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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

English its impact and importance for India and Indians

Let us respect facts over half- hearted and hypocritical ethnocentric affinities to language or culture or tradition and be pragmatic

Random Reflections on the English language in India

We may recall the momentous debate that took place in Calcutta on   in February 2, 1835, in which a thirty-five year old Englishman argued for introducing English as the medium of instruction in British-occupied India. The debate was about whether a substantial sum for opening new schools in India should be spent for education through Arabic and Sanskrit media, or through English. Thomas Babington Macaulay: scholar, historian, liberal, and very British, argued with great passion that the Indian people would benefit more in the long run  if they were initiated into English and to European thought and science than if they were trained in the languages and worldviews of Arabic and Sanskrit literatures. He was convinced that English would bring Indians to the modern world better than any other language. Also, the British could  "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, words and intellect."

Macaulay's opponents argued that with the awakening that would come from English and modern science, Indians would become intellectually so strong that the British could no longer have their hold on India. To this Macaulay replied, "It would be … far better for us that the people of India were well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us; that they were ruled by their own kings, but wearing our broadcloth, and working with our cutlery, than that they were performing their salams to English collectors and English magistrates, but were too ignorant to value, or too poor to buy, English manufactures." Not many critics of Macaulay, some of whom shamelessly circulate spurious malicious quotes from him on the internet, care to refer to these words.

Macaulay won the debate. The die was cast. English became the medium of instruction in Indian schools. Within a generation a new class of Indians was formed. They were English in words and intellect, but not all were English in opinion and taste. Many became very patriotic. Versed in English and alerted to the notions of freedom, equality, and liberty through English books, they led a movement that overthrew British rule from India. All that is history that has flowed down the river of time.

Never before or since had  the convictions and eloquence of a single man affected the  course of a culture and history of a whole nation in so dramatic and irreversible a way. English is now an integral part of India's mind. It has brought together the educated classes from every region, such as India had never seen before.  The Sanskritic bonds of earlier times were largely for the upper castes. Mogul Persian influence was also only for the select cream of society. The vast majority of the people spoke and thought only in their local languages, as they still do, and seldom communicated with people from other regions. There was nothing unusual or bad in this situation. It was not unlike the situation in Europe such as it is even today.

It would be wrong to argue that English was indispensable for India to be unified as a political entity. Nor can one say that Indians needed English to be ushered into the modern world. Russians, Poles, Koreans and Japanese, to name a few, have all been modernized without English being imposed on them. What may be said positively about English is that many Indians have reaped valuable fruits from familiarity with English in many ways. Most of all: Aside from the fact that English is enormously rich in its literary treasures of great quality, no matter what subject you take, whether cultural, historical, scientific, informational, or whatever: you are likely to find a book or article on it in English such as in few other languages. French may be the only competitor of English in this regard.

Yet, English education has done some serious harm also: It has created a huge chasm between the English-knowing (perhaps 3% of the) population and the rest. More regrettably, these English-talkers tend to regard themselves as superior to the latter, exactly as the West, which English-speaking Indians rightly condemn, tends/tended to do about the non-West. When Indians are so mesmerized by English that they lose touch with their own culture, are unable to appreciate its finer elements and sensitivities, then they become what one derisively calls Macaulayites: Not just “Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect,”  but also  mindlessly adoring whatever comes from the West and contemptuous of whatever is culturally indigenous. But this need not be so. Some of the greatest pan-Indian cultural patriots in all of India’s long history were formed by English education in British-established universities: Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, S. Radhakrishnan, Prafulla Chandra Ray, Lokamanya Tilak, and C. Rajagopalachariar, to name only a few. Even the much maligned Jawaharlal Nehru was a greater enlightened patriot than many who are bad-mouthing him today.  Most movers and leaders in India are converts to English and English education.

As modern civilization is dependent on the computer, India (like many other nations) has become dependent on English for its survival as a modern nation. As of now, India cannot have her universities, IITs, banks and communication systems without English. This intellectual and cultural dependence may not be very healthy. Sad or not, this has become a fact.

Here again, English speaking Indians find it easier to get jobs in the world market, teach in universities all over the world, they are able to have pan-India meetings, they feel an oneness as citizens of the same country, and they participate more easily in international discussions. Some of them have also contributed to English literature.

There is no question but that English has played an important role in the rejuvenation of India. No, English has not destroyed the Indian mind. It merely awakened it to perspectives and values, knowledge and information of which the Hindu mind, and other ancient minds, did not have an inkling before.  In the nineteenth century, modern secular literature in every Indian language was created by authors who had read English/European literature. English translations of India’s sacred books have opened the eyes of countless Hindus and people all over the world to the treasures of Indic wisdom which few beyond a handful of Brahmin pundits, Sanskrit and Tamil, had ever heard of. Neither the Bhagavad Gita nor the Upanishads were as widely read and appreciated in classical India as they are today. It is equally true that a knowledge of English serves people well in opening their minds to new perspectives. As long as Indians use English as a useful and enriching instrument, for its beneficial rather than culture-destructive potential, the language can serve them well.

There are valid reasons for regretting the introduction of English into the Indian educational system. Anglo-indoctrination created a whole class of Hindus who lost touch with their own roots, between whom and the vast majority of their compatriots who have not been exposed to English and related thought modes, there is even today a gaping intellectual chasm. But this has happened before. Historically, people with command over a more sophisticated language (i.e. a language with more books on a greater range of subjects) invariably were at an advantage and considered themselves superior Greek-speaking Romans looked down upon their fellow citizens who did not know Greek. French-knowing Russians in the former centuries looked down upon fellow Russians. In medieval Europe Latin-knowing scholastics looked won upon those who were Latin-illiterate. Sanskrit knowing Tamils looked down upon Non-Sanskrit knowing worshipers of Murugan at one time.

I respect the concerns of Hindus who see more of their time-honoured culture slip away from India’s sacred soil. But this is not due to English. It is due the tornado of modernity that is sweeping across the world. The West was the first to see its Christian heritage challenged, modified, even overthrown by modernity. This has happened in China too. The alternative is stagnation with medieval worldviews and values.
This is the predicament of many English-educated Indians (indeed, English-educated citizens of other former British colonies as well) today: On the one hand, they want to kick out from the very core of their being the British (and the French and the Dutch, and the Portuguese, etc.) and everything these exploiting colonizers have left behind, lock, stock, and barrel. The massive body of literature that argues about, condemns, bashes, abuses, and verbally spits upon the West in books, articles, and internet postings is growing in magnitude in our own times.

Yet, these authors are more at ease in the world of discourse with fellow English-educated West-haters than with millions of their own Non-English-educated compatriots. For my part, though I detest the British from the bottom of my heart for all the terrible things they did to my forebears, I am glad their intervention saved me from having to pay obeisance to a descendant of Bahadhur Shah Zaffar or even of Shivaji, as my most exalted monarch, Mogul or Maratha. I am very grateful too for parliamentary democracy and the penal code in India. I know I am not speaking for many of my fellow Hindus, but perhaps I am also speaking for at least some of them, when I say I am glad my worldviews have been moulded by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, and I feel more fulfilled because I have derived aesthetic delights not only from Kamban and Kalidasa but also from Shakespeare and Shelley. My mind has also been immeasurably enriched by the physics of Galileo and Newton, and by the equations of Einstein and Schrödinger.

I know very well that we did not need humiliating British colonialism for all this and that the British did not have in mind my aesthetic, scientific or intellectual thrills when they inflicted their grammar and vocabulary on India. But, on balance, Hindus have benefited immensely from Macaulay’s victory in the 1835 debate. If his motives were malicious, so much the worse for him. Our road to heaven (cultural/linguistic richness) was paved with (his) bad intentions.

There has been enough of this carping on ancient alien demonic deeds, and pronouncing passionate curses on Western devils.  This accentuates historical rancour, but it is not going to alter the past in any way. Also, while the West plundered us economically for more than a century, we have been beneficiaries of the fruits of modern (Western) science, technology, and medicine in many ways. From the bicycle and the printing press to tap water and nuclear reactors, India has been enriched immeasurably on the material plane by the knowledge, discoveries, and inventions that came from the West. That must be enough quid pro quo for past exploitations. It should not be forgotten that Hindus suffered far greater cultural damage from the previous occupiers of Hindu India: a long range consequence of which has been that the land of the River Sindhu (Sind) and the lake of Sage Kashyapa (Kashmir) have been snatched away from Hindus.

Time has come for all cultures to join hands, recognize one another’s richness, and strive towards solving humanity’s many serious problems. Preaching separateness and insisting on our differences, especially in hateful and self-superior terms are not helpful in solving the myriad problems of the twenty-first century.

This does not mean that Hindus must not keep watchful eyes on similar machinations whether by Western mischief-makers or by India’s (currently no less  dangerous) neighbours across India’s borders. Nor should Hindus ignore and be ignorant of their traditional culture: music and art, language and literature, philosophy and spirituality.

I make no apologies for taking whatever is best from the East as well as from the West. Though I am at ease with English and French, German I relish Sanskrit poetry and the Tamil language, let alone ecstatic bhajan songs and morning meditations.  But I do revel in the standard model and have read  Milton and Molière, Goethe and Dante, and enjoy Bach and Beethoven also. If some   Hindus think this is distorting the Hindu mind, or intellectual enslavement, that is fine by me.

My point is that knowing English or tasting the fruits of other cultures need not necessarily instil disrespect for one’s own.

Also read my article which was published some 20+ years back in my blog

1 comment:

arkay said...

Very well written .Sabhaashhh...