The date is September 27, 1893: Place: Chicago, United States. Arena: Meeting of the World Parliament of Religions. An unknown sanyasi from India, a self-proclaimed spokesman for Hinduism is asked to address an audience of over one thousand. His name? Swami Vivekananda. He rises from his seat slowly, surveys the thousands of faces of Americans, men and women, Christians all, looking at him no doubt in wonder at his strange attire.
There is silence. Vivekananda then begins his address. He had hardly begun with ?sisters and brothers of America? when, to everyone'ssurprise and shock, the entire audience stands up and gives him a thunderous ovation. At that instance somewhere in the skies a star must have fallen chuckling to itself. History had just been made. Vivekanand'sspeech in Chicago became a landmark in the history of Indo-US relations.
Never before in the past had a Hindu swami dressed in saffron robes and never since then, had an Indian of whatever background made such a substantial mark on the American psyche. Four historic years later, in 1897, Vivekananda was to set up the Ramakrishna Mission with the proclaimed aim of Hindu regeneration. That, if one might gently point out is only one of the famous speeches made by Indians over the decades that made history. How many of us realise that? And how many of us would recognise the names of those who made historic speeches.
Like Abraham Lincoln'sfamous Gettysberg speech: ?Government of the people, by the people, for the people?, there have been speeches made by our own great leaders like the one made by Bal Gangadhar Tilak when he proclaimed in court: ?Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it?. Tilak was on trial. The jury had delivered a verdict sentencing him to several years of imprisonment. ?In spite of the verdict of the jury? Tilak proclaimed, addressing the Court, ?I maintain that I am innocent?. It is like Jawaharlal Nehru'sfamous ?Tryst with Destiny? speech, one that can never be forgotten.
Indian history is full of great people, nationalists all, considering the times in which they lived. And their name is legion. They addressed various bodies from the Viceroy'sCouncil to meetings held in the public domain. And they addressed themselves to various themes like Indian unity, criticism of colonialism, social reform, nationalism on the march towards attaining freedom, the quest for a just and moral society etc. How many of the younger generation would remember them, let alone what they said? We have stalwarts like Surendranath Bannerjea, Syed Ahmed Khan, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Dadabhai Naoroji, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Pherozeshah M. Mehta, Kashinath Triambak Telang, N.G. Chandavarkar, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal, Mohandas Gandhi, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Subas Chandra Bose not to mention stalwarts like J.B. Kripalani, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Vallabhbhai Patel, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad et al.
India'shistorical skies are full of dazzling stars, some of them of an earlier era and some of latter-day presence, persons like Sripad Anant Dange the communist, Swami Ranganathananda who lived up to the venerable age of nineties. Syama Prasad Mukherjee, Pandurang Vaman Kane, Nani Palkhivala, politicians, legal luminaries, economists, labour leaders, men and women who helped raise not only our levels of intellect like Amartya Sen but also levels of national consciousness, like C.N. Annadurai, Sheikh Abdullah and Meghanad Saha. They came on the Indian scene all on their own, though one suspects that they had a vision for the country and the vast array of people whose mindsets they wanted to change. Each made his or her own contribution and left when the time came, in the process making India richer than ever before and richer than it even realised it was possible. Reading them now is to recall their amazing achievement to the growth of India since the time of Raja Ram Mohan Roy who fought against suttee.
Surprisingly, the editor has found few women of stature worth of being included in this compendium which, may it be said, does carry speeches by Annie Besant, Sarojini Naidu, Renuka Rai, Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi?not very flattering to the galaxy of great women like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Amrit Kane, Durgabai Deshmukh, Ammu Swaminathan, Lady Rama Rao and many others, who, in their own way, made their mark on the Indian social landscape. But if we can quarrel over the choice of leaders, one can only sing hosannahs to the choice of speeches made by them.
Some of the entries are short, but striking, like Gandhiji's?I give you a mantra?. There is that great speech delivered by Subas Chandra Bose on July 6, 1944, on the eve of the Indian National Army'smarch towards India and the respect with which Netaji addressed the Mahatma, poignant but full of reverence. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad'sspeech addressing Muslims in Delhi on October 23, 1947 brings tears to the eyes.
We come to notice the trials and tribulations of the men and women who fought for India'sIndependence, for changes in social life. Shockingly, some of them died young. Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901) was hardly 59 years old; Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) less than forty, Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915) not even fifty and K.T. Telang (1850-1893) hardly 45. But the impact they made on the people among whom they lived is immeasurable.
Gandhiji accepted Gokhale as his ?guru? though Gokhale was not much older than the Mahatma. But such was Gokhale'sstature. In a way this book is an introduction to India of the post 1857 period and the intellectual tumult of a people living in those times as they grew up and matured, and constitutes a living introduction to history. India comes out alive with all its multifarious problems, all through the living words of politicians and statesmen, now all long gone but is still fondly remembered. Truthfully it can be said that they made us what we are today.
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