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Nehru as a Historian and Arch-Political Actor

Info: 8449 words (34 pages) Dissertation
Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Tagged: HistoryPolitics

‘It is difficult to disentangle Nehru as a historian from Nehru as the arch-political actor.’ Discuss.

As Jawarharlal Nehru argued, the Indian nation, like any nation, is an idea. An idea which exists in an infinite number of different forms in the minds of its citizens, derived from one’s own lived experience and understanding of history. The interpretation of history shares unique a relationship with the present in the form of a constant dialogue back and forth. The present informs our view of the past, the past in turn our understanding of the present and visions of the future: Nehru understood this completely. As a politician fighting for the right of India to independence, Nehru understood that the legitimacy of a nation is founded on a historical right to sovereignty which he believed stretched back to the Indus civilisation millennia ago. The role of economics, science, religion, culture, diplomacy, politics are all discussed in his sweeping histories, the past acting as playground for his humanism, liberalism, social, secularist ideas which emphasise the partnership of India’s history with his core beliefs and identify the entrenched social structures and belief he wished to dispel. Just as Nehru’s justification for Indian independence was justified in history, so was his vision the type of independent India it should be. This dialogue between the present and the past, between historical interpretation, political ideology and action is at times impossible to separate.

Particularly in India – where the narrative of Indian history has been reinterpreted by Nehru’s decractors for their own gains – history is up for grabs; those who seize it gain power and legitimacy

The BJP and the current political landscape – See his history and his politics as intertwined

  • Nehru saw the Indus valley civilisation as a flourishing, multicultural sphere in which people had lived happily side by side until the British Empire
  • The BJP and RSS instead interpret the history of the Indus valley as the persecution of true Indians by non-Hindutva peoples, namely the Muslim minority, who have ‘occupied’ its territory and been given rights ahead of the true ethnic Indians

This is true across all newly independent countries, or those fighting for independence, where histories of new nations must be forged and given vailidity [Benedict Anderson –

FINISH INTRODUCTION – What is the argument?

Ideology in his histories difficult to separate from his actions in office – strains run through all

His role as arch-political actor – great men politics

Long Essay


The Limitations of seeing Nehru as a historian

The Differences of Nehru’s History and Nehru the Political Actor – Purusotham


The categorisation of Nehru as two distinct entities, a historian and an arch-political actor, creates immediate complications in this debate when the motivations for writing his histories and the style of his prose differ dramatically from typical academic historiography. Glimpses of World History took the 196 letters written to his young daughter Indira, it’s style is sweeping, personal and romantic and its chapters littered with anecdotes from Nehru’s own life, the author placing himself and his own agenda front and centre. The Discovery of India too was not written using typical guidelines of historiography, undoubtedly contravening the rulebook set out by Messrs Carr and Evans. The act of writing the history of India’s nation was itself an act of political defiance, written while imprisoned in Ahmednagar Fort Prison for 3 years for his role in the Quit India Movement. As Khilnani argues, ‘the British had colonised not only India’s physical self, but also India’s historical imagination and therefore its ability to conceive future possibilities’[1] creating a vision of the Indian past to state India’s right to sovereignty and identify the India he wished to see after independence. ‘It was not a work of original historical scholarship. It was an act of political and literary imagination’[2], creating a metanarrative of India’s existence almost as if to will it into reality. One of the few texts Nehru could precure while in prison was military strategist Liddell Hart’s book ‘The Indirect Approach’ who’s central message, despite vastly different topics transferred into his own writing: belief in a grand strategy, a large narrative is the greatest tool for the mobilisation and motivation of the masses[3]. The text was a tool for the mobilisation of the country by reacquainting its population with its shared past rather than through coercive or violent means side-lined as his Marxist conception of revolution was tempered with Gandhian influence. CONCLUSION

Nor could Nehru remove himself from the storyline of India’s past, the whole act of writing a process of reacquainting himself with the nation that he hoped to lead, but with which he felt distance given his upbringing in a wealthy, Brahmin, westernised household and his subsequent education at Harrow and Cambridge. In his introduction to the book Nehru sees himself as ‘an alien critic’ positing concernedly, ‘Did I know India? I who presumed to scrap most of her heritage?’[4]. The text serves as a vehicle for Nehru’s reconnection with the Indian masses whom he felt compelled to lead yet entirely from, trying to route his thinking in his homeland. Gokahle comments that Nehru was ‘a queer mixture of East and West out of place everywhere, at home nowhere’ Nehru conceding that his ideology and was more akin to what is called western than eastern’[5].  In his search for a reconnection, Nehru searches out figures that he can relate to or in which he could identify himeslf, where history ‘crowded in upon him’ and he could search for his ‘collective roots’[6].  Nehru, do to this soulsearching as well as the anecdotes relating to his spells in prison, is the main protagonist and beneficiary of his historical works, his personal exploration central to Discovery, Glimpses of World History. So much so that Gopal, the original historian of Indian Democracy, has termed Nehru’s texts ‘historical literature’ rather than real history, slanted with a romantic tone that belies academic history, attempting to relate to and learn from the great leaders of India’s past (non more so than Mughal Emperor. Gokhale sees little difference in style between these texts and his Nehru’s autobiography indicating that Nehru the historian always had one eye on his role as arch-political leader. If Gandhi was responsible so turning Nehru from an artistocrat into the leader of India’s millions, Nehru’s historical scholarship is him ending his relationship with them as ‘a theoretical abstraction’[7], justifying Indian independence and understanding his future citizens.

The writing of Discovery, running counter to historiographical norms in style and substance, can more accurately be described as a Nehru’s seminal moments as arch-political actor than as a historian. History to serve his political objectives, to give him the knowledge to become leader of India

He was a roaming intellectual, who wrote musings, opinion pieces, sociological studies all bound in one – therefore his research, aims and techniques do not fit those of a historian, but do that of political figure.

  • The weight of history is felt on his shoulders, like in the texts he wrote to find historical truth, Often troubled by trying to make sense of it all – his mind could ‘wander a little trying to think of this long sweep and trying to draw not only interest, but inspiration or knowledge or understanding or all of them’ [Nehru, Social Issues, p26]


HE WAS ALWAYS THE ARCH-POLITICAL ACTOR – always to find his own India, so he would be best informed to lead it, always to find the history of India, so that it could – he always had a political agenda to serve. He is at the centre of his texts – the weight of history upon him; he is in a unique position to serve his country

through the past.


The style and aims of his rhetoric, especially in Discovery, are impossible to distinguish from his solely political works and addresses.


  • He was always the arch-political actor, never the historian; history justifying his views, shaping his concerns with India’s present and what needed to change
  • The criticisms by Gopal; Nehru’s attempts to find himself in the past
  • Nehru’s aims in his writings – Glimpse of the World, Discovery of India – all have political ends
  • Because of his aims in his historical writings, it is difficult to disentangle the two identities

They serve as a space in which his political ideas could be formulated, the desirable elements of eternal India could be identified to be continued during his premiership, the elements that he despised; comparing his views as historian to his beliefs and actions as leader of India confirms the inseparablility of Nehru’s ideology of history from his premiership

‘Historical literature’ – writings concerned with the past yes, but not a historian

This is completely alien to an academic approach to to history – as Gopal says, he rambles on, not fully researched, trying to find himself in the past – to see how he can become one of these great historical figures, fit himself into the lineage

He was searching through history so as to understand an Indian past he felt disconnected with; he was looking for evidence to back up his political beliefs

It is difficult to disentangle his relationship with India’s past from his actions as arch-political actor – but as a historian, no

Nehru and History, Gokhale

Indian Nationalism and History – What influences Nehru’s unique historical perspective

  • Almost every leader of note used history as a political mechanism to push the argument for independence, and to justify India’s right to sovereignty
  • Nehru offered a unique perspective – due to his upbringing (high caste, western educated, wealthy) and his political views (Marxist, socialist)
  • The impact of this on his work as a historian was to see India’s history in a global framework

Nehru was, ‘a queer mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere’, his viewpoints ‘more akin to what is called western than eastern’ [Autobiography, 353] – his histories show a unique mix of thinkers who come together to

  • Nehru’s education at Cambridge was in Natural Sciences, impacting his view of science as a means for change, and was exposed and influenced by British Socialism (particularly the Fabians)
  • Nehru’s historical writings were composed during periods of incarceration for nationalist protests, latterly for his role in the Quit India movement which allowed him to complete his Discovery of India
  • These were periods of political fervour, angst, annoyonce – fuelled his writings

2. He is, like all anti-colonial nationalist figures, necessarily whiggish in his approach writing history

He must look into the past to find the source of the Indian nation; he must

Nehru’s work due to its aims, cannot be seen as the work of a historian. The whole premise of the Discovery of India ofr example, is to offer historical evidence for the right of the Indian people to sovereignity over their own lands. The trajectory of time, the ‘forces of history’, have all been pointing towards the creation of a sovereign Indian democracy. This is not the work of a historian, or at least not one of repute within the academic circle. This is a politician searching for the roots of his nation in the past; not only this, searching for the roots of the precise form of nation he wishes to see – a liberal, tolerant, secular one.


History is always invoked in Political discourse as justification for actions; looking into the past to justify the present

Nehru as a true Enlightenment thinker where the strands of his thought cannot be separated into different disciplines

It is impossible to infer whether his interpretations of Indian history were informed by his politics, or vis-versa

  • On being opinionated and having views

A historian should never allow his views to ‘distort his vision’ but says a historian with no views ‘can never enter into the spirit of humanity’ to reveal, which is the function of the historian (in his view)

Otherwise nothing new will be said – he takes full charge of this, putting himself front and centre

Science = how, history = why for Nehru – two parts

Nehru’s interpretation of History:

Indian independence is the culmination of forces in history; he justifies everything through its relationship to the history of India, as either part of the plan to overcome evil forces that have limited India’s freedom and throwing off these tyrannical forces in the name of democracy, freedom, socialism – which he sees as the true characteristics of Indian society

Nehru was not a historian – he never claimed to be; but to posit him as such does a disservice to the idea of what a historian does; he was a politician, and politicians always invoke the past in their writings and speeches;



Arch-political actor

  • The main political actor – the central figure; he feels this weight on his shoulders; it is his responsibility due to history – he has had these interpretations of history and therefore he feels responsible for changing its course
  • Him as a founding founder – wanting to act alone; wanting to be the leader of India through this period
  • Creating a cult of personality – as the man to unite the nation
  • Nehru puts himself at the front of his political vision, like he sees history empowering his role of the father of an independent India
  • He bears the weight of this ancient land upon his shoulders

BUT ALSO – His conception of History NOT about great men – YET EXCLUSIVE

  • His interpretation of history, inkeeping with his Marxist traits, is of the masses, of the importance of the collective, while not underplaying the significance that the individual can play
  • He does not like ‘Great Man’ politics
  • And yet; his dealings within the constituent assembly regarding the constitution are seen as a closed off, see Granville Austin’s Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation
  • Using a large number of unpublished papers, including those of the correspondences of the Constituent Assembly’s head Dr Prasad, Austin’s magisterial depiction of the formation of the Constitution outlines the process at hand
  • ‘the fundamental decisions were taken by a smaller inner group or often by one man’
  • The Constituent Assembly is depicted as largely debating inessential parts of the constitution while the experts drive the real formation behind closed doors – not only Nehru, but also Ambedkar and others
  • This exclusive, minority approach was enabled through the restructuring of the Indian government under the Government of India Act 1935

While this does Run against his Marxist leanings; it is largely inkeeping with his beliefs in Scientific planning, experts and his own conception of Indian history as key; does believe in the power of the individual in the past to create change

His style of government  – Closed off; not as democratic; influence of scientific planning, the power of science to enact change; planning commissions etc

  • Waned

Consensus – Nehru wants democracy above all; but he remains arch-political actor, Congress dominate politics; structure of political system

Other alternatives did exist – Swantantra Party, led by Rajaji, liberal party which took a stronghold in Tamil Nadu in 1962 and the CPI and CPM as well as conservative figures like Mookherjee

However Actions against Communist party suggest contempt for free democracy

He does not enjoy the one party domination, it frustrates him

Competition from within the factions of the party

But democracy is about more than about multi-parties; about providing a framework for other checks and balances, a separate executive, legislature and judiciary

Very small bureaucracy which was, and made Nehru as the chief political architect exceptionally powerful; Nehru felt compelled to restay at a distance while holding back a desire to institutionalise them

  • The Constitution is made so that the legislature will successfully hold the executive to power, where another form of opposition comes from
  • Consensus is institutionalised through the federalist system – he wants to have good relations with the states; to keep the historic nation of India together
  • He is aware that there is a need for competition, but he believes this must come from consensus (from within the party’s factions) and works with the ‘Syndicate’ – leaders from the provinces

CENTRAL GOVERNMENT  – AN EDUCATOR IN INDIAN HISTORY, POLITICS ETC –  Style very similar in histories and as arch-political actor; keeping everyone informed in a personal style

Nehru’s paternalistic education of the masses in his epic histories echo the communications he had with his Chief Ministers, illustrated in the letters he wrote continuously throughout his early premiership. Be

Letters to Chief Ministers

  • Chief Ministers of the states, summer 1952 June-August, almost everyday,
  • He sees legislation and democracy as the answer to all of India’s problems
  • Believes in centralised government – he’s attempting to keep to them in touch, let them know his plans
  • Frequently tries to show that he is walking a middle line, trying to get everyone on side -create a set of norms
  • Never come across as a supreme leader talking down to chief ministers – always talking as equals or even genuinely asking for assistance (good diplomacy + says a lot about his personality

This communication ends in the mid 1950s – no longer a web of power, but party politics

Methods – Educator, Nehru at the centre of a web

Education of leaders in the international significance  – like attempting to inform the international significance of India in his histories // Nehru a educator – bestower of Knowlegde

  • Letters are trying to inform the Chief Ministers of the international importance of India – they focus on their local issues but Nehru attempt to educate them on India’s international role and the international significance of domestic issues (the democratic project must succeed)
  • Tell them the importance of ties with China, having tried to push through their route to the UN and wanting to join an alliance with them; the importance of remaing independent in the Cold War

Democracy – Limit political democracy, make himself an ‘arch’ political figure, in order to change elements of India he hates

  • Bayly article notes – Nehru understands that economic democracy does not come about through political democracy
  • He believes that the latter should be compromised to create the former – the planning commission, a strong executive to implement science and technology, should be prioritised
  • Therefore he sees himself as the arch-political actor – the main, central, powerful one, to implement rationalism and create economic equality, that has been lacking from the history of India
  • Nehru, in The Discovery of India, was horrified by the history of caste, superstition and poverty in India
  • His writings on the subject thus informed him to become the ARCH-political actor – the strong, central leader, to transform Indian society
  • Makes him a paternalistic figure – his education, understanding of history, western education and globalist views makes him believe he is the figure to transform India – He must be the arch-political figure

• ‘To avoid the infinite condescension of posterity’ – India as an independent state has a lot of forces working against it – he prioritised ending violence pragmatically; argument between trying to keep peace vs trying to modernise through socialism – Bayly says he is neither of these things, it is much more complicated

• People mentioned are economists and planners – he has a deep belief in politics to make India free, but then a deep suspicion of it once it is free (ideas should be contained) – reliance on technocrats (a running theme throughout Indian independence – they are not elected but have the biggest impact)


Section 3 – Humanism – The biggest ideological trait of his historical writing

Section 4 – The role of History – History as the present; the culmination of forces – Destiny

e.g. A tryst with destiny speech

Purushotham – Revolutions and breaks with the past

  • The need for revolutions to break up history, create a new [seen in purushotham’s writing’s on Nehru’s histories
  • This is invoked in the Tryst with Destiny Speech – how the past over


The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.

We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be. We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.


Discovery – Nehru emphasises that the reason that India is such a great country, because of its interactions with other nations, the wider region


India’s sovereignty and constitution – BASED on Nehru’s understanding of the history of revolutionary states and the principle features of democracy

PRIMARY SOURCE – The Constitutional Debate – Nehru overseeing the debate as the arch-political leader, seeing his conception of the Indian state, based on his own understanding of history, as the true future for the Indian state

The speech given the Constitutional Assembly is a fundamental example of the role of history in Nehru’s conception of the Indian state

  1. Why India should be a Republic

‘The Resolution states that it is our firm and solemn resolve to have a sovereign Indian republic. We have not mentioned the word ‘republic’ till this time; but you will well understand that a free India can be nothing but a republic’ – India ‘can be nothing but a republic, because history has taught him so

  • Nehru has a  belief in the power of history and the need for a clear break with the past; history is a key enactor of political change

‘we are at the end of an era and possibly very soon we shall embark upon a new age’

  • He writes that he trembles with the responsibility placed upon him to make this change and stresses the major importance of this moment in India’s 5,000 year history
  • His whole political argument for the development of an Indian republic is founded COMPLETELY on his own understanding of the Indian past; because he is a historian, because he has this knowledge, his own arguments have power, greater legitimacy, than opposing views
  • India, he says, has a unique place in the world – it should set an example to other newly emerging independent countries
  • Why does he see it as India’s role – because of it’s size, significance, because it is one of the oldest civilisations in the world and is respected because of it [it’s history, essentially – India’s international significance stressed throughout Discovery]
  • A republic is one of the oldest forms of democratic government which allows for plurality and diversity; Nehru’s histories depict a liberal humanist interpretation of India, which justifies his calls for a republic which he sees as in keeping with this trend
  • Also, Glimpses of the World, takes a sweeping view of human civilisation, including Greek republics, which are depicted as the first incarnation of liberal democracy; Nehru’s political agenda is a fusion of these historical conceptions
  • Plurality – A Republic gave room for plurality – it was not Hindu nationalist; he stresses that individual state have the liberty to govern as they see fit and respond to the desires of their people
  • This is why Nehru also opposes the changing of the wording of the constitution from putting the ‘power in the people’ to ‘working people’; the constitution should be universal and not exclusionary by using socialistic language

The Purpoose of the Constitution – not about creating policy; but setting a historical precedent

  • For example calls for the inclusion of specific policy guarentees within the Indian constitution, such as a right to universal compulsory education, should not be included

On Multiculturalism – THE republic as the vehicle for securing this

  • ‘We should never yield to the proposition of dividing India’
  • The Republic is a way of returning to co-operation between Muslims and Hindus that have been brought about by the British

Protection of and concession to the Tribal peoples

  • They are from the Indus valley civilisation – he recognises their significance to the history of the country
  • Verrier Elwin, the anthropologist and specialist on the indigenous peoples of India, including Nagaland in the Northwest, persuaded Nehru that these people needed a different developmental path, and they must be protected
  • They have different ancestors to the rest of India – but they are just as important; the constitution must be open to everyone; not specific on ethnic or religious grounds

The Process of the Constitution – Granville Austin, India’s Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, 1966

  • Uses a large number of previously unpublished papers (including the correspondences of the CA’s head Dr Prasad)
  • Overall impression – an account of the process of creating the constitution where ‘the fundamental decisions were taken by a smaller inner group, or often by one man’ – allowed by the 1935 Government Act of India – provision for more talk was made but rarely used
  • The Constituent Assembly is shown to debate inessential parts of the constitution while core of experts drive the real formation behind closed doors (Ambedkar, Nehru)
  • THIS is in opposition to Nehru’s conception of history as being of the people, the masses, rather than driven by great men’

Discussion of other Historically important constitutions and Republics which have had a huge impact on world history – Sees India in this ilk – Ramps up historical importance in order to secure votes

• French revolution – Paris ‘which fought so many battles for freedom’ – the King and other authorities tried to shut it down but it did not stop until freedom achieved

• But the republic was the product of a long struggle thereafter – not that democracy and republicanism came together (In India, there will nt be this struggle after getting rid of monarchy – it will be a declaration)

• Russian Revolution. Creating the USSR ‘another mighty country which is playing a tremendous part in the world’

• India must learn from their mistakes and emulate their successes

CARRY ON – inc hindu-muslim relations



Section 5 – Nehru’s Vision of India – Taken from the past

Secularism, Unity, Partition – NEHRU believes that the Indian nation has existed for generations; there is precedent in the past for the entirety of British India to remain united



Nehru on Nationalism [p314, Gokhale] – Feeds into understanding of Secularism; internationalism termpers it

  • DID not like it wholesale – more about sovereignty than nationalism wholesale – comes through in his internationalist perspective (history and politics) which tempered the excesses of nationalism which he feared
  • Understood the utiliy of it, but understood that it ‘could be an unreliable friend and an unsafe historian’, a ‘narrowing creed’
  • Narrowing creed – because one has to define who belongs to the nation and who does not
  • His history of the nation emphasises the multifaith, tolerant aspects to promote secular democracy, Mughal Emperor Akbar – so as not to define the nation
  • His history is about right to sovereignity and place of India in wider region; not Nationalist
  • GOKHALE ‘the internationalist in Nehru constantly watched over nationalism and especially in the task of interpreting history, he frequently attempted to divest himself of the kind that said, ‘‘my country right or wrong’’ [Discovery, 391]

Of all the ideological commitments expressed in Nehru’s history, his commitment to reconnecting India to its history of internationalism, to re-centring India’s geography and identifying its close historical ties to its Asian neighbours correlates exceptionally closely to his approach to foreign affairs and diplomacy, to India’s benefit as a leader of the non-aligned world and its huge detriment in his understanding of Sino-Indian relations. Glimpses of World History has been held up as the first modern history of the world which questions Eurocentrism, following in the footsteps of the medieval Islamist scholar Ibn Khaldun and ancient Chinese text The Classic of History. H.G Well had published a global history text The Outline of History, which Nehru according to a New York Times review made look ‘singularly insular’ in its breadth and scope[8]. British imperialism had reorganised India’s view of the past on European thinkers and civilisations, holding them up to be the pinnacle of intellectual, political and military might and the cradle of modernity, who’s actions and ideas should be implemented the world over. Glimpses of World History rejects the narrative of Europe as a beacon, detailing instead the rise and fall of civilisations across the globe from Mesopotamia and Indian emperor Ashoka the Great, to the Mongol, Chinese and Persian Empires, sitting alongside classical Europe as the great civilisations of the past. Nehru’s judgement that ‘Chinggis [Khan] is, without doubt, the greatest military genius and leader in history’ with ‘Alexander [the Great] and Caesar [seeming] petty before him’[9] is particularly telling; Asian civilisations and accomplishments outdoing anything Europe has to offer. The Mongol Empire is described as much larger, with a greater longevity than the British empire, all of which led Nehru to conclude in his first letter to Indira that ‘it would be foolish not to recognise the greatness of Europe. But it would be equally foolish to forget the greatness of Asia’[10]. Nehru’s point here is clear – that India and Asia should be respected and its population should have faith in its own ideas which history has shown can rival any corner of the world, even Europe and the western world.

This strand of Asian pride prefaces the non-aligned foreign policy of Nehru’s premiership which rejected the American and Russian Cold War alliances to follow its own path as a leading nation of the Bandung Conference and Non-Aligned Movement founded at the Belgrade summit in 1961. Speaking in 1947, Nehru defiantly stated that ‘in the ultimate analysis, a government functions for the good of the country it governs and no government dare do anything which in the short or long run is manifestly to the disadvantage of that country[11] – India must follow its own path and believe in its own ideas and principles rather than subscribing to Cold War alliances which would undermine its own geopolitical aims and freedom to act for its own benefit. In Nehru’s view, tying India to a supra-national bloc led by the US equated to a continuation of western colonialism by other means and would leave the objective of puran swaraj (true sovereignty), which Nehru’s Discovery had argued was India’s historical right, unfulfilled. As director of India’s approach to geopolitics, he pursued an independent path, signing to no aid or economic packages that would enable the infiltration of the US, Britain or Russia into domestic affairs in accordance with the ‘five principles’ of the NAM agreed in Belgrade[12]. Even when receiving emergency military aid from the US during the Chinese invasion in 1961, Nehru’s correspondence with US Secretary of State

The intellectual ideas

It has always been an international place – Alexander the Great, the British Empire even

Because of its history it deserves a place at the top of the table of nations – in the UN, at the top of the NAM, as a key figure to guide the way

India must set an example to the rest of the newly independent nations – it is its duty to become a democracy


NAM – links to sovereignty – did not want to be tied down to an alliance with another larger nation; India should be independent, had the right to be

5.2 Foreign Policy – India’s role in the world; redrawing India’s allies  etc


4. Re-positioning India in the world – CHINA and NAM

  • Nehru re-positioned India in its geographical surroundings, not only pointing out that India had at least as many connections with ancient Greece as western Europe did, but also re-traced its many links with South-East Asia, Iran and West Asia
  • CHINA – above all, is made ‘a regular lodestar’ [xxii] of the Indian past – meaning a guiding force
  • He wanted to redraw these links to his neighbours – INDIA AS paternalist to other newly decolonised countries, ALSO links to CHINA [HUGE naivity over invasion – catastrophic]
  • Nehru wanted no less than to ‘remap the world’ [xxii]

Foreign Policy –

India’s unique place in the world

It has always been the hub for the region – the meeting place for trade between the Arabian peninsula, the trading hubs along the East African coast and East

[Can bring in work from the

  1. Relationship with China (see the Decolonisation book-
  • Looking at China’s past – he admired it immensely – it’s spiritual freedom; its character not founded on religious dogma but on rationality and philosophy
  • His interpretations of China’s past and its deep philosophical joint past, joint broadly  socialist aims and joint geo-political aims – breaking into the hierarchy of the UN meant he clung to a bond, to his detriment
  • His admiration of China was part of his commitment to internationalism
  • This was sorely tested in 1962 in the border conflict – to his detriment

Add significantly from revised version of themes and sources – the non-aligned policy pursued, international but tampered because sovereignity above all

Impact of China on his Foreign policy

His hatred of nuclear weapons and the power of science – and yet adhering to them; the power of science as a force for good in the past – changes, becomes more pragmatic in his approach during his premiership


The Discovery of India

  • The classic reference for the INC leaders was to the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who is held up (including in The Discovery of India) as a fount of communal harmony
  • Did Nehru see himself acting in the image of this emperor?
  • According to Nehru, the whole history of India’s history of assimilation of cultural diference pointed towards the gradual emergence of a a sense of unity
  • Before the British empire had created sectarian conflict for their own benefit, the masses of Hindus and Muslims were hardly distinguishable from each other
  • It was Nehru’s belief that it was only the recent psychological and economic differences between the Hindu and Muslim middle classes that made Muslim separatism plausible
  • P323 discovery of India,


Nehru on Secularism, Religion – MORE INTERESTED IN SCIENCE

INC meeting Lahore, 1929 – ‘I was born a Hindu, but I do not know how far I am justified in calling myself one or speaking on behalf of the Hindu’s’ – He was sceptical of calling himself a Hindu, seeing india as a Hindu country; doesn’t interpret it as such

Wanted rationality not superstition – but attitude changed

Supersition, spirituality and history, 1958 – [Quote from Nehru on Society [Education and Culture, 1965]

‘’We talk ofthings material and spiritual, and yet it is difficult to draw a line between them. Every great wave of human thought which has affected millions of human being has something spiritual in it. The great revolutions, whether in the United States or France or Russia or China, would not have succeeded without a spiritual element which appealed to the deeper instincts of human beings’

Comes across in the language and gravitas, but he remained definitely scientific; his use of spiritual language in bringing about revolution in India?

Spirituality is such  a fuzzy term – gravitas, about hope etc

5.5 Role of Socialism + economics – role of the masses; economics as the main, but not sole force in history – How this applies to his Arch-poltiical leader

[India is puts political democracy before economic democracy]

[Failed attempts

Nationalisation – Government control and domestic economy – India should onot give away economic control

Conflict with nationalism and internationalism – limiting the country’s economy will have adverse effects, turn away from the world

Socialism – Shaped his early actions more; then moved away towards a nationalist view

Belief in a metanarrative; he was not a fully signed up socialist – but how did his socialism impact his idea of history – as curved towards justice; as a metanarrative towards freedom?

Nehru’s politics is more about Nationalism than socialism – HISTORY IS MORE CRUCIAL

More about nation than Marxism – he says that the Communist Party doesn’t understand the nationalist preoccupations of the Indian people; that they neglect the proletarian’s ties to their country as a matter of ideology, when the people on the ground feel this sense of national pride driving their anti-colonial efforts

Marxists underestimate the political power of the past, the idea of a shared identity, an ‘imagined community’ based on territory and heritage not on class and production, Nehru stating that for the members of the Indian Communist Party, history began in 1917.

What is Nehru’s Socialism

  • Nehru believes in the individual – people cannot die for the cause, believes in individual agency, it must be non-violent [appauled by Stalin’s purges]
  • Nehru’s own type of socialism was changed – moves away from his scientific socialism (the mechanisation of violence) but also because he is a highly ambiguous thinker, changes all the time
  • He admires Lenin and what he has achieved in the Soviet Union – he is appalled by the violence of Stalin – Gandhian influence – political aims cannot be achieved through violence
  • He wants gradual change otherwise the state will have to intervene as a violent figure
  • Socialism has to be an aspect of democracy – democracy trumps socialism (all of the leaders of the time were
  • Turns away from Communism – due to the imperialism conducted in South East Asia; the communist party wins in Kerala (EMS – leader of the communists; in 1959 Nehru gets rid of the Communist Party through the President’s Rule – within 6 months there is another election and the communists win again)
  • Democracy challenges his limits in interest in communism, tests his own power (sees himself as world leader)

Gokhale on Nehru’s Marxism

Nehru and Marxist History – The need for revolution; but also DISMISSAL of economics as only feature of politics [Gokhale continued]

  • Nehru was, in his early years, a fervent Marxist who admired the socialist experiment being conducted in the USSR, before learning of the purges of the Stalinist era
  • In his earliest writings, he believed almost fully in the Marxist theory,

‘accepted the fundamentals of the socialist theory’,

‘Much in the Marxist philosophical outlook I could accept without much difficulty… [in relation to history] the dialectic of continuous change by evolution as well as leap, through action and interaction, cause and effect, thesis, antithesis and synthesis’

The latter part – through revolution and consolidation; a monumental break with the past; belief in revolution as a way to change history; Marxist theory [FIND EVIDENCE – PURUSHOTHAM]

Misgivings about the Marxist view of history – although it stimulated his thoughts

  • ‘It proved too narrow a creed and whatever its virtue as an economic approach, it failed to resolve our basic doubts. Life is something more than economic growth, though it is well to realize that economic growth is a basic foundation of growth and progress’ [DISCOVERY, p15]
  • It was not adequate to describe social phenomena – nationalism for example – others?, had no place in Marxist doctrine, which limited its utility
  • Nehru put nationalism, internationalism, at the centre of historical works; the history of India within a global framework
  • This is akin to his politics – sovereignty had to be achieved before socialist revolution
  • Revolution, the need for clean breaks with the past, acknowledged but lessen as his career goes on

Marxist features of Nehru’s time as Prime Minister

  • Nehru believed in economics the main feature driving societies over the course of history, even I he did not believe that it was the only feature
  • His conception of the division of Indian states was to be therefore drawn along economic lines so as to provide the liberation of India from its past of famine and underdevelopment
  • Nehru wanted the states to be divided up into different economic areas which would work together to form a cohesive and self-supporting economy
  • This had to be compromised in the 1950s as the imposition of Hindi, a language historically from the north of the country, was rejected by tribal groups and leaders from the south where Hindi was an alien imposition from the central government

Capitalism as the greatest force for good in western history


MORE ABOUT SCIENCE – development of society, progress, history marching on, history of a nation – whiggish historian; Became more sceptical in his term, the power of state for change – see the quote above

• Became more sceptical on the utility of science – questioned what it actually told us

• Came to believe more in intuition in understanding human behaviour




Periods of decay in Indian history – When closed in on itself; when economy stagnates; when hierarchy strongest [Gokhale]

  • Blames the shrinking of Indian influence at the end of the Gupta (Golden) era and the first millennium on ‘a loss of political freedom’ and ‘the growing rigidity and exclusiveness of the Indian social structure as represented chiefly by the caste system’ which returned due to India losing it’s economic appeal to the outside world [p124-6]
  • The economy being central to social mobility and ending poverty – economics were central to his policies, even if Marxism could not explain the social (therefore having separate policies for this sphere – reservations for example)
  • “We can almost measure the growth and advance of India and the decline of India by relating them to periods when India had her mind open to the outside world and when she wanted to close it up. The more she closed it up the more static she became’ [Nehru on Society, 106]

HUMANISM – Gokhale says [p315 of Nehru and History] that ‘the closest that Nehru came to any system of thought, especially in his philosophy of history, is that of humanism’ [SEE GOKHALE NOTES}

Humansim, the closest school of thought he held in history [Gokhale] – look at humanism in Politics

Gokhale, p315 – ‘The closest that Nehru came to any system of thought especially in his philosophy of history, is that of humanism’

  • Humanism, defined by Corliss lamont in ‘The Philosophy of Humanism’ as

‘A philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world and advocating the methods of reason, science and democracy’

  • The Gandhian influence swayed him towards the liberal version rather than the Marxist one, especially Gandhi’s view of ends needing to be brought about by ethical  – i.e. not resorting to violence
  • Gokhale argues that Nehru fits Lamont’s 10 points which make a humanist almost perfectly, ‘especially in his view of history’

SEE The philosophy of humanism, page 12-14

The role of History – Conception of history

  1. India’s right to sovereignty; Keep united as a whole
  2. The Spirit of India; which needs to be maintained
  3. The Parts that must be changed
  4. Foreign Policy – Non-Aligned Movement,
  5. Democracy – Glimpses of the World – history of the world; Speech on the Constitution
  6. Liberal tradition in India – the type of society he sees in the past; the one he wants to create
  7. Marxism, science and economics
  8. Purusotham – the changing of Nehru before and after

Sovereignity and Diversity


[1] Khilnani, pxix

[2] Khilnani, pxix

[3] Lidell, The Indirect Approach

[4] Nehru, The Discovery of India, 1946:44

[5] Nehru, Autobiography, p353

[6] Gokhale, Nehru and History p316

[7] Nehru, Discovery of India, 1946:26

[8] New York Times, 1934

[9] Nehru, Glimpses of World History, 1934 [p216]

[10] Nehru, Glimpses of World History, 1934 [p10]

[11] Nehru, 1947 in Sinha, Atish. Mohta, Madhup. Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities (New Delhi: Academic Foundation, 2007) [p5]

[12] Review of International Affairs, No 491, September 1970 [Willetts, p25]

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