‘A moment comes, but comes rarely in history, when we step out from the old to new, when an age ends, and when a soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’ Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru delivered these inspiring words in his speech, ‘Tryst of Destiny’ in 1947. He is still remembered for his vision and commitment to bring India from out of oppression into freedom, modernity, and self-reliance.
As we have celebrated the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru on November 14th, 2015, we are in awe as we recollect his contribution, not only towards gaining India’s independence but also for laying a strong foundation of a pluralistic and forward looking India. Yet, half a century after his death, the current leadership of India is busy trying to downplay his legacy for political expediency, and to re-create a nation away from the democratic and secular tradition he has championed.
When India gained Independence, there were monumental challenges resulting from the partition and the ongoing violence between Hindus and Muslims. The urgent task facing the leadership at the time was the resettlement of 6 million refugees, and arresting the spread of further violence. Nehru put together a team of dedicated patriots such as Sardar Tarlok Singh, Sarojini Naidu and S.K. Ghosh to limit the violence, as well as rescue and recover abandoned and abducted women and children.
When the British left, the Government, headed by Nehru, faced another important task: the national integration of 562 princely states. A newly created State department under the decisive leadership of Sardar Vallabhai Patel along with Nehru ensured the integration of the country in a remarkably short period of time.
If we look back at history for a moment, we would admire how Nehru brought together exceptional people of different ideologies such as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, S.P. Mookerjee, John Mathai, C.H. Bhabha and Shanmukham Chetty to be reflective of India’s secular and multi-faceted character in the Constituent Assembly. The Congress party delivered on the promise that the constitution they were about to create would reflect the aspirations of the Indian people.
The constitution of India was amongst the largest in the world with 395 Articles and 9 Schedules. The preamble spells out the basic philosophy and the solemn resolve of the people of India to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all its citizens. What Nehru has accomplished through this document with significant help and support from Ambedkar also is part of his vision to empower marginalized sections of the society.
Nehru was committed to ensuring social justice and the welfare of the masses as far back as 1938 by setting up the National Planning Committee under the banner of the Congress Party for the very purpose of improving the quality of life of ordinary citizens. These efforts culminated in creating a permanent planning commission to establish a just social order to ensure the equitable distribution of income and wealth. Nehru’s actions in these matters paint him as a socialist, however, he strongly believed that planning was essential to the development needs of a poor country with scarce resources, which needed to be managed optimally.
He was also concerned about the unequal access to land which was a big problem in rural India. After independence, the issue was prioritized, and by 1949, different states had passed land reform legislations to abolish the ‘Zamindari’ system and empowering the rural peasantry while doing away with the institutionalized exploitation by the feudal lords.
Nehru was a strong proponent of self-reliance, clearly recognizing that underdevelopment was the result of a lack of technological progress. Consequently, a new Industrial policy was enacted to develop key industries. While Independent India was in its infancy, he identified the production of power and steel for self-sufficiency and planning. In collaboration with other countries, India built steel plants in Rourkela (Orissa), Bhilai (M.P.) and Durgapur (W. Bengal). Dam projects were undertaken in various places to produce hydro-electric power, including the flagship Dam at Bhakra Nangal, Punjab. The first oil refinery was inaugurated in Noonmati, Assam in 1962 as another leap forward towards industrialization. Nehru called them ‘the temples of modern India.’
Nehru was determined to foster a ‘scientific temper’ as he provided leadership in establishing many new Engineering Institutes, the most important being the premier Indian Institute of Technology, 5 of which were started between 1957 and 1964. His farsightedness is also evident in granting deemed university status to the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and setting up the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Defense Research and Development Organization, and laying the foundation stone for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Nehru’s own words stated that these would become ‘visible symbols of building up the new India and of providing life and sustenance to our people.’
Soon after independence, India embarked upon a nuclear program aimed at developing its nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes. As we know by now, Dr. Homi Bhabha’s pioneering work in this regard is widely acclaimed in enhancing India’s capabilities in this area. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian Space Program helped to establish the Indian Space Research Organization.
Nehru recognized the importance of education as a tool for empowerment and the establishment of the University Education Commission under the Chairmanship of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan and Secondary Education Commission under the chairmanship of Dr. A. L. Mudaliar laid the foundation of education and higher education. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations was also established under Maulana Azad to promote policies pertaining to India’s external cultural relations.
Nehru also played a crucial role as a leader of the non-aligned world, shaping India’s foreign policy for the post-independence period. His charismatic personality, along with deep understanding of the country and the world enabled him to be an effective spokesman for the developing world and an advocate for liberation movements across the globe.
Undoubtedly, Nehru helped to build institutions that stood the test of time. The emerging nations during that period such as Yugoslavia, Egypt and Ghana failed in this regard, and results are quite evident for all of us to see. Nehru’s vision and leadership were critical in shaping India as we know it today. According to ‘Journey of a Nation,’ edited by Anand Sharma, Nehru laid the foundation of a self-reliant, productive and confident India, creating many of its Institutions leaving an indelible stamp on every aspect of the country.
Sadly, there are regressive forces at work now to undo the Nehruvian legacy and to take us back to the age when the soul of the nation was suppressed. Among reflective Indians, especially NRIs, it is time to realize that the ongoing Nehru bashing has been somewhat counterproductive. Nehru’s respect for democratic procedures and his inclusive vision will continue to remain relevant, without which a modern India might cease to exist! To revise a famous quote to fit this narrative, ‘if India is to progress, Nehru is inescapable… we may ignore him at our own risk.’
(Writer is a former Chief Technology Officer at the United Nations and Chairman of the Indian National Overseas Congress, USA)
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