Remembering Nehru's speech

As the nation marks its 73rd Independence Day my thoughts turn to the stirring words of Jawaharlal Nehru as the clock struck the hour of freedom. “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”, he said, while recalling India’s ‘tryst with destiny’. And, he spoke of the tasks that lay ahead and of much more.

The country has travelled a long and difficult road in the decades since the dawn of freedom. In the contestation of our present times few remember Nehru with admiration, many find numerous faults in his thinking, policies and actions in the seventeen long years of his prime ministership; he did make mistakes, some grave, for which the nation has paid a great price. Also, this ‘tryst with destiny’ speech of his is now rarely recalled. But it is worthwhile to do so for it embodies principles that are embedded in the constitution and sets out goals worth pursuing irrespective of ideological orientation and changing forms and manifestations of public culture.

Nehru dwelt on India’s past and its ideals. He spoke of Mahatma Gandhi, not surprisingly, in glowing terms. Calling him the “architect of this freedom, the father of our nation” he said that Gandhiji “embodying the old spirit of India held aloft the torch of freedom and lighted up the darkness that surrounded us”. Of course, there were countless others who played stellar roles in the regeneration of the Indian spirit during the long night of British colonial rule but there is no doubt that Gandhiji galvanised the people like no one else did. He fashioned the approach of non-violent struggle which inspired courage and resilience in ordinary persons.

Recently, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said that Gautam Buddha and Gandhiji were the two greatest Indians ever that not only India, but the world remembered them as such. The objections of Nepal at calling Buddha an Indian need not detain us except to say that if Lumbini in Nepal was the Buddha’s ‘janmabhoomi’ (birthplace) it were the modern day Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which were his ‘karmabhoomi’ (place of action). Jaishankar’s reference to Gandhiji was entirely in keeping with the sentiments expressed by Nehru.

Of the tasks that lay ahead Nehru said they were to “bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasant 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 that will ensure justice and fulness of life to every man and woman”. His contribution to setting up an institutional framework that would provide a firm foundation for the transformation of India, including through fostering science and technology was immeasurable.

In many ways it is this that set India apart from the other countries that achieved independence in the 1950s and the next decade. The set of institutions were designed to check the arbitrary exercise of power and were also mechanisms that would enable rapid social change of a feudal society and catalyse economic development of a country devastated by two centuries of exploitative colonialism. They were to buttress democracy too.

Today when India takes its democracy and peaceful and orderly change of power through the choice of the people as a natural pillar of political life it is important to remember that it was able to consolidate democracy while many newly independent countries, including in our neighbourhood went under military rule. Credit must go to the people but also to the early leaders led by Nehru and Sardar Patel who succeeded in the integration of the country at a time of great stress.

Over the past seven decades the commitment made for combatting poverty has been a priority of all governments. The approaches may have changed and the socialistic system followed by Nehru may have given way to the primary role being accorded to private enterprise but the objective of poverty eradication remains at the top of the agenda. There have been successes for the nation on this front for the lot of crores of people has improved but the aim of improving health care and education has still to be fully achieved.

Even while rioting was going on Nehru emphasised “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations”. This represents the essential compact of Indian society. It is the basic principle of our constitution. It is this proposition which is eloquently reflected in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approach of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas’. The texture of public culture may change, approaches and policies may vary, but the commitment of an India that belongs equally to all is the foundation of the state and has to be immune from dilution.

To the international community Nehru pledged that India would work for “peace, freedom and democracy”. In the first flush of freedom Nehru’s idealism was only natural but international relations are governed by the iron rule of self-interest. It was correct for Nehru to steer clear of power blocs and chart an independent foreign policy course. Indeed, freedom would have had little meaning if India became a camp follower of one of the two blocs as the world descended into the era of the cold war. It took time and bitter lessons to imbibe the lesson that interests should be the only guide in dealing with the external world.

Whatever may be the fashion of the times towards Nehru the tryst with destiny speech is inspiring and stands out as a guide.