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January 2002




A Tribute to “Glimpses”

By Lt. Col. (Retd) Anand S. Nair


What India needs at this critical juncture is yet another generation inspired by the vision and culture that is embodied in “Glimpses of World History”.


“Finding that the people of the villages often ran away and hid themselves on the approach of an aero plane, and were not sporting enough to wait for the bombs to kill them, a new type of bomb… was used. This did not burst on falling, but… sometime afterwards. This devilish ruse was meant to mislead the villagers into returning to their huts after the aero planes had gone and then being hit by the bursting of the bomb. Those who died were the comparatively fortunate ones. Those who were maimed, whose limbs were torn away sometimes, or who had other serious injuries, were far more unfortunate, for there was no medical aid available in those distant villages….


This has many advantages…. A great deal of money is saved and the military occupation of a country is less in evidence. At the same time aero planes and bombs give them complete control over the situation…”.



Is the above a topical quote from an article commenting on the current US strategy in Afghanistan? Or on the bombing of Iraq, a decade earlier?


But how come the author uses quaint terms such as “aero planes” and “bombs” instead of the “B 52s”, “cruise missiles” and “bomblets”? Well, that is the give away. The extract is from Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Glimpses of World History”, written in 1933. From the chapter titled, “Iraq and the virtues of aerial bombing”.


I first read the “Glimpses...” when I was 18. Years later, I would browse bookstores in Delhi, Bombay, Madras and the Internet for a copy of Glimpses… which impressed me so much while in my late teens. Tough luck, the book is out of print. assured me that they would try and procure this for me from sellers of second hand books, only to inform me later that they failed in their efforts.


It is perhaps a sign of the times that one can easily pick up a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf anywhere in India. But not so, a book, which truly remains “the best introduction to the story of man for young people in India and all over the world” 70 years after it, was written.

The New York Times had this to say (in 1934), “It is one of the most remarkable books ever written…. One is awed by the breadth of Nehru’s culture”. The Glimpses, together with the Discovery of India, moulded a whole generation of Indians. But that was in another era.


Last week, after about 10 years of search, I bought an old –but well maintained- copy of the book from a roadside vendor at Flora Fountain, Mumbai.


Thirty years after I first read the book, almost nostalgically I leafed through the pages. Each chapter is in the form of a dated letter to his teenage daughter, Indira. The first one was written on the New Year’s Day, 1931. The last chapter (and letter) is dated August 9, 1933. Five years later, on November 14, 1938, shortly before these letters were to be published as a book, Nehru added a postscript – outlining the events in the world in those intervening years.


And I was convinced that I must do my bit to revive interest in a book that still retains its validity of content and vision.


Today, it is fashionable to hold that a nation’s foreign policy is to be decided based on “self-interest” rather than on lofty principles and the like. As if there is a great contradiction between self-interest and principles. Indeed when principles are given the go by, and the game is played exclusively with an eye on each player’s self-interest; it is obvious that the only interest that would be served is that of the most powerful among the players. It is definitely not in the self-interest of the poorer and weaker nations of the world to abandon principles. But this paradox is quite lost on the petty minds that fashion our foreign and trade policies, 50 years after independence.


Nehru was in prison when he wrote these series of letters. His vision of history and of contemporary events had a sweep and genuineness that had nothing to do with pleasing powerful allies, or with wooing of voters. Nehru’s views on secularism and Palestine –so passionately expressed in the early thirties- give lie to the Hindutva propaganda that these are “pseudo” positions cunningly devised with Muslim “vote bank” in mind.


On Palestine this is what he wrote on May 29, 1933, “The people inhabiting it are predominantly Muslim Arabs, and they demand freedom and unity with their fellow Arabs of Syria. But British policy has created a special minority problem here- that of the Jews- and the Jews side with the British and oppose the freedom of Palestine, as they fear that this would mean Arab rule”.


About the Jews, spread and persecuted in Europe and other parts of the world, Nehru wrote, “And yet these amazing people not only survived all this, but managed to keep their racial and cultural characteristics, and prospered and produced a host of great men.  Today they hold leading positions as scientists, statesmen, literary men, financiers, businessmen, and even the greatest socialists and communists have been Jews. Most of them, of course are far from prosperous; they crowd in the cities of Eastern Europe and, from time to time, suffer “pogroms” or massacres. These people without home or country, and especially the poor among them, have never ceased to dream of old Jerusalem, which appears to their imaginations greater and more magnificent than it ever was in fact. Zion, they call Jerusalem, a kind of Promised Land, and Zionism is this call of the past, which pulls them to Jerusalem and Palestine.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century this Zionist movement took gradual shape as a colonizing movement, and many Jews went to settle in Palestine… During the World War the British armies invaded Palestine and, as they were marching on Jerusalem, the British Government made a declaration in November 1917 called the Balfour Declaration. They declared that it was their intention to establish a ‘Jewish National Home’ in Palestine. This declaration was made to win the good will of international Jewry, and it was important from the money point of view… But there was one little drawback; one not unimportant fact seems to have been overlooked. Palestine was not a wilderness. Or an empty uninhabited place. It was already somebody else’s home. So that this generous gesture of the British Government was really at the expense of the people who already lived in Palestine, and these people, including Arabs, non-Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and, in fact, everybody who was not a Jew, protested vigorously at the declaration.”


Let us take another example of intellectual regress since the days of Nehru. Today’s peddlers of  “Globalization” would have us believe that inviting foreign investments is the “mantra” that can deliver the third world from poverty and backwardness. If indeed it is a fact that within the structures of capitalism and “free” trade, the nations of the third world can attain prosperity, then what was the raison detrẻ of the British Empire? Why did the Empire emerge as an instrument of economic exploitation, in the first place – if there was such a simple means for Britain to get and stay rich, without exploiting her colonies? Wasn’t the East India Company the ultimate in “foreign investments”?


To quote what Nehru wrote on February 28, 1933, “…In this way, the American capitalists gained effective control of these smaller countries of the south and ran their banks, railways, and mines, and exploited them to their own advantage. Even in the larger countries of Latin America they had great influence because of their investments and money control. That is to say, the United States annexed the wealth, or a great part of it, of these countries. Now, this is worth noting, as it is a new kind of empire, the modern type of empire. It is invisible and economic, and exploits and dominates without any obvious outward signs. The South American republics are politically and internationally free and independent. On the map they are huge counties, and there is nothing to show that they are not free in any way. And yet most of them are dominated completely by the United States.


Most of us think of empires… like the British in India, and we imagine that if the British were not in actual political control of India, India would be free. But this type of empire is already passing away, and giving way to a more advanced and perfected type. This latest kind of empire does not annex even the land; it only annexes the wealth or the wealth producing elements in the country. By doing so it can exploit the country fully to its own advantage and can largely control it, and at the same time has to shoulder no responsibility for governing and repressing that country. In effect both the land and the people living there are dominated and largely controlled with the least amount of trouble.”


On the communal issue, Nehru had this to say on May 14, 1933, “…The bania exploited Hindu and Muslim tenants and land holders alike, but his exploitation of the Muslims took a communal turn, especially in provinces where the agriculturists were mainly Muslim. The spread of machine-made goods probably hit the Muslims harder than the Hindus, as there were relatively more artisans among Muslims. All these factors went to increase the bitterness between the two major communities of India and to strengthen Muslim nationalism, which looked to the community than to the country.


The demands of the Muslim communal leaders were such as to knock the bottom out of all hope of true national unity in India. To combat them on their own communal lines, Hindu communal organizations grew into prominence. Posing as true nationalists, they were as sectarian and narrow as the others.”


Today we have a government led by a sectarian party with a suppressed agenda. This party promises to pull out of cold storage their “truly nationalistic” and “truly secular” action plan only when they get a majority of their own. Taking cynicism to new heights, the party heads a government, which they all but assure us, would fail in its mission, hamstrung as they are by their “pseudo secular” allies. For, if this government were to succeed then the “hidden agenda” of the parivar would become redundant. What use is the demand to abrogate article 370, if the Kashmir issue gets resolved without such abrogation? The pressing need to change history books, and the vital requirement for religious minorities to accept Hindu culture, both would be superfluous, if India were to achieve prosperity and greatness, while these issues still remain on the “backburner”.


What India needs at this critical juncture is yet another generation inspired by the vision and culture that is embodied in “Glimpses of World History”.


(Note: In case the present copyright holder of this book is not interested in a reprint, can the rights be transferred to the public domain? If it is felt that a reprint is not cost effective, may we hope that this book is published in the Internet?)


[Lt Col (Retd) Anand S Nair is an engineer by profession, an M. Tech from IIT, Madras, currently known as Chennai. In 1996, Anand took premature retirement from the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, Indian Army. He is now Vice President of a Chennai-based Software company.]