Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Jawaharlal Nehru on Christian Missionaries, Unity of India, other topics and a Trial

An out of print rare book, a collection of articles written by Jawaharlal Nehru for various national and international magazines put together by V.K. Krishna Menon, "The Unity of India: Collected Writings 1937-1940", is interesting at many levels. The most interesting being a sharp writing on 'Christian missionaries.

The book, as is always the case with Nehru's writings, show, an intellect of stupendous breadth, a man who loved his country above all else, a keen understanding of history and an unswerving commitment to secularism. Here are some excerpts with comments.

'Christian Missionaries in India'

Written in February 1940, publication unknown, this is a sharp and pointed criticism of Christian missionaries and the Church. This writing shows a very different Nehru contrary to popular perception of a man who rarely, if ever criticized other religions. That perception is a myth created by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar for Nehru has never brooked religious fundamentalism by any religion and delivered some stern words to Muslims in Aligarh Muslim University. Here he shreds Christian missionaries. The occasion is Nehru coming to know about missionaries sympathetic to India's cause for freedom having had to sever connections with their missions for what was seen as contravening the "Missionary pledge". Nehru outlines briefly the advent of Christianity in India and how India "welcomed religions from abroad" and then launches into a systematic criticism completely devoid of bile, bigotry or vitriol but clear eyed.

"With the coming of the British power, a new type of missionary came to India. He was attached to British officials and the British army of occupation, and represented British imperialism gar more than the spirit of Christ. An Ecclesiastical Department grew up, as a part of the Government machinery, and the burden of this, in the shape of taxes, fell on the non-Christian population".
"Christian missions in India have undoubtedly done good work in many fields, notably in the public eye, they have been allies of imperialism". "Even from the point of view of expediency the ship of imperialism is a sinking one. India must and will be independent and the future of India will be decided by the Indian people alone".  
"Is it good for Christianity anywhere, more especially in India, to be associated with foreign domination and imperialism?" "It is strange that the gospel of Jesus, the gentle but unrelenting rebel against untruth and injustice in all forms, should be made a tool of imperialism and capitalism and political domination and social injustice." 
"If Christianity is to be popular religion in India it must dissociate itself from such pledges and from official patronage and ecclesiastical department. It must rest on the strength of its message and on the goodwill of the people"

The words, written in 1940, are still relevant to the Church in India and they should pay heed.

From Getty Images (indian-pm-jawaharlal-nehru-wearing-pinstriped-suit-tie-picture-id50712178

"The Unity of India"

Jawaharlal Nehru was the finest ambassador for India to the Western world that was often puzzled and struggled to comprehend the labyrinthine complexity that was India. In an extensive wide ranging article written in January 1938 for the American magazine 'Foreign Affairs' (a prestigious magazine, even today, dedicated to the eponymous topic) Nehru gives an understanding of India's hoary history, why the modern political unity actually builds on an undercurrent of Unity stretching back to couple of millennia, its adaptability, its strengths, the glorious past and unflinchingly addresses the then parlous state of the country. He's unsparing in blaming, where due, the colonial regime for the ills of India. His extremely keen understanding of geopolitical realities borders on the clairvoyant, once again. His observations of evolution of the relationship between people and state is echoed in modern sociological commentary today.

"The very backwardness of a people is a condemnation of its government. With this patent result of British rule in India, little argument is needed to demonstrate its failure". "It nevertheless is well to bear the fact in mind, for the very structure of British imperialist rule has been, and is, such as to aggravate our problems and not to solve any of them." 
"Always the idea of political unity of India persisted, and kings and emperors sought to realize it. Asoka indeed achieved unity two thousand years ago".  
"The desire for political unity, in India as in other countries before the advent of nationalism, was usually the desire of the ruler or conqueror and not of the people as a whole". 
"Kings changed at the top, but the newcomers respected local rights and did not interfere with them. Because of this, conflicts between kings and people did not take place as in Europe; and later under the cover of this, kings gradually built up their autocratic power"

(This passage above could only be written by one who has profound understanding of history. I've often wondered about how India never produced a 'Magna Carta', a product of the conflict between a King and his people. Sunil Khilnani's "Idea of India" echoes this sentiment, though, I'm sure Khilnani arrived at his conclusions without possibly reading this article by Nehru. Khilnani writes, "a new ruler had merely to capture the symbolic seat of power and go on ruling as those before him had done". "It was this arrangement of power that explains the most peculiar characteristic of India pre-colonial history: the perpetual instability of political rule, the constant rise and fall of dynasties and empires, combined with the society's usual fixity and cultural consistency". Khilnani, continues, "the state as a sovereign agency with powers to change society, to alter its economic relations, to control its beliefs or rewrite its laws, did not exist". In conclusion, "unlike the history of Europe, that of pre-colonial India shows no upward curve in the responsibilities and capacities of the state. The very externality of politics, its distance from what was taken to be the moral core of the society, was the key to stability". Now re-read the passage by Nehru)

"It is astonishing to note how India continued successfully this process of assimilation and adaptation. It could only have done so if the fundamental unity were so deep-rooted as to be accepted even by the newcomer, and if her culture were flexible and adaptable to changing conditions." Nehru then quotes, helpfully for the American audience, V.A. Smith and Frederick Whyte from their books published then to assert India's sense of unity. 
"There was in it (India's culture) till almost the beginning of the Christian era a certain rationalism."  
"This amazingly brilliant young man (Shankaracharya) traveled all over India arguing, debating, convincing large audiences, and in a few years (he died at the age of 32) changed the mental atmosphere of the country. The appeal was to reason and logic, not to force" 
"It is interesting to compare the intolerance of Europe in matters religious to the wide tolerance prevailing almost throughout history in India." 
"Unlike as in Europe, honor was reserved for the man of intellect and the man who served state or society." "Perhaps it was this want of stress on the outer environment that made India politically weak and backwards, while the external progress went forward so rapidly in the West"
(Few years later when Nehru wrote 'The Discovery of India" from jail he quoted the lines of Matthew Arnold to underscore the Eastern penchant for reflection and stoicism. 'The East bowed low before the blast, in patient deep disdain, she let the legions thunder past, and plunged into thought again')

"The past record of Indian cultural solidarity does not necessarily help us today. It is present conditions we have to deal with" 
"The rationalism and the scientific basis of her thought continued for a favored few, but for others irrationalism and superstition held sway. Caste, which was a division of society by occupation, and which at the start was far from rigid, developed a fearful rigidity and became the citadel of social reaction and a basis for the exploitation of the masses." 
"The feudal Indian state system, the gilded Maharajas and Nabobs, and big landlord system are essentially British creations in India"
(Dismantling the atavist Zamindari system was a landmark achievement of free India's constitution)

"The real problems of India, as of the rest of the world, are economic, and they are so interrelated that it is hardly possible to tackle them separately. The land problem is the outstanding question of India." "The tiny holdings, averaging a fraction of an acre per person, are uneconomic and wasteful and too small for the application of scientific methods of agriculture" 
"In the worldwide conflict of ideas and politics, India stands for democracy and against Fascism and the totalitarian state." 
"Most independent countries today are not strong enough to stop by themselves the aggression of a Great Power" 
"It is said that militarists in Japan dream of Asiatic and even World dominion. Perhaps so. But before they can approach India they will have to crush and absorb the whole of China, an undertaking which most people think is utterly beyond their capacity, and one which will involve at some stage a conflict with other Great Powers"
(This observation Nehru repeats elsewhere too. Elsewhere he says, circa 1939, that if war indeed came Germany's allies would be Japan and Italy. To make this observation in 1938 is nothing short of clairvoyance.)

'The Question of Language'

The question of a national language seized the minds of India's founding fathers a lot. They did underestimate the divisiveness and passion language can arouse. In his article on Unity of India Nehru was confident that Hindi could become, with some effort, a national language. In this article he dilates at length on the antagonism between Hindi and Urdu that was being fanned. Aside from the then prevailing idea of making Hindi a national language he lays repeated stress on respecting language of religious and regional minorities. Enumerating a 17 point plan on language issue Nehru is clear on the very first point and last points (below)

"1. Our public work should be carried on and State education should be given in the language of each linguistic area. This language should be the dominant language in that area. These Indian languages to be recognized officially for this purpose are: Hindustani (both Hindi and Urdu), Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Assamese, Sindhi and, to some extent, Pushtu and Punjabi" 
"17. Translations should be made of a considerable number of classical and modern works in foreign literature into the Indian languages, so that our languages might develop contacts with the cultural and social movements in other countries" (Note, he says the translation of other works should be done in 'Indian languages', which means, not just Hindi)

Nehru is also very clear, in point 13, that instruction should be "given in the language of the province" from primary to university stage. As always he worries about minorities and says if "there are sufficient number of students whose mother tongue is some other Indian language, they will be entitled to receive primary education in their mother tongue, provided they are easily accessible from a convenient centre" and he adds "but all such students will have to take, as a compulsory subject, the language of the linguistic are they live in". He wrote this in July 1937. He was consistent in worrying about minorities not losing their linguistic identity and he reiterated this same point during a debate in later years in the Parliament when he expressed that he wished his daughter Indira Gandhi had learned Tamil.

'Statement at the trial in Gorakhpur'

Arrested for offering individual satyagraha Nehru made a lengthy statement at the trial where he expressed irritation at the shoddy transcription the court did of his speeches, for which he was being indicted, and an assertion of his opposition to Nazism and fascism.

"I am a lover of words and phrases and try to use them appropriately. Whatever my opinions might be, the words I use are meant to express them intelligibly and in order sequence. A reader of these reports will find little intelligence or sequence in them." 
"We (Nehru is referring to himself and Acharya Vinobha Bhave who was the first to offer satyagraha and be arrested) were symbols who spoke the mind of India in the name of India, or, at any rate, of a vast number of people in India. As individuals we may have counted for little, but as such symbols and representative of the Indian people we counted for a great deal." 
"I stand before you, Sir, as an individual being tried for certain offense against the state. You are a symbol of that State. But I am something more than an individual also; I, too, am a symbol at the present moment, a symbol of Indian nationalism, resolved to break away from the British Empire" 
"The peasantry of Gorakhpur are the poorest and the most long-suffering in my province. I am glad that it was my visit to the Gorakhpur district and my attempt to serve its people that has led to this trial. I thank you, sir, for your courtesy"

Nehru was sentence to 'three consecutive terms of rigorous imprisonment', for 16 months each, on November 4th 1940. He was later released on December 4th 1941. He was re-arrested in August 1942 and was interned till 15th June 1945, for 1041 days (3 years). This was the longest and last incarceration for Nehru who had by then spent nearly 9 years in British jails, he was 56 years old. He started going to jail at 32 years of age in December 1921. Details of Nehru's prison sojourns are here chronologically


Nehru had a lifelong fascination for science and the use of science as a tool for national progress in the service of people. Addressing the Indian Science Congress, as Prime Minister he would try to never miss attending it, he quotes at length a letter from the recently deceased Rutherford, who was to have also addressed the Congress, on the need for planned development and especially a holistic approach to looking at problems in an interconnected way. The man who would establish, post-independence, India's premier technological institutes  gave more than inkling of his ideas in 1937.

"I am entirely in favor of a State organization of research. I would also like the State to send out promising Indian students in large numbers to foreign countries for scientific and technical training." 
"A politician dislikes and sometimes suspects the scientist and expert. But without that expert's aid the politician achieve little" (When one thinks of the current Prime Minister and his penchant for anti-Science one can only sigh). 

"Science cannot accept the closing of the windows of the mind, by whatever pleasant name this might be called." 
"Perhaps there is no real conflict between true religion and science, but, if so, religion must put on the garb of science and approach all its problems in the spirit of science"


I've given a very sparse selection from a very rich collection. This collection, well put together by V.K. Krishna Menon, represents Nehru's mind at its best. There are writings about: Congress, Intra-party squabbles, thoughts on 'bombing of open towns', 'Betrayal of Czechoslovakia','war aims and peace aims', survey of the world situation, 'visit to Garhwal',monsoon in Bombay, 'flying during monsoon', 'holiday in a railway train' and of course, 'Kashmir'.

Jawaharlal Nehru was an erudite statesman and an intellectual with unimpeachable humanistic values. Care should be taken that he is NOT an academic historian or sociologist and he never claimed to be one. As a citizen of an impoverished country fighting for independence he did tend to view India kindly, perhaps, much more kindly than what he is accused of by the current breed of venomous naysayers.

Nehru was very aware, especially when he was abroad that he was seen as a representative of India and the Congress movement. In an article he expresses an anguished irritation that being conscious of being seen as a representative he wrote to the then Congress President, Subhash Bose, and other officials of what he spoke or wrote and sought to know if what he said or wrote was in line with policy but received no reply from the Congress President (he doesn't name Bose). In another instance mischief mongers let it spread that Gandhi didn't like what Nehru spoke and of course when Nehru checked with Gandhi it was no so.

In sum it is astonishing to see how Nehru had nothing but India's interests and progress of the impoverished millions in his mind, perpetually. Is it any wonder that days before his death he had jotted down the lines from a Robert Frost poem, "The woods are lovely dark and deep and I've miles to go before I sleep"

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