Respect all languages, learn more than one: Jawaharlal Nehru

In this week's edition of Nehru's Word, an excerpt from the first Prime Minister's intervention in a Lok Sabha debate

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore with his students in Santiniketan in 1935. Also seen is Indira Nehru (standing, 5th from right), later Indira Gandhi (photo: National Herald archives) 
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore with his students in Santiniketan in 1935. Also seen is Indira Nehru (standing, 5th from right), later Indira Gandhi (photo: National Herald archives) 

Jawaharlal Nehru

The issue of the reorganisation of states on linguistic lines after Independence was an emotional one, which had the potential of snowballing into a divisive one.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru advocated respect for and openness towards other languages and also cultural inclusiveness.

Extracts from his intervention in a debate in the Lok Sabha on the Report of the States Reorganisation Commission on 21 December 1955 also include his thoughts on the education of his daughter, Indira Gandhi (at the time, Indira Nehru):

Of course, all the great languages of India, which are mentioned in the Constitution, have to be developed...

Further, the development of one language should not be and cannot be at the expense of the other. I am convinced that the development of any one of the great languages of India helps the development of the other languages.

It is my privilege to be the president of the Sahitya Akademi, started a year or two ago, where we deal with all the languages of India and try to encourage them. The more we discuss these matters, the more we see that encouragement, development and growth of one language result in advantage to the other Indian languages also.

Going one step ahead, I would say that the knowledge of a foreign language helps the growth of an Indian language. If we are cut off from foreign languages, we are cut off from the ideas that are contained in those foreign languages, and from the technology that is part of the modern life. Therefore, let us not think of excluding a language.

Quite frankly, I do not understand the way some people are afraid of the Urdu language.
I am proud to speak Urdu and I hope to continue to speak Urdu. I just do not understand why in any state in India people should consider Urdu a foreign language, or something which invades their own domain.
Urdu is a language mentioned in our Constitution.
I object to any narrow-mindedness in regard to Urdu.

It is no use dragging philology into these language controversies.

Take the Punjabi language. We have heard learned arguments about the origin of Punjabi and the Gurmukhi script and how far it is connected with Hindi and how far it is independent of Hindi, whether it has descended from Sanskrit and so on—as if the source was of paramount significance.

What matters is what people do today.

Let scholars go into the past of Gurmukhi and Hindi. If people in the Punjab or elsewhere wish to use or to speak a certain language and use a certain script, I want to give them every freedom, opportunity and encouragement to do so.

Everybody knows that in regard to language, there are intimate and rather passionate ideas in people’s minds. But the person who feels passionately about a language must remember that the other man also feels passionately about it.

The only course is to give freedom and opportunity to all people.

It is not for me or anybody else to go about saying that a language is undeveloped.

Even if it were so, it does not matter.

Any attempt to decry a language or deny it opportunity is bad from the point of view of not only that language but other languages.

This question of language has somehow come to be associated with the question of the states’ reorganisation. I repeat that I attach the greatest importance to language, but I refuse to associate it necessarily with a state.

In our country, there are bound to be states where a single language is predominant.

But there are also areas where there are two languages. In such instances, we should encourage both of them.

We should make it perfectly clear that the dominant language of that state should not try to push out or suppress in any way the other language of the state.

If we are clear about this, then the language issue does not arise.


Connected with language are other cultural issues which should also be treated on the same basis. That is to say, every culture and every manifestation of culture should be encouraged.

There is no exclusiveness about culture. The more inclusive you are, the more cultured you are. The more barriers you put up, the more uncultured you are.

Thinking the way I do in this matter, I personally welcome the idea of bilingual or multilingual areas.

For my part, I would much rather live and have my children brought up in bilingual and trilingual areas than in a unilingual area. In that manner, I think, I would gain a wider culture and wider understanding of India and of the world.

The House will forgive me if I mention a personal experience.

When I had to face the problem of my daughter’s education, my attempt was this: when she was a little girl, I sent her to a school not in UP [the then-undivided Uttar Pradesh] but in Poona [now Pune], as I wanted her to pick up some of India’s languages.

I sent her to a Gujarati school in Poona because I wanted her to know the Marathi language and the Gujarati language and be influenced by them.

I sent her subsequently to Santiniketan because I wanted her to understand the Bengali background, not only the language, but the culture.

I should have liked her to go south and learn Tamil or Telugu or Malayalam. But life is not long enough for us to go to every state...

You and I may have some difficulty in picking up another language because we proceed by the grammatical approach...

The way to learn a language is not by worrying about correctness, but by entering into the life of the other people...

We should have these clear safeguards laid down possibly in the Constitution or in some other way so that a fair deal is given to every language in this country.

Every language has an equal right to prevail, even if it is a minority language in the country, provided it is spoken by a good number of people. I understand that the Bombay Corporation has schools in 14 languages, because Bombay is a great city with many language groups.

Secondly, if I may venture to lay down a rule, it is the primary responsibility of the majority to satisfy the minority in every matter.

The majority, by virtue of its being a majority, has the strength to have its way; it requires no protection...

Therefore, whenever such a question arises, I am always in favour of the minority.

Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library.

More of Nehru's thoughts and writings can be found in our archives here.

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