In early 2014, a Hollywood film “The Monuments Men” was released in theaters across India. It was just before the general elections that hopefully, changed the course of Indian history. The film, as reported in the blurbs, was based on the true story of “the greatest treasure hunt in history.” An action drama narrating the heroics of a World War II platoon, headed by George Clooney as Frank Stokes that had been tasked by the US President to go to Europe and rescue the great works of art that the Nazis had stolen during their occupation of France, and shipped to unknown destinations within Germany. Stokes assembles a team of seven art experts, with no military experience: they are museum directors, curators, art historians, who can easily identify a Renoir or a Michelangelo, but will have difficulty in recognizing a weapon.
With the masterpieces trapped behind enemy lines and with the Fuhrer having ordered their destruction as the German defences are crumbling, Frank Stokes and his band are involved in a race against time to save from certain destruction a thousand years of culture. With a cast including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchet, and Jean Dujardin (who had earlier won a Best Actor Oscar for “The Artist”), I was expecting a lot from the film. But, while the story held a lot of promise, somewhere George Clooney failed to get his act together as the Director of the film. The narrative is jumpy and whimsical; the pace pedestrian and lacking any sense of urgency or drama. Saving priceless works of art from an implacable enemy is no mean task, but Clooney failed to inject any sense of excitement or adventure in his narrative.
This piece, however, is not a critique of the film or of George Clooney’s rather lacklustre performance as actor-director. It is about, possibly, the only worthwhile quote from the movie’s script. When he gets his team together, Frank Stokes tells his men: “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for.”
That statement, I thought, explained so completely the civilizational predicament India had been going through for over a thousand years. Throughout the history of the occupation of this land by foreign adventurers and imperial powers there have been incidents when entire generations were wiped out; where their homes were burnt to the ground; but as Frank Stokes says, they still found their way back. 800 years of Islamic rule followed by 200 years of British occupation could not destroy the ancient culture of the land, notwithstanding the Aurangzebs and the Macaulays of their times.
Of late there has been an attempt by some anglophiles at resurrecting the reputation of Lord Macaulay, and a speech, which he is supposed to have given in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835, has gone viral on social media. Macaulay’s statement is printed on the appended clipping from an Indian newspaper that is frequently found navigating the social media currents:
Research shows that this speech is but a figment of someone’s imagination and cannot be found anywhere among the writings and speeches of Lord Macaulay. One has to just check the Internet to find scores of articles confirming this fraud on the English reading public in India. Macaulay’s contempt for the Orient and its achievements is best summed up in the statement: “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” It was Macaulay who encapsulated Imperial Britain’s policy towards education in India when he said:
“We must at present do our best to 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, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”
However, among the British civil servants who came to India as masters, there were quite a few who were intrigued and beguiled by this ancient civilization, and went to great lengths to recover its past that had been covered by centuries of neglect. Sir William Jones, who founded the Asiatic Society in January 1784 and James Prinsep, the decipherer of the Kharoshthi and the Brahmi scripts, (that brought Emperor Asoka’s rock and pillar edicts to life) are, to my mind, two of the most prominent of these Indophiles. Though not entirely free from the prejudices of a Colonial master, especially with reference to William Jones, the Orientalists tried to fabricate an impression that it was Jones who brought learning and letters to the pundits of India. A marble frieze in the chapel at University College, Oxford shows him sitting at a desk, writing on some paper, while three Indian pundits are sitting below at his feet as students would, looking at a closed book, or listening with great attention to what they are being taught.
The attempts to reinterpret our history that would fit preconceived colonial notions, as averred by the Macaulayists, were thwarted by other Europeans like Charles Stuart (c. 1758 – 31 March 1828) an officer in the East India Company Army, well known for being one of the few British officers to embrace Hindu culture while stationed there, earning the nickname Hindoo Stuart. Unfortunately, those who found much to admire and love in the ancient wisdom of India are not too many, though not quite negligible.
The great Nigerian writer Ben Okri explains this colonial agenda perfectly in one of his most memorable quotes. Okri says: “To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself. Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art. Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger. The best writing is not about the writer, the best writing is absolutely not about the writer, it’s about us, it’s about the reader.”
Here, in a few words, is the entire Colonial agenda, spelt out by one of the great minds of our times.
Macaulay, however, was successful in creating “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” This class included the Nehruvian socialists consisting of Nehru and his followers and the so-called leftists who said that they took their inspiration from the Bolsheviks, but in fact were no better than any other political opportunist looking for a way to climb up the ladder of power and get aboard, what the Washington Post’s India bureau chief, Steve Coll called “The Great Indian Gravy Train.” One would easily be able to recognize these children of Macaulay even in our present times. People like Shashi Tharoor, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Ramchandra Guha, Amartya Sen, Arundhati Roy, Aruna Roy, Shekhar Gupta, etc., are just a handful of names from a passenger list that still tries to ride on this gravy train. By flogging the much-abused word “secular” in their writings these Macaulayists keep misleading the readers just like the others who are communal in concept and represent narrow, sectarian views.
Similarly, leaders of political parties started using the word “socialist” while naming their outfits, spouting secular homilies, fooling the masses with soporifics while amassing huge personal fortunes. Once in power, these creations of Macaulay lost no time in “secularising” the state and the system of education. Sanskrit and the classics of Indian literature were no longer prescribed studies in schools and colleges; ancient Indian history became fair game at the hands of committed historians like Irfan Habib, Romilla Thapar, R. S. Sharma, and many more, who were ready to toe the official line in return for positions of prestige and lucrative professional assignments abroad. Education became subservient to vote-bank politics. Pressure groups of all shades came into existence promoting agendas close to one political dynasty or another.
Religion and caste were exploited for personal gain while religious conversion suddenly became the chief agenda of many foreign NGOs working in the country under humanitarian pretexts. There are many “scholars” of dubious distinction who have become willing tools in the hands of these agencies and are actively promoting their agendas. In 2011 Rajiv Malhotra and Arvind Neelakandan, published “Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines” a book that painstakingly details the international conspiracy aimed at just that: “the breaking of India.”
Today, when I look at the society we have evolved into, it fills me with great despair. In our wholesale adoption of a Westernized lifestyle we have completely lost touch with our traditional culture and history. We have grown into a nation-state that is ashamed of its past, and try to disown most of our traditional learning as folklore, superstition and mythology. Contact with other humans has become minimal as we become mechanized introverts. Our dependence on gadgets for entertainment has replaced field sports, making most of us spectators rather than participants. As contact becomes minimal, hostility fills the vacuum. We are immediately suspicious of strangers and like animals exude a hostile scent when we encounter one. Our tolerance for conflicting views has shrunk and we are ready to explode at the slightest provocation. There is very little sympathy for those who do not come up to our standards, be they intellectual, financial, or physical. Disputes are not resolved with the objective of reconciliation, but for revenge.
It was not so when I was a young schoolboy in Srinagar, Kashmir. Our school syllabus included a study of elementary Sanskrit and textbooks had chapters on the ancient cultural and literary heritage of India. We had teachers who, apart from teaching the prescribed texts, would also remind us of our cultural heritage and impart values consistent with that legacy. A lot of what I learnt in school has stayed with me – a lot more than what I learnt later in college and IIMC. That is not the case today. Education has become a business and profit is the only motive. Teachers have no time to go beyond the prescribed syllabus as most of them are engaged in private tuitions away from their institutions. Most of our graduates and post-graduates today would have been considered illiterate a half-century ago. Yet government statistics would have us believe that a huge pool of talent is being churned out by the system every year.
The exponential increase in crime, the daily news of rapes and murders, the abysmal decline in morals, and the failure of governance, all are indicative of the malaise that has struck the youth of India. We have lost our cultural and historical moorings and are adrift in a sea of corruption. How do we pull back from here? How do we stop the destruction of our achievements and avoid the fate of civilizations that have become extinct? I think the answer lies in the restructuring of our basic education by de-Macaulaying it and introducing young minds to the rich and glorious culture of the land. We need to regain our pride in India and not become a clone of the US.
When Narendra Modi, in his first Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, spoke about saving and educating the girl child and building millions of toilets, these leftovers of Macaulay’s legacy lost no time in deriding his choice of projects for a country that was supposed to be a powerhouse of youthful energy unleashed by a technology-driven consumer society. But Modi was fully aware of the real challenges that faced India – an India that was not on the screens of the TV sets in urban homes, but appeared to have fallen completely off the radar. Public health; sanitation; smokeless fuel for the millions of kitchens using coal, wood, and other organic materials to burn for cooking; crop insurance; medical insurance; cheap, easy, small loans to energise entrepreneurship; Direct Benefit Transfer eliminating the grasping hands of petty Babus; massive investments in infrastructure; and many other schemes too countless to record here, have been so transformational that four years later today India looks poised to become a 10 trillion Dollar economy in 5 years. Could anyone have even dreamt of such a figure at the end of UPA-II?
The area that appears to have escaped PM Modi’s immediate attention is reform in the education sector. Perhaps he believes that reforms in this sector can wait while the other areas need immediate and quick remedy. Education reform, especially Sonia Gandhi’s regressive RTE Act, is crying for attention, but PM Modi has not so far turned his gaze in this direction. It is possible that he thinks that reforming the education sector is a long-drawn process where results will be seen only after decades. Perhaps by fixing the economy and governance Modi believes he would have earned the right for a second term when he would turn his full attention to fixing the educational system. I hope I am right in both these assumptions!
At the end of the movie the American President asks Frank Stokes if putting one’s life in jeopardy for saving a piece of art was worth it. My answer would have been an emphatic YES!