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Election 2014: Modi versus Macaulay's ghost

Last updated on: June 17, 2014 20:18 IST

Narendra ModiThe post-mandate comments that ‘darkness has descended on India’ show the kind of opposition Narendra Modi has to overcome. It is this aspirational India that is attempting to throw away the shackles of Macaulayism. Make no mistake, it is a tectonic shift and a beginning of the end of the Macaulayan mindset that has ‘ruled’ India for close to 60 years, says Colonel (retd) Anil Athale.

The 2014 election results marked a tectonic shift in Indian history. Elections are akin to war, there are no runners-up and the result affects all aspects of life, from economy to culture. The 2014 verdict was a decisive verdict in favour of Narendra Modi who represents a worldview different from that of the ruling establishment of the last 65 years. It is time to see this event in a long-term historical perspective.

According to many political analysts it was a one-sided battle with Modi outsmarting a lacklustre Rahul Gandhi of the Congress. But that would be a simplistic view. Behind the old establishment and a dynast fighting to preserve his throne, loomed the shadow of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

When Modi, on reaching of the steps of Parliament, bowed down, he in essence asserted for the first time a very Bharatiya tradition. A tradition that is followed by the humble railway ‘gangman’ (rail track checker; observe a new group of track patrol men joining duty, they will touch the rail tracks with reverence) to even highly-paid white-collar bank employees, who also touch the steps of their work premise with reverence before entering their office.

This was no ordinary gesture/event; it was an assertion of Indian ethnicity and pride in showing his Indianness in public.

The two worldviews that were in contest, as a subtext of the just-concluded elections, were India as a State to give economic succour to its citizens versus India as a civilisational State with its own worldview, philosophy, aesthetics, music, art and culture.

The Bharatiya Janata Party inarticulately defines it as ‘cultural nationalism’ when what they mean is Indian civilisational nationalism. Partly this confusion can be attributed to the fact that in Hindi the words civilisation and culture have a common and interchangeable term -- sanskriti and sabhyata. Culture is an expression of civilisation but it is civilisation that is supreme and defines the philosophy of the people.

Historian Arnold J Toynbee had offered an explanation for the rise and fall of civilisations. He visualised civilisation as a living organism going through the cycle of birth, growth, stagnation, decline, demise and rebirth. He saw long-term history as a contest between challenge and response. Thus, when Indian civilisation faced Islamic onslaught and military defeat from the 13th century, the Indians led by Marathas under the leadership of Shivaji checked the expansion of the Mughals.

As the tide turned and the Marathas began expanding to the north and were on the verge of ending the Mughal domination there, two things happened. Wrong tactics and inept military leadership weakened them as well as the Afghan-Mughal coalition in the battle of Panipat in January 1761. Into this power vacuum stepped the British. The industrial revolution in Europe had tilted the military balance against Asia, and most of the old world agricultural civilisations succumbed to European colonialism and for the next 150 years or so India came under British rule.

Another important observation of Toynbee is that the defeated civilisation, as an interim measure, adopts and adapts to the ways of the conquerors. Shivaji exemplified this. He adopted many of the military practices, language (Farsi) and even dress before he turned the tide and defeated the Mughals. Later, Indians under the British similarly copied their practices, institutions, technologies, entered the military in large numbers, mastered the language to bring themselves up to such an extent that the departure of the British rule became a matter of time. Mahatma Gandhi brilliantly used non-violent tactics against a British Empire enfeebled by two world wars to win freedom for India in 1947, possibly prematurely.

Toynbee in his monumental Study of World History (16 volumes) concluded in the final chapters that ‘the industrialisation and modernisation going on in India and China, when it comes to fruition, the huge populations of these two countries will begin to weigh in the politico military balance of the world. Such invigorated giants then will demand their just share in world resources, currently skewed in favour of the European countries’.

He accurately forecast the rise of Asia nearly 60 years ago. His prediction seems to have come true in the case of China but it continued to dismay and intrigue Indians that their own country seems to have fallen off the radar.

The post-mandate comments that ‘darkness has descended on India’ show the kind of opposition Modi has to overcome. It is this aspirational India that is attempting to throw away the shackles of Macaulayism. Make no mistake, it is a tectonic shift and a beginning of the end of the Macaulayan mindset that has ‘ruled’ (not governed) India for close to 60 years. But let us first understand what is ‘Macaulayism'.

Lord Macaulay’s famous Minute on Education dated February 2, 1835, has shaped the Indian elite's perceptions for close to two centuries. The British prevailed because they had the technology of rail and telegraph combined with firearms to which the Indians had no answer.

But the British were cleverer than other imperial rulers. They ruled India through Indians. To this end they created, through a Macaulayan system of education, a class of Indians that had no pride in their culture, no confidence in their ability and were virtual mental slaves. Extracts from that famous Minute read like it was written in January 2014 and not 1835.

'That English is better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic; that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanskrit or Arabic; We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country.'

 The two main points of that education policy were:

  • A total disdain for any kind of Indian knowledge/achievements in the past as ‘the entire Indian literature on any subject cannot even fill two shelves in any European library’ (paraphrased).
  • The English must have an education system to serve its Empire and create a class of Brown sahibs and clerks.

At the risk of oversimplification, one can summarise the salient points of Macaulayism as under:

  • India was a creation of the British -- they unified the several kingdoms etc. Never mind that consolidation of nation states was a 19th century phenomenon when India was already a British colony or that Germany or Italy attained political unity only in the 19th century, or that British India still had close to 400 princely states. Historical memories of vast Indian empires of the past including Chandragupta, Ashoka, Samudragupta or Vikramaditya was not history but mythology. The Indian subcontinent’s cultural unity was also a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh myth.
  • But for British rule India would have remained in the bullock cart age. All modern technology is the gift of the British colonialists, never mind that countries like Japan, China or even Thailand who were never colonies are today far more advanced than India.
  • Indians have no history to be proud of, the society was caste-ridden, backward and primitive. Indians should be ashamed of their faith and but for the intervention of the English India would have remained a disunited, backward country full of superstition. Indian intellectual achievements in mathematics, astronomy, medicine are a part of communal propaganda. Aryabhatta, Sushruta, Bhaskara never existed and there is no evidence on the ground of any Indian achievement in art or architecture.
  • Indian secularism/pluralism is due to the Constitution of 1947, itself a gift by the Macaulayan elite, otherwise India would have been a theocracy like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Never mind that in its entire history of over 5,000 years only two Indian rulers took up the task of spreading faith, Ashoka and Aurangzeb. Also ignored is the fact that Christianity had come to India's shores in 62 AD (when the Romans were feeding the Christians to lions for sport) and continues to flourish, India had Jews who were never persecuted, there were Muslim Arab trader colonies and mosques on the west coast much before Mahmud of Ghazni made his appearance.   

Part 2: Why Indian nationalism must win over Macaulayan ideas

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale is a student of military history and author of Maratha Struggle for Empire, Arab-Israeli wars, 1962 Sino-India Conflict and comparative study of insurgencies.

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale