‘Politics is about people and people are about relationships’

Politics is about people and people are about relationships, whether at a private or public level. The two Indian leaders to whom I feel closest are undoubtedly Gandhi and Nehru because many of the challenges they faced along the path to independence are the ones we have been facing over the course of our struggle which will mark its quarter century next year. The survival of their relationship, which was both personal and political, in spite of their many differences is one of the triumphs of Indian politics. When Gandhi decided to withdraw the Civil Disobedience movement, Nehru was deeply distressed. He railed: "Why should we be tossed hither and thither for, what seemed to me, metaphysical and mystical reasons in which I was not interested? Was it conceivable to have any political movement on this basis?" The doubts that arose in his mind over Gandhi's methods caused Nehru intense agony...

The lesson Nehru learnt is one we have to learn and relearn, again and again, along the long and difficult journey to goals that can only be won through hard work and perseverance... During one of my periods of isolation, I jotted down on a piece of paper that if I could be sure of one, just one, totally trustworthy, totally reliable, totally understanding, totally committed friend and colleague, who would keep faith with me and with the cause in which we believed throughout the vicissitudes of this existence, I could challenge the combined forces of heaven and earth. In isolation, one tends towards melodrama.

When I heard on the radio, suddenly and unexpectedly one day, that the Central Executive Committee had expelled me from the party for the simple reason that I happened to be under detention, I felt myself to be in a curious no-man's land, far away from everything except my own volition. I realised that pressure must have been exerted on the party and that it must be going through a very difficult period. Finally I decided that it was for me to keep faith with my party as long as it kept faith with our cause, regardless of their official position with regard to me. I thought of Nehru's ability to keep true to Gandhi in spite of serious differences between them and it strengthened my conviction that we had to cleave to comrades and colleagues despite dissension and disagreement.

As the hundredth anniversary of Nehru's birth, 14 November 1989, approached, I copied a long paragraph from his autobiography on to a large sheet of paper:

"Law and order, we are told, are among the proud achievements of British rule in India. My own instincts are entirely in favour of them. I like discipline in life, and dislike anarchy and disorder and inefficiency. But bitter experience has made me doubt the value of the law and order that states and governments impose on a people. Sometimes the price one pays for them is excessive, and the law is but the will of the dominant faction and the order is the reflex of an all-pervading fear. Sometimes, indeed, the so-called law and order might be more justly called the absence of law and order. Any achievement that is based on widespread fear can hardly be a desirable one, and an 'order' that has for its basis the coercive apparatus of the State, and cannot exist without it, is more like a military occupation than civil rule. I find in the Rajatarangini, the thousand-year-old Kashmiri historic epic of the poet Kalhana, that the phrase is repeatedly used in the sense of law and order, something that it was the duty of the ruler and the State to preserve, is dharma and abhaya — righteousness and absence of fear. Law was something more than mere law, and order was the fearlessness of the people. How much more desirable is this idea of inculcating fearlessness than of enforcing 'order' on a frightened populace!"

Nehru's words not only reflected my own sentiments exactly but were so entirely appropriate at a time when the State Law and Order Restoration Council was imposing rule by fear in Burma. I hung the sheet of paper in the entrance hall of my house at a place where the security personnel, usually members of the military intelligence, who were my only "visitors" could not fail to see it. At the bottom of the sheet, I wrote "Jawaharlal Nehru" in large red letters not just in acknowledgement of authorship but as a defiant name flung at all who had a warped view of law and order.

During the years of house arrest I felt closer to those with whom I could identify politically, intellectually or spiritually through their thoughts, even if they were complete strangers or figures of the past, than to those whom I knew well personally. This I imagined to be a predictable state of mind for those incarcerated with nobody except their own conscience for company. What I had not expected was that such a state of mind would become as firmly rooted as the tree of life that joins the ground of everyday activities to the heights of aspiration...

Recently, in a tribute to Vaclav Havel, I tried to explain why he and other friends and mentors whom I have never met in person are a major driving force in my public endeavours, which are no longer separable from my private life, by referring to an article about me written many years back [by] Ann, a friend from Oxford days. She applied some lines Yeats wrote for the Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne to me:

"How many have loved your moments of glad grace,/

And loved your beauty with love false or true;/

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,/

And loved the sorrows of your changing face."

Ann omitted the last line, perhaps because she considered it inauspicious, but I am including it because the whole adds up to a most moving testament to friendship. To be loved for one's questing spirit is to be loved in the best possible way and to be given understanding and support through the hardships of a long struggle is never to be alone.

Today, as I thank all of you for honouring me with the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Prize, I would like to express my deep appreciation for the leaders of India who became my most precious friends because their lives helped me to find my way through uncharted terrain. The discovery of Nehru was also a discovery of myself.

Edited excerpts from the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture, November 14

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