Wednesday, May 13, 2009


An England in India goes to the polls
1 Apr 2009
Tarun Vijay
Times of India

After six decades of independence, India is virtually ruled by a lady who is originally a westerner and doesn’t have a command of any Indian language unless supported by a written text in Roman. And she has become the only hope to bring back the remnants of what was once a grand old Congress party led by Mahatma Gandhi back to power through her speeches in broken Hindi addressed to India’s predominant rural voters.

She is credited with having helped the Congress win 145 Lok Sabha seats and 26.21% votes in elections held in 2000, became the head of a 219-member coalition drawn from 16 parties and ruled India from her home with Manmohan Singh acting as her nominee Prime Minister. So much so that an American embassy publication spread out her picture on one full page and Manmohan Singh was relegated to a corner passport size. It created embarrassment and corrections were made in later editions.

The flexibility of Indian voters, if one can describe this attribute modestly, is amazing. The west’s overpowering influence20in recent times can be said to have begun in 1615, with a visit of Sir Thomas Roe, England's first official ambassador to India, who secured privileges for the East India Company from Jehangir, son of Akbar.

India would never be the same again.

The east, the far-east and the immediate neighbourhood, once such a hub of Indian cultural influence that it became known as Indochina, was turned to lesser importance and faded away from Indian priorities. It was only after five decades of independence that a look-east policy was devised but it still remains feeble compared with our western fixations.

The presence of a colonial power that set the cultural agenda too and gave new westward dreams of an upwardly mobile life to a common Indian drove the Indian journey and fixed our dreams to Vilayat.

It seriously affected the status of our languages. Once a nation that had the most scientific and ancient language, Sanskrit, perfect on parameters of grammar, vocabulary and phonetics, and had preserved the age-old reservoir of Hindu wisdom and scholarship – India was 80% literate before the British rule, with astounding contributions in astronomy, mathematics, life sciences, arts and theatre, literature, sea warfare, and mind-boggling wonders in architectural superiority, all attained in languages common Indians knew and spoke – India is run on a language that was never hers, was in fact imposed through coercion shutting the old and time-tested centres of Indian learning calling them as “dead, useless centres of obscurantism”.

The new contemporary rulers of any variety or colour or ideology, look at Sanskrit and other Indian languages with disdain and would never prescribe books of ancient wisdom like Vedas or the Upanishads to be taught in Indian schools under a heritage programme fearing loss of Muslim votes.

Bharat, the glorified “golden bird” famous in Arabic and Greek fables, has become a poor translation of Romanized western elitist ideas. An India, that’s what it is known as.

Though the world over our ancient books are highly respected as the gift of India, India and her politicians take them as merely Hindu scriptures, that may invite the wrath of the minorities if promoted through state apparatus and patronage. Though Sanskrit remains the language of solemnizing birth, marriage and ensuring a heaven-bound journey after death, an upwardly mobile elite of Gurgaon-Bangalore variety won’t have time or inclination to understand it. It’s of no use – no employment, no social status, no political benefit is gained through it.

In any elite circle of decision making, whether it is gove rnance, media, arts and culture or literature, it’s simply elevating and profitable too, to shun speaking an Indian language and use English with a foreign accent to register a powerful presence and of course facilitate success. And more the American slang, the more “awfully impressive” it becomes.

Newspapers and magazines compete with each other to publish on their front pages any garbage churned out by any author recognized and awarded in Britain or New York, but never ever they would give that space and honour to an Indian language writer of greater eminence.

This change in the contours of Indian political scene and social behaviour has occurred so subtly that mostly it has been either ignored or taken as a natural phenomenon of modern progressivism and a sign of India surging ahead.

Indian rulers boast to have more English speaking peop le than the United Kingdom and invite foreign investments underlining “Sir, we have the largest number of work force that understands English”.

When an Indian launched a new expensive brand in undergarments, it was named Euro and the other one was Dollar. A “masses’ car” manufacturer, named it the way a foreigner would understand rather than an Indian.

We still love to call the rule of the imperialist British with a simple three-letter word: Raj. In Hindi Raj means the Rule. So those who propagated and accepted this usage for the British time in India, they wanted to assert that if there was anything that can be called as a Rule of Law, it was only during the British rule.

An Indian employee attired in dhoti-kurta is still not looked upon approvingly in India’s offices as an acceptable dress code and if he speaks English, his virtues would be described like this: though he dresses like a villager, he speaks fluent English, must be highly educated, you know.

Anything related to Indian villages is considered naturally backward, obscurantist and in south Delhi’s chic parlance “ethnic”. Indian judges love to adorn Victorian headgear and barristers and lawyers use the same old black coat and white pants while arguing, though they may be sweating profusely in an Indian summer. (Ironically Britain’s lord chief justice, Lord Phillips, felt last year that wigs contribute to the public view of judges as fusty and out of touch and that their wardrobe was, in fact, ridiculous).

To get admission to any area of a respectable vogue – from IAS to medicine – or seeking a driving license to a railway ticket issued through the internet, you must know English. At airports, tickets and boarding passes are all invariably in English, because the rulers are sure those who can afford air travel must be from an English-friendly environment. All medicines are labelled in that language of “acceptable” excellence and if a doctor, (I know a few) has his letterhead printed in Hindi, he makes’ news’, being an off-track, exceptional person.

But still he can’t write his prescription in a language that his patient understands. To be computer-savvy means to be English-friendly. This atrocious situation has denied access to the new technology to millions of Indian language speakers, who are still waiting for software that will help them use the “machine of progress”. No party has ever seriously tried to facilitate the “real masses” use information technology in their own languages.

From Kashmir to Kozhikode and Tirap to Tanakpur, English-speaking coaching centres and books and special training modules have come up. Even bus tickets are printed in English and the administration and pol itical party offices work in that language of the colonialists whom our nationalist leaders once described as “looters, robbers and the wretched beasts who brought havoc on us and divided our motherland”. Our aircraft still exhibit two letters to denote their territory and they are VT. It means Viceroy’s Territory.

So, this India that quotes British examples to reinforce its debates on the Indian constitution, quotes British laws to explain Indian Acts, showcases British parliamentarian traditions to correct Indian parliament’s behaviour, and goes to the polls to elect a new government that would lead us to a new future.

This situation has influenced and changed our habits and world view. The great reservoir of Indian stories has been subtly replaced with Archie and Roald Dahl. Bedtime stories of grand ma, reflecting indigenous culture and world view through well-preserved oral traditions have almost vanished.

Indian newspapers publish only the western comic strips thus widening the perceptional gap with the east, which was always much closer to our cultural moors and worldview. The good, nice and admired faces and idioms and parameters of progress and scholarship are all transferred to New York, London and Sydney. Sunday papers’ marriage columns still show a great preference for “convent-educated girl fluent in English”.

If someone lists out the public issues of concern and the responses to them of the Anglicized elite and the rest, it will appear that the divide is too clear. It would be pronouncedly predictable. Like on Kashmiri Hindus, Ayodhya, religious conversions and jihad. The English speaking majority and the rest would represent two different worlds.

How is it changing India? Can it affect the age-old soul and fragrance so distinct and special that couldn’t be subd ued during the onslaughts of last several centuries of foreign assaults?

The answer is no.

Like an old grand mansion, the old layers of Indian society may be showing some cracks in some precipices with aging de-plastered walls and faded colours as we see in Jaisalmer fort, but Indians have also shown an amazing talent to use the alien impositions to bolster the nationalist causes too.

If it was the social reform and a renaissance led by English-speaking Indian giants, it’s the new world of technology and science that’s being mastered by Indians on English wings. On the contrary some other religious groups missed the bus due to a fundamentalist rigidity and a late awakening.

The day when Indians will run India on the strength of Indian languages is still too far and not exactly on the agenda of even the Hindu nationalist politic al groups who have willy-nilly yielded to the prevalent importance of English.

But the real India is yet too far to be overwhelmed by this factor. English newspapers haven’t exceeded a daily combined circulation of 10 million while Indian language media sells 33 million copies a day. The Indian bazaar is still dominated by Indian languages and no party leader; however elitist he might be, can afford to seek votes in English. So the language of seeking peoples’ mandate remains Indian while the language of power centres has invariably become

Though in some quarters, Sanskrit is seeing an amazing revival and currency, even in areas where Hindi is opposed for political reasons. The astounding success of Sanskrit Bharati, without having any state patronage, which is a case study for researchers, it still is miles away from having a principal space of trade and governance, a prerequisite for a language’s ascendancy to

With this divide a new youthful India, 60% under 40 years of age, is gearing up to vote for her future.

(The author is director of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation)


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