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If this is not anti-nationalism, what is?

By Aakar Patel
March 16, 2016 22:07 IST

'We in the Anglicised middle class are unconcerned about the vast majority of Indians.'
'We insist on only our concerns and anxieties being debated. All other Indians are irrelevant,' says Aakar Patel.

IMAGE: A malnourished child in Bhopal. The media is focussed on the nationalistic middle class and so we can talk seriously about a Rs 1 lakh crore bullet train in a country where 30 crore live in poverty if not outright destitution, says Aakar Patel. The reason for this is very simple: The poor have no voice in India. Photograph: Reuters

In one way India is a unique nation. It is the only major country whose elite speaks a language that is not their own, and that is different from that of its masses.

This is true of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and any other major city. By elite I mean the urban middle class which dominates the economic agenda and the national news agenda, despite being a minority.

Government data says only 5 crore (50 million) Indians have passports, meaning five per cent of the population. My guess is this is a much larger number than those Indians for whom English is their first language.

These people may be able to speak their 'mother tongue', whether Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu, Oriya or Kannada. But they do not speak it well. They may be able to read its alphabet, but they do not read literature or news in this 'mother tongue'.

Except for music, their cultural preference, such as TV serials or cinema, is for content in English.

It could be said that English has been spoken and written long enough by Indians, for it to be now considered an Indian language. I accept that conditionally, and will point out that the English that is spoken on our TV channels and written in our media is a crude version of the real thing. 

So what are the ways in which this English dominance affects us?

The first aspect is the way that the anxieties of the urban middle class dominate national priorities.

Our media is more likely to be focussed on things like sloganeering by students than by deaths through malnutrition.

It is unclear how many Indians are directly affected by anti-national slogans. We may feel upset by them, but they are only words.

Malnutrition kills 5 lakh (500,000) Indian children a year, every year, but it is not the subject of angry TV debate because it doesn't affect the English speaking middle class.

Our economic priorities are also skewed because of this. The media is focussed on the nationalistic middle class and so we can talk seriously about a Rs 1 lakh crore bullet train in a country where 30 crore live in poverty if not outright destitution.

The reason for this is very simple: The poor have no voice in India. The politics of our country is affected disproportionately by this middle class.

Every year, many more Indians die of extremist attacks in Northeast India and Central India than in Kashmiri separatism or in Islamist terror attacks. The data on this is absolutely clear. But the Islamist threat is the one we keep debating regularly because it plays to the anxieties of the urban middle class. And, of course, Maoist extremism and separatism in the Northeast does not affect them.

Because of this, soldiers who die, even accidentally, in the theatre facing Pakistan are seen as heroes. Middle class Indians know the names of many men who died here, from Sourav Kalia to Hanamanthappa, but they will struggle to name one security man who fell in the Northeast or Chhattisgarh.

Our papers regularly feature reports of hundreds of Indians dying in capsized boats, temple stampedes. We have reports of children dying of accidentally poisoned meals at government schools, people blinded in eye camps, blinded and killed by illicit liquor. These will not be worthy of as much television debate as slogans.

I should add here that we should compare this to the coverage given to a murder of a single individual from the elite (like the Sheena Bora case).

We in the Anglicised middle class are unconcerned about the vast majority of Indians. We insist on only our concerns and anxieties being debated. All other Indians are irrelevant. If this is not anti-nationalism, what is?

Let us look at another aspect of this English dominance. The penetration of the middle class Indian into the classical culture of Europe is limited. We are interested only in the popular. For instance, it is not possible to understand European culture without understanding its classical music and harmony.

In India we do not have a tradition of harmony, which means two different melodies playing together at the same time. Those who observe a classical symphony concert will notice that there is no 'hero'.

The most important person, the conductor, does not even play an instrument: he only keeps time. All the musicians are equal, unlike in a Hindustani or Carnatic concert where there is a hierarchy.

What does this cultural equality and harmony mean to European society? Is this why they are they better at real team sports like football? Indians will not know this. Their only interest in the West is pop music and twitter. It is not a deep or meaningful engagement. It is superficial and ultimately meaningless.

Yes, it's true that there are many advantages to Indians knowing English. The chief one is economic, though here again the benefits are mainly to the middle class.

But the damage that the English-speaking middle class has done to our national conversation, our priorities and our agenda is immense and cannot be undone.

Aakar Patel is Executive Director, Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.

Aakar Patel
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