We Indians are very insecure about our heroes. A scholar who retold, without endorsing them, some old stories about Shivaji’s parentage found his book banned and burnt. A writer who made some disparaging remarks about Rabindranath Tagore was censured by the West Bengal assembly. Another writer was roughed up after he wrote a (admittedly nasty) book about BR Ambedkar. And I am myself still coping with a barrage of hate mail that followed a piece I wrote six months ago on the RSS leader, MS Golwalkar, which merely reproduced his own (admittedly nasty) remarks about Muslims and other minorities.
In 2007, we imagine our heroes to be flawless. I wonder if this was always so. Yudhishtra and Rama were both capable of deceit and deviant behaviour — and our ancestors were happy to be told so. Now, a Dalit will not abide the mildest criticism of Ambedkar, a Maharashtrian will demand total reverence for Shivaji, a Bengali will ask that you share his wide-eyed worship for Subhas Chandra Bose and, more recently, Sourav Ganguly. These prejudices are usually manifest at local or sectarian levels, but sometimes they inform the policies of the mighty Government of India too.
Thus, when the BJP was in power, a historian who had written critically about Savarkar would be blacklisted from academic appointments. The pattern is reproduced under the present Congress regime — except that to be blacklisted now you need to have written critically about Indira Gandhi.
Speaking as a writer, I find that there are only two Indians one can write honestly about without fear of retribution — Mohandas K Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. God knows there is plenty to criticise in both cases. Gandhi was a bad father — as recent biographies of his sons Harilal and Manilal testify. Some would say that he was a worse husband. And he was a stern mentor, forcing his disciples to follow his own quirky ideas with regard to clothing, diet, and sexuality.
The list could go on — and it must. Gandhi was manipulative in his dealings with the Congress, disregarding democratic procedure, most famously in his unseating of Subhas Chandra Bose from the party’s presidency in 1939. He made major political mistakes — as in the Khilafat movement, which gave a boost to the mullahs, and in the Quit India movement, which quite possibly made Partition inevitable.
Nehru’s flaws were also substantial as well as consequential. He treated his wife even worse than Gandhi. He was a mostly absent father. To his colleagues in the national movement he could appear distant and aristocratic. But this snobbishness had political costs too. As a Brahmin and an anglicised Socialist, Nehru distrusted businessmen as a class and the United States of America as a country. These personal prejudices led, on the one hand, to a stifling of the Indian economy, and, on the other, to an unfortunate cooling of relations between the two great multi-ethnic democracies on earth.
Turn, next, to his political errors and misjudgments. Had Nehru not so arrogantly rejected the Muslim League’s proposal to enter into a coalition government with the Congress in the United Provinces after the 1937 elections, the two parties might have found a way to keep India united when the British left. After Independence, the country was made to pay dearly for Nehru’s under-estimation of the military strength of the Chinese and his corresponding overestimation of the administrative abilities of VK Krishna Menon.
I have couched these criticisms in neutral, academic, language, but one more usually hears them expressed in more colourful terms. For example, Ambedkarites see Gandhi as an ‘enemy’ of the Dalits, whereas for a Hindutva ideologue he should be considered the ‘father of Pakistan’. The abuse heaped on Nehru by free-marketeers on the one hand and by Lohia-ite leftists on the other is also very pungent, and in the conventional sense of the term (a sense now rendered redundant) wholly un-parliamentary.
Indians, whether lay or academic, left-wing or right-wing, men, women or children, feel free to criticise Gandhi and Nehru wherever they wish to and in whatever words that come naturally to them. Why do we not then have the licence to say what we want about other major figures in our modern history? Why this taboo on criticising, on the basis of solid historical evidence, Bose in Bengal, Savarkar in front of radical Hindus, Ambedkar in a Dalit meeting, or Indira Gandhi in the vicinity of 10, Janpath?
One reason we are free to dump on Gandhi and Nehru is that neither is, was or ever will be a sectarian leader. Despite the best efforts of the Muslim League, many Muslims, among them such devout ones as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, stayed with Gandhi. Despite the criticisms of Ambedkar and company, many Dalits saw Gandhi as being on their side. The portrayal of Gandhi as either a ‘Hindu’ leader or an ‘upper caste’ leader was made with great determination, but with limited success. No one even tried to represent him as a ‘Gujarati’, since his identification with the other parts and provinces of India was as deep and sincere as with his own.
Likewise with Jawaharlal Nehru. As Rajmohan Gandhi has pointed out, the main reason the Mahatma chose Nehru as his heir — above Patel, Rajagopalachari, Azad, Kripalani, or Prasad — was that his personality and political beliefs transcended the divides of religion, region, gender, and language. No one thought of Nehru as a man of the Doab, or as a Hindu, or as a male chauvinist. He was greatly admired by south Indians, by Muslims and Christians, and by women, large sections of whom saw him as working for and on behalf of their own best interests.
Ironically, and tragically, it is the fact that they so effectively transcended sectarian boundaries while they lived, that makes Gandhi and Nehru so vulnerable to criticism and abuse now. For Indian politics is increasingly defined by interest groups based on the identities of religion, region and caste. Each group has a vested interest in protecting and promoting their own leaders, leaders who may be living or long-dead. Thus Dalits in Uttar Pradesh will not abide any attacks on Mayawati or Ambedkar, and Shiv Sainiks in Maharashtra feel compelled to respond, violently if necessary, to public criticisms of Bal Thackeray or Shivaji.
Notably, each group is unwilling to share his or her leader with others. Sometimes this is to be welcomed — who but a bigot would want to follow bigot anyway? At other times this possessiveness has led to a serious diminution of the stature of the leader concerned. It is something of a pity that Vallabhbhai Patel has now been reduced or redefined to being a Gujarati, Tagore to a Bengali, and Ambedkar to a Dalit.
And so, of all our icons and heroes dead or alive, the two whom we can most fearlessly criticise are the two who did most to build a free and democratic India. This, to be sure, is a land of paradox and contradiction, but of all the paradoxes and contradictions abroad this one must surely count as the most bizarre. That we can treat Gandhi and Nehru as we do testifies to their greatness, and perhaps also to our own meanness.