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24 April 2024

Nehru's shift from revolutionary to statesman weakened radical power of his ideals

In the 2024 Nehru Memorial Lecture, historian Priya Satia traced the journey of Nehru's ideals such as secularism, socialism and decolonisation.

Professor Priya Satia delivering the 2024 Nehru Memorial Lec

Professor Priya Satia, historian at Stanford University, delivered the 2024 Nehru Memorial Lecture titled 'Nehru's Other India's’. The Nehru Memorial Lecture is an annual lecture hosted by King’s India Institute and endowed by the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Trust.

She illustrated the anti-colonial, federalist visions that emerged around the world during the interwar period, situating Nehru’s own ideals and values and their transformation within this dynamic context.

Professor Satia said that Indian anti-colonialism did not necessarily have nation-state as its goal. There were other possible futures being imagined, including pan-Asian, pan-Islamic, and global Communist visions.

Nehru was also influenced by the ideas of the time and, in 1927, after attending a meeting of the League Against Imperialism, he was convinced about the importance of working class mobilisation and the interdependence of nationalism and anti-imperialist internationalism.

Professor Satia said that Nehru’s interactions with Egyptian anti-colonial leaders show that he had absorbed Gandhism’s insistence on ethical accountability in the present, a challenge to colonialism’s instrumental ethics.

However, she said, after the Government of India Act was passed in 1935, Nehru became conscious of being in a sphere of institutional political power, setting him apart from those who were being political from outside the state.

Revolutionaries, including pre-1937 Nehru himself, seek to change the accepted state of possibility. But statesmen, in this conventional Westphalian mould, take the political and economic constraints on change as pre-given, as the international framework, as the world as it is.

Professor Priya Satia

As a statesman, Nehru took a far more pragmatic approach to the adoption of ideals like secularism, anti-imperialism and socialism. For instance, when Vietnam asked for India’s material support in its anti-colonial resistance against France, Nehru offered only moral support because of his concerns about India’s relations with France post-Independence.

Professor Satia said that Nehru understood India’s interest in “terms inherited from the colonial state as industrial catch up,” setting aside critiques of colonial models of industrial civilisation.

She said the transformation of Nehru from revolutionary to statesman is a commentary on the limits of 20th century attempts at decolonisation and urged that we can learn from this to reimagine alternative futures for South Asia in a time of challenges such as climate change, pandemics and artificial intelligence.

I hope that this story of the contested and contingent way that decolonisation actually led to a world of nation states accidentally, rather than a world of federations, might help us to see the present less as a natural formation, and might open up our horizons to different political futures.

Professor Priya Satia

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