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Nehru's Spectacularly Indian Vision and the Wrath of the RSS

Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: The Hindu Archives.

The Modi government's efforts to 'democratise' the Nehru Memorial and Museum and Library (NMML) by embarking on, among other things, building a 'Museum of Prime Ministers' on the Teen Murti premises is seen by many as an effort to "dilute" the memory of India's first Prime Minister in popular consciousness. In this essay, Purushottam Agrawal, former Chairperson, Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Nehru scholar, explains why the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the current government, bears such a deep hatred for Nehru.
Fundamentally uncomfortable with democratic institutions and intellectuals, the RSS, he says, would like to obliterate the memory of Nehru who was a great institution-builder and intellectual himself. Not just that, the first Prime Minister of India, though a rationalist and moderniser, was also deeply rooted in his tradition, which helped him connect with the people: this connect later became "the greatest hurdle in the way of the emergence of any politics of religion, including political Hindutva" for many years.

Nothing requires greater effort of thought than arguments to justify the rule of  non-thought.

                                                                 - Milan Kundera

[Czech-born French writer]

Kundera's philosophical generalisation of his own anguished experience of the Communist regime repeatedly re-validates itself in diverse places, with the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) being the latest such instance. The current government and its supporters are making vigorous ‘thought efforts’ to convince the academic community and others of the innocence of their intentions and the nobility of their designs.

But the facts indicate otherwise. Their stated 'intention' is to rectify the imbalance by giving leaders and public figures of the national movement, other than Nehru, their 'due'. The implication here is obvious. And yet, NMML Director Shakti Sinha recently told journalist Sheela Bhatt in an interview that as of now, 'Nehru occupies only 25, may be 35 per cent, of the museum'. 1


Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. File photo: V.V. Krishnan.

It was clear from the moment when the then President S. Radhakrishnan dedicated it to the nation, that the NMML would not be exclusively dedicated to Nehru but would cover the national movement as a whole, and that would include Nehru's role in it. According to its website, "Founded as an autonomous institution, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is dedicated to the objective of promoting advanced research on Modern and Contemporary India."

Due to the dedication and imagination of its founding Director, B.R. Nanda, and his successors, the NMML has earned a unique position as a premier institute of research and intellectual exchange. It has amongst other things, a rich collection of oral history and personal papers of not only Gandhi, Nehru and other Congress leaders, but also of Savarkar and S. P. Mukherjee. Indeed, the role of the Director of the NMML is not merely that of a 'facilitator' as the present Director seems to think. Rather, it is about giving the institution a direction in tune with its vision and objectives, and to preserve its autonomy in day-to-day functioning and policy planning.

It has a rich collection of oral history and papers of not only Congress leaders, but also of Savarkar and S. P. Mukherjee.

The NMML has seen controversies earlier as well, but those did not involve subjecting the institution to a sort of ' de-Nehruisation' . A mature government would have drawn the right lessons from these episodes which preceded 2014, when a government with an unambiguous mandate for change was voted to power. For the NMML was on the right track when the Modi government took charge.  Seminars and talks were being held regularly, papers were being published. Most importantly, a number of young scholars were being invited to present their research and were being encouraged to do so in Indian languages. The new regime could have taken this initiative further, even if it did not want the incumbent Director to continue. But its intentions became quite clear from the way the appointment of the next Director was ensured by tweaking the advertisement issued for the purpose after the then director Mahesh Rangarajan had resigned in 2015. Well-known academic and now Vice Chancellor of Ashoka University Pratap Bhanu Mehta who was appointed to NMML's executive council by the Modi government resigned in protest and called the exercise an attempt to "marginalise academic considerations". 

The response to Mehta's anguish has been typical of the present regime—it recently replaced him with Republic TV's Arnab Goswami, who helps amplify the current government’s propaganda on his channel. Mehta's apprehensions were vindicated further when another appointee, journalist Ram Bahadur Rai, came on board. In an interview to 'Outlook' in June, 2016, Rai had bluntly described the Constitution of India as "a new testament of our gulaami (slavery)". 2 Rai was only reiterating the age-old RSS discomfort with the Indian Constitution.

It is now quite clear that the present regime and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), took the 2014 mandate as a signal to push their Hindutva agenda in an aggressive manner. Their confrontationist posture may come as a surprise to some liberals who had been taken in by the "development for all" rhetoric, but all those familiar with the RSS worldview and its long-term project were not surprised at all by the way things unfolded not only at the NMML, but in general. 

Disrupting democratic governance

In the subtle, and not so subtle, manner in which the character of the NMML is sought to be changed, and the 'effort of thought' being made to provide supporting 'arguments', there is a deliberate attempt to disrupt the institutional arrangement of democratic governance. This can be seen not just at the NMML, but also in the case of the judiciary, the Election Commission of India (ECI), the Central Information Commission (CIC), the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and other universities, the  University Grants Commission — even the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Clearly, the idea is to reduce democracy to a mere numbers game without any respect for the various institutions; democracy has willy-nilly been replaced by an authoritarian, whimsical regime headed by the 'Supreme Leader'.

Democracy has willy-nilly been replaced by an authoritarian, whimsical regime headed by the 'Supreme Leader'.

Secondly, there is a deliberate and concerted effort to demonise intellectuals and their vocation. For the first time, the expression, 'Intellectual Terrorism' can be heard not just on TV debates and in public speeches, but also in Parliament. Refer to the speech by Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Jitender Singh in August 2016. 3

Anti-intellectualism is fundamentally violative of the Indian ethos. Ravana, despite being a great scholar himself, is perceived negatively in the epic imagination of India as he persistently persecuted the rishis (the scholars and intellectuals). The relatively less known story of Nachiketa speaks of the courage to speak truth to power and its appreciation by Yama, the death god himself.

Even in historical times, barring the occasional cases of persecution, the general trend has been of respecting intellectuals and scholars. Kings like Akbar and Krishnadeva Rai enjoy a revered position in the popular imagination because of their respect for scholars, sants , poets and intellectuals. Anti-intellectualism is a natural corollary of authoritarian ideologies and regimes—left or right—claiming to speak on behalf of the people and deciding the history of the nation and its destiny. Dissenting intellectuals are labelled as the 'enemies of the people' or 'anti-nationals', depending on the ideological inclination of the regime.

And, despite all its claims to being authentically Hindu/ Indian, the RSS's idea of the nation, along with its hatred for intellectuals, is an Indian adaptation of western right wing nationalism. The attempt to privilege 'sentiments' and 'feelings' over rational discourse; to exonerate verbal and physical violence are integral to right wing mobilisations the world over, so is aggressive misogyny. In the right wing 'nationalist' imagination, women must remain within their limits and if they don't, they must be brought to their senses. That is the psychology which drives right wing trolls on the social media to use filthy abuse to teach women the 'necessary lessons'. These two features — discomfort with institutions and hatred for intellectuals — are at the root of  the RSS's deep, helpless discomfort, rather hatred for Nehru, the great builder of democratic institutions and an intellectual himself.

Despite claims to be authentically Hindu, the RSS's idea of the nation is an adaptation of western right-wing nationalism.

They have tried to appropriate Gandhi, Patel, and Bose; but Nehru has always been an anathema to them. Why? It is because he was a rationalist and a moderniser but also deeply rooted in his tradition, and hence very effective with the people. Despite his 'atheism' and 'westernism'  — two attributes overemphasised by friends and foes alike —Nehru could connect with the Indian people magnificently: he could describe dams and industries as the 'temples of modern India' without leading to any hurt sentiments. He was stridently opposed to the mystification of the political process and to the politics of religious identity. He earned his connect with his people the hard way. This connect reached magical proportions during the national movement and later, became the greatest hurdle in the way of the emergence of any politics of religion, including political Hindutva.

The Hindutva forces have been aware of this Nehru Magic and have been trying hard to defeat it by means fair and foul, mostly the latter. One of the tricks has been to attribute a very crude statement (‘Englishman by education, Muslim by culture, Hindu merely by accident’ )  to him.

Nehru never said anything of the kind. This 'quote' was imposed on him in the 1950s by Hindu Mahasabha leader N. B. Khare, a fact duly noted by M.J. Akbar amongst others. The motive for this spurious quote and other such troll attacks is clearly to discredit Nehru amongst Hindus. Nehru had written, ".. (that) the Muslim organisations have shown themselves to be quite extraordinarily communal has been patent to everybody. The (Hindu) Mahasabha’s communalism has not been so obvious, as it masquerades under a nationalist cloak." 4

A state that neither privileged nor suppressed religion

Due to the persistence of his detractors and the matching indifference of his admirers, misconceptions about Nehru’s ideas and attitudes have become quite widespread even amongst academics. In 2004, I was attending a conference of American and Indian scholars at Esalen institute, Big Sur, California, and was amazed to hear from a respected scholar of philosophy and history that the  'rise of Hindutva politics in India is due to the fact that Nehru suppressed religion, particularly its public display'.  

Any Indian born and brought up in 'Nehru's India' would find this statement bizarre. For, on the contrary, Nehru and his colleagues were farsighted, and in keeping with Gandhi’s idea of 'every religion having some part of Truth', tried to create a state which sought to neither privilege nor suppress any religion. Even after Nehru’s demise, when the word 'secular' was explicitly inserted into the preamble of the Constitution through the 42nd amendment, care was taken to translate it in its Hindi version not as ' Dharma-nirpeksha ', but ' Panth-nirpeksha' : this is because in Indian linguistic usage, the term 'dharma' stands not for a religious doctrine, dogma or faith system, but for the 'inherent nature' of things, or for law.

I contested this scholar's statement and, at least for the moment, succeeded in making her see the point.

'Secularism', as it evolved in the course of the national movement in India, does not imply cultural deracination.

Unfortunately, many liberals have also unwittingly helped the Hindutva project of discrediting Nehru by imposing their own culturally deracinated selves upon Nehru, who was 'secular' in the specifically Indian sense of the term, which goes beyond its dictionary meaning. 'Secularism', as it evolved in the course of the national movement in India, does not imply cultural deracination. None of those leading men and women who fought for a 'secular nation' during the freedom movement were detached from their Indian cultural moorings. They, of course, learnt from the 'West' (through formal education and beyond it), but constantly endeavoured to undertake the 'discovery of India' in their own ways.  

In his Discovery of India , (1945), Nehru reiterated his aversion to "superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs" and "uncritical credulousness" going with religion. But he also noted that,

"religion had supplied some deeply felt inner need of human nature, and the vast majority of people all over the world could not do without some form of religious belief. It had produced many fine types of men and women, as well as bigoted, narrow-minded, cruel tyrants. It had given a set of values to human life, and though, some of these values had no application today, or were even harmful, others were still the foundation of morality and ethics." 5

His understanding of religion was rooted in the insight that,

"Life does not consist entirely of what we see and hear and feel, the visible world which is undergoing change in time and space; it is continually touching an invisible world of other and possibly more stable or equally changeable elements, and no thinking person can ignore this invisible world." 6

The 'mysterious' sense of an "invisible world" and the need to relate with it is integral to human consciousness. This comes out beautifully in texts like Nasadiya Sukta from the Rigveda (quoted in the Discovery of India in full). Nehru also wrote,

"What is the mysterious, I do not know. I do not call it God because God has come to mean much that I do not believe in. I find myself incapable of thinking of a deity or of any unknown supreme power in anthropomorphic terms, and the fact that many people think so is continually a source of surprise to me. Any idea of a personal God seems very odd to me. Intellectually, I can appreciate to some extent the conception of monism, and I have been attracted towards the advaita (non-dualist) philosophy of the Vedanta…I realise that merely an intellectual appreciation of such matters does not carry one far…The diversity and fullness of nature stir me and produce a harmony of the spirit, and I can imagine myself feeling at home in the old Indian or Greek pagan and pantheistic atmosphere, but minus the conception of God or Gods that was attached to it." 7

Anyone nurtured within the Indian religious sensibility would immediately relate with Nehru here. Not only his writings, but his public speeches and acts, too, were rooted in this understanding of the 'religious' and the 'spiritual' which is so integral to the typical Hindu mind, irrespective of the presence or absence of formal education. That is why Nehru could so easily strike a chord with the people. That is why those who wish to monopolise all things Hindu feel so helpless, and end up expressing this helplessness in expressions of anger against Nehru.

Indian religious tradition celebrates a multitude of divinities, male and female. It does not insist on an anthropomorphic conception of only one true, supreme, Male God. It has been quite happy with its "pantheistic" atmosphere, and has left the question of choosing or not choosing anthropomorphic personal God or gods to each individual. Even the theoretically monotheistic faiths, Islam and Christianity, in practice have a number of divinities providing spiritual solace and pragmatic solutions to the faithful. A celebration of diversity, tolerance of differences and respect for the faith of others are not politically motivated slogans. Rather, these form the gist of India’s cultural and spiritual sadhana i.e purposeful practice. 

Indian religious tradition celebrates a multitude of divinities. It does not insist on an anthropomorphic conception of only one true, supreme, Male God.

And, this sadhana with all its brooding reflection, is not a synonym for sadness. Nehru quoted Arrian, the Greek historian of Alexander’s campaign to north India, "No nation is fonder of singing and dancing than the Indian." 8 . He called himself a 'pagan' yet again, contrasting his nature to the pessimist tendency 'to walk away from life and its problems'; "I was somewhere at the back of my mind, a pagan, with a pagan's liking for the exuberance of life and nature, and not very much averse to the conflicts life provides." 9

It was due to this deep and subtle connect with Indian tradition, which does not reduce creative expressions like art and literature merely to the status of a pastime or crude entertainment, that Nehru’s government was as eager to create national institutions of arts, literature and film as it was insistent on building the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).

What Nehru could not tolerate was the political use of religious identity. He continued to fight against the use of religion to gain political power, 'communalism', as it is known in the politics of modern India. It is important to remember that Nehru sought to counter communalism—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh—not merely through 'secularism', but with 'Indian nationalism' which, for him, included a firm belief in diversity and was much more than mere emotionalism.

Nehru's favourite metaphor for his idea of India was that of a palimpsest, i.e. a page from a manuscript re-used or altered, but still bearing the visible traces of its earlier form. Reflecting on its "depth of soul", he wrote about India:

"It was not her wide spaces that eluded me, or even her diversity, but some depth of soul which I could not fathom, though I had occasional and tantalising glimpses of it. She was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. All of these existed in our conscious or subconscious selves, though we may not have been aware of them, and they had gone to build up the complex and mysterious personality of India." 10

It is due to this palimpsest-like nature of Indian tradition that the shunning of extremes and rigid certitudes has evolved as the crux of the Indian experience. After the Nasadiya Sukta , the Upanishads reiterate the same point —of avoiding the pitfalls of rigid certitude — even more insistently. The intent of the Mahabharata is to exhort people to follow the dharma (right path) by underlining the devastating consequences of the extremes of personal passions. The Buddha strongly advocated the Madhyama Pratipada, the ' golden middle path'. Mahavira, through his Anekantatvada , made people realise the potential multiplicity of truth realisation, and hence the need of openness and dialogue. Later on, this tradition impacted even the monotheistic theologies and world-views of Christianity and Islam through mutually enriching interactions. The continuing genius of negotiating through give-and-take manifests itself both in the vernacular Bhakti and Sufi poetry and in the statecraft of rulers like Akbar.

Nehru was a rationalist — and yet he kept a portion of the ashes of his late wife with him till the last, to be immersed along with his own. He composed a superbly moving, poetic paean to Ganga—'the river of India'— in his final will and testament. Being a rationalist cannot be equated with being a robot. Being modern does not mean being unconcerned with or contemptuous of one’s own tradition and culture, or that of others. Gandhi and Nehru differed not in being 'traditionalist' and 'modernist' but in their attitude to machines, industrialisation and urbanisation. Nehru never hid his preference for technology and industry, and his impatience with the 'glorification of village-life and poverty'.

Being modern does not mean being contemptuous of one's own tradition and culture, or that of others.

But, even though he was impatient with this aspect of Gandhi's thinking, Nehru knew that 'Bapu' did not "strategically use" (as some commentators believe) the dharmik idiom, but actually looked at the world in a dharmik (not ‘religious’ but ethical) way, and that this was the key to the mass appeal enjoyed by 'Bapu, the magician'. Gandhi’s tapasya came to his mind while Nehru was writing about the Upanishads: "This idea of some kind of penance, tapasya is inherent in Indian thought, both among the thinkers at the top and the unread masses below. It is present today as it was present some thousands of years ago, and it is necessary to appreciate it in order to understand the mass movements which have convulsed India under Gandhiji’s leadership." 11

The Indian polity has never been as divided as it is today, or an 'educated' public as misinformed and vulnerable.

I do not recall an Indian polity as divided as it is today, or an 'educated' public as misinformed and vulnerable as we have now. It will come as a surprise to many people today, that having broken up with Gandhi, Nehru, and the Congress, Subhash Chandra Bose become the first person to refer to Gandhi as ‘father of our nation’ in his broadcast  from Singapore on July, 6, 1944. He also named brigades in his Indian National Army (INA) after Gandhi, Nehru and Azad. Their differences were as genuine as were the attempts to evolve the broadest possible consensus. The Karachi Congress (1931) resolution on Fundamental Rights and Economic Programme is an illuminating metaphor of such attempts. This resolution embodies the spirit of the freedom movement and is a precursor to the Indian Constitution's concern with justice and equality. That resolution was drafted by Nehru and Bose, and moved by Gandhi in a session presided over by Sardar Patel!

Atal Bihari Vajpayee's tribute to Nehru in the Lok-Sabha in May 1964 provides a telling clue to the reasons for Hindutva’s discomfort with Nehru. Going by the level of current politics, Vajpayee would be seen as committing blasphemy, when he said,

"In the Ramayana , Maharshi Valmiki has said of Lord Rama that he brought the impossible together. In Panditji's life, we see a glimpse of what the great poet said. He was a devotee of peace and yet the harbinger of revolution, he was a devotee of non-violence but advocated every weapon to defend freedom and honour." 12

"Bringing the impossibles" together is the real tapasya for any leader and ruler in a country like India, and those undertaking this successfully could earn a comparison with no less a figure than Lord Rama himself, according to Vajpayee.

And that is why Hindutva,a typically undemocratic and anti-intellectual project, tries so hard to ' de-Nehruise ' not only various institutions, but the Indian public sphere as such.

[ Purushottam Agrawal is a renowned Kabir and bhakti scholar. He served as Member, Union Public Service Commission of India (2007-2013). Before this, he served as Chairperson, Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has been a Visiting Professor at Faculty of Oriental Studies, Cambridge University (UK), and at El Colegio de Mexico. A well-known panelist on TV debates, he hosted a unique show on books called Kitab on Rajya Sabha TV. A Nehru Reader prepared by him is likely to be published in a couple of months. His latest book is Padmavat: An Epic Love Story (Delhi, Rupa Publications, 2018). He can be contacted at  [email protected] ].


1. YouTube. 2018 . " Shakti Sinha on the Nehru Memorial - The challenges & changing with the time | No Holds Barred ", NewsX , November 17. []. Return To text.

2. Singh, P. 2018 . " Ambedkar’s Role In The Constitution Is A Myth ", Outlook , April. []. Return to Text.

3. The Indian Express . 2016 . " Minister of State floats a new bogey: Intellectual terrorism ", August 11. []. Return to Text.

4. ‘Autobiography’ Penguin India , 2004 , p 484, emphasis added. Return to Text.

5. ‘Discovery of India’, Penguin Books , 2010 , p. 13. Return to Text.

6. ibid. p.13-14. Return to Text.

7. ibid . p.16. Return to Text.

8. ibid . p. 119. Return to Text.

9. ibid . p. 133. Return to Text.

10. ‘Discovery of India’, p. 51. Return to Text.

11. ‘Discovery of India’, p. 91. Return to Text.

12. The Economic Times . 2018 . " When Atal Bihari Vajpayee delivered emotional speech after Jawahar Lal Nehru's death ", August 17. Return to Text.


(This article was updated on November 30, 2018, to correct a typographical error in the name of the author in the introduction.)

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