Asian Affairs and The Democracy Forum joint Anniversary dinner

I am very grateful to Ajit and Pablo Sat Bhambra and Sir Peter Luff for hosting the dinner tonight, and inviting me to speak.

This is a year of important Asian anniversaries. One that springs to mind is the centenary of Gandhi’s return to the sub-continent on 9th January 1915. I am sure we can anticipate another 32 years of centennial events leading to independence.

I’ve just returned from India where I gave a lecture to a history class at Presidency University. I told them that in 1906 Gandhi had two meetings in London with the Colonial Secretary, who happened to be my great-grandfather. I had to acknowledge that Gandhi was bitterly disappointed by the encounter!

Within two months of landing at Bombay, Gandhi travelled to Santiniketan where he met Rabindranath Tagore on March 5 1915. It was here that Tagore conferred on him the title of Mahatma, the “Great Soul”.

In 2011, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, I was very honoured to have been asked together with William Radice, the Bengali language scholar, to become patrons of the Sottish Centre of Tagore Studies at Edinburgh Napier University – which has the acronym, SCoTS.

SCoTS has the support of Indian Govt. and I can assure you it is providing healthy competition to the two Confucius centres  which the Chinese government has established in Scotland at the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh!

The Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) has funded the appointment of a Visiting Chair, Professor Indra Nat Chaudhuri, and two Research Fellowships. We organise regular international conferences, seminars and film festivals. Indeed the centre is developing as a global hub for Tagore studies, connecting scholars from South America, United States, UK, Europe, Bangladesh and India.

In his own time Tagore acted as a fulcrum balancing the intellectual and philosophical traditions of West and East. But today, it is a challenge to recover his relevance and prominence as a global figure. Ravi Shankar wrote: “Had Tagore been born in the West, he would now be revered as Shakespeare of Goethe.”

But I believe his world view is becoming increasingly relevant. He had much to say on the role of nationalism in the destruction of civilisation in the first half of the twentieth century. A similar threat to world order is considered in a carefully written editorial in the current edition of Asian Affairs. Under the title “War without end” it argues that the West must not lose its moral authority in the fight against terrorism. Much of the sentiment of the editorial could have been lifted from the essay which Tagore wrote in 1941, the “Crisis of Civilisation”. I urge you to make more use of him.

Tagore probably found his greatest achievement, not as a poet, or playwright, or painter, but as an educator, and particularly in the foundation of a new university for India at Visva Bharati. In this endeavour he became closely linked to the Scottish sociologist and urban planner, Patrick Geddes. They met in 1917 and the following year, Tagore was sufficiently enamoured to dedicate his seminal work on the idiocy of rote teaching, The Parrots Training (Tota-Kahini),  to Geddes – they obviously shared a sense of humour!

A year later, Geddes wrote Tagore a letter dated 1 April 1919 praising his friend with extraordinary prescience: “Don’t you ever sing better after a hard battle” he wrote, “like the warrior of old?” Within two weeks the Jallianwalah Bagh massacre had occurred, undermining irredeemably Tagore’s respect for British rule and eclipsing his relationship with many of his English friends. His dignified letter to the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford will stand forever as an incendiary denunciation of colonialism. But his connection with Geddes emerged unscathed retaining its vitality and spirit of collaboration.

As an urban planner Geddes left an important mark on India. In nine years he completed over 50 planning assignments, including the cities of Madras, Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Hyderabad, and Dacca. The historian Narayani Gupta writes: “To the aspects of Indian tradition to be celebrated, Geddes added one – townscapes. I am convinced that if Geddes had not happened to India, we would have little sense today of the old discourse on architecture and planning”.

The historical connection between Tagore and Geddes is the inspiration behind an urban regeneration project with which I am currently involved in Kolkata. Centred on the restoration of the Scottish Cemetery – a six acre colonial- era graveyard not far from Park Circus –  the project has the potential to transform its surrounding neighbourhood. Not only will it provide the city with a well-needed green lung, it will also provide opportunities for skills training and employment. But most importantly, the project is opening the eyes of a new generation of architects and urban planners to the need to protect and retain their rapidly depleting urban heritage. We are now working with four universities to prepare coursework and workshops for students of architecture, archaeology, landscape architecture, and art history. Any editorial support you can give us would be very welcome!

Like everyone here tonight, I would like to offer my very best wishes for your joint future. Always remember you are not just commenting on contemporary events, but you are also writing for posterity.

India was beginning to benefit from the development of a national press in the 1860s when my great-great grandfather was appointed as Viceroy. He understood the value of a free press. He had been Governor General of Canada in the 1840’s and 1850’s at a time when the colony’s future was threatened by seemingly insoluble racial conflict between French Canadians and British settlers. He was able to introduce responsible government, a vital pre-condition for Confederation, largely because he made sure he was well-informed. He only employed bilingual private secretaries who each morning methodically read and clipped all the French and English language newspapers. A few years ago my family gifted all of his private papers to the Canadian National Archive. At the heart of this collection were amassed four volumes of press-cuttings, amounting to 1,200 pages – a treasure trove for historians.

I hope Asian Affairs and the Democracy Forum will both continue for many years to come to serve the interests of press freedom, democratic representation, human rights and the rule of law while also contributing a first draft to the history of our time.