Both text and context mark out great speeches. Great speeches have shaped history, in the process defining not just the individuals who have delivered them but also the people for whom they are intended. They have not only marked but also created special moments and occasions that have become landmarks. They have served not just as personal statements but as testaments to their times. They have not just been articulations of individual beliefs but have also defined collective aspirations. They have been, at once, both spontaneous soliloquies and crafted communions. When we read great speeches, we see not just one person thinking, speaking and communicating to a larger audience, but we sense the very ethos of the society in which they are embedded.
A society that is founded on oral traditions, that has seen such profound transformations and that has produced so many remarkable public figures is a natural habitat for great speeches. But standard compendiums have not done us justice at all. Brian MacArthur's The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Speeches, for instance, has only four Indian contributions. These are two of Mahatma Gandhi—his iconoclastic blast at the opening of Banaras Hindu University on February 4, 1916, and the March 23, 1922, defence at the famous Ahmedabad trial—and two of Jawaharlal Nehru—'Tryst with destiny' of August 14, 1947, and 'the light has gone out of our lives' of January 30, 1948. William Safire's Lend Me Your Ears has just Gandhi's defence and Nehru's eulogy among the great speeches in history.
Now two eminent Indian historians have given us separate anthologies of the most important speeches made by Indians. Rakesh Batabyal's The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches covers the period 1877-2004, while Rudrangshu Mukherjee's Great Speeches of Modern India spans 1865-2004. Both are valuable not just for the speeches included but also for the accompanying commentary that explains their larger significance. Batabyal's anthology is more extensively researched and wide-ranging, his commentary more detailed.
Batabyal has included 161 speeches and goes beyond "rounding up the usual suspects". He has included scientists C.V. Raman, Meghnad Saha and Homi Bhabha, social activists like Baba Amte, religious leaders like Swami Ranganathananda, "revolutionaries" like Kanu Sanyal, labour leaders like Joseph Baptista and Parvathi Krishnan, artistes like Prithviraj Kapoor, authors like R.K. Narayan, and academics like Amartya Sen. This gives his collection a distinctive flavour. Mukherjee's coverage is smaller, with 49 speeches, and his selection is more conventional even though he has tried to cover a wider canvas by including speeches made by authors like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, by artistic personages like Satyajit Ray, by public personalities like Gopal Gandhi and by industrialists like J.R.D. Tata. He even has two by Lord Curzon. Eleven of the speeches are common to both volumes: Vivekananda (1893), Mahatma Gandhi (1916 and 1922), Rabindranath Tagore (1941), Jawaharlal Nehru (1929, 1947 and 1948), M. Singaravelu (1933), Indira Gandhi (1975), Manmohan Singh (1991) and Sonia Gandhi (2004).
Selections in such anthologies will always involve some subjectivity. But a couple of inclusions and exclusions in both volumes are baffling, to say the least. Mukherjee has three speeches by J.R.D. Tata and two by L.K. Advani, and Batabyal has a speech by, of all people, Brajesh Mishra. Neither has included V.S. Srinivasa Sastry, considered to be the finest orator—although Batabyal has included S. Satyamurthy. Hiren Mookherjee, reckoned to be amongst the most eloquent of parliamentarians, is missing from both books. Mukherjee's omission of Maulana Azad especially is strange. Both have Atal Behari Vajpayee but neither has included his May 1964 tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru, widely acknowledged to be amongst his noblest speeches. While Azad figures in Batabyal's volume, it is not his brilliant 1940 Ramgarh speech as president of the Indian National Congress that is included. Narasimha Rao figures only in Mukherjee's collection but not his most erudite speech given at the Alpbach Forum in Austria in 1993. Mohammad Ali's speech at the 1923 session of the Indian National Congress at Kakinada, a masterpiece in every respect, is also ignored by both. A great speech is one that captures a society's critical move from a moment of despondency to a new phase of resolve. That is why the omission of Lal Bahadur Shastri's Independence Day speech of 1965 by both historians is glaring.
Both volumes have a severe handicap. They consist almost entirely of speeches made in English. Mukherjee has just five speeches originally made in other languages—Mohammed Iqbal in Urdu (1930), Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali (1941), Nathuram Godse in Marathi (1949) and Atal Behari Vajpayee in Hindi (1959 and 1999). Batabyal has also only nine in his large collection—Kazi Nazrul Islam (1923), Rabindranath Tagore (1941) and Kanu Sanyal (1969) in Bengali; Tajamul Hosain (1948), Prithviraj Kapoor (1958), Ram Manohar Lohia (1963), Jayaprakash Narayan (1969), Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1969) and N.G. Goray in Hindi (1975). The excessive English orientation leads to many exclusions. The Communist leader S.A. Dange, for instance, figures three times in Batabyal's volume but his colleague E.M.S. Namboodiripad who made his mark in Malayalam is absent. Jyotiba Phule, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Charan Singh (Hindi), Ramaswamy Naicker, Annadurai and Karunanidhi (Tamil), and Indulal Yagnik (Gujarati) are absent in both collections.