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The Burden Of Dreams - Speech At Commemoration Day, Ravenshaw University, Cuttack

The Burden Of Dreams - Speech At Commemoration Day, Ravenshaw University, Cuttack

Vice Chancellor, Principal, Faculty, Members of the Senate and the Syndicate, my dear Students, Ladies and Gentlemen.

My being with you this evening is historic for me. The Ravenshaw ethos is part of our family heritage. My father studied here. My uncle studied here. Three of my elder brothers studied here. The eldest topped his class throughout and was elected vicepresident of the student’s union. The third brother chose activism over academics as his calling and was the president of the college union in his time.

I was the last born and lived with my parents and an immediate elder brother in far away places like Koraput and Keonjhar. As we grew up in those places, we were told stories about the great Ravenshaw College, and we aspired to one day take our place in its imposing red structure. We learnt about the great academicians who taught here, the minds who mentored young people who eventually became destiny’s children. We were also told about something mysteriously transfor- mational in the insipid food of the Ravenshaw hostels that sent people straight to a place called Dholpur House in New Delhi.

To us, Ravenshaw was sacred ground.

Unfortunately for me, by the time I was ready to come to its hallowed precincts, my father had retired. The last two of the brood were picked up by the elder brothers – by then one was a bureaucrat in Bhubaneswar and the other had started a fledgling legal practice in Cuttack. My immediate elder brother got allocated to study at Ravenshaw under the tutelage of the lawyer brother; I was sent to live with my eldest brother in Bhubaneswar and asked to go to the BJB College there. I have to admit that I felt deprived.

So, whenever I got a chance, while studying at BJB College, I came here – I stood by the Sun Dial or peeped into the Kanika Library. Sometimes I came to debate here. On two occasions, I won the Inter-College Debate competition held at Ravenshaw College – they used to be held in the Physics Lecture Theater and on one occasion,

Dr. Mayadhar Mansingh was one of the judges. To be judged by someone like him gave me a sense of high I carry even four decades after! The prizes for the debates – one in English and one in Oriya – were instituted by Dr. Mahendra Kumar Rout, then Principal, in his father’s memory.

Each time, after I won the debate, Dr. Rout made it a point to tell me how he wished I were a student at this Institution! I carry that endorsement as a badge of citizenship. The thought that I was so welcome here then, makes me feel legitimate as your Chief Guest this evening. Today, when you choose me over the thousands of more well-known Ravenshawvians who have made an impact, you have taken away the last sense of banishment that I carried in my inability to make Ravenshaw my alma mater.

Ravenshaw College was born in the year 1876 because of the untiring efforts of an English- man named Thomas Edward Ravenshaw. He called it the Cuttack College. He was a British civil servant in India. His vision for building an institution of learning has several lessons for all of us.

One, that vision was larger than life. As all visions must be. It was in fact, what we may call a “hairy, audacious goal” particularly at a time when Orissa was coming out of the great famine of 1866.

Secondly, that vision did not have anything to do with Mr. Ravenshaw’s self-interest – he was doing it for the posterity of a people that were not his own.

Thirdly, and very importantly, the vision was opposed at the time of  its birth.  Great  vision is always invariably put to test early on and that is when many of us become frustrated.  We want the world to come to our door steps because we have a dream. Only those dreams have a right to be born that can withstand opposition and cynicism.

But I am not here to talk to you about the power of vision, nor do I want to pay tributes to the great man who did not even want his name to be bequeathed to the institution he wanted to build. Instead, today, I want to talk to you about the burden of dreams.

Ravenshaw – from now on I mean the 132 year-old-institution – has not just been a place for mass-manufacture of employable graduates. On its sacred space, not just lives, but movements have been launched. We would all do well to refresh our memories on some of those without which we would not be worthy of the people who have once walked this very land before we did.

An educational institution is not just about prescribed curriculum, about question papers and answer sheets: it is a place to learn about life and living by dialogue and diversity, it is the place for creating the capacity to learn, to question, to innovate, to push and be pushed back, to romance life and make life a worthy place for those who will come after us.

The report card for Ravenshaw on that score is a glowing tribute to every single brick that became a sentinel of our freedom; this remarkable red edifice chose to do more than be a witness to time―it chose to be an active participant. Tonight, I would like to take you down the memory lane to give you a glimpse of that report card.

1903. Modern Oriya consciousness began in the formation of the Utkal Sammilani by Orissa’s first graduate, first post-graduate, and first practicing lawyer, Madhusudan Das. When that Utkal Sammilani had its first session here on the Idga Ground in Cuttack, history tells us, it was attended by 335 delegates from the outlying areas; zamindars, representatives of the Gadjats, the Commissioner himself, two Christian missionaries, local intellectuals like Radhanath Roy, Madhusudan Rao, Bishwanath Kar and the Principal and students of Ravenshaw College assembled to engage in the deliberations.

1920. Students of Ravenshaw, like Harekrushna Mahatab, N.K. Chaudhury and their fellow alumni, opposed the idea of the same Madhusudan Das accepting minister- ship of the British created government and distributed leaflets in protest; they disturbed a progovernment felicitation meeting. Their activities were reported to Mr. Lambart, Princi- pal of Ravenshaw College, and their parents were asked to withdraw the two from college just a week before their BA examinations.

In the years that succeeded, parallel to the uprising of Oriya consciousness, was the beginning of the national freedom movement. When India made her shift from self-rule to demand for full freedom, the chants for freedom first reverberated within the four walls of this great Institution before they spread far and wide.

1930. When the Orissa Pradesh Congress Committee gave a call observing January  26th as “Independence day”, history tells us that the hostellers of Ravenshaw College took the lead in organizing the celebrations and many students gave up a meal to contribute to the funds of Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das towards the national freedom movement.

Then came the Salt Satyagraha and the post graduate students of Ravenshaw College actually dropped their examination in support of the struggle when a batch of protesters marched from Khurda to the sea to defy the Salt Act of the British Empire.

1937. Even as Orissa acquired statehood under the British Empire, there was no legislative assembly for people’s representa- tives to represent their will and legislate on their behalf. It is no small coincidence that the grounds of Ravenshaw College were chosen for the very first meeting of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa on July 28th, 1937.

1942. At the forefront of the Quit India movement were the students of Ravenshaw College. On 15 August that year, 200 of them protested. They actually set the office room on fire. Among the arsonists were Banamali Patnaik, Ashok Das, Biren Mitra, Suraj Mal Saha and Bibhudendra Mishra. The last two were detained under the Defence of India Act and sent away to the Berhampur Jail. The movement spread to all other educational institutions in the state.

Born of famine, child of a foreigner’s vision, Ravenshaw College was the vortex of political, intellectual and literary movements in Orissa for the first seven decades of its existence.

That is probably why it has produced countless heads of state, poets, politicians, judges and bureaucrats who spread their impact far and wide.

1947. And then came seven decades of relative silence, except for the student unrest of the 1960s that spread to the far corners of the State. As the nation got largely busy with itself, Ravenshaw College no longer buzzed with the higher call, its portals gradually settled down to a collective ambition that ran from the Cuttack railway station and terminated in New Delhi where the Union Public Service Commission had its home.

The corridors of Ravenshaw no longer rever- berated with the footfalls of the revolution- ary, the thinker-doer, the game changer - they only echoed gently a legitimate middle-class aspiration to become a permanent employee of the government. To the job seeker, Raven- shaw became a means to an end – a good education that guaranteed a good job.

If we make a roll call of the chief secretaries to the government that independent

Orissa ever had, we will find that an over- whelming majority of them come from this single institution. That principle applies equally to the coveted Indian Police Service, the Allied Services and their less coveted state counterparts.

In the six decades after independence, Orissa progressed in some sense and regressed in others, but Ravenshaw, despite its innate capability, gently withdrew from its task of producing thought leadership. The same person who ran towards the safe harbor of a government job could have aimed for the Nobel Prize, the Booker and the Magsaysay Award. But the burden of dreams had been lowered for the time.

The time has come to change that.

Today’s Orissa, like today’s India, is in deeper strife than she was a hundred years ago. We need to address this.

I believe that the idea of the Indian State, of elected government, of a judicial system and of the protection of law and order, is ceasing to be relevant to an increasing number of people. A record number of Indian territories are ungovernable by public admission. It is no longer Jammu and Kashmir and the far flung border areas in the North East; the fact is that deep inside states like Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and many others, an increasing number of districts find themselves unable to guarantee anyone the right to life, property and equality of justice.

Here is our own state where policemen are mowed down in districts like Koraput. In Nayagarh, barely two hours from the state capital, hundreds raid the armory of the state as if it were a college picnic and vanish as easily as they came. In Kandhamal, someone is burnt alive, someone is raped and twenty thousand people become homeless, as if we live in the backyards of Somalia or Rwanda. All over India, government is retreating to the metros. The rich and the worrying are building “gated communities”―they do not realize that shrunken freedom is no freedom. Their gates are gates of fear and not freedom.

At the core of the problem is the issue of widespread corruption. The reason our police, our bureaucrats, our judges and our politi- cians are afraid is that we have become a collectively  corrupt  society.  When  you become corrupt, you lose the moral authority to govern. All forms of authority are finally about the moral right. Only the moral right gives us the power to stare down an oppo- nent, as has been proven time and again in human history, from the days of Moses to those of the Mahatma.

When the Oriya language and identity was in question, Ravenshaw College had a view point; when the Salt Act was passed, the students and the teachers at the Ravenshaw College had a position; when the British oppression became intolerable, right here in the fields of Ravenshaw, the Union Jack was trampled. Ravenshaw’s students wrote love poems and secessionist literature with the same ease.

So, how is it that our middle-class, poverty of the mind is not on its priority?

How is it that when Kandhamal burns, Ravenshaw’s conscience does not agitate?

While the scourge of corruption has touched the marrow of the civil society, why are

we are not dialoguing here for a more sustain- able future?

The burden of dreams must return once again so that the hallowed grounds of this great institution can show the path to a people at crossroads with themselves.

Ladies and gentlemen, there are three kinds of freedom. Each one is more difficult to win than the other; each is more intense, fuller of churning, more demanding of loyalty than the one before.

In the first six decades of Ravenshaw College, India and, within that, the people of Orissa struggled for political freedom. Contrary to popular myth, we are not midnight’s children; in reality it was a night of decades, and our freedom took many generations of working, many lives had to embrace the cause without fear of the consequence.

That was our first freedom. Between 1947 and today, we have been battling for our second freedom: economic freedom for our people. In these intervening six decades, we have not had a famine of the 1866 variety. Although floods and droughts have been the bane of Orissa, they have not quite been like the great famines that once wiped off generations in a single go. Our people have starved to death during this period, but it was nothing compared to the specter of the past. With effort we have come this far and the battle for economic freedom is largely won.

But now, we have to embark a more crucial journey for a more difficult freedom tonwin – it is the freedom of the intellect. Unlike political freedom, and in some sense, eco- nomic freedom, this one is not about unshackling from an external opponent.

Rather, it is about unshackling the mind from within. More than ever before, we live in times of widespread corruption, visionless politics, non-inclusive development and a near-total disregard for the environment.

These are oppressors in our own minds and the potent destruction they may cause is larger than anything a foreign hand ever could.

To strive for freedom of the intellect, you have to develop a sense of destiny. You must know that you have a purpose larger than your own self.

You must develop the true desire to learn, beyond the mundane need to equip yourself with a qualification. You need to develop the capacity to deeply question the state of things. You have to put your stake on the ground.

You have to build substance and the power to serve others in many valuable ways.

You must believe in your own self, follow your heart and not seek approval from a society that expects you to change it.

You must speak your mind and be accountable for your words and actions.

You must not be content with the measure of the times, for you are here to build a scale for the future. You must create your own path and not be path-dependent.

For this, the burden of dreams must return again.

Not everyone can carry a burden of dreams.

A burden is, after all, a burden, and when it is a burden of dreams, it is a life-altering experience.

The burden of dreams is not in what the eyes see; the burden of dreams is what you and I must affectionately carry in our bodies and on our chests so that we can live a worthy life.

Only blessed ones born on a sacred space can bear that burden of dreams.

Ravenshaw is the sacred space. The question is: are you willing to be the blessed one?

Thank you once again for inviting me this evening. As you take on the burden of dreams, I pray that Ravenshaw gives Orissa her first Nobel Laureate, her first winner of the Booker Prize and her first to claim the Magsaysay Award.


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