Mahatma Gandhi was not known for writing metrical prose or for using internal rhymes. And punning was certainly not his favourite literary device. But he used all three with spontaneous un-intention, when he wrote in very legible Devanagari to Jawaharlal Nehru on January 18, 1948: “Bahuut varsh jiyo aur Hind ke jawahar baney raho” (Long may you live and long be the jewel of India). In a typical Gujarati over-emphasising of the vowel he used the longer ‘u’, and managed, intentionally, perhaps, to stretch the blessing to its phonological maximum. ‘Jawahar’ lived long enough but not bahuut long; he was not quite 75 when he died. This year, with a non-Congress and very un-Nehruvian political party in emphatic power, ‘Hind’ observes his 125th birth anniversary. Hind. The Mahatma’s choice of that word is significant. He had at least three other proper nouns to choose from — India, Bharat, Hindustan. He could have also used synonymous nouns — desh, vatan, rashtra, mulk.
But no, it was, had to be, Hind. Why? There is in that single-syllabled word a magic at once aural and visual. It is about a land and its people, it is an idea and an emotion. And from 1947 to 1963, each year on Independence Day, Nehru invoked it memorably from the helm of the Red Fort in the great national greeting, Jai Hind! But it is only right, by history and by our heritage of shared pride, that we recognise one fact about Hind and Jai Hind: The hold of that name on the political imagination of India owes neither to Gandhi or Jawahar but to a third person — Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Professor Sugata Bose tells us in his epic biography of Netaji, His Majesty’s Opponent: “He asked his followers to find a common national greeting that would have a nice ring to it and be acceptable to all religious communities. One day
Abid Hasan heard some Rajput soldiers greet each other with ‘Jai Ramji Ki’. It seemed to have a musical quality and Hasan changed it to ‘Jai Hindustan Ki’. That did not quite work but the abbreviated form ‘Jai Hind’ (Victory to India) sounded perfect and Netaji enthusiastically embraced it as India’s national greeting. These words became India’s national slogan in 1947 and continue to reverberate across the length and breadth of India.”
This was in the early 1940s. Netaji and Panditji were men with perspectives of their own, a will of their own. They shared many views, notably about India’s future as a plural society with a socialist ethic, but their roads to Swaraj were clearly different. Nehru tracked his path under Gandhi’s lodestar, Netaji that of his own. And yet, as Professor Rudrangshu Mukherjee reminds us in his absorbing new book Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives, Netaji named three of his INA regiments Gandhi, Nehru and Azad, the fourth being Jhansi ki Rani.
And as for Nehru, on the very first occasion — August 15, 1947 — that he addressed the nation from the Red Fort, he said Netaji should have been there, on that historic eminence, to see the national flag go up. In his expressive, sensitive Hindustani he said what is poorly translated as ‘If I miss someone today, it is Netaji’. Netaji and Panditji were vastly different political thinkers. But where they did converge was in their sense of what ‘Hind’ was. On this 125th anniversary of Panditji’s birth and the 75th anniversary of Netaji’s historic resignation as Congress president, we must ask ourselves what that ‘Hind’ was that inextricably linked two very different statesmen. It is the Hind which has a formidable plurality and an equally formidable poverty.
It is the Hind which is today under assault by religious extremists, both Hindu and Muslim, surviving on the vocabulary of division, the idiom of hate. It is the Hind which is today under assault by techno-commercial fundamentalists, thriving on the scores of the GDP and the waltzes of the Sensex point. These two obsessions of the powerful make the ‘small Indian’, who happens to be the most numerous, an irrelevance. He and she, being small, are under the threat of violence to the body and to livelihood. In India’s new ‘making’, the prospect of Hind losing its right to life and livelihood is real.
The undisguised threats to India announced by the perpetrators of terror at Wagah make me fear both the carrying out of that threat and the resultant reaction — a nightmare followed by an orgy. What has been seen in recent months in Uttar Pradesh is not reassuring. Likewise, the unmistakable signs of a rollback of the MGNREGA make me fear the loss of livelihood for thousands of beneficiaries of that scheme. NRIs and PIOs can be given every facility they seek, SEZs can relax every licensed or rated facility, but the rural unemployed can fend for themselves! Nehru 125 can be celebrated in any manner that befits the ‘jewel of India’, but we should know he would have revolted at the thought, as would have Netaji, that money is spent, time is being taken up, energies burnt, to celebrate a life when millions of lives need protecting.
I started with ‘Bahuut jiyo’, and so let me end with that episode. Before that blessing, came an injunction: “Upavas chhodo…” (End your fast). Fast? Nehru on fast? Yes, that is right. In January 1948, even as the Mahatma was on his historic fast to restore Hindu-Muslim amity and forge India-Pakistan trust, in riot-torn Delhi, unknown to him, the prime minister also fasted. Gandhi learnt of it only on the day he broke his own fast, whence the injunction. Nehru fasted for the duration Gandhi fasted that January. And with no one outside his immediate family having an inkling. His 125 years cannot be an occasion for idle commemoration. They have to be about the most serious and urgent self-enquiry.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is senior fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University The views expressed by the author are personal