The Nehru you don't know
Even as India's first PM is scrubbed out from textbooks, his reputation is being savaged on the internet
* Jawahar, the Arabic word for pearl, could not have been chosen by any Kashmiri Brahmin as a name for his child.
* Jawaharlal Nehru's grandfather was Ghiasuddin Ghazi, a kotwal of the Mughals, who changed his name to Gangadhar Nehru.
* Nehru was born in a brothel in Allahabad.
* Nehru got a Catholic nun pregnant, and was indebted to the church for spiriting her away from India. He died of syphilis.
* Amitabh Bachchan is his son.
Welcome to the virtual world of Nehru vilification. Entirely unhinged from reality, these wild stories about India's first prime minister, who laid the foundations of its democracy, are nonetheless the default on the internet. Unlike the academic challenge of changing details in textbooks, the Web is a terrain for the taking. "Anything that questions dominant historical views is going to find visibility and virality online," says digital media scholar Nishant Shah.
Crackpot stories about Nehru have circulated for decades - for instance, former RSS chief K S Sudarshan has claimed that Nehru killed Gandhi. But "these are voices that never made it to the mainstream. Now, because there is such a preponderance of them online, these rumours take on a life of their own," says Rohit Chopra, media studies professor at Santa Clara University, who works on online Hindutva. This is particularly problematic because for many people now, reality is what they can find through Google, he says.
Nehru, of course, is highest on the list of hate objects for Hindutva extremists. "After Partition, and even more after Gandhi's murder, Nehru was convinced that India must not in any circumstances become a Hindu Pakistan. He saw the RSS as dangerous because of its demonising of minorities, and repeatedly and publicly attacked it," says historian Ramachandra Guha.
And the RSS continues to attack him right back. The hegemony of his ideas, and the persistence of his bloodline are both intolerable to them. "Indira's, Rajiv's, Sanjay's, Sonia's and Rahul's mistakes (real or imagined) are retrospectively attached to Nehru," says Guha.
On YouTube, a search for Nehru throws up smear after smear. The first, declaring him "Hindustan ka sabse ayyash aadmi", was watched 40,16,640 times at last count. These stories lay bare the campaign against him — Nehru must be cast as Muslim, westernised and dissolute, to discredit him. To establish him as a philanderer, there is a patchwork of images of Nehru at innocuous moments, with Jacqueline Kennedy and Mrinalini Sarabhai, embracing his sister at the airport, lighting a woman's cigarette.
Last year, Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society, caught sneaky edits to the Wikipedia entries of Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, emanating from a central government IP address. Recently, a patently fake and misspelt "historical" letter did the rounds, where Nehru supposedly described Subhas Chandra Bose as a war criminal.
The right wing has mastered the arts of seeding misinformation, says Shah. Their claims do not come from one author, but from many different users, each adding layers to the rumours. Then, he says, "It is a matter of faith through repetition, rather than truth through inquiry".
While such conspiracy theories sprout all around the world, in India, they dominate search results, says Prakash. Apart from forums that rationally disagree with Nehruvian economics, foreign policy or defence, or make credible assertions about his positions, there are voices that simply slander Nehru. "Many kinds of right-wing animosities, economic, cultural and those that are reacting to the actions of the Nehru Gandhi family, come together in this attack," observes Prakash.
These ideas have also taken root, to some extent. A startup employee unconnected to any political party recently set up a Twitter handle called Nehruvian, trying to counter such propaganda. He explains why he was stirred into action - "On a train to Lucknow, I was reading The Discovery of India, when a young man in his twenties asked me, "kyon padh rahe ho is chor ki kitaab?"
And yet, there is no way to counter motivated rumours, short of undesirable censorship. Propaganda is a legitimate activity, and any rebuttal is also likely to be confined to its own echo chamber, Shah points out. Rather, what is needed is a new digital literacy, the "capacity to sift trustworthy information, to look critically at the sources they come from", says Prakash.
As for Nehru, it may not be easy for textbook warriors of keyboard guerrillas to dislodge him.
If after 52 years, there's still so much panic about his legacy, there must be something very durable about it."
This article was published in Times of India. Link to original article: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/deep-focus/The-Nehr...
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