Address by Dr
Prime Minister of India
In acceptance of
From Oxford University
Mr Chancellor, Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is an emotional moment for
me. Oxford brings back many fond memories that I cherish. For this reason, as
much as for the intrinsic value of the honour you bestow upon me, I am truly
overwhelmed. I am grateful to you, Mr Chancellor, and to your colleagues, for
this honour. I have had the god fortune of receiving several honorary degrees.
However, there can be nothing more valuable than receiving an honorary degree
from one's own alma matter. To be so honoured by a university where one has
burnt the proverbial midnight oil to earn a regular degree, is most fulfilling
experience. I thank you for it. This is a day I will truly cherish.
The world has changed beyond
recognition since I was a student here. Yet, some age-old problems endure.
Developing countries have found a new voice, a new status and have acquired a
new sense of confidence over the last few decades. As an Indian, I see a
renewed sense of hope and purpose. This new optimism gives us Indians a sense
of self-confidence and this shapes our world view today. It would be no
exaggeration to suggest that the success of hundreds of young Indian students
and professionals in Universities like Oxford, and elsewhere across the world,
has contributed to this renewed self-confidence of a new India.
The economics we learnt at Oxford in the 1950s was also marked by optimism about the economic prospects for the
post-War and post-colonial world. But in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the focus
of development economics shifted to concerns about the limits to growth. There
was considerable doubt about the benefits of international trade for developing
countries. I must confess that when I returned home to India, I was struck by the deep distrust of the world displayed by many of my countrymen. We were
influenced by the legacy of our immediate past. Not just by the perceived
negative consequences of British imperial rule, but also by the sense that we
were left out in the cold by the Cold War.
There is no doubt that out
grievance against the British Empire had a sound basis. As the painstaking
statistical work of the Cambridge historian Angus Maddison has shown, India's
share of world income collapsed from 22.6% in 1700, almost equal to Europe's
share of 23.3% at that time, to as low as 3.8% 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.
However, what is significant about the Indo-British relationship is the fact
that despite the economic impact of colonial rule, the relationship between individual
Indians and Britons, even at the time of our Independence, was relaxed and, I
may even say, benign.
This was best exemplified by the
exchange that Mahatma Gandhi had here at Oxford in 1931 when he met members of
the Raleigh Club and the Indian Majlis. The Mahatma was in England then for the Round Table Conference and during its recess, he spent two weekends at the home
of A.D.Lindsay, the Master of Balliol. At this meeting, the mahatma was
asked: "How far would you cut India off from the Empire?" His reply
was precise , "From the Empire, entirely; from the British nation not at all,
if I want India to gain and not to grieve." He added, "The British Empire is an
Empire only because of India. The Emperorship must go and I should love to be
an equal partner with Britain, sharing her joys and sorrows. But it must be a
partnership on equal terms." This remarkable statement by the Mahatma has
defined the bais of our relationship with Britain.
Jawaharlal Nehru echoed this
sentiment when he urged the Indian Constituent Assembly in 1949 to vote in
favour of India's membership of the Commonwealth. Nehru set the tone for
independent India's relations with its former master when he intervened in the
Constituent Assembly's debate on India joining the Commonwealth and said:
"I wanted the world to see that
India did not lack faith in herself, and that India was prepared to co-operate
even with those with whom she had been fighting in the past provided the basis
of the co-operation today was honourable, that it was a free basis, a basis
which would lead to the good not only of ourselves, but of the world also. That
is to say, we would not deny that co-operation simply because in the past we
had fought and thus carry on the trail of our past karma along with us. We have
to wash out the past with all its evil."
India and Britain set an example to the rest of the world in the way they sought to relate to each other,
thanks to the wisdom and foresight of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. When
I became the Finance Minister of India in 1991, our Government launched the
Indo-British Partnership Initiative. Our relationship had by then evolved to a
stage where we had come to regard each other as partners. Today, there is no
doubt in my mind that Britain and India are indeed partners and have much in
common in their approach to a wide range of global issues.
What impelled the Mahatma to take
such a positive view of Britain and the British people even as he challenged the
Empire and colonial rule? It was, undoubtedly, his recognition of the elements
of fair play that characterised so much of the ways of the British in India. Consider the fact that an important slogan of India's struggle for freedom was that
"Self Government is more precious than Good Government." That, of course, is
the essence of democracy. But the slogan suggests that even at the height of
our campaign for freedom from colonial rule, we did not entirely reject the
British claim to good governance. We merely asserted our natural right to
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 civilization 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 the country
The idea of India as enshrined in our Constitution, with its emphasis on the principles of secularism,
democracy, the rule of law and, above all, the equality of all human beings
irrespective of caste, community, language or ethnicity, has deep roots in India's ancient civilization. However, it is undeniable that the founding fathers of our
republic were also greatly influenced by the ideas associated with the age of
enlightenment in Europe. Out Constitution remains a testimony to the enduring
interplay between what is essentially Indian and what is very British in our
The idea of India as an inclusive and plural society, draws on both these traditions. The success of our
experiment of building a democracy within the framework of a multi-cultural,
multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society will encourage all
societies to walk the path we have trodden. In this journey, both Britain and India have learnt from each other and have much to teach the world. This is perhaps the
most enduring aspect of the Indo-British encounter.
It used to be said that the sun
never sets on the British Empire. I am afraid we were partly responsible for
sending that adage out of fashion! But, if there is one phenomenon on which the
sun cannot se, it is the world of the English speaking people, in which the
people on Indian origin at the single largest component.
Of all the legacies of the Raj,
none is more important than the English language and the modern school system.
That is, if you leave out cricket! Of course, people here may not recognise the
language we speak, but let me assume you that it is English! In Indigenising
English, as so many people have done in so many nations across the world, we
have made the language our own. Our choice of prepositions may not always be
the Queen's English; we might occasionally split the infinitive; and we may
drop an article here and add an extra one there. I am sure everyone will agree,
however, that English has been enriched by Indian creativity as well and we
have given you R.K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie. Today, English in India is seen as just another Indian language.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
No Indian has paid a more poetic
and generous tribute to Britain for the totality of this inheritance than
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore.
In the opening lines of his
Gitanjali, Gurudev says:
"The West has
today opened its door:
treasures for us to take.
We will take and
we will also give,
From the open
shores of India's immense humanity."
To see the India - British relationship as one of 'give and take', at the time when he first did so, was an act
of courage and statesmanship. It was, however, also an act of great foresight.
As we look back and also look ahead, it is clear that the Indo-British
relationship is one of 'give and take'. The challenge before us today is to see
how we can take this mutually beneficial relationship forward in an
increasingly inter-dependent world.
I wish to end by returning to my
alma mater. Oxford, since the 19th century, has been a centre for
Sanskrit learning and the study of Indian culture. The Boden professorship in
Sanskrit, and the Spalding professorship in Eastern Religious and Ethics, stand
testimony to the university's commitment to India and Indian culture. I recall
with pride the fact that the Spalding professorship was held by two very
distinguished Indians: Dr S. Radhakrishnan, who later became the President of India and by Dr. Bimal Krishna Matilal.
In the context of the study and
preservation of Indian culture, I also wish to recall the contribution of another
Oxonian, Lord Curzon, about whose project to preserve and restore Indian
monuments, Jawaharlal Nehru said, "After every other viceroy has been
forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful
Many of those who were to rule India set course from Oxford. Some stayed behind to become India's friends. Men like Edward
Thompson, Verrier Elwin and many others are remembered in India for their contribution to our life and society.
I always come back to the city of
dreaming spires and of lost causes as a student. Mr Chancellor, I am here this
time in all humility as the representative of a great nation and a great
people. I am beholden to you and to my old university for the honour that I
received today. Thank you.