It was a hot, dry afternoon. On arriving at the Malerkotla railway station from Kanpur, we hired a tonga to go to our relatives’ place we were to visit. On the way, we found the road deserted. Shops were closed. There was complete silence. As if something terrible had happened. My father observed, “I never thought that a Punjabi town could be so quiet. It is as if death has visited…”
“Don’t you know babuji?” asked the tongawalla.
“Nehruji is no more.”
“What? How? When?” We all were stunned.
It was 27 May 1964. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru was no more.
After the 1962 humiliation, my father, like any other soldier, had started blaming Nehru & Krishna Menon. But that day, on that tonga, he fell into depression. It took him several days to get back to his jovial self. I was an eight year old then, but that scene on the tonga remains fresh on my mindscape. I remember how, while listening to the live commentary on the AIR, my bhua (father’s sister) broke down several times. I was a child then and could not really understand what was happening. But, today, when I see some elements trying to belittle Nehru’s legacy I am reminded of ungrateful children who, upon inheriting a mansion, whinge about its unpainted walls and minor state of disrepair, forgetting its strong foundations, sturdy walls and enduring ceiling that provides not just protection but a promise of respectable life.
Nehru had made sure that all the constitutional guarantees for promoting and maintaining a liberal, secular and democratic Indian polity were implemented. In fact, his unswerving focus on making the minorities feel secure in India created a culture of tolerance, thus strengthening the country’s democratic institutions. Those of us who go out of our way in damning him should realize the immensity of what he has gifted to the nation. When I witness today’s generation of leaders mouthing invective when subjected to even minor criticism I recall an incident narrated in a book authored by Harbhagwan Singh – a leading lawyer. During a meeting, Chaudhary Charan Singh – who was a grassroots level Congress worker then – castigated Nehru on some issue, in the presence of senior Congress leaders, including Nehru. Nobody interrupted, let alone heckle, him. Nehru listened to him in complete silence. Today, if you as much as tweet against a Mamata or a Modi you will be hounded by the police as if you have committed high treason. And, lest I may be accused of bias, acolytes of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi too were guilty of similar sense of “patriotism”. Remember the college teacher whose face was blackened, garlanded with footwear and taken around a town on donkey’s back, just because he mouthed a popular political slogan of the time? Nehru had faced much worse in his time, but his tolerance and liberal spirit never deserted him.
Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru’s spirit must be chafing. Peace be upon him.