Book Excerpt: When Gandhi Threatened Nehru With Making A Letter Public

Book Excerpt: When Gandhi Threatened Nehru With Making A Letter Public

Cover of ‘Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics’ by Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi

“Truth and Telling”

Gandhi discovered that gluttony for truth telling threatened truth from within. This is a lesson which Gandhi would also impart to Jawaharlal Nehru, only this time not by suppressing but by threatening to publish the letter of 11 January 1928 in which Nehru rejected Hind Swaraj and Gandhi’s espousal of ‘Rama Rajya’ (Kingdom of king-god Rama). Nehru wrote to Gandhi, ‘I entirely disagree with this viewpoint and neither think that the so called Rama Raj was good in the past, nor do I want it back,’21 questioned the political efficacy of the khadi programme and Gandhi’s rejection of contraceptives.22 Nehru was critical of Gandhi’s positions regarding capitalism and the relation between capital and labour, which was rather harmonious for Gandhi – ‘I believe you have stated that in your opinion there is no necessary conflict between Capital and Labour. I think that under the capitalist system this conflict is unavoidable.’23 Gandhi was quick to spot in Nehru an opponent of his theological project:

I suggest a dignified way of unfurling your banner. Write to me a letter for publication showing your differences. I will print it in Young India and write a brief reply … if you do not want to take the trouble of writing another letter, I am prepared to publish the letter before me.24 

In 1928 the ratio of power and truth was weighed against Nehru and any public confrontation between the two would have brought Nehru’s own secular socialist political project to an end. Gandhi’s express wish to publish the letter was effectively a threat. A very anxious Nehru wrote back after learning the important lesson in the gluttony of truth: 

Your letter came as a bit of shock and was a painful reading … You talk about my carrying on an ‘open warfare’ against you and of ‘unfurling my banner’. I have no particular banner to unfurl nor had I thought about the possibility of any warfare between you and me … I hope I am not rigid in mind and outlook and nothing could please me more than to be convinced by you … I would therefore suggest that for the present at least you might not publish my letter.25 

When Nehru was pleading with Gandhi to regulate this truth of a difference generously, since he became willing to agree more than to disagree, he learnt of the ratio between truth and power. There is a certain obscenity of truth when it is said of dictators that ‘after all they are open about their intentions and actions’. The threat of publicity reveals who can publish – the ratio between truth and power, leaving little meaning to the proposition ‘speak truth to power’. That is, the powerful can speak all kinds of truths. This truth about power was narrated by O. V. Vijayan in his scatological allegory of power, The Saga of Dharmapuri, where the dictator broadcasts his bowel movements as ritualized spectacle. Truth is that which has consequences, and with great power comes least consequence; this is also the truth about the Great Soul’s public sexual experiments with minor girls.