One of the Oxford’s enduring institutions is the Oxford Union. It had produced leaders who went on to build an Empire, fight the World Wars, establish international standards in all walks of life. Here is how I was able to fulfill my life’s ambition of participating in this august body. I a way, I imagined myself to have stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the great and good of England’s history and its civilized way of life!
One of my memorable, in fact when I now look back seems to be an utterly audacious acts while I was at Oxford was my participation in the Oxford University’s historic institution, namely, the Oxford University’s Debating Society. In fact, the Debating Society is simply called the Union Society. What I have got to say I should give the readers unfamiliar with this unique institution a short history of this institution. The Oxford Union Society was established in December 1825 out of the Oxford United Debating Society which had been founded in 1823. The Society in the words of a former Prime Minister Harold Macmillian, a “unique one in that it has provided an unrivalled training ground for debates in the Parliamentary style which no other debating society in any democratic country can equal”. Past office holders of this Society would read like a who is who of England’s leading Prime Ministers and great many Parliamentarians and all the great office holders of the State like great judges, members of the House of Commons and House of Lords and not the least some of the most colourful characters of the British Society and culture. All the great Prime Minister of Great Britain, Gladstone, perhaps the most distinguished, the most fully developed or trained Oxford man to occupy both the chairs of the Debating Society as well as the Prime Ministership. The others are also no less distinguished. Some of the other names familiar to the Indians of this and the last generation may perhaps is only the Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The other name is Lord Curzon, who was the Imperial Viceroy during the 1905 Swadeshi movement.
The Encyclopaedia of Oxford gives a list of the names of the Presidents of the Society since 1900 and some names are very interesting. There is of course the most famous is Benazir Bhutto, the first lady student, also the Muslim lady to win this distinction and she later went on to create history by becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan and even now in the news as the President of the Pakistan Peoples Party. There are two Indians ,one was the rather notorious D.F.Karaka who was the first Indian to have this distinction in 1934 (died in 1974), the other two Indians also went on to lead academic lives and now forgotten. The more interesting two names are the Sri Lankans, one Lalithe Athulathmudali, in 1958 and the next year, Lakshman Kadirkamar. I think I know both of them and I distinctly remember to have known Kadirkamer rather well. At one time, I remember we had discussed as to what to do back in India and he ,if I remember correctly, had said something like starting a news weekly like the New Statesman. I was an ardent reader of this famous Socialist political weekly and its editor, Kingsley Martin and I had so many Sri Lankan friends and we were all ardent nationalists and we were active in the Indian Majlis which soon after my arrival, I think got split into Indian and Pakistani groups. I remember Kingsley Martin writing to me and telling “Put the Indians and Pakistanis under one roof. Then, I come and talk to you all!”. I did so and Martin was a fanatical supporter of Nehru and also the Pakistani leaders and in fact he was waging a campaign to solve the Kashmir problem and he wanted the Indians and Pakistanis to work more closely. So, I also got to know some Pakistani friends. The common meeting place was the Debating Society halls and I had conducted many of the Oxford University Indian Students Association meetings here. I also hosted one lunch for the visiting Chairman of the (Indian) Union Public Service Commission, one Hejmadi.
Now, the Oxford Debating Society had some or two rebels who made it big in the world. One such was Tariq Ali, who became the President of the Society in 1965 and who is now living in London as a journalist and a Marxist politician. As I was reading through the list of the past Presidents I was struck by some facts. The most brilliant of these Presidents from 1900 onwards went on to fight in the first World War and as per my calculation seven had been killed in that foolish war! Yes, one of the great things I still appreciate about the British society and I want to convey my appreciation to Indians and others is the fact that some of the best Oxford Colleges lost some of the precious talented individuals who otherwise would have become great contributors to society and their nation. There are any number of memorial stones inscribed on the walls of the Colleges and that speaks so much about the patriotism these young men displayed at such precious young ages. The other fact I noticed among the past Presidents is that most of the English boys went on to serve their country in entering politics and some making great leaders. In the case of India, compared with a smaller neighbour Sri Lanka, our men and women didn’t go for leadership roles, most Indians who went to Oxford sought only the civil service jobs. Even in my time, this attitude to enter the civil service was the dominant trait. When I was a student there was interestingly Dr.Manmohan Singh, doing his Ph.D at Nuffield, along with Dr.Jagadish Bhagawati. I was an undergraduate, admitted to the three year course and as those who know of Oxford education traditions, it was the undergraduate course that was the prestigious, difficult and highly rated. As such, I didn’t give even the slightest importance to those who were from India and doing their researches.
Thus, my idea of a glamourous Oxford education was to do what the British high society was doing. Join a political club, some other clubs and take part in the Debating Society and then enter Parliament! So, I joined the Labour Club and became an ardent Fabian Socialist, read all the Socialist journals and books and also become familiar with the Labour figures. I wrote to Sir Julian Stratchy, a radical Labour thinker with a long family connection with India and he wrote back enthusiastically to come to Oxford to speak for my invitation, though eventually this didn’t materialise. I also wrote to Sir Claude Auchinleck, the last British Commander in Chief of the British Indian army to come to speak for the Indian students. He wrote a post card from some remote village and said he was quite willing to oblige me. This also didn’t materialise. However, the most memorable meeting was addressed by Kingsley Martin and this established my friendship with him. I became a reader and a letter writer to the New Statesman. The others who came to Oxford (I cant say now at this distance of time whether they came because of my invitation or otherwise) were Victor Gollanz, Pethick Lawrence (a member of the Cripps Mission) and many others. Now, back to the Debating Society. As soon as established myself in Oxford, one of the first things I did was to visit the Society’s premises on St.Michael’s Street, off the Corn Market area and paid my first term dues. Then, I also put my name as willing to participate in the debates. There were some rules, one was that anyone wanting to speak must qualify in the “qualifying” debates. So, on the notified date I presented myself and there were some others too. It was sometime in the evening, around 7 o’clock and I was called to the platform. I don’t remember the topic but what I remember clearly I made a forceful speech on the given topic! Mr.Peter Jay who later became President in my time, was one of the judges. After my speech I was handed over a note written by Mr.Jay saying my speech was seedy and I needed to speak rather slowly and my accents needed correction etc. What happened next day morning during breakfast at the New College Dining Hall was much more unexpectedly a high point. Some of my English friends who were present during the debate greeted me saying “Hallo, Murti! Wonderful to see you on the Debating Society’s platform! Now you look like one day becoming the Prime Minister of India!… “Such was the high appreciation and high expectation the Debating Society created! Afterwards I was a regular visitor to the weekly debates and though I didn’t participate in any big debates formally, I had actively participated in the debates.
It was a great honour to become some office bearer or other of the Society’s activities. I couldn’t continue my membership of the Society after one or two terms, more because I couldn’t pay by dues, I had the shortage of money, foreign exchange even then was very limited and I should say that my interests also got diverted. But my interest in the Society’s debates continued and I had attended some of the memorable debates. One was when Macmillan himself participated and his African policy was condemned in his very presence. The British tradition is such that such fierce expression of opinion even before the high and mighty is taken for granted and much appreciated and much tolerated with much good humour. The other debate I remember was participation by the then Irish Prime Minister. The Irish issue was always thorny for British politics and yet the Debate allowed and gave a platform for the Irish Prime Minister to express his opinion freely and openly.
The most memorable debate was when Nehru came to London in 1959/60 and I followed Nehru everywhere. I attended his lectures in London and when he came to Oxford, the Debating Society had a housefull attendance and even I could enter the premises the crowd waiting outside on the lawns and Nehru spoke with much conviction and I remember he explained what he was doing in India, by giving power to the people in the Community Development projects etc. In India, we were accustomed to hear Nehru speak with passion but in England Nehru’s speech sounded rather prosaic and the British don’t like any emotional speeches, they would prefer to hear you explain the problems clearly. In this, I found for the first time, as I was following Nehru since my Santiniketan days where he was a regular annual visitor, I found Nehru a different person altogether! I don’t know how Gandhi too might have sounded on the British soil. Anyway, Nehru took time off to come to Oxford and meet young students and wanted to win their minds. This, in fact, used to be a tradition with many of the great intellectuals and even mavericks who had always found a welcome ground at the Debating Society. Lately, I read from the Oxford Magazine that I receive regularly, that so many radical ,even notorious figures are invited to the Debates just to provoke controversy and new thoughts and points of view.
Readers may be interested to know that one of the most controversial debates was during the war times. In February 1933 there was this debate, famously called and even to this day remembered: The King and Country debate! The motion for the debate was: “That this country will in no circumstances fight for its King and its Country”. There was a scandal! Such a debate in such a dangerous time! The guest speaker was the famed radio broadcaster and philosopher, C.E.M.Joad’. The opposer was the twenty-five old Quinton Hogg, later a big politician and then a Fellow of All Souls College, the very peak of intellectual cleverness! The motion was carried by 275 votes to 153! All hell broke lose! There was cry in the press and in the country. That led to so many caricatures of the Society and also some corrective steps. One was the subsequent motion, with the same title. This time the debate was better attended than the previous one, also this time the motion was defeated! A similar motion was also defeated once more, I find, in 1983 and also heavily defeated. In fact, now I recall when Macmillan was present in the Society premises and where I was also present, the Prime Minister threatened he would walk out if a motion on his Africa policy was introduced. I think some compromise was introduced and the PM stayed back for the debate!
Indians don’t have anything like that, be it higher education or training the young minds in our universities. Some little know facts of the Society :the first woman to address the Union was the suffragette (campaigner for votes for women), one Mrs.Fawcett in 1908. Only in 1968 the first woman President was elected and then came Bhutto. Some of my happy days were spent on the premises of the Society. The Library is a happy place to spend time. So was the baron the ground floor. There was also a hall where we used to conduct our “Socials”, meetings, dinners and dances. So many faces, so any names flit through my mind! It looks now a world that had so much of hope and happiness, daring and opportunities in the wider world. For me, those days recall my own growing up to learn and go back to India and lead my country! The one famous remark or daring repartee I made to the visit the UPSC chairman was when in the course of the lunch I gave as President of the Oxford Indian Students Association, Mr.Hejmadi, in a gesture of much goodwill asked me: “Mr.Murti! What you want to do back in India?” For which pat came reply:” Mr.Hejmadi I am not clear about it right now. I haven’t given any thought to it. But what I am clear about now is : I wont become an IAS !”Mr.Hejamadi was not amused! He changed the subject! That evening I had convened a meeting to the distinguished visitor from India in my New College premises. There was a record attendance from Indian students! I instructed the Secretary of the Association, Ms.Billimoria (later Mrs.Vajifdar) to admit the Indians inside the hall only after collecting their full dues (unpaid hitherto too!) to the Association! We had a record collection! I noticed the Indians’ peculiar habit then! All Indians wanted to enter only the IAS! So, they came in sheepishly to meet the UPSC Chairman! May be to make themselves familiar with him for a chance to win! Win what? Win in life? I don’t know. What I know for sure is that some of them (I keep track of some them at least even now) went to ” rot” in some faceless rooms! That was the only aspiration of these Oxbridge men (and women) who, in my opinion, have not risen up to their full potential.
India had been badly served by these Oxbridge types. At least in some countries, in Asia and Africa, I see leaders emerging out of Oxbridge and the London School of Economics. But not in India. What we have instead is to make a mockery of the Oxbridge’s great traditions. By creating and building up false images in the name of dynastic politics. Lately, this fakemages still distort Indian politics. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi are no substitutes for real heroes and leaders with real stuff!