At the outset I would like to pay my tribute to Pandit Nehru on his death anniversary. He was not only the Prime Minister and architect of modern India but also an outstanding statesman of the whole humanity. I started reading selected speeches and other writings of Jawaharlal Nehru own the instructions of President K.R.Narayanan under whom I worked in Rashtrapati Bhavan during 1997-2002. In fact Mr. Narayanan used to always tell me to bring in Nehru in almost all his speeches. He asked me to find out from the vast collections of his writings about his vision and views on environment, gender justice and many other aspects which are assuming critical importance across the world. It is, therefore, important to recall that vision which is inseparable from our history and history of humanity and it is important to celebrate his legacy and worldview.
Nehru and Disaster Preparedness
Today when COVID pandemic is gripping humanity and India itself is caught in the whirlpool of novel coronavirus infection and terrible humanitarian disaster caused by an unplanned lockdown by Modi regime one recalls Nehru’s prophetic words that “Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.”. He said so in his famous tryst with destiny speech. The indivisibility of COVID disaster in the form of a pandemic and the necessity to respond to it through concerted measures by humanity makes us deeply mindful of the words of Nehru for twenty first century world. It is instructive to note that Nehru was acutely conscious of recurrent disasters and natural calamities hitting India and, therefore, he used to make the Chief Ministers of States of our country aware of such disasters in his fortnightly letters to them. In one such letter of 1st September 1950 he, “I imagine that India has set up some kind of a new record, not a record to be proud of. It is a record of disaster and calamity, one following another in quick succession, bringing sorrow and misery to vast numbers of human beings ….. we do not yet know the full extent of this disaster in which millions of people are involved.” A few months later he wrote again, “Indeed, every calamity is a challenge to our nationhood ….. and a nation is ultimately judged by the way this challenge is accepted”.
In juxtaposing the ideas of Nehru in the context of the fight against COVID pandemic we need to ask if the ruling leaders of India are ready to defend the nation in face of Corona menace.
In fact after the super cyclone of 1999 hit Odisha and caused havoc of gigantic proportions the then President of India Shri K R Narayanan while inaugurating a seminar “ROLE OF MEDIA: PREPARING PEOPLE TO COPE WITH DISASTERS” extensively quoted the aforementioned observations of Nehru and remarked, “Nehru’s admission is that he did not know the full extent of the disaster testifies to the dearth of information on the subject. This lack of information itself can be described as a disaster. We can avoid this disaster only if the media plays its role in disseminating information. That role is not to advertise anti-earthquake pills and then ask the skeptical consumer ‘what is the alternative’ as it is said to have happened in the great earthquake of Portugal, but inform and educate, and prepare the public on the question. It is said that prevention begins with information. To a large extent the functioning of modern society depends on the fast spread of information through the media.” The way in which often information is not being disseminated by the Government on COVID pandemic or such information is suppressed makes the words and vision of Nehru more relevant for countering all measures to stifle information.
Nehru Predicted the Advent of Digital Age
Today so much is being talked about the Digital India. Nehru had predicted the advent of the age of electronics or the digital age in 1943. While reading Discovery of India I found that he had foreseen the advancement of humanity to the age of electronics. He wrote that mankind passed through the steam age, was passing through the age of electricity and would inevitably pass through the age of electronics. In fact we are now in the age of electronics which Nehru had predicted while in jail and while writing Discovery of India. In India the electronics age began when telecommunication revolution was started in the middle of 1980s by Rajiv Gandhi and massive application of computers were undertaken across the country in different sectors of our collective life.
Because of Nehru mid day meal was introduced in schools
It is revealing to note that in 1952 first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru instructed Government of Madras Province to provide a free meal to school children. This information is there in Nehru’s letters to Chief Ministers dated 17th October 1952. He had written that during his visit to Royalseema in Madras Province he found half a million people of whom 75 per cent were children put in a camp because of severe drought prevailing in that area. Seeing that they were fed from gruel kitchen he was deeply pained and suggested that children should be separated and put in schools and each school teacher should be enabled to give them a free meal. Prime Minister Nehru also wrote that his suggestion was largely accepted by the Madras Government and free mid day meal was served to children. It clearly shows that because of Nehru mid day meal scheme was introduced in India and slowly it is now part and parcel of school education system across the country.
Nehru stressed on Vedantic outlook to address ill effects of modern civilization
While relying on frontier areas of science and technology and laying down the foundations of modern India Nehru remained tuned to the ancient wisdom of our civilisation and stressed on its deeper significance for restoring the sanity and strength of life often getting stressed by the fast paced march for progress. If we read his monumental piece “Basic Approach” written in 1955 for Congress Members we find that he remained anchored on the ancient wisdom even as he employed science, technology and scientific temper as much for material progress as for the progress of mind and spirit. In the last portion of “Basic Approach” he wrote that a Vedantic outlook remained a fundamental necessity to find solutions to the mounting problems caused by modern civilisation. It is instructive to note that Jawaharlal Nehru hardly visited religious shrines and always stressed on secularism as the bedrock of our State. Yet he had written about the indispensability of Vedantic outlook to seek remedies for problems caused modern civilisation. In fact the Vedantic approach underlined by Nehru in 1950s is deeply relevant now for the twenty first century world confronting phobias and conflicts based on religion and other factors. In fact one gets the deep impression that now humanity is driven by diabolical forces of hatred and violence. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is demonic upsurge of hatred and violence. A few years back the prominent Marathi newspaper Sakal carried two advertisements claiming that the first surgical strike in independent India was conducted by Nathuram Godse on 30th January 1948. Such is the shocking celebration of violence and a kind of diabolical mindset aligned to extremism and exclusion. It is in this context that Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision and legacy assumes critical significance to stem the tide of hatred and bigotry. I think Nehru is more relevant for our time than the time frame within which he led India when we faced partition and there was opinion expressed in the western world that India could not be kept together as one country.
Nehru on Gender Equality and greater representation of women in Parliament
Today the whole world is in passionate quest for gender equality and sustainable development. It is educative to note that Nehru had deeply reflected on these points in early 1950 and late 1950s. When a Bill was introduced by the Manmohan Singh Government in Rajya Sabha in 2009 to reserve 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies none referred to Nehru and his vision to have more women in our legislatures. It was Nehru who articulated his vision for greater representation of women in legislative bodies in 1950 itself. In a letter to Chief Ministers on 4th January 1950 he regretted that there were a very few women members in the Constituent Assembly and wrote about the necessity of having an adequate number of women members elected to Parliament. He noted that sufficient number of women, at least as competent and suitable as men, were available and it was desirable from every perspective to have more women in Parliament. Such a far reaching statement made by Prime Minister Nehru even before the adoption and enactment of the Constitution affirmed his ardent desire for gender equality and women’s empowerment through adequate representation of women in legislatures. However on 18th January 1950 he regretted that inspite of his requests to provinces few women were chosen for Parliament. After the general elections of 1952 when less women were elected to the Parliament he wrote a long para in which he expressed his regret that enough women were not there in Parliament. He painfully remarked that laws were men made, women were subordinated to men and, therefore, their less representation would go against them. However, at the end of that para he wrote that eventually the future of India would depend more on women than men. Such concern of Nehru for getting more women elected to the Parliament should be highlighted and flagged to trace the origin of such ideas in India and we should educate rest of the world about it. This gives the much needed Indian perspective to the cause of gender justice and equality and Nehru provided leadership in this field in 1950 itself. Of course Mahatma Gandhi had stressed on greater representation of women in legislature in 1931 and in 1947 he was on record saying that he would prefer women to men for increasing their representation even if such preference would lead to total displacement of men.
Large presence of women in our universities now, 50 per cent reservation of seats for women in panchayat s and the near consensus for 33 per cent reservation for women in Lok Sabha and State Assemblies represent the fruition of Nehru’s vision that India’s future would depend more on women than men.
Nehru was keen for the passage of the Hindu Code Bill and he admitted in many letters to the Chief Ministers that the inclination of majority to pass the said Bill met with failure in face of fierce opposition from some sections of society . Eventually Nehru Government broke the Hindu Code Bill to small pieces of legislation such as Hindu marriage and divorce Bill, Maintenance Bill, Adoption Bill, etc. After passage of each Bill Nehru used to say that by giving equal rights to women through the instrumentality of law India was raising her status at the global level. By linking the legislative mechanisms for guaranteeing the rights of women with the glory and prestige of India Nehru was conveying a powerful message for nation building at the heart of which remain gender justice.
Nehru and Environment
Another fascinating dimension of Nehru was his reflections on environment even as he was pursuing the goal of nation building by constructing several big industrial and river valley projects. On 15th August 1957 he wrote a letter to Chief Ministers in which one page was devoted to environment. He noted that there is subtle balance of nature and there should be environmental assessment done before the setting up of projects. The environmental assessment which Nehru wrote was done much later. I recall that when I went to Pondicherry University to participate in a conference on Governance and Sustainable Development almost all the participants referred to Limits to Growth Report of 1970 of the Club of Rome or the Brundantland Commission Report of 1987 to trace the idea of sustainable development. None referred to Nehru. We need to talk about that letter of Nehru on environment to drive home the point that he provided leadership on such matters when rest of the world had not applied mind to it.
Nehru and Secularism
Another matter on which Nehru assumes importance is the matter concerning secularism. Bommai judgement delivered by the nine judge bench of the Supreme Court declared secularism as the basic structure of the Constitution. While doing so the apex court profusely quoted Nehru. In fact when the great French philosopher Andre Malaraux asked Nehru as to what he would find the most difficult to do in India, Nehru in his characteristic brilliance said, “To create a just society by employing just means and to create a secular Sate in a religious society”. We all know that the vision of a just society has been badly impaired by rising levels of inequality and it is adequately articulated by Thomas Picketty in his book “Capital in Twenty First Century”. And now the secular State has also come under pressure because of unacceptable developments arising out of hatred for religious faiths of many of our citizens. At a time when secular values are being challenged we need to defend secularism which is the basic structure of our Constitution. In fact the very Constitution itself has to be defended from those formations which pose danger to it.
Such a man who raised the stature of India at the global level in face of many challenges during the formative stages of our independence has left behind an enduring legacy. In fact his stature and his vision is celebrated beyond the frontiers of India. Such a man was not just the leader of India but also the leader and statesman of humanity.