What the censorship of a film about India's founding father shows about New Delhi's cautious relationship toward its own history.
Earlier this month, the Indian government greenlighted a British film project, Indian Summer, based on Alex von Tunzelmann's brilliant book of the same name about the events leading up to Britain's bloody withdrawal from India in 1947 and India's partition. India has an odd tradition -- generally ignored -- of vetting all foreign film projects before granting permission to shoot inside the country. But the focus of Indian Summer -- the alleged love affair between Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and Edwina, the wife of Britain's last viceroy to India, Lord Louis Mountbatten -- elicited extraordinary responses from a Congress Party-led government that is hyperanxious about the reputation of its founding figures.
Earlier this month, the Indian government greenlighted a British film project, Indian Summer, based on Alex von Tunzelmann’s brilliant book of the same name about the events leading up to Britain’s bloody withdrawal from India in 1947 and India’s partition. India has an odd tradition — generally ignored — of vetting all foreign film projects before granting permission to shoot inside the country. But the focus of Indian Summer — the alleged love affair between Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Edwina, the wife of Britain’s last viceroy to India, Lord Louis Mountbatten — elicited extraordinary responses from a Congress Party-led government that is hyperanxious about the reputation of its founding figures.
The film’s international cast of superstars — Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett playing Edwina, and Hugh Grant tipped to portray her husband, Louis — did nothing to deter New Delhi from issuing a series of silly cuts. Among them: no kissing, no scenes of physical intimacy between Nehru and Edwina, and no use of the word "love." The director, Joe Wright, whose previous films include the hugely successful Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, has no choice but to comply if he wants to shoot the film in India. And that’s not all: Should Wright go ahead, the completed film will have to be shown to a government "expert" who will judge whether it depicts "a correct and balanced perspective on the topic covered."
Strictly speaking, the Indian government was merely following procedure in vetting the film project. Yet it is also true that New Delhi would not have gone to this length to protect the reputation of any other Indian leader of that time. More than 60 years after independence, Nehru’s life is jealously guarded by the Congress Party, which is controlled by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Nehru was not a saint, but his canonization is crucial to those who invoke his legacy to perpetuate their own hold on his party. As one historian damningly noted, the party "which was once the vehicle of a great, countrywide freedom struggle…is now merely a vehicle for the ambitions of a single family.." The rush to sanitize Indian Summer highlights one of the more destructive ways in which the Congress Party maintains its grip on history, particularly when that history deals with the lives of the revered Nehru-Gandhi family: censorship.
Nehru was one of the 20th century’s most phenomenal leaders, but even his most ardent admirers will admit that he was not nearly as compelling a figure as his mentor, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Yet while Gandhi’s life, including the details of his controversial sex experiments, remains open to the public, Nehru’s descendents — his child, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; grandchild, Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi; and Rajiv’s wife, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi — have kept his private life locked up. Scholars attempting to access Nehru’s letters have been repeatedly rebuffed — with some unexpected consequences. In 1994, American historian Stanley Wolpert, who has written some of the most scintillating biographies of major South Asian leaders, flew to New Delhi to persuade Sonia Gandhi, the reigning head of the Nehru family and India’s most powerful person, to give him access to Nehru’s letters. He left empty-handed. The subsequent biography he published, Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny, made the extraordinary claim that Nehru was partly homosexual. It was based on nothing more than speculation, but was proof, if any was required, that suppressing facts has the unintended consequence of legitimizing fiction.
Censorship, however, is only one of the methods used by the Congress Party to distort history. Where it has been unable to pre-empt scholarly inquiries or predetermine their outcomes by constricting research, India’s Grand Old Party has actively turned to propaganda to burnish the image of its leaders. And perhaps no other leader in the democratic world has been a greater posthumous beneficiary of propaganda than Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi.
Elevated to the prime ministership as a compromise candidate in 1966, Gandhi took slightly less than a decade to consign Indian democracy to the trash can. She turned the Congress Party into a family enterprise, rigged elections, sowed the seeds of violence in Kashmir and Punjab, suspended the Constitution, locked up her political opponents, and imposed an emergency rule that lasted nearly two years. During this time, thousands of people across the country were forcefully vasectomized in a population-control drive; prisons proliferated with inmates, some of whom vanished without a trace, never to return; and Indira’s younger son, Sanjay, ruled the country like a thug, demolishing settlements and displacing thousands of people. So thoroughly had she demoralized the party and corrupted its machinery that when she was assassinated in 1984 her cabinet felt no qualms about electing her politically inexperienced elder son, Rajiv, as prime minister.
Indira’s reign was the darkest period in free India’s history. But the narrative of Indira that has been propagated since casts her as a doughty defender of India, a progressive socialist who did near-mythical things for the welfare of the poor. The Congress Party has managed to engineer her legacy by all but excising her excesses from history, using the state machinery to give her image a complete makeover.
This year, in a scathing study of the Congress Party’s attempts to make India’s national progress indistinguishable from the party, titled "All in the Name of the Nehru-Gandhi Family," journalist A. Surya Prakash identified 450 government projects, schemes, and institutions worth hundreds of billions of rupees that have been named after members of the Nehru-Gandhi family. From breakfast programs for the poor to the national nursery scheme for children, from drinking water projects in rural India to food security missions, from housing schemes to roads, buildings, universities, airports, national parks, sanctuaries, sports stadiums, sporting championships, museums, and even neighborhoods — almost everything that matters in India bears the name of one family, including Mumbai’s "Sanjay Gandhi National Park" And the "Indira Gandhi Calf-Rearing Scheme."
Meanwhile, despite all the largesse with its family names, the Congress Party continues to inflict its corrupt ways on India. The fact that the party’s principal opponent is a far-right political party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, has served it well. While attention in recent years has been focused on the kind of harm the BJP could do to India’s independent institutions, the Congress Party has gotten away with inflicting real damage. In 2007, Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, long wanted in relation to a corruption scandal dating back to the Rajiv Gandhi years, was allowed to escape extradition from Argentina by India’s federal investigation agency, the CBI (which recently dropped the case).
But the most egregious assault on democratic institutions came earlier this year when, disregarding all objections, the commissionership of the Election Commission of India (ECI) was handed over to Navin Chawla, an old friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The ECI has an impeccable record of conducting free and fair elections across India since 1952, and the outgoing commissioner, N. Gopalaswami, repeatedly raised questions about Chawla’s independence. Chawla had a long-standing relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family: He had officiated at a wedding in the family; his wife had been a close friend of Sonia Gandhi; and, according to a biographer of Sanjay Gandhi, he was one of the men entrusted with the job of carrying out forced vasectomies in New Delhi during the emergency years. The elections that returned the Congress Party to power this year were conducted under his supervision. Since July of this year, questions about the safety of the electronic voting machines have been raised, and all the opposition parties have called for the reintroduction of paper ballots. The government dismissed them as sore losers, but there is no doubt that the reputation of the Election Commission has been profoundly undermined.
Keenly aware of the totalitarian possibilities in a post-colonial democratic setup, Mahatma Gandhi had advised the Congress Party to disband itself after independence. But Asia’s oldest political party, once an engine of extraordinary social change, is today a veritable fiefdom. Internal democracy is unheard of in a party that is in charge of the world’s largest democracy. You can go to the Kaaba and criticize Allah, but you cannot be a congressman and question the omnipotence of the Nehru-Gandhi family. In gagging a British film to preserve its own image, the Congress Party undermines India’s democracy. Most appallingly of all, it does it in the name of a man who dedicated his life to transforming India into a free and open society.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.