Nehru’s Word: India’s variety should be celebrated, not coerced into some uniformity

How many of us have an understanding and emotional appreciation of this tremendous richness & variety of India? Because we do not appreciate this, we often try to regiment India into a single pattern

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru
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Mridula Mukherjee

In sharp contrast to calls of ‘one nation, one language, one election, one culture’ that we hear these days from those at the helm of affairs, Jawaharlal Nehru was at pains to emphasise “the agelong tradition of India which allowed each culture to have scope for growth and did not try to coerce it into a single pattern”. A visit to Ladakh and West Bengal in close proximity prompted him to write a fascinating letter to the chief ministers of states on 20 July, 1949 comparing Ladakh and West Bengal and also bringing in Kashmir while pointing out the great diversity within India. He urges them to “remember all these innumerable faces that India has and provide for them. Let us not try to remould any of them forcibly to conform to our particular conception of what India is."

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"I have had some rather unique experiences during the last fortnight. I went to Ladakh in the far north, between the Himalayan and the Karakoram ranges, and spent a few brief days there. I could write to you much about my visit, because Ladakh is a little- known area and deserves notice for a variety of reasons.

It is, as you know, a frontier area, and on the airfield near Leh there was a signpost, pointing out directions to Tibet, China, the Soviet Union, and other surrounding countries.

The average altitude of the lower valleys of Ladakh is 11,500 feet. The higher valleys go up to 15,000 feet. The people approximate to the Tibetans in appearance, religion, culture and dress. Lamaism, that is, a form of Buddhism, flourishes there and the influence of the Lamas is great…. The people generally are very poor, but tough and rather jolly.

As I stood in the small gardens or much more frequently the bleak wastes of Ladakh, I thought of the infinite variety of our country. A few days later, I was in Calcutta, and my thoughts turned to Ladakh, and compared and contrasted these two entirely different scenes.

There could be no greater difference between any two parts of the earth’s surface, however far one travelled. And yet both these were India, as also much else which was different from either.

How many of us have an understanding and an emotional appreciation of this tremendous richness and variety of India? Because we do not wholly appreciate this, even though we might talk about it sometimes, we try often enough to regiment the whole of India into a single pattern.

Wherever we may be, we think that we are in the heart of India and represent the quintessence of India’s culture and tradition, and that the others are rather near the outer pale and their chief function is to fall in line with us.

That approach seems to me to be far from reality, as it ignores not only the facts as they are in India, but also the agelong tradition of India which allowed each culture to have scope for growth and did not try to coerce it into a single pattern.

Modern conditions of life, new methods of swift transportation and communication, inevitably tend to produce a certain uniformity and regimentation. Whether that is a good thing or not, may be a matter for argument. But deliberate attempts to accelerate this process are hardly likely to succeed, and in the measure they succeed, they may deaden something that is bright and make lustreless what has been vital in our national life.

All these thoughts came to me in Ladakh and I further thought how wise our ancestors were in their large-hearted tolerance and human understanding. It would be well with India, I mused, if we of the present generation had also a measure of that tolerance and human touch. Culture, like a flower, does not take kindly to forced growth, and it fades away in an environment not suited to it; compulsion crushes it and makes it lifeless.

Ladakh is a faraway corner of India, yet it is India. Kashmir proper is nearer in every way, geographically and otherwise to India, and yet it has its peculiar characteristics, quite apart from its astonishing beauty. It has been in the past one of the greatest seats of the old Indian culture, and yet because of the very environment, it developed in its own way.

Inevitably, even the external emblems of our life, like food and clothing, differ somewhat with geography and climate.... So, as we build the mighty structure of free and republican India, let us remember all these innumerable faces that India has and provide for them. Let us not try to remould any of them forcibly to conform to our particular conception of what India is.

I have many impressions of my visit to Ladakh, but three stand out. The first is of my flying over the Himalayas and looking down at a magnificent spectacle of ice-covered peaks, glaciers and snow-fields….My second picture is that of a vast wilderness of sand and rock with occasional caves on the banks of the Indus or where water came down from the glaciers….


My third memory of Ladakh is that of a moonlit night on the banks of the Indus. The river shone like burnished silver, and in the background, there were mountains with snow on their peaks, also glistening in the moonlight.

The Indus, which gave India her name, and which, in its later stages, becomes a mighty river, sweeping down to the sea, was here a mountain stream with something of the frolic and playfulness of youth. The sound of its flowing waters was very pleasant to hear, even as the sight of its glistening surface was a delight to the eyes.

From this part of India, where nature is dominant and triumphant, I went to Calcutta, where five or six million human beings now dwell. The scene changed completely and the problems that faced me there were utterly different. Here nature was not very obvious, only man and his works and his conflicts were evident.

West Bengal, like Ladakh, was also a frontier province of India, a frontier created rather brutally by the Partition. As a result of that partition it had suffered greatly and had become the most densely populated province of India. It was a province which was far more urban in its general outlook than any other province of India. Indeed a very large part of this population lived in the great city of Calcutta.”

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library.)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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