India: carrying on the Nehru tradition
EARLY in 1948, at the height of one of the communal riots in New Delhi, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru rushed into the thick of the fighting and implored the people to stop. The startled crowd, recognizing him, drew back. The riot was quelled.Skip to next paragraph
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The problem facing Mr. Nehru when he took office was to create a sense of nationhood that would not displace, but transcend, other loyalties. The Hindus, of whom he was one, looked to him for more than he could give, especially in terms of government representation. Equally pressing were the demands of the Muslims - 60 million of them, and India's largest minority. They, too, wanted more representation than he could provide. This was only the beginning. Other minorities, such as the Sikhs, called for nothing less than a state of their own.
The early years following independence were a period of communal violence and bloodletting almost without parallel in modern history. It was during these riots that Nehru shielded the bodies of the Muslims with his own. News of this act of personal commitment and courage spread throughout the country and was an important factor in the pacification of the nation. Millions of Muslims realized they could trust Nehru as a leader.
Months later, at his home, I asked Nehru about the incident in the Muslim shopping section. Wasn't he exposing himself to personal danger? His daughter, Indira, was in the room at the time.
He fingered the inevitable red rose in his lapel and spoke slowly. No one should seek high public office in a country such as India without realizing that passions among the sects are so high that acts of violence should be no surprise.
Apart from the Muslims, he said, at least 14 sects had nationalist aspirations of their own. One of the most awkward and perplexing challenges to Nehru's goal of a politically unified India came when a Sikh leader went on a hunger strike in behalf of Sikh statehood. Mahatma Gandhi's earlier hunger strikes had played an important part in the history of the India freedom movement. The hunger strike had been regarded as a supreme moral instrument. Now , directed against Nehru himself, how did he feel about it? I put the question to him in 1955.
''I confess I didn't like it and I wish they wouldn't do it, but first things first. We will not dismember India, no matter what kind of force is used. We will give the Sikhs cultural autonomy. They can have their language. But we will not break up India. If we do it for the Sikhs, we will have to do it for the others. Then what?''
After Nehru's death, the interim government was unable to deal with deterioration on the home front. Profiteering, increased crime, corruption - these distortions of freedom were no less a threat than the secessionist movements. The country needed a rallying center.
Jawaharlal Nehru had inherited the mantle of Mahatma Gandhi; now it was necessary to pass along the mantle and the full symbolic power of the Nehru name in providing continuity for the total society.
Indira Gandhi possessed this symbolism. Even her married name (it was just a coincidence that her husband should carry the name of the greatest figure in India's history) was an asset. She accepted the post of prime minister almost as an act of inevitability. Few leaders in history had been more systematically prepared for the challenges of governance than had Indira Gandhi. Her father was the tutor. Almost as a conscious act he educated his daughter in the conduct both of domestic and world affairs. During his years in political prisons, he wrote a series of letters to Indira about world events. These letters were eventually brought together in a book, ''Glimpses of World History,'' one of the most remarkable works of its kind in the English language. Nehru had few, if any , reference books to work with, yet his letters were a sort of H.G. Wells excursion through the civilizations of both East and West. Nehru himself was a product of both worlds; his letters conveyed to Indira not just a scholar's view of history, but an instructor's manual in government leadership. Mrs. Gandhi's first task as prime minister was to attack the forces of disintegraton at home. She invoked emergency powers in an effort to deal with corruption, crime, and what she regarded as press irresponsibility. These measures were denounced as evidence that Indira Gandhi was intent on destroying the foundations of a democratic society laid down by her father. She insisted that the emergency measures were purely temporary. Such reassurances, however, did not satisfy the press or public, even when most of the repressions were modified or revoked. In the elections of March 1977, Mrs. Gandhi's party was defeated and she resigned as prime minister. Writing to me in June of that year, she commented on her personal situation: