The book is a collection of almost two hundred letters by Jawaharlal Nehru containing a panoramic view of world history. The story begins at the dawn of human civilization- Egypt, China, Babylon, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, and ends just before World War II. The letters were addressed to his daughter Indira Gandhi; Nehru was incarcerated by the British Government at that time, while Indira was still in her teens. It took me three months to finish the book, running over thousand pages, but it was a fascinating experience.
We can make some obvious criticisms. Nehru was a poor historian. The book lacks a coherent organization and objectivity. The writing occasionally contains factual errors. To his credit, the author himself conceded the point. He said, "You must not take what I have written in these letters as the final authority on any subject. A politician wants to have a say on every subject, and he always pretends to know much more than he actually does. He has to be watched carefully!" (Letter 196).
We should note that Nehru was not a historian by profession, that he was writing from prison, without any recourse to library, that the letters were published unedited, and that the tone was informal only because they were meant for his teenage daughter. Considering this background, it was "one of the most remarkable books ever written" (New York Times). Nehru comes out, not as a professional historian, but as a leader with a strong sense of history, and endowed with a breadth of knowledge and culture unmatched by most of his contemporaries. Regardless of our political inclinations, we all should read this book to get a glimpse of Nehru's world view.
Nehru tried to describe the history of humankind as a whole, making an effort to highlight the connections and differences between contemporary civilizations. For example, he devoted multiple letters on Ancient Greece, writing on the city states, their system of democracy, Socrates, Plato, and finally the conquest and death of Alexander in 323 BC. In the next letter, he switched to India and wrote on the rise of Chandragupta Maurya in 321 BC. Northern India was influenced by Greek culture due to Alexander's conquest, and Chandragupta married the daughter of Seleucas, a general in Alexander's army. The book is replete with such references.
Later parts of the book, dealing with the history of nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are perhaps more important than the earlier ones. They reveal Nehru's views on secularism, communism, parliamentary democracy, and several other topics that dominate political discourse in today's world. We may briefly summarize his views as follows.
Secularism: Nehru was a staunch secularist, and deplored all kinds of religious fundamentalism. It has become fashionable among the right wing commentators to criticize him for indulging in the politics of minority appeasement. As far as this particular book is concerned, we find little evidence to support their claim. Nehru was very much sympathetic to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's efforts to modernize Turkey. He described the irony of the Khilafat movement after World War I, which was "a purely religious question affecting Muslims only, and non-muslims had nothing to do with it" (Letter 161). The sole purpose of the movement was nullified when Mustafa Kemal, himself a Muslim by birth, decided to abolish the Caliphet. Nehru further wrote, "Probably the Muslims of India have resisted this nationalizing process more than any other larger group of Muslims in the world, and they are thus far more conservative and religious minded than their co-religionists of the Islamic countries" (Letter 163). We note that several times he made equally scathing comments on Hindu nationalism.
Communism and Parliamentary Democracy: Everybody knows Nehru was against Capitalistic economy. He wrote favorably on communism, and pointed out how Big Business exploits people in the garb of democracy. The right to vote means nothing unless it is supported by necessary safeguards. A functioning democracy requires universal primary education and basic health care, a free press, and legislations that curtail the power of Big Business and ensure that it is accountable to the people. All these are true; but unfortunately, Nehru failed to criticize the atrocities perpetrated by the other side. He praised Russia's five-year plans, but did not protest against Stalin's repressive policies. We wonder what Nehru would have said on reading Orwell's "Animal Farm"! To be fair to him, in the early nineteen thirties, he might not have been fully aware of the atrocities committed by Stalin. Nehru was also critical of parliamentary democracy. He wrote a whole letter on "The Failure of Parliaments" (Letter 193), and remarked, "Democracy fails when vital issues which move people's passions have to be faced, such as religious clashes, or national and racial (Aryan German versus Jew), and above all economic conflicts (between the Haves and Have-Nots)".
Nehru's views, just like that of any other person, changed with time. "Even as I was writing the letters my outlook on history changed gradually. Today if I had to re-write them, I would write differently or with a different emphasis" (Preface to original edition). It is interesting to contrast his views as articulated in this book to his politics post-independence. As always, he remained a staunch secularist. In the economic front, he was inspired by the Russia's five-year plans while establishing the Indian Planning Commission, and following the Soviet example, he put an emphasis on heavy industries in the early nineteen fifties. On the other hand, he, along with Sardar Patel and Ambedkar, was one of the founding fathers of Indian democracy. This clearly marked a point of departure from his contempt of Parliaments.
I recommend everybody to read this book.