11. November 2006. Analysen: Geschichte & Religion - Südasien Why did Nehru find difficulty in fitting Jinnah and the idea of Pakistan into his own conception of a 'modern India'?

The former British colony, India, became independent in August 1947. Indeed two new states emerged from it - India and Pakistan. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of India, while Muhammad Ali Jinnah held office as Pakistan’s first governor general. Nehru had, as one of the most important leaders, fought many years for India’s independence. During this fight, he developed his own views about what modernity meant to him and how a future free Indian modernity would look like. In his opinion, it would be connected with democratic, secular, and socialistic principles, and also with equal rights for every Indian independent of his or her religion, language, caste, sex and so on.

This essay is concerned with Nehru's perceptions about modernity, its features and the role religion should play in it and in politics. The question, which shall be answered, is why did Nehru find difficulty in fitting Jinnah and the idea of Pakistan into his own conception of a modern India. The first of the two main arguments to be discussed is that, in his opinion, all Indians belonged to one nation. The second argument, which Nehru discussed in his writings, is that for him a modern India should be a secular state. In this state, politics and economics should not be mixed with religious matters, and political parties and organisations not be formed along religious lines. Before the author goes into detail with these arguments, it has to be pointed out what modernity meant to Nehru.[1]

Democracy was one basic principle, which Nehru favoured in connection with modernity and with a modern India. As early as the first half of the 1920s, he interpreted Swaraj, the objective of the Non-Cooperation-Movement, as "political independence,…, and a democratic form of government".[2] Later in his Discovery of India, he stated again that the establishment of a democratic state was one of the important demands made in India.[3] A second basic principle of modernity was, in Nehru's opinion, socialism. During the 1930s, his interest in socialist and communist ideas started. The social issue could, for him, no longer be separated from political freedom[4] and in 1938 he stated:

I am convinced that the only key to the solution … of India’s problems lies in socialism …. I see no way of ending poverty, the vast unemployment, the degradation and the subjection of the Indian people except through socialism. That involves vast and revolutionary changes in our political and social structure, … Socialism is thus for me not merely an economic doctrine which I favour, it is a vital creed which I hold with all my head and heart.[5]

Socialism was thus, in Nehru's opinion, one of the forces which could lead to a better life for all Indians. It presented for him the only opportunity to bring modernity to India in a fair way. The opposite world order, the capitalist system, he disliked.[6] One last aspect should be shortly mentioned in connection with the question what modernity and, especially Indian modernity, meant to Nehru. This aspect is secularism. The author will go into further detail with it in the following paragraphs when the two formulated arguments will be discussed.

With its manifold cultures, traditions, histories and peoples, India was not easy to grasp for Nehru, but in the course of time he developed his own ideas and concepts about these topics. In his Discovery of India, he tried to show that there is continuity in his homeland; that India remains India. He stated that, of course there are distinctive features amongst the Indian people, but he was also convinced that they had a common ground due to the same virtues, national heritage and moral as well as mental qualities.[7] Starting from this point of view, Nehru disagreed with Jinnah’s theory that India consisted of two nations.

Jinnah, who led a political party, the Muslim League, argued that a Hindu and a Muslim nation existed in India.[8] As a consequence, he adopted the already existing conception of Pakistan for political claims and as the political objective of the Muslim League respectively. The idea of Pakistan contained the perception that Muslims as a nation should have their own homeland and state where they could live regarding spiritual, cultural, economic, social, and political aspects in accordance with their ideals.[9]

Nehru rejected both ideas, the theory of two nations within India and the concept of Pakistan. In his opinion, the Indian people belonged to one nation, independently of their religion. He argued that if nationality would be based on religion, there would be more nations within the Indian territory than only the Hindu one and the Muslim one.[10] The distinctive feature that separated one nation from another was, in this view, not religion, but rather "a sense of belonging together and of together facing the rest of mankind".[11] He declared that there was no other difference between a Hindu and a Muslim who, for example, both lived as peasants in the same village than a religious one. Their language, customs and traditions were, in his views, the same.[12]

Because of this perception, Nehru believed that a Muslim nation therefore:

means that there is no nation at all but a religious bond; it means that no nation in the modern sense must be allowed to grow; it means that modern civilisation should be discarded and we should go back to the medieval ways; it means either autocratic government or a foreign government; it means, finally, just nothing at all except an emotional state of mind and a conscious or unconscious desire not to face realities, especially economic realities.[13]

This statement is, in the author's opinion, a clear piece of evidence for Nehru's view that such a religious based nation would not be a part of the modern world.[14]

In addition, this quotation shows one other facet which is important in order to answer the posed question. In regard to economic realities, Nehru argued that the Indian people have the same concerns and problems independent of their religion. He asked: "In what way are the interests of the Muslim peasant different from those of the Hindu peasant? Or those of a Muslim labourer or artisan or merchant or landlord or manufacturer different from those of his Hindu protype?"[15] He added that the "ties that bind people are common interest, and, in the case of a subject country especially, a common national interest."[16] Nehru believed that in a modern state political participation and claims would develop because of common economic interests and problems, not because of belonging to the same religious group.

In connection with the economic and also with the social issue, one more facet should be mentioned. In Nehru's perception, both could only be solved with the help of socialist methods and the participation of the masses. He believed that the formation of a modern Indian state would only be possible when the masses were involved in the freedom struggle, and in the politics of a future free India. Nehru stressed therefore that "the Congress had further developed agrarian, economic, and social programmes. Neither the Muslim League nor the Hindu Mahasabha had ever considered any such question or attempted to frame a programme."[17] In addition, he added that the Congress, the party which led the Indian struggle for independence from the British colonial masters, "represented not only the nationalist urge of India …, but also, to a large extent, proletarian urges for social changes."[18] In connection with the Muslim League and Jinnah, he believed that "the communal organizations, …, were closely associated with feudal and conservative elements and were opposed to any revolutionary social change."[19]

This opinion of his - that the Muslim League was, as a result of their conservative and feudal elements, not connected with the masses and their claims - clearly shows his difficulties in fitting Jinnah and the idea of Pakistan in his own views of modernity.[20] Thoughts about economic and social changes, which would be, in Nehru’s perception, inevitable for the constitution of a modern society, were not shared by Jinnah and the Muslim League. Nehru gave, regarding this aspect, the following judgement about Jinnah: "He belonged to an older generation which was hardly aware of modern political thought or development. Of economics, …, he appeared to be entirely ignorant."[21] This perceived absence of modern ideas in regard to economic and social issues was problematic for Nehru and his views of modernity.

Besides these difficulties, there were also some concerning politics and secularism. Nehru did not believe in the mixture of religion and politics. He rejected communalism, which normally can be described as the policy of a group, or community that is formed along religious lines. Communalism meant, for him, "a narrow group mentality basing itself on a religious community but in reality concerned with political power and patronage for the interested group."[22] This quotation again makes clear that, in his opinion, the religious appeal to win political power for a certain group was an example for a policy which was out of fashion. It also shows that he had the opinion that a communal party like the Muslim League could not appeal to the masses; neither to all Indians nor only to all Muslims. In this context, Nehru defined the Muslim League as follows: "It represents a group of Muslims, not doubt highly estimable persons, but functioning in the higher regions of the upper class and having no contact with the Muslim masses and few even with the Muslim lower middle classes."[23] The confinement to the interests of special, mostly backward looking groups within the religious community prevented, in Nehru's view, the existence of modern ideas.

Communalism was outdated for him in this aspect. He stated, "… to think in terms of communal groups functioning politically is to think in terms of medievalism."[24] As a result of this opinion, he had difficulties with Jinnah's views and the concepts of the Muslim League. He acknowledged that in fact, the Muslim League was a political organisation, but at the same time he held the view that, because of its confinement to a religious group, it was primarily a religious or communal organisation.[25] Nehru rejected the idea that the religion of a person should also define his/her political view and his/her automatically belonging to a certain party, as obsolete. He believed that among Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsees, etc., "one may find Congressmen, socialists, anti-socialists, communists, liberals, direct-actionists, revolutionaries, moderates, extremists, believers in different kinds of economy theory … ".[26] He stated in this connection that

"to appeal to Mussalmans or Hindus as religious groups on politcal matters is obviously the wrong thing. It is the medieval attitude, when politics and economics were in the background, and it cannot possibly fit in with the modern world. It is because of this that I say I find it difficult to think on communal lines."[27]

In conclusion, it can be declared that Nehru had difficulties in fitting Jinnah and the idea of Pakistan into his own conception of a modern India because of his belief that modernity should contain inter alia a secular and socialist order. Jinnah had, in Nehru’s perception, a wrong, backward looking political view. Nehru rejected the idea that there were two different nations in India because of religious differences and that the adoptive Muslim nation would need its own homeland, its own state, as being medieval. He had the modern opinion that all Indians belong to one nation. Only with the help of this unified nation could India be liberated and a free state in which every person would have the same rights.

But not only in regard to this aspect did Nehru disagree with Jinnah's ideas. A modern India should be, in his perception, a secular state in which politics and economy should not be mixed with religious matters. Nehru believed that in a really modern society parties and organisations should be formed on the basis of the same economic and political interests, not on the basis of the same religion.

Retrospective it must be stated in connection with the impact of Nehru's views on the further development of the Indian independence struggle that recent historians admire his ideas, but at the same time show that his ideas were not fit to solve all problems and did not respect some of the political, social and religious conditions. B. Zachariah states in this context that Nehru, who was unconcerned with caste, religion and religious nationalism, did not take the communal problem seriously enough, it was a minor problem for him.[28] Michael Mann points out that Nehru, because of his unaccomodating attitude, is blamed to have hindered the unity of India.[29] In conclusion, it can be stated that Nehru’s views about a 'modern India' and his denial of concepts like religious nationalism had a strong influence on the events which led to the partition and on the development of an democratic Indian state after 1947 in which emerged a typical Indian type of secularism.


[1] In general, it can be stated that Nehru's views about modernity as discussed subsequently had been strongly influenced by his western education.

[2] Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (London, 1936), p. 76.

[3] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, (1946), pp. 361-364.

[4] Nehru, An Autobiography, p. 361.

[5] Jawaharlal Nehru, “The Presidential Address”, in: Sarvepalli Gopal (ed.), Selected Works, vol. 7 (Delhi, 1972-83), p. 180 f.

[6] Ibid., p. 173.

[7] Nehru, The Discovery of India, pp. 52 and 61.

[8] Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 392.

[9] Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India (Cambrigde: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 204 ff.

[10] Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 392.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Nehru, An Autobiography, p. 469.

[14] In this connection, it must be stated that Nehrus’ understanding of modernity and nationalism as mentioned above was strongly influenced by classical Western notions about these concepts. According to van der Veer, these notions describe nationalism as intrinsic to modernity and as result of the demise of traditional society. In constrast to these views, there is visible a development of new ideas over the last two decades. Today the notions of religious nationalism and multiple modernities are well-known and broadly discussed. Both concepts contribute to the understanding of India’s history and present development. For further information, see Peter van der Veer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley a.o.: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 1-24; Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Jens Riedel and Dominic Sachsenmaier, “The Context of the Multiple Modernities Paradigm”, in Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Jens Riedel and Dominic Sachsenmaier (eds.), Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese and other interpretations (Leiden, Boston, Köln, 2002), pp. 1-23.

[15] Jawaharlal Nehru, “The Congress and the Muslims”, in Sarvepalli Gopal, Selected Works, vol. 8 (Delhi, 1972-83), p. 120.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 393. The Hindu Mahasabha which was founded in 1915 was a Hindu nationalist organisation.

[18] Ibid., pp. 393-394.

[19] Ibid., p. 394.

[20] In connection with the question of standing up for the Indian masses, it must be stated that similar allegations of not beeing connected with the masses and their concerns were also raised against the Congress and Nehru. Partly these charges came from Nehru himself. He was concerned with this topic in the Discovery of India and in his Autobiography. In these books, he dealt with his emotional ties with India and its masses whom he found, because of his educational and social background, hard to relate to. Nehru also critiziced in his Autobiography the Congress and its weak performance for the Indian masses. He described it as an organisation with a vague bourgeios ideology which had the potential to carry out revolutionary steps. The Congress itself became in 1937 aware of its lacking association with the Indian masses and launched a mass contact programme which had as one central audience the Muslims. This move was fiercely combated by Jinnah who denied that the Congress could represent the Muslims at all. The mass contact programme failed. In recent works, historians consider in connection with the question of representing the masses the claim of the INC to be associated with and to stand and speak for the Indian masses as problematic. B. Zachariah for example states that although there was this claim, all political major negotiations had to be conducted among leaders whose mandate as leaders was rather dubious. For further information, see: Metcalf and Metcalf, A Concise History of India, pp. 194-195; Benjamin Zachariah, Nehru (London, 2004), pp. 5-8, 90-94 and 99; Nehru, The Discovery of India, pp. 57-59; Nehru, An Autobiography, pp. 364-365.

[21] Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 389.

[22] Ibid., p. 382.

[23] Nehru, “The Congress and the Muslims”, p. 121.

[24] Ibid., p. 127.

[25] Ibid., p.129.

[26] Ibid., p. 130.

[27] Ibid., p. 131.

[28] Zachariah, Nehru, pp. 9-10 and 93-94.

[29] Michael Mann, Geschichte Indiens: Vom 18. bis zum 21. Jahrhundert (Paderborn, 2005), p. 97.

Dieser Beitrag gehört zum Schwerpunkt: Islam in Südasien .


  • Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  • Benjamin Zachariah, Nehru (London, 2004).
  • Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (London, 1936).
  • Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (1946).
  • Jawaharlal Nehru, “The Presidential Adress”, in Sarvepalli Gopal, Selected Works, vol. 7 (Delhi, 1972-83).
  • Jawaharlal Nehru, “The Congress and the Muslims”, in: Sarvepalli Gopal, Selected Works, vol. 8 (Delhi, 1972-83).
  • Michael Mann, Geschichte Indiens: Vom 18. bis zum 21. Jahrhundert (Paderborn, 2005).
  • Peter van der Veer, Religious Nationalis: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley a.o.: University of California Press, 1994).
  • Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Jens Riedel and Dominic Sachsenmaier, “The Context of the Multiple Modernities Paradigm”, in Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Jens Riedel and Dominic Sachsenmaier (ed.), Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese and other interpretations (Leiden, Boston, Köln, 2002).


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