hence they were unsure of the details themselves. But he did mention that the order suspending the sentences came 'with no conditions attached'.

So, there was no question of signing any undertaking. Moreover, if he indeed 'got away' in Nabha owing to some secret arrangements or compromise as suggested, why would he mention the incident in such a way as he did in his autobiography that he wrote well before Independence?

The assertion that Motilal used his influence to get the sentences suspended is also mere conjecture. In fact, the gaps in Nehru's recollection of this incident are filled by Gopal's meticulous research who, writing many years later, had access to all the documents that Nehru didn't have a chance to see.

He cites the letter Motilal wrote to Jawaharlal in prison after he returned to Allahabad: 'I was pained to find out that instead of affording you any relief my visit of yesterday only had the effect of disturbing the even tenor of your happy jail life... please do not bother about me at all. I am as happy outside the jail as you're in it'.

This letter clearly indicates that not only was Motilal unable to do anything to help his son, the latter did not want him to do anything in this regard either. It completely goes against the theory that Jawaharlal sought help to get out of jail and his father rendered it.

But why were the sentences suspended at all?

Gopal cites the correspondence between Nabha administrator Wilson Johnston and the Government of India to answer this question.

While Johnston wanted Nehru to serve his sentence lest 'the loyalists' should feel that 'there was one law for Akalis and another for Congressmen', the government wanted to establish precisely that. They felt that this 'discrimination' would be an advantage as 'it would loosen the alliance between the Akalis and the Congress'.

Though Nehru sought copies of the judgment and externment orders to challenge them, they were never provided. Meanwhile, Nehru and his prison mates in Nabha had suffered a serious attack of typhoid which they contracted in jail. Nehru was also made president of the provincial Congress upon his return.

In his biography of Nehru, B N Pande writes that he penned his lengthy presidential address while running a temperature of 104 degrees.

Nonetheless, Nehru had challenged the statement of the Nabha administrator that he and his colleagues would have had to undergo their sentences if they refused to leave the state. He also insisted that the suspension of sentences was unconditional and also added that 'he and his companions will return to Nabha if it was necessary in the interest of their cause'.

However, Gidwani was arrested again when he tried to visit Nabha the next year, which clearly shows that the sentences were only suspended and were not quashed and could have taken effect whenever the government wished.

Nehru wrote to the Nabha administrator and 'challenged the legality' of Gidwani's arrest, once again requesting the copy of the order which was again refused.

He writes: 'I felt inclined to go to Nabha myself and allow the administrator to treat me as he had treated Gidwani. Loyalty of a colleague seemed to demand it. But many friends thought otherwise and dissuaded me'.

Among these 'friends' was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who wrote to Nehru, in a letter dated September 6, 1924, 'The Nabha answer is from its own standpoint conclusive. The only answer that can be returned is to take up the challenge to be arrested. In the present state of things, it seems to be unwise. The best thing, therefore, is to be silent and wait for better times.'

Gopal cites official correspondence to suggest that the government was convinced that '[Motilal] Nehru and his son were substantially defeated over the Nabha affair and they know this full well'.

Nehru's concluding lines of the chapter on Nabha in his autobiography reflect a sense of this 'defeat' for despite him wanting to visit the state again after Gidwani's arrest, he didn't do so.

'I took shelter behind the advice of friends, and made of it a pretext to cover my own weakness. For, after all, it was my weakness and disinclination to go to Nabha Jail again that kept me away, and I have always felt a little ashamed of thus deserting a colleague. As often with us all, discretion was preferred to valour'.