04 November 2007

Hear, Hear

The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches
Ed. Rakesh Batabyal
Penguin Books India
Pages 916
Rs 595

Great Speeches of Modern India
Ed. Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Random House India
Pages 454
Rs 395

People sometimes ask me whether...doon didn’t teach me lessons of leadership and character building and independence of mind. My answer, in a word, is No.

Vikram Seth (1952- )
On Founder’s Day (Dehra Dun, October 1992)

Cling to the simplicity and sobriety of your domestic lives. Keep its purity as it was in the ancient times and as it is still existing in your simple homes. Do not let modern fashions and extravagances of the West and its modern English education spoil your reverential humility...
~Sister Nivedita (1867-1911)
How and why I adopted the Hindu religion (Bombay, October 1902), Her advice to the women of India.

Two anthologies of Indian speeches snatch history from the dry desolation of academia and the clutches of Oblivion. One does it with panache. The other with exquisite thoroughness. Great Speeches of Modern India aims for the momentous, the heroic, resulting in a more accessible volume. The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches is high on historicity, seeks obscure speeches to fit the bill to reveal a rich and textured history of India.

Both happily betray the allegiances of their editors. Batabyal from Jawahar Lal Nehru University ensures that among the deeper and finer shades his selection includes, the Left finds suitable representation. Oxford-Harvard educated Rudrangshu is a cosmopolitan, a humanist who has seen to it that Vikram Seth, Lord Curzon, and Satyajit Ray are in.

In his excellent introduction (along with one of the most engaging acknowledgements) to the Penguin volume that serves to organise the speeches from 1877 to the present, as well as provide a short, insightful history of how the nation came to be articulated, Batabyal shows that India’s freedom struggle was a long, nuanced, and instinctive evolutionary process.

The early nationalist thinkers conceieved the idea of India. They breathed life into the single political, administartive body called India the British had created out of a ‘congeries of nations.’ They did not lustily shout slogans and burn effigies. Instead, they made reasoned critiques of the Empire like Dadabhai Naroji’s 1893 speech at the Lahore Indian National Congress session presenting his famous ‘drain of wealth’ theory. But it was still some time before some one would pick up the gauntlet one of our earliest nationalists Surendranath Banerjea threw in 1878: ‘Who will be the Garibaldi and Mazzini of Indian unity?’

The early ‘freedom fighters,’ including Gandhi before he became a Mahatma, were loyal subjects of the Empire, aware of the debt they owed the British. Like Pherozeshah Merwanji Mehta speaking in 1883, they lavished praises on the Bristish with their ponderous Zimmer-Frame usuage (first the language comes, then comes the meaning): ‘If I entertain one political conviction more strongly than another, it is that this country in falling under British rule, has fallen into the hands of a nation than which no other is better qualified to govern her wisely and well.’

With the arrival of Gandhi one would expect the induction of even more reasoned and reasonable arguements for independence and justice. Instead Gandhi, the seasoned lawyer-political activist just returned triumphant in the searing battles against inequities in another part of the Empire, introduced antagonism and victimhood in the discourse as evident in the Trail Speech, Ahmedabad, March 1922, following which he was sentenced to six-years imprisonment for the Chauri Chaura violence: ‘I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the Bristish connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically. A disarmed India has no power of resistance against any aggressor if she wanted to engage in an armed conflict with him.’

And as Batabyal explains, where earlier there had been conflict between the reformist and the nationalist as to what the country needs first, freedom from its own evils, or from the evils of the Empire, Mahatma was sharp enough to bring under his moral charge both the reformists and the nationalists for the first time in Indian freedom struggle, recognising with all the benefit of his South African experience the utility of harnessing these in appearance extreme but in reality two synergetic and complementary forces under the same yoke.

Mahatma’s speech at the opening of the Banaras Hindu University is a ringing proof. The Mahatma offends both the Hindus (‘Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are?’), and the British by protesting against being forced to speak in English. He is almost ordered off the stage by a presumably shrill Annie Besant screaming every now and then: ‘Please stop it.’

Lord Curzon’s speech, in Mukherjee’s collection, on the need to conserve and protect Indian monuments tempers the popular impression that the freedom struggle was a long monotonous, nationalist harangue. It shows why the Empire can still be argued as force for good and why the temperate Indian freedom struggle that lasted as long as it did, far from amounting to sleeping with the ‘enemy’ for 70 odd years, was an example of prudent gradualism, an irreplaceable centrepiece of our democracy.

When Mark Twain quipped that it took him more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech, he was being funny as usual, but he was also making a larger point about the vanity of speech makers--men and women not just in love with their voice, but stricken with hyper-consciousness about the historical import of their words. But the reader's pleasure comes from the knowledge that History's gaze apparaently beady, oozes nothing but indifference in the long run. No wonder the grandest of speeches is riddled with irony, given time.

For instance, Subash Chandra Bose’ thrilling speech ‘Give me blood and I promise you freedom!’ rings with an emptiness of ‘what if’ history. In other places irony is immediately apparent like in Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s most un-prescient speech, his opening address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 14 August 1947, that reads like a recant. Or was he merely homesick for his Bombay? He wishfully thought that ‘...in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims...in the political sense...’, not realising that he had just recently himself shot down that possiblity.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should pick up a copy of either book if he can’t find his own speech made in 1991 to innaugrate the economic reforms which have come a long way but have slowed since his arrival in the PMO, and it might help him tide over his 123-Agreement worries: ‘But let me say that you cannot achieve your objectives without hard sell.’ [Italics mine]

History might be bunk, but it still has a lesson or two up its sleeve.

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