The 1940s were, to coin a cliché, a decade of triumph and tragedy. They witnessed two instances of nationalist assertion – the Quit India Movement and the Indian National Army – that ended in failure; both inspired the nation, but the first resulted in the Congress leaders being jailed and their movement driven underground, and the second had no discernible impact on British military might.
The same decade saw the country win Independence – a moment of birth that was also an abortion, since freedom came with the horrors of Partition, when East and West Pakistan were hacked off the stooped shoulders of India by the departing British. Before the 1940s were over, India and Pakistan were embroiled in war over Kashmir, whose consequences still affect us today. But they also saw the extraordinary work of the Constituent Assembly, which in January 1950 gave us the Constitution that laid the foundations for more than six decades of Indian democracy.
Reading the debates in the Constituent Assembly, as the founding fathers (and mothers) of India grappled with fundamental questions of the kind of political system they would bequeath to the new nation – and discussed threadbare vital issues of human rights, affirmative action, social uplift and economic development – would be awe-inspiring at the best of times. But to think that these debates happened in the wake of the savagery of Partition, when rioting and murder scarred the land, millions were uprooted from their homes and billions of rupees worth of property were damaged and destroyed, is little short of astonishing. A nation exploited for two centuries by the British, which had effectively a zero per cent rate of growth throughout the first half of the 20th century, a land riven by religious, regional and caste conflicts, and full of poor, malnourished and diseased people, faced with the enormous political challenge of integrating several hundred “princely states”, came together through its elected representatives to produce, in the soaring majesty of its Constitution, a compelling vision for the future.
Four men, alongside dozens of remarkable statesmen, embodied this vision in the 1940s – Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar. Mahatma Gandhi took the issue of freedom to the masses as one of simple right and wrong and gave them a technique to which the British had no response. By abstaining from violence, Gandhi wrested the moral advantage. By breaking the law non-violently, he demonstrated the injustice of the law. By accepting the punishments imposed on him, he confronted his captors with their own brutalisation. By voluntarily imposing suffering upon himself in his hunger strikes, he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defence of what he considered right. He was not alone. Gandhi’s moral rectitude, allied to Jawaharlal Nehru’s political passion, made the perpetuation of British rule an impossibility. Sardar Patel’s firm hand on the administration integrated the nation and established peace and stability. Ambedkar’s erudition and legal acumen helped translate the dreams of a generation into a working legal document that laid the foundations for an enduring democracy.
Upon the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948, a year after independence, Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister, became the keeper of the national flame, the most visible embodiment of India’s struggle for freedom. Gandhi’s death could have led Nehru to assume untrammelled power. Instead, he spent a lifetime immersed in the democratic values Ambedkar had codified, trying to instill the habits of democracy in his people – a disdain for dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system. Till the end of the decade, his staunch ally Patel provided the firm hand on the tiller without which India might yet have split asunder.
While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence and war, Gandhi taught the virtues of truth, non-violence and peace. While the nation reeled from bloodshed and communal carnage, Ambedkar preached the values of constitutionalism and the rule of law. While parochial ambitions threatened national unity, Patel led the nation to a vision of unity and common purpose. While mobs marched the streets baying for revenge, Nehru’s humane and non-sectarian vision inspired India to yearn again for the glory that had once been hers.
The principal pillars of Nehru’s legacy – democratic institution-building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home and a foreign policy of non-alignment – were all integral to a vision of Indianness that sustained the nation for decades. Today, both legacies are fundamentally contested, and many Indians have strayed from the ideals bequeathed to them by Gandhi and Nehru, Ambedkar and Patel. Yet they, in their very different ways, each represented that rare kind of leader who is not diminished by the inadequacies of his followers.
The American editor Norman Cousins once asked Nehru what he hoped his legacy to India would be. “Four hundred million people capable of governing themselves,” Nehru replied. The numbers have grown, but the very fact that each day over a billion Indians govern themselves in a pluralist democracy is testimony to the deeds and words of these four men and the giants who accompanied them in the 1940s march to freedom.
The writer, a Lok Sabha MP and former minister, is the author of Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century
The views expressed by the author are personal
From HT Brunch, August 12
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