For his 80th birthday in 1941, Tagore wrote what was to be his last speech. It was entitled Civilisation’s crisis. As Western countries struggle to deal with an economic crisis, the speech is in some ways as relevant today as when he wrote it.
An English version of the speech was featured by rediff.com in a special series of Great speeches of modern India to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India’s independence from British rule. They have divided it into five parts. Part 1 – Introduction; Part 2 – What is civilisation?; Part 3 – An intellectual people drifting into the disorder of barbarism; Part 4 – The social fabric is being rent to shreds; Part 5 – Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East . To read the speech in Bengali, see সভ্যতার সংকট.
Some sources suggest that the speech was delivered in Santiniketan in Tagore’s presence to mark the Bengali New Year on 14 April 1941. However, as the speech begins literally “Today, my age has completed eighty years”, it seems more likely that it was delivered during the celebrations of his 80th birthday on 7 May 1941.
At the time the speech was made, Tagore was reflecting on a Europe embroiled in the second World War. As we approach the 70th anniversary of Tagore’s death on 7 August 1941, many Western countries find themselves struggling to recover from an economic crisis. At the same time, an international media organisation finds itself at the centre of attention over an apparent lack of scruples at one of its most popular publications when obtaining information for its news reports.
Tagore begins by observing that, in the late 19th century, the English were viewed by Indian political leaders as a generous race since “England at the time provided a shelter to all those who had to flee from persecution in their own country. Political martyrs who had suffered for the honour of their people were accorded unreserved welcome at the hands of the English. … This generosity in their national character had not yet been vitiated by imperialist pride.”
What is civilisation?
After initially holding the English concept of ‘civilisation’ in high esteem as representing ‘proper conduct’, Tagore refers to “a painful feeling of disillusion when I began increasingly to discover how easily those who accepted the highest truths of civilization disowned them with impunity whenever questions of national self-interest were involved. … As I emerged into the stark light of bare facts, the sight of the dire poverty of the Indian masses rent my heart. Rudely shaken out of my dreams, I began to realize that perhaps in no other modern state was there such hopeless dearth of the most elementary needs of existence. And yet it was this country whose resources had fed for so long the wealth and magnificence of the British people.”
An intellectual people drifting into the disorder of barbarism
Tagore contrasts the efforts of Russia to fight disease and illiteracy with the approach in India: “when I look about my own country and see a very highly evolved and intellectual people drifting into the disorder of barbarism, I cannot help contrasting the two systems of governments, one based on co-operation, the other on exploitation, which have made such contrary conditions possible.”
The social fabric is being rent to shreds
Tagore’s references to Iran and Afghanistan appear odd today as countries which “were marching ahead, [while] India, smothered under the dead weight of British administration, lay static in her utter helplessness. Another great and ancient civilization for whose recent tragic history the British cannot disclaim responsibility, is China.” Of course, it is India and China which are now considered to be among the economic superpowers while the recent histories of Iran and Afghanistan are less fortunate.
“If in its place [the British] have established, with baton in hand, a reign of ‘law and order’, in other words a policeman’s rule, such mockery of civilization can claim no respect from us. It is the mission of civilization to bring unity among people and establish peace and harmony. But in unfortunate India the social fabric is being rent into shreds by unseemly outbursts of hooliganism daily growing in intensity, right under the very aegis of ‘law and order’.” Perhaps this image is now more closely associated with countries such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East
Tagore notes that he has been fortunate to meet “really large-hearted Englishmen”, particularly referring to C F Andrews, considering them to be “friends of the whole human race”. However, he is concerned about what kind of India would be left after the British granted it independence. “When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!”
Nonetheless, he looks forward to a period “after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises.” From references earlier in the speech, he may have had Japan in mind. However, the economic crisis appears to have affected Asia far less than it has Western countries.
Tagore’s closing remark seems from the perspective of 2011 to be remarkably prescient:
“Today we witness the perils which attend on the insolence of might; one day shall be borne out the full truth of what the sages have proclaimed: ‘By unrighteousness, man prospers, gains what appears desirable, conquers enemies, but perishes at the root.'”
70 years on, as people in various countries have come together with the help of social media to demand collectively a more honest and less brutal regime, and as the economies of countries once referred to as “Third World” prepare to overtake those of their former rulers, Tagore seems to have been proved right.