Discovering Nehru’s India

On August 15, 1947, Indians secured for themselves much more than the mere right of electing a government of their choice. We earned for ourselves the sovereign right to shape our political destiny and broke free from the shackles of subjugation that accompanies the status of being a dominion or a colony. Independence, in that sense, for the very first time marked a formal unleashing of the latent, creative energies of a nation long suppressed.

The visuals of lowering of the Union Jack and hoisting of the Indian Tricolour are etched in the memory of every Indian. But the Independence Day is often confused by many as a mere event marking the transfer of power from an alien government to a swadeshi one. They ignore the significance of democracy, the moment when our nation gained the right to write its own destiny.
In my view, epoch-making events in the history of human civilisation were marked by the dawn of the era of enlightenment.
Look at the example of the United States of America. July 4, 1776, which is celebrated as the day of American independence, was marked by a very significant event — the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The event ushered in an era of enlightenment in the American society with the founding fathers of America declaring: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In similar ways, independence days and democratic transitions in many nations and certain movements like the ones led by Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela have marked the transformation of mindsets and the collective conscience of a people by taking them from the orthodox bylanes of feudalism to the liberal highways of humanism.
I believe that India, too, underwent a similar churning, and credit must be given to our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who went beyond being a patriot and a statesman and cast himself in the role of a nurturer of institutions and a germinator of a culture of higher enlightenment in this country. In his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech on the night of August 14, 1947, Nehru said: “It is fitting that at this solemn moment, we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.”
Much like the founding fathers of America, Nehru chose to look at Independence as a significant moment in India’s history and democracy as a tool to channelise the positive vials of energy that accompany societal and national enlightenment.
“I would say that democracy is not only political, not only economic, but something of the mind, as everything is ultimately something of the mind,” he is quoted to have said to a journalist once. Indeed, Nehru went further than creating mere atmospherics and laid down the infrastructure that could produce, sustain and harness these energies. The IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and the construction of thousands of schools across the rural and urban landscape began powering the engines of knowledge while the nurturing of an independent judiciary, parliamentary institutions and the election commission by him brought about our first indigenous yet lasting experience with the rule of law, and civil and political rights as a nation.
Deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru envisaged democracy and Independence to play a role in cultivating moral leadership as well. In fact, he was exasperated by the fact that while nations around him were successful in promoting technology and economic deliverance from poverty, in India the moral leadership to act as a custodian of these processes was not being churned out at the same rate. He even remarked “that man’s mental and moral growth has not kept pace with this technical and scientific advance, and this is a very dangerous thing, because science and technology are weapons of tremendous power…” This led him to intensively philosophise about “the collapse of the human conscience”, often turning to our ancient cultural heritage as a source of moral values. While Nehru based his political conduct and discourse on these principles, he strongly detested fossilised wisdom and dogmas unsupported by reason. He saw Independence providing a window of opportunity to replace the age-old debris of superstition with the strong walls of rationality.
Once, during his tour of an earthquake-affected area in Bihar in 1934, Nehru read with great shock Gandhiji’s comment published in the Harijan that the earthquake was a punishment for the sin of untouchability. Later, when Rabindranath Tagore’s rational rejoinder to Gandhi was published in the journal, Nehru instantly welcomed and wholly agreed with Tagore.
It’s been 65 years since we became independent but I believe that the Nehruvian idiom of democracy and Independence still remain relevant for us. The process of transforming India must necessarily transcend the economic paradigm. Our aim must be to create not only a knowledge-based society which is humane, rational and enlightened, as Nehru envisaged, but also a society where divides and disparities in access to basic necessities, information and opportunities vanish, where people feel empowered. A society where the socio-political discourse raises the level of human consciousness.

The writer is minister of state for parliamentary affairs

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