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The Crisis of Civilization

August 6, 2007
As Independent India turns 60 on August 15, we present a collection of inspiring words by our visionary leaders, extracted from the book, Great Speeches of Modern India, with the kind permission of the publishers, Random House India. Before we read the immortal words of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore at the height of the Second World War, it's over to journalist and historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee, who edited the book:

Tagore had been unwell for sometime. He was making preparations to leave Santiniketan for Calcutta, and was perhaps aware that he would not return to his beloved university. On Bengali New Year's Day, he spoke in Viswa Bharati of his anguish at the killing and destruction he saw around him. This speech, given at the height of the Second World War, turned out to be not only the last speech he made in Santiniketan but also his last public pronouncement. For these reasons it is a profoundly moving and powerful speech -- the final testament of a man disillusioned by history but clinging to his faith in man.

Part I of the series: The dawn of freedom

Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941)
Santiniketan, April 1941

Today I complete eighty years of my life .As I look back on the vast stretch of years that lie behind me and see in clear perspective the history of my early development, I am struck by the change that has taken place both in my own attitude and in the psychology of my countrymen -- a change that carries within it a cause of profound tragedy.

Our direct contact with the larger world of men was linked up with the contemporary history of the English people whom we came to know in those earlier days. It was mainly through their mighty literature that we formed our ideas with regard to these newcomers to our Indian shores. In those days the type of learning that was served out to us was neither plentiful nor diverse, nor was the spirit of scientific enquiry very much in evidence. Thus their scope being strictly limited, the educated of those days had recourse to English language and literature. Their days and nights were eloquent with the stately declamations of Burke, with Macaulay’s long-rolling sentences; discussions centred upon Shakespeare's drama and Byron's poetry and above all upon the large-hearted liberalism of the nineteenth-century English politics.

At the time though tentative attempts were being made to gain our national independence, at heart we had not lost faith in the generosity of the English race. This belief was so firmly rooted in the sentiments of our leaders as to lead them to hope that the victor would of his own grace pave the path of freedom for the vanquished. This belief was based upon the fact that England at the time provided a shelter to all those who had to flee from persecution in their own country. Political martyrs who had suffered for the honour of their people were accorded unreserved welcome at the hands of the English.

I was impressed by this evidence of liberal humanity in the character of the English and thus I was led to set them on the pedestal of my highest respect. This generosity in their national character had not yet been vitiated by imperialist pride. About this time, as a boy in England, I had the opportunity of listening to the speeches of John Bright, both in and outside Parliament. The large-hearted, radical liberalism of those speeches, overflowing all narrow national bounds, had made so deep an impression on my mind that something of it lingers even today, even in these days of graceless disillusionment.

Also read: From 10 Years Ago: Bhai Bhai
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