17 June, 2024


The Unheard Words Of Wisdom: Revisiting Pandit Nehru After 70 Years

By Saumya Liyanage

Dr. Saumya Liyanage

In 1950, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), the Prime Minister of India, was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the annual convocation ceremony at the King George’s Hall, the University of Ceylon, Colombo. He had been invited to deliver the talk at the ceremony, perhaps with the invitation sent by the first Vice Chancellor of the University (1942-1954), Sir Ivor Jennings (1903-1965). The Chancellor, Lord Soulbury (1887-1971), would have been in the audience, waiting to hear his talk. Celebrated academics such as Prof. G. P. Malalasekera (1899-1973), Prof. E. F. C. Ludowyk (1906-1985), and, of course, Prof. Sarachchandra (1914-1996) might have been on stage, with other academics, behind Nehru, wearing their professorial cloaks and funny headdresses. Academics and graduates would have been highly excited and ambitious to hear the talk delivered by one of the most charismatic and powerful orators at the time.

I have never heard of such a high ranked diplomacy that had been invited to deliver a convocation speech at a degree offering ceremony in Sri Lanka since the 70 years of Sri Lankan independence. From the 1950s to the present, more than thousands of keynotes have been delivered at convocation ceremonies in the 16 national universities in the country. Hundreds of thousands of graduates may have been graduated. Yet, I have not heard such a powerful and thought-provoking talk, with such wisdom and vision that one has presented, predicting the fate of a country futuristically. Today, while some of the keynote speeches at degree awarding ceremonies are a frivolity, and entertain audiences with Sinhala pop songs, (ignoring other nationalities in the audience), it is remarkable that 70 years ago, Pandit Nehru had the courage and wisdom to view a tapestry of truth which speared the consciousness of Sri Lankan intelligentsia that lasted for decades.


Pandit Nehru delivered this visionary talk at the King George hall on the 12th of January1950 to congratulate the degree holders who were about to receive accolades for their hard work. Nehru was preparing to talk to these young academics, their parents and the faculty who were eagerly waiting to hear the words of the first Prime Minister of India. Yet, surprisingly, his speech addressed some of the issues that have been neglected and still prevail in this country after 70 years of his speech. This talk he delivered may have undoubtedly ignited many thoughts among listeners, some might have been disappointed, and others, excited. His speech was simple yet deep and philosophically rich. In his talk, he shared visionary guidance for our educators and administrators to run our Universities and provided a philosophy to build a cohesive and restrained society that can absorb the changes and challenges in the new world. But alas…..his words went down the drain.

Yet, after 70 years of struggle, hatred and communal rivalries, we failed to achieve what Pandit Nehru had envisioned in his talk. We have produced graduates who are introverted and technocratic, who would perhaps suit the propagation of liberal economic policies adapted by our ruling governments to run businesses. Yet, we have not been able to produce people who can see life, the future of the country and our relationship with the world through a bird’s eye view, which helps us to see the clear picture of how we started, what we have been doing, and where we are heading. We have not been able to produce graduates who would soar in the sky, enabling them to see the land and the people in a critical and constructive way. We have failed to produce academics, who can understand worldly phenomena in cohesive and integrated ways, which helps us to find solutions to the issues that our people face today.

Nehru and Nation

Javaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) was a leading political figure who led the Indian independence struggle and became the first prime Minister of India (1947-64). Nehru’s role in the Indian independence struggle and his role in politics has not always been admired by educated Indians. Yet, as a close disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, his role in the regional and international politics have been powerful enough to attract regional and global attention. Writing Nehru’s biography, Benjamin Zachariah wrote: ‘Powerful, but not obsessed with power. Vain, but not unreasonably so. Wealthy in his own right, but never crass. Upper-caste, but not caste-ist. Modern, urbane, well-read, well-regarded even by his – and our (at least until not long ago) British overlords, capable of beating them at their own games. With a gift for the right phrase in the right place – in English. And yet truly multicultural’ (Zachariah 2004, p. xxii). At the time Nehru was talking to a group of academics in Kandy, Sri Lankan society was in a debate on cultural revival and nation-building. Though Nehru had been successful in his foreign diplomacy, during this time, he also had experienced internal issues related to ‘nation-building’ project of India. During his undergraduate years at Cambridge University, Fabian Socialism was much influential in the academic lives of Nehru. He has specifically mentioned his reading of George Bernard Shaw and his visit to one of his lectures delivered at Cambridge titled ‘Socialism and the University Man’ (Zachariah 2004, p. 24).  Being a Fabian Socialist, Shaw might have been an attractive idol for Nehru who principally rejected the ‘revolutionary doctrine’ but believed in a gradual transition to socialist society (ibid).

After 70 years of democracy and party politics in the country, Sri Lanka has been experiencing a roller coaster of upheavals and downfalls of austerity, communal violence and war. Sri Lanka has been a site of contradictions, paradoxes and complexities in handling and managing the diversified concerns of people and their multi-ethnic needs and aspirations. Establishing the University of Ceylon (1942) was one of the long-term investments of the Colonial Government to produce intellectuals who can further operate as a bourgeoisie to absorb into the administration, education and the like to continue the imperial power and commerce. In 1956, with the emergence of the Sinhala language policy and the Sinhala Buddhist identity politics, the country was further engulfed in a dark era. The consequences of these short-sighted political decisions have still been apparent in the society and in the academia. The notorious ideologies such as nation, nationhood, country, culture, authenticity, religion are still been decisive elements of contemporary democracy. Yet as we can see, these imaginaries have been developed, sustained and even disseminated through various means of narratives, texts and events developed by various sectors of the society including those who were sitting and listening to Nehru’s talk that day.

Integrated View

On 12th January, Nehru started his talk after getting a formal permission from the Vice Chancellor and other distinguished guests. First and foremost, he touched on the dogmatism that has been overshadowed in many communities including Asia and elsewhere. He argued that human beings are facing numerous problems and puzzles that are not only generated from religions and cultures but from other discourses. His argument was that there are other ways of resolving issues rather than presenting dogmatic stances and creating rigid counter actions. As a humanist, Nehru was a believer of ‘science’; the rational approaches to resolve issues. However, living in the 50s, Nehru predicted the emerging global economies and multinational industries that were spreading its tentacles towards the third world and other peripheries. He saw it as a positive development of the world order. He said that the gap between East and the West was blurring and allowing people to feel safer and develop corporation between nations. Yet he further warned that while the East and West is converging, there are other complexities and difficulties which would arise in the Asian region. He argued:

But I have often wondered why there has been this failure in the past to find solutions to our problems. Is it due to a lack of wit in statesmen or to a lack of understanding? I do not think that is so because they have been able statesmen, earnest statesmen, desiring peace and co-operation but, somehow or other, solutions have escaped them. Why, then, is it so? I do not know, except that perhaps it may be that we work too much on the superficial plane, finding solutions to the troubles of the moment and not looking to the deeper causes. Perhaps, it may be that (Nehru 1950, p.70)

Nehru clearly articulated the problem of the statesmen. He saw that statesmen may have been trying to bring solutions to those problems with genuine intent, but with a lack of futuristic vision on how these gruesome problems may have been sedimented in the social milieu. They have not been able to understand that these issues can later erupt in a different time and space. He was self–referentially talking about the failures of political authorities who have not been able to provide concrete solutions to problems that Asians experience today. He saw the difference between ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ and argued that though science has been able to provide some of the solutions for the burning issues of the human beings, being ‘scientific’ may not be helpful in resolving all the problems. What he meant by ‘scientific’ is the technocratic transformation of human beings and their dealing with human issues amidst the industrial technological development that he saw in the mid-50s. 

We are living in an era where the greater debate is on how to develop entrepreneurial graduates. This bizarre term came into play in the past few years with increasing attention being paid on the efficacy of Universities and their production of undergraduates. Governments have been telling this mantra to academics and are trying to integrate English and IT into all those disciplines that are currently taught at universities. In 1950, Nehru, saw what would happen to our universities if we choose to produce white collar workers. It will be the end of the university system. First he talked about how people who had limited access to information in the old civilizations, who had ‘an integrated view of life’ (Nehru 1950, p. 71). Nehru spoke of this idea of ‘integration’ and he emphasized this throughout his talk. He argued that if we fail to produce people who do not have this ‘integrated view’, understanding life as a whole, the society or the institutions that these men and women produce, will be shattered. As we can see today, the main problem of our education system and particularly higher education, is that we have been trying to do what the political authorities wanted to do whether it is right or wrong. Following those narrow decisions, we have been producing young graduates who don’t see their lives or the world as an integrated whole.  Humanities and social sciences have been in the University system for decades just because they are the corner stones of developing such human values and personalities; integrated human beings. Yet, the current perception is that social science and humanities have failed to produce employable graduates. Nehru again argued:

I put this to you, this gathering of University men, because after all it is for the universities to tackle this problem more than for any other organization. Even if the universities do not teach some kind of basic wisdom, if they think in terms of producing people with degrees who want certain jobs in life, then the universities may, perhaps, have solved to a very minor extent the problem of unemployment or provided some technical help or other, but will not have produced men who can understand or solve the problems of today (Nehru 1950, p. 71).

It is surprising to see how Nehru, in 1950, saw what our leaders and administrators will be doing in the next few decades and lead our education, especially university education into technical colleges. It is a pity that Nehru or the other distinguished guests who were in the audience, including Sir Ivor Jennings, Prof. Ludowyk, Prof. Sarachchandra or others are not here today to witness what has happened to our Universities. Language policy produced mono-lingual graduates who were less exposed to the world of knowledge. On top of that, the national ideologies of race and religion were overwhelmed by the inferiorities of being isolated in the world. This collective consciousness encouraged dungeon mentality. Universities became monasteries. (Some Universities have mounted religious statues in their premises. Student unions organize pirith chanting ceremonies to curb Corona pandemic and demonic obsessions. Academics chant pirith when becoming Deans and VCs mimicking politcians) Hence, we have not been able to understand the meaning of the ‘integrated view’, ‘integrated education’, or ‘integrated community’ that Nehru had presented 70 years ago. Nehru’s words have been unheard or been a useless rhetoric for us.

Nehru warned us and predicted that there is a political and social change taking place in the Asian region. He worded it in this way: ‘It is difficult to grasp it entirely or to understand it but I think any person must see that something very big has happened, and is happening, all over Asia. There is a certain dynamism about it’ (ibid, pp. 71-72). With his political vision and experience, Nehru foresaw that the cultural and economic domination which was possessed by the first world will be changing in another decade or so. As we see today, Chinese domination of regional economy and politics has been already infiltrated into local trade, politics and culture. Port city development and the multinational investments in Colombo city in the name of national development strategies are becoming the shear reality of post-democracy. In this juncture, once more, we hear the words of Nehru. He reminded the audience, that we have been under an ‘eclipse’ for 300-400 years to get political freedom. Yet, we will be facing another eclipse in the future while sitting in an ‘ivory tower’.

Quiet Culture

He spoke about the political and economic domination that was emerging in Asia and the notion of culture that was glorified everywhere at the time. Talking about culture was much relevant to his audience as well as the society that was debating about identity and national culture at the time. His reference to the topic of culture might have surprised the audience who were confused and contradicted the debates on Sinhala Nationalism and cultural revival in the 50s. It should be noted that some of these pioneering academics, including Sir Jennings and Prof. Ludowyk left the country in 1956, five years after Nehru’s speech. Prof. Ludowyk, the first professor of English at the University of Ceylon, and the founding father of Dramatic Society of the University, and also a key player in establishing the University of Ceylon, left the country, on the year that S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike declared the Sinhala as the National language of the country.  Being a sympathizer of the leftist movement in Sri Lanka, Ludowyk captured the transformation that happened in  society: ‘it was a brash and brittle era that the ‘nobodies’ had inaugurated, with its synthetic culture, as bright as lifeless as the artificial lights which made the night hideous at the wedding receptions of the new rich’ (Soysa 1984, p. 66). Ludowyk wrote this piece in 1962 after he left Ceylon and resided in England. But Nehru talked about the ‘culture’ six years before he left the country:

There is a great deal of culture all over the place, in my own country too, and I find, normally, that those people who talk most loudly of culture, according to my judgment, possess no culture at all, because culture, first of all, is not loud; it is quiet, it is restrained, it is tolerant. You may judge the culture of a person by his silence, by a gesture of his, by a phrase of his or, more especially, by his life generally (Nehru 1950, p. 73).

As Raymond Williams argues, one of the most difficult words in the English language is the word, ‘culture’. It is notorious and simultaneously complex in a way that different people can make meanings of it in different ways and in different times. At first, culture was understood as a ‘habit of mind’, then it was meant to be an ‘intellectual development in a society’. Later, it transformed into a ‘general body of arts’ and finally, it resided on ‘the way of life’ (Williams 2017, p. xii). However, as a political leader, it is remarkable to see how Nehru has clearly and concisely articulated the nature of culture with a few simple words: ‘culture is not loud; it is quiet, it is restrained, it is tolerant’. Yet, sadly, our audience on that day, who were sitting and hearing his words, or the reminiscence of his words that mingled with the air, were not heard by the people of this country. Or, they may have not clearly understood what he really meant by ‘culture is restrained or tolerant’. As a nation, we have used the notion of culture as a weapon. We wanted our culture to be heard by others, removing its essence as self-possession. We wanted our culture to be overpowering others cultures; we wanted our culture to be superior and louder so other people’s ears would be filled with our noise. We did not want to hear or tolerate others but wanted them to tolerate us. Nehru further talked satirically and questioned the people who have been talking about so called ‘national culture’ at the time: ‘If you do not have that human culture, that basic culture, then even that national culture of which you may be so proud has no real roots and will not do you much good’ (Nehru 1950, p. 73).

Once more, he shared his visionary thoughts predicting that there will be a ‘world culture’, a growing phenomenon that will be overarching Asia. In this statement, I am certain that he signaled the audience on the growing cultural imperialism with the neo-liberal economic changes booming elsewhere. He did not use the term ‘globalization’ or neo-liberalism, but very simple words to convey his much larger ideas. He knew that his generation would not be facing this ‘One World’, as he coined it, but he asked the new generations, the graduates who were listening to his words, to take action to fight the evil of the One World. 


Finally, in his keynote, he talked about ‘fear’, fear of others and fear of countries that has been a symptom of our society over the past 70 years of democracy. He said: ‘Probably, fear is the most evil of sensations and we are living under this dominance of fear’. He invited the audience to overcome such fear that prevented engagement, collaboration, and, most importantly, empathy. He concluded his talk with the idea of divinity. He said that we need to live with degradation and evil. Yet, there is plenty of good spirit among us. Our duty is to identify that goodness, he said, ‘the element of divinity’ (one of the principles of Hinduism) within others. He invited young graduates who were looking at him to plant their feet on soil and reject the ‘imaginary vagaries’ to find the true meaning of the integrated life. Pandit Nehru shared this verse with them at the end. Yet we still don’t hear his words.

“Lord, though I live on earth, the child of earth, yet I was fathered by the starry sky”.


The author wishes to thank Savindri Ferdinando and Sandadev Liyanage for proof reading this paper.


Nehru, J 1950, ‘The Convocation Address’, University of Ceylon Review, vol. VIII, no. 02, pp. 68–75.

Soysa, B 1984, E. F. C Ludowyk and the Political Changes of Fifty Years, in PC Thomas & A Halpe (eds), Honouring E. F. C. Ludowyk Felicitation Essays, Tisara Prakashakayo, Tisara Press, Dutugemunu St, Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, pp. 62–70.

Williams, R 2017, Culture and society, 1780-1950, Vintage, London.

Zachariah, B 2004, Nehru, Routledge, London; New York.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I think, if we apply Neru’s concept of fear as Saumya writes his conclusion for the article, it is nothing but “fear of freedom.” Thanks, Saumya for this article, well organized and timely applied in the context. [Rehan]

  • 1

    The level of misinformation on this article borders on the obscene. India did not succeed because it was partitioned when Sri Lanka wasn’t. Allow me to elaborate. The British decides to hand over parts of the governance. They follow the identical practise in India as well as Ceylon. This appears innocuous and some even admire the British for being generous. On the contrary, this is what divide India 50% (Hindu): 50% (Moslem). Keep an eye on this ratio because it’s important. See, they setup this committee where half are Hindu (50%) and the other half Moslem (50%). It’s not a co-incidence the geography of India was portioned on the same ratio later. Its known as “divide-and-rule” where ethno-religous groups are divided and made to quarrel with one another. It makes things easier from a colonisers perspective as now the subjects who were given to independence before are now at each others throats. The British do the same in Ceylon. In Ceylon the communal representation practically results in 50 % (Tamil) : 50% (Sinhala) split. Although this ratio is not sustainable for the minority. That is because majority power always lies with the majority. That is why the Tamils demand 50:50 before they lose their 50%. Read here for more -> https://qr.ae/TUtFWm

  • 0

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