Nehru's Word: Minorities in India must feel secure, part of larger society

If India is to progress, we must absorb, and make our own the various minorities in India, and notably the Muslims. The view of the Hindu Mahasabha and other communal organisations is opposed to this

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

The discretionary premature release of convicted rapists and murderers in the Bilkis Bano case on the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, and the public welcome accorded to them by members of communal political organisations, has shaken the conscience of the nation. The anguish was expressed movingly by a columnist who asked: ‘Mother India, is Bilkis not your daughter?’

The discriminatory mentality evidenced in this act is in sharp contrast to the strongly secular and inclusive tone of the government led by Jawaharlal Nehru in the years following Independence and Partition which had witnessed an extremely difficult communal situation, including widespread violence.

In this context, we bring to you this week extracts from a letter dated 1st March 1950, written by Jawaharlal Nehru to the chief ministers of the provinces, explaining the volatile situation created by communal violence and reiterating the necessity of providing a sense of security to the Muslim minority and ensuring their representation in the government.


"We are passing through a difficult period when developments in Bengal, both East and West, overshadow other matters….

A day or two ago I sent you a letter drawing your attention to the next few critical days, because of Holi and the declaration of the Hindu Mahasabha to observe an East Bengal Day on the 5th of March. It is the height of unwisdom to have demonstrations at this stage about what is happening in East Bengal.

But the Hindu Mahasabha has never been noted for its wisdom. It has a remarkable way of always saying and doing the wrong thing. That wrong thing is not noticed or it creates little effect in normal circumstances.

But when people are excited and their minds are full of hatred and anger, then any lead from Hindu Mahasabha may lead to mischief. There is plenty of inflammable material all round and a spark may set it alight.

In West Bengal especially, deep passions have been aroused and it is much to the credit of the government there, and more especially the chief minister, that the situation has been under control. We must remember however that no situation can long be controlled by police or military action unless there is a large body of public support.

I think that there is some realisation among thinking persons in West Bengal and elsewhere that we should function in a restrained way and not precipitate any action which might lead to grave consequences.

But most people do not think or reason logically and are moved by the passion or prejudice of the moment. Some people deliberately try to create trouble so as to bring about that very crisis that we try to avoid. I know that there are such groups. If the atmosphere is sympathetic to such groups, then government machinery cannot do much.

I would suggest to you therefore to be very vigilant during the next few weeks, and more especially during the next ten days or so, and not tolerate any action which might lead to communal trouble and conflict….

The basic problem today is how to find full security for the minorities in East and West Bengal. I have no doubt that conditions in West Bengal for the minorities are far better than those in East Bengal.

At the same time, it is idle to deny that Muslims in West Bengal or to some extent, elsewhere, have not that full sense of security that they should have. In the very nature of things, they are full of apprehension about their future.

On the whole, the Muslims of India have behaved well. Some of them had behaved badly. But we must distinguish between the actual evil-doers and the majority of the Muslim population.

I have little doubt that we can control the situation in West Bengal, provided there is also some control in East Bengal. If East Bengal remains in a state of dangerous insecurity and incidents happen there, then there are bound to be repercussions in the West. The opposite of this is equally true.

It is natural and right for us to exercise all the pressure we can on East Bengal or Pakistan…. One thing, however, should be under our control, and that is, the situation in various parts of India. I am quite sure that if we can control this adequately, we shall not only get out of the vicious circle of retaliation on each other, but also powerfully affect the other side….

The old policy of the Muslim League, which is being continued by the leaders of Pakistan, was one of deliberate fostering of hatred and the spirit of violence. Our leaders in the past followed an opposite policy, considering it both right and expedient. But some people imagine that in certain circumstances we should give up that policy and copy the methods of our opponents….I hope we shall be able to resist that….

If India is to progress, we must absorb, and make our own the various minorities in India, and notably the Muslims. The view of the Hindu Mahasabha and other communal organisations is opposed to this. I am certain that the Hindu Mahasabha policy is fatal for India. Their talk of putting an end to Partition is foolish in the extreme….

There is a tendency among some of us to demand loyalty from the Muslims in India and to condemn tendencies amongst them which may be pro-Pakistan. Such tendencies, of course, are wrong and have to be condemned. But I think it is wrong to lay stress always on the loyalty on behalf of the Muslims of India. Loyalty is not produced to order or by fear. It comes as a natural growth from circumstances which make loyalty not only a sentiment which appeals to one but also profitable in the long run. We have to produce conditions which lead to this sentiment being produced.

Looking further into this matter, it seems that if minorities are to remain and function where they are, they must be represented in governments and elsewhere. It is wrong in every way for a large section of the population to feel that it has no voice in government or in the services….”.

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)

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