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Response to Review no. 429

Reply of an ‘Idiosyncratic Young Turk’

It would perhaps not be inappropriate to begin a reply to a review that illustrates the autonomy of the text and the irrelevance of the author by asking whether the Young Turks used spurs. Or, for that matter, with a commentary on mixed metaphors and misplaced historical analogies (Patel and Bismarck? Who, then, was the Kaiser?). But this would merely be another indication of what the reviewer refers to as my ‘idiosyncratic’ approach. (I may note in parentheses that this, coincidentally, is in consonance with what she calls ‘Nehru’s idiosyncratic style of leadership’.) I am not, nor have I ever been, a Turk; nor am I particularly young.

Dr Chatterji appears to have read only a few selected bits of my book. She finds a few things in it worthy of praise, but on the whole she appears to be less than positive: perhaps the adjectives ‘glib’, ‘facile’ or ‘sloppy’ are clues to this. She makes a number of strong assertions about my interpretation of Nehru’s life and times, and makes it clear she disagrees with my interpretations: it is at times ‘palpably off the rails’; and ‘falls between two stools’ (‘avoid clichés like the plague’, I was told as a young writer). Does this suggest that there is a definite set of rails, or indeed two stools, which must constrain writing about Nehru? Historical writing, as any undergraduate has hopefully been taught, does not rely on assertions without evidence, and much of what she writes about my book is difficult to deal with without asking for a basis in some sort of evidence.

Part of the reviewer’s annoyance appears to come from my choice of areas of emphasis: the lyrics of Sare Jahan Se Accha, the space given to socialists and communists (I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party), the lack of space given to the Congress right. Other disagreements, the grounds for which remain obscure because none are stated, relate to what I have actually written (as opposed to what I might have written had I been someone else): for instance, Dr Chatterji objects to my ‘caricature’ of Patel as belonging to a Hindu right wing and in favour of a Hindu state; and to my reading of the process of writing a constitution for India, which she describes as ‘simply incorrect’.

On a number of these points, it is indeed possible to have a meaningful exchange of ideas. Regarding Iqbal’s poem: I used this to illustrate a recurrent theme in my book, that of the ambiguity of the categories ‘Hindi’, ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hindustani’; but perhaps the point was not made strongly enough to get through to the reviewer. On communists and socialists – but also various other groups and parties – I think an understanding of the politics of the Nehruvian period cannot be attempted without reference to other important political forces. Biographical writing, and writing on Nehru in particular, has long been constrained by an excessive interest in the persona(e) or personality(ies?) of the individual; a larger canvas seemed to me to be necessary in order not to fall into that trap. This is especially important in writing about Nehru, where constraints of sources mean that most writers work from the same set of available sources (more on this point below). Were the communists and socialists really as important as I make them out to be? Or Swatantra? Or the Congress for Cultural Freedom? I think so; I would welcome informed disagreement on this and other points.

By far the strongest assertions made in the review seem to relate to the figure of Vallabhbhai Patel. Dr Chatterji attributes to Patel the role of ‘leading architect of India’s constitution’ (which is the only clue I can find as to why she thinks I am ‘simply incorrect’ on the constitution of 1950). Patel is allegedly also ‘the guardian of [India’s] unitary system of governance’ and ‘the iron statesman who integrated the princely states’. In the last of the three areas, to use a cliché Dr Chatterji has left unused, Patel proved his mettle (though I am not sure about his metal). It may also be suggested (as I have) that Patel stressed institutional continuities with the British Raj and was reluctant to dismantle many aspects of the administrative and repressive apparatus of imperial rule that would be of assistance to a new state building its power. Whether this amounts to his guardianship of a ‘unitary system of governance’ is open to question (constitutionally, of course, the unitary principle was specifically rejected: India has a federal structure, albeit with centralising tendencies).

Patel’s role in providing the Indian constitution with its basic structure (as ‘architect’) did not strike me; but the longest written constitution in the world will inevitably leave space for argument about what its central aspects are. However, if Patel had had his way (to the extent that his way can be judged by what he wrote himself), Indian citizenship, one way or another, would have privileged ‘Hindus’, reducing Muslims and other minorities to the implicit status of foreigners. That this is not more widely accepted in the existing historiography is largely a result of the correspondence that discussed this remaining private, due to Nehru’s insistence on secular politics in the public domain (he could not police his colleagues’ thoughts), and to the necessity that Patel and Nehru maintain public solidarity.

On Patel as a Hindu sectarian, therefore, I stand by what I wrote: among other things, he blocked Nehru’s attempts to move against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh after that organisation’s involvement in the murder of Gandhi, preferring instead to incorporate its less ‘extreme’ elements into the Congress; and he was considered by Nehru and others to be personally responsible for the persecution of Muslims when he was Home Minister. Even in the 1930s, when Patel was hiding behind the legitimating banner of ‘Gandhism’, many in the Congress saw him as pro-Hindu as well as pro-capitalist: the dividing line between a ‘secular’ and a ‘Hindu’ right may be too sharply drawn in retrospective writing. I am happy to provide chapter-and-verse citations for these statements, but they are not even particularly new (a point Dr Chatterji is willing to make elsewhere: my ‘better points’, she says, have been ‘made before by others’). The correspondence is easily available, in printed form in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; and the more general points were made, sotto voce, by Nehru’s official biographer, Sarvepalli Gopal, who was obviously constrained not to deviate too far from Indian nationalist narratives of the Congress’s secular character. The Congress was far from a secular organisation as a whole; it was a coalition that contained resolutely secular members, and a large section who hid their Hindu sectarianism behind the secular rhetoric that was obligatory due to the Congress’s official position. It is no longer terribly novel to say that the Congress was at least two parties (or tendencies), one of which was indeed the collection of upper-caste Hindu sectarians of the Muslim League’s propaganda; it may still be a little alarming if this is made explicit.

These last points are of greater general relevance than those discussed earlier. It would have been a great deal easier to deal with Dr Chatterji’s assertions had there been any evidence supporting her claims; as it happens, her somewhat dogmatic and definitely second-hand assertions regarding Patel are severely undermined by the fact that she even gets his death wrong by two very crucial years: he died in 1950, not in 1952, as a glance at my chronological table would have confirmed. Of course, had he lived two years longer, he might indeed have ‘called the shots’, or at least more of them, for longer, and changed the internal balance of power within the Congress, delaying Nehru’s ascendancy in post-independence India. A reader of this review might be invited to return to the narrative provided in my account, imagine Patel’s recovery from his illness, and construct an alternative scenario as a parlour game.

Two interrelated points need to be dealt with by way of conclusion: that of originality and of sources. My work sought to be an interpretative essay on Nehru and ‘Nehruvian’ politics that would serve both as an introduction to the subject and a guide to further work. Its two claims to newness rested on the decentring of nationalism as the dominant narrative convention underlying the retelling of the life of Nehru, and the restoration of the links between domestic and international politics that were characteristic of pre- and immediate post-independence India (with both of which the reviewer did not engage at all). The beginnings of some answers to larger questions of whether Nehruvian ideas, of ‘socialism’, of planned economic development, or of secularism were properly implemented or not should certainly be accessible to readers of my book.

Allegedly, Nehru still awaits a ‘definitive assessment’: this, I hope, is neither possible nor desirable. Ambitions of definitiveness, to which I do not aspire, belong in now outdated paradigms that imagine completeness and comprehensiveness in source material and interpretation. Even a ‘complete’ set of sources has implicit and explicit gaps, deliberate and accidental omissions, and the historian’s intervention, because it is an intervention, is also a reordering – again, this ‘insight’ has been part of a basic training in the discipline of history that has been available since the 1960s. More specifically, in the case of the Nehru papers, what we are permitted to see are culled, reordered, censored; and above all expurgated of traces of both controversial political moments and of a private life that was quite clearly both active and rewarding in many of its aspects. What we see are a combination of private papers cleared for (relatively) public research, the selections made by Sarvepalli Gopal and a few others, plus papers selectively released, often to a select group of persons who can be relied upon either to massage the public image of Nehru that is so integral to contemporary Indian politics and to the party that he once led, or at least not to disrupt it. We can and ought to add to this a few bits and pieces traced from among the papers of Nehru’s many correspondents, or from among institutional papers that were concerned with Nehru’s life, work, or perhaps merely his movements. It is now possible, for instance, to trace private moments and daily movements of Nehru on his various European journeys from British intelligence reports. But perhaps these new materials ought to be used not merely in biographical mode but for different purposes, in pursuit of new research questions.