Secular saviour, economic demon

Nehru - Languages of Belonging

September 24, 2004

Though he died in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru matters greatly. Nehru practically invented the hugely influential Cold War-era view that nations freed from Western colonialism should adopt a critical, independent stance toward the West without falling into the Communist camp. Likewise, the autarchic, state-dominated, though still non-communist economic policies so many Third-World nations followed until recently.

A couple of statistics show how important Nehru is for India.

The United Nations recently estimated that India's population is not likely to stabilise until it reaches about 1.63 billion in about 2050; India will by then be the world's most populous country. Nehru discounted the importance of population control and allowed education as well as modern health services to be largely denied to the poor mass of Indians. He thus added many hundreds of millions to the levelling-off figure for Indian population. The overall consequence of Nehru's social and economic policies is now clear. In 1960, Indian income per capita was about the same as South Korea's. But South Korea gave priority to mass education and healthcare and followed export-led economic growth. Its income per capita is now at least 30 times India's.

No wonder Nehru, more than any other modern Indian, arouses fierce controversy in India. Many there see him as the witting and unwitting fomenter of the country's most terrifying problems. But many others think of him as thoroughly benign, second only to Gandhi in making a future enlightened India possible. They point to his undeniably large contribution to the creation of Indian democracy. Even his economic policies, they tend to claim, were suitable for his time.

And then there is the burning question of Nehru and Hinduism. India is the only large nation with a Hindu majority. Many Indians want Hinduism to be the state religion of India. Why not, they ask, when Christians and Muslims have scores of states to look after their interests? But Nehru, an outspoken agnostic, was crucial in the dissociation of the Indian state from Hinduism. India's large "secular" lobby idolises him for denying Hinduism pride of place in India; their Hindu nationalist opponents curse him for it.

A historical figure with such a huge, troubled legacy badly needs a fair assessment. What is required is detailed analysis of how much his ideas did improve the condition of his people, and what was being done elsewhere in the world at the time. One needs to avoid blaming Nehru too much for pursuing economic ideas that may seem failures now, but that then had high intellectual repute.

One does not get the necessary deep questioning of Nehru's assumptions in Benjamin Zachariah's assessment of him. His book belongs to a kind of thinking about Nehru popular among sympathisers of India's so-called Left.

Whether Communist or non-Communist, this Left claims to pursue radical socialism. Despite a large following among the intelligentsia, it has never been politically dominant, except in one large province and two minor ones.

In a country with so much poverty, this is a feeble performance. Zachariah, like many "leftist" intellectuals, sees Nehru as a force that could have given their tendency much greater power in Indian affairs. He was a leader with many of the right (that is to say, Left) sympathies, and with stupendous popular acclaim. He is credited with having done much that was "progressive" when in office: establishing India as a force independent and steadily critical of Western "imperialism", pursuing state-led economic policies, denying Hinduism state power, seeking friendly relations with the Soviet Union and China. But, Zachariah explains, Nehru betrayed his leftist principles by continuing to ally with the right-wing, pro-capitalist, pro-Western majority in the ruling Congress Party. As a result, capitalism remained in place and India adopted a stubborn stance in border disputes with Communist China, leading to brutal military humiliation at China's hands in 1962. This largely discredited Nehruism, and put a right-wing, capitalist ideology in secure power ever after.

Zachariah's analysis of Nehru's long, complicated game of adapting his left-wing inclinations to remain leader of a right-wing party is interesting. Yet the idea that he would have joined the Left and led it to victory, had he recognised his real friends, does not convince. Zachariah underestimates how severely disillusioned with Communism Nehru was by the end of the 1930s. His books and letters express his sharp distaste for the gratuitous violence and sheer lack of scruples Communism had shown under Stalin's leadership. Stalin's Indian followers (the biggest Indian Communist Party deifies Stalin even today) could never have been Nehru's "natural" friends.

Zachariah also underestimates how deeply Nehru believed in his mild, "Fabian", parliamentary method of obtaining "a socialistic pattern of society". He proudly thought it offered a peaceful means of social reform and economic growth that avoided the inequities of capitalism and the totalitarian social dragooning of Communism as practised in Russia and China. Nehru's fellow Congress leaders may be written off as reactionary by Zachariah, and even occasionally by Nehru, but they were often people who had sat for many years in British prisons with Nehru, had great popular prestige and commanded a political organisation with strength in almost every Indian village. To abandon them for a rag-tag bunch, comprising Stalinists abjectly subservient to Moscow's every order and non-Communist socialists known for their whimsicality and lack of secure mass base, was never an option for Nehru.

The book betrays a depressing trait of "leftist" thinking: pervasive double-standards where the sacred cows of the Left are concerned. Thus the West is identified with "imperialism", but not the Soviet Union, despite its East European quasi-colonies. Nehru is criticised for failing to give ethnic minorities, such as the Kashmiris and Nagas, the right to choose whether they wished to belong to India, but, regarding Tibet, Zachariah forgets his concerns for the rights of nationalities and finds "understandable" China's claim to control it.

India's dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir is one of the most perplexing legacies of Nehru, whose family came from Kashmir. Chitralekha Zutshi refreshingly looks at Kashmiri history from the viewpoint of the Kashmiris themselves, rather than focusing on the Indo-Pakistani quarrel. She has dug deeply into literature in several local languages to analyse what the notion of Kashmiriyat - the idea of Kashmiri national identity transcending the division between Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris - has meant historically.

Zutshi shows that Kashmiriyat has been heavily oversold by those wishing to present the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination as inclusive of the Hindu minority as well as the Muslim majority. Like several other provinces of the Indian subcontinent, Kashmir developed a strong regional sense of belonging that transcended religious affiliations. However, in modern times the main political struggle there always pitted the Muslim majority against a Hindu minority that derived disproportionately large economic benefits from being associated with Kashmir's ruling elites.

Zutshi's assessment of Kashmiri politics in the period leading up to the British withdrawal, while informative, has at least one bizarre discrepancy. At one point, Zutshi criticises scholars for assuming too easily that Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah's National Conference was pro-Congress and pro-India at this time. Yet a few pages on, she writes of "incontestable proof" that "the organisation was a puppet of the Congress".

How the Kashmiri economy developed in a radically inequitable manner, creating Hindu-Muslim tensions, is the subject of the book's most rewarding section. When dealing with concrete things such as crops, textiles and taxes, Zutshi writes much more clearly than when analysing political and cultural disputes. The following specimen of the latter is all too typical: "Islam proved to be a significant site for the unfolding discourse on identities in Kashmiri political culture, not only as a marker for community identities, but equally significantly as a cornerstone of faith for individual Kashmiris as they wrestled with the various monumental changes of their time." Try picturing that, Orwell would have gleefully suggested.

Zutshi tends to deal with society, politics and culture in abstract generalisations. This may appear philosophically sophisticated but reduces our chances of understanding what is happening. For instance, despite all Zutshi's references to "religious difference" and "communal identities", we never get a picture of how Hinduism and Islam differ as ways of life, as ideas that could explain people's clashing outlooks. With such a straightforward description we might better grasp why Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims often fear and hate each other so much.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.


Author - Benjamin Zachariah
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 298
Price - £45.00 and £10.99
ISBN - 0 415 25016 1 and 25017 X

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