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Nehru’s India

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-05-2014 Lounge Team

The first election to the Lok Sabha

The 2014 election with 814 million voters may have been the biggest in history, but India’s first general election was no less challenging. With the Election Commission set up in 1949, Nehru wanted the first election to be held as early as spring 1951.

Women receiving their ballot papers at a poll booth in New Delhi in the first genral election in 1952. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images The mammoth nature of his task made the first chief election commissioner, Sukumar Sen, ask Nehru to wait—although the electorate was only 176 million (the population of present-day Nigeria), 85% of the voters were illiterate. They had to be identified and registered. Social problems abounded, with women in some places refusing to give their names and preferring to be identified as someone’s wife or daughter.

The other numbers were staggering even by present-day standards. Voting had to be carried out for 4,500 seats—500 for Parliament and the rest for provincial assemblies—and it took place in 224,000 polling booths. About 56,000 presiding officers supervised the voting with a staff of 280,000, while 224,000 policemen helped with the security, according to figures from Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi.

Easily recognizable symbols, such as bullock carts and huts had to be selected, and multiple ballot boxes were used—with each party having its own box at each polling station.

The poll was finally held in the early months of 1952. Such was their success that Sudan asked Sen to help organize its first election.

Ravi Krishnan

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Against the US, for NAM

The Gandhi family’s reputation might be at an all-time ebb here at home, but out on a group of islands in the northern Adriatic Sea, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi are still spoken of in admiring, dare we say worshipful, tones. Locals say it was on the Brijuni islands—now a part of Croatia, but once Yugoslav, that Nehru, Marshal Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt first came up with the idea of a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). NAM was meant to be an organization of developing countries that sought to navigate the maze of Cold War international relations without having to belong to the US or Russian camps. It first met in Belgrade in 1961; its initial membership of 25 nations has since grown to around 120.

Nehru and US president Dwight D. Eisenhower on the cover of a ‘National Geographic’ issue in May 1960NAM was, and always has been, something of an organization seeking a purpose, rather than vice versa. During its founding period, when its terms of engagement were at least partly based on the Panchsheel principles of peaceful coexistence, NAM sought to end colonialism, imperialism and promote self-government. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, with alignment no longer what it used to mean, NAM has moved on to tackle issues of poverty, crime and social injustice.

It was also perhaps an attempt by heads of some of the world’s newer nations to establish themselves as organizers and statesmen, and emerge from the shadows of the major world leaders who loomed over proceedings at the United Nations and other platforms.

Nehru always harboured ambitious roles for India, and himself, on the international stage. But one wonders, if his initial interactions with the Americans had been more fruitful, would he have been so keen on the principle of non-alignment? Nehru’s visit to the US in 1949 was successful with everyone except the people who mattered. Secretary of state Dean Acheson later wrote that Nehru was “one of the most difficult men with whom I have ever had to deal”.

Sidin Vadukut

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The red rose

Both Nehru and Babur shared a passion for the rose. The first Mughal emperor not only composed a poem on gul, Persian for rose, but also made sure the word was part of his daughters’ names. The first prime minister was democratic enough to spare his family—he just tucked the flower into the third button of his sherwani.

In the 1940s, Nehru started wearing a red rose, like the one seen in a glass display case at Teen Murti Bhavan, Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint“The iconography of the red rose was not unambiguous,” historian Benjamin Zachariah tells us in his book Nehru. “Nehru’s own propensity for aestheticism might have been presented there, in the form of the daily rose he selected from his gardens at his home, Teen Murti Bhavan, to wear in his buttonhole. The red rose may have been a symbol of love, intended to stand either for Nehru’s love for India, or the sometimes perplexing love many Indians had for the man who came to be called ‘Panditji’—an honorific connected with religion and caste that he himself hated. Or it might merely be the fate of a political leader to be reduced to an icon: Winston Churchill to his cigar… ”

On his last visit to the US in 1961, Nehru was invited for lunch by president John F. Kennedy to his wife Jacqueline’s childhood home, Hammersmith Farm, Newport. The glamorous first lady got her daughter Caroline to pick a rose from their garden to present to the Indian guest.

The gardens of Teen Murti Bhavan, Delhi, have roses to this day.

In Nehru, In His Own Words: His Replies To Various Questions, a series of conversations with Nehru, the interviewer, Ramnarayan Chaudhary, asked the prime minister about the sartorial accessory:

“Chaudhary: One (question)I have often intended to ask you—why do you always wear a red rose?

Nehru: There is nothing special about it.

Chaudhary: Nothing special?

Nehru: No. I began wearing it casually 10 to 15 years back. And I like a deep red, not faint.”

Two years after Nehru’s death, his daughter defeated the powerful Morarjii Desai in the battle to lead the ruling Congress parliamentary party. As the new prime minister designate emerged from Parliament, the cheering crowd roared, “Lal gulab (red rose) zindabad.” The same year, film-maker, novelist and journalist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas came out with Indira Gandhi’s biography, subtitled Return Of the Red Rose.

Mayank Austen Soofi

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Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh

It took a Swiss-French architect to turn the Nehruvian dream of a modern India into reality.

The assembly building at the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier. Photo: Zackary Canepari/MintShortly after Partition, Nehru decided to give Chandigarh, the capital of the newly formed states of Punjab and Haryana, a radical makeover. He invited Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, the legend of 20th century design who was known as Le Corbusier, to turn the city into a symbol of a new India. “Chandigarh hits you on the head and makes you think,” Nehru had said of his pet project, and indeed it did—not only with its minimal beauty but also by its stark contrast to the neoclassical grandeur of Lutyens’ Delhi.

Le Corbusier took his mission to heart, bringing his utilitarian aesthetics into play, and creating India’s first planned urban centre. He shaped the city on the principle of helping cars, the emerging mode of transportation, to ply freely and without interruption. To this end, he divided the city into self-sufficient sectors. He also stressed on the use of cement as a building material, creating angular houses to optimize space, public gardens and parks for the elderly and children to enjoy, and a network of arterial roads to facilitate movement across the city. He had the blueprint for a mini Singapore in the heart of India. He designed some buildings in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, as well.

In the last six decades, Chandigarh, like the rest of the country, has degenerated. In 2001, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization wanted to turn it into a World Heritage site, it discovered that priceless items of furniture, designed by Le Corbusier, were being sold as scrap.

Somak Ghoshal

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The Nehru jacket

The Nawab jacket by Canali, now a classic in its menswear line across the world. Photo courtesy: CanaliThe undoubted cover of a must-be-written tome on 20th century Indian fashion, the only “tailored” Indian garment to find global resonance, a straight and square statesman’s coat with androgynous promise, a potent tool of political dressing which acquired pop-culturish posturing among multitudinous audiences, the Nehru jacket is a revered deity in our style temple. When India’s first prime minister was featured in the Vogue magazine in 1964, it was in this jacket, which design gurus say is a shorter version of the north Indian achkan or sherwani with a mandarin collar.

 Fitted and buttoned up (famously known as the bandhgala), it is sleeveless or full-sleeved. The Beatles dipped it in their rock chic in 1965 and when the British contingent wore a casual, sleeveless, red version for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, history paraded wearing irony on its sleeve. As the haute Armani jacket with a Nehru collar, Canali’s Nawab jacket, Ermenegildo Zegna’s Guru jacket or those created by a posse of Indian designers who continue to reinterpret it as formal menswear and wedding couture, the Nehru jacket retains its role on fashion ramps and in classy wardrobes around the world.

Shefalee Vasudev

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Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray (right) with actor Soumitra Chatterjee on the sets of ‘Ghare Baire’ in 1984. Photo: AFPIn 1955, the year Nehru laid the foundation of the National Museum in New Delhi, the debut feature film of a budding Bengali film-maker charmed audiences in New York and Calcutta alike. The film’s mature craft, achieved with the bare minimum technical support and natural light, and its soul-stirring lyricism, heralded a cinematic signature hard to emulate. The prime minister watched Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song Of the Little Road) and ensured it was India’s entry at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. Ray burst on to the cinema firmament almost like a renaissance artist—a writer and illustrator first and then a film-maker, he was a Brahmo reformist by faith, like his family of artists and intellectuals. Educated in the arts of the world, Bengal and Bengali people were his inspiration. Ray followed the success of Pather Panchali with an early oeuvre (including the Apu trilogy; Jalsaghar, 1958; Devi, 1960; Mahanagar, 1963; Charulata, 1964; and Pratidwandi, 1970) that echoed the humanistic politics of Rabindranath Tagore, which Calcutta’s critics often interpreted as political inertia. Incidentally, Ray designed the cover of one of the early editions of Nehru’s The Discovery Of India during his stint as an illustrator at the Signet Press and he got his first job as an advertising copywriter because of P.C. Mahalanobis, one of Nehru’s engineers for independent India and a close friend of the Ray family.

Sanjukta Sharma

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HMT advertisement that appeared in newspapers in 1960s

HMT watches

In 1961, several employees of HMT Watches, a newly created division of Hindustan Machine Tools Ltd, were sent to Japan. They would undergo training at the Citizen watch company’s factories and return to India to replicate the manufacture.

The project, according to the HMT website, was reflective of two of Nehru’s aspirations. The concrete aspiration was to develop Indian competence in micro-engineering. The more emotional aspiration was to give Indians access to cheap wristwatches and, therefore, greater discipline.

In 1961, the first batch of 800 watches was launched. This comprised 500 men’s watches called HMT Citizen and 300 women’s watches branded Sujata. The initial operations only involved assembling imported movements. Over the next decade, however, HMT began to indigenize more and more of the process, eventually making a full 84% of the watch in-house.

It was perhaps one of the greatest success stories in Nehruvian public sector self-sufficiency. At one point HMT is estimated to have accounted for at least 70%—and possibly as much as 90%—of the Indian watch market. It employed thousands of people across several factories.

Today these townships are deserted. At its first encounter with serious private sector competition, following liberalization, HMT withered. It continues to make watches, and successive governments have announced plans to revive the brand.

But the watches are hard to find. India has moved on.

Sidin Vadukut

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India under a lens: the photojournalists

The making of independent India, as well as prime minister Nehru, provided a treasure trove of material for photojournalists, though few were able to capitalize on it as much as Homai Vyarawalla (1913-2012).

Credited as the first female photojournalist in the country, Vyarawalla was a singular presence in a male-dominated profession. Her favourite subject was the PM who, she said, had the “perfect figure for a photographer” and a personality that “electrified the entire atmosphere” wherever he made an appearance. He also had the gift of posing for pictures “as if unconsciously”, allowing Vyarawalla to capture him in many moods—as the solemn statesman addressing the nation for the first time from the ramparts of Red Fort in Delhi on 6 August 1947; a loving brother hugging his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit; or having a good laugh with his friends, the Mountbattens.

Her male contemporaries, such as Kulwant Roy (1914-84), Sunil Janah (1918-2012) and Madan Mahatta (1932-2014), also recorded the process of nation-building in their distinct styles.

Roy, who started at the Royal Indian Air Force, specialized in aerial photography before setting up Associated Press Photos. He became an innovator in the field by experimenting with techniques of manipulating photographs in the pre-Photoshop era. An intrepid chronicler of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, he shot Nehru in cricketing garb (he painted it for a reproduction printed by a British magazine), as a hero on horseback, and a loving family man, bidding farewell to his grandson Rajiv before a European tour.

Janah, who was co-opted by the communist leader P.C. Joshi to document the plight of the starving millions, wasted a golden photo-op when he had privileged access to Nehru by forgetting to adjust the lens of his camera to its proper working position.

Mahatta’s focus was less on the man than on his legacy. One of the finest architectural photographers in the country, he photographed some spectacular buildings in the Capital, designed by architects Charles Correa, Achyut Kanvinde, Joseph Allen Stein and J.K. Chowdhury, among others.

Somak Ghoshal

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Balraj Sahni in ‘Do Bigha Zameen’. Photo courtesy: Rinki RoyCinema in the age of Nehru (happy and sad versions)

Unlike Mahatma Gandhi, who famously rejected the seductions of cinema, Nehru enjoyed the movies and movie stars, and they embraced him in turn.

Some embraced the Nehruvian ideals of nation-building, progressive thought, and a belief in the goodness of the state—Ab Dilli Dur Nahin’s child actor travelled many miles to personally deliver a letter to the new patriarch of the nation to demand justice for his wronged father.

Some actors embodied the optimism of the decade. Dev Anand, the jaunty romantic, was a hero for the times, light in step and cheerful in the face of adversity, one eye forever fixed on the horizon beyond which a brighter future lay.

However, Partition-inflicted scars, and the realization that injustice wasn’t going to vanish overnight, ran parallel to the celebration of a new age. The reigning stars and film-makers asked larger questions through song and romantic entanglements.

Dev Anand in ‘Jaal’. Photo: Hindustan Times Raj Kapoor promoted a populist socialism that gently rocked the boat without toppling it. Dilip Kumar internalized the grief of men unable to deal with the outer world. Guru Dutt threw up his hands in futility. Bimal Roy probed caste, poverty and injustice.

They were mourning him as late as 1967 in Naunihal—another child set out on a journey to meet Nehru, this time to ask him about unkept promises. The answer was provided in the movie’s song Meri Awaaz Suno, played on footage of the great man’s funeral procession.

Nandini Ramnath

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Crafting an indigenous design aesthetic

A black and white photograph of a balding Nehru sits on the History & Background page of the website of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. However, his role in setting it up was limited to the approval of the Eames Report. Submitted in 1958 by American designers Charles and Ray Eames at the behest of the Union government, the “India Report” recommended a problem-solving design consciousness linking education with actual experience. NID was founded in 1961 on the basis of these recommendations, with assistance from the Ford Foundation and Ahmedabad’s Sarabhai family, particularly Gautam Sarabhai and his sister Gira. Nehru’s letter of greeting upon its establishment was reproduced in a book called 50 Years Of the National Institute Of Design—1961-2011.

NID was founded in 1961 on the basis of the Eames Report. Photo: Ramesh Dave/Mint NID was also assigned the project of designing the Nehru exhibition, which opened in New York in 1965, a year after his death. Titled Jawaharlal Nehru: His Life And His India, it travelled to many global cities visually narrating the statesman’s life through the political turbulence of his time, his personal motivations, the national and international influences on him, even what he missed as he wrote his diaries and three books during his imprisonment. A highly respected institute of industrial, communication, textile and integrated design today, NID embodies the throbbing artery that connects design with meaning and function.

Shefalee Vasudev

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Institutes for higher education

The IIM, Ahmedabad, campus, designed by legendary American architect Louis I. Kahn. Photo courtesy: Indian Institute of Management, AhmedabadEarlier this month, The Economist ranked the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, fourth overall among 20 business schools globally in terms of return on investment for students. Setting up world-class education institutions was a particular dream which Nehru’s government identified with, and went out of its way to nurture. The first IIM (Calcutta) opened its doors on 14 November 1961, Nehru’s birthday, followed by one in Ahmedabad on 11 December 1961. Both institutions were set up on the basis of a 1959 recommendation of the Planning Commission.

The story really started on 15 September 1956, when Parliament passed the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) Act, declaring the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, an institute of national importance. Without Nehru’s sustained and spontaneous political support and a key Nehruvian concern—“scientific temper”—this idea may not have been translated into reality.

When Nehru attended the convocation of the first IIT in Kharagpur on 21 April 1956, he admitted in his speech to being envious of “young men and the new graduates...launching out not only on their life’s career, which is an exciting business for every young man and young woman at this time of life, but launching out on it at a time of peculiar significance to this country and to them”.

Seema Chowdhry

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The Bhakra-Nangal Dam, one of the so-called modern temples. Photo: Keystone/Getty ImagesDams

Monuments to Nehru’s oft-quoted encouragement of supersized industrial projects loom on the horizon, among them the Bhakra-Nangal Dam on the border of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Nehru inaugurated the Bhakra canal system in 1954, visited the project 10 times during its construction, and dedicated the completed dam to the nation in 1963, according to the website of the Bhakra Beas Management Board. Nehru was a champion of large dams, which he famously described as being among the “temples of modern India”, but prompted by complaints of corruption and reports of the anguish caused by large-scale displacement, he later made a case for small-scale projects. The anti-dam movement gathered force in subsequent decades, producing pockets of resistance across the country, notable over the Tehri dam project in Uttarakhand and the Narmada river valley project in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Nandini Ramnath

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Linguistic states

Potti Sriramulu died 58 days into his fast. Illustration: Jayachandran/MintThe man in the photograph below was a particularly prickly thorn in the side for Nehru’s first government. Potti Sriramulu, a 51-year-old railway employee, fasted unto death in 1952 for the formation of the state of Andhra Pradesh. The movement for the reorganization of states on the basis of language—such as Andhra Pradesh for Telugu speakers—gained voice and steam in the early 1950s in the face of considerable resistance from the Centre. Sriramalu died 58 days into his fast on 15 December 1952; the state he starved himself for was born on 1 October 1953.

“The formation of Andhra Pradesh grated with the prime minister of the day,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in India After Gandhi. “You will observe,” Nehru wrote grimly to a colleague, “that we have stirred a hornet’s nest and I believe most of us are likely to be badly stung.” Not only were many such states carved out of existing ones in the years that followed, but these states would challenge the Centre in more ways than one, giving rise to regional parties and power centres, and posing administrative and electoral headaches for the Congress party.

Nandini Ramnath

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The first Asian Games held in Delhi

Nehru’s world statesman vision was not restricted to the Non-Aligned Movement. He initiated an Asian Relations Conference in March 1947 where G.D. Sondhi, a member of the International Olympic Committee, mooted the idea of pan-Asian games. Sondhi’s idea wasn’t entirely new since there had been attempts earlier at such sporting carnivals, like the Far Eastern Championship Games and Western Asiatic Games. But Sondhi had the backing of Nehru, for whom this was yet another way of signalling India’s prominence in the world order.

It might not have been the best of times, given the refugee crisis created by Partition and the fact that Mahatma Gandhi compelled Nehru and deputy prime minister Vallabhbhai Patel to dole out funds from an already depleted treasury to Pakistan. The games were postponed from February 1950 to November 1950 and were finally held in March the following year. Anthony de Mello, then president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, managed to raise funds from the Cricket Club of India and the National Sports Club of India. “Such are the ironies of history that the first Asiad was largely financed by money from two Bombay clubs; one focused only on cricket, which has never featured in the Games till date,” write Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta in their book Olympics—The India Story

Ravi Krishnan

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This is All India Radio

All India Radio became the voice of India. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsWhen Nehru delivered the famous “Tryst with destiny” speech, on the midnight of 14 August 1947, to the constituent assembly of the newly founded Parliament, it was able to reach thousands across the nation thanks to one of the best legacies of the British Raj: the All India Radio (AIR). For an address that lasted a little over half a minute, it was peppered with difficult words, and it is not known if it was translated into regional languages by the different stations that relayed it. On 30 January 1948, when Nehru had to speak to the nation again on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, he had more success. This time, his speech (“The light has gone out of our lives”) was delivered extempore and came across as more heartfelt.

Founded in 1930, India’s premier public service broadcaster had six channels running at the time of independence. By 1956, it had expanded its programme ambitiously and had been grandly rechristened “Akashvani”—voice from the heavens. With a mandate to uphold the country’s unity and its democratic values, Akashvani was expected to fight social injustice, inequality and untouchability, though its legacy lies in its championing of literature and the performing arts. In a singular spirit of egalitarianism, emerging talents in the fields of classical music, poetry and drama were featured alongside the masters, a tradition that continues to this day, even as Akashvani struggles to keep up with a retinue of jazzier competitors.

Somak Ghoshal

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Celebrated cartoonist Shankar’s 1949 cartoon demonstrated that ruling post-independent India was no child’s play. Photo courtesy: Indian Institute of CartoonistsThe Planning Commission

Nehru believed passionately in the merits of planned development. He was a votary of heavy industries, public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, and had a deep suspicion of global trade. It was something he shared with leaders of several other countries who had been released from the clutches of colonialism. The high noon of Nehruvian planning came in 1956 with the second five-year Plan. Its moving spirit was the statistician P.C. Mahalanobis (see page 13)—but Nehru also brought in some of the best economic thinkers from around the world to design it.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha

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Scientific temper

Nuclear physicist Homi J. Bhabha delivering a speech on the atom bomb. Photo: Thomas D Mcavoy/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

There is perhaps no greater testimony to the strengths and weaknesses of Nehru’s legacy as a nation-builder than the peculiar state of science and technology in modern India.

Nehru is widely known for his work as a lawyer before he became a leader of the independence movement. Few today recall that his original degree from Cambridge had nothing to do with law. In 1910, Nehru graduated with a natural science tripos in chemistry, geology and botany.

Nehru was somewhat obsessed with manifesting every element of the “scientific temper” in his vision of India. His daughter Indira even found a way to include it in the Constitution. One of the fundamental duties of every citizen of India, under Part IV(A) of the Constitution, is “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.

In 1947, once power had been transferred, one of Nehru’s first actions was to assume the presidency of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, a post he would hold till his death in 1964.

And it is in those 17 years that Nehru established a formidable network of scientific institutions, laboratories and organizations all over India. Huge dams, comprehensive education institutions and ambitious research and development bodies sprouted. International linkages were nurtured so that these institutions could hit the ground running with the help of foreign minds, funding and experience.

These plans were not without their flaws. Some have pointed out that Nehru’s decision to separate education from research caused a rift between the theoretical and applied sciences in India that is yet to be bridged. Perhaps this is why, so many years later, one wonders why India produces outstanding young minds, but very little outstanding original research.

Sidin Vadukut

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An All India Congress Committee meet in faridabad, Haryana, in 1966. Photo: N. Thyagarajan/Hindustan Times Indira Gandhi

It’s possible to curate a show of Indira Gandhi photographs under the title “Alone in the crowd”—and it won’t necessarily be a compliment. Nehru was accused of being a centrist, but his daughter went further, using democratic tools to craft an autocracy for herself. She ruled the nation with an iron fist and a suspicious eye, balancing undeniable achievements with undesirable decisions. She strode out from under the colossal shadow of her great father—no mean feat—but increasingly came to wield the reins of power as a whip. If there is any Indian prime minister Narendra Modi resembles the most, it is Mrs G, her father’s pride and weakness.

Nandini Ramnath

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VK Krishna Menon

A doctor attenting to V.K. Krishna Menon after he collapsed during his 8-hour speech at the United Nations on 24 January 1957. Photo: Lisa Larsen/TimeLife Pictures/Getty ImagesThe Eisenhower administration in the US hated him with a passion and American diplomats considered him a nuisance. During the Nehru years, V.K. Krishna Menon became India’s voice abroad—he was a diplomat who did not take diplomatic niceties seriously, and debated forcefully and vigorously, never shy of expressing his views, even on occasions when they varied from the government’s own position. Example: He tacitly supported Russian actions in Hungary in 1956 even though the government had a more nuanced view and forced him to change his position later. His finest hour was in 1957, when he spoke for a marathon 8 hours and more at the UN Security Council, asserting India’s position on Kashmir. The speech had to be split over two days, and Menon gained nationwide praise for his performance.

As the public face of Nehruvian non-alignment, Menon got disproportionate opprobrium from the West—Time magazine excoriated him often, and Western intelligence agencies were exasperated. In Western eyes, Menon again became the Ugly Indian when India took over Goa in 1961 from the Portuguese, who had refused to leave in 1947, when the British left India.

His bleakest moment was the war with China. Before the war, Menon, who was by then defence minister, had spoken of India’s growing self-sufficiency in defence production. But he had failed to foresee Chinese aggression in India’s border areas, and was largely held accountable for the military debacle in that war. His resignation in 1962 was a mere formality.

Salil Tripathi

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Handcrafted elegance

The Bankura Horse, made in Panchmura village, West Bengal. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsA key figure in the revival of craft traditions was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Born on 3 April 1903, she died on 29 October 1988, packing in so many achievements in between that it is hard to believe she hadn’t cloned herself. At the top of this freedom-fighter-turned-nation-builder’s list of successes is the formalization of handicraft practices. Even as the country developed its thoughts on a home-grown modern aesthetic (see the entry on the Eames Report and the National Institute of Design, page 8), it embraced ancient homespun beauty. “Ethnic chic did not exist at the time of Independence,” writes Sakuntala Narasimhan in her biography on Chattopadhyay, The Romantic Rebel. As the first chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board, Chattopadhyay “made it her life’s mission” to draw national attention to the diversity of scattered, near-forgotten and often ancient craft-making traditions. Pride got a commercial impetus as the board set up handicraft stores all over the country, constituted awards to honour artisans, and set up a Crafts Museum in New Delhi. Chattopadhyay’s efforts didn’t flag despite her emotional tumbles—she was a child widow who remarried multi-hyphenate talent Harindranath Chattopadhyay and later separated from him. Her greatest legacy, Narasimhan writes, is that “…everything that she admired—from saris to jewellery and the total Indian look—became high fashion.”

Nandini Ramnath

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Progress of the Progressives

Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group members—(front row, from left) F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade; and (second row, from left) M.F. Husain, S.K. Bakre and S.H. Raza. Photo courtesy: www.ArtNewsnViews.comThis was a group that shattered the definition of art. The Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group formed in 1947 midwived modern Indian art, with Francis Newton Souza, M.F. Husain and S.H. Raza as its earliest members. The group reached the peak of its creative ferment in the 1950s with the support of two key patrons in Bombay—Kekoo Gandhy of the Chemould Art Gallery and Kali Pundole of the Pundole Art Gallery. By 1956, when the group disbanded, all the artists, including V.S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta and Mohan Samant, had found their own distinct modernist idioms, and some of them had exhibited their art in India and outside.

The 1950s marked a phase of self-discovery for Indian artists. Around the same time, the faculty of fine arts, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, had given rise to a new modernism, also, like the Bombay Progressive movement, a merging of European formalism and Indian traditions.

Sanjukta Sharma

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The Ambassador

A painting of the Ambassador car commissioned by Sunil Sethi, president of the Fahion Design Council of IndiaThere was no better car than the squat, roomy and sturdy Ambassador, the flagship vehicle of the privately owned Hindustan Motors, to spread the message of greater state intervention throughout the country. As independent India took charge of its destiny and began to settle down to the difficult task of managing this continent of a country, the white-coloured Ambassador followed suit, carrying personages and files far and wide. The white Ambassador, especially, came to represent power, authority, public office and imperiousness, and it lost its position as the Indian Car only after the introduction of the Maruti. It’s now leaner than before and comes in funky colours, an object of fond memories and a victim of the latest Indian tendency to revisit the past through the prism of kitsch.

Nandini Ramnath

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Rumble in the North-East

A Naga chief presenting handwoven fabric and a spear to General K.M. Cariappa during his visit to Kohima in 1952. Photo: Photo Division/Press Information BureauOne of the earliest challenges to India’s integrity came from the North-East, where a section of Nagas was eager to secede. In the initial years after independence, Nehru had a chance to win over the moderate section which wanted to be a part of India. But he lost that opportunity, allowing the Naga extremist A.Z. Phizo to rally others behind his demand for independence.

When a Naga delegation went to meet him during his visit to Kohima in 1953, Nehru refused to humour them. Word spread, and when Nehru went to address a public meeting later, the audience staged a walkout.

Nehru hardened his stance against the Nagas and tried to brutally suppress a fledgling insurgency. Army atrocities only helped the rebel cause, and militancy grew. The Nagas have provided inspiration, arms and logistical support to almost all the armed rebellions in the North-East over the past six decades. Fifty years after Nehru’s death, the North-East is still simmering.

Pramit Bhattacharya

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Statistician P.C. Mahalanobis. Illustration: Jayachandran/MintPC Mahalanobis

Looking at the state of official statistics today, it is difficult to believe that a newly independent India was the pioneer in large-scale surveys, and had far richer data about itself than any other developing nation. The declining quality of our statistical organizations perhaps points to the huge void left by the demise of Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, a statistical genius and institution-builder par excellence who helped establish the Central Statistical Organization (CSO) and the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO).

Known largely for his role in shaping the second five-year Plan, Mahalanobis’ greatest gift to the country was setting up the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI). Nehru’s unstinting support meant that Mahalanobis enjoyed a free hand and was able to attract talent from across the globe.

Pramit Bhattacharya

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Handloom weaves

A handloom weaver at work in Varanasi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

If Mahatma Gandhi clothed the pre-independence Swadeshi movement with hand-spun Khadi, Nehruvian India wore the texture of traditional handlooms. In 1950, through T.T. Krishnamachari (popularly known as TTK), then a leading babu who would become Nehru’s finance minister, Nehru invited Pupul Jayakar to revive the handloom sector. With Nehru’s support, Jayakar, a cultural activist and writer on Indian craft traditions, launched a fabric and clothing revolution by creating marketing structures and weaver centres, and was instrumental in establishing the All India Handloom Board and the Handlooms and Handicraft Export Corporation, among other institutions. As handcrafted textiles became a viable industry in Nehru’s time, their story, beauty and relevance attracted the chiffon-clad elite to woven saris that came to define the Indian aesthetic. The warp and weft of this handloom era was only strengthened during Indira Gandhi’s leadership. Her wedding sari, a pale pink Khadi handwoven by Nehru during a jail term and worn by Indira the bride with flower jewellery, is an emotive, enduring symbol of the handloom legacy—a distinction that is inexorably, proudly, provocatively Indian.

Shefalee Vasudev

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Museums and more

Few heads of state have been as proactive about promoting the cultural heritage of their nations as Nehru.

The National Museum, New Delhi. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsSoon after independence, the Lalit Kala Akademi, Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi—the three pillars of Indian arts and letters—were founded in quick succession in the 1950s to extend patronage to writers and artists. These institutions, along with others such as the National Archives (founded in the 1890s), were mandated to preserve, document and disseminate the wealth of writing, performance and fine arts from different regions of the country.

These efforts were complemented by the setting up of the National Museum in New Delhi in 1949, the acquisition of the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, and by extending support to the Indian Museum, founded in Kolkata by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1814. The Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, established in 1959 in Kolkata, documented the march of scientific progress. Apart from galleries on nuclear physics, petroleum and electricity, it also boasts of a simulated coal mine into which visitors can descend and enjoy a guided tour.

Half a century later, the wealth of material that lies dispersed in these manifold institutions does not exactly draw in the crowds. If public disinterest is one reason behind their relative obscurity, equally culpable are the institutions themselves. While all of them nominally follow mission statements that mandate them to execute a set of responsibilities, the goals they set themselves, and the way they execute them, remain vague. Of late, the National Museum in the Capital has started curating its permanent collection into shows with compelling themes as well as organizing lectures, walking tours, and talks open to the public.

Somak Ghoshal

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C Rajagopalachari

Are you worried about the excessive centralization of state power? Critical of the personality cult surrounding our prime ministers. Believe there should be an opposition within the ruling party because there is no true opposition in Parliament? Look no further, you are in the esteemed company of C. Rajagopalachari aka Rajaji, a one-time-friend-turned-trenchant critic of Nehru.

Before independence and well after it, Nehru and Rajaji got along well. Both were disciples of the Mahatma, shared the common ideal of India’s freedom, and were intellectual equals and personal friends till they turned political rivals.

In 1950, when India ceased to be a British dominion, Nehru wanted Rajaji, who was governor general then, to continue as the president, but his plans were scuttled by Vallabhbhai Patel. Rajaji joined Nehru’s cabinet as minister without portfolio and became home minister after Patel’s death.

C. Rajagopalachari in 1948. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsRelations soured after the Congress said it wanted to replace Rajaji as Madras chief minister with the backward-class leader K. Kamaraj in 1954. A sulking Rajaji returned to his home, ostensibly to read and write literature. However, he started opposing Nehru’s economic policies, particularly the second five-year Plan with its distinct Left-leaning agenda. Rajaji said there should be an opposition group within the Congress as it was running with “accelerators and no brakes” without a true opposition.

By 1959, he was criticizing the personality cult surrounding Nehru and formed the liberal Swatantra Party. While Rajaji continued to criticize the government’s economic policies, he did support the prime minister when he wanted to release Sheikh Abdullah in April 1964, a month before Nehru’s death.

Ravi Krishnan

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JRD Tata

J.R.D. Tata and Nehru disagreed on the role of the private sector. Photo: Hindustan TimesWhen it came to industrialization during the Nehru era, you can’t forget Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata, even though Tata seemed to represent everything, or almost everything, that Nehru detested. He was one of India’s pioneering industrialists, and Nehru’s idea of socialism reined in the private sector through taxes and licences, in turn encouraging public sector enterprises. “Profit” to Nehru was a “dirty word”. But Tata maintained he was concerned with the profits made by public sector enterprises, something that governments since the Nehru era seem to have cared little about.

Although Nehru and Tata shared a deep bonding and mutual respect for one another, they were driven apart by ideological differences, starting with the government’s nationalization of Air India, an airline Tata had started. When Tata sounded the alarm on population, Nehru disagreed, saying that India’s strength was its people. Tata couldn’t argue his case well; Nehru would simply stare out of the window during a conversation as a polite indicator of disinterest.

Kayezad E. Adajania

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Panels from the Amar Chitra Katha comic, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru: The Early Days’ show how Nehru overcame his fear of public speaking and became a leader of the masses. Photo courtesy: Amar Chitra Katha Pvt. Ltd The rise of the middle class

The Indian middle class came into its own during the Nehruvian era. The Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee had once lampooned the babu of his times as having 10 incarnations like Vishnu: clerk, teacher, Brahmo, accountant, doctor, lawyer, magistrate, landlord, editor and unemployed. Much changed after independence. A truly vibrant middle class only emerged in the first decade after independence, working in the factories, research laboratories, government departments and educational institutions that Nehru nurtured. It is ironical that this same middle class has turned its back on the Nehruvian legacy in recent decades.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha

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The Bombay economists

Economist B.R. Shenoy. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

B.R. Shenoy was a student of the great libertarian economist F.A. Hayek. In a celebrated dissent note, Shenoy warned that the second five-year Plan was a recipe for trouble. Its dependence on deficit finance would be unsustainable. Government control over the economy would undermine a young democracy. Shenoy was proved right when India faced an external payments crisis a year after the Plan period began. His prescience did not save him from years in the wilderness, however. Two other economists from Mumbai—C.N. Vakil and P.R. Brahmananda—too warned that building steel plants without bothering about “wage goods” such as food and cloth would soon lead to high inflation.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha

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The importance of the Ambar Charkha

Gandhian Prabhudas Gandhi spinning on the Ambar Charkha at Kasturbadham near Rajkot, GujaratNehru was an economic modernist who rightly believed that India could escape from the clutches of mass poverty only through industrialization. However, the development plans of his time also provided some space to the sort of decentralized household production that Gandhi favoured. One manifestation of this was the Ambar Charkha: a technically superior spinning wheel that attracted a lot of attention in those years. Its economic viability was suspect, as a young Indian economist named Amartya Kumar Sen noted in October 1957. Variants of the Ambar Charkha are still available—more as a curiosity than as an innovation that changed lives.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha

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Sheikh Abdullah and the Kashmir question

Nehru and Abdullah at a public meeting at Lal Chowk, Srinagar, in October 1947. Photo: Hindustan TimesAt the time of independence, one of the contentious issues was the fate of Kashmir—would it be a part of India or Pakistan? The state’s ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, was taking his own time to consider options. He was the Hindu ruler of a largely Muslim state. A charismatic Muslim leader, Sheikh Abdullah was campaigning for greater democracy for the people, and Hari Singh had jailed him.

Soon after independence, Hari Singh found the decision taken out of his hands, because tribal fighters, supported by Pakistan, invaded the state. Hari Singh signed the treaty of accession with India, and the government sent troops while committing to seek the will of the people.

Abdullah established a rapport with Nehru, and was appointed the state’s prime minister—a unique position within the Indian union, in recognition of the state’s status (later the position was called chief minister, as with all other states). Capitalizing on the maharaja’s waning influence, Abdullah quickly filled the leadership void, balancing the interests of the people between two large countries. Abdullah could not afford to antagonize the people, nor could he take Pakistan’s Liaquat Ali Khan or his successors, or Nehru in New Delhi, for granted. But his sense of his own significance got the better of him, and Nehru had him jailed in 1953. He was released years later, in 1964.

Abdullah was touring Pakistan when he heard the news of Nehru’s death that May, and flew back to India. His hold over the valley remained, even though he was removed and jailed again. Many years later, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi reached out to him again as prime minister, signing a pact to bring him back to politics. The “lion of Kashmir” did return, but he was a shadow of his former self. He died in 1982. His son Farooq and grandson Omar would also get elected chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Omar is currently chief minister of the state.

Salil Tripathi

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The wedding of Indira and Feroze Gandhi on 26 March 1942, at Anand Bhavan, Allahabad. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesScam-buster Feroze Gandhi

Haridas Mundhra was a speculator from Calcutta. Nehru’s son-in-law, Feroze Gandhi, told Parliament in 1957 that Mundhra had got the Life Insurance Corp. of India to invest in six struggling companies he controlled. The money was invested under political pressure, as an enquiry commission headed by M.C. Chagla later concluded. Nehru was shaken when his finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari had to resign because of the Mundhra scandal. Gandhi had earlier helped send businessman Ramkrishna Dalmia to jail for defrauding an insurance company under his control. These were the first two scams to rattle India.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha

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Teen Murti Bhavan

How could a handsome, erudite man of romantic sensibilities such as Nehru bring himself to read Research In Animal Husbandry? Thousands of similarly titled volumes that line the corridors of Teen Murti Bhavan point to the obligations this book-loving statesman had for the greater common good.

Designed by British architect Robert Tor Russel, who also planned Connaught Place, Nehru’s last home was built for the commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army (circa 1930). The prime minister lived in this mansion till his death in 1964. A few months later, the 30-room mansion was turned into a museum. Stepping into it is like opening a family album.

Black and white portraits of the Nehru-Gandhis adorn the walls. Drawing rooms and bedrooms, separated by glass walls, look so alive that you half-expect Nehru to tap you on the back. You can hear peacocks calling in the sprawling gardens; squirrels scurry through the leaves-strewn grass. The estate is wooded, with some of New Delhi’s largest semal trees. The booklet, The Birds At Teen Murti House, lists 54 species.

At the roundabout outside the mansion stand three famous figures representing the princely states of Hyderabad, Mysore and Jodhpur. Dedicated to the Indian soldiers who died fighting in West Asia during World War I, the three statues—or the teen murtis—give their name to the place. Installed within a landscaped garden, they were made by British sculptor Leonard Jennings.

The only kitschy items in this home to good taste are in the galleries exhibiting the gifts that Nehru received during his foreign jaunts: a metallic olive tree from Lebanon, a replica of Lahore’s Shalimar Gardens from Pakistan, a jewellery box from the erstwhile USSR, and a small magnetic touristy souvenir from France, the kind you would stick on your refrigerator.

One of the exhibits on the museum’s first floor is the sparsely furnished room in which Nehru died; the narrow single bed amplifying the loneliness of his final years.

Mayank Austen Soofi

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Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: the original secularist

Nehru and Azad (extreme right) in May 1951. Photo: Hindustan TimesNamed Firoz Bakht at birth, this Muslim aristocrat acquired the name “Azad” in early adulthood to indicate that he was no longer tied to the inherited beliefs of his conservative family. Deprived of a modern education, Azad became a great champion of a rational and liberal educational system as India’s first education minister. Between 1939-46, Azad was the Congress president and tried his utmost to avoid the break-up of the nation. Azad had almost succeeded, with both—the Congress and Muslim League agreeing to abide by the British Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 which proposed a federation of Indian provinces. But just then, Nehru became Congress president and appeared to rescind on the commitments Azad had made in his public statements.

Although Azad was closest to Nehru among senior Congress leaders, he regretted proposing Nehru’s name for the Congress presidency in 1946, terming it the “greatest blunder of his political life”. “My second mistake was that when I decided not to stand myself (for the post of Congress president), I did not support Sardar Patel,” wrote Azad in his autobiography, India Wins Freedom. “We differed on many issues but I am convinced that if he (Patel) had succeeded me as Congress President he would have seen that the Cabinet Mission Plan was successfully implemented.”

Pramit Bhattacharya

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Verrier Elwin influenced Nehru’s policies for India’s tribes. Photo courtesy: Verrier Elwin Blogspot.inVerrier Elwin

A few months before Nehru breathed his last, his close friend and adviser, Verrier Elwin, died in February 1964. A self-taught anthropologist, Elwin’s ideas and research had an overwhelming influence on Nehru’s vision and policies on India’s tribes. An ordained priest in the Pune-based Christa Seva Sangha, Elwin gave up his commitment to proselytize and dedicated his life to research and to help preserve tribal life and culture. In his later writings, Elwin took care to stress that he was not against assimilating tribals into the mainstream. He only wanted such assimilation to occur at a pace, and on terms, that suited the tribals. Elwin’s critics say he was an anti-modern romantic whose influence on policy further marginalized tribals. Elwin’s admirers argue that without him, tribals would have suffered an even worse fate.

While his legacy is contentious, the ideas Elwin engaged with continue to be relevant. Earlier this month, the first train service to Arunachal Pradesh was suspended after protests by locals, who fear that the unchecked entry of “outsiders” could destroy the delicate social and ecological balance of their state. Elwin echoed these fears more than half a century ago.

Pramit Bhattacharya

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The Chinese roar

Nehru had followed the Chinese revolution with great interest and travelled to that country before independence. He believed in Asian solidarity and aspired for Indo-Chinese unity to block Western dominance of the region. India recognized the People’s Republic of China soon after its emergence and supported its entry into the United Nations. In 1954, he signed five principles of peaceful coexistence, which came to be known as the Panchsheel Agreement and also influenced the Non-Aligned Movement, after the Bandung Conference in 1955. The slogan, Hindi-Chini, Bhai-Bhai (Indians and Chinese are Brothers) became popular.

An Indian soldier standing guard over makeshift forts built hastily in the Ladakh region during clashes between India and China in November 1962. Photo: Radloff/Three Lions/Getty ImagesWhat Nehru had failed to anticipate was the extent of Chinese resentment over India’s inherited border. India inherited the border that was drawn up by the British at a time when China was weak; it believed the border was sacrosanct, but the Chinese did not think the same way. The Chinese became more assertive on the border, and India misread some signals. In 1959, there was an uprising in Tibet, and following the military crackdown, the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India, which then granted refuge to thousands of Tibetans. The Chinese did not approve. The Dalai Lama set up a Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, and tens of thousands of Tibetans have followed him there, turning Dharamsala into a mini Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

Anticipating trouble from China, Nehru began to establish military posts in disputed areas along the Chinese border, including areas which were previously not under Indian control. China began attacking those, and in 1962 the two countries went to war. India lost—while China withdrew to the pre-war boundary in the eastern sector, it held on to Aksai Chin, which the British had left for India. The Indian Army was thoroughly unprepared for the war, and thousands of soldiers died. Nehru faced severe criticism, and he had to sack his trusted defence minister, V.K. Krishna Menon. Nehru took the Chinese attack as a personal betrayal and a bitter blow; his health suffered and within 18 months, he died.

Salil Tripathi

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We two are one

An elephant bearing the symbol of the Lal Trikon Fund to publicize birth control and family planning. Photo: Hulton Deutsch Collection/CorbisA new nation required a new kind of family to carry out its programmes. The ideal Indian family in the 1950s was supposed to be forward-looking, secular-minded, liberal, frugal, tolerant of other cultures, and heavily invested in education, personal empowerment and social change. Initially scattered, largely private and eventually organized efforts towards population control, which resulted in the catchy slogan Hum Do Hamare Do, also created a template for how large this simple-living, high-thinking family should be.

Hundreds of thousands of these units blossomed in cosmopolitan bubbles in state-run townships and government housing projects. They created the qualified, professional, middle-management class of Indians that worked in banks, companies, colleges, hospitals, construction projects and heavy industries, and in turn laid the foundation for the Sensex-friendly, dollar-loving and globetrotting Indian of the 1990s.

Nandini Ramnath

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Sonali Dasgupta and Roberto Rossellini. Photo courtesy: Penguin Books IndiaThe Rossellini-Dasgupta scandal

The alleged love affair between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten has been chronicled till recently. Their letters, not-so-secret meetings and the complicity of Lord Mountbatten, Edwina’s husband, in fuelling the affair, continue to shock and please Indians. This affair only added that extra flamboyance and mystique to the Nehru persona. But what turned on Russy Karanjia (Blitz) and Baburao Patel (Filmindia), the biggest tabloid editors of the era, was the sensational love affair between Italian film-maker Roberto Rossellini and an elegant Bengali beauty, Sonali Dasgupta, in the mid-1950s. Rossellini’s career was at a low ebb in 1955 when Nehru met him in London and took up Rossellini’s offer to film his young nation. Dasgupta, 27, a mother of two small children, was a scriptwriter who fell in love with the 51-year-old Italian, checked into the Taj Mahal hotel to be near him and even secretly flew to Paris with the help of none other than the prime minister. Nehru got Progressive artist M.F. Husain to be a part of this plan. An instance of Nehruvian philanthrophy?

Sanjukta Sharma

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Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement

Bhave and his followers marched 800 miles from his ashram near Nagpur to Shivarampalli, near Hyderabad, for the 1951 Sarvodaya Conference. Photo: Hindustan TimesGandhian activist Vinoba Bhave walked from his ashram near Nagpur to Shivarampalli near Hyderabad, a distance of 300 miles, for the 1951 Sarvodaya Conference. The region was rocked by Marxist violence, and Bhave wanted to emphasize the Gandhian ideals of peace and non-violence. The Marxists had been able to rouse the people because of gross inequities—landlords had vast amounts of wealth while peasants starved. Bhave wanted to use his powers of persuasion, as Gandhi would, and bring about change.

After the conference, Bhave left with other Gandhians to spread the message of peace in the strife-torn areas. On 18 April, at the epicentre of communist activity in Nalgonda district (now in Andhra Pradesh), Bhave visited the village of Pochampalli, where two-thirds of the 700 families were landless. He went to the area where the Dalits lived. They wanted 80 acres. Bhave asked the villagers if there was something they could do, if the state could not provide the land.

Ram Chandra Reddy, a local landlord, said he would donate 100 acres. This launched the Bhoodan (land-gift) movement, in which wealthy landlords gave up land for peasants, creating income for them. Bhave wanted 50 million acres for India’s landless, to be donated voluntarily by landlords, by 1957. Chester Bowles, the US ambassador to India, called Bhoodan “a movement that is giving the message of Renaissance in India. It offers a revolutionary alternative to communism, as it is founded on human dignity.” Author Arthur Koestler called it an Indian alternative to the Nehruvian model of Western development.

Revolutionaries didn’t like it because it delayed the revolution, making the prevailing social order acceptable; social activists later criticized it because they felt it relied solely on the good sense of landlords; and economists later found that often the land being given away was of poor quality, perpetuating inequality.

Salil Tripathi

Also Read | Nehru’s India: the early years

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