Last week, certain malicious revisions were made to Jawaharlal Nehru's Wikipedia page from an IP address that belonged to the state-run National Informatics Centre (NIC).
A scroll through articles posted on the site show its unwavering dedication to carrying gossip and passing it off as news. Some headlines on the site are: “Mahatma Gandhi was fond of women, daru and meat” and “Poisoned in Tashkent? Was the Russian butler a paid agent to eliminate Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri?”In "The Playboy" post, the writer lists what she calls the "untold truth about his (Nehru’s) family and of course his greedy politics". The writer claims, just like the Wikipedia edit, that Nehru’s grandfather was a Muslim who changed his identity and that his birthplace in Allahabad was a brothel.
Like these two webpages, there are scores of others. Internet experts say these sites show up on Google searches because first, considerable online conversation is taking place around them, and second, they are search engine optimised in the sense the posts are written using words used in a common search, like “the truth about”.
The two books which fuel conspiracy theories
So, from where do the gossip and conspiracy theories originate?
A thorough search through websites like the “Jawaharlal Nehru: The Playboy” and “The Truth of Nehru Family” reveal that much comes from two books - Encyclopedia Of Indian War Of Independence (1857-1947) by MK Singh and Reminiscences of the Nehru Age by MO Mathai, who was a special assistant to Nehru.
Singh’s encyclopedia is a 19-volume work published by Delhi-based Anmol Publishers in 2009. On Amazon, the series costs Rs 16,290, while the publishers told HT on phone that it costs Rs 25,000.
Historians, however, say they have never heard of the series or the writer.
“I had never heard of a historian by the name of MK Singh before someone told me after the Wikipedia page edit that in that book, the bizarre theory of Nehru’s grandfather being a Muslim has been explored. I don’t think there is any merit in this theory and it’s totally unsubstantiated,” said S Irfan Habib, a historian of science and politics.
On the other hand, when Mathai’s book was released in 1978, it was considered to be one of those works in which a writer depends on proximity to high-profile leaders to kick off controversies to push sales.
“Mathai’s is a book which no one can take seriously. It’s not the kind of book which can be considered for any academic merit,” said Habib.
The rebuttal of gossip
Historians say authentic biographies of Nehru – like Sarvepalli Gopal’s three volume work “Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography” or “Nehru: A Contemporary's Estimate” by Walter Crocker — have not drawn any such conclusion as Nehru’s grandfather being a Muslim.
“The conspiracy theory accounts doing the rounds on the internet lack credibility. There is no credibility, no document-based evidence. No properly educated person can take it seriously,” said Mridula Mukherjee, professor of history in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Nehru’s family was Kashmiri and the oldest known ancestor was Raj Kaul, who was a Sanskrit and Persian scholar in Kashmir. Raj Kaul’s house was by the side of a canal (nahar) and that’s how the surname Nehru evolved.
“Kaul had been the family name; this changed to Kaul-Nehru; and, in later years, Kaul dropped out and we became simply Nehrus," wrote Nehru in his autobiography.
Moreover, in authoritative biographies, there is no mention of the existence of any brothel where Nehru was born.
On the matter of the women in Nehru’s life – his alleged “affairs” as the detractors like to say – historians and commentators suggest we need to take a more balanced stand.
“All serious biographies of Nehru have referred to his relationship with Edwina Mountbatten and Padmaja Naidu. Most books have called the relationships platonic, but even if such relationships were not platonic, then what? They were consenting adults. Was he cheating on his long-dead wife? No. Did it affect governance? No,” said Mukherjee.
Aniket Alam, executive editor of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), rubbished claims such as Nehru fathering an illegitimate child as being part of the “total myths about Nehru which are absolutely incorrect”.
Alam explained it is important to understand the socio-political context of the events in Nehru’s personal life which, he said, “could well be true and many are perhaps exaggerations of real incidents”.
“Many personal incidents and events need to be understood in the context in which they were done or viewed. A personal friendship with someone else's wife where you can share sexual jokes and cigarettes will seem banal today (or for that matter in some avant garde sections of European society in the 1940s) but was something quite exceptional in India (and perhaps remains so),” said Alam.
He added: “It will take a professional historian many years of research to separate the wheat from the chaff and then to draw conclusions which would be relevant to us today. And even after that these would remain open to criticisms and refutations.”
(The writer tweets as @saha_abhi1990 )