Readers Write In #242: Gandhi-Nehru: Marriage of Inconvenience

Posted on August 14, 2020


(by G Waugh)

Gandhi did not believe in industrialization or technology. He thought that machines shall end up depriving man of the strength and vitality he was supposed to derive from manual labour. He thought machines by increasing production, shall multiply human needs and add to his fetish for commodity acquisition. This way he feared that man would work less, acquire more, drink and gamble away his surplus earnings, lose personal and social discipline and fall into ruin.

As a result Gandhi decided to propound his ideas of village preservation and local self-sufficiency. He wanted man to live inside small, modest holdings, shun modern medicine, improve his physical and spiritual strength by indulging in manual labour and live as much as possible frugally and simply. This could be one of the reasons why proposed his ‘Concept of Trusteeship’, an economic model where a few, chosen or trusted set of individuals shall own all surplus land, possessions and wealth and manage it on behalf of the rest of the society.


Nehru had a great admiration for Marxism and believed in parliamentary methods towards attaining an egalitarian, socialist society in the early years of his life in England. He believed in the concepts of class struggle that pit the rich against the poor and hence belonged to the growing league of supporters of the newly emerging ‘Fabian Socialist’ cause in England. When he reached India after completing his law course, he joined the local struggle against the British which soon was taken over by another barrister who returned from South Africa named MK Gandhi in 1920.

Nehru’s attraction towards Marxism was built strongly on the ‘Enlightenment’ values of scientific temperament, equality, freedom of speech and freedom against exploitation. His scientific temperament was fed by the rapid advances made by Western Europe during the early years of Industrial Revolution. He was impressedwith the way Industrial Capitalism was bringing people of different shades and roots together to work under a single roof. He strongly believed that the big machine made men forget their primitive, obsolescent identities and crushed the need for superstitions and religious beliefs.

He wanted men to develop an interest in the modern machine and trust technology to solve problems of scarcity and famine. He was an agnost when it came to religion and wanted man to develop a healthy skepticism about whatever was taught to him in the name of beliefs and practices. He knew pretty well that villages in India were backward and that people there were poor, casteist and deeply superstitious. He wanted to liberate man from the fetters imposed upon him by his village as a way to bring about social equality and progress.

But Nehru did not allow his fascination with Industrial Capitalism to morph into devotion for its underlying tenets. He was deeply suspicious about the intentions of the rich, well-to-do few who controlled the levers of both political power and the economy. He wanted production capacities to expand, the basic needs of man to be fulfilled, his standards of living to be improved significantly even if his impulses to consume and enrich himself with material necessities were given a free rein. But he was a cautious man and a controlled dreamer. He believed in the capacity of the State to regulate the market, redistribute wealth and build a self-reliant national economy.


Gandhi was deeply worried about India’s caste problems. He couldn’t digest the fact that a significant portion of the population was forced to do only menial jobs such as manual scavenging, burying of the dead, deskinning of cattle carcasses for industrial use, etc. He badly wanted to find a way out.

He spent a lot of time in the poorest districts of India where caste exploitation was at its peak. He shared his living space with the most exploited people listening to their problems and contemplating solutions. Whenever he found new recruits for his struggle against the British, he made them wash dishes and clean toilets, tasks which hitherto were considered the duty of the oppressed castes.

His reliance on the concept of self-sufficient village economies helped him revive and popularize the practice of Charkha-spinning. He was worried about the livelihoods of thousands of poor Indians who abandoned their employment and businesses to joinhis struggle against the British. He bought Charkhas and taught them how to spin and make cloth. The intense labour that the Charkha entailed, he believed strongly will benefit them both physically and spiritually.  The hand-spun cloth was also used in turn to challenge the hegemony of machine-made cloth introduced into India by the British. By the use of Charkha, Gandhi was challenging not only the imperial British but also the enslaving influence of the modern machine.


Jawaharlal Nehru was a more learned man in the late 1930s. He had spent more than five years in prison by then where he indulged in reading and writing. He had a great respect for the Mahatma who was leading a great mass of poor, underclothed and underfed people against the modern, well-read and the systematic British. He and Gandhi as described above did not see eye to eye on one single issue among them.

Nehru had inherited a strong sense of secularism from his days in England. He thoroughly despised the idea of mixing religion into politics and was not impressed when Gandhi often spoke about a future, utopian society founded on the principles of Ram-Rajya. When Gandhi attributed the death of thousands of people who were killed during the Bihar Earthquake in 1934 to their beliefs in the ruthless practices of untouchability, Nehru cringed. When Nehru learnt about Gandhi’s insistence on Charkha for revival of village economies and his excessive stress on anti-caste campaigns, he was terribly confused. It was not that Nehru was not concerned about the issue of caste in India nor was he, as accused by many of his peers, casteist and proudof his upper-caste credentials.

But as described above, he was a man who believed in economic solutions to caste and other social problems. He understood very well with the help of his Marxist mooring that India’s casteism was deeply linked to the prevalent system of national economy. India was a feudal country and its rural economy even after the arrival of the British, was in the hands of theZamindars and large, upper-caste peasants. He felt that by marching quickly in the race towards Industrial capitalism, India could hope to break old social bonds that had no business to exist in a modern, educated, industrial society. But Gandhi on the other hand, was stubborn in his insistence on anti-caste campaigns and his obsession with spiritual cleanliness and religious morality repelled Nehru strongly.


During the Second World War that broke out in 1939, most Congressmen were completely unaware of the global forces that were driving the large-scale international conflict. The same could be said about most Indians as well. Nehru was one among the very few who prevailed upon the Congress to take a completely unsympathetic view of the Axis Camp led by Hitler and the Italian Fascists. A great majority of Indians took a very simplistic view of the situation and were bent on using the crisis to force the British out of India. Subhas Chandra Bose, the expelled leader from the Congress was very much representative of the same view and appealed to Hitler and Japan for help. A lot of well-meaning nationalists were also willing to give anything to achieve independence from Britain with the help of its enemies, Germany and Japan.

Gandhi took the opportunity to write a couple of letters to Adolf Hitler to dissuade him from further aggression. Even if his language was strong and aggressive, Nehru was not impressed at all. He didn’t believe one bit in talking with whom he believed was the biggest enemy of humanity of the day. During one of his visits to Europe in 1931, Nehru was forced to stay for a couple of days in Rome for catching a connecting flight to India. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sent envoys to Nehru to have a personal conversation with him. We can be sure that nothing could have happened to Nehru and his stance on anti-Fascism had he accepted the invitation out of courtesy. But our man turned Mussolini down with a view to snubbing him though he conveyed his regrets to the Italian leader for his inability to meet him due to personal reasons. His antipathy towards Fascism and its aims was intense and unforgiving and he made no secret of it in his autobiography. This uncompromising attitude against ideas that divide people with a view to undermine and exploit them later came to inform his outlook on Hindu-Muslim rivalry that rent the nation into two in the very next decade.


With differences as wide-ranging and intense as these, Gandhi’s insistence on anointing Nehru as his successor post-Independence must surely baffle a common student of history. But that was a time when people in India fought with ideas, not weapons. That was a glorious time when ideas of different hues had no issues co-existing with one another and nourishing each other with their inherent merit.

By gaining an insight into the illustrious friendship that brought these unlikely leaders together for a common national cause, one could hope to appreciate sufficiently the loftiness of the values that percolated into every level of our national movement that ended up making the great nation that India came up to be.


  • Discovery of India by JL Nehru
  • Toward Freedom by JL Nehru
  • India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha
  • The Making of Modern India by Bipan Chandra and essays from various journals like EPW,etc.