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Book Review: Revisiting past debates in fraught times


Talmiz Ahmad

In these highly polarised times in India, when the ruling dispensation is questioning and reordering almost every idea and institution that has defined the country since Independence, it is not surprising that Jawaharlal Nehru should be at the centre of ongoing debates – he was the colossus who shaped, with his personal vision, commitment and drive, India’s domestic values and its economic and foreign policies. Hence, as the tapestry of the old order is being carefully undone, Nehru must necessarily be the object of calumny and ridicule, as those with alternative visions and passions – and with the unblurred benefit of hindsight – tear into his persona and policy.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Two scholars – one born in India and the other in Pakistan – both nurtured in the narratives of their divided heritage in the cloisters of Cambridge University, have collaborated in producing this work that places Nehru in debate with four significant contemporaries – Mohammed Iqbal, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Syama Prasad Mookerjee. With all of them he had fundamental differences of worldview, vision and strategy relating to India’s freedom and the policies that would define this nascent nation.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah

In respect of each personality, the authors have picked one specific theme that divided him from Nehru and set out in full the texts of their debate. Each debate is preceded by an introduction in which the authors provide the context of the discussion and a summary of the issues involved.  Each of these issues resonates in present-day politics in the country. Thus, a reading of the earlier documents gives a valuable background to our ongoing debates, while providing a fascinating glimpse of the personalities in contention and the rhetoric they mobilised to support their positions.

MS Education Academy

Islamic solidarity

Nehru met Iqbal in Lahore in 1938, when the latter was quite incapacitated. Nehru approached him as a fellow-socialist, but Iqbal’s principal concern at that point was the solidarity of the Indian Muslim community – he feared its integrity was being threatened by the Ahmadi movement, whose followers he saw as “religious adventurers.” He viewed this movement as a product of modern liberalism and was in mortal dread that, under the influence of such “false prophets”, the Indian mind would “seek some other substitute for religion”, possibly even the “atheistic materialism” that was flourishing in Russia.

These concerns led Iqbal to uphold orthodoxy, rejecting all attempts at reform, even the obnoxious practice of child marriage. Here Nehru and Iqbal found themselves on opposite sides. Nehru admitted that he lived “in the outer darkness” in matters of faith, but retained an abiding interest in the historical, cultural and philosophical aspects of religion.

Mohammed Iqbal

He noted with derision how opposition to legislative “restraint” on child marriage through the Sarda Act brought orthodox Hindus and Muslims together – he pointed out that communalists on both sides, despite their mutual hostility, “will embrace each other like long-lost brothers and swear fealty” against all those who seek radical reform.

In his response that covers thirty pages in the book, Iqbal contended that Nehru’s articles “reveal practically no acquaintance with Islam or its religious history during the nineteenth century”. His principal concern was that Nehru’s “nationalism” meant “a total suppression of the cultural entities of the country” and insisted that only through their interaction could India evolve “a rich and enduring culture”. On the other hand, the Nehruvian idea of nationalism “would mean nothing but mutual bitterness and even oppression”.

Iqbal also rejected the contention that only orthodoxy was being upheld by him. He pointed to the remarkable galaxy of scholars of the nineteenth century – Syed Ahmad Khan, Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohammed Abduh – who called for the modernisation of the faith, and later political leaders of the twentieth century, such as Zaghlul Pasha, Kamal Ataturk and Reza Khan, who, “relying on their healthy instincts, had the courage to rush into the sunlit space and do, even by force, what the new conditions of life demanded”. Iqbal concluded that Muslims in India would not accept the annihilation of their cultural entity; but they should be “trusted to know how to reconcile the claims of religion and patriotism”.

Though the word ‘secularism’ does not figure in the Nehru-Iqbal exchanges, it appears that, in 1938, they were reflecting on different ways in which the secular order could be accommodated in the political system. Nehru temperamentally would have preferred the French-style laicite system that seeks to erase all aspects of faith, including personal pendants, from the public space, while Iqbal was insisting on an order that would accommodate manifestations of beliefs of all faiths in the public domain, a possible multicultural order. This is what led him to discuss the idea of “toleration” in his article, even quoting Gibbon at length on the subject.

It is interesting to note that, nearly a century later, the contents and contours of a secular order are still matters of contention and debate in several countries across the world, including India.

The communal divide

After the engagement with Iqbal, which brought in matters relating to faith, culture, modernity and identity, Nehru’s exchanges with Jinnah are mundane, even sterile. This is because the letters included in the book are from 1938 – by this date, the two personalities were deeply divided in terms of their vision and agenda; and, while the formal demand for Pakistan was still two years away, the distance between the two was so deep that they could barely be civil to each other. Nehru was also perhaps experiencing a degree of hubris after the 1937 provincial elections had delivered a sound drubbing to the Muslim League’s pretensions to represent all Muslims in the country.

Nehru tests Jinnah’s patience by repeatedly asking him to explain what he wants; Jinnah testily asks him to read the numerous articles and papers that have appeared earlier on the subject. At some point, Jinnah sends Nehru a long wish-list titled, “The Communal Question”. When Nehru gives a point-by-point response, Jinnah says it makes “a most painful reading”. Nehru replies that he regrets that anything he wrote should have caused pain, but adds that “the margin of difference can be lessened by a frank approach on either side”.

Looking back to that period, it is obvious that the divide between Nehru and Jinnah was rooted in fundamental differences in their worldview and vision for free India. Nehru fervently believed that the principal issue before the people was freedom, and viewed this as linked with “a broader global issue around imperialism”.

As the authors point out, in Nehru’s understanding of history, “the forces of progress” were in contention with “the forces of reaction”. Flowing from this, Nehru saw the communal question as reflecting “conservative reaction to the progressive forces”. Hence, he viewed Jinnah’s prioritisation of matters relating to communal identity and interests as “petty-minded” and a diversion “from the real problems of the country”.

The real problems, he believed, were economic and emerged from “exploitative capitalism”. While he accepted that capitalism had created considerable wealth for the world, it was now necessary to correct “the uneven distribution of wealth”, which could only be done through socialism. How was better distribution of wealth to be achieved if the country was divided on communal basis through separate electorates? Nehru asserted publicly that the Hindu-Muslim problem “is not a genuine problem concerning the masses, but it was the creation of self-seekers, job-hunters, and timid…


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