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Nehru was a complex person, 'embodying' clash of Eastern and Western cultures

By Moin Qazi* 

The story of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, is the story of early modern India. There is scarcely any public institution or aspect of the republic that Nehru did not shape or influence. He was an accomplished politician, writer, orator whose contemplative and scholarly books on various subjects are widely read. He wrote and spoke in impeccable English, a language that came naturally to him, because of his education at Harrow, Cambridge and the Inner Temple. His sentences were finely made and always memorable.
Nehru was perceived as a complex person, embodying the clash of Eastern and Western cultures which, many felt, impeded India's attempts to leap ahead and catch up with more advanced nations. However, several supporters believe that this approach helped promote indigenous talent and helped India in the long term become self-reliant.
Nehru’s importance in Indian history is primarily because he imported and imparted modern values and ways of thinking, which he adapted to Indian conditions. He was the chief architect of several progressive movements for far‐ranging social reforms . Millions of ordinary Indians venerated him. His lofty ideas gave people a vision, and purpose, encompassing the view that India could achieve anything.
He introduced the great series of five-year plans, and built several steel plants and big dams. He set up the Indian Institutes of Technology in Bombay, Kanpur, and Madras, that set the tone for high-quality technical education. The Indian Institutes of Management, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Sahitya Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi, National Museum, and other institutions were also products of his vision.
Where Nehru really shone was on the world stage. He was highly adept in using new platforms like the United Nations to promote this vision urbane, charismatic, well-read, and eloquent, he was convinced India had a special role to play in international politics, despite its poverty and relative weakness.
He, along with Sukarno of Indonesia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and some other Third World countries refused to be pawns in the superpower game and created a non-aligned movement, which sought to thread a way between the Scylla and Charybdis of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The rulers of the superpowers were treating the rest of the planet —the Third World —as a chessboard across which they moved their proxy armies. The non-aligned movement helped in toning down their aggressive impulses.
Nehru was a passionate nationalist who spent nine terms in prison for periods ranging from 12 days to 1041, a total of 3,259 days – which was nearly nine years of his life for leading the political resistance to the British. Life in prison enabled him to read and author works including the famous ‘The Glimpses of World History, a series of loosely connected sketches of the history of mankind written in Ahmednagar Fort during his three-year-long detention.
The book reveals Nehru’s moods and beliefs. In it, he is as critical of Britain as he is appreciative of Indian culture. Nehru was an engaging and inspiring writer. It was not just a question of the peerless prose -- the American journalist John G√ľnter said that “hardly a dozen men alive write English as well as Nehru.” Playwright George Bernard Shaw had joked that if he had his way, he would always keep Nehru in jail because some of his best writings were penned behind the bars.
Nehru was a passionate nationalist who spent nine terms in prison for periods ranging from 12 days to 1041, a total of 3,259 days
Nehru always wore a rose in the buttonhole of his achkan, or high‐collared coat. His love for roses was not different from his love for children. He frequently drew comparisons between the two saying that children were like buds in the garden — both had to be carefully nurtured. He believed that children were the nation’s future; naturally, he was the beloved of children, who referred to him as chacha or Uncle Nehru. It is as a tribute to him that his birthday, November 14, is celebrated as Children’s Day.
Though he grew up in affluence and had much of his education in western academes, Nehru’s heart lay in rural India. Despite his inclination towards western liberal philosophy, he always remained connected with the native peasantry. Writing about the plight of peasants Nehru said that ‘looking at their misery and overflowing gratitude he was filled with shame at his own easy-going and comfortable life’. ‘A new picture of India seemed to be before me; naked, starving, crushed and utterly miserable’.
Nehru once wrote: 
"From time to time the prisoner’s body is weighed and measured. But how is one to weigh the mind and spirit which wilt and stunt themselves and wither away in this terrible atmosphere of oppression?"
Nevertheless, he considered his lot unfairly fortunate:
"The thought that I was having a relatively easy time in prison, at a time when others were facing danger and suffering outside, began to oppress me. I longed to go out; and as I could not do that, I made my life in prison a hard one, full of work".
Historian Judith M Brown writes that ‘at the heart of Nehru’s vision of India was the conviction that it was a composite nation, born of a civilisation which over centuries had drawn from and assimilated the many religious and cultural traditions present on the subcontinent.’
As we remember Nehru on his birthday we are reminded of his great message delivered to the Constituent Assembly of India in New Delhi on August 14, 1947:
“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic, and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman”.
*Expert on development issues



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