How Prime Minister Narendra Modi is challenging colonialist elitism on 75th year of Independence

The de-colonisation agenda remains a huge challenge in India as elitist tendencies continue to refuse to accept the perilous effects of colonised minds

Vinay Sahasrabuddhe January 03, 2022 17:48:06 IST
How Prime Minister Narendra Modi is challenging colonialist elitism on 75th year of Independence

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PIB

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a unique way of disseminating messages in a subtle way. Right since last March when celebrations to mark the completion of 75 years of India’s Independence started, everybody realised that this grand celebration is titled ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ and not some jubilee of Indian Independence. The term jubilee just cannot capture the grand celebratory spirit that comes with Mahotsav! Undoubtedly, what we are celebrating is not just a mega-fest or a gala event! It is, if one must describe it in English, essentially a super celebration of our attainment of freedom. And very rightly, the government has used the Hindi name everywhere, disregarding the self-imposed compulsion of finding an English version of the same, each time and every time. After all, language is the vehicle of culture.

Also, many times attempts to translate names into English fail in capturing the true essence. After all, ‘Elephant God Festival’ can never ever be acceptable as a translation of Ganesh Chaturthi. Similarly, names of festivals like Pongal and Onam or Bihu cannot be translated. In a way, using the term ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ is liberating our minds from the habit of beginning our thinking with ‘How the Sahib will think about anything?’. This entire approach is close to the thinking of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, among others too. Lohia too had advocated greater use of Indian languages for the development of Indian bhashas as the language of governance.

While the importance of the English language in the contemporary world can certainly not be undermined, the moot point here is that we needn’t be shy of our roots, our origins and our basic identity. Happily, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 rightly talks about “a rootedness and pride in India and its rich, diverse, ancient and modern culture and knowledge system and traditions”. In some sense, this welcome approach is also very bold as in India, being rooted in the Indian soil was rarely considered politically correct. Thanks to Macaulay, the upbringing of several generations in India happened in a climate where people were made to believe that one gets some premium the moment one is associated with all that is foreign.

Revolutionary freedom fighters like Damodar Hari Chapekar, who assassinated Walter Charles Rand, then a civil servant in Pune, had observed in his autobiography that English education was in fact vitiating our minds, instead of opening gates to new and modern education. Not for no reason, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr BR Ambedkar not just advocated but also worked for an indigenous system of education. Sadly, the fundamentals of education in India continued to remain under the dark shadow of Lord Macaulay all these years and the NEP-2020 comes as the first comprehensive and meaningful attempt to come out of that sinister influence. While drawing conclusions on the basis of sweeping generalisations need to be avoided, it is a fact that the legacy of the content of education of the colonial era almost continued all through several decades, even after Independence. As a result, as society, even 75 years after Independence we come across mindsets afflicted by self-doubt, inferiority complex and worst, self-flagellation.

The latest example of this self-flagellation is the inexplicable criticism of the request made by Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) to the Civil Aviation Ministry to recommend operators of airlines in India as also airports to play Indian music. The criticism is on two counts: First, such a request may discourage forces of free markets; second, how to decide what is Indian! Both these arguments are hollow as a ‘request’ is just a request and there is nothing mandatory about it. It certainly isn’t rocket science to know what Indian music is. From Sufi music of Jammu and Kashmir to Jyoti Sangeet of Assam and from Hindustani Classical to Karnataka Sangeet or from folk music to film music, everything is Indian. Essentially, the request is about playing music of any genre that has the flavour of Indian culture. To identify this music is far from complicated. And yet, elitists have chosen to criticise this proposal, thanks to the perverse mindset that considers advocacy of Indianisation as retrograde.

It is the same mindset that finds it pointless to protest a dictate of an upmarket club or a five-star hotel where occasionally Indian dress is proclaimed as unwelcome. Again, people with the same mindset relish in ridiculing everything associated with cow protection or the use of cow urine and cow dung, disregarding the scientific research on these subjects. Again, it is the same mindset that governs the thinking of those who refuse to accept the fact that city names like Bombay and Calcutta are a thing of the past and the correct names are Mumbai and Kolkata.

One must appreciate that music, language, literature and even culinary traditions are always an inseparable part of cultural identity and ethos of any society or nation. While nobody denies that we too are a part of what they now call ‘Global Village’ and Indian culture also regards the world as one family, the journey to this realisation always unfolds progressively. Besides, one cannot forget that a larger — in this context, global — identity cannot emerge at the cost of national or regional identity. As smaller identities always contribute to the larger one, to deny their importance is an invitation to social and cultural ill-health.

Sadly, even after 75 years of Independence, the de-colonisation agenda remains a huge challenge as elitist tendencies continue to refuse to accept the perilous effects of colonised minds. This has added to the gravity of the challenge. Colonialism is dangerous and elitism is far from the ideals of egalitarian society with democratic and inclusive spirit. And when these two join hands, they produce a socially and culturally harmful cocktail of colonialist elitism, something that the British left behind and even now being considered by some as elixir. The earlier one gets rid of this mindset, the better.

The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP who heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education. Views expressed are personal.

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