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The Riddle of Pandit Nehru

In some respects, America's best friend in Asia is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India. This view is so contrary to general belief that I must explain it. For six weeks I travelled across India talking to people about Nehru. Peasants, land lords, shopkeepers, maharajas advanced their theories. Here are the facts that help to explain the man who rules India.

The Riddle of Pandit Nehru

Pandit Nehru is an aristocrat.

He was born a Brahmin and although he has discarded the Brahmin religious customs, he continue to to think like one. He believes that a few superior people must rule a partly illiterate, unformed nation like India.

As a child Nehru knew substantial wealth servants, big homes, influential friends. He was a typical Indian aristocrat. A friend points out, "He is the kind of man Communists shoot when they take over".

Nehru is like an Englishman.

He was born in India, Of Indian blood, but he grew up an Englishman. His governess was English. He was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, and he studied law at the inner Temple. He knows English literature, constitutional history, law and social philosophy. Nehru himself points out that spiritually he hangs suspended between India and England. "They are both part of me and create in me a feeling of spiritual loneliness. I am a stranger and alien in the West. But in my own country also, sometimes, I have an exile's feeling."

Nehru spent many years in jail.

As a result of his revolutionary activities, Nehru was eight long prison sentences. He formulated his basic philosophy in jail, and the hardness of his character and his determination to succeed derive from his dreary years of imprisonment, some of them in solitary confinement. Also, one of Nehru's weaknesses is his tendency to appoint men to office because they have been in jail.

Nehru is a scientist.

In spite of his affection for poetry and his brilliance in the political field, Nehru was trained at Cambridge as a scientist and remains primarily concerned with the scientific development of his country. He wants to industrialize India as quickly as possible. A friend says, "Laboratories fascinate him, not legislatures, and vast hydro-electric schemes are an absolute mania with this man."

Nehru is probably a socialist.

As a young man he was lionized by the Fabian (non-revolutionary) socialists of England, who convinced him that a socialist world was inevitable. He was happy when his family, because of revolutionary activities, lost its large fortune, and often boasts that he has few worldly goods. Karl Marx, the source of this philosophy, also preached that British society must collapse a doctrine reassuring to Nehru, who was trying to hurry the collapse of that same society in India.

A foreign diplomat who has studied Nehru for 20 years and says, "More than most leaders he is willing to experiment with new forms of government and ownership if they show any chance of producing a better life for his people." Nehru himself recently summarized his position: "We take steps, one by one, consolidate them and prepare for the next step. We don't talk too much about nationalizing or socializing everything; we talk only in terms of the steps we are taking.

Is Nehru a communist?

While I travelled in India, Nehru nationalized life insurance, and a Calcutta business man told me, "Airlines and the biggest bank have already been grabbed. Shipping companies will probably be next, and we expect more banks and heavy industry to follow." I also experienced the backlash of the visit by Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Bulganin, which convinced millions of Indians that Russia is now their only foreign friend and also their protector against "war mongering Western democracies." And the main reason, for this trust of Russia was that Nehru personally appeared as stage manager for the burly, brazen gunmen from north.

From this and other evidence, many Americans conclude that Nehru must want a Communist form of government. I believe this conclusion is wrong. I believe Nehru honestly wants to keep India free, and that he has a fair chance of doing so. Here are my reasons:

Throughout his writings Nehru constantly affirms that he is not a Communist. He claims that the various steps he has taken in nationalizing property were unavoidable if India is to build a society strong enough to resist Communism. Most reassuring, he has been openly and firmly hostile to the Communists of his own country.

Dr Telford work, a young Rockefeller Foundation doctor, relates his experiences among the communists of the south in the 1955 elections: "These characters were sure they would win and, as I travelled through hundreds of villages where red flags outnumbered the blue 12 to one, I concluded the reds would win a sweeping victory. Then Nehru appeared. He talked forcefully. Said he wanted no Communist in office. When he left, he sent his lieutenants in. Result? Nehru's anti Communist party won a smashing victory."

It seems to me that this is the situation: To save India from ruin, Nehru must take economic steps which in certain countries would be communistic. But in India they are steps of prudence, of conservatism even. An Indian capitalist told me, "Think of an American village. If you want a new water supply, you vote on it. If the vote is favorable, your citizens are taxed and you get the water. Well, in India we have 100,000 villages that want water. If we held a vote everybody would be in favour of water. But there is no money in the villages to be taxed, and only some kind of state socialism can save us from going completely Communist." For the present, the principal bulwark in India against Communism is Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nehru, the man.

Nehru is 66 and in vigorous health thin, agile and cat like in his motions. As a boy he ate a typical British diet, including a lot of meat, but in later years he became a vegetarian. His father served cocktails, but Nehru is abstemious.

Nevertheless, when fanatics wanted to impose total prohibition throughout Indian he resisted them. Nehru's wife, with whom he had an extraordinarily tender relationship, died in 1936. Since then he has remained one of the world's most eligible widowers. His clever and attractive married daughter, Indira, is his hostess and personal advisor.

Nehru is an intellectual, and is proud of it. When a critic accused him of not being one with the masses, Nehru replied, "He is absolutely right." As a dedicated aristocrat he often berates his people in sharp words, accusing them of being tied to "a cow dung society." He has uncontrollable outbursts of temper, and chides himself in public speeches for this failing.

He has many of the attributes of a dictator, but he does not behave like one. He could have swept into Nepal when that country was having trouble, but he acted with scrupulous propriety. Similarly in Goa: when Indian armies could have swamped Portuguese defences here, Nehru restrained them. That was to change, In December 1961, however, Nehru's Indian troops took over Goa.

And within India there are the great basic freedoms: papers print sharp criticism of the government; courts issue writs of habeas corpus; there is an almost startling freedom of speech. Indians often object to things that US newspapers write about Nehru, but nothing said outside India can equal the harshness of a book freely circulated within the country: D.F Karaka's Nehru: The Lotus Eater From Kashmir. Nehru, who must despise every word in the book, has made no move to ban it.

Nehru is a sharp, impatient man because his time is running out. He sees a wilderness of work to be done, and only a few years in which to accomplish it. If he could count on 30 more years of leadership, he could completely reorganize India. But time is not available, so he must drive all things forward in a hurry.

Fortunately for free peoples throughout the world, the way Nehru wants to take India is the way they would like to see her go.

Is Nehru neutral?

Philip Deane, the brilliant Greek journalist says, "I have been studying Nehru closely for three years and have watched him undergo a subtle change. He used to preach neutrality, but in recent months his entire vocabulary has changed. He once defended NATO and other pacts; now he condemns them as American aggression. He used to protest to any nation that experimented with nuclear weapons, but during the Russian visit he implied that they kept theirs for defence. Finally, he openly praises Russia's overtures to peace, but accepts in complete silence peaceful aid from America."

Nehru's apologist reply: "Of course our leader will condemn the US as long as it gives military aid to our mortal enemy, Pakistan. And as long as it supports the SEATO [Southeast Asia Treaty Organization] pact, which encircles us in a rim of steel." In recent months Nehru has increased his attacks on these two points, and some Americans sympathize with him.

More difficult to understand is Nehru's growing friendship with Russia and Red China. A scholar explained, "We are three peasant countries, burdened with ancient systems that must be swept away. We are three revolutionary peoples, newcomers on the stage of nationalism. And we are Asians." He was reflecting the soviet propaganda line that Russia is primarily an Asian power.

I do not think that Nehru is much impressed by these reasons, for he is a fine historian. He knows that most of the great invasions of India have arisen because masses of Central Asians were on the move north of the Himalayas and slopped over through the Khyber pass. Most of all, he knows that India today is relatively weak should Red China, or Russia, decide to attack. He knows that, throughout history, almost every determined aggressor who wanted to invade India succeeded, and that India's only defence has always been persuasion and the Himalayas. And now, with Communist het planes crowding the airstrips in Tibet, even the Himalayas have fallen.

Nehru hopes that Communist aggression can be forestalled through friendship with china and a division of Asia into spheres of influence: north of the Himalayas to china; south to India.

To safeguard India, Nehru will do practically anything. He will support China's claims to Formosa [the historical name for Taiwan]. He will buy arms from Russia. If China and Russia growl at the United States, he will growl too. He will never willingly antagonize china. As a clever Indian said, "We know that, no matter how angry we make America, she will never do anything about it. But if we make China angry..."

This policy is difficult for Americans to understand, but it makes sense to Indians. To a surprising degree it makes sense to most Westerners who live in Asia. A leading American expert on India confided, "We constantly demand that Nehru declare himself openly to be on our side. But look at his position. Along the 2500 kilometer northern border, Communists hover, ready to attack. Suppose Nehru told us tomorrow, 'All right America, I'm on your side. Now you defend that border!' To defend that border would cost nearly $5000 million annually."

Nehru has decided to defend his interminable and shaky border by diplomacy, depending not upon arms but upon friendship with Russia and China. He may not succeed, but his efforts are in the best interest of the free world. Indeed, China attacked India, as Michener feared, in late 1962.

Nehru's importance to India.

Whether we like his strategy or not, we must understand his importance to India. Tall, witty J.J Singh, a good friend to America, warns, "Nehru is India. India is Nehru. The only approach to India today is through this man, and when you idly attack him, you stab to the heart every Indian."

Nehru is not only the sentimental symbol of India. He is also the head of many government departments, and without him India would stagger and perhaps collapse. His work load is enormous; in addition he makes more speeches, attends more gatherings, is more accessible to his people and is seen more often by them than the leader of any other nation.

The most diverse elements of Indian national life rally behind Nehru. Ratan Lal, a Bombay businessman, who might be expected to fear Nehru's socialism, says "By 1937 we knew that Gandhi had selected Nehru to lead Free India. Here was a man who could have lived in luxury. Instead he dedicated himself to our cause, and even if he does incline a little towards socialism, we will follow him. For he is not mere politician. He has become the soul of India."

The Rani of Jasdan, who would now be a princess with almost absolute power if Nehru had not decreed the end of such medieval rule, says: "Even though it was Nehru who swept away people like us, I remain a profound admirer. I think that 95 percent of people like me think the same way."

Ram, a leather worker, one of India's untouchables, told me, "Gandhiji started to help us. Now we trust Nehru. If he lives long enough, we shall have better days."

But Nehru's prime importance is shown by the Indians who hate him. And those who hate him most are the Communists. During an agitation in Bombay, huge Communist signs read: "Death to Nehru, Murderer of Democracy." India's Communist think they have a good chance of capturing the country, but not until Nehru dies.

Nehru's importance to the world.

In recent years I have talked with the heads of many governments either bordering India or intimately connected to her. All told me how they prayed that Nehru could continue in office. A Pakistani in high office: "We have constant border troubles, but I feel certain there will be no war... as long as Nehru lives."

The Governor-General of Ceylon [now Si Lanka]: "At present we are engaged in troublous disputes with huge neighbor, India. But we feel secure. Our differences will be solved amicably... if Nehru lives."

 An afghan politician: "The entire Himalayan border is in delicate balance, but it will be maintained.. as long as Nehru lives." And finally, a high American official: "Recently we've had nothing but trouble in American-Indian relations, but we'll be able to maintain intelligent... as long as Nehru lives." These are the reasons I believe that pandit Nehru, though often a difficult man for Americans to live with, is the best friend they have in Asia.

"Pandit Nehru lived until 27 May 1964."

- James A, Michener