The most authentic way to learn about Pt. Nehru’s role in nation-building is to analyse the legacy of intellect, left behind by him via his writings which can be interpreted as prescriptive texts: he left writing that was to be preserved till posterity, only to preserve the India of his forefathers as he imagined it, and through those writings he continues to speak to Indians, generations-after, passing on that very vision from one generation to the next.
In these writings, a Nehru who is still a congress representative and not the Prime Minister of India lays out his aspirations for his motherland believing that India would either count for a lot in the international context, holding a formidable position or not count at all, hence there could not be an in-between for it.
In his historical account of India, Jawaharlal Nehru says that he views India, from the eyes of a friendly westerner; an alien critic— though a fervent ‘Nationalist’, in his own understanding of the word, he is comfortable in critiquing the aspects of India that make him unhappy.
Nonetheless, in his books is enshrined his vision for India. He writes: “India is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision” and at the same time he lets his readers know that he dislikes thinking about the Indian masses in terms of a theoretical abstraction as he writes: “The people of India are very real to me”.
The fundamental themes recurring throughout his writings: nationalism, poverty, communal politics; are issues that remain as relevant today as they did in an India that was on the verge of Independence, therefore it is not surprising at all that his writings continuously contend with the relevance of India’s past on India’s present. Jawaharlal Nehru served 9 and a half years prison time and during this period, consumed knowledge voraciously and became a vociferous writer. Years later, finding no time to read or write he would repent, only half-jokingly that “he was no longer regularly despatched to jail”.
With the completion of Towards Freedom: An Autobiography, Pt. Nehru was let out of jail and had the chance to travel all the way from Khyber Pass to Cape Comorin during the election campaign of 1936-37, coming into contact with people from all walks of life who came to him with his troubles of poverty, debt, taxes and police harassment.
While recollecting the election campaign of 1936-37, he makes a conclusive mark about his travels in Discovery: “the unity of India was no longer an intellectual conception for me, it was an emotional experience which overpowered me.” Although Nehru continuously laments the unavailability of books in prison, he realised the contribution history makes in the formation of national identity. While himself involved in the making of History, this realisation probably compelled him to write Glimpses & Discovery, both historical works of magnanimous length.
Nehru wrote the Discovery of India during a period when he was jailed in Ahmednagar Fort from 1942 to 1945 with eleven other companions, and while freedom may have seemed nearer, the question of partition had also been looming above their heads; which is why Nehru constantly questions what unites the vast diversity of India, and because he is writing in undivided India— in his own words, he thought about what united “a Tamil Indian with a Pathan from the NWFP”, and he resolved to find these answers in ‘the common past of India’.
The Discovery of India to Nehru was the Discovery of its people— undertaken through the rediscovery of India’s past, substituted by the understanding he gained about its people while travelling through urban centres and rural area alike. Even though his work can be classified as Nationalist at best, he resisted the arguments made by common nationalist intellectuals of his time— who in their efforts of countering the postulates of colonial historiography often fell back on notions of ‘medieval backwardness’— which is essentially a Eurocentric idea.
Nationalism as he says, “was inevitable in the India of my day”— for it was neither a narrow kind of Nationalism nor the economically-motivated Nationalism of the western countries like Britain, Japan and Germany that were looking for newer markets to expand into, in order to dump their surplus as an investment, in hopes of profitable returns; this kind of Nationalism is aggressive, imperialistic and becomes a danger internationally.
Instead, what he believes to be Nationalism rings closer to Ernst Renan’s definition of nationalism. Renan defines that “a nation was the culmination of long past endeavours, sacrifice, devotion. A heroic past, great men, glory, that is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea. To have common glories in the past, to have a common will in the present [….] A nation is, therefore, large-scale solidarity”.
Nationalism in India rose in response to the common oppressor— Britain and was used as an anti-colonial tool to unite Indians, during the national movement, which makes Nationalism in India similar to nationalism in other colonies.
For the seventeen years, that Jawaharlal governed India as a Prime Minister, he kept India and its people bound together and reconciled the doctrine of Socialism with that of Nationalism in the context of India. He felt that Socialism and Nationalism were compatible as within the Soviet Union were 182 nationalities that were allowed to retain cultural autonomy and attain education in their vernacular language; this introduction of considerable freedom and lack of uniformity, non-imposition of a particular kind of culture, curbed separatist tendencies within the Soviet— working successfully to an extent, as after the disintegration of the USSR, it was the Central Asian nations within the USSR that were finding it the hardest to let go, even though they had little in common in terms of culture with the rest of the satellite states in Europe but had benefitted economically and socially due to ties with USSR.
Within this model, Jawaharlal Nehru felt that he could locate answers to the ‘minority problem’ and uniting a nation as diversified as India.
While Nehru finds that nationalism without some sort of internationalism would be a narrow creed— clearly an influence of Tagore on his mind, he also is of the opinion that a vague kind of internationalism that has no anchorage or national roots falls weak as nations need to fall back on the tenets of nationalism during dire crises, like wartimes. And even so, his nationalism does not require uniformity, he is embracive of India’s diversity as evidenced in the following excerpt from his book:
“All of us, I suppose, have varying pictures of our native land and no two persons will think exactly alike. When I think of India, I think of many things: […] the Himalayas, snow-capped, or some mountain valley in Kashmir in the spring, covered with new flowers, and with a brook bubbling and gurgling through it. We make and preserve the pictures of our choice, and so I have chosen this mountain background rather than the more normal picture of a hot, sub-tropical country. Both pictures would be correct, for India stretches from the tropics right up to the temperate regions, from near the equator to the cold heart of Asia” — within this extract lies his most important message, which teaches us that there is no place for nationalism in the narrow sense of the word, in the Indian imagination, which is vivid.