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Speeches at the Conference

Speech at the International Conference on “Nehru’s Worldview and His Legacy – Democracy, Inclusion & Empowerment” Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi Rahul Gandhi, Vice President, Indian National congress

Smt. Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of The Conference
Dr. Manmohan Singh, Former PM of India
His Excellency Hamid Karzai, Former President of Afghanistan
His Excellency John Kufour, Former President of Ghana
Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, Queen Mother, Bhutan
Ahmed Mohammed Kathrada, Famous Freedom Fighter
Olusegun Obasanjo, Former President of Nigeria
His Excellency Madhav K Nepal, Former PM of Nepal
Shri Anand Sharma
Shri Mukul Wasnik
Shri Manishankar Aiyar
Other Leaders from Various Parties
Invitees and Friends,

I would like to welcome all of you here.

Two nights ago I was sitting in my home, preparing my notes for this address and I wished very much that instead of speaking to you, I could have shown you Nehru’s India. I wish I could have taken you to his birth place of Allahabad and the wheat fields that feed this great country.

I wish I could have taken you to Naini jail, where Nehru was imprisoned along with so many brave Indians during our freedom movement and where he learnt some of his life’s greatest lessons. I wished I could have taken you at least to Teen Murti House, his home in Delhi, and shown you how simply Nehru lived, how much of himself he gave back to his people. But this is unfortunately a two day conference. You will have to promise me to come back so we can make those journeys together another time. But today, on our last day, I would like to read to you what I read few days ago and show you a little something of Nehru. This comes from his will & last testament.

I have been attached to the Ganga and the Jamuna rivers in Allahabad ever since my childhood and, as I have grown older, this attachment has also grown. The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people. She has been a symbol of India's culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing and ever the same Ganga. She reminds me of the snow-covered peaks and the deep valleys of the Himalayas, which I have loved so much, and of the rich and vast plains below, where my life and work have been cast. Though I have discarded much of past tradition and custom, and am anxious that India should rid herself of all shackles that bind and constrain her and divide her people, and suppress vast numbers of them, and prevent the free development of the body and the spirit; though I seek all this, yet I do not wish to cut myself off from that past completely. I am proud of that great inheritance that has been, and is, ours, and I am conscious that I too, like all of us, am a link in that unbroken chain which goes back in the dawn of history in the immemorial past of India.

It was this desire to be one with his beloved country that lead Nehru to ask that his ashes be scattered over the Ganga and India’s soil.

We welcome you to Nehru’s India. Nehru himself is an ancient idea, as old as the great rivers and fields of this country he loved so much. He is an ancient idea, yes, but he is also a part of living India. His ideas and his politics are present very much today, even though there are those who wish to rub him out, to erase him and his legacy from the country he so dearly treasured and helped build.

Nehru understood there was no separation between him and India. There was no distance between him and its land, from nature. Indira Gandhi once wrote that her father was furious when in May 1953 he was told that Mount Everest was conquered. Mount Everest can be climbed, he replied, but can never be conquered. Nehru saw no distinction between India’s people and himself. Nehru merged with India, and India with him.

Nehru’s idea of India is a country where a billion people choose their destiny and live in harmony together. India is a country where democratic principles are cherished deeply. Nehru developed and protected those democratic ideals and that is why this is a nation where one sixth of humanity lives in peace.

I thank you for joining us today because it is especially important that we preserve this India of Nehru’s – an India that is secular and tolerant. Today this legacy, that has denied no man or woman their voice, and that we have preserved for close to 70 years, is more important than ever.

Nehru resonated with his countrymen because he was an expression of their way of thinking. Nehru was a man of ideas, but never an ideologue.

He was a beacon to millions of Indians and indeed to the world because he represented freedom. Nehru’s fight was for all of mankind. And that is why Nehru’s imprint is felt not just in India but across the world.

Many people in Nehru’s generation fought against imperialism. Imperialism at that time was the suffocating norm. It was what the powerful, rich world believed was their right over countries like ours.

To fight against imperialism in those days, when the weight of the world was stacked against you, meant one had to believe deeply in freedom.

It took Nehru a lifetime of struggle to understand and absorb an idea that he loved, to see it from the heart.

Most people think freedom is just the ability to act. You can do what you want, I do what I want. But freedom cannot be truly understood without an intimate experience of what the absence of liberty feels like.

When Nehru was freed from Naini jail, he was asked by his captors to sign their visitors book. And what Nehru wrote was this: he thanked the British for imprisoning him because it was in jail that he was freed of his anger. Nehru left jail a free man.

You can be in jail for years, and in shackles, and then be released into the world after your sentence has been served and still walk away in chains. Carrying anger transports your prison walls everywhere with you. As the poet Samih ul Qasim once wrote in his famous poem ‘End of a talk with a jailor’:

From the narrow window of my small cell,
I see trees that are smiling at me
And rooftops crowded with my family
And windows weeping and praying for me.
From the narrow window of my small cell -
I can see your big cell!

Nehru spent 3262 days in prison. And he understood that it is not the simple removal of the chains that makes you free, it’s how you react to the world after it has been cruel to you.

Nehru walked away from jail a free man, and even Winston Churchill who had long opposed him said that Nehru was a man who conquered hate and fear.

But back to the present. Today, what I find troubling is how we can condemn people because the ideas they treasure are not our own. Nehru understood deeply that everyone is entitled to their viewpoints. Nehru gave space for his opposition, even when they were practically nonexistent. At the time when the Opposition was sparse in Parliament, he reached out to them, gave them a feeling that while electorally they may be weak, in his world they were valued partners in nation-building. He recognised that every perspective is unique, even those he fought vehemently. He defended the rights of those he did not agree with and never imagined silencing them.

When Nehru was at the peak of his power, when he was loved by everyone in India, someone wrote a letter to one of the big newspapers and the letter was anonymous and it was signed Chanakya. The letter said that Nehru is loved in India, everybody believes in Nehru and this is going to go to Nehru’s head. Nehru was a democrat, but with all these praise and all these admiration Nehru is going to become a dictator. And, a few months later the real author of the letter was revealed and the author was Jawaharlal Nehru himself.

It was Nehru’s ability to question – to stop, ask, and understand what was going on – rather than his desire to speak that was one of his biggest strengths.

True democratisation is not simply the right to vote. It is about the devolution of power. It is about handing power to the weakest in the room. India could well have gone in a different direction but that it became a liberal democracy committed to the rule of law, to the independence of the judiciary and the independence of my friends here, press, was in overwhelming measure due to India's first Prime Minister. Here in India, as Manishankar Aiyar ji said, three million local elected representatives run our villages and towns. This makes me really proud that out of three millions, half of these are women. It was the planning and vision of Nehru and his compatriots and colleague’s that gave one out of 6 people on earth the right to choose their destiny. This is why India proudly stands where it does today.

Europe took half a century, two world wars, millions of dead people, destroyed cities, smashed families to build a democratic structure. India with three times the number of the people built a democratic foundation through a non-violent movement. No world wars. No violence.

What Nehru’s generation built for India is what he deeply wished to see in the world around his country.

Nehru’s leadership was one of inclusion and compassion, not force, not violence. Nehru did not believe that legitimacy could ever come from violence. Legitimacy can only come from compassion, conversation, from listening to and understanding the opposing view. As Nehru said, “Peace is not a relationship of nations. It is a condition of mind brought about by a serenity of soul. Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people.”

We have a tendency to worship great men. When we do that we cast them in stone. We freeze them in time. There is no doubt that Nehru was a great man. But more than a man Nehru was a dynamic way of thinking, constantly evolving, forever compassionate.

So let us not diminish Nehru but let us learn from him. Let us learn to stand up for what we believe is correct, no matter the cost. Let us cast aside the dead weight of hatred and intolerance. Let us learn from Nehru’s example and give ideas the freedom to flow, let us never suppress an idea simply because it did not originate from us.

Thank you.