New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 2019, ISBN: 0195684508
Date accessed: 7 December, 2023
The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru have been published in 100 volumes. The first 15 volumes together make up the First Series, and the following 85 are the Second Series. These roughly cover the pre- and post-1946 periods and are thus divided by the formation of the interim government in India during the transfer of power from British rule. The two series contain pre-independence and post-independence works, mostly correspondence but also some transcripts of Nehru’s speeches, together reflective of his roles in Indian public life, first as an anticolonialist and then as India’s first Prime Minister. The mammoth editorial project that has brought these works to us culminated in 2019 with the release of the 100th volume. From Sarvepalli Gopal to Mushirul Hasan, Aditya Mukherjee and Mridula Mukherjee to Madhavan Palat, the editorial team was led by distinguished historians. The Nehru Project—the official name given to the task of collecting all of Nehru’s papers, spearheaded by Sarvepalli Gopal—began in 1968, with the first volume appearing in 1972. What distinguishes the earlier years, before Palat came on as Series Editor in 2011, is that the volumes produced in the latter half are more comprehensive collections from the Nehru papers along with documents Nehru was responding to. This addresses an issue raised by reviewers of the very first volume in 1972 who complained that without the letters Nehru had received, one could not make sense of his replies.(1) In that sense, from Volume 44 onwards, these volumes now resemble the Collected Works of Gandhi more than earlier volumes did.
The Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, which established and oversaw this project, was headed by Indira Gandhi when the project began. This is significant not just because there is an element of memorialising Nehru through this project but also because Mrs Gandhi was an important recipient of Nehru’s letters—as she herself put it in her preface to later editions of Nehru’s first really important book from 1934, “Glimpses was written for me”. Selected Works is different from Nehru’s books, the aforementioned Glimpses of World History (1934), his Autobiography (1936), Rajneeti Se Door (1940s), and The Discovery of India (1946). These volumes are more on par with A Bunch of Old Letters (1958)—a collection Nehru curated himself, which also included letters written to him—Before Freedom: Nehru’s Letters to His Sister (2004), which includes Nehru’s letters to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, put together by her daughter, Nayantara Sahgal, and the earlier and best-known Letters from a Father to a Daughter (1929). The Selected Works are best read in consultation with Nehru’s Letters to Chief Ministers, a five-volume series of Nehru’s fortnightly letters to Chief Ministers of Indian states. As with many of these works, Nehru wrote in both Hindustani and English. While his writing was primarily in English, some of his writings in Hindi have been included in the later volumes of the Selected Works along with translations into English.
What linguistic universe did Nehru belong to? The question of Nehru’s language is, in many ways, a search for Nehru’s cultural home. That he was never colloquial is seen as symbolic of his English schooling and Harrovian liberalism. But does this keep Nehru at a remove from India? As Sunil Khilnani, the historian, has said, Nehru made “English an Indian language”.(2) In the way that we know Rabindranath Tagore to have remade the Bengali language, Nehru too liberated the English language from its imperial history. He used English to make India familiar to the world, but the use of English also meant there was no need to translate Nehru for a wider international audience. Nehru’s literary sensibilities—particularly his allegorical style of writing—pioneered a narration of India in which India is always found at the centre of the world. Nehru was translating the vast cultural topography of India for the world but also for other Indians. In that sense, his writings form a part of the national literature of India. These letters are also testament to a deeply poetic bent of mind, even when—especially when—the matter is political. The starkly unromantic view of politics that is in vogue today was not to be found in Nehru’s time or in his writings. Nehru’s most well-known speech, ‘Tryst with Destiny’, also contained in these pages, is so acclaimed that we cannot escape its beauty—nothing could come closer to bottling the furore of that moment for India.(3)
The local and the global have strange encounters in Nehru’s writing. Unlike Ambedkar writing in Marathi, Tagore in Bengali, or Gandhi in Gujarati, Nehru has no particular sense of the vernacular, of the locality of India. When I translated his book in Hindustani, Rajneeti Se Door into English for a previous essay, I found that his travelogues from Kashmir made him sound very much like a tourist. The issue of history is critical to the founding of India, yet that history was so contested and unavailable that many of Nehru’s letters are lessons in history. It is now deemed inauthentic to think of 20th century history leaving aside Nehru’s perspective on it. This is not the work of his books alone. In these letters, Nehru takes on a project that is firstly pedagogical—the letters are replete with meditations on war and peace, in the Tolstoyan sense—but it is also an immersive retelling of the unending suffering of India. Nehru’s historical thinking affords us a theatrical view of the 20th century as wrestling its way out of time gone by. If, as Nehru put it, “war and peace come ultimately from the minds of men”, then an aspiration for Nehru was to educate those minds, to offer his own historical idea as a narrative of the world. In that sense, Nehru’s letter writing resembles a personal philosophy in addition to being an experiment in form. Moving away from the long sweep, longue durée histories in his books, the letters offer concise capsules of historical lessons. After reading these 70,000 pages of writing by Nehru, we could certainly say that he was a very literate man. This may seem evident and inconsequential but, in fact, it tells us something about Nehru’s experience of leading a mostly unlettered electorate.
Those looking for unornamental writing might need to look away from this collection. Nehru’s writing, like his person and his politics, is not one of austerity. In these pages, you shall find that Nehru is preoccupied with his ideological and, even more so, ethical responsibilities. These are informed by his disillusionment with the West’s rendition of modernity. Nehru’s mode of writing relies on history but also exceeds it, because he is a man compelled to think of the future; as much as he may want to return to the past, he only does so to draw lessons from it. The abjection Nehru feels at India’s colonial past is not in these letters reduced to a manifesto. It is a podium from which he takes on the intellectual project of envisioning the new nation. Nehru’s ideas of India are exciting because they are not entrenched in nostalgia even though what is at stake for him is precisely the question of India’s past. In the seemingly bleak official letters, this idea is used to galvanize a vision for India. In this way, the Selected Works is a peephole into Nehru’s yearning for India’s future.
What is Nehru’s authorial persona? Nehru seems to think of the writer’s task as one of making sense of man’s life as a political being. Given his own political existence as an anticolonial thinker, but also as head of state, his writings are anti-establishment in sentiment and very much establishment in discourse. This is an obviously complex position to hold and is made even more inscrutable by Nehru’s view of his own role as a patriot. Nehru was an elected representative of the people of India, so it is understandable that he saw his project as one of representation, yet historians of this time in modern Indian history must not reduce Nehru to only this role. These letters were as much a vehicle for building intellectual alliances as they were political and literary devices. Even for that time, these letters are atypical conversations, polyphonic in that he refers to the personal and emotional state of his interlocutors while conducting state business. The British historian EP Thompson once said, “There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East which is not active in some Indian mind.” This seems true of Nehru. Without this new collection, it is impossible to see his intellectual development in the right light.
Nehru’s writings are so pedagogical precisely because his experiences of interwar India were refracted into political lessons for a post-war world. Nehru’s political thought is central to studying post-independence Indian history. Yet, so often, his writings have been used to fit a pre-constructed narrative of his years in office. Perhaps this is because, despite his many writings in the form of books, letters, and speeches, he remains difficult to grasp many biographies later, the authoritative one still eagerly awaited. Looking through the published material, it is undeniably clear that in meteoric rise as a world leader, he was also somewhat of misfit—too socialist for the Americans and not quite socialist enough for the Soviets. As I have said in a book on the Nehru period I am working on, it has proven difficult to write Nehru into a political tradition precisely because he had moved beyond his contemporaries in search of alternative paths. With the help of these papers, it might be possible to place him in relation to other political and literary traditions, without seeing him as simply derivative in his political thought. In a state with India’s history, political writing had to be steeped in the language of progressivism—you could not seem to be uninterested in the future, even if you were nostalgic for a broken and fragmented past. I have suggested that Nehru was not nostalgic—that, in fact, he used his writing for political reform and reordering, both nationally and globally. These reams of administrative letters acquire a personality precisely because we now know that. The letters are dotted with philosophical invocations on the nature of politics in India. Nehru carries with him the burden of the unrelenting context of poverty and unjustness in this writing, but these are bereft of the overt spirituality of Gandhi’s writings or the iconoclasm of Ambedkar’s. In these writings, there is a powerful indictment of a colonial modernity, achieved through a defence of an emancipatory and liberationist political tradition. There is also a rejection of ideologically motivated great power politics and European revanchism.
In a discussion of Nehru’s politics, there is far too much emphasis on Nehru as a liberal, and not nearly enough on him as a writer. Why does Nehru’s writing matter to his politics? Is the writing merely an outlet? Is it performative? What in his writing is explicitly political? I suggest we look at the Selected Works as one seamless narrative of India’s encounters with modernity. Even though the volumes contain letters on various issues, the author returns to the same set of deep-rooted questions. It could be argued that Nehru writes these letters in the manner of writers who work through anxieties in consecutive works. Two themes abound—European power and Indian resistance. These are wedded together in a number of ways. India is not only expressed culturally but also addressed politically. For Gandhi, India was at the centre of a moral experiment; for Nehru, India’s relation to history and myth was a set of questions that needed to be resolved. In writing about the force of European power in India, Nehru calls for a history of Empire written in the colony. This goes beyond calling out the colonial depredations of the British Raj. It provides Indian politics with a meaningful future in a world of its own making.
For a few years, the building of India was a common project that everyone worked on. I have noted previously Nehru’s complex relationship with India in its locality. What does this do for Nehru’s politics of solidarity? Was Nehru able to dramatize politics beyond the goal of Indian independence, significantly more so once that goal had been achieved? There has been some discussion lately of the alleged failure of solidarity projects to generate their own vocabulary. I find it interesting to read Nehru against this backdrop. Nehru was author of texts that found wide circulation, so he was able to widen the frame of reference for India—this we know already. What the Selected Works tells us is Nehru’s views on the uses and limitations of agitation as a political method, his approach to international sympathies that were not communist, and—by the 1950s—his pushback against the incessant Americanisation of world politics. There is no more eager student of the racial oppression of nations than Nehru. In that sense, this tide of his writing contains a wave of nationalism. Not a narrowly defined Indianisation but a search for an answer to that elusive question—how is a future not European?
There is no other way to say this—Nehru cannot be read as a theorist. Although he still firmly occupies the space of thought, it is not in any systematic or structural way. Was there any terra incognita for this “philosopher politician”? Indeed, there was. Nehru’s theories of the state and of race suffer from incohesion. A commentator on British Pathé refers to Nehru in 1958 as “the man who made New Delhi the proud capital it is today”. Yet, many Asian and African leaders found it irksome that Nehru wrote as if his ideas were incontestable. If we consider the 1950s a moment of cultural diplomacy, then this is a grave shortcoming contained in these letters. His fidelity to the institution of the state precluded other forms of postcolonial selfhood but the Selected Works rarely touch upon these exclusions. Nehru’s writing is prolific, but is it also eclectic? Is he able to develop an idea beyond its roots? These are questions worth asking because they lead us to a renewed reading of Nehru’s letters.
It is a common fallacy to think of Nehru as consistently speaking for India when he has himself often referred to a reclusive quality, a mental aloofness that is sometimes captured in these letters. Thomas Mann, the German novelist, says at the start of his book Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, “I want to say everything—that is the purpose of this book.” This could very well have been Nehru if he had known his letters would take the form they do in this published archive. I want to enter the final part of this essay by addressing the question of Nehru’s future. I think of this question in two ways—first, there is the appraisal of these letters specifically and of Nehru’s writing at large; second, I want to disrupt the idea that reading Nehru is a valuable exercise. The notion of Nehru’s future is, in one sense, of course, an absurdity because he is no longer amongst us. But it is also a way to affirm his presence as a political provocateur.
Is Nehru an original thinker? In these letters, we see more than just a sophistication of liberalism. Nehru takes up many idioms of modern political thought and renders them Indian. If we think of democracy as having an Indian version today, the root ideas for that political mobilisation came from Nehru. Leaders like Ambedkar may have had more of a definitive sway on the processes that made democracy possible, certainly in its constitutional shape and form. But it is Nehru who wrote ceaselessly of democracy as fluid and not inevitably western. However exalted Gandhi may be in India’s political history, it is also useful to remember Nehru’s defiance of Gandhi’s critiques of politics, and Nehru as an instigator of Indian modernity. The Selected Works are filled with parables through which Nehru defends the idea of India as a modern, democratic, and global entity. Indeed, his letters invigorate mass political participation through the sheer number of recipients they reach. It is widely believed—particularly in light of the present political situation in India—that Indian conservatism and Indian communism have only ever stood for ideological politics, one soaked with majoritarianism and religiosity and the other with a violent agitational politics. As much recent work in political theory and the intellectual history of India shows, this is not true. On the left, and on the right, political traditions in India have experimented with visions for India’s future, although in Nehru’s writing these are presented as a dystopian reality rather than a utopian fantasy. Does this mean Nehru’s analysis cannot be improved upon? No, it doesn’t. But the repudiation of this or that ideology, and of ideology per se is significant for furthering political debate in India. The magnitude of this work is also in the continuity of his argument over nearly 40 years before taking office, and 17 years after.
Paying close attention to this long arc of political thought is also exciting because of Nehru’s flirtations with socialist thought. Accounts of Nehru’s early liaisons with socialism speak of it as a radicalization but I think that is a flattened reading and prefer to think of it as his turn away from Marxist philosophy. Of course, in his economic thought, he still did rely on welfarist principles, but his tenuous relationship with leaders of the left in India is fascinating to behold in these papers. In his Nehru: The Years in Power, Vincent Sheean observes that “hardly anybody except a Communist would care to get up in public and make a fundamental attack on Nehru”.(4) This is borne out in a correspondence Nehru has with a political leader in which he rebuts allegations of the appropriation of funds for personal expenses, these allegations made by none other than Ram Manohar Lohia.(5) Nehru provides a long list of justifications for his expenses and ends by saying, “There are certain normal canons of decency which Dr Lohia does not observe.” This may be one of the only instances I have come across in the 100 volumes where there is a breach in his composure. Inder Malhotra reminds us that when President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt was surprised at the number of communist MPs present at a function hosted in his honour in New Delhi, Nehru simply said, “Gamal, you put your communists in prison; I put them in Parliament."(6) For Nehru, the inclusion of communists in India’s electoral and parliamentary processes, at least until 1959, seemed to have been an exercise of good faith in politics.
As he had said three decades previously, this was the issue of “the mentality of new India”.(7) Nehru used his speeches, particularly, amongst his other writings, as a vehicle to put inequalities on display—whether these were contained in Indian society or directed at India in the society of nations. His genteel language is political orientation. He weaponised liberalism by hiding in its cloak, but it is more useful to view this mode of conducting politics as strategic rather than duplicitous, as often thought by the Americans. Nehru was a politically oriented writer, but his writings also had deep societal meaning. Remaking the world order also involved bringing India up to the task and this instructional dimension of his writing deserves fuller treatment. American and British commentaries often refer to the triumphalism of Nehru’s India—it will be exciting for future scholars to return to those archives in light of these now completed volumes to compare and contrast Nehru’s view of India’s global role. My own sense is that they will find more dilemmas and disorientation than expected. Within the growing scholarship on 20th century anticolonialism, these letters may be even more revelatory than originally intended. There is a revival and growth in studies of postcolonial affinities, and in the fostering of democratic and internationalist values through writing. The Selected Works offers a view from India.
Through these books, do we hear Nehru’s voice, and what does that voice tell us of Nehru’s presence? If, to lean on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, voice is no guarantor of presence, what did that mean for Nehru, and what does that mean today, for his political audience?
It is the prerogative of writers to bemoan the lack of a cogent intellectual culture in the times they live in. But it is also true that anti-intellectual strands are ever present on any nation’s political landscape. In fact, it can be argued that anti-intellectualism is, in itself, a political position. For Nehru, in a similar and opposite way, intellectual life has deeper meaning than its essential merits. In these letters, we find that he takes it on as a vocation. There is excitement to be felt in this archive—it just requires more engagement. The reader who is waiting to slowly uncover Nehru’s conservatism will be disappointed. These writings have a truly international sensibility. Nehru had travelled to Spain during the country’s civil war to express solidarity with the republican cause. In London, he spoke at anti-fascist rallies alongside leading British socialists. These letters show modern Indian thinkers as contemplative of what were so far believed to be solely European concerns.(8) In that sense, these letters ask the reader to imagine India more boldly, particularly through Nehru’s dexterity with cinematic words—the phrase “India awakens” is in only two words a rousing tale of the origins of the Indian republic.
Nehru wove himself into the nation and the world through his books. In these letters, he finds a different voice, one with an element of advocacy. The letters will enhance the reader’s experience of citizenship as the depictions of political action in these letters may resonate with the introspective reader. The intellectual archive created out of a long moment in India’s history is available here in short form. I have read these letters so often that I have read them sometimes in random or reverse order—what I have come across is in the tradition of rewriting, an honourable tradition amongst writers but a commitment to craft unexpected in those vested with government authority. An innovative reader may define the central tension contained in these letters differently than I have, which is to say beyond an invocation to be political-minded. The letters are a good way to think of what traditions feed what movements. These letters are not a personal meditation, no matter how alone Nehru may have been in his position to write them. These are categorically meant for public consumption. They may have been cosseted from us for many years, but they are now available, footnotes and all, as an inexhaustible source of ideas.
Biographies of his early life take great pains to emphasize that Jawaharlal was unremarkable, unexceptional, son of Motilal, etc. If this is done to draw a contrast to his later life, it is a lazy exercise—how could someone who paid so much attention to the world around him have been insular as a child? The letters show us Jawaharlal before he became Nehru but also show the Socratic Nehru. Many years ago, a friend described Nehru’s writing as “purple prose” which at the time I thought was rather uncharitable. These letters offer a consolation that signifies not bad writing on Nehru’s part (or for that matter, Gandhi’s, or Ambedkar’s, or even Nobel Laureate Tagore’s) but bad reading on ours. The opposing view, often now invoked, is to celebrate the intellectualism of the founding fathers. In that sense, perhaps Nehru only has forgiving readers left because those who have no patience for him rarely read him. There is no requirement to find him relevant for the modern age, or even to tyrannize his writings by modernising them. But it may be worthwhile to look more closely at the ambiguities nurtured by Nehru in this age of certainties. The Selected Works tell us that Nehru was here, and now he will remain with us.
- Thomas Rusch, “Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Volume 1 (Book Review),” A Journal of Asian Studies 32 (Nov 1972): 529.Back to (1)
- Sunil Khilnani, “Gandhi & Nehru – The Uses of English,” in A History of Indian Literature in English, ed. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 135-157.Back to (2)
- Jawaharlal Nehru, The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (SWJN), 2nd ser., vol. 3, ed. Sarvepalli Gopal, (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1985), 135.Back to (3)
- Vincent Sheean, Nehru: The Years in Power (New York: Random House, 1960), 232.Back to (4)
- Jawaharlal Nehru, The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (SWJN), 2nd ser., vol. 78, ed. Madhavan Palat, (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 2018), 143.Back to (5)
- Inder Malhotra, “A Teacher for the House,” Indian Express, January 21, 2015.Back to (6)
- Jawaharlal Nehru, “The Psychology of Indian Nationalism,” in Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru vol. 2, (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1972), 259-270; quoted in Amartya Sen, “Interpreting India’s Past,” in Nationalism, Democracy and Development, ed. Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), 25.Back to (7)
- For a fuller treatment of this theme, see Pankaj Mishra, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire (London: Verso Books, 2020).Back to (8)