Nehru's Model Morality

Nehru's Model Morality

Jawaharlal Nehru steered clear of religion in his personal life, but his political life was guided by a deeply held moral sensibility.

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“Nehru’s Faith” by Sunil Khilnani, in The New Republic (May 24, 2004), 1331 H St., N.W., Ste. 700, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India (1947–64), is often held up as the rational, scientific opposite to the deeply spiritual Hindu leader Mohandas Gandhi. These are “simplifications that border on caricature,” asserts Khilnani, who finds in Nehru’s “deeply held moral convictions” an appealing quest, “not always successful, to base public life on a reasoned morality.”

Nehru “believed in the moral life not just as sustaining private life, but also as necessary for the living of any kind of political life.” Using reason, and often engaging Gandhi and others in probing dialogues, Nehru attempted to filter all his decisions through his own demanding moral prism before adopting a course of action. Sometimes the process became agonizing, as when he faced demands during the early 1950s to redraw India’s internal boundaries along linguistic lines. Having already overseen the disaster of partition in 1947, when Muslim Pakistan broke away from the Indian state, Nehru feared that the language question would further divide India. In Khilnani’s view, by “temporizing and refusing to give in immediately to popular passions,” Nehru arrived at a series of subtle compromises and adjustments “that actually strengthened the Union and [have] endured remarkably well.”

Throughout his political life, says Khilnani, a professor of politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Nehru struggled with the choices and responsibilities that came with power. As historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, “It is more blessed to be imprisoned for the sake of one’s ideals than to imprison other people, incongruously, in the name of the same ideals. Nehru lived to have both experiences.” But where some might turn to religious faith for guidance, as did India’s other influential leaders Gandhi and the poet Rabindranath Tagore, Nehru stubbornly resisted religion. Khilnani suggests that it was Nehru’s deep understanding of European history that gave him such insight into the dangers of mixing religion and politics. To Nehru, there was equal disaster in “attempts to define the character of the state in terms of the claims of religious faith” and in concentrating too much power in one person. A democracy grounded on secular principles seemed to offer the only safe course for India.

Khilnani believes that Nehru’s method of moral reasoning offers a model for the modern world. “In a world in which religion was declining (as in the West) or in which religious faith existed in multiple forms (as in India), no particular religion or belief system could claim universal allegiance, no shared morality could be taken for granted.” How best to guide such societies into proper ways of thinking and acting? Or, as Khil­nani puts it, more fundamen­tally, “how can we create and sustain a moral public life?” Nehru believed that “reason, and the processes of reasoning, are the greatest resources we have through which to create and to sustain our moral imagination.”

Religion today, observes Khilnani, “almost never refers to an inner space of contemplation and private struggle, and almost always to an outer realm of conflict and commotion.” It is being drained of its moral content. Perhaps Nehru’s methods, which sometimes seemed out of step with the India of his time, “may be better suited to today’s world, disjointed and disrupted by the claims of identity: They are more deeply and innately sensitive to the claims of diversity in the construction of a moral public life.”

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