Nehru is often described as a Kashmiri Pandit but of course the province closest to his heart was the United Provinces, or Uttar Pradesh, as it came to be officially known after independence. He knew the districts of UP intimately: its hill stations and capital Lucknow, its prisons, schools, courts, universities and rural districts; this was where his friends and colleagues resided, where the most memorable and nationally decisive Congress meetings had been held, where he was elected to Allahabad’s municipal corporation and where he first joined peasant activism in Rae Bareli. UP was the place of his childhood home. It was where his daughter was born, where he wrote his books, where he first tasted satyagraha campaigns and experienced local and regional politics. He knew its sugar-cane tracts and its industrial towns, had visited hundreds of its villages and travelled on its railways and rivers. Although a socialist, and a vocal supporter of land reform, he was comfortable in the drawing rooms of zamindars and taluqdars. Their contradictions were in many ways his own as the heir to a Persianate Hindu family with historic connections to the Mughal court.
Nehru’s connection with UP was timely and played an important role in his eventual rise to national leadership: The epicentre of politics had been shifting westwards, away from the old capital Calcutta after World War I. The districts of western UP bordered the recently constructed imperial capital New Delhi. Commercial cities such as Allahabad were ripe for linking up local, regional and national power brokers. Democratic calculations based on population statistics benefited UP in national politics when the British introduced new constitutional arrangements with the Government of India Act of 1935. But this was more than a political convenience for Nehru. The emotional pull of UP was strong; even when he was prime minister Nehru lamented that he could not visit UP as often as he wished. UP stayed as the heart of India in his cartographical imagination.
Titans: (from right) Govind Ballabh Pant, R.A. Kidwai and Nehru at the Meerut Congress session in 1946.
Much of what made UP special for Nehru was its social melange, the intermingled Muslim and non-Muslim communities. His own reading of the cultural genius of India came from his experience of the region and it was where he revelled in the pleasures of food, music and architecture. Although he felt most comfortable talking in colloquial Hindustani he appreciated the cadences of Urdu poetry.
During 1947, when ethnic cleansing threatened the western districts, Nehru personally intervened to prevent UP from becoming a second Punjab. After independence and Partition, Nehru continued to fear for UP and for its changing character and social composition. He pressed the provincial government tirelessly on the question of Indian Muslims in the state, constantly urging the protection of their rights. His message to Govind Ballabh Pant, an old friend and prison cellmate who was now chief minister, was unequivocal: “I also hope that there will be no migration of Muslims from the UP.” And in an interview with a journalist some weeks later, “It is not our desire and it is not the wish of the UP government to send away a single Muslim resident of the UP.”
The region was the crucible in which Nehru forged his own commitment to secularism and he had to fight some of the toughest battles in the earliest years of independence to establish it, seeing off the right-wing faction in the UP Congress. When the Ayodhya dispute first raised its head in 1950 Nehru intuitively recognized its importance and offered to go to the scene. His role in pushing the UP ministry is evident in his letters and notes at the time—he took a personal interest, quizzing local officials on how many Muslims were still in the police, asking local people about their experiences, trying to offset the hardships and needs of incoming refugees from Punjab and the rights of pre-existing communities. He made sure Aligarh Muslim University was steered successfully through independence and recognized that Muslims needed to fight and win elections in independent India; although the Congress party was assured of a resounding victory in the first general election of 1951-52, he championed the selection of Muslim candidates, arguing that this could be done “even at the risk of losing a seat or two”. The factionalization of politics, the ascendancy of a more reformist and exclusionary form of nationalism and the erosion of Urdu all saddened him greatly; his old province felt like a “foreign land” to him, he lamented to Pant in 1950. But at the same time, he could look back knowing that something of the fabric of UP had held.
Taking stock: Nehru and Gandhi (centre) meet refugees from North West Frontier Province and Punjab at Haridwar in June 1947.
Today, the Nehru family connection with Rae Bareli continues into the fourth generation. Nostalgics can still find traces of the old social and cultural life in UP, even if politics has got more messy and brutish. As a (mostly) impeccable democrat and pluralist, what would Nehru have made of the “passive revolution” which has brought new parties and politicians to power in the epicentre of his old political world?
Nehru understood well that the privileges of his class and background would have to give way to the voice of the people. At the same time he assumed that he had the right to discipline and direct the “masses”. This tension remained throughout his life. It is unlikely that he would have admired its aesthetics, but he probably would have had more sympathy for Mayawati’s rose pink and granite colossus than we might think.
Yasmin Khan is a London-based historian. Her first book, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, won the Royal Historical Society’s Gladstone Prize. She is currently writing a narrative history of India during World War II.
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