Jawaharlal Nehru as the prime minister of India. When asked about the greatest difficulty he had faced since Independence, Nehru had replied, “Creating a just state by just means … Perhaps too, creating a secular state in a religious country.” Photo: IMAGO / Cola Images
Jawaharlal Nehru as the prime minister of India. When asked about the greatest difficulty he had faced since Independence, Nehru had replied, “Creating a just state by just means … Perhaps too, creating a secular state in a religious country.” Photo: IMAGO / Cola Images

Nehru’s flawed India is still a bulwark against Modi’s Hindu Raj

In 'Nehru’s India: A History in Seven Myths', Taylor Sherman looks to debunk Jawaharlal Nehru’s positive legacy, failing to see how his vision still saves the country from the worst of itself

"A couple of years after the Partition of the country, it occurred to the respective governments of India and Pakistan that inmates of lunatic asylums, like prisoners, should also be exchanged." So begins Saadat Hasan Manto's 'Toba Tek Singh', the story of one harmless madman in a Subcontinent gone violently insane.

Bishan Singh has been an inmate of a Lahore asylum for decades. His only surviving memory from his life before confinement is the name of his native village, Toba Tek Singh. Packed into a bus with other non-Muslim inmates and driven to the new border, Singh refuses to budge from the no-man's-land between Pakistan and India. Because he is old and sick, officials let him be. As dawn breaks, he collapses, dead. "There, behind barbed wire, on one side lay India and behind more barbed wire, lay Pakistan. Between them, on a piece of earth that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh."

Independent India and Pakistan were birthed in an apocalypse: more than one million people murdered; three-quarters of a million women and girls abducted and raped, a third of them aged below 12. The carnage was done in the cause of "pure" lands, freed from the polluting presence of the "other". It was a peoples' uprising – against other people. In Nehru's India: A History in Seven Myths, the historian Taylor C Sherman writes that "Congress leaders began to understand the violence as a period of 'insanity' from which the nation had to recover." The Indian National Congress was no monolith, yet amid the party's many real differences there was general agreement that sanity lay not in creating a Hindustan for Hindus but rather a pluralist India – especially in a geographic space home to hundreds of different ethnic and tribal groups, some 35 million Muslims, and over 7 million Hindu and Sikh refugees.

In 1958, the French writer André Malraux asked Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian prime minister, about the greatest difficulty he had faced since Independence. Nehru's reply was instantaneous and unequivocal, "Creating a just state by just means … Perhaps too, creating a secular state in a religious country." As Nehru saw it, "Our challenge is to devise some arrangement which enables us to coexist if not in amity then at least in forbearance."

'Nehru's India: A History in Seven Myths' by Taylor C Sherman. Princeton University Press (October 2022)
'Nehru's India: A History in Seven Myths' by Taylor C Sherman. Princeton University Press (October 2022)

Coexisting in forbearance in a Hindu-majority India entailed, above all, keeping Hindu nationalism in check and reforming Hinduism. The murder of M K Gandhi by a Hindu nationalist fanatic had marginalised the Hindu Right, but even so religious animosity laced the air, genocide remained a living memory, poverty was endemic and Untouchability was still widely considered a religious duty. Sherman attempts to map Nehru's gargantuan undertaking in her book of sweeping assertions and informative nuggets.

Sherman uses as her starting point the 1984 documentary Nehru, co-directed by Shyam Benegal and co-produced by the Congress government of the time. She identifies it, correctly, as an example of a trend of simplifying and lionising Nehru's role in Indian history, and of making him "almost the lone protagonist of independent India's story." Her book, covering the decades immediately after Independence, is presented as a counter to the movie and the trend, with each individual chapter devoted to analysing and debunking one of seven Nehruvian "myths": of Nehru as the architect of independent India, of a non-aligned foreign policy, of "hegemonic secularism", Nehruvian socialism, state-building, democracy and Indian high modernism.

But the book's claims about Nehru's failures are as excessive as Benegal's claims about Nehru's achievements. Many of the "myths" mentioned by Sherman – and included in the political scientist Srirupa Roy's definition of Nehruvian secularism, encompassing a centrally planned command economy with an emphasis on industrialisation, state-led social and cultural modernisation, developmentalism, non-alignment, and a fascination with scientific and technological accomplishments and artefacts – were goals and aspirations common to many Third World nation-building projects, from Egypt and Ghana to Jamaica and Zambia. Nehru's India, flawed though it was, fared better on almost all counts than many, if not most, of its counterparts. This legacy remains fundamental to the India of today, even as the forces of Hindu nationalism try to uproot it.


The year 1956 was believed to mark the 2500th birth anniversary of the Buddha. India, under Nehru, celebrated the event on a massive scale, using it to parade a commitment to religious plurality. Across the Palk Strait, Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – celebrated the same event by embracing linguistic and ethno-religious majoritarianism. A Buddhist Commission recommended a slew of measures to render national identity a thing of Sinhala ethnicity and Buddhist belief, pushing the country's Tamil minority towards disenfranchisement. S W R D Bandaranaike won the 1956 parliamentary election on a Sinhala-only platform, heavily backed by the Buddhist clergy on its first organised foray into politics. By the time Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959 – by a Buddhist monk who felt he had not gone far enough – the country had experienced its first major Sinhala–Tamil clashes and the first steps had been taken towards the Sri Lankan Civil War. 

The path to violent exclusion was open to India as well. As the philosopher Charles Taylor, writing on Indian secularism, has pointed out, "there was always a strand for which India meant or ought to mean the society of Hindus. On this understanding, democracy had to mean Hindu Raj" – or Hindu rule. The roots of that particularist vision traced back to the fin de siècle years, when the Hindi writer Pratap Narayan Mishra, in his journal Brahman, popularised the slogan "Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan", advancing a nexus of language, religion and land as the basis for Indian national identity. Seemingly trivial issues like cow protection and the playing of music near mosques generated communal passions, leading to a spike in Hindu–Muslim clashes. Bloody communal riots in 1893 presaged the bloodletting of 1947, and the deepening division in the public mind of Hindi and Hindus versus Urdu and Muslims paved the way to Partition. What is remarkable is that the newly independent India espoused a different path.

Contrary to Sherman's assertion, India's official secularism, a key Nehruvian legacy, was no myth. It was a work-in-progress, as is secularism anywhere – even in France, with its fierce laïcité. "Exactly what Indian secularism required of politicians and public servants was anything but clear in the decades after 1947," Sherman writes. But enough of the country's politicians and public servants understood what secularism was not – turning India into a Hindu Raj, a linguistic and ethno-religious monolith. 

Myriad means were used to highlight the difference between India and Hindustan, from constitutional provisions and laws to well-crafted public gestures. Not all measures were equally important, but every single one had some significance. Take what Sherman calls "celebrating the Muslim presence in India in monumental terms" – for instance, in a series of stamps featuring archaeological sites, issued in 1949. Such celebratory measures are hardly anodyne. They are, instead, deeply offensive to Hindu supremacists who regard India as their exclusive patrimony, and signal opposition to their claim on the nation.

In India, the past was and remains a key terrain of contestation between the antipodal visions of a secular and Hindu future. Straitjacketing India's compounded history into a simple Hindu-versus-Muslim equation was one way by which Hindu nationalism made its leap from relative political irrelevance to game-changing success. Sherman reminds us that activists associated with the Hindu Mahasabha first surreptitiously placed statues of the deity Ram in the Babri Masjid in December 1949, later claiming that these proved the mosque sat on the site of Ram's birth. At the time, the local district magistrate would not order the statues' removal "in spite of being requested to do so by Nehru and GB Pant, then chief minister of the state." Instead, the gates were locked. 

Almost four decades later, Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister would take the fateful decision of opening those doors and permitting Hindu nationalists to lay the foundation stone for a Hindu temple at the site. This was to appease Hindu extremists in counterbalance to his earlier appeasement of Muslim traditionalists, achieved by overturning the Supreme Court of India's decision in the Shah Bano case to allow maintenance to divorced Muslim women. With those twin errors, Nehru's grandson redefined secularism as appeasement rather than marginalisation of contesting extremes, and opened the way for Hindu extremism's march to power. Within years, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Ram Rath Yatra had made its way across the country, with communal bloodshed in its wake, and Babri Masjid had been torn down by a Hindu mob. The Hindu Right had truly arrived. Had post-Nehru India been as committed to celebrating its Muslim past, this crisis and its political consequences might have been avoided.

Indian National Congress supporters before cut-outs of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The deep-seated association of the Congress with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty distorted and undermined Indian democracy, and made a mockery of the values Jawaharlal Nehru believed in. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire
Indian National Congress supporters before cut-outs of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The deep-seated association of the Congress with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty distorted and undermined Indian democracy, and made a mockery of the values Jawaharlal Nehru believed in. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Similarly, the Nehruvian practice of showcasing the iconic – Sherman uses the example of India's Minorities, an official 1948 booklet with the stories of eight prominent figures from minority backgrounds – also had more than superficial meaning. When the achievements of a Muslim, a Dalit or a woman are celebrated, defying the orthodox Hindu disdain of their like, it signals the desirability of a future where such successes are normal. Iconic does not mean representative, but it does represent a goal. It also says something, however provisionally, about the desirable quotidian – a case in point is the gathering rehabilitation and idolisation of M K Gandhi's killer, the Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse, under the present Indian government of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. 

Not celebrating certain icons also sends a message about the desired future: one where such icons would cease to be not because they have become ordinary, but because all space for them has been erased. India's Chandrayaan-3 moon-landing project involved several Muslim scientists as well as non-Muslim alumni of historically Muslim universities. Had this happened in a pre-Modi India, their contribution would likely have been celebrated in extravagant terms – as A P J Abdul Kalam's contribution to Indian ballistic missiles was. Now, there's near-complete official silence, since this iconic instance runs counter to Modi's idea of India. The Muslim scientists involved in Chandrayaan-3 are the products of an India Nehru helped define and shape. If Narendra Modi's contrary vision triumphs, they could be among the last of their kind.


What if the constitution of the United States of America was drafted primarily by a freed slave? What if it outlawed slavery and guaranteed equal rights to all citizens, including former slaves?

This revolutionary hypothetical never came to be in the United States, but in appointing the Dalit leader B R Ambedkar to head its constitution-making process India constructed a reality that was no less radical – or perhaps even more so, given the religious sanction for and vast historical duration of Untouchability.

In her Library of Congress lecture on Ambedkar, the intellectual historian Ananya Vajpeyi emphasises how even liberal, educated, urban and anglicised Hindus adamantly opposed his early proposals to ban Untouchability. "Temples were claimed private property," Vajpeyi details, "tanks were ritually purified after Untouchables had taken water from them." In response, in December 1927, Ambedkar "publicly burned a copy of the ancient Hindu scripture, the law code of Manu" – a cornerstone of casteist belief.

Just 20 years later, Ambedkar would write a ban on Untouchability into independent India's constitution. Nehru was instrumental in appointing Ambedkar to the job, even if the two had their differences, and his government showed great political will and electoral courage by banning Untouchability in its motherland.

Though the measures taken to end caste oppression were woefully inadequate – Untouchability is outlawed, but a constitutional ban on caste discrimination outright remains to be achieved – they did result in some forward movement. Sherman quotes D A Katti, a member of the Republican Party of India, who while rejecting affirmative-action reservations for what he sees as their lack of efficacy still admits, "There has been a political awakening among the Scheduled Caste people" that is, among Dalits. "Of course they are still poor and they are still oppressed by caste Hindus, but they do not consider it irreligious to aspire for power, aspire for wealth." Even though most Dalits remain desperately poor, and caste-based lynchings, rape and segregation continue on a shocking scale, a nascent Dalit middle class has evolved. The economist Thomas Piketty writes that, based on available evidence, "the policies India has pursued since independence have significantly reduced inequalities between the old disadvantaged castes and the rest of the population." The ratio of the incomes of the oppressed castes to those of the rest of the Indian population "rose from 57% in 1950 to 74% in 2014." For comparison, in the United States, "The ratio between average black and average white income went from 54% to 56% during the same period." There is a long way left to go, but this is not a negligible achievement. 

Sherman, correctly, calls the 12 years of Nehruvian governance "an age of experimentation". Nehru had a vision for India, and managed to realise enough of it to make India's achievements stand out vis-à-vis its compatriots in Southasia and the wider Third World. India did not succumb to civilian autocracy or military dictatorship or become a majoritarian democracy – until now. As the political scientist Eqbal Ahmad has pointed out, decades after the frenzied confusion of Partition, Indian Muslims, even while feeling insecure regarding their religious identity, do not see themselves as outsiders or aliens. They have a sense of Indianness. India's non-aligned foreign policy, evidenced most comprehensively in the country's UN voting record, is probably the only part of the Nehruvian legacy the BJP wants to retain – though even this not in totality, as evidenced by the Modi government's initial decision to abstain during the recent UN General Assembly vote for a ceasefire in Gaza, aligning itself firmly with the Israeli and American camps.

If Nehru's India was a facade made of myths merely flecked with some grains of truth, as Sherman would have us believe, Modi would have gotten his Hindu Raj much easier and faster. A whole slew of laws, attitudes, expectations and interpretations woven into India's political and societal make-up hamper the speed of his yatra.

In 1953, the constitutional assembly of Pakistan declared the country an Islamic republic. Nehru called the move mediaeval, "totally opposed to any democratic conception." Sri Lanka, in its first republican constitution, put Buddhism foremost even while guaranteeing the rights of other religions – something that has been used to enable and justify religious discrimination ever since. Neither measure led to mass opposition in either country. In India, such a frontal assault on secularism is still inconceivable, with even Modi paying occasional lip service to the idea. Meanwhile, in many neighbouring lands, the very word is politically taboo.


Sherman's seven Nehruvian myths can be more correctly identified as goals constituting a vision of India. Some of these have been imperfectly and unevenly realised. Others – such as reducing economic inequality, a key component of Nehru's vision – have not. India today is far more economically unequal than it was in the aftermath of Independence. In 1961, the bottom half of the population held some 12 percent of the country's wealth, while the top ten percent held some 43 percent. By 2020, the gap had grown starkly, with only six percent of wealth held by the poorest 50 percent and almost 64 percent held by the richest ten percent. Income figures tell a similar story, with the earnings gap between the poorest half and the richest tenth only having grown wider. Nehru's failure to build an adequate welfare state via a regimen of progressive taxation was a major contributor to these distressing gaps.

But Nehru's greatest and perhaps most politically consequential failure lies in his inability to cement the democratic future of his own party. Sherman points out that after India's first parliamentary election, in 1952, "there was a sense that Congress was working the administration in ways that tilted it towards the ruling party." Nehru himself was not above using official trips as prime minister to campaign for his party. Once Indira Gandhi took over the party and then the prime ministership and instituted dynastic rule, the government actively promoted the interests of the ruling family. Nothing distorted and undermined Indian democracy more than the resulting association of India with the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. It devalued every value Nehru believed in and made a mockery of his heirs' supposed commitment to his vision. 

Why did Nehru not deal openly and decisively with the issue of succession? Did he leave the question unanswered because he wanted neither to promote nor hinder his daughter's ambitions? When Indira was nominated to the Congress presidency in 1959, Nehru expressed his misgivings to his home minister Govind Pant. "Normally speaking, it is not a good thing for my daughter to come in as the Congress president when I'm the prime minister," he wrote. Yet publicly he remained silent, allowing Indira to be elected. He could not have foreseen that his daughter would build a dynasty, binding party to family and making the first an appendage of the second. Still, his equivocation on the issue and the consequences that have followed might result in the nullification of his life's work. After all, can Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan be countered today by Gandhi-Congress-India, with Indira's grandchildren Rahul and Priyanka now at the head of the party? 

The historian Tim Harper writes that Asia's 20th-century anti-imperial revolutionaries commonly believed in a progressive future rather than in a return to some golden past. Nehru belonged to this cohort. His Hindu nationalist opponents intend to remake the future in the image of a mythical Hindu past. The continuing battle between these two visions is not just an epochal struggle for the soul of the geographical entity known as India; it may also determine whether India remains a single entity, however conflict-ridden, or whether it goes the way of Yugoslavia, with rival ethnoreligious nationalisms running amok. Nehruvian "myths" – especially the still-undead idea of a secular, pluralist country – form a key part of the admittedly fragile barrier standing between India as we have known it for three-quarters of a century and a Hindu Raj at the centre of a Balkanising Subcontinent.

Himal Southasian