How WhatsApp Killed Chacha Nehru
Your office Whatsapp group killed Jawaharlal Nehru. Oh, you say, but he died of syphilis! Before that, he had an affair with thirteen women, including Jackie Kennedy, Edwina Mountbatten and Padmaja Naidu. Not to mention he was secretly a member of the RSS, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Amitabh Bachan are his sons and of course there are a million illegitimate little Nehrus running around India to this very day. None of these fantastical claims are fabricated; they’re allegations yanked straight from the phenomenal encyclopedia known as the Indian Whatsapp Group.
It’s not as if Indian politicians aren’t dramatic enough without needing to falsify facts about them. One of them drank his own urine daily, Indira Gandhi hired astrologers frantically before her death, Amit Shah’s existence, all this could make a Bollywood film complete with comedy, tragedy and murder. Certainly; political propaganda has lasted from the moment the first caveman elected himself ruler of his tribe and it’s not going anywhere. Character assassination has been carried out through the media numerous times. However, this aims to explore how the advent of social media, and India’s sudden plunge into the putrid depths of Whatsapp and Facebook groups has entirely murdered the man formerly known as Chacha Nehru; and like a crow arising from the ashes of a phoenix, built an unrecognizable creation in his place. And we should all be terribly ashamed.
During Nehru’s time as Prime Minister; political criticisms ran wild. As nationalistic fervor tapered off years after independence and Pakistan, Kashmir and China began to creep into the Indian equation, along with it came the scathing articles. Nehru was slandered in all directions by the printed press, from unfit, too much of a pacifist, too old, too reliant on Menon – all perfectly acceptable criticism, whether right or wrong in one’s opinion. An oft-told incident is of Keshav Shankar Pillai’s cartoon depicting an emaciated (which is also somewhat ironic, as he had gained quite a bit of weight toward the end of his life) Nehru still, gaspingly, trying to complete the final leg of a race to which he replied ‘Don’t spare me, Shankar.’
Criticism was criticism in those days, no matter how poisonous or rude. It was only when criticism reached personal levels that politicians sent rebuttals to publishing firms. Perhaps this was the reason why political criticism didn’t cross a threshold – because newspapers and magazines were still part of the public press, hence accountable for what they have to say, and if proven a lie would have to face the consequences. Of course, there were political cartoons; which did not merely feature but rather starred the Gandhi family and other top politicians, often both rude and crude at the same time. Yet, people did not believe such cartoons were representative of the truth, or in fact came anywhere near to the truth. As Rohinton Mistry says in Such a Long Journey – “Whatever you read in the paper, first divide by two—for the salt and pepper. From what’s left, take off ten per cent. Ginger and garlic. And sometimes, depending on the journalist, another five per cent for chilli powder. Then, and only then, will you get to the truth free of masala and propaganda.”
People had spread rumours by mouth of course, but those were treated just like their political cartoon counterparts (Interview), and discussed avidly but never treated as the gospel truth. It’s almost wondrous, for someone like me who’s grown up with social media, that people had the innate self capacity to be perfectly aware of newspapers were that full of propaganda from one side or the other, and that whilst someone or the other may whisper comments about Edwina Mountbatten, nobody would declare that India lost the China war because of her.
And then came Whatsapp.
Whatsapp groups are the communal Roman baths for the Indian middle class, and amongst the sarcastic, thickly veiled quips lies a creeping agenda to defame old leaders perceived as ‘Congress Leaders’ with Nehru being the prime target. Mind you, these were not rumours that suddenly were thought up and written down as jokes, it is a well thought out method of warfare, sly yet almost genius. Why? Because they’re almost believable. Because Whatsapp and Facebook are private networks; and had such networks existed during the Emergency, perhaps India today wouldn’t be as we know it. Yet the same Internet with which politics is carried out at rapidfire pace today, from Modi-ji’s Twitter followers to the infamous ‘coward and psychopath’ tweet, is also part of a far more nefarious campaign – that of complete falsehood.
Let’s take a trip. Put on protective goggles.
This is falsehood to the point of near sacrilege, is it not? Would Americans come up with such sites about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln – other than the rogue one or two about controversial presidents, has there ever been such a plot of sabotage? The above claims can be rebutted with a simple Google search, or if not, a bit of further reading. Let’s clear up simple ones right now, just to display how mundane these are. Firstly, children’s day cannot have been created to bribe Pamela Hicks from ‘telling on them’ – Bal Diwas was first celebrated in 1964, after Nehru’s death. Nehru did not reject the UNSC seat. There was no self award of the Bharat Ratna. Syphilis: does not make sense. Read up on syphilis; and you would immediately realize that it was chosen as the disease of choice for a reason – some symptoms are similar to death by old age. Here’s a (to the Whatsapped brain – incredulous) thought: perhaps the stroke ‘that left him pitifully partially paralyzed, his left foot dragging’ followed by a heart attack could have been caused by the fact that he was, well… seventy four years old and suffered a grievous war defeat?
Edwina Mountbatten is one of the key pieces in the sabotage, and as such can be used to prove that this campaign of lies is sabotage carried out through social media. The Mountbatten papers are not a suddenly discovered relic dug out from the ruins. The papers have been kept for years, as well as several biographies written about both the Mountbattens and Nehru – all of which mention the latter’s very close friendship with Edwina. My point is that it wasn’t significant at all until they started making it so – with crude Photoshopped photographs and faked letters and incidents. Several letters to and from Edwina and Nehru are open in archives, and it’s absolutely astounding how the right wing could turn a completely open relationship into a conspiracy of drama and falsehood. Since this friendship was openly observed by the public for years; with Pamela Mountbatten herself commenting on the sweetness of their alliance – why is it sent secretly through Whatsapp like a guilty child hiding dirty magazines?
Jawaharlal was called Chacha Nehru by kids for a reason; he didn’t wake up one day and legally change his name. So what sort of heinous undertaking was it that changed the man everyone saw as chacha into a pervert? Some digging had to be done. There are a dozens of blog pages containing such filth depicted above; hence I aimed to find the first mention of it, and after tweaking Google search results – I found the intellectual individual. Yes, this lone ranger back in 2001 with a conspiracy theory blog – who with all seriousness claims that the Illuminati was involved in Indian independence and quotes absolutely no source other than another blog aptly titled ‘Nehru was born in a brothel.’
So this! This man is our wise and learned political source, this is our scholarly article upon the illnesses suffered by our Prime Minister, the parental relations of Sonia Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s secret life. A blog run by a sole genius with a third-grade command over the English language. This man, seemingly defying all laws of biology, had given birth to many other blogs, continuously reproducing for the past fifteen years – like a rabbit, if rabbits were feral and full of crap. Rajiv Dixit too, who claims on his Wikipedia page that he’s a ‘social activist’ has a series of YouTube videos titled aggressively, ‘NEHRU WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR A GIRL’ which also contains much fluttering text, a total of zero sources, and music to pierce even the ears of the deaf. I sincerely hope that Rajiv Dixit does not remain your political or intellectual hero, considering he dallied with the likes of Baba Ramdev and has other videos titled ‘How to be healty without the use of Doctor.’
Baseless sites like these are then copied into Whatsapp messages with a plethora of “!!!!” and “~~~~” emojis; and delivered directly to the smartphones of Mamma and Pappa. I understand why they’re doing it; by alienating Nehru, they can cling to other freedom fighters by portraying them as anti-Congress, but such methods are reprehensible. Accompanying these are often a large archive of pictures; which I’ll also assist in clearing up the misconceptions behind. Because it really does just take two seconds.
This is the approach with which rumors that once floated only in whispers and the farthest of right wing magazines turned into a deliberately malicious smear campaign in the mainstream. Recently, IndiaToday had unearthed the existence of paid communities of young IT specialists who would ruin political reputations for a set amount of money, and after studying the content of such Whatsapp groups, it’s very probably that at least a couple of such businesses were involved. A quotation on Nehru’s head – sixty years after his death. It would be comedic if it didn’t have so many elements of tragedy.
Of course, the Congress tries to revive Nehru’s name; with much fanfare of his achievements, and Bal Diwas celebrated widely – but that’s another reason why the smear tactics are working well. People that even moderately dislike Congress, whether the top leadership or even a single grassroots worker are far more likely to believe such messages. The party tries heartbreakingly hard, with the NSUI leaders and Sonia Gandhi publishing and re-releasing Nehru’s letters and works, but what is needed now does not seem to be more coverage of his political achievements, but more awareness of his personhood. It’s just not enough. More illustrations of how he was oddly excited to be in jail, how he was moved to tears by Lata Mangeshkar, how he took his morning phone calls standing on his head, and how he made even starchy Lord Mountbatten sprawl on the floor and do yoga. The public should relate to him again, because the current portrait the digital world has drawn is far from flattering.
The relentless banning or delaying of books by the government also contributes indirectly to the phenomenon of people avidly believing such conspiracy theories. With the (trashed) film Indian Summers, India had made a fuss about removing ‘love scenes between Nehru and Mountbatten’ from the film. This led those right wingers principled enough to quote a source, to mention the book it was based on when confronted with a source for their explicit fanfiction. However, those who had read the book Indian Summers by Alex von Tunzelmann would know that nowhere were any truly romantic scenes present, and rather just an account of an ‘alleged’ relationship: again, a completely harmless one. Books like the famously delayed The Red Sari didn’t seem harmful after reading, in fact it endeared Sonia Gandhi to me even more than before (although it could be seen as an invasion of privacy) – yet seemed positively dangerous and rumor filled before I had read it. Similarly with M.O. Mathai’s Reminiscences of the Nehru Age (take this with a huge bucket of salt though) – whilst he made some truly ridiculous claims, it’s no worse than the mildest Whatsapp message and many of the things people claim he wrote – he didn’t.
Nehruvians in power should not ban books or films; it is better to read the truth or an exaggerated version of it rather than to read falsehood altogether. Instead of banning books and films that already exist and fueling the people’s suspicion that there is something to hide, would it not be better to release new films that follow as close to the truth as possible? Political series featuring Nehru have been very well received, like Bharat ek Khoj, or Samvidhaan. However, these series have views numbering in the several hundreds whilst Dixit’s conspiracy videos have thousands of views and comments. Introducing a new biopic that adheres to historical lines (with some caricature expected, it’s only natural) would be a far more effective way to convince the public than to conduct an embargo on books that have a mild overstep or two.
But the Congress Party should not be the only one trying – it has to be a grassroots effort if it is to genuinely look apolitical. There are those that do not avidly support right wing parties, yet believe in the idea that Nehru was definitely all those things outlined in the Whatsapp messages and blog sites (Interview). The only way to counter ‘facts’ you see on such sites would be to ask for proof. More often than not, there will be absolutely zero proof for any, whilst there are numerous researched and sourced rebuttals to most of the propaganda. Quora remains a source for both truth and lies, and again it is incredibly easy to differentiate the former from the latter. Key Tip: nobody titles their historical journal ‘Nehru Born In Brothel,’ – click on it and it’s a loony conspiracy blog. Freedom of speech works both ways; firstly, it is not freedom to lie, and secondly, you’re free enough to go to Dixit’s videos and report them for defamatory content, or counter in the comments. Without grassroots co-operation, it would only be seen as more political propaganda, which is why you are equally responsible for such untruths being circulated.
We must be the only country that kills our heroes in this manner. Sardar Patel had worried constantly about quotations and assassination threats toward Nehru; and those who pretend to revere Patel today are the very same who circulate the biggest quotation on the head of the First Prime Minister. And it’s nothing but heartless, some of these claims; one must foil poison with the truth, lest the vast and sudden nature of social media spreads it even further. Just remember, if the man known as Chacha by children nationwide ever knew that large swathes of the country now consider him a paedophile, it would break his heart.
This article originally appeared here. Copied with author's permission.