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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 23

This was a Man

Thursday 31 May 2007, by Hiren Mukerjee


For four decades and more, this gentle colossus strode our Indian world and his place among the great figures of our time is secure. But his uniqueness lay in the unobtrusive opulence of endowment which gave him, in the thick of politics and in the face even of frustrations, a peculiar refinement and grace of spirit. It was not only that he was “a man without malice and without fear” but that he carried an ache in his mind and heart, an ache which betokened kinship with the whole wide world. It was this, more than any particular tangible quality, which marked him out from the world’s politicians. Some of the latter have made a more powerful impact on contemporary history. They have been big men, no doubt, in bulk if not always in essence, but perhaps one should hesitate to call them great. They have had stature, but unlike Jawaharlal, hardly the soul commensurate with it. They scarcely knew what was the very breath of Jawaharlal’s being—an innate charity in the sense in which St. Paul expounded it to the Corinthians, and something of the compassion which the Buddha preached. Jawaharlal was no maker of history, for he had neither the strength nor the crudity that was needed, but in his own way he was peerless. There is thus a depth of meaning in the tribute paid to his memory by one of India’s acutest thinkers, C. Rajagopalachari:

… a beloved friend is gone, the most civilised person among us all. Not many among us are civilised yet.

Jawaharlal’s smile, the red rose on his button-hole, the easy enchantment of his manner, whether with children or with adults, his love for the sights and sounds of Nature, attested an aesthetic bent of mind. Often in moods of introspection which, even when overwhelmed with continuous work he could never entirely shed, he felt the injustice, the unhappiness and the brutality of the world darkening everything about him and saw no way out, but there was in him also something of the pagan who knew the rich and tolerant variety of life and gloried in it—for life had not only “swamps and marshes and muddy places” but also “the great sea and the mountains, and snow and glaciers, and wonderful starlit nights, and the love of family and friends and the comradeship of workers in a common cause, and music and books, and the empire of ideas”. It was his sense of this beauty which was revolted as he heard life itself, as it were, “wail for the world’s wrong”. And when, with Gandhi as his guide, he had seen at close quarters how his people had to live, he knew he was to be for ever with those “to whom the misery of the world is misery and will not let them rest”. He is no mere politician who comes to politics on account of the compulsion of his whole being and not for the usual trivialities. And Jawaharlal, though in many ways very much a politician, had a vital part of himself utterly untainted by the peculiar squalor of political life… Jawaharlal Nehru cannot be judged, by reference only to what was achieved during his tenure of power, the economic advance of the country and the place of India in the comity of nations. He is entitled to be judged by history in the light of what he did and sought further to do “to free the minds of men and set them in movement, to release his people from the grip of a parochial nationalism and choking allegiances that diminished man”. He made many mistakes, no doubt, but they were due, in general, to the defects of his qualities. In pre-independence days, when fighting the fissiparous forces that, with the blessings of imperialism, brought about the Partition of India, he was not realist enough to see what he did not wish to see in the communal picture. However, even as he chided the then Muslim League for its misguided petulance and asked it to “line up” with the Congress in the struggle for freedom, his generosity and patent sincerity was never in doubt. In the post-independence period he placed before his people the vision, the ideal and the perspectives of socialism, but he was not realist enough to call sternly for the social discipline and even austerity which an underdeveloped country had necessarily to practice on a wide and somewhat egalitarian basis if the requisite economic advance was to be achieved without unconscionable delay. Too often the native hue of his resolution was sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and he thought also in flashes that came to him naturally and without the cool and collected concentration which could have been a corrective to the somewhat loose and tenuous poetic quality of his conclusions. He had a horror of orthodoxy of every sort and the doctrinal dogmatism which, as a factor in social evolution, has a great deal to answer for, but often a certain amorphousness and lack of positivity, which could be pretty but was none the less banal, crept in to his thought and inhibited action. Even so, whether in the right or in error, there was in him a luminous quality, for in whatever was evil he never would acquiesce, and to the end he was the non-conformist, determined to find the answer to the problems of his India, gifted with vision that is life-giving and a passionate concern for its fulfilment, moving forward, even in his most passive moments, on account of his own dynamic commitment to ever widening perspectives. “I am sorry in a way I will not be there to see and share,” he once said, “the new dimension to the human mind” introduced by the stupendous recent advances in science and technology. And yet, without self-pity or false pride, he spoke to students of Allahabad University:

I may have only a few years to live and the only ambition I have is that to the end of my days I shall work my hardest and then when I have done my job there is no need to bother about me further.

To the very end he laboured, taking on burdens that would have broken the back of most other people. And he worried, particularly as he felt he might not have much longer to live, that he had “promises to keep” to his people and to posterity, and there were miles and miles to go before he could call it a day. No less than his critics he was conscious of vast tasks still undone, but he knew no way, consistently with his convictions and his view of men and things, along which he could go ahead faster and without damage to the values that he cherished. Here, indeed, lay his historic failure—the failure to achieve change for fear of the price that might have had to be paid and in deep concern for the right means so that the future was not to be garish and crude. More than most people in positions of power, he gave thought always to the paramount problem of our age, that of the transition to the new society. He knew that in class society one finds release of the spirit in falling back into worlds of one’s own, in art and in the illumination of knowledge and of sensitive perception, but that when society is purged of the dross of ages, one wakes, as it were, into a common world of air and light, a world which is the patented preserve of no elite but belongs to all. He knew also that the transition was difficult and prolonged and painful and yet had to be made, for the very meaning of history lay in such human, and often necessarily fallible, endeavour. H e knew he had great authority, which he could not run away from nor could lay aside like a wad of notes, and this authority needed to be wielded for helping, in India and abroad, the advance of man towards a world awake. Here, again, his knowledge and his sensitive perception proved a drag, for he was timorous of the zigzags in the road to revolution, the chasms that from time to time gaped along the way, and the cost involved in making the toilsome journey. It may be that history will judge him harshly, but for his own people who have known something of his mind and heart the task of judgement is not so simple. If he shrank from jobs set him relentlessly by history, he did it not by reason of guile and petty calculation but by reason of the love he bore mankind.

(Excerpted from the author’s book on Nehru, The Gentle Colossus)

The author, a distinguished parliamentarian, functioned in the Lok Sabha as the Leader as well as Deputy Leader of the Communist group.

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