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.
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:
''I am the victim of a witch-hunt which probably has no parallel in history, for it is a culmination of a sustained and determined campaign by political opponents of my father and all that the Congress has stood and struggled for....
''A book by a journalist against me, full of libelous statements such as that I tried to bribe the judge with Rs. 500,000, is selling like hotcakes. The lawyers advise against suing, for past experience shows there will be even more defamatory remarks during a long drawn out trial....
''Different types of pressures are brought to bear. Businessmen are asked to make statements against us under threat of confiscation of their licenses or raids on their premises, and so on. It is our information that, with the connivance of the police, an attempt was made to kidnap the daughter of a high official. Government officials are being threatened that they will lose their jobs. The police are told to give false reports....
''The scapegoat for all real, imaginary, or concocted wrongs is my son, Sanjay. People make statements against him in the hope of saving their skins. In the Western press he has been described as a playboy. In reality, he is an abstemious and serious person. He does not smoke or drink. Not only is the government looking into factory affairs, but involving him in all kinds of cases , including some concerning murder.
''Sanjay was shot at during the electon campaign. The bullet missed by just two inches. Our lives are also threatened. Neither my son nor I are suicide-committing types, so I hope you won't believe any such news?
''I am not a hysterical person or given to exaggeration or easily afraid. I do not listen to gossip, but it is Ministers of the Cabinet who are saying that they are determined to 'get Sanjay' and are talking of torture, and so on. The whole administrative machinery seems to be pitted against one small family who doesn't even have the means for proper legal defense. Unless there is some unexpected development, this government is headed towards fascist functioning with all the outward wrappings of democracy.''
Referring to Mujibur Rahman, the first prime minister of Bangladesh, who was killed in 1975 by the military leaders of his country, she wrote:
''Perhaps it would have been better for me to suffer Mujib's fate, which I avoided in 1975, than be subjected to this kind of character assassination and be made to feel an outcast.''
In June 1980, the year Mme. Gandhi was reelected prime minister her son Sanjay was killed in an airplane crash. Her own comment in a letter to me:
''Sanjay was so young, so vibrantly alive and such fun to have in the house. It was no mean achievement for such a young person to ride the waves of propagated antipathy and the persistent campaign of calumny with such dignity and wrest from it the admiration of millions, as was evidenced by the outpouring of grief throughout our country.''
On a visit to her home, I asked if she would have preferred any position in life other than head of government.
''The question is difficult because I have never really thought about it,'' she said. ''It has never occurred to me that I would do anything different in life. My grandfather and father had a lifelong commitment to a certain goal. My grandfather's role was largely confined to that of advocate; my father's role was expanded when he had the job of governing the nation he helped bring into being. My job is to preserve that which they helped to create.''
''Are there rewards?'' I asked.
''Certainly. There is always the reward that comes from knowing that the primary aim has been achieved. India exists and is free. But it is a precarious existence and the freedom has yet to be consolidated. The most difficult ordeals are not behind us. I don't have much time these days to think about personal preferences concerning what other career I might have had. One does what one has to do.''
Rajiv Gandhi is prime minister today because India is in the same need of continuity and confidence as it was after his grandfather's death. He will do as the Nehru tradition would have him do.