“…the rioters were shouting slogans, breaking into shops and ransacking them; the police watched as helpless spectators… The moment he arrived, Panditji began to struggle with the rioters. He was slapping one and yelling at another. He recovered the stolen goods and returned them to the stores. Seeing the Prime Minister there, the police also swung into action… Then Panditji climbed onto the bonnet of a car parked nearby and began to admonish the rowdy elements: “The eyes of the whole world are on you”, he said, “You have to know what you’re doing…”
It is the memory of Kartar Singh Duggal, the Punjabi writer and former director of All-India Radio, of a night he witnessed at Connaught Place in Delhi in August 1947, at the height of the partition riots.
American journalist Norman Cousins remembers the episode even more vividly:
“Even before the police arrived in force, Jawaharlal Nehru was at the scene. He plunged into the crowd in the dark, trying to bring people to their senses. He saw a Muslim who had just been captured by Hindus. He came between the man and his attackers. Suddenly a cry arose: “Jawaharlal is here! Jawaharlal is here! Don’t hurt Jawaharlal. The cry spread through the crowd. It had a magical effect… The psychology of the mob disintegrated… The riot was over.
You should read Duggal’s account of another incident that happened in Ferozepur, Punjab in 1948. Do you remember Ferozepur from a recent security incident?
You can read this account in Who is Bharat Mata? of Purushottam Agrawal?
The cousins recalled another incident “a few weeks after the communal riots died down” when the car Nehru and a foreign guest were driving in, about 15 miles south of Delhi. “Young Muslims from the village suddenly appeared with knives. They surrounded Nehru’s car. One of them… shouted angry words at him. Nehru got out of the car, approached the young man, spoke to him softly… Then some of them started crying in shame for their actions. Nehru spoke with them, answering their questions, telling them of his hopes.
KF Rustamji, Nehru’s security chief from 1952 to 1958, left a diary that chronicles his life as a “shadow” of Nehru. Rustamji remembers the many times Nehru was nearly killed, by an assassin or in an accident, and records Nehru’s courage in the face of such situations. “Of the many facets of JN’s character…the one I most admired was his unquestionable personal courage…He could stare death in the face without the slightest sign of nervousness…In his conversations with me, I ‘ve often heard JN say, ‘Gandhiji taught us not to be afraid.’
Rustamji recalled the “interesting” official record of threat perception in Nehru. He said the main threat to his life came from the Hindu Mahasabha, who waged a campaign of hatred against him and “could have raised a god…”; the second threat to Nehru’s life came from Pakistan, where many believed the recent assassination of Liaquat Ali was the work of India; a third threat came from extremist members of the Communist Party. “Then there were the smaller sects and individuals – the Maharashtra lot of Thatte and Parchure, reactionary Sikhs, refugees from Bengal, fanatical Muslims, the Cow-Protection Society, sadhus and sants who were against the project. of law on the Hindu code…”
Once an explosive device was found in Nehru’s plane; another time, one had been placed on the track on which his train was to pass. The threat to Nehru’s life increased over time, and yet, as Rustamji recalls, Nehru’s opposition to security restrictions also increased. As Cousins recounted Nehru’s response to his foreign guest during the 1947 incident near Delhi, “The risks may have been real, but he couldn’t let that get in the way of the things that needed to be done.”
Once upon a time, such was our leader, whom Sardar Patel called “the leader of our legions” in 1949. They, the leaders of our struggle for freedom, were men of the people. The descent into treating one’s own people as enemies and mortal threats began in the days of Indira Gandhi (and it got real). Today, 350 commandos around you, Rs 12 crore bullet and bomb proof cars, a $2 billion plane with anti-missile systems – nothing gives a leader a sense of security . This is why we dare not do the constitutional duty to denounce calls for genocide. For who knows, there must be many hidden gods among those who call him. Hey, I’m just saying.
(The author is the opinion editor of DH lives the life of an owl)