Priya Satia

Had Nehru’s commitments to federalism, internationalism, socialism, and secularism been purely principled rather than partly tactical, had they offered a vision of what it meant to be free or to be Indian or to be civilised in a post-colonial world, they might have indelibly defined a culture.

“The past is ever with us and all that we are and that we have comes from the past. We are its products and we live immersed in it. Not to understand it and feel it as something living within us is not to understand the present.” So wrote Jawaharlal Nehru while imprisoned in Ahmadnager Fort during World War II.

Nehru was acutely aware of the “burden of the past.” Indeed, he was a deeply humanistic thinker, even while endlessly protesting his commitment to science. But his intellectual contributions have been eclipsed in popular memory by his career as a statesman striding across India and the globe. There is perhaps also a deeper reason why Nehru’s thought has not echoed across time other anticolonial activists’ thought has: Nehru’s preoccupation with the real-world effectiveness of ideas prevented his own ideas from fully transcending his time.

Despite the current Indian government’s efforts to tarnish the legacy of “Chacha Nehru,” Nehru is rightly celebrated for his courage, generosity, sacrifices, literary talent – and the national values associated with him: anti-militarism, secularism, socialism, internationalism, federalism. But the conditional nature of his embrace of ideals as such, left these values vulnerable to attack. Revisiting the interwar origins of these ideals, we can see how, in their Nehruvian translation, they lost some of their radical potential by India’s independence – and consider what recovery of these alternative futures might mean today. My purpose here, as we mark the 60th anniversary of Nehru’s death, is not to scant what he and his generation achieved – they lived through their times and we did not – but to use the past as a site for imagining alternative forms of statesmanship and Indian statehood going forward.

Indian anticolonialism challenged both British dominance and the imperious state structures that the British had established in a region accustomed to layered practices of sovereignty. Federalist visions of postcolonial India strove to renew such practices and accommodate both the areas administered directly by the British and the hundreds of “princely states” the British controlled indirectly through local rulers.

Federalism also appealed because the two world wars showed the dangers of nationalism – the destruction fostered by rivalrous nation-states. The new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR) made cosmopolitan visions feel realistic. Indian anticolonialism, like anticolonialism elsewhere, did not necessarily look toward the goal of a nation-state, but to Pan-Asian, Pan-Islamic, global communist, and other possible futures.

In World War I, for example, the rebel Provisional Government of India stationed in Kabul collaborated with the Bolsheviks; Pan-Islamists; and the Ghadar Party in California. The President, Raja Mahendra Pratap, embraced the concept of jihad to express freedom struggle, and prem (or love) dharma and communism. Later, in Japan, he published a journal called The World Federation, to promote Asian federation against colonial rule. The Home Minister, another Pan-Asianist, Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi, insisted on the importance of accepting the truth of all communities (like the Prophet at Medina) as the ground from which to create global revolution. Colonialism had broken human bonds with its racial, ethnic, and religious hierarchies. In these freedom fighters’ view, embracing common humanity in common effort itself freed them from colonialism.

The activities of this government helped trigger the 1919 Anglo-Afghan War and the violent British oppression of Punjab in 1919, including the Amritsar Massacre. Some of its participants reappeared in the postwar Khilafat movement—the joint Congress and Muslim League movement to preserve the Ottoman Caliphate. In 1922, this internationally-oriented anticolonial movement also called for Asian federation.

In 1923, as Congress president, the Khilafat leader, journalist, and poet Mohamed Ali Jauhar expressed his dream of “a federation, grander, nobler and infinitely more spiritual than the United States of America,…[a] ‘United Faiths of India’.” The Hindustan Republican Association, whose most famous member was Bhagat Singh, actively tried to create a federated republic of the United States of India through organised armed revolution. Their membership overlapped with the Congress’s.

Federal visions offered a way to accommodate autonomy for Muslims once the British had created separate electorates based on religion. The poet and politician Hasrat Mohani, who helped found the Hindustan Republican Association and the Indian Communist Party, talked in 1924 of “separate Muslim states in India, united with Hindu states under a National Federal government.” In 1930, the poet and philosopher Mohamed Iqbal imagined a “Muslim India within India,” governed by an Islamic moral system that would serve both Muslims and non-Muslims and that might create a less divided and exploitative society than an irreligious nation-state. He imagined it as “part of the proposed Indian Federation.”

Gandhi conceived of “Indian” as an “international” category, envisioning independent yet interdependent village republics. Rajendra Prasad, future president of India, spoke of an “unnational” India. These visions persisted through 1947.

Nehru was part of these dialogues – and wider international ones. He represented Congress at the first gathering of the League against Imperialism in Brussels in 1927. This organisation drew delegates from all over – Jomo Kenyatta, the African National Congress from South Africa, Einstein, and more – to create a global anti-imperial movement countering the new League of Nations and its enabling of European imperialism. The gathering catalysed Nehru’s view of nationalism and anti-imperialist internationalism as interdependent and convinced him of the importance of working-class mobilization. The goal was bigger than liberation of any one country; it was ending the exploitation of workers and the colonized, the global order that had caused the world wars. He came away a socialist committed to full independence rather than dominion status as the aim of India’s struggle – the policy Congress adopted in 192

Bhagat Singh openly admired Nehru’s revolutionary internationalism. In turn, his Hindustan Republican Association helped Nehru wield the threat of revolutionary violence in negotiations with the British when Nehru was Congress president from 1929-30. Nehru committed to nonviolence only in 1932, and even then without ruling out the possible need for “organized, violent methods…for gaining freedom” at a later juncture.

Importantly, his ideals evolved in real time, with world events. On the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, he called out the hypocrisy of Western outrage, as the Italians spewed the familiar colonial justification of uplift. Indians could not stand by in silence, he insisted. The eruption of civil war in Spain in 1936 strengthened his sense that the Indian struggle was one facet of a global struggle. Everywhere, Britain abetted reaction, repression, and fascism.

These international events coincided with a major shift in Indian governance after the 1935 Government of India Act triggered provincial elections. From 1937, Congress politicians began to wield governmental power, using it to repress rivals, too – though the Congress leadership itself avoided taking posts.

In the spring of 1938, Nehru was obsessed with the “terrible sense of impending catastrophe that hangs over the world.” Internationalism was no longer a choice, he felt, but the reality in which Indians had to manoeuvre. Ironically, his very awareness of international forces would shrink his sense of his freedom to fulfill his internationalist commitments.

That summer, en route to Europe, he stopped in British-ruled Egypt and met with anticolonial leaders there. Hearing of the Wafd Party’s frustrations with Egyptian elites who were still collaborating with the British, Nehru urged “organised mass support” as the key to withstanding the devices that imperialism and vested interests used to overturn their victories. The Wafd had let mass support erode after stepping into governing under partial independence. They had been “too full of faith in the bona fides of the British Government” and fallen prey to more insidious, covert British control. This Egyptian experience validated Congress leaders’ caution in accepting ministries in 1937.

Nehru explained to the Wafd leader Nahas Pasha that their movement was about putting “backbone and character” into the people by stressing ethics in public life—the importance of forgoing “even a present minor advantage if that conflicted with the principles we adhered to.” The goal was to achieve independence in order to raise the people to higher material levels; “And,” he had assured Nahas Pasha, “the success that had come to us had really been remarkable.”

Nehru had clearly absorbed Gandhism’s insistence on ethical accountability in the present—this was a challenge to British liberalism’s instrumental ethics, the way it justified exploitation and violence as necessary evils for the sake of progress. In Gandhism, recovery from such consequentialist thinking was decolonisation. The wartime Kabul government’s leaders had also embraced an ethics collapsing ends and means, seeing azaadi (freedom) as the state achieved in the course of partnership of Muslims and non-Muslims struggling together for azaadi. For Gandhi, ethical accountability in the present through nonviolence was not a means to an end, but the end in itself. Self-rule and civilisation were not the endpoint of some historical process paved by evils but a state of ethical being, always attainable now.

For Nehru, however, these commitments themselves possessed tactical appeal in fulfilling other, material ends—as he shared with Nahas Pasha. They “worked.” If nonviolence was about ethical accountability in the moment, regardless of consequences, Nehru needed a pot of gold at the end of the satyagraha rainbow – practical, worldly goals.

He wanted the Indian movement to take sides in other struggles like Spain and Ethiopia on principle, but also because it impinged on the future of their movement. The prestige of India’s international stands fueled global support for Indian independence. The promise of practical payoff was part of the motivation for partnership with the Wafd. Nehru’s friendship with Nahas was genuine, but the alliance also affirmed Congress’s secular credentials, as the Muslim League also reached out to Egyptian nationalists. He valued mass alignment on principle and because it worked in the real world. He saw political problems as fundamentally technical problems to be solved scientifically – tactically – not opportunities for remaking the self.

Nehru went on to Spain, witnessing the bombs falling there. He later reflected, “I felt more at peace there than anywhere else in Europe. There was light there, the light of courage and determination and of doing something worthwhile.” In England, he, Indira, and Krishna Menon spoke in support of republican Spain—a key moment in which Indian leaders demonstrated their independence from Britain’s policies. In his 1940 book, China, Spain and the War, Nehru’s admiring descriptions of the Spanish Republican army as a “new type” of “popular” army of “comradeship,” testified to the tactical nature of his commitment to nonviolence. He seems to be dreaming of a similar post-colonial Indian army.

That something shifted in Nehru that momentous year is evident in his December address to the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association, which he had joined on its founding in 1936. In colonial India, politicians were writers and writers politicians—as we’ve seen with poets like Jauhar, Mohani, Iqbal. The 1930s were a decade of “commitment” for writers everywhere in a world polarised by fascism and socialism. But in his 1938 address, Nehru urged the association to include writers exclusively, not politicians like himself, to preserve writers’ creativity. Thus, he explained, had Voltaire’s writing influenced the French Revolution and the world. The distinction here was not between political and nonpolitical writers but between writers inside and outside the state. In the autobiography he wrote in prison in 1934, published in 1936, he had confessed self-deprecatingly that “statesmanship has seldom been considered one of my virtues.” But after the 1937 elections, the meeting in Egypt, the travels in Spain, Nehru spoke as someone conscious of inhabiting a sphere of institutional political power, a sphere of statesmanship that set him apart from those calling for change from outside the state.

Nehru’s precipitous adoption of this role began to shrink the space for alternative futures. The 1935 Government of India Act’s vision of a federal India in which Britain might manipulate the princely states to continue to exert control had made federation a more complicated question for Congress. But Nehru was still committed to federalism. Three days before his imprisonment in August 1942, he affirmed, against any idea of “cutting up” India, that the current war showed that “small nations have no future…except as hangers-on of larger nations….[T]he tendency in the world is for large federation[s].” Two days later Congress committed to a federal constitution with the “largest measure of autonomy to federating units.” Mass arrests of Congress followed the next day.

In jail from 1942-45, however, Nehru searched for and found an Indian unity rooted in ancient times; his “Discovery of India.” The book, which was published in 1946, affirmed his faith in the “inevitable tendency for vast federations” and the possibility of “the largest autonomy for provinces and states and yet a strong central bond,” akin to the Soviet model. But more urgent was his self-assurance that “something” bound India’s four hundred individuals, that “India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads.” The tension between a federal vision and the need to preserve this seemingly organic geographical unity was clear. In a way, he came to see unity as a federal solution, though federation typically connotes clubbing together of distinct places. This imaginative leap sought to address the practical problem of constructing a federal India that was still unitary enough to avert fresh colonial subjugation.

Though the world order was being dramatically remade after the war, Nehru operated from an inherited understanding of statesmanship associated with the European, or Westphalian conception of a world order of sovereign states, in which stability depends on balancing the interests of major powers, creating an equilibrium of deterrence among rivalrous states. Unlike revolutionary movements, it was not utopian, assuming a pragmatic will to power on each side. Revolutions were destabilising in this vision, whatever their merit. Revolutionaries, including pre-1937 Nehru, seek to change the accepted scope of possibility. But statesmen in this conventional mould take the political and economic constraints on change as pre-given, the international framework – the world as it is. For them, history is the work not of masses but of great men at the helm of the great powers anchoring this framework.

Schooling at Harrow and Cambridge had exposed Nehru to elite British culture, including this understanding of history as a story of progress orchestrated by great men, whose youthful study of earlier great lives had awakened them to History’s prospective judgment of their own. “History is the school of statesmanship,” in the aphoristic words of J. R. Seeley, the Victorian historian and defender of British imperialism. The greatness of such figures lay partly in their assumption of the moral burden of necessary evils on the way to progress—including, especially, the compromises demanded by statesmanship. In his autobiography, Nehru recounted how, after reading the British liberal historian George Trevelyan’s heroic trilogy about the Italian nationalist Garibaldi, “Visions of similar deeds in India came before me, of a gallant fight for freedom.”

These ideas did not fade with time. His Glimpses of World History (1934), written in prison as a series of letters to his daughter, offered radical interpretations of some eras and perceived that “real history should deal, not with a few individuals…but with the people who make up a nation…who in a thousand different ways act and react on each other.” Conceding that “Such a history…would really be a fascinating story,” Nehru nevertheless found it impossible to “remove from the gallery of my mind the pictures of persons and events which I hung there in my boyhood.” Moreover, he remained convinced that “ordinary people” became heroic only through the inspiration of “great leaders.” And so, he wrote helplessly “about many famous men who fill the pages of history books,” fully aware of how this style of history moulded the reader’s sense of his own agency: As we read of “great men and women and great deeds performed,…sometimes in our own dreams and reveries we imagine ourselves…doing brave deeds like the heroes and heroines of old.” This view proved self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating: By World War Two, he felt, “Because my own personal experiences have often touched historic events and sometimes I have even had something to do with the influencing of such events in my own sphere, it has not been difficult for me to envisage history as a living process with which I could identify myself to some extent.”

Nehru continued to fashion his ideas about leadership from British influences even while in prison by the British in that time. Reflecting on Gandhi’s compromise of his commitment to nonviolence in expressing support for Congress’s participation in the war if India were made free, he concluded, “The practical statesman took precedence over the uncompromising prophet.” This dichotomy drew from his reading of the British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, whose 1941 essay on the distinct historical roles of prophets and leaders he quoted at length. Prophets expressed “unreservedly the truth as one sees it,” but “leaders,” “another class of men,” were critical to spreading that vision. They were “philosophical strategists, striking a compromise between truth and men’s receptivity to it.” It was the lot of prophets to be stoned, but “a leader who is stoned” had either failed in his function or confused it “with that of a prophet.” Nehru seems to have adopted this schema without questioning its historical accuracy or relevance, though Liddell Hart’s “leader” (who arguably seems less to lead than to meet people where they are) outsources to the “prophet” the very ethical being that Gandhi (and others) saw as the very goal of anticolonialism, for everyone – the state that they, as leaders, were meant to be leading everyone toward. Liddell Hart’s “leader” remained in the antithetical liberal mould of tolerating necessary evil to manoeuvre in the world as it is.

European ideas of statesmanship thus proved sticky. One wonders if Tagore had Nehru in mind in 1944 when he warned Indian nationalists against modeling themselves on “Garibaldis and Washingtons,” as this, in his mind, only further entrenched the European norms from which they sought recovery. The Khilafat movement had tried to preserve one alternative form—the sultan-caliph combining spiritual and temporal authority; and its failure had fueled Iqbal’s efforts to imagine an Islamic polity as an alternative to an amoral world order. But Nehru never liked the religious overtones of Khilafat.

To be sure, Nehru recognised the moral bankruptcy of British Labour Party leaders who took the position of “practical men of commonsense” to suppress their “stirrings of conscience” about supporting British rule in India: “Practical men necessarily base themselves on established…practice, on existing conditions, and not take a leap into the dark unknown merely because of some principle.” But without imagining new possibilities for leadership, Nehru cornered himself into the very same vise of practicality. In July 1946, after agreeing to the Cabinet Mission plan, a three-tier federal government structure allowing groupings of provinces, he justified his acceptance of the plan by reminding Congress that “while we have to be revolutionary, we must also think in terms of statesmanship” – in terms not merely of protest but of responsibly “facing big problems.” The speech has become infamous for allegedly disavowing the plan (triggering Muslim League retaliation), but in fact, the much-quoted line, “We are not bound by a single thing,” aimed to reassure Congress skeptics of the plan. The point for our purposes is that Nehru’s consciousness of stepping into the role of “statesman” entailed an explicit embrace of pragmatism – at a time when Gandhi was still saying things like, “leave India to God…[or] anarchy.”

The shift was evident at the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in the spring of 1947, which sought to build on earlier Pan Asian solidarities. When Vietnam asked India for material support in its anticolonial struggle against France, Nehru offered only India’s moral support out of concern for India’s emerging postcolonial relations with France.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan at the Asian Relations Conference, Delhi.

To be sure, Nehru’s sense of ongoing international turmoil itself guided this pragmatism. In June, he accepted the partition plan for two separate nation-states for that moment. He, like many, believed that partition did not preclude future partnership. During the war, he had already consoled himself about the prospect of division by wagering that “Even if” it happened, “the basic feeling of unity and world developments will later bring the divided parts nearer to each other and result in a real unity.” Pakistan’s proposed shape, two wings divided by a thousand miles of Indian territory, seemed to testify to the enduring possibility of arrangements exceeding the norm of the nation-state. Indeed, aspects of finance connected the two governments for the first years, as did Kashmir’s unresolved fate and the open border. After all, just then, the other Asian subcontinent, Europe, ruined birthplace of the nation-state, was itself moving towards federation. In 1947-49, the future seemed uncertain and open.

In the princely state of Kashmir, Nehru innovated in keeping with this time: Kashmir’s king considered remaining independent, but Pakistani invasion pushed him to opt for India in October 1947, triggering war with Pakistan, which ended with a UN-called ceasefire. In 1949, Article 370 of the Indian Constitution recognised Kashmir’s special status, including greater autonomy, within India. As Anuradha Bhasin explains, the article strengthened India’s integrity by providing “the constitutional and legal link to a state that was originally not a part of the Indian dominion.” This was an implementation of the federal paradigm.

But in the heart of India, in Hyderabad, Nehru went a different direction. The kingdom held out against union, while a communist peasant rebellion roiled Telangana. A stand-still agreement signed in November 1947 gave India and Hyderabad a year to resolve relations. While India instituted an economic blockade of the kingdom, the Nizam gathered arms and support to stay independent. Initially reluctant to invade, uncertain of Pakistan’s response, Nehru went ahead after Jinnah’s death on September 11, 1948. India prevailed, with an enormous human and political toll. The communists, fearing the Indian army would restore land to the landlords, resolved to fight India, too, to defend the peasantry’s gains. Nehru then presided over counterrevolution in Telangana, despite his commitments to peasant movements and land reform.

It is difficult to imagine a counterfactual in which Nehru did not invade Hyderabad given his conception of statesmanship, once Jinnah’s death removed the practical constraint that might have forced him to address the situation more creatively. Devoted as he was to decolonisation and open to different conceptions of liberty—socialist, internationalist, regional—once he adopted the subjectivity of the “statesman,” without reinventing what that or a “state” could be, the horizon of possibility shrank dramatically.

What would a counterfactual India without this invasion have looked like? It is worth reflecting on an alternative India with two states, Kashmir and Hyderabad, with “special status”: Might that have created an opportunity for looser federalism for other regions too? More creative ties with Pakistan? Or, maybe loose ties would have made the region vulnerable to neocolonialism. Or, maybe it would have been more resilient and less prone to internal strife. More importantly, if neocolonialism was the bogey, it’s hard to say that Nehru vanquished it, given that the tight centre-province bond he enabled was often experienced as a colonial bond and relied on implementation of British-era repressive mechanisms. In his worry about re-colonisation, Nehru gave shortshrift to decolonisation. To be sure, there was some decentralisation and institutional innovation, but also survival of colonial-era laws, structures, and developmentalist goals. Forgetting anticolonialism’s questioning of the colonial model of industrial civilisation, Nehru’s India strove to “catch up” once and for all.

That is why some anticolonial thinkers felt, as Mohani said in the Constituent Assembly drafting the Indian constitution: “real independence has not come to us.” The constitution was too close to the colonial Government Act of 1935 and borrowed too much from Commonwealth countries like Australia. He urged amendment of the preamble, in which the word “federal” had been dropped. Instead of “We, The People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign democratic republic…” he suggested: “We, The People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Union of Indian Socialistic Republics to be called U.I.S.R., on the lines of U.S.S.R.” Without republics, plural, he warned, “In the place of the British Empire you will create an Indian Empire” consisting of “States which will have got no power…” They had to commit explicitly to federalism and say whether the government would be “centrifugal or centripetal.” Mohani’s amendments failed, and he refused to sign the constitution.

Moves like Nehru’s in Hyderabad (and later Goa and elsewhere) contributed to the postwar decline in internationalism. Egypt, too, became more preoccupied with Arab nationalism as Palestine became a central issue after the 1948 war with Israel. To be sure, the disappointments of that war led to the rise of Nasser, who then partnered with India, Yugoslavia, Ghana, and Indonesia to found the nonaligned movement in 1955. The Cold War’s terrifying logic of mutually assured destruction seemed to revive questioning of the world order. Nehru revived bonds with Indonesia that dated to his 1927 meeting in Brussels with Mohammad Hatta, now Indonesia’s vice president—a memory Sukarno invoked at Bandung. But this Third World movement was ultimately about guarding national independence through international cooperation. Nasser – another Garibaldi fan – had come to power as a nationalist.

Nehru, like many other leaders of newly decolonised polities, took on the role of statesman before the colonial order had been replaced. Manoeuvring in the world as it was meant manoeuvring in a world in which India’s main trading partners were still Britain and the US. There was no actual non-alignment.

When internationalism, secularism, federalism, antimilitarism seemed unlikely to “work” in India’s interest, the statesman Nehru set those commitments aside, as he continued to understand India’s interest in terms inherited from the colonial state, as industrial catch-up. If it was motivated by a desire to fortify the subcontinent against recolonisation, it did so in a manner that kept India enslaved to Western measures of civilisation.

But this is no great-man history of Nehru and his mistakes, but a comment on the limits of twentieth-century decolonisation. African experiments with federation also failed. The Union of African States fell apart over similar arguments over the balance between union and member states’ autonomy (a federal state vs a federation (or confederation) in which union is about helping smaller units preserve autonomy and the central government has limited powers in them). Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah favoured more centralised federation in view of the realities of the world as it was, in which, he believed, states had to take on the task of economic planning.

Strong centralised government seemed, to these men (and “men” is important here), necessary for newly independent countries to develop in a world economic order still dominated by the former colonising states. To be sure, they made reparation demands and put the creation of a New International Economic Order on the table at the UN, but the US rejected it. The rise of neoliberalism and erosion of UN power sealed its fate. Questioning of the Western model of development declined. Economic parity was the goal, even at the cost of democracy, pluralism, and other commitments.

Nehru’s radical faith in ordinary Indians, the aam aadmi, as ready for the vote now, however uneducated, was a radical break with the British liberal tradition of gradualism. His instinctive faith in the uneducated suggests his lingering awareness of how colonial education tended to educate people out of their ordinary ethical impulses—one of the reasons educational reform efforts were dear to Khilafat leaders, Gandhi, Tagore, and many other anticolonial activists. Yet, as prime minister, Nehru prioritised higher education aimed at supporting India’s economic parity in the world as he found it, in which civilisation was understood as technological and industrial. He saw “development” as a technical mission beyond politics—despite its colonial roots. Indeed, the promise of development was a way to redirect Indians’ attention from repeated failures of democracy, secularism, and federalism, a way of saying “move on” from the past and the present.

Nehru’s values, the “deep ethical streak” that Gandhi noted, emerged from the internal transformation that came with deep reading, and dialogue, and the deprivations and “leisure” of prison. As Nehru explained in his prison books, it was the strange nature of time in prison that compelled him, a self-described man of action, to articulate his philosophical commitments. Yet, he prioritised outward change – an industrial society – as the path to freedom for his fellow Indians. In this worldly view of the goal of history, his mind remained colonised. As it did in his view of religious belief as a mark of backwardness to be overcome to achieve modernity.

Gandhi turned to religious thought for an alternative to the ethics of liberal empire, which justified violent means with the promise of utopian ends. For Gandhi, civilisation was about being ethical now, regardless of material circumstances. Self-rule was about unlearning capitalism and colonialism’s denial of mutual obligation, to become, once again, an ethical being. The objective of anticolonialism was an “enlightened anarchy in which each person will become his own ruler.” There is no role for a Westphalian statesman in such a world. This is an ethics of autonomy that demands an anti-statist outlook – a position Gandhi, however shrewd a political negotiator, took even vis-a-vis Congress as soon as it stepped into governance in 1937. This “religious” outlook transcended his identity as a “Hindu,” overlapping with Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism and the thought of Muslim philosophers like Iqbal who insisted that man’s purpose was not to remake the world but to remake himself ethically.

Had Nehru’s commitments to federalism, internationalism, socialism, and secularism been purely principled rather than partly tactical, had they offered a vision of what it meant to be free or to be Indian or to be civilised in a post-colonial world, they might have indelibly defined a culture. When ideals are embraced strategically, in view of what works in the world as it is, an argument can always be made at some moment that they no longer “work” and must be discarded. Nehru’s shift from revolutionary to statesman, from utopian to pragmatist, opened these ideals to questioning when it could be argued that worldly affairs demanded it. Congress’s federal, socialist, and secular commitments proved hollow time and again – as Mohani foresaw. Its pragmatism left the door open to darker visions of India incubated between the world wars among groups like the RSS.

In 1976, the Constitution’s preamble was amended to say “socialist secular republic.” Today’s ruling BJP party is petitioning the Supreme Court to remove “socialist” and “secular,” and India has become one of the world’s most unequal societies, likely more unequal than in the British era. PM Modi’s bid to homogenise and autocratically rule a vast, diverse subcontinent fuels centrifugal forces in the Northeast, Bengal, Kashmir, Kerala, Punjab, and beyond. These struggles remind us that the Indian freedom struggle was anticolonial more than nationalist and speak to the enduring need and potential for alternative South Asian futures. Indeed, they draw strength from memory of local political traditions and old federal dreams of a truly decolonised subcontinent—once again layering sovereignties in a manner that might even foster greater unity in the urgent sense of allowing the sharing of river waters.

In 1928, Gandhi warned against aping Western industrialism: “If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Nehru, stubbornly attached to an industrial future, also worried about modern civilisation’s progressive drift “away from the life-giving elements”: “With the earth, as with our individual lives, there is far too much of burning the candle at both ends. We take riches from her at a prodigious pace and give little or nothing back.” He counted on “social science” to solve such problems, even while “doubt creeps into my mind.” His boyhood lessons in liberalism continued to sideline his inner knowin – precisely as liberalism aims to.

Climate crisis has now once again politicised industrialism as a civilisational goal, with the West offering images of instability and inequity, bullying and flouting the global will, on climate, Palestine, and other issues. Statesmanship based on manoeuvring in this world as it is, will spell disaster: As Amitav Ghosh writes, “If there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear, it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide.”

Those working for decolonisation in the last century put forward many possible visions of a postcolonial order; their goal was not to make new nations but to change the world order. This story of the contested and contingent way that decolonisation actually led to a world of nation-states rather than federations might help us see our present less as a “natural” formation and open up our horizons to different political futures. Our challenges of climate change, pandemics, nuclear weapons, AI – demand movement toward a world order of partnership, interdependence, pluralism – the horizon of the planet not the nation-state. It is no coincidence that one of the statesmen offering substantive leadership in these times has been Pope Francis – a figure combining temporal and spiritual authority that exceeds the bounds of the nation-state.

Tolstoy and Gandhi’s insistence on “the regeneration of the inner man” as the only true revolution was not a call to retreat into a subjective world but was akin to Fanon’s definition of decolonisation as the “creation of new men”: Changing social reality is collective work, and only by reforming our selves can we re-forge collective existence – and that collective existence is the new social reality.

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University.
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