Growing up, Pt. Nehru was one in a long list of people about whom you had to cram up information to be able to write essays in exams. He was a man who featured in the books about general knowledge and in those about great men of India. I think you were supposed to feel some sort of fondness for him, because this great man was after all “Chacha Nehru” and he supposedly loved children. But so did many other adults around you, and they were far more accessible than this long-dead man. He was a man whose photos patriotic characters in old Hindi movies kept in their houses. He was the first prime minister of India. His birthday resulted in a holiday. And yes – he was the man after whom my school was named (Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya). Great man, like I said.
Somewhere during my early adult life, this greatness of Nehru faded from my consciousness. I did read his books. Like I read so many others. But it took much more adulting to start appreciating the man.
It took a lot of reading and traveling to realize how badly many other countries decolonized in the 20th century had done. It took looking at Vietnam, at Cambodia, and at African countries in the grip of autocrats to realize how far-sighted a man we had in our first prime minister, who focused on strengthening democracy, and not on trying to turn his immense popularity into autocratic power. Something he could have done. It took a prolonged stay away from home, exposure to language chauvinism in my country, and the hopeless language policies of some other countries to appreciate the open-mindedness of a man who got Urdu added to the 8th schedule of constitutionally recognized languages after retorting to a Hindi chauvinist friend of his that Urdu “is my language, the language of my ancestors.” It took shedding of a lot of simplistic notions about life, politics, and society to admire the vision of a leader who wasn’t bogged down by the immediate challenges of a newly independent nation and invested in building the institutes of science and technology. It took confronting the cringe-worthy behavior of petty politicians, who rise to power far too often, to admire the statesmanship of the prime minister of a country who power, and even survival, was doubted by all, but who could garner international respect and attention despite that. It took dismay at the utter lack of vision our current leaders display to appreciate the vision of a man who thought of Non-alignment movement back in those days. It took being face to face with the apathy of many regimes towards persecuted refugees to understand the heart of a man who offered refuge to Tibetans, even if he wasn’t in a position to fight China over them (and many Tibetans hate him for that!).
It also took time to understand that the man sold in the books as an infallible great man was after all human. That even if he recognized thirteen languages, including Urdu, in our constitution, he did make a strong case against recognizing every “dialect” of Hindi as a separate language, an idea that reflected in the “Hindi belt” language policy and has done irreversible damage to many languages by subverting them to “standardized” Hindi. That he could have done things differently in Kashmir. That despite his generous and inclusive idea of India, a lot of people were left out of its ambit – you can start by thinking of everyone displaced and ill-compensated for the large projects he championed and of people who continue to suffer for the sake of such state-backed projects even today. That there are a lot of problems our country has that can be traced back to him.
However, with every realization of all the things that were wrong with him, I also realized that so many things that are right with our country can also be traced back to the same man.
It took extensive vilification of this great man by our current regime for me to appreciate him as a visionary leader. It took a certain dear leader and his puerile pettiness for me to discover my fondness for Nehru.