Nehru’s Word: On encouraging the tribal languages

"If we are a big country, with great diversity, then we must also act in a manner as is expected of the people belonging to it"

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru
India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru

Peace eludes Manipur after three-and-a-half months, and even the no-confidence motion brought by the Opposition has failed to elicit a word of consolation or empathy from the prime minister for the people of Manipur. This is the third and the concluding part of a speech the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru made at the opening session of the conference on scheduled tribes and scheduled areas held in New Delhi on 7 June 1952 in which he outlined the approach to be followed, particularly on the issue of language.


Now, I have laid stress on our not imposing anything. Of course, difficult questions arise immediately… For instance, the language problem. Now, the language problem is almost always exceedingly important from the psychological point of view.

Whatever the practice—your eminent educationists may discuss the educational value of a language, a script, a folk tongue or folk dialects—but of real importance is the psychological aspect of the problem. The best of the solutions that you may offer is no solution if it produces a wrong reaction on the other side. It would cause a breakdown and produce wrong results.

Therefore, in the matter of language one must make it absolutely clear that we will encourage the tribal languages. I have no doubt about it in my mind and it is not a matter for argument with me. We must encourage the tribal languages to the utmost, and help and make them flourish, and go out of our way to do so.

Firstly, because that is the only right approach in these matters. And the only country that has adopted that policy and done it with success is the Soviet Union in its various outlying areas. The old leaders of the Soviet Union, Lenin and others… wanted to win the goodwill of those people and they won it by their policy, by encouraging their languages…

They wanted those people to feel that they had autonomy, they could live their own lives and speak their own languages, eat their own food and marry within their own communities, that is, to have freedom to do what they liked.

This was the impression that was sought to be produced on them, and having prepared that background, they could influence each other in other ways too…

If we are a big country, with great diversity, then we must also act in a manner as is expected of the people belonging to it. Therefore, on the issue of language, my mind is perfectly clear. A difficulty might arise and does arise about the script, as to what script are we to use? If they have a script, well, they must use it of course. But normally they do not.

The only script they have thus far learnt to some extent is the Roman script and it is a good script, no doubt, and because many people have learnt it, I would not like it to be pushed out. I would encourage it.

But probably now—here I do not speak with any assurance or authority but I merely put this to you that in evolving a script it would be better not only in the present but in the future also to use Devanagari script because it is relatively an easy script. But apart from that, it would bring them closer to the rest of India than any other script.

I would therefore suggest this for your consideration. But where many of them have already learnt the Roman script, I would not suddenly force them to abandon it because I do not want any feeling of compulsion to be created in them.


There are generally two main ways of approaching this question. One may be called the anthropological approach of treating the tribal people as museum specimens to be observed and written about and not as living human beings with whom you can interact at social and personal levels.

The other approach is to rather ignore that they are special and different and to try to absorb them into the mainstream of society.

Well, it seems to me that both these approaches are wrong. It is an insult to them to treat them as specimens for anthropological examination and analysis, except in the sense that all of us are more or less anthropological specimens. We may not realise it, but we can be examined in that way.

The approach of trying simply not to realise that they have ways of living of their own and try to absorb them is a kind of forcible assimilation which is also wrong. Not only forcible assimilation but sometimes even allowing normal factors to play would be wrong.

What I mean by normal factors is: suppose you do not protect their lands, I have no doubt that unscrupulous people from outside will go and take possession of their lands, their forests and interfere with their lives, by simply not allowing them to have free play.

Therefore, we must protect their lands, their forests, give them a measure of protection in their areas so that no outsider can interfere in their personal affairs except with their consent and goodwill.

Having discussed this background, the other questions will no doubt arise in your mind. These are: how to help them educationally, economically and otherwise? I suppose the first urgent need there, as elsewhere in India, is of roads and communications.

I am beginning to think that building roads and communications network perhaps deserves top priority in our rural areas all over the country. In the mountains more specially, and in the frontier areas most specially, their urgency cannot be over-emphasised. Then, there should be schools and some health relief centres and development of cottage industries and the like.

These are the simple but primary needs which must be fulfilled. But what needs to be always kept in view is that we are not going there to interfere with their way of life but to help them to live it by themselves and live it well.

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

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