A Patrician and Statesman at the Helm:  India under Nehru

This essay has been written on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru (14 November 1889 – 27 May 1964).  It is perforce necessary at this time since the very name of Nehru has become anathema, to the BJP and its leaders as much as to many middle-class Indians; indeed, some of the criticism astonishes owing to the barely disguised and virulent hatred that it displays towards its subject.  Th essay seeks not to eulogize Nehru, but to offer a candid assessment of someone who was recognized in his own time not only as a world statesman, but as someone who shepherded the newborn nation-state of India at a critical juncture in world history.  His economic policies have been omitted, not because they are insignificant, or perhaps because he is more vulnerable to criticism on that front than on any other, but because the subject is complex and deserving of a separate companion piece.

Jawaharlal Nehru commenced his long stint as the first and, to this day, the longest-serving Prime Minister of India in exhilarating and yet difficult and unusual circumstances.  His speech as the country’s chosen leader on 14-15 August 1947 to the Constituent Assembly famously spoke of India’s “tryst with destiny”.  It was a moment long wished for, but Nehru recognized that the man whom he knew to be the mastermind of the freedom struggle, Mohandas Gandhi, was not there to celebrate India’s independence. Gandhi had lodged himself in Calcutta in an effort to bring peace to the riot-torn city. The blood feud between India and Pakistan would leave a long trail of dead and wounded, generate the world’s largest flow of refugees, traumatize tens of millions of people, and even send the two countries to war. Less than six months later, the Mahatma would be felled by an assassin’s bullets, and the nation would be plunged into grief. If the newly minted leader of a fledgling state had not enough on his hands in trying to keep the country together and comfort the afflicted, he now had the unenviable task of presiding over the funeral of a person who had become a world historical figure and was being apotheosized as a modern-day Buddha and Christ.  It is said that, in the midst of the elaborate and taxing preparations for the last rites to lay Gandhi to rest, Nehru, who was habituated in seeking Gandhi’s advice at difficult moments, turned to some of the men around him and said, ‘Let us go to Bapu and seek his guidance.’

Nehru with President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

The task before Nehru was immense.  The leaders of other colonized nations had doubtless their own challenges, but the challenge before India under Nehru was greater.  Over 300 million Indians, living in half a million villages, towns, and cities, encompassed a staggering diversity—whether with regard to religion, caste, the mother tongue, cultural inheritance, or socio-economic standing.  Most Indians, moreover, were desperately poor, itself a damning indictment of two hundred years of unremittingly exploitative rule of India, and to most witnesses and commentators the political institutions that India inherited from the colonial ruler had seemingly been designed for vastly different circumstances.  There was really no precedent in history for catapulting such a country into what the Constitution of India, itself crafted over a year-long intense and at times brilliant debate in the Constituent Assembly, called a modern “sovereign democratic republic.” There was much else that was singular to India:  alongside undivided British India, there were 562 native states presided over by hereditary rulers, and the vast majority of these states had willy nilly to be ‘absorbed’ into India. Students of Indian history have described this process as the ‘integration of Indian states’, but it would not be incorrect to say that the task before Nehru and the ruling Congress party was yet greater—the consolidation of the idea of India as a modern nation-state.

One might, in a more exhaustive survey of the nearly seventeen years during which Nehru shepherded India into modernity and the global stage, rightfully offer an inventory of his triumphs and failures. One cannot underestimate, for instance, the enormity of the accomplishment represented by the first general election held in India between 25 October 1951 and 21 February 1952. As a democratic exercise in universal franchise, there was nothing in the world that approached its monumental scale, all the more remarkable in that the traumas and wounds of partition were still everywhere present.  Nearly 106 million people, or 45 percent of the electorate, cast their votes—and this in a country where the literacy rate in 1951 was just over 18 percent.  The same exercise was carried out in 1957 and 1962, the last general election before Nehru’s death in May 1964, and certainly the same cannot be said of almost any other country that went through the process of decolonization. If this alone can be summoned as an instance of Nehru’s propensity to observe democratic norms, it is nonetheless also true that he imposed President’s rule on eight occasions, and his dismissal of the elected communist government in 1959 led by EMS Namboodiripad in Kerala is often cited as an instance of his inability to tolerate dissent. 

One may go on in this vein, but it would be far more productive to delineate, howsoever briefly, the idea and ethos of India under the Nehruvian dispensation.  India had inherited parliamentary institutions from the British and, under Nehru, these institutions were further nurtured, sometimes with an intent of making them more responsive to Indian conditions and even reflecting an Indian ethos or sensitivity to the history of social institutions in India.  Democratic institutions, on the whole, showed stability and maturity, the higher Indian courts showed a capacity for independent judgment, and the press largely exercised its freedoms without hindrance.  The Lok Sabha Debates of that period show that, though the Congress exercised an overwhelming majority in Parliament, the opposition was no walk-over and Nehru and his ministers were often put to the test. The office of Election Commissioner was established before the first general election to oversee the fair conduct of elections.  The stability of political institutions can be gauged by the fact that, unlike in neighboring Pakistan, or (say) in Indonesia which had acquired its independence from Dutch rule, the military was prevented from exercising any influence over the civilian government.  In this respect, Nehru rigorously ensured, as any democracy must do so, that the military would follow the civilian authorities.

While India under Nehru was not entirely free of communal disturbances after the partition killings had subsided in the early part of 1948, his own adherence to the idea that the minorities should feel safe in India cannot be doubted.  Most communal incidents were minor, and not until 1961 can one speak of a fairly significant outburst of communal violence in Jabalpur, M.P., where the rise of a successful Muslim entrepreneurial class generated some anxiety in the Hindu community. Nehru’s own courage in trying to stem communal violence has been widely documented, and the eminent American writer Norman Cousins was among those who witnessed Nehru boldly intervening personally to put a halt to communal altercation, sometimes placing himself between rioters on the street. It may be argued that Nehru was fundamentally committed to the idea of the dignity of each individual, irrespective of caste, religion, sex, socioeconomic status, and so on.  In this, I daresay, he took his cue not merely from the liberal tradition but, more importantly, from India’s numerous sant traditions and the example of Gandhi.  The cynics and critics may argue that the rights of the untouchables—as they were then known—barely advanced under Nehru, but such a view is not sustained by a close study. It is, however, certainly the case that, notwithstanding the constitutional safeguards offered to the Dalits, their progress in being accepted as full members was far slower than envisioned and hoped by B. R. Ambedkar himself.  Indeed, India is far from having made the progress in this matter that one could consider as even minimally acceptable even today.

Speaking retrospectively, it also seems to be indisputably true that, in addition to Nehru’s own belief in the inherent worth of each individual, India was a more hospitable place under Nehru than it would be under his successors.  Nehru could be intolerant and authoritarian, as I have suggested apropos of his dismissal of the Kerala government, but one must distinguish between the political choices that he made on the one hand, and the culture of tolerance and debate that was fostered in Nehruvian India on the other hand. There was a serious investment in the cultural sphere, as manifested for instance by the creation of various national academics of art, music, dance, and literature, just as there was an effort to promote the higher learning. Nearly every account of Nehru references his determination to make India modern, and even to turn India into a scientific powerhouse, and the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology—Kharagpur (1951), Bombay (1958), Madras (1959), Kanpur (1959), and Delhi (1961)—is often touted as his greatest achievement. Certainly, these original IITs remain India’s most well-known form of cultural capital in the world of higher learning today, besides some departments at a handful of universities such as Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University and a few other institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science (established in 1909). 

Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi, and Sardar Patel at the meeting of the All India Congress Committee, Bombay, 1946.

However, the culture and ethos of hospitality to which I advert had other dimensions, none more important than Nehru’s firm and resolute adherence to the notion of secularism.  It is being increasingly said that Nehru was too Anglicized and ‘out of touch’ with the masses to understand the common Indian’s allegedly unquenchable thirst for religion, but this argument is preposterous just as it is insensitive to the fact that Nehruvian secularism did not at all disavow the place of religion in Indian public life. Rather, such secularism as Nehru embraced was rooted, not in the repudiation of religion, but rather in the explicit disavowal of turning India into a Hindu nation-state or in appearing to convey the impression that the Hindus would be given preference over the adherents of other religions in jobs, university seats, and so on.  It is for this reason that in 1951, on the occasion of the inauguration of the newly reconstructed Somnath temple, Nehru was appalled to hear that Rajendra Prasad, who as the President of India represented all Indians and not merely Hindus, had accepted the invitation to preside over the occasion.

In any consideration of India under Nehru, one must not be oblivious to his conception of India in the world. Here, too, a contemporary assessment of this question in India has become well-nigh impossible owing to the relentless hostility towards Nehru among large segments of the middle class who have been animated by the notion that it is time to assert the prerogatives of Hindu India.  It is increasingly being said that India under Nehru was ‘irrelevant’ in world politics, and there are apocryphal stories of the Indian prime minister having foolishly abandoned a promised UN Security Council seat in favor of the Chinese—who, on this view, returned the favor with an unprovoked attack on India in November 1962 that mightily contributed to the heart attack from which he died sixteen months later.  What is, rather, indisputably a fact is that, after Gandhi’s assassination on 30 January 1948, it was Nehru who was easily the public face of India to the world:  no Indian came remotely close to having the kind of influence that he wielded on the public stage, and he did so not, as some would rather believe, merely because he was Westernized, charming, learned, and in every way a suave and even effete gentleman.  Critics scoff at his many friendships with leading intellectuals, writers, and even scientists around the world, viewing them as part of his affect and his eagerness to cultivate an international audience, but such friendships—with Albert Einstein, Paul and Essie Robeson, and Langston Hughes, among others—are a testament to his ecumenism and catholicity of thought.  The late Nelson Mandela repeatedly went on record to express his admiration for Nehru.

Jawaharlal Nehru representing India at the Bandung Conference in 1955.

To speak of India under Nehru, therefore, is also to speak of India’s place in the world at the time.  The very idea of what is today termed the ‘Global South’ was, in considerable measure, the outcome of Nehru’s keen desire to cultivate relations with other countries that had been colonized, to forge links of solidarity among coloured peoples, and to renew conversations among the colonized that would not have to be routed through the metropolitan capitals of the West.  The 1955 Bandung Conference of Asian and African countries, where Nehru had a prominent role, was the most well-known manifestation of that worldview. It was also the leading milestone in what was known as the nonalignment movement which was Nehru’s brainchild as much as that of anyone else.  Nehru positioned India during the Cold War as a country that would ally itself neither with the United States nor with the Soviet Union, though, given the constraints that geopolitics imposes, in actuality India often had to lean one way or the other, and most often, or so the conventional opinion holds, leaned towards the Soviet Union. His choice of non-alignment, it may be said, reflected his Gandhian outlook and a decided preference for a third path or space in the international sphere.  If India was, on the whole, a much gentler place under Nehru than it has been in recent decades, it may well have been because the shadow of Gandhi was always there to remind Nehru of the imperative to adhere to the ethical life even in the grim and grime-ridden world of politics.

First published at abplive.in under the title, “Mentor to a Fledgling Nation:  India under Nehru”, on 14 November 2022.

Telugu translation published at telugu.abplive.com under the title నెహ్రూ హయాంలో భారత్- అది రాచమార్గం కాదు సవాళ్ల సవారీ! on 15 November 2022.

Marathi translation published at marathi.abplive.in under the title नेहरुंच्या काळातील भारत, नवख्या राष्ट्रांचा मार्गदर्शक on 14 November 2022.

The Solidarity of Oppressed Peoples: A Tribute to E S Reddy, Anti-Apartheid Activist

E S Reddy with Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress from 1967-1991. Tambo passed away in 1993; the Government of South Africa conferred on Reddy the Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo in 2013.

On the 1st of this month, Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy passed on.  Not many people have heard of him, outside some circles of Gandhian scholars, anti-apartheid activists, and a smaller number of scholars and students of human rights.  The New York Times noted his passing with a warm and generous obituary, and the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was effusive in his praise of Reddy, whom he lauded as “a man of principle and commitment to human rights; but above all we remember him for epitomizing social solidarity.”  It is characteristic of the shocking insularity into which India has fallen, and the near total disregard in the middle class for what happens in the world outside the US and Pakistan, and to some extent China, that the Indian press took no notice of the passing of this gentle colossus who was born in India in 1925—except, not surprisingly, for an obituary penned by Ramachandra Guha.  The first volume (2013) of Guha’s biography of Gandhi bears this dedication:  “For E. S Reddy — Indian patriot, South African democrat, friend and mentor to Gandhi scholars of all nationalities.”  Guha is generous with his praise, rightfully so, but his judgment that Reddy was the “mentor to Gandhi scholars of all nationalities” is rather erroneous:  the pity of it is that few were even familiar with Reddy, and even fewer used Reddy’s work—those being the ones who had an abiding interest in Gandhi’s South African years and, contrary to the received view, his continuing interest to the end of his life in what was transpiring in South Africa.

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*The Prison Cell and the Education of James M. Lawson

In an earlier essay about three weeks ago, I wrote in part on the increasing inability, as it seems to me, of people in our times to live with themselves and with their thoughts. Other commentators have spoken of this age as one of ‘instant gratification’, but I would underscore the word ‘instant’.  Even ‘thoughts’ must be shared instantly.  That essay was prompted by some reflections on the news that the British government had effectively appointed a “minister of loneliness”. Those who are not afflicted by cancer, diabetes, obesity, or a heart condition may nevertheless be overcome by loneliness.  I distinguished between solitude, the virtues of which have been extolled by writers across generations and cultures, and loneliness—the latter a largely modern-day pathology.  Loneliness is not singular either: there is the loneliness that one experiences when one arrives in a large city, knowing no one and feeling somewhat adrift; there is also the loneliness one sometimes feels amidst a very large crowd of people, even a crowd of well-wishers or fellow travelers; and then there is the loneliness in moments of intimacy.  Perhaps some moments of loneliness are also critical for self-realization:  it is, I suspect, only when loneliness becomes the norm that it starts to take on the characteristics of a pathology.

Solitude may perhaps be similarly parsed, but my subject at present is the prison cell and the education that the Reverend James M. Lawson, who turns 90 tomorrow, derived from his time after his first prison term following his arrest and conviction for resistance to the draft in 1950.  I do not speak here of solitary confinement, which in the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries alike is nothing but barbarism, but of the prison as a site of reflection, education, contemplation, quietude, as much as a site where revolutionaries have often been made.  The movie industry, to the contrary, has largely feasted on the idea of the prison as a place where criminals are hardened, the will of political prisoners is broken, men are sodomized and women raped, and sadistic prison guards rule like little kings.  In what follows, in two parts, I relay the conversation that transpired between Rev. Lawson and myself, first around Nelson Mandela and Robben Island, and then on the circumstances that led to Lawson’s own confinement to Mill Point Federal Prison in West Virginia.  Our very first conversation took place a few days after the passing of Nelson Mandela in early December 2012; it has been only slightly edited:


Nelson Mandela, on his return to his cell at Robben Island in 1994, after being elected as the first President of a free South Africa.  Photo:  Jurgen Schadeberg/Getty Images.

VL:  I just want to go back to Mandela for a moment.  I think whatever one might say about Mandela and the founding of the Umkhonto we Sizwe [the armed wing of the African National Congress], and his decision to embrace violence alongside nonviolence—Mandela was very clear that nonviolence would not be given up entirely—so, whatever one might say about all of that, I think to most people the Mandela that comes to mind is the man who walked out of prison after an eternity in there.  Those years in Robben Island—those become the heroic years.  There are, very often, two kinds of outcomes when people have spent many years in jail, the better part of their lives behinds bars.  One is, they come out really bitter.  And, very often, we know that this has been one of the critiques of the prison system… I mean, other than the kind of argument, which I think you and I are familiar with, and we need not enter into at the present moment, and that’s about the so-called prison industrial complex, about the fact that the prison construction industry is one of the largest revenue earners for the state of California—the whole relationship between the prison complex and capitalism and so on… And I think that those are very important and interesting questions. But, here we are interested in the other outcome, something that may be seen from the life of Mandela.  He came out of prison not just, in a manner of speaking, ‘intact’, however reservedly one might use that word; he came out of it, remarkably, with a more enhanced sense of the need for inclusiveness in a new South Africa.

JL: Stronger in his character and his visions…


VL: And I daresay this is where his generosity is most palpable…  You know, the way in which he decides to handle certain problems, the way in which he decides to look at the whole issue of, well, what are we going to do with the Afrikaners now, what will be the place of white people in this society?… And this is where, as I said, his sense of inclusiveness is really very palpable. Much the same can be said for people like Gandhi, King, Nehru, and many others who spent [time in jail].

JL: Also, Castro.

VL: Castro… I hadn’t quite thought of him in this regard, but you may be right, when we think of the two years to which he was confined to jail by Bautista.  But many people who served fairly long prison terms, they actually –in the case of Gandhi, I am quite certain of that because I’ve looked  at his life in very great detail, I think that he almost welcomed prison terms because . . .

JL: He did.

VL: . . . it helped him to renew his sense of life, it energized him, it also gave him solitude; he was far from the maddening crowds, it gave him time for deep introspection and reflection.  And I think that this is what happens in Mandela’s life, too.  Now, here perhaps Mandela had far too much time for introspection, so to speak, because I have the distinct feeling that one of the things that happened is that Mandela really was no longer in contact with what was happening in the wider world outside; he no longer had the full pulse of the nation he would later have guide through the first flush of freedom.

JL: But, but, he turns Robben Island into what they called at one point the University.

VL:  Absolutely.

JL:  The prisoners, sharing what they did know, really engaged in long conversations about their situation, about their country, about their philosophy.  And that, of course, he may have learned from Gandhi.  I learned it from Gandhi. And that is very clear in Gandhi’s life.  I’ll never forget the first time I was arrested in Nashville, in 1960.  I was physically exhausted, though very intellectually and spiritually alive.  And I welcomed the knowledge that the police issued a warrant for me. And we arranged for us to do it jointly. And I went to First Baptist Church, and I was arrested out of First Baptist Church; but I had an armful of books with me that my wife had brought to me from home, and she came to the church.  And as I got arrested, there was a great sigh of relief, and I had these books… and when I hit the jail, my first impulse was, first of all, to sleep through the night, get up in the morning, and begin over with the books. And I’ve read that in Gandhi as well. I’ve read that about Gandhi on two or three occasions.  He welcomed jail in the Champaran campaign. He came to the court ready to go to jail because he knew it was going to be a time for him to do reflection and the rest of it… rejuvenate himself there in the isolation that he would have.


Yerwada Central Jai, Pune, where Gandhi was confined more than once.


VL: And he’d had that experience already in South Africa.

JL: That’s right. Exactly.

VL: You’re right by the way about the prison yard at Robben Island being turned into a university.  There’s an Indian sociologist in South Africa by the name of Ashwin Desai, a good friend of mine, who published a book very recently last year [2011], called “Reading Revolution:  Shakespeare on Robben Island”.

JL:  Oh, really!  My goodness!

VL:   And this whole book is really a study of how people like Mandela and Tambo and Ahmad Kathrada and many others, how they actually read Shakespeare and discussed Shakespeare and each person marked their favorite passage.  Because, of course, to read Shakespeare is also to enter into discussions of ethics, political rebellions, and the whole idea of—we were talking about it earlier—assassinations, as an example.  So, I think that what you are saying is absolutely on the mark.  Nevertheless, I think there are some serious questions that have to be entertained, such as Mandela’s views on globalization–what did he really understand by globalization? Because I think, to some extent, Mandela was not sufficiently aware of the manner in which the world has changed in the long years that he was actually confined to prison. When you look at Mandela’s economic policies, what I would call something of a capitulation to free-market policies takes place rather quickly.


The Robben Island Shakespeare was wrapped in a cover with images of Hindu deities.

(to be continued)


*A Colossus of the Struggle against Apartheid:  Remembering Ahmed Kathrada, 1929-2017


Ahmed Kathrada has been so much part of my life over such a long period that it is inconceivable that I could allow him to write his memoirs without me contributing something, even if only through a brief foreword.  Our stories have become so interwoven that the telling of one without the voice of the other being heard somewhere would have led to an incomplete narration.

  • Nelson Mandela, Foreword to the Memoirs of Ahmed Kathrada



Ahmed Kathrada, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu

One afternoon around 12-13 years ago, I received a call from the office of the Dean of International Studies at UCLA inquiring if I had any interest in meeting Ahmed Kathrada.  I jumped at this rare opportunity. I don’t now recall what had brought Kathrada to Los Angeles, but he was in town on a short visit and the Dean’s office was desperately trying to find someone who could meet with him.  There seemed to be little awareness of Kathrada’s stature or the extraordinary place that he occupied in history.  But someone in the Dean’s office knew of my interest in the Indian diaspora and its variegated histories; perhaps some also knew of my long-standing interest in anti-colonial movements.  And so the privilege of taking Ahmed Kathrada to lunch was all mine.


Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada. Copyright: Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

The man whom I met was of gentle disposition, modest, and extremely well-spoken.  Many times after that meeting with him, I wish I had taken a tape recorder and sought his permission to record our conversation; but, then, at other times I have thought to myself that I did the right thing in just treasuring that moment.  How often Kathrada must have been recorded and surely many times he must have wished that he could speak without the slightest let or hindrance?  Ahmed Kathrada was ‘Kathy’ to his friends—and what friends they were:  Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Billy Nair, and many others who were among those convicted in the great Rivonia Trial and still others who had the privilege of being at the helm of leadership of the African National Congress (ANC).  Kathy, or “Uncle Kathy” as he came to be known later in life to his countrymen and women who adored him, was Witness Number 3 at the Rivonia Trial, following Witness Number 1 Nelson Mandela and Witness Number 2 Walter Sisulu.  Convicted like the others of organizing a “revolution” and “of the crime of conspiracy”, which Judge de Wet described as being “in essence one of high treason”, Kathrada was similarly sentenced to a term of life imprisonment with hard labor.  He would spend over 26 years behind bars, nearly 18 of them in the company of Nelson Mandela in Robben Island.

Born in 1929 on August 21 of Gujarati Muslim parents in Schweizer-Renke, a small town in northern South Africa, Kathrada moved to Johannesburg as a small child with his parents and entered political life in his late teens.  A fellow Gujarati by the name of Mohandas Gandhi had already left his mark on South African politics; but Gandhi, though he spent some twenty odd years in South Africa, eventually made his way back to India.  Kathrada was first and always a South African, deeply committed to the fundamental idea expressed in the Freedom Charter, namely that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.  Kathrada served out his first prison sentence when he got picked up for his participation in the “Passive Campaign” organized by the South African Indian Congress in 1946 and for his opposition to legislation that restricted Asian land ownership.  In the early 1960s, after some in the ANC including Mandela had renounced their allegiance to nonviolence, Kathrada went underground and became part of the ANC’s armed wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”, or “MK”).  It is at Lilliesleaf, a ‘safe home’ in Rivonia, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, that Kathrada along with several others would be apprehended and indicated on charges of trying to overthrow the government.


The State Funeral of Ahmed Kathrada in Johannesburg on 29 March 2017. Copyright: BBC.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”  These are the famous words with which Nelson Mandela commenced his ‘speech from the dock’ at the Rivonia Trial, which opened in April 1964.  They could easily have been said by Kathrada.  Much in that historic trial has been eclipsed by Mandela’s justly famous address; but Kathrada’s exchange with Dr. Percy Yutar, the lead prosecutor for the state, is no less compelling, not just as an illustration of court theatricals but also as a statement of the astuteness and moral courage of an auto-didact.  Time and again, Yutar sought to drive a wedge between Kathrada, an “Indian”, and his black comrades; but Kathrada dealt with him summarily, with an admirable firmness and probity of purpose.  Here is one exchange:

Yutar:  Were there any traitors among your own people, the Indian people?

AMK:   I suppose there are. There are traitors among all people, Indians, Jews, South Africans, Afrikaners, the lot.

Yutar:  And what are you going to do with the traitors, let’s deal just with your people, the Indian people?

AMK:  My Lord, when it comes to traitors, they are traitors.  Whatever colour they are, they are traitors.  I hope they will all be dealt with similarly.

And, on another occasion, when asked if he knew George Naicker and if he was a “co-religionist”, Kathrada replied:  “Co-religionist? He’s a Hindu and I’m a Moslem.”  And so followed this exchange:  “Oh yes, but an Indian?” “Yes. Two different religions.” “Billy Nair?” “I know Mr Billy Nair.” “Also an Indian?” “Also an Indian.” “Yes, and?” “And a human being.” “If you’re trying to be smart with me, I’m prepared to take it.” “I don’t know why you keep on saying co-religionist and Indian.”

Kathrada was far more than what Yutar, for all his legal expertise, could handle.  He was intent on establishing, with “evidence, documents and otherwise”, that Kathrada was “nothing else but a communist agitator”.  To this, Kathrada issued a scathing and yet matter-of-fact riposte:

AMK:  That’s your opinion.  I don’t know what you mean by a communist agitator.

Yutar:   That you are a member of the Communist Party and that your job is to agitate people to make them believe that they are oppressed and trying to incite them!

AMK:   My Lord, I thought we had solved this problem already.  We don’t have to make any non-Europeans believe that they are oppressed.  They know they are oppressed.

Much has been said in the obituaries that have been written of Kathrada of the last twenty-five years of his life that he spent as a free man in the continued service of South Africa.  He served as Counselor to President Nelson Mandela and took charge of the Robben Island Trust, escorting world leaders, among them Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, as much as school children to this prison that its famous inhabitants lovingly characterized as a University.  Shakespeare, as Ashwin Desai has shown in his remarkable book, flourished on Robben Island.  What, however, struck me most when I met Kathrada was the complete lack of rancor, the absence of the slightest note of bitterness at having been robbed of the best years of his life.   I suspect that this graciousness and magnanimous attitude derived from a set of circumstances, among them his long years of friendship and fellowship with the likes of Mandela and Sisulu, the example of Gandhi, and his adherence to Islam.  Kathrada remained resolutely secular to the end; but, though is something that secularists have a hard time comprehending, he derived his very secularism from his faith as a Muslim.


Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela with the Clintons.

It is very likely, too, that in years to come Kathrada’s name will resonate as a striking example of what Indians and Africans working together in a spirit of fellowship can achieve.  Even as this is being written, I am ashamed to say, African students in India’s capital have been set upon by unruly groups of young men.  The conduct of most urban Indians towards Africans can only be described as execrable.  In Africa itself, the legacy of the Indian presence has been mixed at best; but all this is the subject for other commentaries.  In South Africa, at least, it cannot be doubted that Indians partook of the freedom struggle in equal measure as black people, even as the apartheid regime insistently and insidiously attempted to divide the population.  Kathrada unfailingly resisted these attempts and remained to the very end a resolute advocate of the idea of a multi-racial South Africa.  For this alone, he should be remembered as a colossus of both the struggle against apartheid and the effort to achieve a truly democratic South Africa.