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Nehru: The Man Who Knew No Fear

November 14, 2023 09:10 IST
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On Jawaharlal Nehru's 134th birth anniversary, Utkarsh Mishra looks at incidents when the first prime minister showed exemplary courage, bravery and integrity.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru speaks on his arrival at the White House, watched by President John F Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B Johnson, November 6, 1961. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images/Rediff archives

It is said that those who are truly capable, elicit praise from even their adversaries. Jawaharlal Nehru was one such person whose fearlessness was praised by a man who once called Congress leaders like him 'men of straw'.

This adversary was wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill, who paid 'tribute to Nehru's courage and integrity' during the latter's visit to London in 1953. Nehru's biographer Michael Brecher has recounted this incident in his book. He writes that Churchill 'spoke rapturously about Nehru's magnanimity'.

Nehru's grandson Rajiv Gandhi has also given an account of this incident. Writing about his grandfather in the 10th volume of Gandhi Marg journal, Rajiv wrote that Churchill asked Nehru if he finds it strange that 'two people who so hated each other should be thrown together like this'. To which Nehru replied, 'But, prime minister, we never hated you'. And Churchill said, 'I did, I did'. The same evening, Old Harrovians had arranged a dinner in Nehru's honour, where Churchill introduced him as 'a man who has conquered both hate and fear'.

Biographies of Nehru give multiple accounts of incidents where he showed exemplary courage, fearlessness and integrity. On his 134th birth anniversary, let's look at some of those.

With Father Motilal Nehru

Nehru went to study in London in 1905, when he was 15. He studied first at Harrow and then at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1912, when he was studying at Cambridge, he received a letter from his father Motilal Nehru who thought that his son was spending too much money.

Motilal Nehru asked his son for 'account of expenditure during the last six months'. In his reply, Jawaharlal wrote, 'Either you trust me or you do not. If you do, then surely no accounts are necessary. If you do not, then the accounts I send you are not to be relied upon.'

Motilal was so moved by his son's response that he wrote in his next letter, referring to the previous one, 'I would have given anything in the world to recall the letter and destroy it.'

A similar episode where Jawaharlal's forthrightness won over his father's anger is recounted by legendary poet Firaq Gorakhpuri's nephew Ajai Mansingh in his biography of his uncle. In the early 1920s, when Firaq was released from jail, Motilal summoned him to work as his personal secretary. Firaq consulted this offer with his friend Jawaharlal, who advised him to 'better die of hunger than work for my ill-tempered father'.

When Firaq rejected the offer, Motilal was furious and wanted to know the reason. Firaq could not help but tell him what his son had said. Motilal was so angry that he shouted at Jawaharlal and told him that 'he's stopping his monthly allowance with immediate effect'.

Though shaken, Jawaharlal had the courage to tell his father that 'his behaviour indicated the advice he gave to Firaq'. And Motilal 'promptly withdrew his verdict'.

Similarly, in 1927, when the whole nation was rallying behind Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru had a 'sharp clash' with him. Brecher tells the story: 'In Mahatma's absence, Jawaharlal moved a resolution at the Madras Congress calling for 'complete national independence', while the former was still advocating for a Dominion Status. When Gandhi learned that this resolution was approved by the Congress, he said 'we have almost sunk to the level of a schoolboys' debating society'.

Later, he wrote to Nehru, 'I see quite clearly that you must carry an open warfare against me and my views. For if I'm wrong, it is your duty to rise in revolt against me. The differences between you and me appear so vast and so radical that there seems to be no meeting ground between us.'

Clearly, Jawaharlal Nehru never shied away from speaking his mind.

Throwing Himself In Harm's Way

The incident of Nehru challenging the crowd shouting 'Let Gandhi Die' while the Mahatma had undertaken the last fast of his life in January 1948 at Birla House is quite well-known.

When Nehru heard the demonstrators in front of Birla House say 'Let Gandhi Die', he plunged into the crowd and shouted, 'How dare you say that. Come and kill me first.' His outburst made the demonstrators disperse and they reassembled only when his car went away.

Here are two more not so well-known instances where Nehru challenged a mob in a similar manner with little regard for his own safety.

During the communal riots in Delhi in the aftermath of Partition, Nehru often used to throw himself in front of assailants to save the lives of those under attack.

Shashi Tharoor quotes American journalist Norman Cousins in his book Nehru: The Invention of India, recounting one particular incident: 'One night, when a mob descended upon a Muslim neighbourhood, 'destroying, looting and ready to kill', Nehru reached at the site even before the police could arrive. He didn't just appeal to people to come their senses, but also 'interposed himself between a Muslim man and his attackers'. His gesture had a 'magical effect'. Rioters dropped their weapons, returned looted goods and dispersed.'

Another such incident is narrated by Maulana Azad in his autobiography India Wins Freedom.

In 1946, soon after the formation of the Interim Government under the Cabinet Mission Plan, Nehru was informed by official sources that a large section of people in the North West Frontier Province were against the Congress and the Khan brothers (Khan Abdual Gaffar Khan, better known as the Frontier Gandhi, and his brother Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan).

Against all advice, including from Gandhi himself, he decided to tour the frontier and assess the situation there. When Nehru reached Peshawar airport, a large number of Pathans had gathered there to oppose him, shouting slogans against him, and some of them even wanted to attack his car.

The Khan brothers, who came to receive him, were themselves under police protection. Nonetheless, Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan took out his revolver and threatened to shoot and only then they could get out of the melee.

These scenes were repeated the next day when Nehru left Peshawar to tour the tribal areas. There were angry demonstrations against him everywhere and his car was pelted with stones, one of which even hit his forehead. With Abdul Jabbar Khan and his colleagues unable to help, Nehru 'took the situation in his own hands'. He 'exhibited neither fear nor weakness and showed the greatest courage'.

Just like in the Delhi incident, his conduct once again had a great impression on the protesting Pathans.

Braving Police Lathis

It is often alleged on social media by people who have tenuous knowledge of the national movement that the top leaders of the Congress were never subjected to the harsh treatment that was meted out to revolutionaries or the common people fighting for freedom.

While it is true that they were not kept in such inhumane conditions, being known to command a large following among the masses, it is not like they never had a brush with the colonial highhandedness.

When demonstrations were going across the country in 1927-1928 against the Simon Commission, Nehru was twice involved in processions that were lathi-charged and he received several blows on both the occasions.

He has admitted in his autobiography that he wanted to move away and run to safety on both occasions and even began to do so during the second one, but he 'could not tolerate the idea of behaving like a coward'. So, he stood there.

While in the first case, he was fortunate to be spared after being hit a couple of times on the back, in the second one, he was singled out and was beaten till he was 'half-blinded with the blows'. Seeing this, his fellow processionists carried him away.

Standing Up To Great Powers

During the Cold War, when the whole world was divided between two hostile blocs, respectively led by the two biggest powers of that time -- the United States and the Soviet Union -- it was to Nehru's credit that India and other newly independent nations of Asia and Africa could withstand the pressure of being subsumed into either of the two and could find their independent voice in the form of the Non-Aligned Movement.

This gave India a unique position to mediate in the biggest conflicts involving these blocs, a role she played quite earnestly, be it the Korean War of the 1950s, trouble in Indochina in early 1954, the Suez-Canal crisis of 1956, the Soviet invasion of Hungary the same year, and the conflict in Congo in the early 1960s.

Critics pan Nehru over India abstaining from formally condemning the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union, but it was more of a tactical move than a docile one. Nehru criticised the Soviet Union and made his displeasure known by not sending an ambassador to Budapest for two years.

As historians Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee say in their magnum opus India Since Independence, 'India's position was not an easy one but she withstood considerable pressure from both sides and did not flip in either direction'.

Finally, even the most sympathetic biographers of Nehru find it difficult to defend him over the China affair. But I believe it is actually vox populi that has made it difficult to rationally analyse the whole episode.

As Chandra et al point out, it was only in 1959 that China started to claim territories in Ladakh and Arunachal (then known as NEFA, North East Frontier Agency).

In 1959, the Dalai Lama had escaped to India with many followers and China was livid at India giving him refuge. Could Nehru have arrested the Dalai Lama and repatriated him to China-held Tibet? I think he would have done that if his policy towards China was indeed 'supine' as claimed by several critics.

Nehru wrote in a letter to the chief ministers on October 1, 1959, 'No policy can be pursued through weakness or fear. I have no fear of China, great and powerful as that country is.'

Moreover, Chandra et al ask an interesting question, that if India's policy towards China was a failure, which other country's was a success? They also present an interesting analysis, that China's attack of 1962 had more to do with its 'own compulsions than anything that India or Nehru did'. They say that 'by humiliating India, [China] wanted to show that India's policy of peace and non-alignment was not feasible...' and this would make 'other countries of Asia and Africa follow the Chinese lead'.

But, it was India's non-alignment policy that ensured that the India-China war did not result in the US and the Soviet blocs standing against each other.

Despite some setbacks, Nehru's courage and exemplary leadership in taking charge of the affairs of a newly-independent, impoverished country that was bled dry by its colonial masters, need to be acknowledged in all seriousness.

During an Independence Day speech from the Red Fort, Nehru had exhorted Indians never to fear. This fearlessness helped him steer the country through several maladies.

As Mahatma Gandhi said about him once, 'In bravery, he is not to be surpassed'.

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