May 29, 2005

Brown like my heritage

Thoughtful Vikrum Sequeira has this about opinions he has run into, here in India, about the British Raj. He mentions Jerry Rao’s recent In Praise of Thomas Macaulay, a piece of writing not calculated to endear Rao to “leftist dimwits” nor “nativist fanatics” (both his phrases). After all, Macaulay is arguably the British colonial figure we Indians most resent, for his expressed desire to produce a race of “brown Englishmen” here in India.

Now Vikrum is neither a leftist dimwit (an oxymoron of a phrase, I should tell Rao, but that's not germane here) nor a nativist fanatic, but he quotes Rao with apparent dismay that Rao would praise Macaulay, and, by extension, the British. Didn’t the British rape this country in many ways? Then how is it, asks Vikrum, that so many Indians have this nostalgia for the Raj?

But I think Rao is making an important point, and it really has little to do with Macaulay. He says it’s time Indians moved beyond blaming the British for our ills; beyond mourning the great damage they did to us. At 58 years old, we should mature enough to be at peace with the legacy of colonialism, whatever it is.

If the British did damage, they also built things. If we can blame them for ruining a thriving economy, we can also applaud them for leaving us with institutions. If we can resent Macaulay for his contemptuous view of India and Indians, we can also thank him for the strength our facility with English gives us in today’s world – something he could never have anticipated.

But to me, Rao is saying even more than this balancing act of positives and negatives. His message, and I couldn’t agree more, is that it’s time we saw all this, good or bad, as just part of our heritage. And that goes beyond the British too. The first Moghuls were rapacious invaders, but half a millennium later, they are part of our history and heritage. Consider all that they contributed to this land and its people; consider how truly Indian those emperors were. Similarly with the Portuguese, the French, Arab traders; and maybe there’ll be a time, a century from now, when we can look at Hollywood and Levi’s the same way.

All of which reminds me of what a Portuguese friend and professor of civil engineering, Dinar Camotim, said to me in a Lisbon bar in 1998. Himself of Goan Hindu descent, Camotim was puzzled by the then active campaign in Goa to ignore the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India, given the colonial catastrophe he set in motion. Camotim observed that Goa owes its very existence, its identity, to Vasco and Portugal. If not for him, if not for Portuguese colonialism, those 3700 square kilometers would today be just another stretch of Maharashtra or Karnataka. What would distinguish it from every other stretch of those states?

We don’t need to ignore or excuse colonial excess; certainly, colonialism harmed us in ways that still haunt us. But it happened. History is hardly good or bad: it happens, that's all. Yes, at 58 it will do us good to see it that way.

10 comments:

Tanuj said...

dilip,

i think that rao's point does not have 'little to do with macaulay' or the british. he actually proposes that 'a revisionist view of our British imperial legacy is overdue.' i think that most indians anyway have a fairly moderate view (if any!) of the british raj. where is the need to revise this opinion? and why?

and with due respect to rao, his essay is logically flawed.

the assumptions that people who don't know english are "lesser" individuals (in whatever context) is baffling. are the japanese any lesser for not having been colonized and being forced to grow up learning english?

he says 'English is not just a medium or a means to an end; it is part of our very consciousness' - this is but a result of policy, but did we really need it? what if hindi and/or other languages were a part of our very consciousness? would that be bad?

it is great to have a rushdie or a khushwant singh writing in english, but who is to say we don't have/wouldn't have had world class writers in hindi, urdu, bengali or telegu today? can anyone say that the spanish speaking world is worse off because they marquez, llosa and allende who write only in spanish?

you say 'we can also thank him for the strength our facility with English gives us in today’s world.' this is a hypothetical argument to some extent - would we have needed this 'strength' at all if the british hadn't colonized us? we don't know.

you say 'they also built things' and 'we can also applaud them for leaving us with institutions' - you are assuming these things and institutions would have never existed without the british colonizing india. who is to say that indians would not have built the railways without the british? or a structure more imposing than VT? or a civil service more efficient? we'll never know. but the railways and VT are no reasons to condone colonization. no colonization is good.

traders are not the same as colinizers. trade benefits all, colonization benefits one of two. agreed timur, ghaznavi, chenghiz khan were invaders, and babar was some sort of descendant of one/some of these invaders. but he wasn't an invader, nor were akbar, jehangir, et al. mughals stayed here and contributed to the prosperity of the country, as opposed to repatriating surpluses, minerals, crops to their 'home' countries or making colonies incapable of producing a cotton shirt.

i agree with you - history happens, and we must make peace with it. but people must be entitled to their opinions. jews must live on and prosper, as they do, but would you fault them if they bear a grudge against a short man with a weird moustache? similarly, indians must move on, but if some have have an opinion on what the british did, why not?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Tanuj, if the British hadn't come here, would it have been India and not Britain that found a way to dominate the world and spread Hindi (or Tamil? Kannada?) all over? Would this exchange be in Hindi? Would the language most widely used on the Web be Hindi?

Perhaps so. But to me, the question Jerry Rao asks without being explicit is, so what? "What ifs" are fine thought experiments, but the way history has gone, in this case it is English that has come to dominate. Fine. Thus we are luckier than other countries in our familiarity with English; yet there is no implication meant that those other countries are somehow "lesser". There is no implication meant that it would be "bad" to have Hindi as part of our consciousness: after all, a far greater number of Indians do indeed have Hindi (or Tamil, etc) as part of their consciousness than do English, and that's no bad thing.

(Aside: We do indeed have world class writers in languages other than English -- UR Ananthamurthy, OV Vijayan, Jaywant Dalvi and more. Where I think we do lag is in producing world class translations of these writers, so the world can appreciate them as we do).

To me, it makes as little sense to nurse grievances against the British for the damage they did to us as to praise them for giving us institutions and English and so forth. I have no objections to people having opinions, but nostalgia or calumny both seem futile to me. That's the point about history.

The India we make for ourselves today and forward from today, good or bad, has little to do with Macaulay or the British: it is entirely ours.

Vikrum said...

Dilip and Tanuj,

One thing I've noticed is that if you want to do anything academic at a high level (in India) you have to know English. If you want to be a radiologist, for example, the textbooks are all written in English - not Hindi, Urdu, or Telugu. And this is a shame. In Brazil, for example, people learn higher-level arts and sciences in Portuguese. And in Japan, they learn in Japanese.

India has a system in which only English is respected as the language of learning, and that separates the anglo elite from the non-English-speaking masses.

I agree with Dilip that it is a shame that there are no translation of some of the great modern works produced in Indian vernaculars. (Although there are ample translations of the puranas - Bhagavad Gita, Mahabharat, etc.)

And now, a response to Dilip's main article:

Dilip wrote: "But I think Rao is making an important point... we should mature enough to be at peace with the legacy of colonialism, whatever it is."

I did not argue that Indians should blame the British for all of India’s ills. I argued that we must understand the role of the Raj in modern India’s underdevelopment. Whether you love or hate the Raj, it is a fact that Indian industries were dismantled, famines were induced by undemocratic economic policies, and violence was often used against Indian people.

Dilip wrote: "If the British did damage, they also built things. If we can blame them for ruining a thriving economy, we can also applaud them for leaving us with institutions. If we can resent Macaulay for his contemptuous view of India and Indians, we can also thank him for the strength our facility with English gives us in today’s world – something he could never have anticipated."

I agree with you that the British "built things" and "left institutions." In regards to English: yes, I agree that English is a boon in today’s world. But that does not mean that a country needs English to develop economically. Again, I point to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, wealthy Asian countries in which the vast majority of the people do not speak English.

I realize the irony in all of this (since I am writing in English). I also anticipate that many Indians (especially Mumbaikers) will reflexively argue against the notion that English is not a superior language. I think this is due to the fact that English is the language of learning and prestige in India and that many educated Indians (at least in Bombay) speak English as a first language. Thus an attack on the language can be seen as an attack on their identity.

But I am not trying to attack anyone's identity. My main point, again, is this:

We need to recognize the effects of the British Raj and how the Raj hurt India on a macro level. This is especially important considering that so many Mumbaikers fondly remember the British with gratefulness and nostalgia. I am not stating that Indians should blame the British for all of modern India’s problems; that would be asinine. But I do think that the only way to understand modern India is to have a good grasp of history. If you want to explore India’s poverty and underdevelopment (AND its administrative system, its railway system, and its modern system of higher education) then you have to study history - and the Raj.

Dilip wrote: "All of which reminds me of what a Portuguese friend and professor of civil engineering, Dinar Camotim, said to me in a Lisbon bar in 1998. Himself of Goan Hindu descent, Camotim was puzzled by the then active campaign in Goa to ignore the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India, given the colonial catastrophe he set in motion. Camotim observed that Goa owes its very existence, its identity, to Vasco and Portugal. If not for him, if not for Portuguese colonialism, those 3700 square kilometers would today be just another stretch of Maharashtra or Karnataka. What would distinguish it from every other stretch of those states?"

First, I never suggested that the British or the Portuguese should be "ignored." You are extrapolating. I said that their legacy must be understood.

Second, I completely agree with you that the Portuguese, Mughals, and British are firmly a part of the Indian story and I think that most Indians have accepted them as such. I have never argued that we should view the British Raj as separate from Indian history.

Third, I agree with you that the Portuguese fundamentally shaped Goa. But you are wrong in your argument that "if not for Portuguese colonialism, those 3700 square kilometers would today be just another stretch of Maharashtra or Karnataka."

In fact, the Chalukyas and the Silaharas ruled modern-day Goa from 200 to 1000 A.D. From 1000 to 1300 A.D., the Kadambas ruled the territory. What is striking is that the aforementioned kingdoms ruled over almost the exact same territory of modern Goa.

This is not surprising when one considers Goan geography. If you take the Konkan Express to Goa, the first thing you notice is its inaccessibility. On the Maharashtrian border, Goa has enormous slabs or rock separating it from its northern neighbor. On the east, there are thick jungles after the ghats. And on the southern end lies other natural boundaries with Karnataka.

In fact, if you study Goan Hinduism, you'll see that the Hindus have a longstanding myth to explain the creation of Goa. These myths were developed more than a thousand years ago and the landmass of India Portuguesa (Goa) shares almost the same boundaries with the Goa of middle kingdom India. Yes, the Portuguese extended Goan territory. But it is wrong to say that they "invented" Goa. They fundamentally changed Goa, but did not create land out of nothing.

Before the Portuguese came to Goa, the area was under Hindu rule. The Vijayanagar kings defeated the previous Muslim rulers in 1520 after a lot of warfare. The Vijayanagar kings handed the Rachol fort to the Portuguese and encouraged them to occupy cities in both north and south Goa.

In sum, I agree with you that the Portuguese are essential in forming Goa as a cultural entity. But NOT as a geographical entity - which is what you argued.

You wrote: "We don’t need to ignore or excuse colonial excess; certainly, colonialism harmed us in ways that still haunt us. But it happened. History is hardly good or bad: it happens, that's all. Yes, at 58 it will do us good to see it that way."

As an American, it’s interesting to see this perspective. In the U.S., specific ethnic groups continue to have bitter fights over history. Slavery, the Holocaust, the genocide of the Native Americans, and other instances are often mentioned to buttress political arguments.

Sadly, in much of the world, history is political. Normal Finklestein, in "The Holocaust Industry" argues that the Holocaust has been manipulated to justify Israeli military actions and stifle criticism of Israel. In East Asia, the Nanjing Massacre (See Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking") has been used by the government to justify Chinese nationalism, anti-Japanese sentiment, anti-Taiwanese sentiment, militarization, etc.

My point? My point is that that throughout the world, history is used for immediate political means (and the people that do this often do not care about the history itself). But I am digressing...

One last time: I was not writing about the British to further any political agenda. My point is that we can only understand modern India if we have a good understanding of the Raj. I agree with all of the anglophiles that the British left some good things (administrative services, the railroads, etc.). But they also wreaked havoc on ordinary Indians (e.g. famine) and succeeded in deindustrializing the subcontinent.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Vikrum, believe me, I have very little argument with what you say. We must understand the depredations of the Raj to understand India today; equally, we must understand the institutions (etc) they left us to understand India today.

My sole concern is that we also need to find a way to stand on our own feet from now on: not either blame the British for our ills (even if there is blame to be laid there) nor look back with some sepia-toned nostalgia (even if there is reason to be nostalgic). We will make our own destiny, our own country, and that's the way it should be.

Vulturo said...

Beautiful Post, Dilip

Anonymous said...

Terrific post, Dilip.

I am still not sure I understand why people get worked up over this issue of the British legacy (or even the Moghul legacy). It is an important legacy, whether one likes it or not.

Thank God we can speak and read English because it gives us the requisite distance from our "own selves" and consequently, the ability to understand our identity as a nation.

Look at the Japanese, who are much admired for their cultural insularity. What exactly has this trait contributed to their national character? (Before anyone jumps to their defence by citing economic progress, think of Japan's actions in WWII.)

We are who we are because of our past. IMHO, there is danger in trying to escape this past - either by condemning it or by painting it in sepia-toned colors.

Who were we before the British set their little outpost? Was there even a "we" that is used in the sense of a nation? If not, what loss are we lamenting?

Regards,

Krishna

Sriram said...

I agree with Dilip. It is time to move on. As far as the language is concerned, I believe English is as much an Indian language as anything else (in fact, more than anything else, I think).

I also believe Hindus should move beyond what the various Muslim invaders did (no more building temples where mosques are) and everyone should move beyond the caste based atrocities of the past (no more quotas and reservations). After all, whatever happened, happened. The best anyone can hope for, is to be treated as an equal in the eyes of the law and that has been happening since independence at least.

On the lighter side: I also oppose the phrase "leftist dimwit", mainly because it is redundant ;-)

Anonymous said...

dilip:

looks like you're finally in agreement with the right-wingers you often fight against...is this a new right wing dilip dsouza???

Rohit said...

Miraculous birth of the Macaulay gotra

http://www.india-forum.com/Columns/Kalavai_Venkat/Miraculous_birth_of_the_Macaulay_gotra/26/


We can all be proud Macaulay-putras!” declares Jaithirth Rao because Macaulay introduced English education in India. Rao traces our success and even our collective identity to this momentous act of Macaulay.

Needless to say, English education has been one of the main contributing factors to the successes that India and her citizens have experienced. But, is it the only factor? Does Macaulay deserve to be eulogized for that? Macaulay introduced English education not only in India but also in what is today Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. None of these states is a poster-boy of economic progress, democratic ideals, hi-tech revolution or academic excellence. So, what made the difference in India?

One man: Jawahar Lal Nehru. He recognized that India needed schools of higher learning and autonomous research labs. He recognized the need to usher in scientific temperament. He tied up with foreign providers of technology. That vision paid dividends where it matters the most. India established IIT, IIM, AIIMS, DRDO and ISRO, built damns, nuclear reactors, put satellites in the orbit and built the super computers to drive them. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan lacked a visionary like Nehru and so a mere introduction of English education by Macaulay didn’t carry them far.

Nehru had his failures too. Only half the journey is complete when you create autonomous centers of excellence. You need a vibrant capitalist economy that will nourish those institutions and motivate investment and innovation to create wealth. Nehru’s ill fated obsession with socialism ensured that India didn’t capitalize on her initiatives for decades to come. In the 90s, India made her forays into capitalist economy, albeit half-heartedly, and began to capitalize on the investments that Nehru had made in her institutions of learning and research. Even this hesitant flirtation with capitalism ensured that India emerged as the leading software and hi-tech outsourcing hub, leveraging, as Thomas Friedman [The World is Flat] points out, the critical mass of scientific learning which Nehru envisioned and pioneered decades ago.

At the time when Nehru started implementing his visions, he had his share of detractors. Gandhi clearly lacked a scientific temperament. Many leaders clamored for education in mother tongue under the unproven belief that it is offers greater benefits. The emerging consensus in neuroscience is that a child that is exposed to multi-lingual learning early in life becomes equally proficient in all the languages. Most importantly, English language education has ensured that Indians have access to the finest scientific literature and media that are published in English. Education in mother tongue would’ve shut this door on Indians. We owe our thanks to Nehru for this too.

Should we credit Macaulay for what he neither intended nor implemented? Macaulay introduced his English education in the 1830s to train Indians to be able clerks of the English masters, not to usher in scientific temperament. Not surprisingly, India had to wait another 120 years before Nehru could transform a mere accidental introduction of English education into a constructive vision.

Lest I sound like blindly eulogizing Nehru I should also add that his understanding of our cultural heritage was minimal and everything he knew about that was borrowed from European writers because Nehru couldn’t read any Indian script. Thus blinded, he was also instrumental in creating a battery of Leftist Taliban that would subsequently deny teaching and researching of Sanskrit at Leftist bastions like JNU. Ironically, the man that ushered in scientific temperament was also responsible for the destruction of objective learning in humanities, art and culture and for the politicizing of these fields by the self anointed Leftist eminences. In a development that Nehru wouldn’t have anticipated, the Leftist students of JNU might soon stop brushing their teeth!

We shouldn’t lose sight of what Macaulay’s schemes destroyed even if Macaulay might not have intended that. In his brilliant researches, drawing upon authentic British records and surveys, the eminent scholar and Gandhian, Dharampal [Beautiful Tree - Indigenous Indian Education in the 18th century] demonstrates that even till the 1820s India had an excellent infrastructure of schools. There were well over a 1, 00, 000 schools in Bengal alone. We get a similar picture no matter whether we look at Punjab or Tamilnadu. These schools provided vocational training to members of every community including women. They imparted training in a wide range of subjects from traditional medicine to jurisprudence. The infrastructure of traditional institutions which sustained these schools ensured that the students received their education free.

In contrast, the system that Macaulay ushered in was forbiddingly expensive. Most sections of the society couldn’t afford it. For most Indians, it had no vocational relevance. By the 1880s, vast sections of the society had been deprived of education as the traditional schools had been destroyed. As evident from the British records, by then most of the students that enrolled for the system of education that Macaulay introduced were upper caste boys that aspired for British clerical jobs. But, it didn’t come cheap. As evident from the incisive writings of the great revolutionary thinker and freedom fighter Suddhananda Bharati, many families pledged all they had to acquire an English education for their son. Quite often, their dreams of getting a British job didn’t materialize. Many families were ruined and many a youth committed suicide. It is not a coincidence that early revolutionary phase of our freedom struggle attracted such youth.

Macaulay didn’t understand any Indian language. Nor was he connected to the Indian culture. But he expressed nothing but contempt for anything Indian. He was not particularly any more racist than the average Englishman of that time but nevertheless the racism that underlined his worldview is unmistakable. He declared that the ‘lower castes’ were lax in their morals. In case the wife of a ‘lower caste’ man committed adultery, wrote Macaulay, “The husband would gladly have taken a few rupees and walked away.” Nor did conversion to Christianity help much for a converted Indian was merely “as good a convert as a missionary can make in this part of the world.”

His ignorance of Indian philosophy, Sanskrit, Pali, Persian and Tamil literature didn’t prevent him from making sweeping remarks, which in all fairness to Macaulay, he had merely borrowed from a few other European Orientalists: “A single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” India had pioneered many advances in theoretical and applied sciences starting with the invention of Baudhayana’s formulas and Arybhatta’s astronomy to the discovery of inoculation. Some familiarity with the Indian scene would’ve informed Macaulay but in his ignorance he declared that the so called sciences of India will evoke laughter in an English school girl. [George Otto Trevelyan, Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay]

Do we have to trace an imagined lineage to an ignorant man that had contempt for us? E V Ramaswamy Naicker, the British lackey and South Indian strongman, contemptuously called Tamil “The language of the barbarians.” Strangely, the separatist Dravidianist parties that came to rule Tamilnadu hailed him as the father of the Tamil race and he received the appellation “Thanthai Periyar,” meaning “The Great Father.” For some years, the Dalitists have been glorifying Macaulay oblivious to what he thought of them. Today we find Macaulay elevated to a similar status on a pan-Indian scale.

We are witnessing the miraculous birth of the ‘Macaulay gotra’

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