Looking (only) for Nehru

I have a habit of watching one old Tamil film a day. Yesterday evening, I was watching a film released in 1987, called Ivargal Indiyargal (‘They Are Indians’). In a scene in the film, an office manager distributes sweets to his colleagues. One of them takes a look at the item and asks the manager if he bought it from a particular shop that was famous for such items. The manager takes umbrage and scolds his colleague that he’s been asking that question for too many years, and demands to know if no other good sweet shop has opened since.

An innocuous scene in an innocuous film, yet it seemed to have a parallel with the Chandrayaan-3 mission. On August 23, as I’m sure you’re aware, the mission’s robotic lander module touched down in the moon’s south polar region, rendering India the first country to achieve this feat. It was a moment worth celebrating without any reservations, yet soon after, the social media commentariat had found a way – admittedly not difficult – to make it part of its relentlessly superficial avalanche of controversy and dissension. One vein of it was of course split along the lines of what Jawaharlal Nehru did or didn’t do to help ISRO in its formative years. (The Hindu also received some letters from readers to this effect.)

But more than right-wing nuts trying to rewrite history in order to diminish the influence of Nehru’s ideals on modern India, I find the counter-argument to be curious and, sometimes, worth some concern. The rebuttals frequently take the form that we must remember Nehru in this time, the idea of scientific temper with which he was so taken, the “importance of science” for India’s development, the virtues of Nehruvian secularism, and so forth. It seems to be a reflex to leap all the way back to the first 16 years after independence, always at the cost of many more variants of all these ideals, often refined or revised to better accommodate the pressures of development, modernisation, and globalisation. (See here for one example.)

Members of the Congress party are partly to blame: sometimes they seem incapable of commemorating an event in terms other than that Nehru set the stage for them many years ago. BJP nationalists have also displayed a similar tendency. For example, in 2013, after Peter Higgs and François Englert were awarded the physics Nobel Prize for predicting the existence of the Higgs boson, the nationalists demanded that the laureates should have honoured Satyendra Nath Bose, whose work laid the foundation for the study of all bosons, and that the ‘b’ in ‘boson’ should always be capitalised. It was a ridiculous ask that was disinterested in work that had built on Bose’s ideas and papers in the intervening years, and also betrayed a failure to understand how really a scientist and thinker of Bose’s calibre ought to be honoured, more than capitalising little letters.

Similarly, today, the full weight of Nehru’s legacy is invoked even to counter arguments as rudimentary as chest-thumping. To quote the office manager in Ivargal Indiyargal, has there been no other articulation of the same impulses? My concern about this frankly insensible habit to reach for Nehru is threefold: first, it will overlook other ideas from other individuals grounded in different lived experiences (especially those of marginalisation); second, the moments in which he is invoked are conducive to glazing over the problems, found only upon a closer look, with what Nehru and for that matter Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, and others stood for; and third, perhaps I’m a fool to look for sense where it has seldom been found.