Isn’t this fortuitous? I didn’t plan it at all, but I think I am going to get up to the Sino-Indian war in my regularly scheduled Nehru-Gandhi post today, which makes it also Tubelight themed! Yay! (part 1 of Nehru-Gandhi here)
Non-Usual Disclaimer: While my undergrad degree is in History, and I have taken several Indian history seminars and read books and so on, this is really not my area. So I am just providing a very general overview.
When last we left off, it was 1919, the Indian independence movement was heating up, and movie star level handsome/poet level eloquent/prophet level visionary young Jawaharlal Nehru had suddenly leaped to national prominence as the voice of the new younger radical Indian National Congress Party.
There were A LOT of different groups working for Independence in this era, just to clarify. Bhagat Singh and his constantly name-changing group of socialist/Marxists, for instance. There were a lot of debates about what an Independent India would look like, and what was the best path to get there. It’s easy, from our perspective in the present day, to limit the story down to just the Indian National Congress, but that is not true to the times.
And it is not true to Nehru’s story. His actions and speeches were not only influenced by Gandhi (spiritual guide to the Congress party), but by everything else swirling around him in the world. And the same is true of the Indian National Congress as a whole. For whatever reason (the British supported it, Gandhi got involved, prejudices in favor of northerners within India, etc. etc.), the Indian National Congress came to be accepted as the main group in the Independence movement, the group that all the other little groups were trying to influence or change. And they did influence it. The INC took all of the stuff that was swirling around everywhere else in India and filtered it through into one homogenized whole, with Nehru as their spokesperson.
Nehru was a very busy man during the between the war years. His whole life was the Independence struggle. He was in and out of jail, along with the rest of his family. His wife become his partner and spokesperson as needed. And his shy teenage daughter as a bit forgotten in the rush. He wrote a beautiful series of letters to her from prison, letters which were later published. But I just don’t see how he could have had much time for her even when he wasn’t in prison. It’s the old saying, the Father of a Nation has no time for his own children.
And so Indira grew up a bit forgotten. She was well-educated, as were all the Nehrus. She even went to Oxford. But her education was constantly interrupted by her illnesses, by the illnesses of her mother (her mother died of tuberculosis when Indira was 19), and of course by her father being sent to jail while she and her mother were left to fend for themselves. Her education was further interrupted by WWII, hitting Europe in 1940, just as she was about to matriculate.
(Nehru and Indira)
In England, Indira met up again with another young Indian student and freedom fighter, Feroze Gandhi. They had known each other before in Allahabad when they were both studying there. Somewhat romantic meeting, he saw her for the first time as part of a group of women protesters, Indira fainted from the heat, Feroze went to comfort her, and the next day quit his studies to join the independence movement. Indira was very young at the time, still a teenager. Feroze proposed for the first time when she was only 16, but her mother rejected the proposal on the grounds of youth. Feroze stayed around though, part of Indira’s life for the next ten years, until they finally married when she was 25 and he was 30. Nehru opposed the marriage, to the point of asking Gandhi (the real one, the famous one) to speak to the couple and try to dissuade them. But he more or less accepted it once it had happened.
(The young couple at their wedding)
Nehru had his own “romance” during this era. I want to be careful here not to overstate, but also not to ignore an important and historically relevant fact. Lord Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, was sent to India with the specific direction to ease it through the post-colonial transition. He was not there as an enemy exactly, but was also not completely an ally.
The Mountbatten’s had an open marriage, both of them sought additional companionship, including sexual intimacies, outside of marriage with the full knowledge and permission of their partner. Their own daughter talks about this arrangement without shame or apology. Edwina, Lady Mountbatten, formed a close connection to Nehru. Nehru’s wife by this time had been dead for several years and he never remarried.
This relationship was intense, but may not have been what we would necessarily call “romantic”. They wrote letters to each other for the rest of their lives, and people in India at the time noted the “closeness” between Edwina and Nehru. But Edwina was a woman with minimal embarrassment over her sexual adventures, as were many people around her (again, including her own children) who have since written accounts of this period. And none of them definitively pointed out Nehru as one of her lovers. But he was one of the most important men in her life, perhaps second only to her husband, and remained so until her death (she died with his letters at her bedside). As Edwina was for Nehru, as close to him as any other woman besides his sister and his daughter. Perhaps even closer than he was with his daughter.
Which is why I bring Edwina up really. I’m not trying to do a history of India here, more just a history of this family. And Nehru’s closeness to Edwina is also a sign of his distance from Indira, his loneliness for someone he could connect to on a personal level, now that he had turned from man to myth.
A lot happened during WWII. The Independence movement was split between those who believed service to the British cause in WWII would lead to a “reward” of freedom, and those who believed that this was an opportunity to attack the British while they were weakened. Nehru was caught in the middle of this storm, along with the other pre-war members of the Independence leadership. Turns out, both theories were a little true. By the end of the war, Britain had spent all its money and all its military might and was forced to give up its colonies.
The storm of WWII had the result of slowly whittling away leadership of the Indian National Congress. People fell out of favor, or lost energy, and there weren’t really any new people coming up to replace them, thanks to the havoc the war wrought on any kind of regular process. There were still other leaders present, Dr. Ambedkar for instance, but in many ways Nehru ended up standing alone at the end of it.
(See how Nehru is in the center of this photo? And kind of isolated from everyone else? Yeah, that gives you an idea of what he was by this point)
By the time real Independence talks started in 1946, Nehru was the acknowledged spokesperson for, well, India! The whole country of billions of people, Nehru was speaking for them all. Gandhi (the famous one) was there as well of course, but he had chosen a less political and more moral form of leadership, he was not there in the room while decisions were being made, Nehru was.
Indira was not in the room. She had been married 5 years at this point, with two sons. Her husband had been arrested, been released, and ended up running a newspaper her father owned. Post-Independence he ran for and won his own political seat. Feroze was an interesting voice in politics, quick to speak out against problems he saw in his father-in-law’s leadership. And there was Indira. A hostess, for her husband and her father, helping with their campaigns, speaking as a surrogate as needed. Fulfilling a similar role to the one her mother had taken. Her father and husband made the big decisions that guided their beliefs, and she followed along behind. Until those beliefs diverged, when her husband revealed a scam in her father’s government in 1956, India’s first major scandal, she had to pick a side. And she lined up behind her father more than her husband.
(Feroze, Indira, and Nehru in happier days)
Nehru had some really really big decisions to make in this era. I am not going to judge his decisions, or even list them out, because that is not my place as a non-Indian and a non-expert on Indian history. But what I can talk about is the concept that began to be understood of this era of the “Nehruvian Ideal”. This is a concept that is almost never named in films, but is there underlying much of their philosophy, especially Hindi films.
The Nehruvian ideal is socialist (redistribute the wealth, support the worker, everything Amitabh is on about in the 70s). It is also forward thinking, believes in science and progress (tractors in the opening of Mother India). And believes in the importance of service (any character, especially a heroine who volunteers at a hospital, a village school, etc.). Finally, it is aggressively reform in its attitude towards religion. Secular first of all, all religions in India are equal and should be friends (Amar Akbar Anthony). And secondly, if you are Hindu, you should be a reform Hindu, a Brahmo Samaj Hindu who does not believe in caste, who accepts widow remarriage and intermarriage with other religions, who rejects anything that stings of tradition for the sake of tradition.
There is a counter ideal, that of India as a Hindu nation. During the discussions around India’s constitution, there was a constant push-pull between the two. Everything from language to laws became a battleground. This is why there is a separate code of laws for Muslim marriages versus Hindu, this is why English became a national language along with Hindi, this is why all sorts of things came about.
For the Hindi film industry, with it’s refugees from other regions in India, constant intercaste and inter-faith marriages, and focus on a new modern technology, the Nehruvian concepts were and are a natural fit. In fact, Hindi film was “Nehruvian” before that term was even thought of, back in the 1930s when it was more about following the general practices of the Congress movement. But post Independence, with Nehru firmly in charge as the father of the nation, the Hindi film industry exploded with film after film extolling Nehruvian ideals. They remained the main guiding force for the industry through to today, while slightly obscured by the more “Hindu Nation” message that has recently gained popularity.
Since it is Tubelight week, I will give you a Salman example. The film Dabangg is almost a throwback in how Nehruvian it is. In a good way. It discusses the issues that have become too “old-fashioned” for Indian film to deal with in recent years, even though they are still major issues. Our hero’s mother is a widow who remarries. Our hero is a police officer who tries to take money from the powerfull and give it to the powerless. He is also an uppercaste and upperclass person and falls in love with a lower caste and lower class woman and refuses to admit that as an impediment. Our heroine’s brother is a polio survivor who tosses off a casual pro-vaccination, pro-modern medicine message. And the overtly Hindu politician is shown to be only paying lip service to his religious message. Oh, and there are photos of Nehru and Indira in the background all the time.
(I really love the romance in Dabangg. The moment when he insists on paying for her work, and admires it as art, is amazing. Considering that potters in some regions of India are considered an untouchable caste. Quietly revolutionary)
So, without getting bogged down in details I am not qualified to cover, this is the general framework that guided Nehru and India through the early years of Independence. It’s a good framework, but it had flaws. A big flaw was that it left the government terribly open to graft. It’s not exactly a one-to-one, but Nehru was very focused on the big picture, on crafting a nation, on a beautiful vision of equality and harmony. And he kind of lost track of the little picture of bribery and incompetence and all of that. Especially as he was building a socialist style government, giving minor government officials out sized powers over common people.
Which brings me to 1962 and the Sino-Indian war! I have already talked about Chinese-Indian relations, and “Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo” (seriously, that song is not just a song, it is Very Very Important in Indian history). But what I haven’t talked about is what this meant for Nehru.
The 1962 war was seen as a failure of the “Nehruvian” vision. Nehru went from trying to build a diplomatic bond with China, a fellow Asian and non-Capitalist country, to trying slow expansion of the border through small movements, to all out war which he failed to win. It looked wishy-washy and soft. Brought into question the whole idea of a nation built on high ideals rather than practical strength. An idea which had already been threatened by the incremental damage of the increasing corruption.
Moreover, a large motivation for the war was that same “softness”. It wasn’t just about expanding India over a disputed territory line, it was about Tibetan refugees. Nehru suffered a true crisis of conscience when he saw China, a nation he thought of as a fellow ex-colony, profiting from its own version of colonialism in Tibet. And it was his generosity to these refugees, allowing them a place in India which exacerbated the situation.
(Remember in the last section when I put up that picture and said it looked like Nehru and Mao were practically holding hands? Well, here he is FOR REAL holding hands with the Dalai Lama)
Which is why this is such a fascinating war for the makers of Tubelight to choose to highlight! A war with no real winners, India lost territory, and China continued to lose Tibetan refugees (post-war, they even got their own regiment in the Indian army, entirely made up of refugees). It was seen as a failure of Nehru’s vision, and he never fully recovered from the loss, dying two years later.
But was it a failure? That is what I suspect this film will ask. Or rather, was the loss of the war the failure, or the start of it? That first trailer gave us a remarkably cynical view of the build up for a war, the speeches that fire up simpleminded villagers (Salman) but make wiser men (Sohail) pause with concern.
With that perspective, is the failure of Nehru going to be in losing this war, or in allowing it to start in the first place?