The Nehru Era
India was fortunate to have leaders who were tremendously popular and could communicate with the people and represent their aspirations. As dedicated and imaginative leaders, their power was derived from democratic values. Nehru stood at the head of a virtual galaxy of leaders—Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad and C. Rajagopalachari at the Centre and G.B. Pant, B.G. Kher, B.C. Roy and Morarji Desai in the states.
These were all men with experience of organizing a movement and a party and being at the heads of legislatures and governments. The challenge of building an independent, democratic, secular, modern and prosperous India out of the “mud and filth” left behind by colonialism (to use a description by Rabindranath Tagore) was a huge one. Nehru and his team rose gallantly to meet this challenge.
The Making of the Constitution
The newly independent state inherited a rich legacy from the national movement. The Congress party had given priority to upholding the right of free expression throughout the years of the national struggle. It was this tradition that was reflected in Nehru’s first Cabinet and the Indian Constitution adopted in 1950.
Of the 14 members of Nehru’s Cabinet in 1947, 5 were non-Congressmen, B.R. Ambedkar, S.P. Mookerjee, John Mathai, C.H. Bhabha and Shanmukham Chetty, making it a national government. In the years when the Indian Constitution was being drafted, the basic principles and the broad structure of the Constitution bore the imprint of Congress ideology.
In respect to fundamental rights, directive principles of state policy and other features in the Constitution, such as the abolition of separate electorates, the policies advocated by the Congress were reflected. The Congress Working Committee and AICC would discuss and ratify each and every important resolution before it went to the Constituent Assembly.
The Indian Constitution provided for universal adult franchize, a demand taken up by the Congress since the late 19th century. The Constitution laid down a democratic and parliamentary form of government for India. It took three years to put the Constitution together and, on 26 January 1950, the Indian Constitution was adopted making India a republic. Dr. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, emphasized the point that India was not a ‘Federation of States’ but a ‘Union of States’.
Explaining the difference, he argued that a federation resulted when different states signed agreements joining or creating a federation. By this logic, they could also leave the federation at some point in time. In the case of India, the constituent states were not independent entities willingly entering into a federation or having the choice to opt out in the future. Rather, they were part of a Union which was indestructible. The Union was divided into states for reasons of administrative convenience but as a society, as a country, all states together formed a whole.
The Constitution was also the instrument for removal of social injustice and ensuring equality. Thus, political rights were extended to all adults without distinction of religion, caste or gender. Untouchability was formally abolished and later in 1955, its practice was made punishable. Seats in legislatures and educational institutions and government jobs were reserved for Scheduled Castes. These were meant initially for a period of 10 years only but have been extended till now.
The tribes were sought to be protected through safeguards given in the constitution and concerted efforts were made in this direction by the governments at the Centre and in the states. The policy of Nehru’s government was to preserve the social and cultural heritage of the tribals in India. Later Tribal Welfare Departments were actively urged to take literacy, education and Panchayati Raj institutions to tribal areas in all the states.
Partition and the Communal Challenge
Soon after independence, fierce and widespread communal riots broke out in many parts of India. Nehru was aware that communalism was a major threat to India and carried out a massive campaign against it through radio broadcasts, public speeches, speeches in Parliament and private letters including letters to Chief Ministers and most of all by his personal example of fearless resistance to communal violence.
This campaign was also aimed at reassuring Muslims that they would be safe in India. With the establishment of Pakistan, the Hindu communal forces became strident in their stance. They declared 15 August as a day of mourning and launched an attack on the government for what they saw as its policy of Muslim appeasement. Their ideology struck root among the disaffected refugees. Very soon, riots broke out in Delhi.
The slander of national leaders especially Gandhiji became a common feature. ‘Gandhiji Murdabad’ reverberated at Hindu Mahasabha meetings. When Gandhiji asserted that Pakistan government be paid Rs. 55 crore, its share of immovable assets, despite its engagement in hostilities in Kashmir, the Hindu communalists sharpened their attack on him.
Gandhiji undertook an indefinite fast in January 1948 in Delhi in an effort to bring about communal peace. He broke it after he was assured by the government that communal harmony would be maintained. A few days later, on January 30, 1948, as he came to his usual prayer meeting, Gandhiji was shot dead by Nathuram Godse, a member of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, and a close associate of V.D. Savarkar.
The assassination shocked the entire country, as it was clear that the Mahatma had fallen a victim to communal forces. Communal forces received a setback after the murder of Gandhiji. Nehru realized that it was not just the act of a fanatic but behind it was the ideology of the RSS which he described as a fascist organization. With Nehru’s full support, Sardar Patel, the Home Minister, placed the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha under a ban. The ban on RSS was lifted only in July 1949 when it gave an undertaking that it would function under severe restrictions.
The Hindu Mahasabha dissolved itself. The sacrifice of the Mahatma was not in vain. For at least a decade, communal forces were pushed on to the back foot and could not raise their head. Another major issue which Nehru’s government had to deal with was the rehabilitation of six million refugees who had been rendered homeless due to the communal carnage which accompanied Partition.
The rehabilitation of Punjabi refugees was completed only by 1951. New townships for refugees had to be established. Nilokheri, near Delhi, was developed as part of this endeavour to resettle the refugees from Punjab. Similarly, in the eastern part of the country, the refugees from East Bengal were rehabilitated. The question of refugee rehabilitation involved negotiations with the government of Pakistan. In April 1950, Nehru signed a pact with Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan in which the two governments reassured each other that they would protect their minorities.
Integration of the Princely States
One of the many problems immediately after independence was the integration of the Princely States. Earlier in the year, Patel had used persuasion as well as pressure to integrate most of the States into the Union. Some States had joined the Constituent Assembly in April 1947 but others had stayed away, with some desiring independence. Patel used the threat of popular struggles to persuade the States to join the Union. By 15 August 1947, all but three of them—Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh—had joined India.
In the case of Junagadh, the Nawab acceded to Pakistan but the people revolted. The Nawab fled to Pakistan and the Indian Government took over the administration of Junagadh.
The Nizam of Hyderabad declined to accede to either India or Pakistan but, after a swift police action, Sardar Patel succeeded in bringing Hyderabad within the Indian Union. It is interesting to note that contrary to the expectations of Nizam and Pakistan, the Muslims in both Hyderabad and the rest of the Indian Union opted to stay in India.
The problem regarding Jammu and Kashmir, however, remained. It had a border with Pakistan, was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja, and the Muslims formed the majority of the population. The National Conference, affiliated to the All India States’ People’s Conference and headed by Sheikh Abdullah, was very close to the Congress and to Nehru. The Maharaja asked for a standstill agreement for a year to make up his mind. Pakistan had already formally accepted this and the Indian stand in any case was that the people’s wishes should be ascertained via elections.
Pakistan, however, was not confident that the popular verdict would go in its favor and jumped the gun. In October 1947, Pakistan invaded the valley. As the invaders marched forward to take over Srinagar, the Maharaja acceded to India. Pursuant to this, Indian troops repelled the invaders and under UN auspices, a cease-fire agreement was arrived at.
Jammu and Kashmir, though under the Indian Union, continues to enjoy a special status, distinct from other provinces. The integration of the Princely States with the neighbouring provinces in the Indian Union was regarded as one of the greatest achievements of Sardar Patel, backed by eminent leaders of Praja Mandals and other bodies affiliated to the All-India States’ People’s Conference.
The Economic Challenge
The economic critique of colonialism developed by Congress leaders during the years of the national movement had highlighted the subordination and colonial structuring of the Indian economy to suit the needs of the British economy. On the basis of this understanding, the national leadership evolved a perspective to overcome this colonial structuring so that backwardness and underdevelopment could be fought. This became the foundation of the economic policies adopted after independence. The emphasis was on building a planned, self-reliant economy through rapid industrialization, growth in agriculture and public sector intervention in strategic industries making it a mixed economy.
In 1947, the Economic Programme Committee of the AICC with Nehru as its convener spelt out that defence, key industries and public utilities would be under the public sector.
An Industrial Policy Resolution was adopted in 1948 which stated that nationalization of existing industries would be considered after a period of 10 years. A Planning Commission was set up in 1950 under the chairmanship of Nehru. At the AICC session in Bangalore held in July 1951, Nehru presented a report outlining his concept of a Welfare State and the means to achieve it. All these were incorporated in the First-Five Year Plan launched in 1951. In 1954, this resolution was reviewed and a major change in favour of socialistic pattern of society was proposed.
This was adopted at the historic Avadi session of the Congress in 1955. Following this, the Industrial Policy Resolution was modified in 1956. This triggered the growth of the public sector. The Second Five-Year Plan reflected this changed policy by the entry of public sector into heavy and capital goods industry on a massive scale.
The overall economic performance during the Nehru years was remarkable. India’s national income grew at 4 per cent per annum between 1950 and 1964. This was roughly four times the rate of growth achieved during the last half century of colonial rule and compared very favourably with that of other countries, like Japan, in their early stages of industrialization. Comprehensive land reform measures were introduced within the democratic framework, a rare feat in world history.
During the first three five-year plans, agriculture grew at an annual rate of over 3 per cent which was more than seven times higher than what was achieved in the last half century of colonial rule. It again compared very favourably with other countries like Japan and China. Industrial growth during these years reached a figure of 7 per cent per annum. But more important, the focus on basic and heavy industries reduced India’s nearly hundred per cent dependence on advanced countries.
By 1960 India needed to import only 43 per cent of the capital equipment or machinery out of its total fixed investments. By 1974 the dependence on imports in this area had come down to a mere 9 per cent. This was the great Nehruvian achievement in rapidly converting our political independence achieved in 1947 into economic independence.
The development of infrastructure was, especially in the areas of education and health, another area Nehru focussed on. Basic education received a new impetus. Removal of adult illiteracy, universalization of primary education, large scale training of manpower in areas of science and technology by setting up institutions of higher learning in these areas became immediate objectives. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was put in charge of the Education portfolio in the Congress government at the Centre.
The setting up of a University Education Commission under the Chairmanship of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan in 1948, followed by the setting up of a Secondary Education Commission under the Chairmanship of Dr. A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, helped in laying a solid foundation for the development of school and higher education.
Nehru played a seminal role in providing an impetus to the growth of a scientific temper and the setting up of a chain of national institutions and laboratories to promote indigeneous research and technological development. In 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission was set up laying the foundations for the advances made by India in the sphere of nuclear science and related areas. In 1958, the Congress government came out with its famous Scientific Policy Resolution, drafted by Nehru himself.
Nehru had brilliantly anticipated that ‘knowledge’ would become the key factor of production in the future. That India can participate in the globalization process in today’s world of high technology, with any degree of competitiveness and equality, is largely due to the spadework done since the early years after independence, particularly the great emphasis laid on human resource development in the sphere of science and technology.
The Language Issue
Though the Congress had accepted language as the basis for formation of states since 1921, the experience of Partition urged it give top priority to unity. The Jaipur session of the Congress reiterated the acceptance of linguistic divisions in principle. A Committee comprising Nehru, Sardar Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya was set up to examine the issue. The Committee report was not in favour of further linguistic divisions. It felt that any effort at re-drawing the boundaries of the states might harm unity, by dislodging the administration, disrupting economic development and accentuating linguistic rivalries.
However, the success of the struggle for a separate state in Andhra in 1953 encouraged other states to demand autonomy or re-drawing of boundaries on the basis of language. In 1953, the States Reorganization Commission was set up by Nehru. The states were eventually reorganized on grounds of language by the end of 1950s.
Another aspect of the language problem was the dispute over the official language to be adopted in the country. The Constitution declared Hindi, in the Devnagari script, as the language of administration throughout the country. The change to Hindi from English was to be effected by 1965. No link language was specified in the Constitution.
In 1956, the report of the Official Language Commission recommended that Hindi should start progressively replacing English in the functioning of the Central government. This was opposed by members from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. It was felt that this would be disadvantageous to the people in non-Hindi speaking areas in the matter of job opportunities. The reaction in Tamil Nadu was particularly violent. There was resentment over what the agitators characterized as attempts by the North to dominate over the South.
The Dravidian parties gathered strength in the process. The conflict between Brahmins and non-Brahmins surfaced adding to the tension. In 1963, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam launched a massive movement against Hindi, paralyzing the Congress Party machinery. Nehru gave an assurance that English would continue to be the associate language for official purpose until non-Hindi states voluntarily agreed to implement the Constitutional provisions for making Hindi the lingua franca of the country. Following this assurance, the DMK gave up its demand for secession from India.
When India became independent in 1947, it was natural that she sought to express herself in international forums. Nehru did this by defining and adopting the policy of non-alignment. Besides keeping a neutral distance from military blocs, Nehru defined this policy as the struggle to maintain independence from imperialism.
India led the other newly-independent colonies into this policy and thus offered an alternative to membership in either of the two blocs. Nehru outlined five principles of peaceful coexistence among countries, termed the Panchsheel, which envisaged mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. These principles became the basis of the Non-Aligned Movement.
The Political Dimension
After independence, the Congress underwent a change in character. From being a platform for an anti-colonial movement, it turned into a more organized political party. However, the features of ideological flexibility, openness in its approach to other political strands and democratic procedures were retained within the party. It is well known that Nehru and Patel did not see eye to eye on many important issues, yet this did not come in the way of their relying on each other in running the country till Patel’s death in 1950. P.D. Tandon was elected Congress president in 1950 despite Nehru’s opposition to his candidature.
Nehru and many other leaders resigned from the CWC compelling Tandon to step down. From 1950 to the Avadi session of the Congress in 1955, Nehru was the president of the Congress along with leading the government.
He was the star campaigner for the party in the first general elections held in 1951-52. His campaign covered 40,000 kilometres during which he addressed 35 million people. The main issue in this campaign was communalism. The participation of the 173 million-strong electorate in the elections was remarkable. About 46.6 per cent of the eligible voters cast their votes. The Congress won nearly 75 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha and 68.5 per cent in the state legislatures.
Elections were seen as the primary method of political participation for the rural and urban poor. Women as well as tribals voted in large numbers. It was evident that elections were fair, free and orderly. It is a great tribute to the triumph of the secularist ideal under Nehru’s leadership that even after the cataclysmic events leading to the partition of the country where communal frenzy led to hundreds of thousands being killed and millions made homeless, within three years a peaceful election could be held on the basis of a secular constitution.
A secular India was the response to Pakistan (made in the name of Islam) not a Hindu India. The 1950s and the 1960s were also marked by cleavages in the party. During the freedom movement, the Congress had attracted people with diverse political views and economic interests. They worked together for the sole aim of ousting the British rulers. After independence, the differences were heightened. In 1951, J.B. Kripalani quit the Congress with his followers because of differences with Nehru over the relative importance of the parliamentary and the organizational wings.
Kripalani wanted the government to consult the Congress Working Committee on important matters like appointments for high political offices but Nehru insisted on unfettered freedom for the government to function. On the eve of the first general elections, some leaders including P.C. Ghosh left the Congress to form the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party. C. Rajagopalachari left the Congress in 1959 to form the Swatantra Party.
During these years, Nehru tried to ensure that the Congress remained a party that welcomed diversity. When the Socialists left the Congress believing it to have become a right-wing party, Nehru made several attempts to woo them back and seek their cooperation in nation building. He was concerned that the Congress should maintain a leftist orientation.
With the Communists leaving the Congress in 1945, and adopting a hostile stance since 1947, and the Socialists leaving Congress in 1948, the Left forces in the Congress were considerably weakened. When he could not bring the Left back into the party, he decided to take the initiative himself for radicalizing party policies in the spheres of social equality, equity and economic development. At the Congress session in Hyderabad in 1953, the scope of land reforms was extended and at the Avadi session in 1955, “the socialistic pattern of society” was adopted as the objective.
In the Nagpur session held in 1959, he proposed a resolution for introduction of cooperatives in agriculture. In January 1964, the Congress session was held in Bhubaneshwar where the commitment to socialism was reiterated. The transformation of the Congress from a party leading a movement to a party heading a government, inevitably brought in problems of factionalism, weakening of contact with the masses, tendencies of power-seeking and even corruption.
For some years, Nehru was able to contain this but a stage came when even he could not check the stagnancy. At the session in Avadi held in 1955, a resolution was adopted directing the Working Committee to take firm steps to ensure that organizational discipline was duly observed.
In 1963, the loss of three by-elections made the party sit up and take notice of the stagnancy which had set in. The party had been in power for many years and the organizational side had clearly suffered. K. Kamraj, the Chief Minister of Madras, and Nehru put together a plan to reinvigorate the party and bring about a balance between the party and its parliamentary wing. Under this plan, called Kamraj Plan, prominent leaders were asked to relinquish official positions, approach the masses and try to restore their confidence in the party.
Three hundred resignations from ministerial posts including those of all members of the Union Cabinet and all Chief Ministers followed. Of these, Nehru accepted the resignations of 6 Cabinet ministers and 6 Chief Ministers. However, this plan came too late. By this time, Nehru’s health was failing and he could not follow it through. He passed away on 27 May 1964.
Nevertheless, the Congress during the Nehru era achieved great success in many fields, including political stability in the country in its most formative years. It helped the nation in framing for itself a democratic constitution and in creating a strong and vibrant parliamentary structure. Its performance in the first three general elections was better than that of all other parties.
India during the years from 1951 to 1964 settled on a road to stability and prosperity. The Constitution had been adopted and the refugee problem had more or less been settled. This was the beginning of the rebuilding of the polity and the economy. The basic objectives of democracy, civil liberties, secularism, economic development and planning and socialism seemed within reach. The linguistic issues were dealt with as were the tribal problems, planning was initiated, foreign policy charted out, elections set in place and administrative structure established and the blueprint of a welfare state laid out.
This was no mean achievement. India’s success in combining development with democracy became a model for other newly independent third world countries. As Nehru was keenly aware, this was a path ‘uncharted in history’. Nehru, the pre-eminent builder of independent India had set India on a course which many other countries were to try and follow with varying degrees of success.