18 min read

Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 5

The contemporary events that shaped Nehru are some of the most significant events in India's history. His perspective on them is biased, invaluable, and deeply immersive.
Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 5

As we get closer and closer to the end, Nehru starts drifting into contemporary events. These events are particularly interesting, given the importance of communalism, the inheritance from the freedom movement the Congress managed to squander away, the legacies of Gandhi and Nehru, and many other reasons. Reading Nehru's thoughts on these times is invaluable, for not only do they tell us about him, they also put us into the shoes of a leader of the independence movement and allow us to share his viewpoint.

Day 20

Nehru wanders into freedom struggles across the world in this reading. He starts off with Ireland. This choice is significant: Nehru has a special place in his heart for this island, the place dealing with English Imperialism for nigh over 600 years. He goes into the heart of Sinn Féin, the various splits and battles and of course, a blow-by-blow account of the Irish asserting their birthright. Freedom.

Or Home Rule, in any case. Nehru's retelling of a bunch of scrappy underdogs fighting against the might of a vicious empire bent on subjugating them truly reads like a David vs. Goliath tale. His admiration for the Irish who refused to bow, bend, or break[1] is quite naked. No one deserved it more than the Irish, for no one has had a longer struggle against the British. Everything that happened: the Easter Uprising, the fighting against the Black and Tans, the numerous treaties signed, refused, and burnt, and finally, the partition of Ireland which caused large-scale economic warfare is spoken of in glowing terms. The Irish were the heroes of their own struggle[2] with a journey worthy of song.

But while Ireland's story is spoken of lovingly, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's story is reserved for an almost Napoleonic admiration. Nehru's effusive regard for Napoleon has already been remarked upon; his admiration for Mustafa Kemal Pasha might just come close. Kemal Pasha's story, of course, is about as implausible as you get. A man who brought together a war-torn country at the mercy of her erstwhile enemies to throw them all out and rout an opposing, marauding, ravaging, pillaging Greek army all at the same time deserves to be spoken of in reverent terms. The Khilafat Movement was in its heyday at the time and as such, many eyes were on Turkey to see what it would do and what would happen. Nehru says that upon learning of Turkey's liberation from the European yoke, many Indian freedom fighters celebrated in gaol.

There seemed to be a certain bond among these men. All of them were freedom fighters in their own countries. Drawing inspiration from each other's struggles seemed to be natural, and that is what seemed to animate Nehru. His joy at their successes was apparent, his pain at their losses was stark. One again I remark, Nehru's anti-imperial credentials are unquestionable.

A bigger problem comes when Nehru talks about tyranny. As I've noted before, Nehru's stance on democracy is less clear than it ought to be of a man as venerated as he is. He is full of awe of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, yet spends the next letter talking of how the man became a single-minded dictator. Kemal Pasha's programme of rebuilding Turkey into a modern nation would have horrified the world had it been implemented today. Forcible secularisation, enforced Westernisation and a deliberate destruction of valued customs does not a great nation make. And yet, Nehru merely describes it: true vitriol is reserved for European cruelty. One is reminded of Nehru's descriptions of the English subjugation of Ireland, European barbarism in China, and cruelty towards native Americans. The disgust, horror and a thin veneer of loathing one finds there is curiously absent in his description of Ataturk's excesses. Indeed, the large-scale violence perpetrated against the Kurds merely finds passing mention, not whole-scale condemnation.

Finally, Nehru comes to India. And more importantly, this is the first true mention of Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is mentioned many times in his letters, but this is the first true description of the Mahatma's style we actually see.

And what a style.

The first impression I get is that Gandhi must have been a very, very charismatic man. Nehru describes him as having a certain flair and charm which drew everyone to him. And when Nehru says everyone, he means everyone. Gandhi was the one who threw open the doors of nationalism to the masses and made freedom a national struggle. The methods pioneered by Gandhi at Champaran became the de-facto methods of the Congress. When Gandhi spoke, people listened. When he called for a strike, all of India shut down. Make no mistake, while the Congress was run by various presidents throughout that period, it was Gandhi's voice which pierced through the chaos. There was magic in it, magic which changed the world, which made it spin on a dime.

However, the interesting bit about these descriptions is that Gandhi sounds like a rabble-rouser. He is described in the same way one would describe a populist. Indeed, if you substitute Gandhi's name with, say, Nigel Farage, you'd be hard pressed to tell whether the account is a contemporary Farage account or not.

Nehru speaks of the old guard of the Congress and how it faded into the brickwork of the Government. He speaks of the happenings of this period and how nationalism took shape in India. He describes the nation after Amritsar, he talks of Satyagraha, he explains British capital and Indian industries, and more importantly, he goes into detail about communalism in India.

This letter, the one which deals with communalism in India, is another one which ought to be read by anyone who wishes to understand Nehru or understand communalism in general. Our textbooks describe communalism as something which the British essentially created. Divide and Rule, as it were. Nehru disagrees. Starkly. The British merely kept fanning it, he says. The divide was created for a number of reasons. The Muslim community in India was less educated, poorer and more backward than the Hindu community. Because of this, there was a push within the Muslim community to get special privileges. An early form of reservation, as it were.

This was primarily a middle-class phenomenon. If I were to make an aside, it's been nearly 90 years since Nehru wrote that letter and it still remains true. Actual Hindu-Muslim animus in India seems to be something very middle-class. You don't really care about it when you're poor, and you certainly don't care when you're rich. It's when you're in-between that it matters.

But even beyond this, Nehru states, was the nature of nationalism itself. Hindu, Sikh and Muslim nationalism were fundamentally different. While he doesn't go into detail about Sikh nationalism[3] he makes a couple of very interesting points about Hindu and Muslim nationalism. He says that Hindu nationalism was tied to the land itself. India was the only Hindu country in the world, he says, and so it was natural for Hindus to link nationalism to the land itself. However, nationalism for Muslims meant something very different. It was related to the land, yes, but it was more international in nature, given its beginnings in the Khilafat Movement.

There was no way, Nehru opines, for these movements to keep going in parallel. They did, for a while, resulting in remarkable Hindu-Muslim unity, but that fractured soon enough once the two sides realised their goals were slightly different.

I wish to stop here and ponder Nehru's remarks. He talks in great detail about these things, but he stops short of criticising either Hindu nationalism or Muslim nationalism. He makes it clear that for him, Indian nationalism was something else altogether. It was a movement which brought in all Indians together. He does not really define it in these letters (at least the letters until which I have read), and that leaves doubts in my mind as to what he meant.

It is worth pointing out Nehru's bias towards racially homogenous nations. He opines about Turkey's vision to rid itself of Arabic and Persian influences in an uncritical manner. He has spoken of homogeneity glowingly in the past as well. While this was very normal for the time, I imagine, it seems out of character for Prime Minister Nehru. What caused his views to temper? What caused him to reject Hindu nationalism? What caused him to reject racial homogeneity as one of the core parts of India's fabric?

The Nehru we see at this time is a cultured man. And yet, I find myself raising my eyebrows at the contradictions I've found. Different standards for the oppressed and oppressors. Different ways of looking at their actions. A certain tolerance for tyranny. A measured approach towards communalism. Nehru's idealism and realism twist and mix in very very complex ways. Disentangling his thoughts might just turn out to be an exercise in folly.

Day 21

Nehru continues in the same vein as before. This reading consisted of but four letters. One dealing with peaceful protest in India, the second dealing with Egypt, the third talking about the meaning of independence, dominion status and other freedoms promised by the British, and the fourth an exposition on West Asia.

Little of this tells us anything new. Most of this telling is historical in nature. The events of the Civil Disobedience Movement are the same whether narrated by Nehru or someone else. Egypt's struggle is longer, fiercer, and bloodier than Turkey's; yet it is fundamentally similar. The exposition on West Asia is interesting at first, but it putters off after a while. The British and the French control most of Iraq and Syria, and Persia is not a force to be reckoned with at this time. British agents crawl over all surfaces, shrouding these places with webs of lies.

A couple of things stand out. In a couple of notes added to the letters in 1938, Nehru states that the Indian National Congress had agreed to stand for Democracy and against Fascism and Imperialism. This partly explains Nehru's democratic tendencies after Independence. Reading Nehru, one would expect him to have flirted with the idea of a dictatorship at some point or the other.

The second is Nehru's grasp of the fundamentally personal nature of politics. The Congress was mostly a middle-class party, as I've mentioned previously. However, Nehru understands that reaching out to the masses was essential for the Congress to be able to gain any sort of foothold in the country. It could have been elected to various governments, formed many committees, and yet remained irrelevant had its leaders not tried to involve the public in its vision. Nehru talks about mustering communities, about various taxes and fiscal instruments which led to a worsening of conditions for peasants, and so on. In essence, he grasps the need for political mobilisation at every level.[4]

Finally, we have Nehru's belief that India's Muslim community is, perhaps, the most backward Muslim community in the world. One wonders what to think about that.

It would be interesting to see Nehru's reaction to current world events. The implosion of his own party, the rise of right-wing nationalism and the current state of the Middle East. One wonders what words he would use to describe them.

Day 22

Nehru talks about the happenings in Arab countries in these forty pages. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Arabia and Afghanistan are interesting countries today; their histories are particularly relevant if one hopes to understand their current predicament.

Similar to the past forty pages, most of what he writes is a straightforward telling of the histories of their freedom movements. Nehru draws interesting parallels between the happenings in India and these Arabian countries. The strategies of non-cooperation and peaceful civil disobedience seemed to percolate from India to these nations as well, albeit not in as influential a manner as they stood in their home country. In a way, it seems, Gandhi's influence was greater than he had thought it would be. At the same time, Indian troops were used to crush uprisings in Arabian countries by the British. This seems to have tarred[5] our relationships in that area.

He also talks a great deal about nationalism. He points out the various areas where nationalism was trumping petty regional, religious and local politics to become the foundation on which these countries were to stand. The one exception to this trend? The Jews. Their influx into Palestine and subsequent refusal to bow to the creed of nationalism sweeping that region seems to have fuelled the animosity between Arabs and Jews. Interestingly, as Nehru points out, the same could not be said about Arabs and Christians, who were, for the most part, together in their struggles.

However, between these points of discussion about various nationalisms, great power intrigues and violent and non-violent protests, one glimpses a certain disdain for religion. Nehru's views on religion, while not exactly clear-cut, seem to hover on the side of distaste. His enthusiasm for nationalistic politics couples with his (mild) revulsion for religious politics to create a certain kind of worldview, one quite alien to today's democrats. Nehru and his contemporaries, it must be understood, saw religion as the way for Great Powers to infringe upon a nation's rights.[6] Their patronage of religious leaders and their exploitation of religious divides seems to have permanently turned these leaders' noses away from the power and subtle allure of religion and into the twin powers of secularism and nationalism.

In particular, judging Nehru by his writings alone, one ought to wonder whether he was rather particularly predisposed against Muslim Religious Nationalism in particular. I am unaware of any form of Christian fundamentalism or national movements anywhere in the world at this time, so it is understandable he does not talk about them. But he hasn't talked much about Hindutva, the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha. Nehru's distaste for religious leaders, his slight satisfaction when he talks about the Khilafat Movement leaders being used by King Saud in Arabia, his frank approval shining towards leaders like Ataturk, all seem to make me feel that deep down, Nehru was just a little bit more prejudiced against Muslim Nationalism than some accounts make you believe.

The other bit which I found most interesting was Nehru's understanding that the uniform voice with which the Christians and Muslims spoke in these nations was due to economic reasons. He doesn't really talk much about these reasons, but Nehru approves of them. In his mind, they seem to point towards a practical and realistic understanding of their situation. This points towards Nehru having a practical side, as people like Srinath Raghavan talk about in their books.[7]

And finally, addendums to these letters from 1938 point towards the shadow of the Nazis hanging over literally everything going on in the world at that time. I truly wonder how far various freedom movements would have gone had the Nazis not become the true threat that they did. The various freedom movements across the colonised world seem to owe them a greater debt than the world is comfortable acknowledging, if what Nehru says is true.

Day 23

These forty pages consist of five letters. Five incredibly interesting letters dealing with contemporary issues and problems. Five incredibly well-crafted letters in which Nehru really lays out what he thinks about various ideologies and world views. Five letters which give us a direct window into Nehru's thoughts.

Nehru starts out by talking about economics. He talks about the flow of money and how America was the creditor of the world. He talks about her richness, her haughtiness and her interest in propping up various regimes around the world. Nehru believes that the USA had to prop up various European regimes because they all owed money to her. Had America not done so, her investments in various European debt instruments would have gone to waste. So she allowed Germany to keep borrowing from her to pay back the victorious powers, who in turn would pay her back.

Nehru displays an interesting knowledge of inflation, deflation and the gold standard. To be honest, Nehru's socialist approach towards governing India had always led me to believe that Nehru was not particularly well-versed with economics. That impression has fallen by the wayside. Nehru is well-read, and quite knowledgeable in the basic tenets of economics. He understands the power of bankers, the international nature of trade, the particulars of protectionism, and a bunch of other things relevant to arthashastra. A particular quip of his truly highlights his understanding of these issues wherein he says that every country knows of the horrors of being a debtor, it seems they're discovering the horrors of being creditors as well!

Many other ideas are explored in the two letters which deal with money. Nehru talks about Nationalism and its narrow creeds. This particular thought process caused me to pick the book up and consider throwing it against a wall.[8] Nehru's past letters have been very favourable towards Nationalism. To see him talk about it negatively was a shock to the system. Nehru might have been a nationalist at core, but internationalism was gradually creeping in, it seems. His talk about distributed supply chains would sound natural to an operations manager in any manufacturing firm today. I'm not exactly sure what he thought about autarky, but Nehru's intelligence assures me he would have thought it a very bad idea. Or if not that, impracticable at best.

In a way, it is reassuring to see that India's first Prime Minister was well-versed in the economic questions of his day. It is also good to see that he understood these issues from the viewpoints of many stakeholders. Nehru's actions, of course, speak louder than his words, but it is worth remembering that his writings on Capitalism are remarkably clear-headed. Nehru opines (quite rightly) that Capitalism's lifeblood was competition. If you take away capitalism then you come back to what Capitalism was designed to avoid. Monopoly.

Nehru's second focus in this batch of letters is Fascism. Fascism is an outgrowth of Capitalism, Nehru opines. It occurs when the traditional levers of Capitalism fail to operate, causing the working classes to agitate (often towards demanding Socialism). That is when the middle classes and the bourgeoisie turn towards violence to cow them down. The issue, Nehru continues, is that Fascism has no governing ideology. While both Capitalism and Socialism are based upon economic and social ideologies, Fascism has no such grounding. That is why Mussolini's Fascism (which is what is discussed in these letters) can simultaneously appeal to both workers and factory owners. Since all Mussolini has to talk about is "the greater good",[9] it doesn't matter what his ideology is. The greater good is a populist ideology. It has no meaning, for all governments ought to strive for the greater good of their peoples.

In addition, it is interesting to see Nehru agree that both Communism and Fascism directly oppose Democracy. They differ, however, on how they oppose it. Fascism is the triumph of one class over the other. Communism is the triumph of the workers: hence there is no question of oppression. Both are dictatorships, but the nature of the dictatorships is so different, Nehru states, that there is no question about which is better and which is not.

Without going into much more detail, it is important to see where Nehru was right and where he had flaws. Nehru is mostly right. He understood that monopoly causes problems[10] and it ought to be avoided, he understood the separate paths Capitalism enabled for its adherents depending on their wealth and status in society, he saw that unfettered Capitalism on its own required competition to survive. All these things are quite plainly visible to us today. The very same problems which Nehru grapples with here are the ones we still grapple with nearly ninety years later. Nehru might have felt pleased at being vindicated.

Yet Nehru is less clear-headed about other things. Nehru talks quite plainly about how the Soviet Union funded movements across Europe, but he does not seem to understand that the people had to pay a heavy price for that funding. The Soviet Union, as Nehru himself knows, was not a rich nation. It still managed to fund various people and movements across the world. Where was that money coming from? How was Russia generating it? What was the price the Russian people had to pay for it? Was the threat of revolution worth it? When democracy was destroyed in the Soviet Union, did the replacements favour some people unduly over others? I would have liked to see Nehru talk about these points, but he either did not think of them, or he ignored them for the sake of his daughter.

Nehru manages to get a lot right about Fascism. It is an ideology bereft of theory and lacking in morality. His distaste for its machismo and violence are quite reassuring. His definition of British Fascism as their policies in the Subcontinent, French Fascism as their actions in Indochina and so on point towards a certain understanding of these ideologies. Europeans, Nehru seems to be saying, aren't so very different from each other when it comes to ruling. There are different countries and creeds in that continent, but they all pretty much work similarly. They are without faith. The so called non-Fascists are simply so because they have colonies to practice their creed in.

If it feels broad, I assure you it does not come from a lack of understanding on Nehru's part. His understanding of what makes Fascism tick, the different class conflicts which enable it, and the diagnosis of the world going to bits and rejecting democracy was spot on for his time. He was an astute observer and an analyst of remarkable skill.

The rest of these forty pages deal with the convoluted history of this time. Nehru talks about the various treaties made between European powers at this time, certain happenings in the United States, the vast resources yet simple inequality in the world, and the situation in Spain and Morocco. There is little more to see there than a straightforward narration of events.

Day 24

This series of letters, four in number, talk about Japan, China, and the USSR. Most of it is narrative in nature, and apart from a few comments about Japanese barbarity and their unique way of government, there isn't much to be gained about Nehru's thoughts here. The only critique I can think of is the tired old "Europe bad, Asia good" theme that Nehru keeps harping up on. While he doesn't exactly praise Japanese methods, he is quite soft on them as compared to his views on Europeans.

Similarly, there isn't much to be said about China either. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen finds mention, as does Chiang Kai-Shek. The relationship between the different parts of the Kuomintang are explained quite vividly: Nehru's storytelling chops are on display here. His bias towards the communists is also obvious, but that's not really a surprise.

The interesting bit comes when he talks about his analysis of the Soviet Union. Nehru's vision of the Soviet Union is that of a utopia where men and women come together to work for the common good. It's fantastic. It's real. The five year plans work. People sacrifice their comforts for the greater good. The ho hum of Capitalist competition gives way to Socialist efficiency.

He's not entirely wrong. The first couple of five year plans were remarkable. The Soviets were much better at producing heavy industry as compared to light industry, which is what the first five year plans focussed on. Nehru also points out the areas in which the Soviet Union broke through the barriers of an ignorant population, ignorant superstitions and medievalism.

At the same time, the near uncanny ability of the markets to create prosperity is something Nehru has remarked upon previously. I'm quite curious about how he was to square this circle. The greatest countries of that period were Capitalist countries. The United States was a young country to boot. And yes, while the Russians were modernising at an astonishing rate, Nehru probably needed to remember the dictatorial diktat which created such vigour in their economy. Stalin was as much of an absolute monarch of Russia as was the Tsar and as Putin is today. Probably more so. Creation by order is faster when it's obvious where you have to go: it's far less so when your economy diversifies and different people have different needs.

In a way, this mirrors calls from a lot of people (anecdotally, of course) that India needs a period of dictatorship before she can truly embrace democracy. Perhaps this sentiment is part of the underlying Modi wave. Nehru seems to have his own ideas, though. I believe he wanted India to drift towards Communism, having concluded in his mind that Communism was the future, and it worked.[11] I'm quite sure Nehru and his compatriots had visions of India chasing down the same path the USSR went down, probably overtaking it in some way or the other. After all, Russia was a peasant country and they managed to industrialise even faster than Japan.

The second thing which I do not understand is the lack of any geopolitical dimension to Soviet Russia's approach towards the world. Nehru views Western countries through lenses of suspicion, casting doubts and aspersions at every action. Yet the Soviet Union's kindness is accepted at face value, as if the very notions of realpolitik have left it behind. The Soviet Union is an inherently kind nation, Nehru opines. It deals in altruism, against other countries which do not. It empathises with the plight of the workers, where other countries dealt with the bourgeoisie.

The issue I see is that Nehru wasn't the only one inclined towards Socialism. The formation of the Swatantra Party tells us that this was the dominant strain of thought in the Congress. It might have been better if Nehru had someone to check his socialist urges. The country would have gone in a different direction.

However, behind the negativity shines a certain warmth for the human condition. Nehru's words do strike a chord when he talks about the electrification of villages, the building of roads, educational achievements, people going to colleges and schools, and the modernisation of the viewpoints of populations. To say this man was anything less than committed to the human cause seems wrong. That isn't to say that his political instincts never got the best of him (and he's not the only politician to have fallen into this trap), but one does manage to unbend from one's critique to give him the benefit of the doubt. He tried his best for his people.


  1. To rip off George R. R. Martin, of course ↩︎

  2. As were the British of theirs, I imagine. You're almost always a villain in someone's story. ↩︎

  3. He probably ought to have, ironically, given his daughter's flirtations with its possible electoral use and the resulting fallout. ↩︎

  4. One wonders where his successors screwed up. ↩︎

  5. And feathered? ↩︎

  6. They might also have seen it as another obstacle in the way to modernisation and Socialism. Regardless, it is present and quite noticeable. ↩︎

  7. One does wonder where it went, at times. Hindi-Chini bhai bhai didn't really work out well for him: he might have spent some time understanding Machiavelli before making decisions about China and the UN, for example ↩︎

  8. I didn't do that: I've still got around two hundred more pages to read. But the idea was very very tempting. ↩︎

  9. I hope you can catch the Harry Potter reference here. If not, shame on you. ↩︎

  10. Which, incidentally, is the goal of the game Monopoly as well. To teach kids that monopolies cause problems ↩︎

  11. I believe this quote is attributed to Lincoln Steffens and it does talk about the USSR. How quaint that people of Nehru's time were so in love with Communism as it was practiced. ↩︎