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A mask that was pierced?


`... do you think there is any chance that he could have written it?'


SPECULATION: Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi. J.R.D. Tata is to his left.

IN November 1937, the Modern Review of Calcutta carried a profile of the Congress President, Jawaharlal Nehru. The profile was not wholly flattering; it spoke, for example, of his "intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and inefficient". It noted that his conceit was "already formidable", and worried that soon "Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar".

The essay was written under the pen-name of "Chanakya". There was much speculation as to who the author might have been. It was certainly a critic of the Congress President, possibly a critic of the Congress Party as well. Then it was revealed that the author was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru himself.

I had quite forgotten about Chanakya's mischief, till correspondents commenting on my column "A Horoscope for the Congress" reminded me of it (The Hindu — Sunday Magazine, March 13). The column had dealt with an anonymous article entitled "After Nehru ... ," published in the Economic Weekly of July 1958. This essay had forecast that, after Nehru, a once principled Congress party would become a captive of caste, communal and regional caucuses.

Speculating about the identity of an author who writes anonymously is an exercise composed equally of excitement and frustration. (Recall the months of frenzied speculation in the American press about the author of the novel Primary Colours.) My own guess was that the man who made this prescient forecast was either a Western political scientist or a serving civil servant, each of whom would have had to mask their name while advancing a controversial thesis. But then I got a mail from a friend in Dehra Dun, which read: "... an intriguing article. Knowing Nehru's penchant for writing anonymous provocative articles, do you think there is any chance that he could have written it?" And a reader from Kolkata (Calcutta) wrote in to say that he remembered reading the article when it had first appeared, and discussing with his friends — in the College Street Coffee House, no less — whether it was the Prime Minister who had written it.

It would have been quite wonderful if it was indeed Nehru who wrote that piece. And it would have shown a characteristic discernment on his part, for the Economic Weekly of 1958 was like the Modern Review of 1937 — that is, the leading journal of the progressive Indian intelligentsia.

One fact that lends some credence to this speculation is that in April 1958 the Prime Minister said he wanted to leave both party and Government and resume life as a private citizen. He was persuaded not to resign, but then took a long holiday in the hills. It may have been during this period of quiet contemplation that Nehru composed this horoscope for the Congress.

Was it Moon?

Was the author of this dire forecast indeed Nehru? To get a clearer picture I passed the correspondence on to the distinguished Nehru scholar, Sunil Khilnani. He answered with a further speculation still. "Do you think someone like Penderel Moon could have authored it?" he asked. It was an inspired guess, but to show how inspired, I need first to say something about Moon himself.

Penderel Moon was a brilliant Oxford scholar and Fellow of All Souls who joined the Punjab cadre of the Indian Civil Service in the late 1920s. He did his job efficiently, while also cultivating friendships with many Indians. Among them was the great Punjabi nationlist Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. In 1942, Amrit Kaur was put in jail owing to the Quit India movement. Moon, however, continued to write letters to her. When his superiors chastised him, he answered that he had never let personal friendships come in the way of official duties, and vice-versa. If a friend broke the law he would put her in jail, but continue to speak to her afterwards.

The explanation was not accepted, so Moon resigned from the I.C.S.. But India stayed in his blood. After the end of the Second World War, he advised Lord Wavell on how best to hasten the end of the British Raj. After Independence, he held several high offices under the Government of India. He served as Chief Commissioner of both Manipur and Himachal Pradesh, and as an Adviser to the Planning Commission. It was only in 1961 that he finally returned to England, where he divided his time between All Souls and a home in the country.

Moon was deeply knowledgable about India. And he was a scholar, the author of fine books about Warren Hastings and Mahatma Gandhi, and of an authoritative history of the rise and fall of the Raj. (He was also Associate Editor of the landmark Transfer of Power volumes.) He, and possibly he alone, had the wisdom, experience, and understanding to write that remarkable essay in the Economic Weekly of 1958. It would still be nice to think that the author was Nehru, but were I a betting man, my money would be on Penderel Moon.

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