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This article was first published 9 years ago  » News » Why Indian nationalism must win over Macaulayan ideas

Why Indian nationalism must win over Macaulayan ideas

By Colonel (retd) Anil Athale
June 17, 2014 17:33 IST
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In the first part of this column Colonel (retd) Anil Athale spoke of an aspirational India that is attempting to throw away shackles of Macualayism and the challenges that Narendra Modi faces.

Part 1: Election 2014: Modi versus Macaulay's ghost

In the second and final part, Col Athale says the fight between forces of Indian nationalism and Macaulayism aided and abetted by West is going to be long, hard and dirty. The outcome will decide whether India becomes a superpower or continues to wallow in the swamp of underdevelopment.

My first encounter with Macaulayism was in April 1975. The episode is worth a recall. It was April 21, and India had just launched its first satellite ‘Aryabhatta’ from a Russian rocket.

This author, then a junior captain posted on operational staff, was present at an army party in Rajouri (a field area and headquarters of a division in Jammu and Kashmir). All of us were gathered in the main hall with the general as chief guest. The conversation veered around that day’s news, namely the launch of the Aryabhatta satellite.

A very good friend of the author, a senior major, who headed the intelligence department, in a light-hearted manner, commented on this, “Who is this Bhatta Bhatta?” There was general laughter! I think something snapped in me and at top of my voice from the other end of the room, I told my friend (and indirectly the general and others who found this a joke worthy of laughter) that Aryabhatta was one of the world’s greatest astronomers, who had accurately predicted the various facts about planets 1,000 years before Galileo and Copernicus and if he did not know this he should just shut up.

I was lucky to survive, for any fauji will understand that this was gross insubordination, an offence punishable with censure. Luckily, the general, a God-fearing man and a gentleman, possibly saw merit in what I said and my friend asked me the next day as to what was wrong with me! We remained friends for many more years, God bless his soul. But as I recall that episode, I see the Macaulayists all round me.

Just sample this. All Hindi movie actors/actresses prefer to talk in English. Film magazines about Hindi movies are in English. Open pages of the so-called leading newspapers, you will find that even a PhD student or a person based in Paris comments authoritatively on India. The issue is not one of freedom of expression but of the kind of media space given to these sahibs or, as an alternative, those in ‘white’ universities. Sitar, yoga, meditation techniques all came to the Indian brown sahib elite via the West.

An idea, an individual or institution gains respectability only after it is accepted by the West. Many of us have encountered this where even when one tries to use the ‘native’ language, if the shopkeeper senses that you are a ‘sahib’ he replies in English. I have myself been aghast that despite my over 25 years of work on national security and several publications, what seems to impress many is the fact that a Western government gave me an odd fellowship and invite.

Before the usual suspects begin to bay for my blood for English bashing, let me clarify. One is not against English language. It is today a global language and a useful ‘tool’ to acquire knowledge. But language is not an end but a means. What the Macaulayists have done is to use this tool to subjugate the non-English speaking people, as envisioned by Macaulay.

But even the colonial educational institutes sometimes produced great nationalists and thinkers who did not get brain washed. It is a minor miracle that from avowedly Macaulayan institutes, India produced a gem like Swami Vivekananda (who studied in Scottish Church College, Kolkata). But the exception only proves the rule.

Most of these colonial institutes produced precisely the kind of Indians that Macaulay envisaged. It is these individuals who mostly man India’s administrative machinery, judiciary and even armed forces. Modi has a long, hard and dirty battle on his hands in the future.

Returning to the ‘challenge and response’ theory of rise and fall of civilisations, one can understand the initial Nehruvian years when India and Indians absorbed Western ideas, institutions and language. But it became clear that having adapted and grown in strength, India will assert and free itself from the Macaulayism. After Nehru’s death in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the prime minister.

Shastri was steeped in Indian culture and tradition and was a true ‘rajyogi’ (an ascetic ruler). But it is a fallacy if one were to claim that his leadership was easily accepted. The author was a cadet in the National Defence Academy at the time and can vividly recall that every time he came up on the screen during a movie show (for those who don’t know, at the beginning of all movies a short ‘news reel’ produced by the Films Division was shown), the cadets would burst into laughter.

After the imposing figure of a pucca sahib like Nehru, the rustic, diminutive, dhoti-clad Shastri with a squeaky voice was indeed a figure of derision for most Macaulayans. But then came the 1965 Indo-Pak war and Shastri showed exemplary leadership in fighting the US-Pakistan combine.

If Shastri would have survived longer, Macaulayism would have been dead and buried. One recalls the kind of national spirit Shastri evoked. When India faced the American food embargo, his call to eat one less chapati got a huge response. It seemed that Indian nationalism was asserting itself. His early death cut short this attempt.

Indira Gandhi, who followed him, was no Macaulayist. But it took her some time to find her feet and by the time she did, in 1980, she became the victim of international politics that was hell-bent on dividing India. Her son who followed her won a landslide victory in the 1984 elections essentially on the plank of Indian nationalism. One of the measures he took to re-assert Indian identity was to revive the public's interest in India’s ancient past. His decision to air the Indian epics Ramayan and Mahabharat, dealt a decisive blow to Macaulayism. But his assassination cut short that attempt.

In 1999, when an avowedly ‘nationalist’ government came to power in India under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, another attempt was made to dismantle the Macaulayist legacy. Under Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, an attempt was made to re-assert Indian nationalism.

Restoring the Indian historical narrative was seen by him as the first step to national rejuvenation. It is understood that victors write history. Since the British ruled India for long, the version of history taught to Indians had a heavy bias towards their rule.

For instance, the emphasis given to narrating the deeds of various governor generals was far in excess of their long-term impact. On the other hand, ancient Indian history was given a short shrift. It is this that produced the kind of people described by the author earlier, who had no clue about Indian contribution to science or philosophy.

But Joshi's attempt was fiercely opposed by the Macaulayists, individuals as well as institutions. It was derisively called ‘saffronisation’ of history. The Vajpayee government was weak politically and had to succumb to the pressures.

After the 2004 electoral defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Macaulayists under the United Progressive Alliance government struck back and virtually rolled back most of the changes that had been brought about since the 1980s. But it soon became apparent that the Macaulayists were in retreat. For despite the political changes in India and return of Macaulayists to power, the IT professionals of Indian origin as well as the Indian Diaspora was doing exceedingly well.

The success of Indians abroad and the dismal performance at home began to show up the ruling elite in bad light. It was only a matter of time before the electorate sent them packing in 2014.

India and China, two ancient Asian civilisations, followed different paths to rejuvenation. While India took up the parliamentary democracy route and Macaulayist and administrative system, China adopted Marxism, another Western philosophy, to modernise itself. As China progressed and gained confidence, it jettisoned the Marxist crutches by 1979 under Deng Xiaoping, who proclaimed the Chinese path as Marxism with Chinese characteristics. It seems that India is finally at that ‘Deng’ moment in its history where it is ready to shed the Macaulayan ideological baggage.

It would be foolish of the new government of Modi to think that the battle has been won. It may be easy to deal with opportunists who jumped on the bandwagon of the ruling dynasty and Macaulayism for personal gain.

But there are others who sincerely and genuinely believe that a pluralistic, modern and democratic India can only survive on Macaulayan foundations. Their number is large and they do occupy important slots in administration and the media. The West understands the danger of the rise of another China-like Asian power. Witness the chorus of criticism and apprehension at the possible victory of Indian nationalists in the Western press.

The fight between the forces of Indian nationalism and Macaulayism aided and abetted by the West is going to be long, hard and dirty. The outcome of this war will decide whether India fulfills the prediction of British historian Arnold Toynbee and like China becomes a superpower or continues to wallow in the swamp of underdevelopment.

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Colonel (retd) Anil Athale