Freeing the spirit of Man: Nehru on communalism, theocracy and Pakistan

Jawaharlal Nehru gives the convocation address at Aligarh Muslim University on January 24, 1948.   | Photo Credit: Hindu Photo Archives

I have come back to Aligarh and to this University after a long interval. We have been separated not only by a distance of time, but also by a distance of spirit and outlook. I do not quite know where you, or for the matter of that most of us, stand today, for we have gone through convulsions and heartbreaks which have no doubt created in many of us doubts and disillusionment. While the present is full of uncertainty, the future is even more shrouded and difficult to pierce. Nevertheless, we have to face this present and try to mould the future. We have to see, each one of us, where we stand and what we stand for. Without a stout anchor of faith in the future we will drift in the present and life itself would have no objective worth striving for.

I have accepted the invitation of your Vice-Chancellor with pleasure, for I wanted to meet all of you and to probe somewhat into your minds and to let you have a glimpse of my own mind. We have to understand one another, and if we cannot agree about everything, we must at least agree to differ and know where we agree and where we differ.

For every sensitive human being in India the last six months have brought pain and sorrow, and what is worst of all, a humiliation of the spirit. It has been bad enough for those who are old in years and experienced, but I often wonder how the young feel who, at the threshold of their lives, have seen and experienced catastrophe and disaster. They will, no doubt, survive it, for youth is resilient; but it may well be that they will carry the mark of it for the rest of their days. Perhaps if we are wise and strong enough to think and act rightly even now, we may succeed in erasing that mark.

For my part I wish to say that, in spite of everything, I have a firm faith in India's future. Indeed, if I did not have it, it would not have been possible for me to work effectively. Although many of my old dreams have been shattered by recent events, yet the basic objective still holds and I see no reason to change it. That objective is to build up a free India of high ideals and noble endeavour where there is equality of opportunity for all and where many variegated streams of thought and culture meet together to form a mighty river of progress and advancement for her people.

I am proud of India, not only because of her ancient, magnificent heritage, but also because of her remarkable capacity to add to it by keeping the doors and windows of her mind and spirit open to fresh and invigorating winds from distant lands. India's strength has been twofold; her own innate culture which flowered through the ages, and her capacity to draw from other sources and thus add to her own. She was far too strong to be submerged by outside streams, and she was too wise to isolate herself from them, and so there is a continuing synthesis in India's real history and the many political changes which have taken place have had little effect on the growth of this variegated and yet essentially unified culture.

I have said that I am proud of our inheritance and our ancestors who gave an intellectual and cultural pre-eminence to India. How do you feel about this past? Do you feel that you are also sharers in it and inheritors of it and, therefore proud of something that belongs to you as much as to me? Or do you feel alien to it and pass it by without understanding it or feeling that strange thrill which comes from the realization that we are the trustees and inheritors of this vast treasure? I ask you these questions, because in recent years many forces have been at play diverting people's minds into wrong channels and trying to pervert the course of history. You are Muslims and I am a Hindu. We may adhere to different religious faiths or even to none; but that does not take away from that cultural inheritance that is yours as well as mine. The past holds us together; why should the present or the future divide us in spirit?

Political changes produce certain results, but the essential changes are in the spirit and outlook of a nation. What has troubled me very greatly during these past months and years is not the political changes, but rather the creeping sense of a change of spirit which has created enormous barriers between us. The attempt to change the spirit of India was a reversal of the historical process through which we had been passing for long ages past and it is because we tried to reverse the current of history that disaster overwhelmed us. We cannot easily play about with geography or with the powerful trends which make history. And it is infinitely worse if we make hatred and violence the springs of action.

Pakistan has come into being, rather unnaturally I think. Nevertheless, it represents the urges of a large number of persons. I believe that this development has been a throwback but we accepted it in good faith. I want you to understand clearly what our present view is. We have been charged with desiring to strangle and crush Pakistan and to force it into a reunion with India. That charge, as many others, is based on fear and a complete misunderstanding of our attitude. I believe that, for a variety of reasons, it is inevitable that India and Pakistan should draw closer to each other, or else they will come into conflict. There is no middle way, for we have known each other too long to be indifferent neighbours. I believe indeed that in the present context of the world India must develop a closer union with many other neighbouring countries. But all this does not mean any desire to strangle or compel Pakistan. Compulsion there can never be, and an attempt to disrupt Pakistan would recoil to India's disadvantage. If we had wanted to break Pakistan, why did we agree to the partition? It was easier to prevent it then than to try to do so now after all that has happened. There is no going back in history. As a matter of fact it is to India's advantage that Pakistan should be a secure and prosperous State with which we can develop close and friendly relations. If today by any chance I were offered the reunion of India and Pakistan, I would decline it for obvious reasons. I do not want to carry the burden of Pakistan's great problems. I have enough of my own. Any closer association must come out of a normal process and in a friendly way which does not end Pakistan as a State, but makes it an equal part of a larger union in which several countries might be associated.

I have spoken of Pakistan because that subject must be in your minds and you would like to know what our attitude towards it is. Your minds are probably in a fluid state at present, not knowing which way to look and what to do. All of us have to be clear about our basic allegiance to certain ideas. Do we believe in a national State which includes people of all religions and shades of opinion and is essentially secular as a State, or do we believe in the religious, theocratic conception of a State which regards people of other faiths as somebody beyond the pale? That is an odd question to ask, for the idea of a religious or theocratic State was given up by the world some centuries ago and has no place in the mind of the modern man. And yet the question has to be put in India today, for many of us have tried to jump back to a past age. I have no doubt that whatever our individual answers may be, it is not possible for us to go back to a conception that the world has outlived and that is completely out of tune with modern conceptions. As far as India is concerned, I can speak with some certainty. We shall proceed on secular and national lines in keeping with the powerful trends towards internationalism. Whatever confusion the present may contain, in the future, India will be a land, as in the past, of many faiths equally honoured and respected, but of one national outlook, not, I hope, a narrow nationalism living in its own shell, but rather the tolerant creative nationalism which, believing in itself and the genius of its people, takes full part in the establishment of an international order. The only ultimate aim we can have is that of One World. That seems a far cry today with warring groups and preparations for and shouting of World War Three. Yet, despite all this shouting, that is the only aim that we can keep in view, for the alternative to world co-operation is world disaster.

We must cultivate this broad outlook and not be led away by the narrowness of others into becoming narrow in spirit and outlook ourselves. We have had enough of what has been called communalism in this country and we have tasted of its bitter and poisonous fruit. It is time that we put an end to it. For my part I do not like the intrusion of this communal spirit anywhere, and least of all in educational institutions. Education is meant to free the spirit of man and not to imprison it in set frames. I do not like this university being called the Muslim University just as I do not like the Benares University to be called the Hindu University. This does not mean that a university should not specialize in particular cultural subjects and studies. I think it is right that this University should lay special stress on certain aspects of Islamic thought and culture.

I want you to think about those problems and come to your own conclusions. These conclusions cannot be forced upon you except to some extent, of course, by the compulsion of events which none of us can ignore. Do not think that you are outsiders here, for you are as much flesh and blood of India as anyone else, and you have every right to share in what India has to offer. But those who seek rights must share in the obligations also. Indeed, if the duties and obligations are accepted, then rights flow of themselves. I invite you as free citizens of free India to play your role in the building up of this great country and to be sharers, in common with others, in the triumphs and setbacks alike that may come our way. The present with all its unhappiness and misery will pass. It is the future that counts, more especially to the young, and it is that future that beckons to you. How will you answer that call?

Taken from Jawaharlal Nehru, Selected Speeches, Volume One, 1946–1949, Pages 334-338, Publications Division, Sixth Edition, April 1996.

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