Nehru's Word: The civilisation of tribals will outlive the city civilisation

"I would any day prefer to be a nomad in the hills than to be a member of the stock exchange or be made to sit there and listen to those ugly noises"

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)

Jawaharlal Nehru

The North-East and the tribal groups living there need delicate handling, respecting their culture, traditions, and rights. Any mishandling of these aspects can quickly make the situation volatile, as is visible in Manipur. Jawaharlal Nehru, who guided the evolution of policy towards tribal societies and the North-East after Independence, was well aware of these concerns. Below is the first part of a speech Nehru made at the opening session of the Conference on Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Areas in New Delhi on 7 June 1952 in which he laid down his approach.


I suppose you have invited me here because I happen to occupy the office of the prime minister. Well, that may be right. But I think I have another and possibly a greater claim to participation in this conference. And that is that I have felt—not since I became the prime minister, but for many, many years previously—very strongly attracted towards the tribal people of this country.

This attraction has not been that of a seeker looking for odd and curious customs. It has also not been even the attraction of the one who wants to go and do good to other people. It has just been the attraction of feeling happy among the tribal people, of feeling at home with them, of liking them without any desire to do them good or to have good done to me.

I have found in the tribal people many qualities that I did not find in the people of the plains, in the cities, and in many other parts of India. And those qualities attracted me.

They were a virile people, they sometimes went astray, they sometimes quarrelled, even cut off each other’s head—which were deplorable occurrences and should be stopped—but even so, it struck me as perhaps a little better than the more evil practices that prevail in cities, because it is sometimes better to cut the hand or the head off than to crush and trample on the heart of a man or a people.

So, I felt happier with these simple folk. And perhaps there is also something of the nature of the nomad in me, which found congenial soil there. So, I approach them in a spirit of comradeship, in a spirit of getting on with them rather than as a person aloof and distant from them who had come to look at them critically and to report about them and try to make them conform to my way.

I am getting a little alarmed to find in this world of ours, not only in our country but in other countries, great countries, how people are anxious and keen to make others conform to their own image or likeness, their way of living or a certain way of living. If we want our way of living, we are welcome to it. But why impose our way of living on others who have their own way of living?

Now, that applies not only internally to a nation but internationally too. In the sphere of foreign affairs, there would be much more peace if people did not want to impose their way of living on other people and other countries. So here too, in relation to tribal people, it should not be a question of our starting with the assumption that we are better than the others, and therefore it is our duty to impose our way of living on them.

I am being completely honest with you when I tell you that I am not at all sure which way of living is better, yours or the tribal people’s… If that is so,it is just being absolutely presumptuous on the part of any of us to approach this question with an air of superiority, of going there to tell them how to behave, what to do and what not to do, and try to make them a poor, second-rate copy of ourselves.

I think even this way of thinking is rather wrong. We—and the words I use are rather likely to lead to wrong inference—I said, we and they: they being the tribal folk and we being something apart from them. Well, there is a difference, of course, just as there are differences in various parts of India, differences of all kinds, and perhaps even among the tribal folk inter se, the differences are great.

There are many ways of describing the tribal folk. Sometimes they are called people of the hills and people of the plains and they vary considerably. Just as the hills leave their mark on the persons who are born and brought up there, so do the plains on the people who take birth there and grow in that environment. My own predilection is, as perhaps some of you know, rather for the mountains than the plains, rather for the hill folk than the plains people…

There must be no superiority complex in regard to this matter. Therefore, there must be no approach of the superior to an inferior about it; there must also be no approach of teaching others but of learning and, having learnt, to try to help, to cooperate.

That approach is very important, because there is a very great deal to learn from them, not from all of them but certainly from those in the frontier areas. They are an extraordinarily disciplined people; they are, if I may say so, often a much more democratic people than most others in India. They are essentially democratic, without your Constitution and the rest.

They function democratically, whether it is as tribes or as clans or whatever you like, and carry out the decisions which are made by their elders or their representatives, almost without exception. Above all, they are a people who sing and dance and try to enjoy life. They are not the people who sit on the stock exchanges and make funny noises and silly gestures and call that the civilisation.

I would prefer any day to be a nomad in the hills than to be a member of the stock exchange or to be made to sit there and to listen to those frightfully ugly noises there. Is that a civilisation we want the tribal people to develop, the civilisation of our stock exchanges and the rest? I hope not.

I hope, and I am quite sure, that ultimately the civilisation of the tribal folk, of song and dance, will last after the stock exchanges have ceased to be in this country and other countries.

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

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