Macaulay’s Orphans: The rotten core in the middle

Touch him, and you will find he is all gone inside
Just like an old mushroom, all wormy inside, and hollow
Under a smooth skin and upright appearance
Full of seething, wormy, hollow feelings
Rather nasty—
How beastly the bourgeois is!

– D. H. Lawrence, "How beastly the bourgeois is!"

Muslims and Sikhs are ready to die to defend the honour of their women. For the Jains, every living being is sacred. Hindus claim that they worship their women as Mother Goddess. The presiding deity of Dushhera celebrated last month is Durga, a power-personified woman. Laxmi, yet another woman of substance, is worshipped during Deepawali as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Then, why is that the crime against women is on the upswing in these very societies? What kind of social order is it that makes its mothers go through the harrowing torment of female foeticide?

Perhaps the explanation lies outside the realm of culture. Questions are social, but answers have to be searched elsewhere too. Perhaps it is the rootless nature of the British model of bourgeoisie in South Asian societies that make it as brutal as it has become? Even if to refute such a possibility, more serious intellectual attempts are necessary to explore the hypothesis that the de-politicisation of the middle-class is responsible for most of the ills that are besting this region and its mass of population.

"We must at present do our best to form a class", Macaulay wrote in his famous Minute of 1835, "who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect". Today's subcontinental middle-class is a testimony to the success of Macaulay's social engineering. The class that he helped form is no less beastly than D. H. Lawrence's English bourgeois. This (South Asian) class has no master to interpret issues and events to enhance its understanding, and today finds itself lost in the sea of the masses that it has been taught to fear. These orphans of Macaulay are responsible for a large proportion of the ills that beset South Asian societies, because they are the ones whose values become the norm that the masses aspire to adopt.

The vacuity of the subcontinental intelligentsia is most obvious in the way it reads our shared history of over several millennia. It is a popular perception in the West that India has a past, but no history. The Pakistani intelligentsia confirm this view by relegating its history older than 1600 years as merely a past that must lie buried. In order to assert their Muslim identity, opinion makers of Islamabad are ashamed to claim that they too are the inheritors of the civilisation that built the temples of Ajanta, Ellora, Dwarakadhish and Varanasi. Their ancestors achieved these feats when the Bedouins of Arab desert had not yet learnt to sew a proper tent.

The past of Hindutvawadis of Bharatvarsa, on the other hand, ends just before the reign of Babar and begins once again only with the destruction of Babri Masjid. For these pretenders of the Aryan glory, there is no difference between the Mughals who made Hindustan their home and the East India Company that turned the territory into a jewel of the British crown. Macaulay's children seem to have done their work rather well: the South Asian middle-class is resentful of the Mughal rule that gave birth to the very idea of an unified Hindustan, but grateful towards the British who partitioned the region as a parting kick after lording over it for over two centuries.

The language of Macaulay's orphans is no less pretentious. It has no root in either the history or the culture of this region. It floats on the surface in all its imperial majesty. The 'vernacular' of the Pakistani state is Urdu, a language that is more at home in the mansions of Old Delhi. The 'official' language of India is Hindi, an artefact that has no home anywhere in the Subcontinent except in the studios of All India Radio and Doordarshan. The so-called Hindi belt speaks languages with history as old as the Ganga, but you will not find the proponent of 'Khadi Boli' speaking of the virtues of Pahari, Avadhi, Bhojpuri, Magadhi or Maithili.

The Indian scholar Sanjay Joshi has argued that, in its bid to assume social leadership, the middle class in colonial Lucknow created new norms of respectability by reworking nawabi traditions and tempering them with colonial modernity. This postulation still holds true for much of South Asia, and the subcontinental middle class is yet to overcome the contradictions caused by its failure to accommodate the conflicting values of 'pahle aap' and 'koi hai'. But then Macaulay has given them a tongue to hide their confusion—the English language. They use the vernacular in their dealing with the masses—whether it is Sonia Gandhi's halting Hindi or General Musharraf's Punjabi Urdu—but lapse into the colonial language while conversing with their own kind.

English is the lingua franca of South Asian literati. Even those writers who emote in the vernacular have to take resort to English if they want to be taken seriously in their own society. The official language of all discourse in the Subcontinent—discourse defined by the scholars of post-modernity as 'a socially and historically specific system of assumptions, values and beliefs which materially affects social conduct and social structure'—is English.

Ironically, while the Page Three crowd of New Delhi is gloating over the projection that India will be home to the largest number of people who transact (most of them still lapse into mother tongue when emoting, hence they can't be called English-speakers) in somewhat bastardised Queen's Language, the state of Bihar has decided recently to revert back to the Hindi of All India Radio variety for all its official communication.

After the mystification of history and confusion of languages, the subcontinental middle-class has mired itself in needless controversy over 'official religion'. The West settled this controversy early in the seventeenth century with the Treaty of Westphalia. Archaeologists of South Asia are still digging the foundations of a mosque that may have been built over a temple, which in itself might have sprung up by dismantling a stupa, which in turn may have been the site of an animist shrine of the aboriginals long long ago. Can someone please define how original is an original? Darwin holds that we have all evolved from monkeys. Ergo, the controversial site at Ayodhya should be turned into a forest. Lord Ram would be a happy man, to see his collaborators in the Invasion of Lanka roaming free at a location purported to be his birthplace.

Adam's acolytes

The subcontinental bourgeois has suddenly discovered Adam Smith, or even more appropriately, Atlas Shrugged's Ayn Rand. The favourite mantra of the newly enabled intelligentsia in Islamabad, New Delhi, Colombo, Dhaka and Kathmandu is LPG—liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation. This, despite the fact that the arthritic hand of the free-market has brought nothing but misery for the masses at the bottom rung of South Asian society. No doubt, India has broken the barrier of 'Hindu Rate of Growth' by bringing Detroit to Gurgaon, Texas to Ahmedabad, and Silicon Valley to the Banjara Hills. But the price that such a globalisation has extracted is unsettling — generations to come among the disadvantaged be it in Haryana, Gujarat or Telangana will continue to curse the class that institutionalised inequality in society. Many of them will revolt, as some have already done. VS Naipaul may rejoice the million mutinies because he doesn't have to live in Bhatinda, but it is axiomatic that every revolution—be it of the left or of the right—devours its own children first.

Female foeticide is most prevalent in the newly prosperous regions of western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Religious bigotry is more common among the commercialised middle-class of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Meanwhile, left extremism is widespread in the backyard of Cyberabad. Banditry of the Veerappan variety flourishes in the shadow of South Asia's Silicon Plateau. Beyond the islands of prosperity, the sea of inequity that exists, more the rule than the exception, is akin to the badlands of Bihar. If the sale of automobiles were to be the sole criteria to judge a society's health, North Bihar would be near the top of the Indian society: despite the condition of the roads in and around Muzaffarpur, the Maruti dealer of that less than remarkable city sells more vehicles per month than many posh metropolitan areas of western India.

The free market has added to the woes of a society that was already languishing in extreme poverty. When financial success becomes the sole criteria to judge one's station in life, dowry death, abduction for ransom, and banditry are its inevitable consequences. The Harshad Mehtas of the world dupe investors, and the Laloos feast on fodder, their difference is only on how they made their lucre. Both display the same trait celebrated by Ayn Rand—individual initiative for personal benefit. Perhaps it is the blind adoption of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's conditions that has put Pakistan and Nepal towards the bottom level of the UNDP Human Development Index, as the only two non-African states to have performed so miserably. Perhaps there is some connection there with the fact that Islamabad and Kathmandu embraced Structural Adjustment Programmes and free-market fundamentalism of Bretton Woods sisters most enthusiastically.

The situation looks so bleak that no escape from the enveloping darkness seems possible. But escape we must. It is going to be a long wait if we are to wait for the proletariat to shrug off its own leaders. The middle-class has to reform itself if the region of 1.4 billion is to have any future. There is only one way to approach towards this daunting challenge, with faith in Gramsci's aphorism: Pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will.

South Asia needs to read its history as that of clash of classes, not of religions, cultures, creeds, castes or communities—even dalit as a social category probably owes its origin to the political economy of Aryan expansion into the Ganga plains and Deccan. The Subcontinental bourgeois has to accept the multiplicity of languages within national boundaries as wholly arbitrary. It has to learn to control the greed of the few and pay more attention to the needs of the many. There is nothing new here, Gandhi said it all in one word—Swaraj. It is the self-rule free from the trappings of Macaulay and Ayn Rand that will release this region from the misery of its own making.

It is politics that creates the environment for change, and politicisation of the subcontinental middle-class must be the number one priority of anyone interested in saving the region from self-destruction. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, it's either socialism or barbarism.

The core has to shift to the left if it is not to destroy itself by raping sisters, burning brides, killing foetuses of daughters, and exporting pampered sons abroad to become non-resident bigots remitting fascism back home.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian