Nehru’s Word: We need to create a bond of affection with the tribals

"We had political integration of the states. But that is not enough. We must have something more intimate than political integration"

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru

More than three months have passed since Manipur erupted in violence that involves unchecked use of sophisticated weapons. The neighbouring Mizoram is also affected and there is grave danger of the crisis spreading to other areas in a very sensitive border zone. Jawaharlal Nehru had warned many years ago that the North-East in general, and the tribal groups in particular, require very delicate handling with due respect to their culture and traditions. This is the second part of a speech PM 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 set out the approach to be followed. 


When I look at the progress of what is called modern civilisation in India, I see many good things. [But] I also see lack of many good things, and some of the things it lacks here, I find in the tribal folk—this spirit of song and dance and an appreciation of life, of enjoying life. I want, therefore, if you or I or others go there and meet these people, it is necessary for us to go there to learn and to imbibe something of the spirit pervading those places and not go there with long faces and black gowns and try to kill that spirit among those people.

We have had, for half a century or more, a movement, a struggle for freedom in this country culminating in our achieving Independence. The struggle itself, apart from the result of it, has a liberating tendency… We must remember that this experience, which millions of Indian people had, did not extend to the tribal areas.

It may—and it did—affect somewhat the tribes in the central parts of India undoubtedly, not so intimately perhaps, but somewhat they saw it. But if you go to the frontier areas, say, of Assam, it did not affect it at all...

We were not allowed to go in those old days by the old British authorities, so that our freedom movement did not reach those people. Rumours of it reached them and sometimes they reacted rightly or wrongly for the moment. About 21 years ago, there was that incident in the tribal areas of Assam, of a lady, Rani Gaidilieu, who, hearing stories of that great movement in 1930, here in India and of Gandhiji’s name, became some kind of a leader…

Anyhow, the essence of the struggle for freedom, which meant raising some kind of a liberating force in India, did not reach those areas, chiefly the frontier areas, which are the most important tribal areas. The result was that while we had been psychologically prepared during the last 30, 40, 50 years for various changes in India, those frontier areas did not get so prepared…

I am pointing these out to you to show how in tackling this problem we have to consider very important factors. It is not a question of so many schools and so many dispensaries and hospitals. Of course, they want schools and hospitals and dispensaries and roads and all that. But that is rather a mundane way of looking at things.

What we ought to be after is not merely to put up a building here and a building there, but to develop the sense of oneness with these people, that sense of unity, the understanding that would even deter me from referring to our relationship with the tribal people as ‘we’ and ‘they’ as that itself is wrong. It shows a feeling of separateness existing between us.

Jawaharlal Nehru in Manipur during a tour of the North-East amid tribal unrest, April 1953 (Photo: Getty Images)
Jawaharlal Nehru in Manipur during a tour of the North-East amid tribal unrest, April 1953 (Photo: Getty Images)

And there comes the psychological approach. You may talk in this conference day after day about the development programmes regarding schools and other matters, but you will fail completely if you do not touch the core of the problem, that is, how to understand these people and make them understand you and to create a bond of affection and understanding with them.

Sometimes people talk of integration and consolidation of these people. I think the basic problem of India today, taken as a whole, is one of integration and consolidation. We had political integration of the states. But that is not enough.

We have to have something much more intimate than political integration and that process takes time. It is not a matter of law, it grows. You cannot force that thing to grow as you cannot force a plant or a flower to grow. You can only nurture it and produce conditions when it grows.

So, the greatest problem today of India is a psychological integration and consolidation—the building up of a unity which will do away with provincialism and communalism and various other isms which disrupt and separate. Having said that, I should like to say that this talk of integration and consolidation of the tribal people is very largely wrong. It is a wrong approach. It is a wrong approach both practically and psychologically.

If your approach is to win them by your affection, to go to them as a liberating force, to go to them as friends so that they may feel you have not come to take away something from them but to give them something, that is the right integration.

But if they feel that you have come to impose yourself, to interfere, to come in their way, to try to change their methods of living, to take away their land, to push some of your businessmen there who will exploit them, then it is all wrong, completely wrong.

Therefore, the less talk we have of this type of integration and consolidation of the tribal areas, the better. That integration will come when the tribal people come to you, wanting you, not by your going to them and bringing them in by the scruff of the neck.


We have to be doubly careful in appointing officers in tribal areas, because the officer in the tribal area is not merely a man who has passed an examination or who has gained some experience of routine work, but he must be a man or a woman whose mind understands, whose mind, and even more so whose heart understands this problem, who is an enthusiast in this business, who does not go there to just sit in an office for a few hours a day and for the rest curse his luck at being sent to an out of the way place…

This is important because the man who goes there as an officer must be prepared to share his life with the people of the tribe, the tribal folk. He must be prepared to enter their huts, talk to them, eat with them and smoke with them, if necessary, whatever it is—to live their life, not to consider himself as something superior or apart, and thereby gain their confidence in this way and then advise them…

[Hence] our approach should be a psychological approach which always seeks to win their affection, and you can only win any person’s affection or any people’s by giving affection.

(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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