In Nehru and the Spirit of India, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee brings Nehru’s ideas through a critical condensation of his unique work on history, The Discovery of India. The book focuses on the intrinsic spirit which has not only steered India through over the years but has also informed the ideas of Nehru, who embodied the vigour of critical inquiry. Bhattacharjee bolsters Nehru’s view that India is enriched by the encounter of cultures and that we must not discard the past but engage with it.

Bhattacharjee is a writer, political theorist and poet. He is the author of The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown (2021), Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India (2018), and Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013). Excerpts from an interview:

Can you tell us how the ‘spirit of India’ correlates with Nehru’s ideas?
Even though I did not specify this, I elaborated the themes which I consider to be part of the spirit of India: namely, the spirit of modernity that questions everything, including one’s own ideas and beliefs, the secular spirit of accepting refugees and treating minorities without discrimination, the spirit of a people who were shaped by cultural encounters with other religions throughout history, and the spirit that feels the need to discard and retain certain aspects of the past. Nehru’s ideas are well in tune with this spirit of India. Nehru understood and valued this spirit.

Nehru was a proponent of scientific progress and in that sense he was a modernist. Octavio Paz described him as a man who “belonged to a double anti tradition”. You describe him as one who “emerges as a man of double modernity”. How do you understand the figure of modernity from this?
This is a good question. Modernity creates paradoxes. Even in earlier times, people had cross-cultural tendencies, but they largely belonged to one cultural tradition. Modernity fixes the frame of reference, which is the modern West and ideas that produced the Enlightenment. The idea of belonging (to a particular culture) takes on a new form as modernity interrupts that relationship. We begin to critically negotiate with our own cultural tradition. This is where a lot of intellectual debate in the postcolonial world takes place. To be or not to be western becomes a political predicament.

The (ethically necessary) critical gaze towards tradition is often accused of having a western bias. Cultural politics gets divided among those who challenge culture using western ideas and norms, and those who argue in favour of cultural exclusivity, and even superiority. Colonialism evidently complicates this debate with modernity. Nehru had the privilege to make his choices, and he made them in favour of western modernity. But he valued the richness and openness of India’s cultural history. He lived the paradox of modernity.

A minority, Nehru felt, has the political tendency to create divisions. What was his fear premised upon? Do you think this fear finds an echo in contemporary Indian politics and society? What to make of secularism in the context of citizenship today?
Like any liberal, Nehru had a deep antipathy towards religious sentiments and towards communities demanding rights based on those sentiments, as well as a religious sense of difference. Partition heightened Nehru’s fears of a minority asking for political rights. He saw it as a tendency towards disunity. This liberal fear can also get entwined with a larger majoritarian discomfort about minorities.

Secularism is about equality before the law and discouragement of using religion in politics. But equality as a principle has to deal with social and economic inequality in society where disadvantaged communities may need special rights. Equality is not a principle only meant for the individual citizen. This does not mean communities (including minorities) can always be allowed to act as they please, but live in accordance with the broader secular identity of the nation-state. All communities must be open to internal change. Religious sanctions are not sacrosanct.

Most of our problems regarding the borders were a result of the imbalance that colonialism had managed to create between the centre and the periphery. In the context of Kashmir and Assam, how would you relate this imbalance?
The colonial rulers joined and divided regions according to their administrative needs. This fuelled a lot of fissures between communities in the northeast, a region that suffered ethnic differentiation vis-à-vis mainstream India. The Indian state did not manage to sort out the problems created by the colonial state in a judicious manner. Ethnic strife based on issues of ownership of land, political power and cultural dominance tore the region apart.

In Assam, the local people faced and feared marginalisation due to the growing influx of refugees from East Pakistan, and later, Bangladesh. It gave rise to entrenched xenophobia. Kashmiris got divided as a people after the exodus of the Pandits in 1990. The state is responsible for a lot of ills it creates, and then tries to justify with violence. But communities must also reflect on their own parochialism and intolerance.

To quote from your book, “Tradition is not history”. And yet both are equally connected with the roots of the present. What problems in regard with tradition does Nehru posit his views on
For Nehru, tradition is not a static idea, but something that keeps changing over time. This change is connected to changing sensibilities. So what is considered “traditional” may not correspond to the change that it has undergone in history. Tradition is often argued in terms of continuity, which may not be true about many practices and beliefs. History is not simply a recounting of the past, but a perspective. Therefore, Nehru understands what is considered traditional may be put under scrutiny by history. Yes, both tradition and history are part of our past and present. Their relationship is however, not contiguous, but dynamic.

Nehru believes that India retains an ‘astonishing inclusive capacity’ despite ‘caste and exclusiveness’ because of the harmonious synthesis of cultural encounters. This spirit of inclusiveness that India embodied for long is now torn apart by divisionary forces. Is there hope that this spirit will not be shredded?
This is not the first time that India’s inclusivity is under strain. We have had Hindu-Muslim riots during the anticolonial period, and finally, the bloodbath of Partition. The declaration of Pakistan is responsible for the violence of Partition. You may question those who accepted the idea of Pakistan as a solution to the Hindu-Muslim question, but there is no doubt that those who demanded Pakistan and worked towards it are chiefly responsible for the unspeakable horror that both Hindus and Muslims went through.

It jeopardised the future, giving the Hindu-right – having its own version of a nation based on religion – a space to exploit people’s sentiments, especially of Hindu refugees who suffered. Apart from the rhetoric of secularism – I have called it “secular majoritarianism” – no mainstream party in India worked towards healing the trauma of Partition. Gandhi was the last man to have worked towards genuine rapprochement. His untimely death was meant to politically end that gesture.

The Congress indulged in tokenism towards minorities. There is no point in harping on the spirit of inclusiveness without making concrete political gestures of friendship and trust. It is true that right now communal relations are being systematically damaged. Hope is a survivor’s word. How those who survive the mental and physical violence of our times alone will determine if we can – and if we have – hope. People survived the trauma of Partition, like people survive history. The whole point is to address the wound, actively and honestly. Like Ambedkar had said, it is not enough to simply claim survival in history, but to produce the quality worthy of survival. It is a deep and difficult question.