Jawaharlal Nehru

The Book of the Week is “Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography” originally published in 1936. This book on Indian history shows the reader yet again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

Born in 1889, Nehru, who had much older sisters, grew up in a wealthy, multigenerational Hindu family of Kashmiri origin. After completing his elitist legal education, following in the footsteps of his father, he became an Indian civil servant and political activist in Bombay. He wrote, “All the bureaucrats in New Delhi do are gossip about promotions, leave and rules, furloughs, transfers and scandal.”

In the mid-nineteen teens, the Indian populace began agitating for Home Rule (also called “swaraj”)– breaking the yoke of British colonialism, and making peace among believers of Hinduism and Islam– two major Indian religions (amid violence in the Punjab in 1919, and other areas such as Bengal). In a nutshell, “India is supposed to be a religious country above everything else, and Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and others take pride in their faiths and testify to their truth by breaking heads.”

Nehru’s father became a follower of Gandhi, who led the powerful, non-violent movement of civil disobedience, satyagraha. In the early 1920’s, a few million people participated in non-cooperation protests at Gandhi’s behest. Many, including Nehru were jailed with sentences of one to three years, sometimes with early releases, on and off into the mid-1930’s. Their civil rights of assembly, speech, etc. were severely curtailed, as was their ability to defend themselves in “show-trials” against the British authorities’ hastily conceived, arbitrary legislation outlawing the dissident political groups and their activities. [Side Note: Authorities in South Africa (a former British colony) behaved the same way as the British authorities fifty (!) years later, against dark-skinned political dissidents under apartheid.]

Nehru recounted an ugly episode involving his mother. She was peacefully marching in a protest when police arrested her and bloodied her head, beating her with their batons. “That night a false rumour spread in Allahabad that my mother had died. Angry crowds gathered together, forgot about peace and non-violence, and attacked the police.”

As well, the spirit of the times involved youth groups and workers’ trade unions, who met to talk late into the night about the social and economic problems of the day. Socialism and Marxism were in the air. Nehru and other political dissidents urged peasant farmers to initiate a rent strike against their landlords. Gandhi launched a few attention-mongering hunger strikes in his attempts to effect political change.

During 1930, there were negotiations for Indian independence. A new Constitution would have to be drafted with provisions on national defense, foreign affairs, financial and economic policy, and on what was to be done about India’s indebtedness to Britain.

Funny, in the mid-1930’s, Nehru could have been writing about current American politics: “It is very unfortunate that foolish and ill-informed criticisms of a personal nature are made, because they divert attention from the real issues.” Across the Atlantic, there was a “…Europe in turmoil, fearful of war and tumult and with economic crises always on the horizon.” At that time, India’s people were not alone in their suffering. There was more violence and death around the world due to fascism, nazism, imperialism and colonialism than now. Nevertheless, Nehru asked a question that is still relevant, “Were there any principles, and standards of conduct in this world, or was it all sheer opportunism?”

Read the book to learn Nehru’s answer, and about Indian history in the 1920’s and ’30’s, as seen through Nehru’s eyes.