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Mainstream, Vol. XLVI, No 23

On Nehruvian Humanism

Wednesday 28 May 2008, by K S Subramanian



Jawaharlal Nehru: The Spirit of Humanism by A.P. Saxena; Ane Books India, New Delhi; pp. 165; Rs 395.

The author of this interesting volume is a former civil servant with long years of experience in the management of administration and in the training of civil servants. His experience includes several years in international agencies including the World Bank. He is an unabashed admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru especially with regard to his ideas on the management of the Indian administration and on the issue of developing an appropriate philosophical framework for its functioning in an independent republican polity. He has authored many books in this area, including Nehru on Administration, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indian Administration, and Jawaharlal Nehru and the Quest for Civil Liberties. The present book does not depart from his traditional preoccupations and is devoted to the explication of the great man’s ideas on humanism and the scientific spirit.

The book contains five chapters in all. It begins with a brief chapter on the activities and ideas of Nehru with respect to peasant struggles in UP and elsewhere. This is followed by a subsection on his experience in British jails in colonial India. Nehru was passionately committed to the cause of the Indian peasantry though he did not carry out any significant socio-economic analysis of peasant problems. Nehru’s commitment to humanity and liberty is pictured in the section on his years in the jail. The longer second chapter is devoted to an explication of Nehru’s concept and practice of ‘voluntary suffering’ going back to the earliest days of non-cooperation in the 1920s under the leadership of Gandhi. Describing Nehru as the ‘most effective spokesman for political idealism the world has ever known’, Andre Malraux noted the deep humanism and commitment to the individual that Nehru stood for. The author concludes that a ‘composite durable design for humanism’ emerges from Nehru’s formulations at this time.

The third and longest chapter in the book deals with the single concept of Nehru’s humanism, which ‘signifies a cluster of fairly well defined attitudes’. The author posits a ‘fictional tripod of three determining factors, trust, relationships and reciprocity as a tentative framework for understanding Nehru’s humanism’, as stated and practised. He then goes on to analyse the context and content of Nehru’s meetings with eminent thinkers, Andre Malraux and J. Krishnamurthy, bringing out his humanistic approach to the problems of life and politics. The author argues that Nehru’s three books, Glimpses of World History, Autobiography and Discovery of India, reveal the great man’s mind as a thinker, and as an individual concerned with human suffering, misery, poverty together with his concern for justice and the creation of a secular, humane state in India. While accepting the need for scientific temper to spread in India, Nehru, at the same time, noted the limitations of science to quantify key eternal human values such as truth and goodness. The references the author quotes in this chapter are quite varied and impressive.

In the fourth chapter, the author recalls that the two elements of humanism which Nehru always stressed were those of the human approach and respect for the individual, particularly in government and politics, indicating their validity in the basic scheme and purpose of the Indian state. India’s colonial past sanctified the static outlook of the administration and its pathetic reliance on rules and procedures. Nehru wished to change this state of affairs. The growth of centralisation in government, diminishing the importance of the individual, was another constricting factor. A balance had to be found. Against the backdrop of the supremacy of man, Nehru stressed the importance of the two highest ideals of humanism and scientific spirit synthesising into scientific humanism.

The fifth and final chapter is a summation of Nehru ideas of humanism and the scientific spirit, which influenced his contribution throughout his political career.

IN conclusion, the author’s depth of interest in Nehru’s concerns in this area is admirable. However, it is strange that nowhere in this book the author makes any reference to Nehru’s socialism, which was an integral part of Nehru’s humanism. Throughout his political career, Nehru stressed the importance of socialism and did not hesitate to proclaim that he was a socialist first and last. Why has the author made no mention of Nehru’s socialism in this treatise? The brief index at the end of the book makes a reference to many terms beginning with the letter ‘s’ but none of them relates to ‘socialism’! While Nehru talked persistently of socialism, even during the early days of his involvement with peasant struggles, he made no effort to make a class analysis of the Indian peasantry and the strategies of their mobilisation such as his peer Mao Tse-tung attempted in China. After independence, Nehru became a prisoner of the colonial bureaucracy, which he had castigated during the freedom struggle. Sashi Tharoor, an admirer, writing on Nehru as the Prime Minister, admits that his hero had a tendency to be surrounded by opportunists, was a poor judge of character, was easily influenced and was amenable to flattery! His disastrous decisions, on the advice of some of his sycophants, included the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah (1953), the induction of the Army into Nagaland (1955), the forward policy on China (1959-60) and the dismissal of the Communist Government in Kerala (1959). However, the intelligence documents needed for a proper study of Nehru’s political decision-making during the period 1947-64 are still classified!

Further, the centralised state apparatus, which Nehru abhorred as stated by the author, became all the more powerful during his days and in those of his successors. Observers have noted the massive growth of centralised police power in India after independence.
While one admires the author, the study remains unconvincing because it is totally uncritical towards Nehru, the man and the thinker.

The reviewer is a Visiting Professor, Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. A former civil servent, he is the author of the recently published Political Violence and the Police in India (Sage 2007).

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