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Putting Nehru in right perspective

Jawaharlal Nehru has of late been "misinterpreted" and so it was important to put India's first prime minister in the right perspective through a book, says his niece and noted author Nayantara Sahgal.

books Updated: May 21, 2012 15:16 IST

Jawaharlal Nehru has of late been "misinterpreted" and so it was important to put India's first prime minister in the right perspective through a book, says his niece and noted author Nayantara Sahgal.

"Not nostalgia, I wrote this book because I had to put Nehru in the right perspective," Sahgal told IANS in an interview here about her latest book, Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilising a Savage World.

"Recently, I read a political commentary that said 'Nehru took a left turn and India went down the drain'. Nehru was not boxed in any ideology; he took pragmatic decisions necessary during his time. He was a realist. And it has to be understood - his great vision which he put in place with his feet on the ground."

She said she was asked by Penguin-India to write the book.

"I wrote this book for political commentators, who try to analyse Nehru's contribution to Indian politics. I wrote it in response to the lack of knowledge about Nehru among people working in newspapers. All his policies - domestic policy, foreign policy and his policy for Asia and Africa fit into his time. The same policies may not hold good now because times have changed," Sahgal explained.

But "all his successors have built on the institutions built by Nehru - a free press, free independent judiciary and parliament", Sahgal said.

Nehru could not be blamed for the conflicts in the subcontinent, his niece added.

"When Nehru came to power, India emerged out of more than a century of colonial isolation into a fractured world driven by the rivalries of Cold War - and the ferocious competition of the two superpowers for humanity's allegiance. We had to move out of colonial paralysis. At no point of time did Nehru advocate war.

"But even then, Kashmir was the highlight. It was a region where the Cold War was intensely influenced by the superpowers - America and Britain," Sahgal said.

"He did what he could in his time. But a feeling that there could be no solution to the Cold War ruined the whole situation, I think. It prevented a solution," she added.

"But there is peace now," Sahgal contended. "Every effort is being made to push for greater trade and cultural exchanges with Pakistan and Bangladesh. I think we are working towards an understanding."

On Nehru's role on the international stage, Sahgal said he proposed a world order based on coexistence that helped Africa and Asia - which had been at the mercy of their European colonialists - assert themselves as confident players.

India pursued freedom for Afro-Asian countries in and outside the United Nations without pause and was persistently obstructed in its endeavour backed by the US, said Sahgal, the daughter of Nehru's sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

On Oct 18, 1952, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, India's representative to the UN, wrote to Nehru after attending a UN session, "...Australia tried to argue about the undesirability of bringing up the South African race conflict issue at a period when more important items on the agenda required calm consideration," says Sahgal in the book.

"I told him that I regret his views and that we pledged to the ending of issues like the one in South Africa - which we believe constitute a threat to world peace...", Sahgal says.

Sahgal said Nehru's policy for progress was also in consonance with his time. "That was the era when India took a gigantic leap...He suggested a mixed economy to lay the foundations of a democracy.

She felt the "problems of 2010 were different from those of the 1950s". "But capitalism and socialism have to exist with each other for balanced development. Look at America, it had taken a socialist stand after going into recession. Sweden too had socialist leanings. To some extent, every country has a welfare society," she said.

According to Sahgal, who grew up in Nehru's Allahabad home, Anand Bhavan, the Congress leader "was the biggest influence" in her life.

"The atmosphere of our home was political...going to jail for the freedom struggle and taking part in the civil disobedience movement were naturally inspired. The politics later crept into my books as well...Nehru was like a father to me," Sahgal said.

The writer, who wrote the book in three months, has drawn material from "Nehru and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit's papers and from her personal correspondence with Nehru".

A winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Sahitya Akademi Award, Sahgal has authored 17 books.

(Madhushree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)