|Singh at the presentation. (PTI)
Oxford, July 8: The oldest university of the English-speaking world conferred on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh its highest honour ' Doctor of Civil Law honoris causa. So it was an appropriate occasion for him to tell those of his alma mater gathered to honour him, at the Convocation House of the Bodeleian Library, that India, too, had given them something ' English, of sorts, or its very Indian version.
“Of course, people here may not recognise the language we speak, but let me tell you that it is English! In indigenising English ... 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,” Singh said with a glint in his eye and smile on his face.
The senior university figures thought that they were honouring someone who exhibited “wisdom, learning, and a sense of patriotic duty” and who had mastered the “gloomy science” of economics.
Who else could argue that while India was partly responsible for diluting the adage that the sun never sets on the British Empire but that had now been reversed ' the sun never sets now on the English-speaking world. “The people of Indian origin are the single largest component” of the English-speaking world, he pointed out to the gathering at the Bodeleian.
The Chancellor of the University, Lord Chris Patten of Barnes, praised India as one the countries that will play a leading role in the centuries to come and argued that its strength lay in its democracy. He said that in honouring Singh, Oxford was honouring all those values “which every university should uphold and to which every great society should aspire”.
The Prime Minister, in turn, paid fulsome tribute to the way the relationship between Britain, the former colonial power, and India had evolved. He marshalled the views of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore to support the argument that a relationship of equals, generously giving as well taking what suited the other, was consciously evolved.
“The West has today opened its door/ There are treasures for us to take/ We will take and we will also give/ From the open shores of India’s immense humanity” ' he quoted from opening lines of Gitanjali. The Prime Minister concluded that saying this at that time was not only “an act of courage and statesmanship” but also of “great foresight”.
He described the Constitution of India as “a testimony to the enduring interplay between what is essentially Indian and what is very British in our intellectual heritage”. He argued that the idea of India as an inclusive and plural society draws on both these traditions.
Oxford has produced two quintessentially different Prime Ministers of India ' Indira Gandhi, who thrived in the unforgiving hurly burly of politics, from Sommerville College, and Singh, who came to “the dust and clamour of political battle” reluctantly, from Nuffield College.
Indira Gandhi came for her undergraduate degree while Singh came after his tripos at St. John’s College, Cambridge and a BA from Punjab University. Both have been given honorary degrees of Doctor of Civil Law by Oxford recognising their contribution to their country and their success.
Did Oxford have anything to do with what each one of them ultimately became' One does not know. Somehow, one would like to think that the gentleness that Punjab gave him was never spoiled by Oxford or Cambridge before that. Sometimes they tend to do that.