Devyani Gupta

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! It is such an honour to be standing here before you tonight, speaking on the same platform as Sir Peter Marshall and Mr. Bill Kirkman. It’s also a pleasure to see so many friends from the graduate community that I know only through our Facebook page. As a Committee member, I had the responsibility of publicizing tonight’s event on social media. But a friend very kindly pointed out the irony of my situation; I was trying to encourage you all to attend an event where I was giving a speech! So really, thank you for coming! I was invited to speak today by our lovely chairperson Felicia, but I must tell you that despite being a historian and despite having weeks to ruminate on the topic, I feel quite unequipped to speak about the past achievements of the Commonwealth. Luckily for me, wiser words have been/ will be spoken on this platform tonight and so instead, I would like to share my experience, as a young adult, of being a part of this wonderful international community. I hope some part of my narrative will highlight how the idea of the Commonwealth shapes individual destinies and fosters global solidarities. I have experienced and engaged with the Commonwealth by virtue of being born in India, by getting placed at a British university for my educational degree, through my interest in the study of colonial history, and by means of the funding I receive from the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. In short, the formative years of my adult life have been implicitly linked to the Commonwealth, by accident of birth and opportunity. At a more conscious level however, I considered the possible significance of this international community for the first time only while applying for the Commonwealth Scholarship in 2010. Among the questions asked of me, the most pertinent to this session, was: How would my research degree, the opportunity to study in the UK, and the possibility of being a part of the Commonwealth collective of international students, shape my future plans and benefit my home country. By taking myself as a case study, I will presume to make some generalizations on behalf of the youth of Commonwealth countries, in order to enquire into the possible impact of the Commonwealth on our shared destinies. To answer the first question then, what would I be studying and how do I perceive its significance vis-à-vis the Commonwealth? As a researcher looking to study networks of communication of the 19th century global British Empire, with a focus on South Asia, my research is attempting to situate, historically, the globalized linkages of our contemporary times. I believe that this is extremely significant to our present context. Goods, ideas, and people have moved along networks connecting diverse regions since atleast the early modern period, encompassing areas such as Great Britain, South Asia, Australia, North America, and what was once known as the Strait Settlements, East Africa and the Red Sea region. In the fast globalizing world of the 21st century, where borders are becoming hindrances to the movement of technology, education, labour and ideas of democracy, and national identities are being asserted in many corners of the globe as a reaction to this interdependence, it becomes crucial that we acknowledge and embrace our connected pasts and learn lessons of harmonious living and interconnected knowledge systems, from history. This is imperative, as an inquiry into the development of modern systems of information exchange can helps us to contextualize the progress made by nations with the massive deprivation and marginalisation that vast sections of the populations continue to suffer across the realm of The Commonwealth. Tracing the antecedents of systems of governance can enrich our understanding of what constitutes just administrative and institutional structures, but also, a just society. This, in turn, encourages responsible governance by linking it to social development, and assists in taking fruits of modernity to those living on the fringes of society. This leads us to the second question of context and helps elucidate the position of Britain vis-à-vis other Commonwealth countries in effecting change for general good. By situating individual scholars like you and I in a cosmopolitan context, networks of exchange are encouraged, whereby benefits and development may percolate down to the most diverse and dispossessed sections of the international community. To take an example, which came out of an exchange I had with Felicia, we can consider technological advances. Coupled with sound developmental models, advances in technology have the capacity to speed up Commonwealth efforts towards achieving equality in education, livelihood opportunities, access to healthcare, and reduction in poverty. To be specific, some of the issues facing us today can be solved through innovations in renewable energy, sustainability, sanitation, etc. Britain will continue to take the lead in terms of medical and technological innovation, but it is important to make it affordable and accessible for developing nations. How we conceptualize knowledge, i.e. whether we choose to market innovation, or whether we subscribe to the idea of knowledge transfer, will be the key to the survival of the Commonwealth in the next 25 years. I now come to the third component of the question I referred to above; this is one, which is the least tangible, and yet, I feel its impact strongly on my everyday life. Perhaps the first inkling I had of what it would feel like, to be part of a global community of like-minded people, was during the Commonwealth Games of 2010, which were held in my hometown Delhi, during the period when I was preparing my applications to study in the UK. Exactly a year later, in November 2011, I was in the UK and was invited to attend the Welcome Program for incoming scholars of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. Much as I would like, I don’t have a less melodramatic way of saying this – surrounded as I was by young achievers from across Commonwealth countries, each having achieved some degree of success in their fields, often against significant odds, I discovered myself! I was an ambassador of my culture and country, presenting my particular life-story to a world so different and yet, so familiar; I could either wallow in my individuality or revel in our mutual camaraderie. From those two instances, I learnt some important lessons; firstly, cultural ignorance was a dangerous thing, more so for ones own self, than for the rest of the world. Secondly, there was an exciting, unexplored world of possibilities just beyond the boundaries where my consciousness ended and I needed to explore that to come into my own. But most significantly, I learnt that I was a representative for an international collective of people, who shared parallel life experiences, lived and worked for similar life goals, and stood for similar beliefs and value systems, such as independence, democracy, equality and justice. This, ladies and gentlemen, was my first-hand experience of what theorists have referred to, in a different context, as ‘soft-power’. In my experience, the term alluded to shared values, culture, policies and institutions, and their ability to influence collective change. The possibility of some sort of international consensus on the protection of global biodiversity and livelihoods attached to environmental sustainability, on movements towards women’s empowerment, protection of minority rights, basic dignity of living and livelihood, cultural emancipation, etc. … all seemed, suddenly, within human reach. My latest, and possibly the most inspiring engagement with the Commonwealth, was through my attendance of the Commonwealth Residential School in Windsor in August 2013. As all the experiences I have narrated until now, have somehow been related to my being funded by the Commonwealth Commission, I wish to emphasize this example, because this event was open to all students of Commonwealth countries and selection was competitive. The program of the summer school required the participants to imagine the world a hundred years from now and to situate our training as scholars of varied disciplines, in that context. The general consensus that emerged was that the world, a hundred years hence, would be driven by superior innovations in science, but would also struggle with serious problems of population explosion, diminishing resources and environmental degradation, and resulting socio-political inequity. Working towards a model for World Governance in 2113, we had to pitch working models that would be responsible and deliverable… and believe me … that is a very difficult task. There is so much we don’t know, so much we don’t understand about each other. To work in groups, to trust each other to do what’s best, not just for our selves but for all of us, needs great understanding. We are still learning and we must remember — 25 years is not such a long time for humanity. So what gives me faith that we can make it happen? As the days go by and I look back at that one week in August, what stands out in my memory is the fellow scholars that I met. They were some of the most amazing, bright young people, from countries which have suffered tremendously in the past (and some continue to do so even today) and yet, these leaders of tomorrow had not given up hope. They were all driven by a passion of succeeding, of making a difference, by not shirking hard work or uncomfortable situations. They were not waiting for others — civil society or governments, to make a change, but were working actively to engage with these organizations and have their voices heard. And I think that is what we, as part of the Commonwealth, must strive to achieve and deliver over the next 25 years. Thank you!