Work and More Work

Convocation address of Jawaharlal Nehru at Lady Irwin College, New Delhi, 20 March 1949.

Mrs. Rustomji Faridoonji [1] and Friends,

Always at such functions there is an initial and primary difficulty about the language one should use, and sometimes that difficulty is got over by a bilingual effort. Well, Mrs. Rustomji tells me that I can have my choice but she would somewhat prefer speaking in English. I would somewhat prefer speaking in Hindi. So in the balance, perhaps, you might have a little of both. It is curious, but I think this is the first time I have come to the Lady Irwin College. [2] I have come to this building previously, but for other purposes. Yet for a large number of years, I have been hearing about it, and some people closely associated with this college have been my intimate friends and colleagues. They have often spoken about it, and I have heard a great deal to the advantage of this college, and sometimes some things to the disadvantage of this college. Still, I must say that the general report has been to its advantage. I have little doubt that this college is doing very good work and institutions of this kind should be encouraged.

But sometimes a kind of doubt creeps into my mind as to how far an institution like this, which is undoubtedly good but deals only with an isolated class of the Indian population instead of dealing with any mass problem, is useful. In spite of managing its own affairs fairly well, how far is it really helping in the upliftment of the vast masses of India? If it is not concerned with the latter problem, it will gradually get more and more isolated. The fact is that whether you want it or not, or whether I want it or not, the whole trend of future affairs will have to do more and more with the vast numbers of people in India. But there is a difficulty about that; if we think too much in terms of the masses, it may mean reducing our standards which we should rather keep up in every way. On the other hand, if we think only in terms of standards for a group or a class and not in terms of the larger numbers of human beings in the country, then those very standards become not only quite separated and isolated from the rest of the country, but ultimately have little meaning except possibly for a few individuals or a small group. 

Now, how to strike a balance between the two? It is a difficult problem because the standards of our masses are terribly low and nothing really can be done with those standards except to try to raise them. To bring down the standards of others to that level may not result in raising the general standards. Therefore, we have to keep up higher standards in education etc., but somehow we must tie them on to the other problems in order to give them vitality and a certain organic connection with the real problems of the country. Inevitably the real problems of the country will have to deal with the millions in this country. They will also, I hope, deal with the exceptional people and give them every encouragement. But those persons who are not exceptional in mind or body but who happen to be exceptional only because their parents possess some more money may not be encouraged too much because there is nothing particular in them to be encouraged. Therefore in all these educational institutions, which cater to the select few, this problem has to be faced. I do not mention this problem particularly for this institution, but this is a genuine problem of our educational institutions. We have to keep a high standard of education in our schools, though at this moment we just cannot afford to impart it to everybody. We cannot scrap a good system and introduce a relatively low standard for everybody. That would not be good enough, because then we will have nothing to work for. It would be right to keep these high standard institutions as examples and work for the others to reach that level.

Again, those people who go out from these institutions after receiving their training, what do they look forward to exactly? What is their purpose in life? After all, education is meant to give some purpose in life or the capacity to choose one’s purpose in life. I do not know if all those who go through our educational processes have any clear purpose in life or not. But they ought to have one, whatever that might be. Those who are fortunate in getting the advantage of special education and training should be thankful to the community and must try to pay back in some form of service to the community. Otherwise, those people have profited unfairly at the expense of the community. The more the community has spent on them in terms of time, service and money the greater the obligation of those people to the community. Now, those, for instance, who pass through the Lady Irwin College and get their diplomas, what exactly do they intend to do with them? Some of them will teach here, some of them may go elsewhere to perform some active service to the community, which I consider is really good. Many of them no doubt will get entangled in marriage. Please do not think at all that I am against the institution of marriage. Not that, but it is not quite clear to me, why a person who gets married should forget or ignore her duty to the community. I think it is quite possible that the two functions marriage and service to the community can be combined. I do further feel that our girls should realize that marriage does not, in a sense, end their career of service to the community. Therefore those who learn here and study here, I hope, will carry back this obligation with them. Just as the community, may be through their parents or others, has helped them to gain this special knowledge or experience, similarly it is up to them to pay back the debt through service.

As a matter of fact, the India of today wants in every sphere a vast number of trained workers of all types and kinds. In the past we worked only on political lines for political purposes. Now politics is ever with us in some form or the other, often enough in very undesirable forms. A country which is fighting a struggle for freedom has its mind concentrated on the political aspect of the question. It is as if a person has some kind of a boil on the body, and you have to think of that particular painful eruption and forget everything else more or less. It is not a healthy sign that politics absorbs all our attention, when we should be dominated by other developments for the nation’s interest. Only when that ceases can a free community think of many other things and activities.

At the present moment we are in a strange period of transition and adjustment. Very few of us and, I say so quite frankly, including myself, can easily adjust ourselves to the rapid change in the scene that is taking place partly all over the world and more so in India. So many things have happened here. There is a tremendous lag between things as they are happening and the functioning of our minds. It is an odd thing, because the mind and thought should function with extreme rapidity. Nevertheless, people’s minds are very slow, and they seldom catch up to events. Most of the difficulties the world suffers from are due to the fact that people’s minds are not catching up to changing events. When events change very rapidly, as they change now, everything gets upset. There are external upsets and even worse internal upsets in people’s minds. Now, therefore, we are passing through this period which requires a tremendous deal of understanding of changing things, political, economic, social and cultural and our adaptation to them; not only adaptation but also an attempt to mould them in the right direction. Ultimately, I suppose, we have to do it, and we will do it, but if we do not adapt ourselves properly, we will be forced to do so painfully.

So, those of you, who have completed or are going to complete your courses of education now and have to face India at this very strange and peculiar stage of her existence, have to understand India as she is; the problems of India and your duty to India, and to the community at large. We talk a great deal in terms of platitudes. A platitude, of course, is a good thing, for normally it is supposed to represent some permanent truth. So we need not decry a platitude. But there is a danger in uttering a platitude. By doing so we think we have done our duty and our mind does not try to understand anything else and we do not try to adjust ourselves to the particular functions we should perform.

Now, perhaps, what I am telling you is not quite suited to the occasion. But, anyhow, I have said what occurred to me and I thought important. All of us should understand things, as they are, the basic, fundamental things that are happening, not so much the superficial things, not even, if I may say so with all respect, the arguments that take place in our Assemblies and elsewhere because sometimes they are important, sometimes they deal with temporary, more or less day to day matters, which are exciting and interesting but which may have no significance a year later. The test of a thing after all is, will it be important ten years later, five years later or not? It is extraordinary to think that the average happenings, over which we get tremendously excited, become insignificant five years later and we forget about them. So let us remember this changing scene, try to understand it and try to fit into it, and try to realize that India is changing; is going to change by the hard work of her people and not by superficial efforts or resolutions of some persons or organizations although well-meaning. So it is time for hard work for all of us.

The other day I used a phrase which, if you will permit me, I shall repeat because it brought to my own mind rather dramatically the situation we are in. I said that this generation of ours was condemned to hard labour. Now, hard labour can be of many kinds. There is the hard labour of the prison of the condemned convict which is imposed upon him whether he wants it or not; and if he fails or slackens, he is punished. Nothing can be more disagreeable than that. Then there is the hard labour for doing something which you value, try to achieve something which appeals to you and which yields results. Now that type of hard labour is a most exhilarating experience. You grow with it. You have a feeling of contentment and satisfaction. Hearing the rumour that I work till late in the night people come and tell me, feeling no doubt very friendly to me, that “you must not work so hard, you must sleep more, you must eat more, you must do this and that, take holidays”, and the like.

Very good advice no doubt. But when I look around me and see the condition of my contemporaries at school and college, who to the best of my belief have slept more, eaten more, rested more, taken more holidays than I did, I find that I am much better than they: better physically, better mentally, more alive, more vital, more capable of work, and with more capacity to enjoy life. And they, having tried all through their lives to preserve themselves for some future occasion, have somehow missed the very thing they were aiming at. So do not be afraid of work; work hard, when you like to, work all night and work all day, it won’t do any harm I can tell you. We require this work, but the work of course must not be just an odd work but a work to bear fruit; it must be a work coming out of a trained mind and a trained body. All worthwhile work must have training behind it and presumably the Lady Irwin College trains your minds and bodies.

You get your diplomas here, but the examinations that are likely to come later for you will be much more difficult. Every period and stage of life is a kind of examination and a test. There are not many who pass that examination; quite a large number linger on the way or slacken or simply drop out of the procession, and very few reach the end of the journey, as they should, in proper condition. So, if the Lady Irwin College has not only taught you how to work and fitted your minds and bodies for it but also given you an urge to work and work hard for a good cause, then it has done well with you. If you have aimed merely at getting a diploma and using it as something of marketable value, and have no other particular intention, then the Lady Irwin College has rather wasted its efforts on you. Now, I propose to speak in Hindustani.

What will you do after you have passed your examinations and received the diplomas? Will you go abroad? What are the goals before you? You must have something definite in mind. There is no reason for all of you to have the same goals and ideals or that they should remain unaltered throughout your lives. You can make changes. But you must have a definite purpose in mind if you want to succeed. The India of today needs bright, hard working and intelligent people. I see that often people are busy criticizing and complaining about others abusing them, and do not do anything themselves. There are many people like this. No doubt it is a very easy thing to do—criticizing the actions of others because there are many weaknesses and evils in our country. But if you really want to improve the others, you can do so only by doing something yourself. Merely criticizing others does not have much effect.

Therefore I tell you only this, that I hope you have learnt to work hard, to work whole-heartedly and with a view to achieving something, and not to interfere in other people’s business. Yes, friendly advice is a good thing but merely criticizing and finding faults with others is the hallmark of an idle mind and it is not tolerated for long. Just now Mrs. Rustomji Faridoonji mentioned about my father and his times. I have the right to say that I too belong to those times because we belong to a rapidly passing era. Now it is the turn of you young men and women, boys and girls. You will have to take up the burdens and responsibilities of India. We cannot go on forever—others have to take their turn. How far you are able to take up these responsibilities will depend on how well you have trained your minds.

You have been through college and received diplomas but you will be mistaken if you think that your days of study are over or that you have acquired all the knowledge that is necessary and that you have no need to make any more effort. A man learns very little in a university or a college. What you learn there—if it is good education-is merely to train your minds to learn on your own. If you have learnt that much in the Lady Irwin College, then you have learnt a good deal because no one can learn much in two or three years. But if your minds have received the proper training and acquired the capacity to leam on your own, then you have done well because it means that you have equipped yourself with the method of learning.

College education is only a beginning, your real learning has to continue throughout your lives. I would like to tell you that what I read in school and college was very little. Yes, I got a diploma and a B.A. and an M.A. degree. But let me tell you that I did not have to work very hard to get it. I bought them for five pounds because the tradition in the University of Cambridge was that if the honours graduates kept paying their subscriptions for 3 years, they were automatically given M.A. degrees. So I wasted that money and got the degree. But though whatever I learnt there in the University was useful, my real learning came later when I had opportunity, which you will probably never have, of having complete leisure to read in jails. Now this sort of good fortune does not fall to everyone’s lot and hereafter there will be no such opportunity in India. Anyhow, whether you go to jail or not, you must understand that if you stop reading and learning even for a little while, you will become backward in the world. You must keep the windows of your minds, your eyes and ears constantly open. Reading does not mean merely taking up a novel and enjoying it. You can read it, of course. But real reading should enrich the mind, train it to think and help in understanding a little the problems of the world and especially those which arise during the course of your own work and to look at them from fresh angles.

Yesterday I did an unusual thing. I went to see a film. It was unusual for me. The film was shown in the Government House in the afternoon and lasted for about two hours. It was from our Indian Information Service, an official documentary called ‘India Independent.’ I think it is a good film and if you have the opportunity, you should also see it, though I do not have to tell you because you must be going often to films. In the beginning the ancient buildings and temples of India are shown, bringing into focus India’s ancient culture, tradition and civilization. Then gradually it comes up to the recent history of the last 30 odd years since Mahatma Gandhi came on the scene and the struggle for freedom began. There are brief scenes from the freedom movement, satyagraha, etc., but not in great detail because the whole story has to be told in 10-15 minutes. Then the events of the last 2 to 3 years are shown, ending with the 15th of August, 1947, our Independence Day. In about half an hour or forty-five minutes, 2500 years of Indian history was presented before us—the ancient period, the freedom struggle, and then the recent past. It had a very peculiar effect on me to see the history of India unfolding before me. I have thought and written a great deal about the subject. So when I saw the film, it shook me up and I felt that in this long procession of thousands of years of India’s history, we too have played a part, albeit with faltering steps, and we too will move ahead, yielding our place to others.

So the history of our time is a splendid one and we should do nothing to detract from it, but must contribute towards making it even more splendid. There is no doubt that our history, long as it is, is ancient, first-rate and something to be proud of, even if we have fallen into wrong ways from time to time. The film showed the period in which we have also played a small role and though actually the main character was Mahatma Gandhi, in whose shadow we walked, we too gained in stature and shone. When I saw the film, I remembered all these long years of struggle and clamour and realized that an era had ended. A new chapter begins in the history of India and though we still continue to be a part of it, now the responsibility is of others, of girls and boys like you and our youth. It is a big responsibility but you should feel honoured to shoulder it. So you have to prepare yourself and remember that it is not a small thing to be able to call yourself citizens of India. We are heirs to the great wealth of India accumulated over thousands of years and it belongs to all of us. The heritage of India belongs to every citizen of India and not only to India but to the whole world; but it belongs more especially to us because it is the product of our own country and we grow up with it. So the question before us is, how to make ourselves worthy of that heritage and how to add something to the history of our times and not detract from it? You have to keep this problem before you and think about it constantly. Only then you and the country and the world will benefit from what you have learnt here. Jai Hind.

[1] Hilla Rustomji Faridoonji (1872-1956); founder secretary and chairperson of the All India Women's Education Fund Association, 1929; Chairperson, Lady Irwin College, 1933-44, and its President, 1944-56.

[2] Founded in 1932 to teach Home Sciences. 

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