Nehru's Word: Let’s treat the starving, struggling masses as humans, not stats

In a letter to the CMs on 24 May 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru writes about his admiration for the peasants and wonders if we are doing enough, and thinking of them as humans and not merely statistics

Jawaharlal Nehru (Photo: NH File Photo)
Jawaharlal Nehru (Photo: NH File Photo)

Mridula Mukherjee

My tour in Maharashtra was a great experience for me and I came back full of admiration for the sturdy peasantry of those areas who have faced scarcity and difficulty with courage and without complaining over much. They are a fine people and I felt then, as I have often felt before, how the peasants of India form the backbone of our country. My respect and affection for them grows and it has been the highest privilege of my life to experience the abundance of their faith and affection. A sense of humility seizes me at my own inadequacy in the face of this faith and affection.

Whatever I can, I try to give them; but how far am I fulfilling our heavy duty and responsibility cast upon me? We sit in our chambers in New Delhi and work hard and try to think of the problems of India. Those problems come to us in notes and summaries and in statistics, all of which are important, and yet I sometimes feel that they miss out the human element.

I said at a place in Maharashtra that there were 360 million problems in India, for each individual was a problem for us and his wellbeing our concern. That is rather a terrific way of looking at India’s problems, and yet I think that it has a good deal of truth in it. For then we think of human beings and not of statistics.

I have visited, from time to time, various areas of scarcity where semi-famine conditions prevailed: in Assam, Bihar, UP, in Rayalaseema in Madras and lately in Maharashtra. There are, of course, others also and notably in certain parts of Rajasthan. Whenever I go to these areas, a sense of urgency fills me when I see human beings not getting their due from life. More particularly, I am distressed to see bright young children of India lacking food or clothing or shelter, not to mention education and health. Each such case produces a sense of failure in me, though I know that it is not possible to change the Indian scene by some magic wand to produce plenty out of poverty. It is not possible to solve the 360 million problems of India within any reasonable compass of time. But are we moving fast enough in that direction? If this generation is condemned to large-scale poverty and low standards, must the next generation also suffer in this way?

Immediately, of course, the problem of relief arises where distress is most obvious. There is a great difference in our dealing with this problem now from the way the old British government dealt with it. Without meaning any ill to that government, it must be recognised that its outlook in social and economic affairs was a very limited one. It took things as they were for granted and if famine occurred, it functioned in a routine way and set the old famine code in motion and gave some relief. We can never forget the death by starvation of 35 lakh persons in the Bengal famine ten years ago.

What a difference there is now! We have had to face calamities and earthquakes and floods in an abnormal measure during the last six years. We have not been able to give all the relief that we should, but we have at least saved people from dying of starvation. We have given them food and work and at least prevented that type of major catastrophe which used to occur previously. That is some achievement, I think, and it indicates the new social conscience of the nation….

This we have followed no doubt, but is the pace sufficient? Is it enough to just keep people from dying from starvation? Surely not. A welfare State, about which we talk so bravely, should expect to do much more. How then are we to do it? There is the Five Year Plan which, I am convinced, is a magnificent achievement and which must lay the foundation of all our future Plans. And yet, while the Five Year Plan gradually works itself out, human beings in large numbers, including helpless little children, drag on their miserable lives with little hope in the near future….

The mass of unemployment in India rather terrifies me. What share have these unemployed in the welfare State that we are building up? And how can they have a sense of partnership in it? There is no lack of people willing and able to work and to produce if only we give them the opportunity to do so….The problem then is how we can marry the unemployed to productive and preferably developmental work.

We talk of the people. What are the people? The vast mass of peasants and industrial workers and landless labour appear somewhere in the background while special interests come to the front and make themselves heard. It would be a tragedy if we forgot the principal urge of the national movement that we are supposed to represent, that urge was always in favour of this vast mass of the common people and we have repeatedly declared that no private or vested interest should come in the way of progress of these people.

Do we act up to that declaration and assurance? Or are we gradually slipping away from it and forgetting our main task?... There is a tendency to look upon industrial labour as something rather hostile to the State and to be guarded against. It is true that sometimes organised labour is troublesome. But if we cannot carry organised labour with us and give it a sense of partnership in all our undertakings, we shall not go far. That would be so in any democratic State, but much more so in our State with our background.”

Selected and edited by MRIDULA MUKHERJEE, former professor of history at JNU and former Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines