India’s True Liberals Should Reconsider Their Icons

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution famously guarantees Americans near-absolute freedom of speech. It was foisted on an unwilling political class by anti-federalists who were wary of despotic rule by the newly-created national government.

The First Amendment to the Indian Constitution, by contrast, limited Indians’ freedom of speech by explicitly granting the government the authority to impose “reasonable restrictions … in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.

It was foisted on a mostly-illiterate population in 1951 by a political class that was wary of the growing power of the people in India’s newly-independent democracy.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first and longest-serving prime minister, was the chief architect of the first amendment, and he did not hesitate to say why he wanted it. In the formal statement of objectives for amendment, he personally wrote that “certain difficulties have been brought to light by judicial decisions and pronouncements specially in regard to the chapter on fundamental rights”.

What were those difficulties? The Supreme Court had ordered the release of political opponents who had been indefinitely detained by the government and invalidated the censorship of publications that had been critical of the government. In other words, Nehru did an end-run around the judiciary by changing the Constitution to suit his political needs.

Oh, and the first amendment also allowed him to nationalise private companies and seize agricultural land (though with compensation).

That’s not a bad haul for a would-be dictator amending his country’s thoroughly liberal constitution to allow a socialist takeover of the country just six months after the constitution came into effect. India’s Constituent Assembly spent three years deliberating every minute point of the Constitution, arriving at so many compromises that it arrived at a document even longer than Australia’s.

Nehru eviscerated the basic freedoms enumerated in that Constitution with one amendment that he pushed through India’s Parliament in just 39 days. And he did it before independent India’s first parliamentary elections were even held. That is to say, he stripped Indians of their freedom of speech through a legislative maneuver executed in a Parliament that had been elected on a limited franchise while the country was still under British rule.

Postcolonial history is chock-full of Third World dictators who are idolized in their countries (and romanticised on Western university campuses) as great reformers: Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, Fidel Castro, and a host of lesser luminaries are lauded for their anti-imperialism but rarely condemned for their crimes against democracy. For the first five decades following his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru was viewed in much the same light, both inside and outside India.

But ever since the election of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister in 2014, Nehru’s legacy has come under scrutiny. This trend accelerated with with the repeat success of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019. Modi and the BJP are thoroughly opposed to Nehru and everything he stands for—including his great-grandchildren, the leading opposition politicians Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi.

Last week, the BJP government stripped Nehru’s name from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Society in Delhi, renaming it as the Prime Ministers’ Museum and Library Society. It was a petty move, to be sure, but it reflected deep and long-running national currents. The opposition to India’s First Amendment was led by none other than the founding president of the first incarnation of the BJP, S.P. Mookerjee.

The library debate was only the latest of many opportunities for Indian liberals to come clean on Nehru. If they were sincere in their liberalism—and in their outspoken concern for democracy—they would recognise that Nehru was neither a liberal nor a democrat. He was, in reality, a typical postcolonial strongman ruler. He suppressed civil society, brooked no opposition, and (like his counterparts all over the Third World) died in harness.

Instead of acknowledging his shortcomings, India’s intelligentsia has stood by Nehru, lauding his “liberal secular voice”, extolling his “political liberalism”, and even praising his commitment to “the core values of the Constitution”. They lament that “Nehruvian values” are under assault by Narendra Modi and the BJP. They really do seem to believe that Nehru was a “true democrat” who “strengthen[ed] national institutions by personally showing respect for them”.

It’s just unfortunate that those national institutions didn’t include democracy, the Supreme Court, or indeed the Constitution itself.

The fact-free Nehru hagiographies of India’s intellectual class are patently false, and obviously so. Even the intelligentsia are intelligent enough to know that. Their sanctimonious lectures about the supposed death of democracy under BJP rule would be a lot more credible if they faced facts and subjected their own idols to the same scrutiny that they apply to their political nemesis, Narendra Modi.

If they refuse, Mr. Modi will no doubt continue to face facts for them.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the executive director of the Indian Century Roundtable

4 thoughts on “India’s True Liberals Should Reconsider Their Icons

  • sabena says:

    Nehru’s greatest failing was not his actions in relation to democracy,but his socialist policies which set back the growth of India for decades.But the two positions are related.
    It’s to be hoped that the Congress party isn’t entrusted with government again.

  • Tony Tea says:

    That’s a hell of a First Amendment. It’s almost as if Nehru was taunting the Yanks.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    The various socialist governments in Australia don’t need a constitutional amendment to circumscribe expression of ideas contrary to their preferred narrative of the day. By legislating against whatever it is that they define as ‘hate speech’ or ‘offence’, not to mention scientific consensus a dumbed down population becomes more quiescent with each succeeding hand-out.

  • ianl says:

    >”If they refuse, Mr. Modi will no doubt continue to face facts for them.”< [quote from the main article]

    Just love your turn of phrase, Salvatore B.

    As Stephen Ireland above points out, though, the Aus bureaucracy/politico/journo cohorts will just continually redefine what a fact is, and by extension what it is not, so continuing to limit what one may say in public without incurring humungous fines/jail.

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