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The great speeches of modern India

July 19, 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 the second President of India, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, at the dawn of Independence, it's over to journalist and historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee, who edited the book:

Speeches are meant to be spoken -- and heard. For this reason, a speech is fundamentally different from other forms of written text, for it is not simply dependent on the words alone -- though they are the vital components of a good speech -- but on certain other skills to do with voice and even gesture. A good orator brings to a speech something more persuasive and moving than the power of the written word and these qualities often prove to be ephemeral, losing something of themselves in printed form. But there are certain speeches that retain their emotive charge.

Think of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address and those words -- 'government of the people, by the people and for the people' -- which have become the most quoted definition of democracy. Or think of Winston Churchill's memorable speeches during the Second World War. At the time they were made, Churchill's speeches roused the British people and sustained their morale during their darkest hour. Even today, they make stirring reading and so many of the phrases and sentences that he used have become part of the English language. This book brings together some of the speeches made in India from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st which retain their power as written texts.

One reason these speeches speak to us across time and without the oratorical skills of the authors is that most of them were actually written up before they were delivered. There are exceptions, of course. Witness the speech that Jawaharlal Nehru made in the evening of January 30, 1948 immediately after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. He was totally unprepared but his heart dictated the right words. It was one of the great impromptu speeches of modern Indian history. But for most of the speeches in this collection, the words were carefully chosen and the cadences of sentences measured to achieve maximum effect. The most famous example of this is another of Nehru's speeches, the one he made at midnight August 14-15, 1947. The phrase, 'tryst with destiny', which Nehru coined has earned for itself an undying quality.

There are some speeches, however, that have a charge not because of their language but because of the sheer enormity of the occasion on which they were made. The speech made in 1885 by W C Bonerjee, as the first president of the Indian National Congress on its opening session is enshrined in India's historical memory. Similarly, Indira Gandhi's short and severe announcement in June 1975 that India has been put under Emergency is a speech that stands as a reminder of the only period in which democracy was suspended in independent India. In these cases the occasion made history; the speech is an expression of the making.

The finest speeches in this anthology marry style and context: they are beautiful and capture a mood or a moment of history.

Also read: Who divided India?
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