Nehru on state boundaries and linguistic minorities

"The various language areas in India represent the development of history through the ages. But drawing a hard and fast line between two areas is, I think, carrying it too far"

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru

In a situation where talking about minority rights gets equated with ‘appeasement’ and vote bank politics, we need to remember Jawaharlal Nehru’s concern for minorities of all kinds—linguistic, religious, ethnic. When the process of reorganisation of state boundaries was underway in the mid-1950s, he constantly emphasised that linguistic minorities must be given full rights and protection within the borders of the new states. Excerpts from a speech he made in the Lok Sabha while intervening in a debate on the subject in December 1955: 

I am not greatly interested where a particular state boundary is situated, and I find it very difficult to get passionate or excited about it.

I have my preferences, naturally, but it does not make much difference to me where the internal boundary of a state is drawn. Infinitely more important is what happens on either side of the boundary, what happens within the state—especially in the great multilingual or bilingual areas—and what happens to people inside a particular state who may, linguistically or in any other sense, form a minority.

Once we lay down these basic principles correctly and act up to them, then the vast number of problems and difficulties and legitimate grievances that arise will automatically disappear. May I also suggest that while Members here represent their constituencies, they represent something more?

Each member is not only a member for this or that area of India, but a member for India as a whole. He represents India, and at no time can he afford to forget this basic fact that India is more than the little corner of India that he represents.

This is more necessary when we have to face certain forces which may be called separatist… It has been my good fortune and privilege to travel about India a great deal and often to go abroad. I have had that good fortune perhaps more than most members of this House.

As a result, I am constantly compelled to think in larger terms, not only in national terms but in international terms. I see the picture of India in that larger context. Perhaps, my travel has helped me to see events in the true perspective. As I travel about India I feel excited by its moving drama…

We can see this better if we go abroad and see this country from some distance. There are many people in the wide world who also are beginning to feel the drama and adventure of what is happening in India. They see how we have got over great problems and great difficulties.

It is true that we have even greater problems ahead, but we are judged in the measure in which we have succeeded in the past. We may argue about the boundary of Bihar or Bengal or Orissa. We may regard the question as important, but the word ‘important’ is a relative word. There may be things which are more important, and we must not lose ourselves in passionate excitement over the boundary of a state.

We must take a total view of India. We must, by Constitution, convention or otherwise, guarantee that a person, whether he lives on this side of the border of a State or the other, will have the fullest rights and opportunities of progress according to his own way. That is my approach to this matter, but I feel that this larger outlook is sometimes lost sight of.

Some people have said that the principle of ‘linguism’ should be extended more and more… May I say pointedly and precisely that I dislike that principle absolutely, the way it has tended to go? That does not mean that I dislike language being a very important matter in our administration or education or culture.

I recognise that the language of the people is a vital matter for their development, whether it is education, administration or any other matter. But there is a distinction between developing the language to the fullest extent, and this passion for building up a wall around a linguistic area and calling it a border.

I completely accept the statement that people cannot really grow except through their language, but it does not follow that in order to make them and their language grow, a barrier must be erected between them and others.

The various language areas in India represent the development of history through the ages. But drawing a hard and fast line between two areas is, I think, carrying it too far. As a matter of fact, it just does not matter where you draw your line. If you judge a border purely from the linguistic point of view, you will be going against the wishes of many people.

Invariably, there are bilingual areas. As long as you cannot prevent people of one state from going to another, there will always be bilingual areas. Are you going to, contrary to the dictates of the Constitution, stop the movement of workers or of other people from one state to another? You cannot.

Therefore, whatever fixed line you may draw, people on one side may be attracted to the other and move there, and thus change the linguistic composition of the state or of the border area.

Are we going to sit down every few years and say, ‘The language ratio of this particular tehsil or taluk has changed, and, therefore, it should be taken out of this state and put into another?’

You must realise that while there are clearly marked linguistic regions, there are also bilingual areas and even trilingual areas between two such regions. And wherever you may draw your line, you do justice to one group and injustice to another.

From the language point of view, good reason, good logic and good argument can be found for each side of every case. That is the difficulty… You may balance them and say that one argument is stronger than the other.

But, generally, if the case of one side appears better the case of the other side seems pretty good too. Maps and census figures have become the fashion now. Are we to weigh in a balance how many individuals speak one language and how many speak another? It will lead to all kinds of fantastic situations.

I submit that we must consider this matter separately from the question of language.

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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