History has an uncanny way of intruding into contemporary life and shaping our public conversation. A new controversy emerged recently over the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.
A media story based on declassified papers reported that the Intelligence Bureau was spying on Bose’s family for 20 years after Independence, all through Nehru’s stint as prime minister and even during the early years of his daughter Indira Gandhi’s reign.
Letters between Bose’s wife in Austria and his extended family in Calcutta were reportedly intercepted and read by the higher echelons of the intelligence establishment.
Nehru, on one occasion, asked for the details of a visit to Tokyo by Bose’s nephew.
Of course everyone was shocked. It is certainly the stuff of national scandal and may have caused real damage to Nehru’s reputation had the story broken at the time. Nehru, a democratic head of government, a self-proclaimed liberal who frequently extolled liberal values — and incidentally wrote columns under the pseudonym Chanakya, suggesting that Nehru himself had dictatorial tendencies — was overseeing a regime that was keeping a tab on Bose’s family.
If the public nowadays expects politicians to quit over rail accidents, this could have been, so to speak, a real train wreck for a career. It’s worth remembering that Rajiv Gandhi pulled the plug on the Chandrashekhar government in 1991 on the grounds that two policemen were stationed outside his residence.
And this incident had to do with Bose no less, a huge iconic figure who stole our hearts by showing the gumption to wage an armed struggle against the British, restoring some pride after we capitulated to colonial rule without much of a fight.
There was therefore an uproar on social media. PM Narendra Modi was coincidentally in Germany and met Bose’s great nephew, assuring him that he would look into the case of declassifying files about Netaji.
Newer twists to the story emerged. A person claiming to be Bose’s driver told the press that there was indeed a strong surveillance regime at the time. There were attempts to restore a measure of perspective but outrage continued regardless.
Sugata Bose, Harvard historian and a great nephew and biographer of Netaji, argued that the files “have no indication that Nehru himself ordered the intrusive surveillance in Calcutta”.
The thing that strikes me about this is the extraordinary purchase that history and historical controversies have among the public. Why do such controversies galvanise such popular interest that politicians manage to use them frequently for their narrow ends?
And the question to ask is: If history is constantly with us how can we get a fuller measure of it?
The answer is fairly obvious. India may appear to have a more settled post-independence passage than Pakistan, which went through its cycles of military rule and is now grappling with uncontrollable religious extremism — but our nation’s birth was midwifed too by controversy and Partition violence, whose effects we still live with.
Furthermore, our nationalist imagination has been dominated by several strong personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar, Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who offered competing policy prescriptions and visions of India’s future.
And Nehru is a particularly polarising figure because he had firm views on state-led growth, an equitable world order and secularism, which translated into State practice shutting out other visions. And so when the Hindu Right is currently on the ascendant, it is only natural that it will define itself in terms of what has happened before.
Indulging in historical debate is not a trivial pursuit and we must not dismiss it as a distraction politicians contrive for their momentary ends. We are still a young nation and are grappling with the ideas of our founding fathers, as it were, and controversies helpfully nudge us to revisit the decisions and silences of the past.
But if the past impinges on us insistently and if we define ourselves in terms of what has happened before we might as well do history right. We should be able to confront our past in the spirit of transparency. Leaders and institutions, however laudable, are fallible in the end and there is little need to shield them from scrutiny.
Other nations pride themselves on the quality of libraries and archives they maintain, sustained by both state initiative and private endowment. Scholars in the US can draw on an extensive archive on their founding fathers to shed light on contemporary political or judicial questions. There are for instance more than 15,000 books on Abraham Lincoln, whose 150th death anniversary was observed on April 15.
Our archives by contrast are inadequate. And even what we do have is shrouded in secrecy. There is thus an urgent need to declassify the governmental archives. There are so many aspects of post-independence history that we know little about and where greater clarity can serve the public interest.
Right from what was known at the time concerning Subhas Chandra Bose, to the India-China war, to histories of other wars we have fought and the evolution of governmental policy in a range of areas, we will be better off with more rounded narratives. Compare this approach with the 20-year rule that governs the public record in the UK.
The oral history archive at the Library of Congress has a fascinating collection of extended interviews with retired US diplomats. We are making similar efforts but the scale is not comparable to need.
Our historians try and valiantly piece together the picture despite the lack of retrospective access to corridors to power. It is a source of immense regret that some of our best works of history recently have had to draw more on foreign archives on India than our own.
This approach is robbing us of the chance to understand ourselves. We do not have enough granulated local histories that can provide and consolidate a more nuanced understanding of regional identities. There are nearly 8,000 cities and towns in India and each of them has a fascinating social history to narrate. Scholarly endeavours continue but they remain hobbled by the absence of adequate State disclosure.
For the purposes of government we need a more definitive history of policy failure across many spheres to be able to pursue our expansive ambitions. China is meanwhile taking rapid strides, expanding universities and focusing on quality in higher education by hiring first-rate faculty from home and abroad.
No country can progress without understanding itself honestly. If Nehru and Bose elicit popular interest so easily and history and growth mean so much to us, we should do what it takes to help us know ourselves and our country better.