At the risk of sounding dramatic, I will say this: A good speech can change the world. It is the basic unit of influence, in a way, the most elementary method of building consensus; one person’s words affecting another. Brick by brick, person by person, the edifice of society is built and nations are dreamt into existence. The recent Speaking Tiger anthology Building A Free India, edited and with an introductory essay by Rakesh Batabyal (who teaches the history, theory and philosophy of media at Jawaharlal Nehru University) is an admirable project that documents the nation-building role played by some of the greatest speeches delivered in India in the first half of the 20th century.
The book is structured chronologically, more or less—it starts with a section called The Critique Of Colonialism And The Spirit Of The Modern Nation, covering speeches delivered by the early nationalists, in the 1901-10 period for the most part. It ends with a pair of iconic speeches (by Nehru and S. Radhakrishnan) delivered on the occasion of India’s independence in 1947. In between these two endpoints, we learn how the dominant political leaders of the intervening decades spread their ideas with strategically delivered speeches.
Batabyal describes this process during his introductory essay: “Gandhi’s speeches, relayed through his organs, Harijan and Young India, or through other newspapers he wrote for, provided people with a programme, both social and political. What is more, this character of the speeches also gave them a sense of involvement and confidence and, significantly, direction. When, for example, in the 1940s widespread communal polarization for Pakistan was beginning to take shape, Maulana Azad in his presidential speech at the Ramgarh Congress in December 1940 brilliantly spoke on how there was no contradiction between his Muslim and Indian inheritances whereby he also countered the two-nation theory which had come to be officially adopted by the (Muslim) League recently.”
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Some of the highlights of this section include Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s “On the Official Secrets Act of 1903”, Manu Subedar’s “On India Joining the IMF and the World Bank” and Dadabhai Naoroji’s “The Poverty of India”. Each of these speeches describes the lack of resources in early 20th century India with eloquence and compassion; in their own ways, each suggests a blueprint for the decades ahead. The latter sections move on to distinct phases in the independence struggle: the secular leaders’ position, the swadeshi and non-cooperation movements, and, finally, the far more radical voices through the 1930s and 1940s, as India moved closer to self-determination.
In this latter phase, Bhagat Singh’s speech before the Lahore high court in January 1930 makes for particularly thrilling reading. The clarity of thought and expression, the mixture of sensibilities found in somebody so young…the mind still boggles at what India was blessed with, and what she lost with Bhagat Singh’s execution.
There have been other notable collections of speeches published in India over the last decade or so, like the Rudrangshu Mukherjee-edited The Great Speeches Of Modern India (2007). But where that collection sought to display the range of intellectual traditions in India as well as the diversity of styles (you had Lord Curzon talking about monument protectionism and Vikram Seth speaking at his old school), Batabyal’s objective is very clear from the beginning: This book wants to describe the movement for Indian independence as a function of its speeches; as the tonality of the movement shifts, so do the speeches.
In a brief editor’s note prior to the introductory essay, Batabyal credits his childhood in Bokaro, Jharkhand, for his introduction to political expressions of Adivasi identity. To that end, I was very happy to see the inclusion of a speech by Jaipal Singh in this volume. Singh (1903-70), known popularly as Marang Gomke (great leader) in Jharkhand, was the founder of the Adivasi Mahasabha that later became the Jharkhand Party. A man of many talents, he also led India to our first-ever Olympics gold in hockey in 1928. The Jaipal Singh speech included here was delivered on 19 December 1946, just a few months away from independence. It shows a mixture of confidence and apprehension about New India and what she holds in store for Adivasi communities.
“We do not ask for any special protection. We want to be treated like every other Indian. (…) The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of Independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.”
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There’s a lot of Gandhi in the book, as well as multiple speeches by Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar, as one might expect. No anthology about 20th century India is complete without an excerpt from Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste”, of course. But there’s also Ambedkar’s speech in the Bombay Legislative Council from March 1927, where he criticises what he sees as the unchecked commercialisation of education.
“Education is something which ought to be brought within the reach of everyone. The Education Department is not a department which can be treated on the basis of quid pro quo. Education ought to be cheapened in all possible ways and to the greatest possible extent. I urge this plea because I feel that we are arriving at a stage when the lower orders of society are just getting into the high schools, middle schools and colleges, and the policy of this department therefore ought to be to make higher education as cheap to the lower classes as it can possibly be made.”
Today, as school and college fees skyrocket in every Indian city, Ambedkar’s cautionary note feels more prescient than ever. Several of the speeches in Building A Free India can be read in this vein, actually, as though they were describing far more recent developments. And while that’s a good reason to pick up this book, it’s a grim thought in the context of the founding fathers’ elusive aim, nation-building.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.