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Nehru's 1953 BBC TV interview reveals he was already seen as Asia's formidable leader

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

Jawaharlal Nehru’s life and worldview always fascinated me. He speaks like a ‘teacher’. One would be glued to him when we watch old videos of his press conferences or speeches. BBC recently reposted Nehru’s first TV appearance recorded in June 1953 with leading editors in London when he had gone there to participate in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
Look at the way the presenter introduced Nehru -- as one of the most important voices from Asia and the Prime Minister of India. Those who think India became Vishwa Guru after May 2014 should watch and see how the veteran editors ask diverse international questions to Nehru right from China to the Asia Pacific, Europe and Africa. There are no ‘advisors’ and support as Nehru faces the mighty editors. India had just got Independence, yet he is continuously referred to as the leader of Asia.
The BBC interview actually gives a lot of insight about Nehru, and about how calmly and confidently he interacts with the top editors. There is no hype but simple answers. His words are measured and to the point. There is no attempt to re-explain or impose his viewpoint. Most of his answers are crisp and straightforward.
It has become more important to read and listen to Nehru in today's time. Globally, it is an acknowledged fact that Nehru nurtured democracy in India, which today is one of the most successful modules world over despite its different failures. He strengthened the public sector and the rule of law. He attended Parliament with all his seriousness and respected leaders of the opposition parties – which is reflected in his answer when an editor says that there is no opposition in India.
He responds, that out of 500 odd seats of Parliament his party has only 350, and the rest 150 are with the opposition, and they raise their voice. He further says that though it is divided and unable to raise issues in one voice, one cannot impose a two party system on our people. There is an opposition, good opposition within and outside Parliament.
Indeed, Nehru respected Acharya Narendra Dev, Jai Prakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia and listened to their speeches in Parliament and outside. It is a well-known fact that he wanted Jai Prakash to be his political heir and wanted him in his Cabinet.
Nehru was determined for ‘secular’ India despite all kinds of divisions and religious polarisations which hurt the subcontinent. He refers to why the Muslim League was unable to stay on. According to him, the Muslim League was a party of zamindars who were afraid of land reforms.
India introduced the first biggest act of social justice – of abolishing zamindari -- in 1950. He categorically emphasised that zamindari must be abolished for an equal society. The Pakistani elite protected itself from such reform. The first “reform” happened in Pakistan was in 1959 under the martial law regime of Ayub Khan, while the second and third reformed happened during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who himself had a big feudal background.
For the first land reform in 1959, Pakistan imposed a ceiling on 500-acre land for irrigated land and 1,000 acres for unirrigated land. If this can be called a ‘land reform’, I have nothing to say. The feudal elite of Pakistan protected its vital interests. Things have not changed even today.
Bhutto introduced amendments in the 1970s that brought down the ceiling for irrigated land to 150 acres and unirrigated land to 300 acres per individual. The Pakistan Supreme Court declared the Land Ceiling Act as un-Islamic and unconstitutional. Today, Pakistan is ruled by the country’s landed feudal elite from Sind and Punjab. Compare this with India, when in early 1970s Indira Gandhi introduced a ceiling limit of 12 acres for irrigated land.
Look at the democracy that Nehru nurtured in India: Despite all its failures, it provided space to the most marginalized communities to reach up to the top, while in Pakistan it is still a dream. Its Anglicised feudal elite controls the political discourse.
Nehru is often criticised for his approach on caste, but India introduced all the remedial measures. Compare it with other Asian countries, where the issue of caste has not been accepted in political parlance, except in Nepal. The Pakistani elite has not even recognised the Dalit question. One has to recall how its first law minister Jogindernath Mandal was forced to resign, leave citizenship and returned to India.
The most fascinating point I found during the interview is a journalist's attempt to push him to condemn communism. He does not feel any threat from communism to Indian democracy. He does not accept violence, stating it has no role in democracy, but says, there are issues which make the Communist parties popular, and we need to develop our own perception about countries and ideologies, and not from the western lens.
In the interview, Nehru refuses to toe the line of the western criticism of China. He says, India shares a 2,000 kilometres border with it and hence knows better about them. He is fascinated by progress made by China and Russia and feels no threat from communism to Indian democracy, even though he decries their ‘anarchy’. He says:
“But there is a tendency, if I may say so, for leading statesmen in Europe and America to look at the world from Europe and America. Well, if we look at the same world with the same principles, let us say Delhi or Karachi, the world looks slightly different... Geography counts. Take the question of China. China is a distant country to most people in Europe and America. China, the country, having a 2,000-mile frontier with India, well it’s a different picture to us immediately.”
According to Nehru, Muslim League was a party of zamindars who were afraid of land reforms
It is an undeniable fact that the international media and intellectuals looked upon Nehru as a statesman of the developing world or the countries which were decolonised. His voice has the power and courage of conviction. He says:
“There is an awakening and enormous upsurge in a sense after three or four hundred years of European domination in Asia and Africa. It has upset their own order. Asia is coming on its own some time rightly or wrongly. We have to understand it, appreciate it or not get angry with it.”
The editors remind him of the situation in Africa where the anti-colonial struggle continued and tiny white communities dominated politically through racist laws. After decolonisation there might be unrest and tensions with the white communities in these countries, they argue. Nehru responds with great care and statesmanship:
“Africa, please remember, is a continent, the most tragic continent. Hundreds of years it suffered terribly. Maybe they are not as developed as others or because they did not have the opportunity. I am deeply distressed by what is happening in Africa.”
Nehru clearly understands that there is a big difference between the problems in East Africa and West Africa. He also knows well that the western part of Africa was colonised by the French, hence he did not want to poke his nose everywhere. He underscores, as Prime Minister, he has limitations and has to see that all his words are measured as per the Government of India policy.
One can understand how he as Prime Minister he felt constrained and how he was missing his independence as an author, a journalist or a politician.
He says, Africa’s problems are different in north, central and south. Many Europeans may live there but, ultimately, they have to work in cooperation with the native African people. They are outnumbered tremendously by the African population. Either they cooperate or try to suppress each other. If Europeans try to suppress Africans, undoubtedly the African will push them out.
An editor reminds Nehru that Indians too have been there in Kenya and other countries and perhaps more than the Europeans, so what would be his advice to the Indians living over there?
His absolutely candid reply without making any ‘nationalistic’ overtures is:
“Yes, we have told the Indians there year after year that they must cooperate with Africans, they should not ask for any privilege. They must not exploit the Africans or take advantage of them. I have told them, we will not support them for their demand of any privilege against Africans. If they have to live in Africa they must cooperate with Africans otherwise get out of Africa”.
What an unambiguous reply by asking people to be loyal to their countries of residence and cooperate with the majority in those countries! Look at what those who hate Nehru are saying today. They are celebrating English victory over Pakistan, just because the ‘goras’ have a Prime Minister with Hindu lineage, despite the well-known fact that his family had migrated to Kenya and then to UK thereafter.
Nehru’s opponents blame him for the Kashmir crisis and going to the United Nations without knowing facts or distorting history. An editor asks him about whether it would be good for UN or other countries to mediate between India and Pakistan, to which Nehru replies that India went to UN not because it wanted mediation but because Pakistan was the aggressor; he also feels that there is no need for a third-party mediation as the two nations are capable of solving their own issues.
Even today, India continues to have this as the centre of its foreign policy doctrine despite Pakistan’s attempt to internationalise the Kashmir issue and involve third parties from the western world to intervene.
It is sad that Nehru, who respected people’s voice in Jammu and Kashmir and worked hard to get Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah released from the jail and stood with the idea of India, is being targeted in a shameless way.
Be that as it may, Nehru as a politician was a loss to history and literature. His writings and communications with chief ministers and others show his intellect and capacity. If India today feels proud of the diversity and achievements of people from the margins, we cannot ignore that the seeds of modern democratic nation were sown by him.
Nehru’s greatness can be understood from the fact that most of his contemporary anti-colonial leaders, the heroes of their countries, turned dictators and became law unto themselves. It was Nehru who nurtured democracy in India. Just look around any of our neighbouring countries in those times; it was India alone which had democracy and political stability.
Today, the vision that Nehru gave to India is under threat. Instead of respecting diversity, the state keeps imposing oneness on our huge country. Oneness for them is imposition of Brahminical values on everyone in the form of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. Oneness can happen despite being diverse, but Hindutva’s oneness is through imposed uniformity, which is threatening our national integrity.
India is not just an administrative unit run by the caste elite of north India but an emotion, where each one, despite diverse languages, regions, religions and cultures, actually feels for each other and cares for the idea of an inclusive India, where all have the space to flourish. We need a Nehruvian India where all communities live together, respect each other and enjoy their relationship on the basis of being citizens of India.
Nehru’s first TV appearance provides us the power of his personality and convictions as he responds to all the questions aimed at him with confidence and absolute clarity. Remember, it was the beginning of the television, and he was speaking for the first time. These editors were not there to ‘flatter’ him, nor was there any PR agency like what we witness today.
Can we expect our leaders speaking to international media in such a simple manner without any ‘assistance’ or ‘makeover’? The Nehru conversation proves that those who are abusing him day and night are suffering from inferiority complex, politically and intellectually.
There are huge lessons for all of us when we hear him. It is time we make use of all his writings and videos.
*Human rights defender. Facebook:; Twitter: @freetohumanity



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