To be a true humanist, an idealist, one should consider that nations are but convenient administrative units, that they are part of a world and that they should work as one to nurture our home — the planet Earth. But most of us will not think beyond ourselves, our community, our region, and at the most our nation. When we think of the world, we would put our interests first. The world always survives, life always goes on. We will put our idea of national interests before that of others — others within the nation as well. Our India/Bharat. But how many of us even think of what India means to us? How many of us think of our heritage, our history, our culture, of how to make ourselves and our land better?
Our leading freedom fighters did. The debates, the disagreements were not simply a matter of the clashing of egos but were a result of their deep understanding of our past and the then present, and their hopes and visions for the future of this land. We just celebrated (hopefully we did) the birthday of our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He is a good example for us to follow — he was a man who thought deeply about our civilisational history and how we needed to build on it. I don’t think anyone who grew up in my generation in the first couple of decades of free India missed reading parts of Nehru’s works, especially ‘The Discovery of India’. He wrote the book when he was in the Ahmadnagar Fort prison and dedicates the book to his ‘colleagues and co-prisoners’ who were there ‘from 9 August 1942 to 28 March 1945’. In his preface, Nehru states that he wrote this during five months in 1944 and that the book profited from discussions with 11 fellow prisoners. He particularly mentions Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Govind Ballabh Pant, Narendra Deva, and M Asaf Ali, stalwarts all.
I don’t have enough space here to go deeply into the book. Suffice to say that Nehru was aware of world politics and history and the necessity to place himself clearly for us and himself — to see and show why he was ‘discovering’ India, and how he would go about it. The book opens with his brief description of the time he spent in prison(s) during this period and how he came to know of all that had fared in the world and in India during this tumultuous period, including the great famine. He then goes on to speak of World War II as the War for Democracy. Nehru tells us how he had recognised the dangers of Nazism and fascism from the beginning. He states that the very principles they stood on ran contrary to our civilisational values. This is the reason he refused to accept Mussolini’s invitation to meet him in March 1936. In 1938, he declined the Nazi government’s invitation to visit Germany. He criticises the British cabinet of the time as well as the government of France for what he saw as their fear of Hitler as well as a sneaking admiration for him.
It was during the time he spent in various prisons earlier that he had written ‘Glimpses of World History’ (published in 1934 but written between 1930 and 1933), which is in the form of a series of letters to his then young daughter. He also wrote ‘An Autobiography’ (published in 1936) when he was in prison in 1934-35. You can see that he was a man driven to understand the situation that he found the world, India, and himself in! But most importantly, he wanted to know his own heritage, his motherland, for whose freedom his countrymen and he were struggling. He says that he would often ask people shouting the slogan “Bharat Mata ki Jai” what Bharat Mata signified to them, what was the Bharat they were struggling for. This book that gives us his understanding of India from Mohenjo-daro to contemporary colonised India results from this search to articulate for himself and others his vision of what unites us civilisationally, what makes us India/Bharat. It is a book to read for all of us even now.
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