One of the books I read as a boy was the autobiography of the mountaineer Tenzing Norgay. I grew up in Dehradun, in a home with fine views of the lower Himalaya. From the nearby hill station of Mussoorie—which we visited often—one could see the great snow peaks of Nanda Devi, Trishul, and Bandar Poonch. As an asthmatic child, I couldn’t climb steep slopes myself, which may be why I read Tenzing’s memoir over and over again.
There are two episodes in that book that have stayed with me. One is Tenzing’s sadness at reading that in his own memoir, Edmund Hillary had insisted that he, not Tenzing, had placed the first step on the summit of Everest. Hillary had even claimed that the Sherpa had to be hauled up the last stretch by the burly New Zealander. Tenzing contrasted the arrogant paternalism—shading into racism—of Hillary with his favourite climbing partner, the Swiss Raymond Lambert, who had treated him as a friend and equal.
The other story I remember is of the vexed question of Tenzing’s nationality. Before the summer of 1953, his identities were those of a father, husband, and climber. But once he had reached the top of Everest, four nations wanted a slice of him. Since he had spent his early years in Nepal, the Nepalese claimed he was one of them. Since he was now based in Darjeeling, the Indian press insisted that he was an Indian. Since he was a Buddhist whose community looked in a spiritual sense towards Lhasa, he was also claimed by the Tibetans. Since Tibet itself was now a province—or colony—of China, the Communist regime in Beijing said that the first man to climb Everest was actually a Chinese proletarian.
In his memoir, Tenzing responded with a wry bewilderment. He had always thought of himself as a simple Sherpa, but now he was being asked to choose—was he Nepali, Indian, Tibetan or Chinese?
I remembered Tenzing’s autobiography when reading Jawaharlal Nehru’s Letters to Chief Ministers. As Prime Minister, Nehru wrote these letters every fortnight, communicating his views and the policies of his government to those in charge in the States. They were edited for publication in the 1980s by the scholar-diplomat G. Parthasarathi, and remain a valuable resource for historians.
In his letter to Chief Ministers of 2nd July 1953, Nehru wrote:
‘The final ascent of Everest has been a great achievement in which all of us should take pride. Here again there has been great pettiness and the narrowest type of nationalism shown by some people. Controversies have arisen as to whether Tenzing got there first or Hillary, and whether Tenzing is an Indian national or a Nepalese national. I was amazed to learn of these disputes and the excitement shown over them. It does not make the slightest difference to anybody whether Tenzing first reached the top or Hillary. Neither could have done so without the help of the other. Indeed, both of them could not have done so without the help of the whole party, and if I may take the idea a little further, the whole party could not have done so without the accumulated experience, labour and sacrifice of all their predecessors who tried to reach the top of Everest. Great human achievements are always the result of combined endeavours in which numerous people take part. It may be that one person takes the last step, but the other persons also count and should not be forgotten. For us to show a narrow and deplorable nationalism in such matters is not to add to the credit of our country but to lead people to think that we are petty in outlook and suffering from some kind of inferiority complex’.
Isaac Newton is said to have remarked that he looked further because he stood on the shoulder of giants. All human achievements, even those that seem dazzlingly new or original, build on the patient work of past generations. Likewise, even the most apparently individualistic of achievements is often the result of teamwork. Thus, as Nehru pointed out, neither Tenzing nor Hillary could have reached the summit of Everest without the help of the other, while both depended crucially on the rest of the climbing party.
Nehru’s analysis of what really led to the conquest of Everest applies to his own most important achievement—the building of a united and democratic India. His greatest partner and co-worker in that enterprise was Vallabhbhai Patel. In the poisonous, partisan, politics of today, either one or the other is given the credit for the making of the modern Indian state. The Congress chooses to remember Nehru and forget Patel, which has allowed the Bharatiya Janata Party to claim the Sardar as one of their own, and, further, to argue that his role in shaping the destiny of the nation was more crucial than Nehru’s.
In truth, Nehru and Patel were a superb partnership. Without Nehru’s abiding religious and linguistic pluralism, without his commitment to electoral democracy, India would have been subject to a series of damaging communal conflicts. Without Patel’s integration of the princely states, without his sagacious shepherding of the Congress Party in the process of drafting the Constitution, India would not be united in a territorial or political sense.
In an article published in November 1949, Patel strikingly anticipated how his relationship with Nehru would be misrepresented then, and later. ‘Contrary to the impression created by some interested persons and eagerly accepted in credulous circles’, he remarked, ‘we [Nehru and himself] have worked together as lifelong friends and colleagues’. ‘As one older in years’, he continued, ‘it has been my privilege to tender advice to him… in both administrative and organisational fields. I have always found him willing to seek and ready to take it.’
Had Nehru and Patel really been the bitter, implacable, rivals that sections of the Twitterverse now imagine them to be, India would have fallen apart at or soon after Independence. It was their partnership which helped bring about territorial unity, nurtured a plural social ethos, and laid the basis of electoral democracy. And of course both Nehru and Patel vitally depended on their colleagues in the first Cabinet—above all, B. R. Ambedkar. And this first generation of post-independence leaders themselves drew on the work and legacy of several generations of patriots and social workers.
The Congress Party, and its First Family in particular, have done great damage to Nehru’s legacy. By appropriating, and more often misappropriating, his name, they have obscured the ways in which his thought and example should resonate with Indians of all party affiliations. I would single out here his refusal to reduce nationalism to a blind love of one’s own culture, religion, party, or country. Thus, six months after writing to Chief Ministers about the first ascent of Everest, Nehru warned them not to encourage the chauvinistic celebration of the (real or imaginary) greatness of India. He wrote:
‘I dislike joining in the game of praising my own country at the expense of others. Every country had that feeling. I do not wish to say that India has a particular mission for others and all that, but, at the same time, I see no reason why we should accept other people’s missions to improve us, or, as is said, to protect us. I believe that India has a certain individuality, a certain genius of its own, as many other countries also have. Each can give something to others as well as receive from others.’
Nehru’s reservations about a narrow form of nationalism predate his years as in office. On 14th December 1932, writing to his daughter Indira from prison, he remarked:
‘Nationalism is good in its place, but it is an unreliable friend and an unsafe historian. It blinds us to many happenings, and sometimes distorts the truth, especially when it concerns our own history. So we have to be wary, when considering the recent history of India, lest we cast all the blame for our misfortunes on the British’.
These words should be pasted over the desk of every historian of modern India. And perhaps of every ideologue, too.
NEHRU’S NATIONALISM—AND OURS
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 16th November 2013)