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Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

Speech to the India League of America

April 16, 1952


In speech to the India League of America, ER discusses her impressions of India after her trip to India and the Middle East.

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It is a little difficult for me to talk about India, when I have spent such a short time there and there are people here who could tell you so much more from their experiences and their knowledge. But perhaps what you want to know is the impressions that an American has brought back from a very strenuous trip. [Audience laughs] [ER laughs] It was very interesting.

I began by spending [coughs] seven days in three of the Arab countries in the Near East. I was glad that I did that because I think if I had not done that, there would have been a feeling that I was just willing to see one side of a question and not willing to listen and to try to learn about both sides. Then I went to Pakistan, and then I went for my real visit which was the cause for the whole trip, namely the invitation to India. A much kinder feeling towards the United States had already been generated, I think, by our ambassador Chester Bowles and his family, his wife, and his children. I went one morning, one Saturday morning, when you would expect a young girl in her teens out of school to be having a good time. Well she was having a good time, but where do you think I found her? In a station where they were giving out milk to children and medicines to older people. And she was working as hard as any of the other people there. And I think she's fifteen or sixteen. And sh-they go to an Indian school and they have a wonderful time. They're having the experience of their lives. And Mrs. Bowles is having a really interesting time and learning a great deal.

If you go to a country and really try to learn about people and you get the things in them that really matter. Why, you do give a feeling of interest and of sympathy. And that had already begun long before I got there. And then we have another person that I think every American should know about. We have in Mr. Holmes, who started the project at Hetawa, which is an agricultural project, a very remarkable person; he had his training in Cornell. He's an agricultural extension agent. But he's a perfectly remarkable person because he's interested in getting people to do things because they themselves see that they should be done and are proud of their own achievement. He doesn't care whether he was the one who suggested it. He waits 'til they see. He went and lived in some of the villages and he waited 'til they saw the need for certain things then he made suggestions. But by the time I got there I went with the governor of the province on a day when he was inspecting. I would rather have gone alone because I would have talked to more people. On the other hand, it was a good day to go because they had everything out and they had everything so arranged that at a glance the governor would see what they had done, and they were a proud group of farmers. They were showing not what Mr. Holmes or the Americans, or any of the programs of the UN or any other program had accomplished. They were showing what they had accomplished, they the farmers of that area.


Now ordinarily in many parts of India, wheat grows about so high. But it was wonderful thing to see in that area a field of wheat that was up as high as my head. I hadn't seen any wheat like that in India. Now it meant a certain amount of help, it meant coordination of help, cooperation. And that's one thing that I think, perhaps it's Chester Bowles, I don't know, but the Indian government and all the different agencies that can do something are working together in those projects and the success is something astounding. That project has spread from the few villages, I think they started with sixty, and before long they're going to touch three hundred and more. And it is simply astounding because not a great deal has had to be done by outsiders. It had to be proved to the farmers that if they got a little better seed and planted it, it would give them better wheat. They had to be helped to get more tube wells, more water. They had to be helped to get better stock, they had to be shown that inoculating stock would save their stock. But once they were shown, they did the job. And Mr. Holmes is going on, on the same lines. It isn't his job, it's the job of letting people find out that there is help but that they are going to do the job the way they want to do it. And all he said to me when I asked him what I could do was, he said: "Please pass the word along in the State Department not to send people out here unless they have hearts." And I passed it along because I thought it was a very good recommendation. Send me good technicians yes, but pick them carefully. They must have hearts too; they must care about people.

[Audience applause]

Now as you increase the food supply, you at the same time increase the knowledge of sanitation and that of course is a very important part of the job in the rural areas, which they have been trying to do. Um they have been using as fuel what should be manure. They haven't had the money to use anything else. They've gradually taken in some of those villages and made places outside for all the cattle, which has taken the cattle out of the narrow lanes and the-near the houses where the people live. Sanitation has begun and knowledge of sanitation in many of those villages. Now that is all to the good and a valuable result. The growth of more food is probably the most important thing before the people of India, but it isn't the only thing.

There is a second thing. At present India's population increases five million a year, I think, correct me if I'm wrong. Now with better sanitation it's quite possible that India's population will increase ten million a year. And you can grow quite a lot of food if you have that amount of increase of population. It isn't going to increase the food that each individual has. So that's a problem that has to be thought through and faced.

Now there's one other thing; I was glad Mr. Sing brought it up. I was asked to speak to a number of university groups in the South of India. And why do you suppose they asked me to do that? Because it's in the south of India, where there is the highest degree of literacy and it's in the south of India where the communist vote increased. And I would agree with Mr. Sing in what he said about communist candidates and communists vote generally, but I would add a little to that. There is one thing that is being left over; it is an inheritance from the past and you can't cure everything at once. The higher education system of India is inherited from Great Britain. Great Britain in their universities gives a classical education, and it was fine to have that in India when you were educating primarily for the Indian Civil Service. An AB or an MA degree was just what you needed. But today there aren't any jobs for those youngsters. They're frustrated, just the way ours were in the early '30's when they came out of college and there were no jobs for them. You remember? A lot of our youngsters explored communism, a lot of our youngsters said, "Democracy isn't giving us what we need, democracy is falling down, so why not look at whatever else there may be, it might be fascism or it might be communism."


Well I have an idea that some of that rise came from the university groups and came from those who had finished their training and were out of the university but couldn't find any work to do. Now the government of India recognizes that; it has now started a technical college school and many of the universities are starting agricultural colleges within the university. But you don't build uh different kinds of colleges and different kinds of training for various and sundry occupations overnight. You have to have the physical plant, you have to have the teachers, you have to change the minds of the young people because they have not been accustomed to thinking that they were going to be agricultural economists or agricultural chemists, or engineers, or um mechanics of some sort. This is an entirely new idea to a great many people and perhaps they don't feel it's quite as important as what they expected to do or to educate themselves to do. So I don't really think that there is much to worry about in the rise of the communist vote taken all in all.

And I do think we ought to appreciate what was done in India before their first vote was taken. To me I had read one or two articles before I went about how people came three days through tiger-infested jungles in order to vote. And the thought had come to me that someone must have done some very extraordinary campaigning. I have been through a good many campaigns [audience laughs] and I know that um somebody has to do the work to make people wake up to the fact that there is something that they should do. And this was the first vote that the people of India had ever had. And mind you there was a high degree in many parts of India of illiteracy, so it meant that it had to come by word of mouth. And the first night I dined with the Prime Minister I said to him, "Mr. Prime Minister, I'm impressed by the fact that someone must have done a great deal of campaigning in India, would you mind telling me how it was done?" and he said, "Come with me." And I went into his study and he showed me the map of his campaign trips, and how anyone lived through it I don't know [audience laughs]. But he traveled by air and by boat and by train and by road, by automobile, and he didn't put-put it down on the map but I'm quite sure that he must have traveled sometimes, on foot [audio break 15:06-15:08] and by bullet car. But one little thing at the bottom is very interesting. It is estimated that he talked, that he personally saw in his audiences thirty million people. Uh that's quite a job for one man to have accomplished. And what he did wasn't just to say, "Come and vote for me and the Congress Party." What he did was to explain what democracy really meant in responsibility accepted by each individual citizen. That's what brought people up from the-through the jungles. That's what made them come. When they got there very often they didn't even know what party they wanted to vote for [audience laughs] because he hadn't mentioned that. He hadn't said, "I am talking for the Congress Party." He'd said, "Come and vote, that's your job, and it's the thing you do if you are going to take your share in the democracy." So what they did, they voted with colored sticks I understand, and what they did often was to say, "We want Nehru's box." They knew that what he stood for they wanted.


Now that to me was a wonderful lesson and that I think is one of the things we, the older democracy that has grown rather apathetic about our privileges and our responsibilities, might learn from the newer one. This was a great privilege and a great responsibility. And they were accepting it. And sometimes the rain keeps us at home on Election Day. And sometimes it's too much trouble to find out what our candidates stand for. Well I think that's one of the things that India, being a new democracy, perhaps has some of the spirit of our early founders in this country [audience applause]. And for that reason, I felt that we had a great deal to learn from India and that we should study that campaign, we should know more about it. And we should really know what one man who takes the trouble to talk to his people in person actually did to make them understand what the responsibilities of democracy actually were.


Now there is one other [audience applause] thing and here I am very uncertain because for Westerners to presume even to think that they understand anything on the spiritual side after a short visit is pretty presumptuous. But I'm quite sure that we can help in material things. I'm quite sure that we can and that we can do it well and acceptably. But there are certain things that only Indians themselves can do. Much of the dignity that the people as a whole have comes from the great spiritual side which they have gained, I think, over the years. Everything they do is in some way--every daily act is in some way associated with their religion. Now it seems to me that poor people who have had misery in material things, what has happened is that they have compensated by making the ability to renounce worldly things one of the things that made you great. I know one Minister in the cabinet said to me when he very kindly took me to a certain spot where the-where two sacred rivers joined and I asked a question about some things that I saw along the shore. And he said um, "You know Mrs. Roosevelt if I were to leave my position and to give away everything I have in the world and sit on the shore of the river with my begging bowl I would have a hundred percent more influence with my-with the people then I have as a Cabinet Minister." Now that's a difficult thing for the Westerner to understand. But I think if we stop to think that great masses of people in India have been without a great deal, have suffered, it's not strange that renunciation becomes an act which you greatly admire and which does put you nearer the spiritual values, which are the real things that count for the future. Perhaps the time has come in our country when just material values are not going to be enough. Perhaps we have to readjust some of our values in the world as it is today. And perhaps if we study what goes on in India, it may be a great help to us.


Now I may be wrong in the analysis I have made, but that was the feeling I came away with, and I had a sense that there was a great deal that we could learn and a great deal that they could give us, and it wasn't a one-way street at all, it was a two-way street that might be very helpful. I don't think India will be Communist, and yet I do think we have to remember something, and that is that in the things that the communists say to you at first, some of them don't sound so very different from what perhaps you might feel. For instance, when they say to you, "You must not just work for something for yourself. You are not important, the state is important. And as you build the state, the state takes care of you, and all people will come up together." Now that is not as it goes on a great spiritual value. But when it is first talked of, it would give people who were thinking that what they had to do must have a spiritual value, a feeling that perhaps they were more akin to that thinking than they were to the thinking of the West which just said, "We will give you material things, we will help you to gain material things." And I don't think that we can afford to forget that. I don't think that we can afford to ignore the fact that the young people of India must feel that they are working for something which is a great thing to achieve for the good of their country, of their people, and of the world. And it must have a spiritual as well as a material value. Now the most interesting group of faces that I saw among the young people was a training school, which is run by the Ford Foundation, run by the Indians of course, but I mean with Ford Foundation money, uh for workers who are to go out, young men, who are to go out and work in the villages and live in the villages. That group of boys had the most alert, alive, and keen faces that I saw in any group of young people, and it was because that they felt they were needed. They were going to do something that they could see results in doing and it was a service that they were rendering. You couldn't be paid for doing the work those kids are going to do. You couldn't be paid. And they know it. And they were willing to do it and eager to do it, I think largely because they knew it meant a tremendous service. It had a spiritual value.


So, I've come back with tremendous hope that India is going to be the country of Asia. Everywhere I went practically everyone was looking to Nehru. In all those countries everyone was looking to India and wanting to go and see what was happening. I think it's a great responsibility for a country just as I think our country has a great responsibility. But it's a very hopeful one because I think India can give strength to other countries and if she can even give to the older democracies a little of the ideals that perhaps they started with many years ago, she may do something for the whole world, which she is not quite aware at present that she is perhaps going to be able to do. I can only say that I was very much impressed, that I felt I learned a certain amount, a great deal for me, that I had the most wonderful welcome and a great feeling of gratitude for the kindness with which I was received. I knew it was because of my husband, I knew it was because Chester Bowles had already done a very good job. But when it is shown to you, you are the one to be grateful. And I was extremely grateful and very appreciative of the opportunities, which the government of the India gave me, the transportation without which I couldn't possibly seen as much as I saw. I was slightly weary at times, but nevertheless it was a very interesting and remarkable experience and one which I hope may lead to better understanding on our part of what goes on in other parts of the world and perhaps better understanding on their part of what we in the United States are like.

[Audience applause]

Program Participants

  • : Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962

About this document

Speech to the India League of America

April 16, 1952


Eleanor Roosevelt

Project Editors
  • National Endowment for the Humanities

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches is a project and publication of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, Academic Building, Post Hall, Room 312, 2100 Foxhall Road, NW, Washington, DC 20007

Transcript Editors

Transcribed and published by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 2019-11-27

Transcription created from holdings at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library