FF Life: 5 Great Indian Speeches

On leadership, defence, science, healthcare, sports and philosophy

Founding Fuel

[Images from YouTube; Babasaheb Ambedkar by Sandesh Hiwale, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Good morning,

For the first edition of FF Life this year, we share five speeches delivered by Indians that explore some of the most important questions of our times. They were carefully chosen to represent a range of themes—leadership, defence, science, healthcare, sports and philosophy. The earliest speech in this list—one by Dr BR Ambedkar—was delivered in 1949; and the latest by Dr Soumya Swaminathan was delivered in August 2019 (where she in fact warns about how unprepared we are to face a flu pandemic). But we didn’t pick that because it predicted an important event, but because it touches upon something deeper. In fact, if there is a common thread that binds them all, they highlight the values we need the most today: Courage, thoughtfulness and kindness. 

Soumya Swaminathan on Universal Health Care

In August 2019, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist of World Health Organization, delivered The 13th New India Foundation Annual Girish Karnad Memorial Lecture. Her focus was on universal healthcare. It is worth listening to not because she warned about the pandemic five months ahead of the disruption, but because she took a systems view of healthcare in India. And her observation that India was ill prepared for a pandemic was a part of it.  

She said, “the reality is that in the future, we are going to have more of these unknown unexpected events and diseases. We don't know when the next big pandemic will happen. As you all know, in 1918, we had the last big flu pandemic. It's 100 years now. We lost 50 million people in 1918, which at that time was a huge proportion of the world's population. So the question is, when that will happen, not if, because influenza virus is known to mutate. And so at one day or the other, there will be an influenza strain that's made from strains from chicken, wild birds, from swine, and so on, that is able to not only infect humans, but spread from human to human. And that would be basically the beginning of the next pandemic. 

“So the question of preparing for these kinds of emerging infections, most of them are going to be zoonotic viruses. We know only one or 2% of the viruses that are present in the world. There has been really no global map of viruses. So it could spring up anywhere, anytime. They mutate very rapidly. So the point I am trying to make is that without primary health care services, which include things like disease surveillance, registries, data, monitoring, constant data analysis and monitoring, and having a cadre of trained public health people in every state, in every district, at the sub district level, it would be hard to control. One really dreads to think if something like that gets into overpopulated cities like in India, then it would be very, very hard to contain. So, we have to prepare, because once the event happens, it would probably be too late.” 

The speech is also a reminder why no one should be left behind when it comes to health.

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Sam Manekshaw on leadership

There are stories and stories about Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. One of the more famous ones as recounted by him includes the time when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was under enormous pressure from all quarters and insisted the Indian Army march into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Then a General, Manekshaw declined. The conditions were unfavourable and he hissed back at the Prime Minister that if he led the troops into war, a defeat was guaranteed. Others may have given in and carried out orders. Not Sam Manekshaw. Just how did he stand his ground? He had figured that to be a leader, you equip yourself to be a leader. 

That was the theme of a talk he had given a few years ago at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai. We loved listening to every minute of him speaking. It was a masterclass on the theme.    

“Now, you will agree with me that you cannot be born with professional knowledge even if you are a child of a minister, the son of a member of parliament, or the progeny of a field marshal.

“Professional knowledge has to be acquired the hard way. It is a constant study. Professors, engineers, architects, lawyers, solicitors, doctors; they all study their professions, continuously, they all contribute to magazines, to newsprints, to all sorts of things. But we in India, as soon as we reach positions of power, whether it’s ministerial, secretarial, armed forces, or anywhere else, we think, we are the repository of all knowledge.

“Professional knowledge has to be acquired the hard way, and without professional knowledge, you cannot have professional competence, and if you haven’t got professional competence, you cannot be a leader. 

“I wonder those civilian gentlemen who’ve been charged with the security of this country, whether they have ever read a book on the military profession. I wonder if they know the difference between a gun or a Howitzer. I remember a minister one day coming to me. I’d left being the army chief then and said, and I will talk to you in his own language.”

“Zara batao yeh Hawitzer kya hai?

“Then I say, what are you talking about, ‘HOWVITZER’, then I discovered what he meant, he meant, a ‘HOWITZER’, and I said, “why are you asking me? Why don’t you ask the army chief and others?

“He said, ‘Kaise poochen unse, mein minister hoon. Tere se toh pooch leta hoon, tu janta hai ki mein bewakoof hoon.’ (How should I ask them? I am a minister. Though, I can ask you. You already know I am stupid with respect to knowledge regarding the military.)

“I wonder if they can distinguish a ‘mortar’ from a ‘motor’, or a ‘guerrilla’ from a ‘gorilla’, although a great many resemble the latter. Ladies and gentlemen, professional knowledge is a sine qua non [or condicio sine qua non, an indispensable and essential action, condition, or ingredient – Wikipedia] of ‘leadership’, you have to have professional competence, if you are expected to lead anything, it doesn’t matter if you are in the army, whether you are in a teaching profession, whether you are in the industry—unless you have professional competence and professional knowledge, you cannot be a leader, and it has to be acquired the hard way, you’ve got to study all your life.”

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Why Babasaheb Ambedkar continues to matter

If there is one book on our wish list that isn’t written yet, it is an exhaustive biography of Dr BR Ambedkar, architect of the Indian Constitution and first Minister of Law and Justice in the cabinet that was sworn in after India gained independence. It is a tribute to the man’s genius and the foresight of the people who fought for India then that they placed their faith in Dr Ambedkar. 

We say this because Babasaheb, as he was fondly called, was born into an India where the caste system was all pervasive and he was born an “untouchable”. That meant, he started life as a schoolboy who carried a gunny sack so he could sit away from other students and carry it back with him. Not much is known of what happened to those who studied with him. But he went on to earn doctorates in economics from Columbia University and LSE. After he returned, he plunged into active politics and went on to make history.

On presenting the Constitution to the Assembly, we believe he made one of the most important speeches in contemporary India. 

[By Sandesh HiwaleCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

“… my mind is so full of the future of our country that I feel I ought to take this occasion to give expression to some of my reflections thereon. On 26th January 1950, India will be an independent country (Cheers). What would happen to her independence? Will she maintain her independence or will she lose it again? This is the first thought that comes to my mind. It is not that India was never an independent country. The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lose it a second time? It is this thought which makes me most anxious for the future. What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people. 

“Will history repeat itself? It is this thought which fills me with anxiety. This anxiety is deepened by the realization of the fact that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost for ever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.

“On the 26th of January 1950, India would be a democratic country in the sense that India from that day would have a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The same thought comes to my mind. What would happen to her democratic Constitution? Will she be able to maintain it or will she lose it again? This is the second thought that comes to my mind and makes me as anxious as the first.”

He goes on to describe how Buddhism that traces its lineage to India has a democratic culture. Having done that, he points out, “This democratic system India lost. Will she lose it a second time? I do not know. But it is quite possible in a country like India—where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something quite new—there is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this new-born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.” 

But what kind of a democracy was he talking about in a young nation struggling to find a toehold? That concerned him as well. “The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.”

How may he have sounded while delivering this? We couldn’t find an audio recording of this powerful speech, the import of which continues to resonate today.

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Rahul Dravid on Cricket and Life

In December 2011, Rahul Dravid delivered the Sir Donald Bradman Oration at The War Memorial in Canberra, Australia. He was as meticulous on stage as he was on the ground, and every point he made during the speech was widely discussed and debated by the lovers of the game. Towards the end, he spent a few minutes reflecting on what cricket meant to him. It was so authentic and profound, it can give goosebumps even today, a full ten years after he gave the speech.   

“I also want to talk briefly about an experience I have often had over the course of my career. It is not to do with individuals or incidents, but one I believe is important to share. I have sometimes found myself in the middle of a big game, standing at slip or even at the non-strikers end and suddenly realised that everything else has vanished. At that moment, all that exists is the contest and the very real sense of the joy that comes from playing the game.

“It is an almost meditative experience, where you reconnect with the game just like you did years ago, when you first began, when you hit your first boundary, took the first catch, scored your first century, or were involved in a big victory. It lasts for a very fleeting passage of time, but it is a very precious instant and every cricketer should hang on to it.

“I know it is utterly fanciful to expect professional cricketers to play the game like amateurs; but the trick, I believe, is taking the spirit of the amateur—of discovery, of learning, of pure joy, of playing by the rules—into our profession. Taking it to practice or play, even when there’s an epidemic of white-line fever breaking out all over the field.

“In every cricketer there lies a competitor who hates losing, and yes, winning matters. But it is not the only thing that matters when you play cricket. How it is played is as important for every member of every team because every game we play leaves a footprint in cricket’s history. We must never forget that.”

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J Krishnamurti on learning about oneself

One of the foremost philosophers of our times, J Krishnamurti’s speeches are not speeches, but conversations, even when he was the only one speaking. The man who famously said “truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect”, makes it a point to remind his fellow conversationalists that they are seeking an answer together. 

As he said in his San Diego public talk in April 1970, “we will go together into this question, bearing in mind that the speaker has no authority whatsoever, because both of us are going to examine, observe, this phenomenon called life, living, and find out the truth of the matter.” 

For Krishnamurti, finding the truth of the matter is about observing… with no judgement whatsoever. And that’s harder than it sounds. Marshall B. Rosenberg once pointed to Krishnamurti’s statement that the highest form of human intelligence is observing without evaluating. “When I first read this statement, the thought, ‘What nonsense!’ shot through my mind before I realized that I had just made an evaluation.” 

In his San Diego speech Krishnamurti says: 

“So, how are you to look at yourself—please do listen to this, it is quite absorbing. It demands a great deal of intelligence, it is great fun, much more fun than any book, than any religious entertainment, than any philosophy. As we are broken up human beings in ourselves, contradictory desires, feeling inferior or superior, being afraid, having no love, feeling lonely, fragmented, not only superficially but deeply—how are you to observe? One fragment observes the rest of the fragments? One becoming the censor, the examiner, the observer, watching over the rest of the fragments? And what gives him the authority over the other fragments? I hope the speaker is making himself clear; unless you understand this really, what we are going to discuss during the rest of the talks you won't be able to follow at all.

“So the question is, who is the observer and who is the censor that says, 'This I will do, this I won't do, this is right and this is wrong, this path I will take and I won't tread that path, I'll be a pacifist with regard to this war but I've other favourite wars, I will follow this leader and not that leader, I believe in this and not in that, I will hold this prejudice and reject that', knowing, if you have observed yourself, that you are a fragmented human being? And therefore, being fragmented, contradictory, living in constant conflict, and knowing this conflict, one fragment of this many, many fragments, takes charge, becomes the authority, the censor, and his observation must inevitably be contradictory. I hope you're following all this. If one fragment, one part of you assumes the authority of the analyser over the other fragments, why has he assumed that authority, and can he, one fragment, analyse the rest of the other fragments? You are following all this?

“See how dreadfully complex it has all become. Whether you are analysed by a professional or you analyse yourself, it is still the same pattern. So it is very important to find out how to observe, how to observe all these many contradictions which make up our life, how to observe the whole of those fragments without another fragment taking place.”

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