From 1947 to 1963, Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister of India. He had a tough task to lay the ground for a new country. To bring together hundreds of princely states. To deal with the new & bitter neighbor. Also, deal with the wars that followed and to plan for the future. Not sure if it could get tougher than this for anyone.
So these letters which he wrote to the then chief ministers of the Indian states are an insight into the times and the mind of the writer of the Letters for a Nation. They share information, give directions and sometimes just share his thoughts.
Editor Madhav Khosla has picked up 5 areas that Nehru’s letters spoke about in the book Letters for a Nation. And he has chronologically arranged the portions of the letters that speak about them. First one deals with the citizenship issues – as we know they must have been extremely important post-independence. And post-merger of princely states. He talks about majority and minority and is obviously far more concerned about the interest of Muslim minority than anyone else.
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I found a great contradiction in what he says about the rights of Muslims in India. He repeatedly says that Muslims need representation in services. But at the same time opposed any kind of reservation in services. As that would dilute the quality & standards of the services. It could be an error of reading excerpts and not the whole letters, but his concerns do come across as biased. For example this sentence – “Basically, the responsibility for communal peace rests on the majority community i.e Hindus. If there is a breach of peace, I would start with the presumption that it has been caused by Hindu communal elements who have created a situation leading to fear and conflict”
In the third section, The editor brings out Jawaharlal Nehru’s focus on planning. The letters bring out Nehru’s vision for proper planning of development, that led to our famous 5-year plans. Nehru talks with passion about the dams. The dams that India was planning and building to make the country self-sustainable. His biggest worry was managing the food deficit.
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As India was importing most of the food grains. And this could not continue forever. His focus on increasing the food production, better sharing of food grains amongst the states and shift in the diet based on what is available comes out more as concerns than solid action plans. Though this is one challenge that India has managed to meet quite successfully.
In the last two sections Jawaharlal Nehru focuses a lot on China – in fact, those are the longest excerpts that the editor has presented. Nehru also talks a lot about the non-aligned stand of India when the two forces i.e. USA and Russia were in the state of cold war. He ponders in many world situations and tries to convey their implications for India. He worried about China’s actions all the time.
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The Nehru letters bring out the tensions in the relationship between two countries. There is a need to collaborate and there is a need to defend against. And think of it, things have not really changed since then. Nehru also seems to have been quite concerned about what the world would think of us. I guess building a national image for a newborn nation would have been important.
Letters are one of my favorite genres to read. As they are written with a focus, they are addressed to a defined person or persons so there are very limited generalizations. There is also an element of intimacy as the words are meant to be a private exchange. I assume that these were not public when he wrote them. so I enjoyed them – even when my thoughts may not have matched the authors. The editor has done a great job at putting in buckets for us and thankfully maintaining the chronology as that mattered.
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Read the book Letters for a Nation, if you are interested in knowing the initial thoughts of Jawaharlal Nehru that gave shape to independent India.