This week forty-one years ago, I was hustled out of my school in the (then) little hill town of Dehradun to watch a helicopter land. In that age and place, vehicles that flew were rare in any case. This one was made more special by its principal passenger, who was Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India. And so with my classmates I was taken out of school to the Parade Ground that abutted it, there to wave vigorously at the chopper as it came down, and more vigorously still at the man who came out.

Years later, I read the Delhi papers published that week, and learnt why Nehru had come visiting. Seventeen years as Prime Minister had tired and worn him. In January 1964 he had a minor stroke; but after a few days he was back to work again. In April 1964 he released Sheikh Abdullah from prison, and began moving towards a final settlement on Kashmir. Abdullah stayed with Nehru for a week in early May, and on the 20th returned for another visit. On the 22nd, Nehru gave a press conference where he announced that the Sheikh was proceeding to Pakistan to talk with its President, Ayub Khan. A reporter on the spot wrote that ‘Mr Nehru looked tired and weak as he addressed the news conference. He spoke somewhat haltingly and disposed of most topics with unusual brevity’.

On the 24th of May, Abdullah took a airplane to Rawalpindi, on a political mission of some importance. The same morning Nehru flew to Dehradun for a very brief holiday. The next day he went with his daughter to see the sulphur springs at Sahasradhara. In the evening a spying scribe came round to the Circuit House, to find Nehru feeling ‘refreshed by the fragrant breeze and a large variety of flowers growing all around’.

Nehru spent forty-eight hours in the ‘bracing climate of Dehra Dun’. But they were not enough; for a mere two days after he flew back to Delhi he died in his sleep. Ever since, Indians of all ages, classes, and cultural backgrounds have debated what he meant to this country. Nehru has been accused by some of being a socialist in name only, by others of being too much of a socialist in practice; by some of being too much of a secularist, of others of not being secularist enough; by some of being too enamoured of the West, by others of not being enamoured enough.

While he lived, Nehru was probably the most widely admired of Indians; after he died, he has become the most widely reviled. One reason for this is the natural cynicism of Indians, their penchant for cosying up to people in power and dumping on them after they have left office. Another is the decline of Congress hegemony, so that parties and groups which opposed Nehru’s ideas have grown in influence. A third reason, on which I want to focus here, is the manner of Nehru’s death.

Jawaharlal Nehru was in many respects a very lucky man. Born to a wealthy father, he was endowed with good looks and a considerable intelligence. His background and abilities enabled him to win the affections of the acknowledged leader of the freedom struggle. For Gandhi’s patronage was crucial in his becoming free India’s first Prime Minister.

Where luck deserted Nehru, however, was with regard to how and where he died. Contrast his fate here with that of three other nationalists: Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi himself. Bhagat Singh was executed by the British Raj. Bose died in an aircrash somewhere in South-east Asia. Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fanatic.

These three Indians shared something else apart from an unnatural death. None of them exercised political office. Two died before India achieved independence, the third shortly afterwards. None served as Cabinet Minister or Prime Minister, there to make mistakes, real or imagined, which would damage them in the eyes of their countrymen, damage them while they lived or after they were gone.

Bhagat Singh, Bose and Gandhi were all great patriots. Yet there is little question that they have been helped, posthumously, by not ever being in power and by having met violent deaths. There is thus an innocence to their reputations, that the memories of their martydom only serves to enhance.

Nehru’s daughter and grandson both served as Prime Minister. However, unlike him, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi both fell to an assassin’s bullet. Their records in office were distinctly inferior to that of their forbear; yet criticism of their politics is immediately modulated by the reminder that they ‘gave their life for the country’. In truth, Nehru gave his life for his country too. Before 1947, he spent more than ten years in jail for his cause; after 1947, he held, with dignity and diligence, the most difficult job in the world. Nehru died in his own bed, but the death was brought on by work, or more accurately, over-work—that is, by the four decades of sustained commitment to the idea and people of India.

Published in The Hindu, 22/5/2005