Jawaharlal Nehru has been the subject of several studies and work undertaken by historians and political scientists. Being the longest serving Prime Minister of independent India, Nehru remains a much sought after figure to understand the dynamics of current India. His legacy has an important role to play in the way India has shaped up. A recurring framework of literature on Nehru has been to throw light on his association with the other Congress leaders, close and trusted friends, important political movements and his prime ministership.
In this essay I have looked upon how Nehru is projected and portrayed by two individuals K A Abbas and Ansar Harvani in their books. The books under consideration are K A Abbas’s ‘I am not an island: An experiment in Autobiography’ and Ansar Harvani’s ‘From Gandhi to Gandhi: Private Faces of Public Figures’. K A Abbas, was a journalist who also directed movies. He was closely associated with Raj Kapoor and wrote a popular column in Blitz. Ansar Harvani was a Lok Sabha MP who also worked as a journalist. Both were good friends and studied together at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
Just like other national leaders, Nehru’s life is majorly discussed in terms of his broad outlook and vision. Individuals like Abbas and Harvani and their work helps throw light on the quirky details which goes a long way in putting up a human face to a prominent figure – in this case Nehru. The contrasting picture of Nehru that comes through these two books from good friends is symptomatic of the urge to trace the success and failures of modern India to Nehru. Abbas and Harvani cite issues and instances where two different Nehrus emerge.
It is necessary to discuss a bit more about Abbas and Harvani to understand their different approaches. Both were not front rank politicians or leaders but representative of the liberal-secular -socialist intellectuals belonging to the old and distinguished Muslim families of North India. They were neither rich enough nor desired to go abroad for studies like Syud Hossain, Asaf Ali, Sir Shah Sulaiman or members of the Suhrawardy, Kidwai, Tyabji or Hydari families. Both were journalists and consistently aligned with Congress, though it is important to add that Harvani was drawn towards Subhash Chandra Bose, Nehru’s bête noire.
Harvani was an accomplished speaker and a fine orator who could count upon AMU students and residents of Delhi’s Jama Masjid area among his captive audiences. He was twice elected to the Parliament and had several clashes with government agencies (particularly in Uttar Pradesh) in his role as a journalist for Blitz. Majaz Lucknowi, the famous poet was his brother and lyricist and Javed Akhtar is his nephew. Abbas belonged to a family of educationists and litterateurs and counted Maulana Altaf Husain Hali as his forefather. Syeda Hameed, member Planning Commission of India, whose father was Secretary in the Ministry of Education during the tenure of Maulana Azad as Education Minister is his niece. A film critic who ended up writing and directing movies, Abbas is also known as the man who gave Amitabh Bachchan his first break in Bollywood.
Abbas and Harvani both were active student activists. Harvani met Nehru before Abbas as a teenager at Lucknow, where he was living with his relatives. Abbas’s first meeting with Nehru was in a train when he was a student at AMU. Abbas was accompanied by three friends including Harvani when he met Nehru at Khurja railway station close to Aligarh.
Both, Abbas and Harvani, have written about their first meeting with Nehru. However, the manner in which they take forward the narrative is illustrative of the difference in feeling and attitude towards Nehru. It also stems from the fact that Abbas has written the book as events unfolded (mostly in a chronological order), while Harvani’s observations are coloured with Nehru’s decisions taken much later. He keeps going back and forth in time in his book.
For Abbas, “the very first time I saw Jawaharlal Nehru it was love at first sight.” The love at first sight was perhaps due to a mixture of youthful romanticism and lack of like-minded leaders at AMU. As Abbas himself notes “…had he (Nehru) not articulated what we had only vaguely felt?”
Harvani’s first encounter was in a different setting. Nehru was looking after the decorations and seating arrangement for the All Parties conference at Lucknow’s Kaiserbagh in 1928. According to Harvani he lent him a helping hand and ‘earned his appreciation’. “This was the beginning of our relationship which continued till his death.”
In 1929, during the Simon commission agitation Harvani again came in touch with Nehru. The administration arrested the Congress leaders and as Harvani was too young to be put to jail he was ‘taken to a forest 12 miles’ away from the city. He had to trek back alone. “This was my first taste of suffering under his leadership, which I did not question for long time. In real life, how and when did Harvani question Nehru is not clear, but in his book he has criticised Nehru for several decisions taken by him.
After their meeting, Abbas wrote to Nehru asking for his photograph, for which he got a reply that he did not have any photograph that he could send and will give him when he gets one! Abbas had his own share of disappointment with Nehru, including one during the very first meeting. Abbas was dejected to see Nehru travelling in the first class compartment. It also dawned upon him that ‘he was not tall as he looked in his photographs’.
While Abbas has given instances to show Nehru’s ‘quick flashes of temper’, Harvani has stressed upon Nehru’s ‘double standards’. Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that Harvani was more drawn towards politics while Abbas immersed himself in journalism and later films.
Abbas never stood for elections while Harvani was twice elected to the Parliament. Harvani takes pride in his association with Subhash Chandra Bose, but Abbas has nothing to say about him. Though Abbas describes Nehru as the ‘second greatest man of my country’ his autobiography does not name who is the first. He remained consistent in his admiration and dedication to the ‘second greatest man’.
Both have taken forward Jawaharlal Nehru’s role as statesman, politician, and son of Motilal, India’s first prime minister and have also written about his friends and acquaintances. Their books are quite illuminating in knowing what Nehru did in between addressing workers and chairing meetings. The instances chosen by them takes forward their feeling towards Nehru. Abbas was desperate for Nehru’s attention while Harvani was busy making a mark in the freedom struggle and politics.
In the early 1930s Abbas came to know about Nehru’s foreign trips. He wanted to accompany him as his secretary. Abbas was employed at Bombay Chronicle but he was desirous of travelling abroad with Nehru.
Nehru was good friends with Madame Menaka who was the wife of Colonel S S Sokhey, the eminent scientist. Menaka was a famous and sought after dancer and was performing at Bombay’s Capitol Theatre where Nehru was invited.
“I had my press pass, and I manoeuvred to get my seat just behind the group with Panditji. Colonel (later general) Sokhey, the eminent scientist and the husband of Madame Menaka sat on Panditji's right and a young Parsi woman sat on his left.”
For Abbas it was not important to find out who the young Parsi woman was. All he wanted was to get an audience with Nehru and ask if he could accompany him to foreign trips as his ‘secretary’. It was perhaps the same Parsi woman who would qualify according to Harvani as one of the ‘host of socialite ladies who pretended to be social workers’ with whom Nehru ‘felt at home’.
The friction between Nehru and Sardar Patel is well known. Maulana Azad was much closer to Nehru than Patel. Harvani’s contextualising of Nehru’s relationship with Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad and clubbing them together in this regard is interesting:
“While he could not avoid the company of Patel and Azad in social life, he felt more at home with Sir Gopalaswami Iyengar, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, Sir Raghavan Pillai, Sardar Pannikar, Sir V T Krishnamachari…”
Did Nehru really not like the company of Patel and Azad? Abbas has also dwelt upon the differences between Nehru and Azad. He poignantly describes their personalities, outlook and way of life in the book. However, unlike Harvani, Abbas compares their childhood and education to highlight that they worked together to serve India.
Nehru became the Congress president in 1929 for its Lahore session. According to Harvani, Motilal Nehru had a role in his selection as the president. The British government had arrested several people under the ‘communist conspiracy’. Motilal was afraid that his son too would be arrested. Nehru had attended the anti-imperialist conference in Brussels and the home department was considering arresting him.
Motilal requested Gandhi to nominate Jawaharlal as the Congress president for the Lahore session. “They (British) could not declare the chief of the most representative Indian political organisation as Communist,” writes Harvani giving a window to Motilal’s thought process. Nehru who was seen as Gandhi’s chosen successor, was a ‘socialist’ in the mid-1920s who strengthened the left wing opposition within Congress. Harvani laments that Nehru’s ascendancy as the president for the Lahore session marked the beginning of ‘political rapprochement between the Mahatma and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’.
Abbas gives no such details of the high politics of the day. Unlike Harvani, Abbas didn’t undergo long term imprisonment and was much less of a political creature. He worked for the Bombay Chronicle for a very long time which had a cartoonist named Radha who had a one-column space. Nehru was a constant visitor to Bombay and usually stayed at his sister Betty’s (Krishna Hutheesing) flat. One day Radha, who according to Abbas, used to be shabbily dressed and was addicted to country liquor was struggling to get any personality for his column. He came to know that Nehru was in town and in the late evening reached his sister’s flat. Nehru was just finishing dinner and enquired the purpose of Radha’s visit.
When Radha said that he wanted to capture him, Nehru ‘exploded’. He had to attend a meeting and had no time to spare. Radha started weeping and told Nehru: “You have had your dinner but if I don’t deliver your sketch by 10 o’clock I won’t be able to earn my dinner.” When Nehru asked his sister to serve dinner to Radha, he requested that he would prefer Nehru gave him some time. “You will have both,” Nehru told him.
Harvani’s narrative has none of the ‘kindness’ and ‘charm’ of Nehru’s personality. The anecdotes, instances cited by him are viewed through a heavy political lens. According to him, Nehru who was highly critical of Bose and his Indian National Army (INA) did not want to lose any political mileage during the famous INA trial. “He organised a Defence Committee and himself appeared in a Barrister’s gown after almost twenty-five years to assist renounced (sic) lawyer Bhula Bhai Desai to defend them,” writes Harvani.
Abbas and Harvani both have used different instances to show Nehru the way they want to. As I have said before this had much to do with their own leanings and profession. Harvani has criticised Nehru for ‘nepotism’ and for favouring Kashmiri Pandits and his friends. Though Harvani was twice elected to Parliament, he never got a ministry.
Interestingly, Abbas himself has commented on Harvani’s political career: “Much lesser men became Ministers, he (Harvani) was never offered even a deputy ministership.”
Does this explain the occurrence of following passage in Harvani’s book:
“It was unfortunate that he (Nehru) could not resist the temptation of nepotism. Almost all available Nehrus in particular and Kashmiri Pandits in general in Indian Civil Serices suddenly were found to have a flair for diplomacy and with the recommendation of his new found adviser of foreign affairs in external affairs Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai were absorbed in diplomatic services. In return Bajpai claimed that all of his three sons were born diplomats and recruited them in newly created Indian Foreign Service. ”
Both have charted a different course while throwing light on Nehru’s relation with some other prominent Muslim personalities. For example Abbas has written about Nehru’s friendship and cordial relations with S A Brelvi, while Harvani criticises Nehru for letting three cousins of R A Kidwai become diplomats overnight.
Abbas mentions the passing away of Mehboob Khan, the famous film producer, of heart attack just a day after Nehru’s death. According to Abbas, it symbolised the important part played by Nehru in the protection of minorities and the insecurity that arose after his death. Nehru had personally ensured the safety of Abbas’s family members during the partition violence. He ensured they were put in a safe place in Delhi on Abbas’s request.
Harvani and Abbas both admired Nehru but had different sets of expectations from him. Harvani would have liked if Nehru had continued to lead the socialists within the Congress and not aligned himself with policies of Gandhi. He also didn’t like the fact that Nehru retained the services of people like ‘Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai and the ICS officers who had suppressed the Indian people’.
Harvani writes about Nehru’s ‘complete sartorial change’ from the humble dhoti-kurta and Nehru jacket to sherwani and ‘chust pyjama’ tailored by Mohammed Usman, whose clientele included princes and celebrities. Harvani though notes that Nehru did not discard the Khadi and Gandhi cap. For Abbas the ‘sartorial change’ would not have been profound as Nehru retained the Gandhi cap.
The one common thing about Nehru that they have mentioned is a white horse that he rode – at two different places and 16 years apart. According to Harvani, it was a white horse upon which Nehru came to preside over the 1929 Lahore conference. Abbas too has written about a white horse that Nehru rode during the crucial talks in Shimla in 1945. According to Abbas, this ‘created a problem for foot-borne journalists pursuing him for an interview’. The white horse here seems to represent two different line of thinking.
Nehru on a white horse in the 1929 of Lahore signifies the growing up of a prince breaking away from ‘socialist’ thinking. But as Abbas informs that ‘his (Abbas) friend Subhan of the National Herald also acquired a pony and went cantering after Nehru’, Nehru on white horse in the 1945 of Shimla appears a to-be crowned king and yet approachable.
May 27 was Nehru's 49th death anniversary