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Eloquence Down the Years


Alok Rai

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF MODERN INDIAN SPEECHES
Edited by Rakesh Batabyal
Penguin, Delhi, 2007, pp. 916, Rs. 595.00

GREAT SPEECHES OF MODERN INDIA
Edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Random House, Delhi, India, 2007, pp. 454, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 12 December 2007

Can it be mere coincidence that both Penguin and Random House have come out, more or less simultaneously, with fat ‘speeches of modern India’ volumes? Maybe there is some fount of publishing wisdom that all of them draw from, some High Command? Or perhaps it is just the allegedly Invisible Hand of the market, which prompts them in the direction of nationalist nostalgia in this moment of shashtipoorti? But, whatever the prompting, the availability of all this material—oft referred to, rarely seen, carrying on a kind of phantom existence on the blurry edges of memory—in such a convenient form is a matter of gratitude, and must be frankly acknowledged before one gets to the niggles. Thus, both Batabyal and Mukherjee have gone to great lengths to assemble speeches relating to the iconic moments of the nationalist narrative. Not surprisingly, there is some overlap between the two, but it is surprising that there isn’t more of it. Thus, both have Gandhi’s famously awkward speech at the founding of the Banaras Hindu University in 1916, when he reminded the august and bejewelled assembly of the turbulent and destitute world beyond. The speech had to be ended abruptly. Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’ is there in both of course, rising with studied eloquence beyond the raucous range of contemporary political contention (and worse, much worse)—conferring on the moment of Independence an epic, millennial dignity. And the somber, impromptu eloquence of ‘the light has gone out of our lives’, after what should only be described as the murder of Gandhi by the Hindu, Godse, in 1948. It seems important to insist on this in the light of Advani’s lying, hypocritical, equivocating speech of 1992, apropos the destruction of the Babri Masjid—in Mukherjee, not Batabyal—in which Advani seeks, simultaneously, to legitimize the narrative of Hindu hatred, of a poisonous, vengeful victimhood—hence Godse, Gujarat, and the rest of that sorry list—but also to create some tactical distance between that traumatic event and his guilty party.   But, but. There isn’t much to be gained by comparing the inclusions and exclusions in these two volumes, and it is only too easy to get drawn into discussing the momentous issues for which these volumes provide so much material, and such historical depth. Batabyal, for instance, includes Jaipal Singh’s speech to the Lok Sabha in 1952, apropos the Report of the Commissioner ...


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