Thursday, May 26, 2005

Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it

If you haven’t read Jerry Rao’s op-ed piece in today’s Indian Express, you must – it can be found here. It is an excellent illustration of how we act as if it is only by taking extremely radical positions that we can combat extremism in competing, entrenched claims. It is also an illustrative instance of how many among us are willing to ascribe goodness and light to acts – and not just to acts, but also to the associated individuals (forgetting completely that the two are linked by that crucial bridge called motive) – of many years, decades or centuries ago.

In today’s article, Mr. Jaithirth Rao presents his case for revisiting the scorn heaped upon one of the representatives of the Crown – Thomas Babington Macaulay. Mr. Rao – in breathless prose – labels Macaulay “the most important founding father of modern India” and contests “Without his gift to us, so many of us would be lesser individuals, not just different individuals”. And it is not just us common people who should be thankful – he goes on thus: “It is trite to state that not only R.K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie, but the very constitution of the Republic of India and the landmark judgments of its jurists are all a direct fallout of Macaulay’s historic minute”. My my, strong words indeed!

Of course, Mr. Rao seems to have read the original Minutes – in which Macaulay makes his case – and therefore acknowledges that “Macaulay ridiculed traditional Indian knowledge as useless, deluded and shallow. He alleged that Indian histories talked about reigns of kings that were forty-thousand years long and geographies made reference to seas of treacle and whey”. But he makes light of these, claiming that there’s “some justification in this harsh criticism” (as indeed there is) and reserves his opprobrium (“stupid Whig smugness”) only in relation to Macaulay’s views on Indian literature.

Now, I must confess to liking some of Mr. Rao’s previous op-ed pieces and find him to be, on balance of evidence, one of the better commentators represented in our popular press. This article, however, is unadulterated trash (Too harsh, is it? I am using the same license here as in “Swadeshi chauvinist or a dim-witted leftist” used to describe people who dislike Macaulay). Here's why.

He says, “Such indeed are the ironies of history. A person who oddly enough is central to the history of the conquered is quite irrelevant in the annals of the conquerors… … in any event you cannot ignore Macaulay and his enduring decisive intervention in India’s history.” Macaulay’s irrelevance in Britain is of little concern to me and not at all as surprising as Mr. Rao makes it out to be. However, on the other point, had Mr. Rao referred to Macaulay’s work in respect to constructing the Indian Penal Code – which is still the mainstay of our criminal law – yes, we could debate the ‘enduring decisive intervention’ because, whether you know it or not, IPC applies to everyone among us (and has remained largely unchanged despite the passage of much time). As for English, there are only about 60% of our countrymen (and women) who don’t know the language and while it disadvantages them in respect to job opportunities (specially in sectors such as IT and ITES – where Mr. Rao works), it is not the end of the world.

Mr. Rao's claim of “to think of India without the English language is pretty much like thinking of India without the monsoons. It may not touch everyone, but its influence touches everyone” should be seen in this light. English education, even today, is restricted to a minority: an increasing minority (happily, given today’s world economic order), but still very much a minority so I wouldn’t term this intervention as “decisive” in “Indian history”.

And before you start off on themes of “he wants to keep them down… the path to economic freedom is learning English… etc”, please allow me to remind you that it is only one of the possible paths – indeed, should one look closer home (e.g. Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, or China in 1980s and 1990s), it will be apparent that economic growth – specially the kind that is manufacturing led and whose benefits are distributed among a larger section of population – is independent of widespread English-language skills among the population. It is my contention – and open to rebuttal, like any other – that going forward, if we are to realize the true economic potential of India (e.g. as captured in predictions of Morgan Stanley’s BRIC report), the role played by non English-dependent jobs (e.g. manufacturing for the world, growth in internal services e.g. retailing etc.) will be far more important than the experience of the past decade may lead us to believe.

Next, in referencing things such as “Vivekananda on Vedanta, Coomaraswamy on Indian Art, Aurobindo Ghose on Vedic Mysticism, Radhakrishnan on the Hindu View of Life, Krishnan on Indian Wildlife, Srinivas on Caste, Zakaria on Indian Muslims, etc.” to make the point that English is not just “a medium or a means to an end; it is part of our very consciousness”, Mr. Rao grossly shortchanges these thinkers. Is it a fair contention that their works would’ve had been lesser in inputs, analysis or impact had their medium been an Indian language? Did Voltaire – or any of the contemporary French thinkers – miss out because their consciousness was bereft of the full glory of the English language? After all, had the creeping acquisition of English not been injected into us, what is to say that literary and intellectual progress as in France would not have taken place?

And, let me hasten to add: I am not, for a moment, advocating that there is any cause to turn back the clock or even think of “righting historical wrongs” (a habit which our BJP friends are partial towards) but let us not twist facts to support a specious argument.

Macaulay, in his minutes, draws analogies with not just “untutored Russians before Peter the Great transformed them” but also Europe coming into the age of letters. And both these analogies are spurious with respect to justifying the imposition of English. I don’t have to make a new case: H. T. Prinsep, who was Secretary (Education) in that era, had the following to say in respect of the Russian analogy: “The analogy of Russia is less convincing. It is through communication with foreigners through imitation and translations that the Russians are building up a native literature. This is the method that is specifically advocated by those who despair of making English the language of general adoption or the vehicle for imparting a knowledge of the sciences to the millions who compose the population of India. The argument would only have weight if, in the schools and colleges of Russia, German were now or had ever been the exclusive organ through which the youth of that country derived instruction which it assuredly is not and never was.” For Macaulay’s reference to importance of Latin in renaissance and equating that to usage of English for India’s renaissance, Prinsep reminded Macaulay that “This however is not the true analogy – Latin and Greek were to the nations of Europe what Arabic and Persian are to the Mooslims and Sanscrit to the Hindoos of the present population of Hindoostan and if a native literature is to be created it must be through the improvements of which these are capable.”

I trust the first contention of “swinging to the other extreme to battle entrenched orthodoxies” is made out in the above points. It is an unnecessary and self-defeating tactic which, I trust, we will see less of. As for my second contention – that regarding motive – this note has already become longer than I wished it to be and so I will restrict myself to two observations: one, that the object of these deliberations (when the Viceroy was considering the question) was to decide where the fiscal support to education should be channeled and as a result of these exchanges (where Macaulay's views prevailed over those represented by Prinsep), public money was diverted almost exclusively thereafter to English-using institutions. It became a systematic replacement of our homegrown font of knowledge (warts and all) with another one of imported variety (not without its own warts, it should be noted). And two, much as Mr. Rao would like to make light of Macaulay’s observations on Indian thought and literature, comments such as “I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” do – and should – predispose the readers towards taking a skeptical view of the conclusions captured in such a Minute.

To close this note, I will submit a personal anecdote – which changed my views to what they are today from when they were closer to Mr. Rao’s (and led me to much of the research as above). It was in 1990, I was still at college and we were debating this topic when I asked if anything in the vernacular could match “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” (Percy Bysshe Shelly; To a Skylark) – and Avinash (an interlocutor in this debate) took about a second to recite Sumitranandan Pant’s lines: "Viyogi hoga pahila kavi/ Aah se upja hoga gaan/ Umar kar aankhon se chupchaap/ Bahi hogi kavita anjaan”. As coup-de-grace, he went on to inform me that greater personalities than the two of us had a similar exchange: Mr. Nehru once challenged Dr. Bachchan to find something in Hindi that would express the sentiments of his favorite lines “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep” (Robert Frost; Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening) – and Dr. Bachchan took but a few minutes to come up with (his own) “Abhi kahan aaraam badaa/ Yeh mook nimantran chhalna hai/ Abhi to humko meelo humko/ meelo humko chalna hai”. QED - even if it related specifically to literature rather than to all learning.

So, Mr. Rao, I am all for “revising” our views of the past – to the extent that such revisions do not presuppose that the currently held views are all wrong or that the new ones must take another, but equally extreme, position. And, importantly, I will also urge you to to consider that unintended consequences of an act are not enough to justify its occurrence – much less glorify the perpetrator.

1 comment:

anita srinivasan said...

I choose to take a slightly different view on this. I don’t think that promoting the use of English language is in anyway belittling our vernacular literature, our culture or our Indianness.

The debate on whether English literature or poetry is superior to Indian language literature or poetry is silly- each has its own distinctive merits and has attained glorious heights and such futile debates are the pastimes of those who believe in being parochial and political.

But if you look at a lot of technical literature today, in any sphere or domain, the variety and depth that is available in the English language is certainly missing in any of the vernacular Indian languages. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Let us for a moment , assume that it was a matter of unfortunate co-incidence that the British colonial rulers proved to be more powerful in spreading their influence , language and culture than the French or the Portugese. The outcome of this anyway is that English became the most widely spoken ‘foreign’ language in the 20th century across continents and countries. A common language was able to bind many different cultures , academicians, students , businessmen and the general populace. The comfort of knowing that you can be understood by the other person and vice versa, has caused many an exchange , across widely different cultures, to take place.

China may become the manufacturing hub of the world in the 21st century, but when it comes to brainpower , it is the Indian workforce that will dominate. It is not just the qualifications and talent of the Indian whitecollar workforce that attracts foreign institutions and business houses, but the fact that they also are proficient in English.

It cannot be denied that English has opened up a world of opportunities for Indians- both in India and abroad. We need to encash this advantage as long as we can.

Even the so called deprived sections of society want to educate their children in “English medium” schools because of its perceived advantages- many of which are quite real.

We need to take a pragmatic view as far as the use of English language is concerned.

Net net, I belive that English is here to stay. But again, like the Japanese and the Koreans and the French and the Germans , let us pride ourselves on our motherland and let us not lose touch with that beautiful thing called- ‘mother tongue’………………because whatever English may do for us Indians , it shall never be our mother tongue………….