Last week I saw The Monuments Men, a Hollywood film that is apparently based, according to the blurbs, 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 has been tasked by the US President to go to Europe and rescue the great works of art that the Nazis have stolen during their occupation 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 destruction a thousand years of culture. With a cast including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and Jean Dujardin (who was seen in the Oscar winning “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 is pedestrian and lacks any sense of urgency or drama. Saving priceless works of art from an implacable enemy is no mean task, but Clooney fails 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, perhaps, the only worthwhile quote from the movie. 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.”
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. The thousand-year old 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. Recently there has been an attempt 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 is supposed to have said:
“I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.“
Research done by students and various bloggers shows that this speech is a figment of imagination and cannot be found anywhere among the writings and speeches of Lord Macaulay. His contempt for the Orient and its achievements is best summed up in the statement that “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. The attempts to destroy our history, as averred by the Macaulays, was thwarted by other Europeans who found much to admire and love in the ancient wisdom of India.
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 party looking for a way to climb up the ladder of power and rule over the masses. By using the word “communist” or “socialist” in the names of their parties, the leaders were misleading the masses just like the others that were communal in concept and represented narrow, sectarian views. Once in power, these Macaulayists 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 who were ready to toe the official line in return for positions of prestige and lucrative professional assignments abroad. Education has become subservient to vote-bank politics. Pressure groups of all shades have come into existence promoting agendas close to one political dynasty or another. Religion and caste are being exploited for personal gains and conversion has suddenly become the chief agenda of many foreign NGO’s 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 that aims at just that: the breaking of India.
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 traditional learning as folklore and superstition. 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 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. Our school syllabus included a study of elementary Sanskrit and text books 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 our government will issue statistics showing what a huge pool of talent is being churned out by the system every year.
The phenomenal 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. At the end of the movie the 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!
By Vijaya Dar