No single person is as responsible for the shape and foundation of modern India as Jawaharlal Nehru. In August 1947, Nehru—a Harrow- and Cambridge-educated atheist who was deeply influenced by Fabian socialism—led a newly independent, intensely religious, and poorly educated developing country, and made it in his image.
Nehru’s three biggest ideas—a socialist economy based on centralized planning; a secular state where, unlike France, all faiths would be celebrated equally; and the promotion of a scientific temper, which resulted in the creation of world-class educational and research institutions—shaped India’s path for the next five decades. A fourth idea was pursued by Nehru, and its consequences are being felt even now: special status for his beloved Kashmir.
India’s government announced today that it is revoking Article 370, the constitutional provision that gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir its special status; downgrading the state’s status so that New Delhi has more direct say over how Kashmir is governed; and splitting it so that Ladakh, the mountainous region that borders Tibet, becomes its own union territory. The controversial move will almost certainly result in unrest in Kashmir, where a separatist movement has bedeviled India since the 1980s, and which has been at the heart of multiple wars and armed conflicts with Pakistan. It will also almost certainly be challenged all the way to the Indian Supreme Court, which ruled last year that Article 370 cannot be abrogated.
Whichever way the court ultimately rules, today’s announcement by the Indian government is the latest in a series of measures that have attempted to reshape Nehru’s vision for India. Under this view, propagated by the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters, Nehru was far too Western to understand India; his socialist economic policies choked growth for decades; and his views toward India’s minorities, especially Muslims, were tantamount to appeasement. In the BJP’s vision, much of India’s ailments spring from policies adopted during Nehru’s premiership, from 1947 to his death in 1964, and so the party is doing its best to reverse them. Kashmir might be the centerpiece of this effort.
In 1947, Britain divided India on the basis of religion: The two Muslim-majority regions that flanked what is today’s modern India became a new country, Pakistan (the eastern flank of which became an independent nation, Bangladesh, in 1971). But there was the matter of more than 600 princely states that Britain, the imperial power, said could choose among India, Pakistan, and independence. The overwhelming majority of states picked one of the two countries. Some of the rulers of the states that chose to remain independent were ultimately coerced into joining India or Pakistan. And then there was Kashmir.
Kashmir, from where Nehru’s family hailed, had a Hindu king, Hari Singh, and mostly Muslim subjects. Singh opted to remain independent, but quickly found his kingdom overrun by tribesmen from Pakistan. He sought India’s help, which Nehru offered on the condition that Kashmir join India. Singh agreed. But Nehru took two additional steps: He promised a plebiscite in Kashmir in the hopes that Kashmiris would overwhelmingly pick India, and he accorded Kashmir special status that ensured, among other things, no one but a resident of the state could buy property there. Since then, India and Pakistan have fought two wars and innumerable skirmishes over Kashmir, which has been the scene of a bloody separatist rebellion that India says is abetted by Pakistan; the plebiscite was never held.
Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP maintain that Kashmir is a mess because of Nehru’s decision to accord it special status. This, Modi’s supporters say, has stifled investment in the state, which lags behind other Indian regions in economic growth. As Arun Jaitley, the former Indian finance minister said on Twitter today: “Separate status led to separatism. No dynamic nation can allow this situation to continue.”
But indications are that the BJP, which ironically enjoys the same kind of hefty parliamentary majority that Nehru did, has other plans to remake India—apart from its so far mixed record of reforming the economy. Last week, Parliament banned “instant divorce” for India’s Muslims. The step has been long demanded by Muslim women’s-rights groups, but critics of the government say they believe it is the first step toward the introduction of a uniform civil code that would reverse the current system, which allows each of India’s major faiths to follow religious doctrine on matters such as divorce and inheritance. (Nehru, as an atheist, supported a uniform civil code, but gave in to pressure on personal law at the time from religious minorities.) The issue is fraught because of the BJP’s perceived hostility toward India’s minorities, especially Muslims: The country’s Islamic past, which at its zenith combined India’s many faiths, is presented more and more as alien; minorities are forced to praise the Hindu god Ram; Hindu vigilantes, who consider the cow sacred, attack and kill Muslims they suspect of eating beef.
Nehru, whose vision of India was that of a modern, secular nation, wrote more than seven decades ago: “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, or a rich country inhabited by starving people.” That view has been cast aside in favor of a more nationalist view of science. In Uttar Pradesh state, which is ruled by a BJP government, cow urine is sold as an elixir. Officials have claimed at scientific congresses that ancient Indians possessed the ability to conduct stem-cell research, and cast doubts about Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Even as India launches rockets that go to the moon and Mars, it promotes pseudoscience.
If Nehru is the man most responsible for the first half century of India’s modern life, then Modi may well be the one most consequential for its next 50 years. Nehru, the elite atheist who willed India into a secular, socialist, scientific republic—one where Kashmir held a special status—built India into what it is today. Modi is transforming it into what he wishes it to be.