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Lost in translation

July 14, 2005 16:43 IST

There are three kinds of people who react to a speech: those who support the speaker, those who oppose the speaker, and those who actually bother to find out what the speaker said.

Sadly, the third party is always by far the smallest (or at least the least vocal!). I left on an extended holiday just as the controversy began over L K Advani's supposed praise of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. I returned to find some people getting agitated over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's praise of the British Raj.

All of which leads up to one question: how many of the people reading this column have bothered to read the full text of what the prime minister and the leader of the opposition actually said? As opposed, that is, to what they are supposed to have said!

The full texts of both speeches have been printed by some newspapers, and they are also available on the Internet for those of us who are technologically blessed. If, however, you do not have a copy handy, permit me to quote the relevant sections.

Let me begin with the now famous speech made by L K Advani to the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations, Economic Affairs and Law: 'In the last three-four years of my life in Karachi, I came in contact with Swami Ranganathananda, who was the head of the Ramakrishna Math here for six years from 1942 until it was closed down in 1948. I used to go to listen to his discourses on the Bhagvad Gita. In later years, I maintained regular contact with this great disciple of Swami Vivekananda, who went on to become the head of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in India.

Advani in Pakistan

'Swami Ranganathananda passed away in April this month. The last time I met him was in Calcutta last year. He was 96 but still very agile in mind and radiant in spirit. Our talk, among other things, turned to his years and my years in Karachi. He asked me, 'Have you read Mohammed Ali Jinnah's speech in Pakistan's Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947? It is a classic exposition of a Secular State, one which guarantees every citizen's freedom to practice his or her religion but the State shall not discriminate between one citizen and another on the basis of religion'. He asked me to send him the full text of the speech, which I did.'

Please note that at no point did the Leader of the Opposition say that Jinnah himself was secular, all he said was that Swami Ranganathananda had told him that Jinnah's speech of 11 August, 1947 was a classic exposition of a secular State. (He used Swami Ranganathananda's words when asked to write in the visitors' book at the Jinnah Mausoleum). Swami Ranganathananda, however, is all but unknown to the vast majority of India, and I am not sure how many 'modern' Indians know of the role of the Ramakrishna Mission. But everyone in the media has heard of L K Advani, and hearing him put
'Jinnah' and 'secular' in the same passage was just too tempting to resist.

Having learned nothing from the episode, everyone then proceeded to leap upon the prime minister's address to Oxford University. Here then is what Dr Manmohan Singh said: "Today, with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian prime minister to assert that India's experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too.

'Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age old civilisation of India met the dominant empire of the day. These are all elements which we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served our country exceedingly well.'

And so, of course, everyone decided that Manmohan Singh had been caught praising the British Raj! Nobody paid much attention to the passage where he said: 'As the painstaking statistical work of the Cambridge historian Angus Maddison has shown, India's share of world income collapsed from 22.6 percent in the year 1700, almost equal to Europe's share of 23.3 percent at that time, to as low as 3.8 percent in 1952. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th Century, 'the brightest jewel in the British Crown' was the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income.'

In other words, the prime minister was saying that India's economic downfall could be traced to British policies but that the administrative matrix imposed on India also had some good points. (It was rather mischievous of him to quote a Cambridge historian to that university's great rival, Oxford!) The good did not compensate for the evil, but to deny that there was anything good at all is equally wrong. Is there any serious student of history who would disagree with that analysis?

No, but there are several people in India who would jump to criticise both L K Advani and Manmohan Singh for what they are supposed to have said. There is no dearth of people holding the opinion that both men should step down from the high offices that they currently occupy. Everyone is entitled to his view, but I suggest that the speeches made in Karachi and in Oxford should not be cited as the reason for such demands.

Was Jinnah secular? Was the British Raj totally good for India? Not from my perspective. And not, it seems, from the viewpoints of L K Advani and Dr Manmohan Singh either!

T V R Shenoy