EARLY in 1948, at the height of one of the communal riots in New Delhi, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru rushed into the thick of the fighting and implored the people to stop. The startled crowd, recognizing him, drew back. The riot was quelled.
The problem facing Mr. Nehru when he took office was to create a sense of nationhood that would not displace, but transcend, other loyalties. The Hindus, of whom he was one, looked to him for more than he could give, especially in terms of government representation. Equally pressing were the demands of the Muslims - 60 million of them, and India's largest minority. They, too, wanted more representation than he could provide. This was only the beginning. Other minorities, such as the Sikhs, called for nothing less than a state of their own.
The early years following independence were a period of communal violence and bloodletting almost without parallel in modern history. It was during these riots that Nehru shielded the bodies of the Muslims with his own. News of this act of personal commitment and courage spread throughout the country and was an important factor in the pacification of the nation. Millions of Muslims realized they could trust Nehru as a leader.
Months later, at his home, I asked Nehru about the incident in the Muslim shopping section. Wasn't he exposing himself to personal danger? His daughter, Indira, was in the room at the time.
He fingered the inevitable red rose in his lapel and spoke slowly. No one should seek high public office in a country such as India without realizing that passions among the sects are so high that acts of violence should be no surprise.
Apart from the Muslims, he said, at least 14 sects had nationalist aspirations of their own. One of the most awkward and perplexing challenges to Nehru's goal of a politically unified India came when a Sikh leader went on a hunger strike in behalf of Sikh statehood. Mahatma Gandhi's earlier hunger strikes had played an important part in the history of the India freedom movement. The hunger strike had been regarded as a supreme moral instrument. Now , directed against Nehru himself, how did he feel about it? I put the question to him in 1955.
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