Dr Manmohan Singh, Former Prime Minister
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan
President John Kufuor of Ghana
Her Majesty Queen Mother of Bhutan
Mr Madhav Nepal
Mr Amre Moussa
Hon'ble Leaders of Political Parties
Mr Anand Sharma
Ladies & Gentlemen
I extend a warm welcome to the distinguished invitees to this conference. Many of you have travelled from afar. You are doubly welcome. I thank you all for being with us.
Jawaharlal Nehru once remarked that wealth shouts, but knowledge whispers. That whisper of knowledge about Nehru’s life and work has weakened in recent years in our country, drowned out by misrepresentation and distortion. Yet the ideas that he promoted and the values for which he stood remain all the more relevant. It is in that spirit that this conference has been convened to commemorate his 125th birth anniversary and to reflect on some aspects of his legacy half a century after his passing.
Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the towering figures of the twentieth century who left his mark on India and the world. He was a man of many parts, a synthesis of the best of East and West: a man of ideas and a man of action; a man of letters who interpreted India both to itself and to the world, and interpreted the world to India; an ardent nationalist who was also a fervent internationalist, a visionary who decisively altered India’s trajectory. He was once compared to a sculptor, called upon to work on a massive block of granite encompassing one sixth of the human race. Out of that block of granite Nehru built a state, a nation and a democracy.
He did so against the most daunting odds. In 1947, India was a nascent State in turmoil after experiencing the bloodbath of partition and the violent passions that had been unleashed which culminated in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru brought reassurance, stability and hope to a country in crisis and put it firmly on the path of progress and modernity. Nehru viewed politics as a vehicle for transformation. Within him was the burning flame of anger at injustice, as well as the burning flame of hope for a better world. These two flames were the guiding beacons of his life.
His ultimate objective was not merely India’s freedom, but human freedom, and in the longer term, the end of exploitation by any country or class. He threw India’s full weight behind freedom movements throughout the colonised world, hastening the end of empires. He was unrelenting in condemning racism in Africa and brought the issue of apartheid in South Africa to the United Nations. He gave eloquent voice to the rise of Asia in world affairs. He was a firm advocate of the rights of the Palestinians. By his words and deeds, Nehru became the hero of the developing world, as well as a lodestar of hope to freedom - seeking people everywhere during the worst years of the Cold War. Long after his death, many leaders like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi sought inspiration from his example.
Although a socialist by conviction, dedicated to building a more equal society, Nehru was an individualist by temperament. He valued individual liberty above all else. The struggle for India’s independence was not only about freedom for the country, but freedom for the individual. India’s democracy which we take for granted today was Nehru’s greatest achievement and most enduring legacy.
Long before independence, Nehru had articulated adult suffrage, fundamental rights and a secular state as the bedrock of the democracy he would go on to build in a free India, defying conventional wisdom that democracy would not succeed in conditions of mass poverty and illiteracy. Nehru’s inspiring leadership nourished India’s democracy in its crucial formative years and helped it to take deep root. He nurtured democracy as a mother nurtures her child. He rejected ideologies of coercion that gave primacy to economic development over human rights. Democracy was for him a value to be cherished in itself. He recognised that it was the only way to build sound foundations for a modern economy that would be inclusive and participatory.
Throughout his 17 years as Prime Minister, Nehru devoted himself to embedding democracy into India’s consciousness. He exhorted parliamentarians to live up to their responsibilities, tirelessly educated the masses to value their franchise and to use their judgement before voting. He insisted on fair play in the electoral process. The flavour of the man and his thinking were vividly expressed in his address to the people on the eve of our first general election in 1951. He said, “… in a democracy, we have to know how to win and how to lose with grace. Those who win should not allow this to go to their heads; those who lose should not feel dejected. The manner of winning or losing is even more important than the result. It is better to lose in the right way than to win in the wrong way”.
India’s democracy has evolved over the last 50 years, sometimes in ways that would have surprised Nehru. Nevertheless, in a multiethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multiregional society, Nehru’s belief that only parliamentary democracy and a secular state could hold the country together, has been proved right. Nehru was prescient about the consequences of allowing religion into politics. The truth of his conviction can be seen in the conflicts raging in various parts of the world in the name of religion.
Secularism – a state neutral in matters of religion, respecting all faiths equally – was an article of faith with Nehru. He once warned, I quote “ If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him to the last breath of my life as head of the government and from outside” unquote. There could be no Indianness, no India, without secularism. Secularism was, and remains, more than an ideal, it is a compelling necessity for a country as diverse as India.
Recognising that Independent India needed the rapid creation of infrastructure and industry, he built a strong public sector to lead the country’s economic emergence. The major projects launched in the 1950s were the center-piece of his thinking. He saw them as potent symbols of change and modernisation. While inaugurating India's largest hydel project, he said: I quote “For me, the temples, the gurdwaras, the churches, the mosques of today are these places where human beings labour for the benefit of other human beings, of humanity as a whole.” Unquote.
Nehru’s achievements are not all in the past. They continue to bear fruit. He moulded a new intellectual outlook, a new social sensibility, a new sense of Indianness, a new belief in India’s possibilities. He put the country on the path of modernisation, industrialisation, social reform, and planned economic development with a strong emphasis on science and technology.
This is, then, an appropriate moment in time to revisit the life, thought and contribution of one of the greatest Indians that has ever lived. Not only is it a commemoration of his 125th Birth anniversary, it is an opportunity to reassert the relevance, durability and indispensability of his legacy. In a country more diverse, more complex, more heterogeneous than any other on earth, Nehru was a great unifying force in the critical years after independence. It is upto our generation to ensure that the solid national foundations he helped build are strengthened. I hope that this Conference will contribute significantly to that objective.
I look forward to your deliberations.