Two score and seventeen years ago, India gained independence. Many tomes have been written about the challenging events of the preceding years that led to the momentous day, August 15, 1947 and the great leaders who helped shape, responded to and managed those events. Gandhi and Nehru now have gained almost superhuman status and India is identified as their creation. There are the other heroes – Tilak, Rai, Patel, Azad, Bose – and many such, about whom a rare book is written and who are included in many footnotes. But in the spirit of re-evaluating past events and knowing that history as written is incomplete we may want to revisit some of those seminal events and reassess the work and characteristics of some of those “great” and “good” men and women who shaped India’s destiny this past century.
I rely, for this essay, on a fascinating but rarely mentioned book written by one of the great journalists of those times -- Durga Das. His book India from Curzon to Nehru and After, was published in 1969, but has mostly been forgotten. Das was honored with a postal stamp in May 2003 and few noted even at that time the significance of his observations and his conscious and careful exercise in providing a fair and balanced account of events and men.
Durga Das saw events at close hand and observed the great and not so great men and women who strode the political and social stage between the years 1918, when he was first introduced to the great Keshab Chandra Roy and 1969, when his book was published. Tutored under K. C. Roy, the first Indian to function as a Political Correspondent at the British imperial capital and who rose to be a nominated member of the Central Legislative Assembly as a distinguished journalist, Durga Das ranks among other great editors and journalists of the day – Pothan Joseph, Frank Moraes, S. Sadanand and Khasa Subba Rau – and his sharp, perceptive, fair and nonpartisan analyses of men and matters should be a beacon to all journalists.
Das’ book is divided into four sections: section one (1900-1921), which covers the British Raj in its heydays and the rise of the Indian National Congress; section two (1921-1939), which deals with the period of mixed British and Indian rule effected by constitutional reforms, the rise of Gandhi and the widening religious divide; section three (1939-1947), which deals with World War II and its effects on Indian governance, the rise of the Muslim League and Jinnah and the British “Divide and Quit” decision; section four (1947-1964), which covers the Nehru era; and section five (1964-1969), which deals with the post-Nehru period. I shall highlight some events and issues from the first three sections to speculate how things might have turned out different for India and Indians.
What if Gandhi had not supported the Khilafat movement, which even Jinnah deplored? We now know that the support of Gandhi to a conservative Muslim enterprise led to the Moplah massacres which drove the Hindus and Muslims further apart. Jinnah, Das says, felt the Khilafat agitation brought the “reactionary mullah element to the surface”. Tilak and Jinnah had worked hard to produce the Lucknow Pact which sought to bring the Congress and the Muslim League together on a common political platform. Even Lala Lajpat Rai, who had serious doubts about the nature of the Khilafat movement and how it would influence the Indian Muslims, went along with Gandhi’s idiosyncratic support to it. As Das remarks, “the common people thought God had sent a saintly man to lead them to freedom and followed him with blind faith” and of course we know how the Mahatma’s muted response to the bloody massacres and rape of Hindus in the Malabar, led to the hardening of Hindu nationalist positions.
What if Gandhi had not supported Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru in their bid to create a Nehru dynasty in India? Few people have remarked about the machinations of Gandhi to have his way and make Congress his “political-spiritual” playground. Motilal did not support Gandhi’s “leading the country away from the path of constitutional struggle into the wilderness of sterile political agitation”, as did C. R. Das and Vithalbhai Patel (brother of Vallabhai Patel). To win Motilal over to his side, Gandhi appointed Jawaharlal to be his principal aide as General Secretary of the Congress, promoting the novice over the heads of senior party men. Motilal was not just won over, but then began to actively lobby for Jawaharlal’s climb to power in the party.
The Lahore session of Congress saw Jawaharlal appointed as party president, over the wishes of the majority of Congressmen who wanted Sardar Patel to be made President. Patel had led the civil disobedience movement at Bardoli in 1928 and organized it and commanded it so well, he had been given the sobriquet of “Sardar”. When Durga Das asked Gandhi why he had chosen Jawaharlal over Vallabhai and had succumbed to pressure from Motilal, the Mahatma said that he was won over by Motilal’s argument that Jawahar represented “youth and dynamism”. As Das remarks, “It is certain that Gandhi’s decision marked a turning point in the history of modern India. A dying man, Motilal was naturally eager to see Jawaharlal Congress President in his own lifetime…. But the effect of Gandhi’s decision was to identify the Nehru family with the nation. There is little doubt that this identification was a factor in the choice of Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India and of his daughter Indira as the third”. Das wrote this in 1969 and we now know that this was also the reason why Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister and why Sonia Gandhi is now the defacto Prime Minister and why Rahul and Priyanka are waiting in the wings to take over the mantle.
Gandhi’s writ ran so large that he got away with many more undemocratic actions. And his “ascetic” bent and idiosyncrasies saw him inflict shame and embarrassment on fine men and mindfully ignore the worse peccadilloes of his favorite, Jawaharlal. For example, Gandhi heeded the gossip and complaints about Bhulabhai Desai’s drinking and he wrote to Desai asking him whether he drank! Gandhi had taken on the role of father, school teacher and scolder of men and there was none who could challenge him except Jawaharlal. Seems when Gandhi persisted in asking Maulana Azad if he drank, Nehru said, “I took sherry last evening. Why pursue this matter?”
Gandhi undermined Subhash Chandra Bose’s influence in the party when he opposed Bose becoming president for the second time. Bose argued that Nehru had been president for two consecutive terms and he too deserved that chance. Gandhi proposed Pattabhi Sitaramayya, who lost to Bose. Gandhi quit in a huff and Bose’s position was undermined when the Congress High Command passed a resolution directing Bose to form his “cabinet” in consultation with Gandhi!
May be the final act of Gandhi to anoint Nehru “leader” was taken in 1944 when he insisted once again on Nehru becoming party president. Patel was head of the Congress Parliamentary Board and all the provincial Congress Committees had expressed their preference for Patel to be party president. Why, Durga Das asked Kripalani, did Gandhi prefer Jawahar over Vallabhai? It seems Kripalani said that like all “saints and holy people” Gandhi wanted “significant men” among his adherents and he believed too that Nehru would be a “better instrument to deal with Englishmen as they would talk in a ‘common idiom’”.
We now know of Nehru’s policies – both domestic and foreign -- that were disasters and his authoritarian bent of mind. What many don’t know is that Nehru’s ego mania was such that he advised Rajendra Prasad, then President of India, not to attend Vallabhai Patel’s funeral in Bombay in 1950, arguing that it would set a bad precedent for a President to attend a minister’s funeral! Prasad ignored Nehru’s willful and mean advice. It is said that only K. M. Munshi, from Nehru’s Cabinet, attended Patel’s funeral, though Das does not mention it.
Similarly and as if to strike back at Prasad after he was dead, Nehru did not attend the first President’s in Patna. Prasad died on February 28, 1963 and not only did Nehru not attend Prasad’s funeral, saying that he was raising funds in Rajasthan for the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, he advised President Radhakrishnan not to attend Prasad’s funeral! Radhakrishnan replied: “No, I think I must go and attend the funeral. That respect is due to him and must be paid. I think you should give up your tour and come with me”. Nehru did not go. He also asked Lal Bahadur Shastri to find a final resting place for Prasad as far away as possible from Gandhi’s resting place at Raj Ghat. Shastri chose one a couple of furlongs away from Raj Ghat. Prasad was not cremated there, but the site Shastri chose for Prasad was where Shastri was cremated and is named Vijay Ghat. Nehru, of course, came to rest next to Gandhi at Shantivan. Such is the pettiness behind events and men of which we talk glowingly.
So, we may wonder where and what India would be if Vallabhai Patel had become the first Prime Minister of India. He was a pragmatic man, a fine administrator with an eye for details but also an ability to delegate, a good judge of men and a fantastic organizer. Not only his action against the Razakars and his bringing a recalcitrant Nizam of Hyderabad into the national fold a matter of great accomplishment, but his advice to Nehru on Kashmir, which Nehru ignored, shows us the caliber of the man.
After Gandhi’s death, Patel decided to bury his differences with Nehru and work alongside the Prime Minister to put India on a safe and strong path. However, very soon, he tired of the willfulness of his “junior” partner who seemed hell bent on making a mark on history and creating a family empire. Patel was a gentleman. He did not complain about Nehru in public, nor did he undermine Nehru. He played by the rules and if he were Prime Minister, we would have an India where politicians and public men could be expected even now to play by the rules. Alas!
Originally published on August 13, 2004.