By Taylor C Sherman

Nehru’s India is often understood through abstract concepts — secularism, socialism, non-alignment, democracy, the strong state and high modernism. In the decades since Nehru's death, these terms were often repeated without reflecting on their content, and as a result they have become myths. But new historical evidence revises our understanding of this period and reveals a more nuanced view of the successes and failures of the Nehru years.

As India turns 75, it is natural to survey the past and reflect on how the country has changed since 1947. Yet, because archival records for India’s history after 1947 are patchy at best, our understanding of the Jawaharlal Nehru years has only become murkier over time.

Increasingly, public perceptions of this period have come to be dominated by the debates of the present. Whether lionising him or demonising him, political parties, social scientists and ordinary people have mobilised Nehru for their own ends, weaving myths about the Nehru years in the process.

The Nehruvian approach

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru releases a white pigeon – the symbol of peace – at a children's rally in New Delhi. HT Archive

First, thinking of Nehru as the “architect” of independent India clouds our understanding of how he operated as prime minister (PM). This moniker places Nehru at the heart of every project of the day, claiming that he took a “personal interest” in each one. Some of today’s commentators even allege that he allowed a cult of personality to develop around himself to realise his vision.

The idea that Nehru fostered a cult of personality owes a great deal to the “both sides” arguments of the present, however, and has little basis in historical record.

Indeed, Nehru was uncomfortable with blind devotion. Take one example of many.

In 1957, he was approached with the idea of publishing extracts from his speeches in a book with the title Nehru’s Wisdom.

Nehru could have had his own Little Red Book, seven years before Mao’s! But he swatted away the idea, calling the title “pompous”.

Equally, the idea that Nehru had a blueprint for nation-building kept either in his head or articulated in the five-year plans, and that most projects of the age can be understood as part of his plan, is evidently not the case.

Although his leadership had several facets, perhaps the most significant role he fulfilled as PM was as a patron of others in the pursuit of projects related to nation-building. When bright and enthusiastic nationalists came up with an idea for addressing one of India’s problems, he sponsored their efforts.

Thus, when Durgabai Deshmukh approached Nehru with the idea of setting up the Central Social Welfare Board to provide welfare to rural women and children, she was provided with the funds and the freedom to make it so. When Nehru heard of Vinoba Bhave’s efforts to end the communist uprising in Telangana by encouraging landlords to voluntarily donate land to the landless, Nehru wrote to Vinoba to ask him to continue this Bhoodan work for as long as he could.

This pattern – of rule through encouraging the aspirations and efforts of others who shared his ideals and goals – was repeated across many areas of policy. The PM attended meetings, cleared blockages in the bureaucracy, cut ribbons and lent his prestige to these projects, but he did not design or direct all of them.

If we decentre Nehru, without sidelining him altogether, the other elements of the Nehruvian consensus begin to seem less certain.

The practice of secularism

Take secularism. Today’s secularists often assume that secularism had a stable meaning in the Nehru years, and that government servants abided by it as they fulfilled their official duties. Others deride Nehruvian secularism as little more than “appeasement” of Muslim interests.

Careful scrutiny of historical records reveals, however, that secularism in the aftermath of Partition operated on two distinct registers — the iconic and the everyday.

In the iconic sphere, elected leaders and officials seemed to agree that secularism required the celebration of each of India’s religions and of prominent individuals from every faith.

Jawaharlal Nehru attends a Congress Seva Dal volunteers’ rally in Kanpur. HT Archive

This was achieved most easily by marking festivals, preserving the most famous archaeological sites, and lauding the achievements of prominent minorities, from Union Education Minister, (Maulana) Abul Kalam Azad, to the actress Nargis. In this realm, India had a formula and it worked reasonably well.

In the much larger sphere of everyday life, however, the word secularism did not provide ready answers to questions politicians or government servants had when making decisions on citizenship, property disputes, access to services or participation in public life.

How should a secular state allocate funding to religious institutions, take cognisance of the faith of its employees, or deal with communal violence? Different officials devised their own answers to these questions on an ad hoc basis, and often without reference to the Constitution.

Scholars have traced these everyday histories and have shown quite comprehensively that decisions about citizenship and belonging in India – who could claim a passport, who got rehabilitation after communal violence, who could work as a government servant, who had the right to criticise government – quietly but repeatedly excluded Muslims.

Similarly, in disputes over property and sacred sites in the aftermath of Partition and the incorporation of the princely states, non-Muslims claimed, occupied or destroyed Muslim sacred sites and Muslim properties. When low-level officials arrived to settle these disputes, they tended to capitulate to the demands of the majority community and sacrifice Muslim interests.

This is not to argue that India wasn’t secular in the Nehru years, just that the secularism that celebrated India’s diversity was circumscribed in important ways.

The socialism debate

A crowd gathers to watch the hoisting of the Tricolour at Red Fort in New Delhi. HT Archive

Today’s discussions of Indian socialism are, if anything, more confused.

Some free-market critics conflate Indian socialism with Soviet socialism. They accuse Indian socialists of having Stalinist ambitions for the State to monopolise all of India’s economic, political and cultural life. On the other side, many on the Left dismiss Indian socialism as not really socialist at all: Nehru’s government, they argue, was in hock to the industrialists and beholden to land-holding agriculturalists and so could take no real steps towards redistributive justice.

Indian socialism, in the Nehru years, was not modelled on that of the Soviet Union.

Indians, like many decolonising countries, developed their own socialism, which, they argued, would provide a unique path to a more prosperous and more equal society.

In the context of the fiscal austerity of the 1950s, however, if India was to have socialism, it would be a socialism of scarcity. This did not daunt independent India’s leaders, for they drew on the experience of the anti-colonial movement and called on Indians to build their own future. Far from the centralisation of state power, therefore, independent India’s leaders stressed the importance of everyone working towards the larger goals of development which were embodied in the plans.

Although a few sectors were brought under State control, including road transport, airlines and insurance, there was no large-scale nationalisation. Instead, India’s elected leaders called upon private industrialists to make themselves “part of the plan’”.

As Nehru explained to a meeting of industry grouping FICCI in 1955, this meant conducting their business while thinking of “what is good for the people as a whole”. Corporations were expected to pay taxes and abide by regulations protecting workers’ rights. Yet many went further, establishing townships which provided quality living facilities to workers. Tata’s Jamshedpur had been established along these lines before independence, but after 1947 many more were built. Take, for example, the township of Kanyapur built by Sen-Raleigh Bicycles in West Bengal — the company employed partition refugees in its factories and offered them housing with electricity and sanitation on tree-lined streets.

For most ordinary Indians, there was what can be called self-help socialism. Many partition refugees were encouraged to construct their own houses and townships through cooperative effort. This is how Faridabad was built. Rural dwellers were urged to grow more food in any way possible to avoid a repeat of the Great Bengal Famine.

In the 1950s, the central government devised Community Development, whereby villagers were encouraged to identify their “felt needs” and solve their own problems by building their own roads, wells and schools. This was a complicated dance. Politicians and government officials sought to mobilise Indians to demand those improvements which the officers were willing to help them request. In this process, the idea was not to obliterate hierarchies, but to repurpose them for collective ends.

In 1962, SK Dey, the enthusiastic individual who oversaw Community Development through the Nehru years, encouraged each village to establish a cooperative, which he likened to the joint family. Dey described it rather unsparingly as the “co-existence of the genius and the moron, the artist and the buffoon”. Regarding the cooperative as a joint family also meant “aid by the strong to the weak”. This approach, repeated across several areas of rural life, tended to reinforce India’s hierarchies, even as it sought to lessen material inequalities.

The rhetoric and reality of non-alignment

Finally, thinking of early independent India’s foreign policy as non-aligned conceals more than it reveals. It is true that Nehru and India’s diplomats wished to steer clear of entanglement with either of the rival powers in the Cold War. And yet, India had been born out of the British empire, and after 1947 it remained materially tied to the capitalist world system, now dominated by the United States (US). India tried to balance the scales with the rhetoric of non-alignment, but they remained firmly weighted in favour of the capitalist bloc.

Take defence acquisitions, arguably among the most important metric of a country’s strategic alignments. In terms of military procurement, the Soviets presented India with two transport aircraft in 1955, and India bought a handful more, along with ten Soviet helicopters in 1960.

People gather at Rashtrapati Bhavan on August 15, 1947. Ministry of defence / PIB

But in the 15 years after independence, India bought 214 combat aircraft from the French and 55 from the US, as well as 262 from the British, with another 230 manufactured in India under licence from the UK. In 1962, India made its first substantial purchase of offensive equipment from the Soviets when it agreed to buy just twelve MiG-21 aircraft.

In the field of culture, India hosted annual Soviet film festivals, bringing half a dozen Soviet films to metropolitan audiences. Meanwhile, American studios sent nearly two hundred films to India each year. In almost every field, the Soviets and their small band of allies were late to the game and could never really match the depth or breadth of what the western Europeans and Americans could offer.

1947 - 1962

Interpreting India’s foreign policy as non-aligned also seems to set India apart from the great dramas of the age. And yet the country was keen to play a part in remaking the world in the aftermath of the second world war. To this end, Indians sought leadership roles on as many UN bodies as possible.

In addition to Hansa Mehta, who helped draft the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the physicist Homi J Bhabha, who presided over the first UN conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy, Indians also populated the rank and file of the UN’s operations. Indian experts occupied 84 out of 136 places in the UN Technical Administration by 1952. These men and women advised governments from Lebanon to the Philippines on everything from cooperatives and malaria control to training civil servants and radio operators. Indians regarded themselves as conducting “experiments” in development and democracy, and sought to spread the lessons learned in their country to the wider decolonising world.

Additionally, non-alignment does not capture the fact that India’s foreign policy was also unusually attentive to people. Far from home, this meant support for independence from imperial powers and for racial equality. For those living on India’s uncertain borders and for the diaspora, this meant creating certainty for governments by reducing movement, and pinning people to territory through regimes of citizenship, co-optation, and coercion.

A fresh picture of the decades after independence is now at hand. This was an age of experimentation, not of dogma. India in the Nehru years was internationalist, not only taking in ideas from abroad, but spreading the Indian experience to others. It was a time of continued attempts at popular mobilisation, where state centralisation was not the aim.

But it was also a period in which the hierarchies of Indian life remained largely undisturbed, even if India’s elites tried to reimagine them for new ends.

Nehru’s India had its successes, and it certainly had its fair share of failures. Understanding the ideas and events of the era on their own terms is essential for reasoned reflection about how far India has come since 1947.

(Taylor C Sherman is Professor of South Asian History at the London School of Economics. Her book, Nehru’s India: A History in Seven Myths is soon to be released with Princeton University Press and Penguin Random House India. The views expressed are personal.)