Wed Jul 17, 2024
July 17, 2024

Nehru’s true legacy: Against Stalinist praises and dead-end Hindutva criticisms


There are few personalities in the world as divisive and impactful as India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. For the right wing, he is a figure who is reviled and hated, for many leftists and especially among Indian liberals, he is a celebrated figure who is lauded for his democratic ideals. The image of Nehru as a naïve idealist who compromised his nation’s interests for his moral principles is an image that is often conjured up when speaking of Nehru, particularly over the question of how he handled the accession of the Kingdom of Kashmir. Less talked about is how he used military force decisively to annex Hyderabad and Goa to the Indian Republic, or how he presided over the mass incarceration of thousands of Indian Chinese, breaking the backbone of a two-hundred-year-old community.

It is important to understand the role of great people in history as products of material conditions and not simply as authors of history. Prime Minister Nehru’s decisive leadership was of great importance in the development of the Indian bourgeoisie and of the Indian Republic itself. This is a legacy that is not as clean or celebratory as the Liberals and their Stalinist cheerleaders would like it to be, and that most right-wing historians are either in denial of or have no awareness about.

Political context  

Among a large section of conservative and reactionary Hindus, Nehru has always been a hated figure, primarily for his policy on Kashmir, and is one of the figures blamed for compromising on the question of partition and the creation of Pakistan. In truth, their main grievance with Nehru is his secular stance on religious minorities and the adoption of a mixed economic model which relied on state capitalist enterprise and five-year plans.

Since the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party or India People’s Party) came to power, the propaganda against Nehru and the old Congress leaders has acquired a new pitch. The popular conspiracy theory of blaming Nehru for Bose’s disappearance had turned out false, and the entire movement to open the files on Bose fell apart. That did not stop them from attacking him, however, shifting focus to ‘dynastic politics’, Nehru’s secularism and supposed ‘socialism.’

In reaction to right-wing attacks, Indian liberals, who had always idealized Nehru, further entrenched in their support for him, and Indian Stalinists, having little to no critical understanding of the old Congress leaders, tailed the liberal’s position. The political context here is the CPIM (Communist Party of India) seeking an alliance with the Congress party at the national level in order to regain its strength in the strategically important state of West Bengal and oppose the BJP.

The Congress, for its part, never abandoned Nehru as a central figure in its pantheon of leaders whose contributions are hyped up and glorified. Nehru is often cited with Gandhi as part of the central leadership of the Indian struggle, and in Congress-inspired narratives of history wherein the Congress is imagined as the centre of the Indian struggle for independence and the ideas espoused by Nehru at the heart of the Indian republic. These ideas are secularism, socialism, and non-alignment.   

Nehru’s actions  

These hallmark policies of Nehru must be seen and understood in their specific material context, and not in a hazy idealistic manner.

The Indian bourgeoisie had managed to acquire three-quarters of the territory of the British Raj, this included the bulk of India’s colonial industries, infrastructure, and coastline. However, World War II, the Bengal famine, and then partition left India in an impoverished state, not to mention the sustained exploitation under the British. The basis for the re-emergence of a powerful, sovereign Indian state was there but offset by an economy where many of its vital sectors such as banking, finance, industry, and certain agricultural sectors like tea, were still in foreign hands.

The Indian bourgeoisie entrusted the Congress party to work for its interests.  First and foremost, this meant the consolidation of the boundaries of the Indian Republic, and the annexation and integration of five hundred princely states, the largest of which were Kashmir, Junagadh, and Hyderabad. Secondly, it meant the creation of basic industries under state control, and a focus on industrialization under protection from foreign capital, which was sought through import substitution. Thirdly, it meant pacifying the threat of revolution, which first manifested itself in the naval uprising in 1946, and remained in the peasant uprisings in Hyderabad, Travancore, and in the workers’ strikes in Bombay and Calcutta. Fourthly and lastly, it meant carving out a position for the Indian bourgeoisie in a world dominated by US imperialism and Stalinism, where it could be shielded from both. 

On each of these counts the Congress party under Nehru succeeded

Nehru’s prime ministership saw the territory of the Indian Republic grow with five hundred princely states, large and small, being annexed to the territory of the state. The right-wing credits this achievement solely to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Nehru’s role is either denied or diminished. While Patel was the Home Minister, Nehru had been elected Prime Minister, and except for Kashmir, which was contested with Pakistan, most of these states were taken over by a combination of coercion and diplomacy. The only state to attempt to stand out and hold out the longest was the kingdom of Hyderabad ruled by the Nizam. This too would fall to Indian forces in 1948 with Operation Polo. What would follow was a massacre of Muslims and pro-communist peasants, which was designed to crush the peasant-led revolutionary movement in Telangana. In most cases, for the rulers of these mini-states, accession to India under the terms offered ensured a privileged position, privy purses, and survival in the face of potential revolutionary terror at the hands of masses who had enough of exploitative and autocratic rule. Kashmir, Hyderabad, and Travancore, each had uprisings of workers and peasants within their kingdom, and in each case, the rulers responded brutally.

On the economic front, Nehru and his cabinet implemented the Bombay Plan, which put India on the path of statism. The largest foreign-owned bank in India, the Imperial Bank, was nationalized and turned into what is today the largest bank in India (still under state ownership), the State Bank of India. Several new state-owned companies were established in the energy sector, primarily Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Indian Oil Corporation (IOCL). The Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) was established in the steel sector and has today grown to be one of the largest steel manufacturers in the world. These steps did not constitute socialism, but rather state capitalism of the type that is aided by private capital, and the chief beneficiary was India’s rising indigenous capitalists based in Bombay. Protectionist measures helped preserve the large internal Indian market for Indian capitalists at the cost of innovation, but this did not hurt early on. Nehru’s mixed economy still had a place for private capital, with state enterprises propping up private capital like a tea plantation worker carrying her British boss, a dynamic which has not changed fundamentally until today.

On the point of pacifying the threat of revolution is where perhaps Nehru’s Prime ministership shone the most. The adoption of socialist rhetoric, welfarism, abolition of zamindari, and in some cases directly crushing peasant rebellions (such as in Telangana), all contributed to blunting the revolutionary fervour of the masses which had been building up since the end of the Second World War. The Stalinists led by the CPIM had initially denounced Nehru and the Congress as compradores and running dogs of imperialism. They had played a leading role in organizing the peasantry in the Telangana uprising against the Nizam, they had also led many militant workers’ strikes in Bombay and Calcutta. In 1957, when the state of Kerala went to elections, it was Nehru’s Congress government that had jailed most of the Communist party leadership to try and ensure their failure. The effort did not bear fruit, and Kerala had its first elected Communist government. This government lasted only two years before being dismissed in 1959.

 Three years later in 1962, India would go to war with China, an event that would split the CPI and the communist movement as a whole. India’s defeat in the war with China was arguably the darkest period of Nehru’s prime ministership and the beginning of the modern era of Stalinist collaboration with the Congress government. The pro-nationalist wing of the CPI won out and became the mainstream CPIM, the Maoist movement in India which was in its infancy at this time was hounded out and cornered. In the fallout of the war, the Chinese community, primarily living in Eastern India and in the city of Calcutta, was scapegoated. About twenty thousand were rounded up and put into a prison camp in Deuli Rajasthan, which had been previously used to house Italian POWs in World War II. This chapter of Indian history has been left out of the history books and is barely talked about outside the Chinese community. Nehru was never called out for this action, certainly not by anyone on the left, and liberals remain silent about it.

Despite the failure with China, Nehru had scored several foreign policy successes, ensuring the nascent Indian bourgeois republic would be shielded from cold war rivalries, while also extending its influence in a subtle and benign way. Under Nehru, India led the non-aligned movement and became a leading player among newly decolonized nations, in this it acquired prestige among former colonial countries. During this period, India played a key role in diffusing tensions on the Korean peninsula towards the end of the Korean War, and played a decisive role in the Suez crisis, against British and French interests, aligning itself with both the Soviet Union and the United States, and pursuing an anti-colonial agenda. This would culminate in its seizure of Goa in 1961 without any political backlash from the leading powers of the world. The panchsheel (five principles of peaceful co-existence) between India and China ensured the latter’s nullification as a revolutionary force against world capitalism. The Chinese Trotskyist Peng Shuzi criticized the CCP for signing on to the agreement, which was essentially a concession by revolutionary China to world capitalism. The war was a military defeat for India, but politically the Indian bourgeoisie consolidated and drove the Communist Parties to capitulation before it.

Nehru today  

The vitriolic hatred of the Hindutva right against Nehru has blinded the present generation of Indians to Nehru’s legacy and prevented a scientific Marxist understanding of the man from developing. To put Nehru in the context of Indian history is to acknowledge his role in destroying the budding revolutionary consciousness of the Indian masses. He was the leader of the Congress when it colluded with the British government to destroy the naval uprising, where Sardar Patel, the so-called iron man of India, deceived the mutiny of sailors into surrendering before the British. By crushing the Telengana uprising and initiating the first large-scale suppression of communists, he destroyed the second great revolutionary wave in the country. His economic policies, while incidentally beneficial to the working class and peasants, were primarily geared to propping up Indian capitalists, which is still true to this day. The darker aspects of his past are glossed over by liberals and the Stalinist left, such as the mass incarceration of Chinese, hushing up the massacre of rebellious peasants and Muslims after the annexation of Hyderabad, and the censorship and suppression of dissident communists in the 50s.

These do not figure in the right-wing attacks on Nehru, for whom such actions would be more than welcome, perhaps even celebrated. But it is convenient for them to make a scapegoat out of Nehru and blame him for ‘socialism,’ something which Nehru never did, and adopting a secular stance towards India’s minorities, something that the congress has still retained. Nehru’s secularism had its flaws as well. Allowing the fullest freedom of religion, both to practice and preach, meant allowing religion to further entrench itself in society without any serious attempt to challenge religion’s hold over Indian society. The fact that today, the Hindutva right wing is ascendant and free to propagate its divisive agenda is nothing but a clear failure of the secularism of Nehru and Congress. It was akin to a plaster to treat an infection that lay within the body.

As ineffective as this was, it is still too much for the Hindutva movement to accept, which seeks to turn India into a Hindu supremacist country where non-Hindus would be second-class citizens if even allowed to live at all. In practice, much of this is already achieved through communal divisions and majoritarianism, which continued on under the Congress despite its secular rhetoric. The Mandal Commission report laid bare the marginalization of Muslims and Dalits in India, something Nehru’s policies did not address. For the forces of Hindutva, this state of affairs is desirable and they wish to take it further.

In addition to this, the right-wing, pro-market neoliberals, who are mostly aligned with the BJP and the Hindutva parties, hate Nehru for his supposed ‘socialism.’ The emphasis on statism and protectionism did not come from Nehru alone but was a demand of the Indian bourgeoisie itself. Private capital at the time was not up to the task of large-scale infrastructure projects or financing, something which the state could handle better. Nehru’s implementation of five-year plans, import substitution, and creation of large publicly-owned corporations to spearhead India’s early industrialization had set it off on the course to develop a relatively independent capitalist economy. It was not alone in instituting such policies, East Asian nations such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan attempted such policies as well in their post-war reconstruction. Nehru was no maverick socialist nor an idealist, but a bourgeois leader responding to the material conditions he faced. The critics of Nehru on the right have no conception of this and are consequently blind to this reality.


From this reading, one conclusion is inescapable, that Nehru was a representative of Indian capitalism and a leading defender of it. His credentials as a democrat are what liberals admire in this period of reaction when India is ruled by the reactionary Bharatiya Janata Party who is aggressively promoting its Hindu majoritarian agenda. But for the working masses of India, Nehru was the leading figure who ensured that the emancipation of the workers and peasants under a socialist revolution would be delayed indefinitely. His so-called ‘secularism’ was just a veneer to hide the true dynamics of Hindu majoritarianism and casteism, which remain endemic in Indian society. Nehru’s ‘socialism,’ while beneficial to the working masses to an extent, was primarily oriented towards strengthening Indian capitalism. The need to provide welfare to the public was borne of the need to ward off any revolutionary threat to the rule of the bourgeois class. Those on the left, swayed by adopting Nehru as a counter-idol to the BJP’s cynical and dishonest use of Subhash Bose and Bhagat Singh, must know that he was no revolutionary. Nehru was an agent of democratic reaction and a very successful one at that. His rule saw the deaths of thousands of revolutionary peasants in the Telangana uprising, the massacre of thousands of innocent Muslims, the subjugation of the revolutionary movement in India, and the consolidation of bourgeois power. None of which should be celebrated. The victories earned through struggle, such as the abolition of zamindari, labour rights, and land reforms, owe much more to the struggles of the peasants and workers of India than the supposed magnanimity of Nehru.

Further reading,Defence%20of%20India%20Act%2C%201962.,post%2Dindependence%20economy%20of%20India.

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