On National and Cultural Independence
Translated by Anand Mangale
December 27, 2017
The following is an excerpt from the chapter 'राष्ट्रवाद व सांस्कृतिक स्वातंत्र्य', by Makarand Sathe, from the book बदलता भारत अणि जनतेचा राष्ट्रवाद, edited by Dr Megha Pansare. The original, in Marathi, will be available soon on ICF.
What is culture? Defining culture is almost impossible. Many people say that we can explain it, talk about it, even write a thousand-page long book on it; but we cannot really define it. If we think holistically, culture is a way of living. The topic of today’s talk is ‘Cultural Independence’. If we think along these lines about this topic, we can relate it to art, to all kinds of literature, to different habits, aspects of human life, customs, etc—which is more suitable, I think. In a nutshell, the way a society thinks, and the mediums it uses to spread these thoughts, can be also considered culture. This is the way I have defined culture with respect to cultural independence, and also keeping in mind the condition of a poor country like ours. I am not going into the history of it, nor am I saying this to criticise it. I will explain the social relevance of culture and then come to its condition in our society. Let’s do it the other way round. Let’s talk about where the perception of culture, the perception of society, the perception of democracy, comes from.
We all know what money is. When we go out with a 2–4 year old kid and tell him that we will buy him a biscuit, he also asks if we are carrying money with us. He understands what money is, what ban is. We don’t need to study or understand the monetary policy to understand money. We don’t need to understand the monetary policy, to understand the age-old barter system, or electronic cash, or whatever other funny things BJP is doing with money. We don’t even need to understand the years of research people do on money, nor know why Amartya Sen got his Nobel Prize, to understand how money is to be used. We even don’t need to understand Marxism to understand protest—how to protest, how long to stretch it, what might happen in it, how anti-social elements might enter it, how destructive it can be. How to behave with women in society, what are the responsibilities of men, how the relationship between parents and children should be, how other relations are supposed to be, what are our rights in a democracy—to know all this, we don’t need to have any deep philosophical or fundamental knowledge. We, as citizens, have a general understanding of it. How do we understand this?
An English philosopher named Charles Tailor (Born 1948) had explained this. According to him, a human being understands all this through the values which are imbibed during childhood. These values are imbibed through culture; for instance, through the fables, stories, religious literature, poems, drama, movies, etc. Even the typical Hindi movies that are everywhere are part of this culture. The commercial Hindi movie producers also make movies which are in line with the societal values, not ones that question these values. Through all these mediums, a specific set of values are propagated in the society. We don’t need to understand the philosophy underlying these values. We accept it all through culture, i.e., through art, drama, stories, religious texts, etc. We would all agree on this, and not just because Charles Taylor said it 25 years back. Mahatma Phule also talked about the same 150 years back. These religious stories and texts have a massive impact on the society’s psyche, which Mahatma Phule understood long back. This is called social hegemony. We all become aware, from time to time, that a few people have control over a large number of people. Three percent of the populations, the Brahmins, control almost all of society. A small number of the British came and ruled over the whole of India. Although the male population is more in numbers, they still feel the need to exercise control over the female population. What makes this possible? Every time you oppress a dalit, it is not done through overtly violent means such as holding a gun to their heads. The same is true in the case of the exploitation of women. Even the British didn’t hold a gun to our head every time they wanted to exert their power over us. Then what is this phenomenon actually?
This exertion of power works insidiously by inducing a sense of inferiority in the minds of those who are being controlled or oppressed. For instance, it works by convincing women that they are intrinsically secondary, or convincing the dalits that they are inherently inferior. There isn’t much to do after this; the oppressed fall into line themselves. Our whole education system was created by the British to propagate such values, i.e., to convince the Indian populace of the superiority of the Western mode of thinking and living. Macaulay had written about it, which proves that the education system wasn’t this way by accidental. It was deliberately and meticulously created to function in this manner. Its effects can be seen even now, in that, we accept the “superiority” of Western ideas but are quick to question those that are from our own country. This hegemony works in various ways and impacts culture. I will give you an example from our everyday experience. We all celebrate Raksha Bandhan. Most people are used to getting rakhis tied by their sisters. We have all heard several tales about why this is done, including stories referring to Allaudin Khilji. Why does a sister tie the rakhi on her brother’s wrist? The rakhi symbolises the promise of “protection” that a brother is supposed to give to his sister. But protection from whom? From someone else’s brother. Essentially, the brother is supposed to protect his sister from other "men", men who must also have sisters of their own to whom they promise such protection. Ultimately, it is simply a game of power played between men. And by being a part of it, we perpetuate male dominance and patriarchy. Raksha Bandhan perpetuates and legitimises the viewing of women only in terms of their relationship to another man, i.e., as someone’s “sister”, necessarily needing his “protection”. The rapist is a brother and the protector is also a brother. This is what America does, too. It gives money to Iran to buy weapons for its war with Iraq, but also gives money to Iraq, enabling them to buy weapons, which it uses against Iran. This situation is similar; there is nothing new in it. These are some of the small ways through which culture affects our everyday lives, which we don’t even notice. People who not only understand this, but also throw light on these things and question them, we call them “Mahatma”.
Mahatma Phule wrote a play called Tritya Ratna (“Third Jewel”) in 1855, which explained how Brahmins established their dominance over the society. That play should really be considered the best play in Marathi. For 100 years, it was not produced, nor was a show staged, because it challenged and questioned the social reality of our country.
Makarand Sathe, an architect by profession, is an acclaimed Marathi playwright and novelist.
Dr Megha Pansare is a professor of Russian in the Department of Foreign Languages at Shivaji University in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. She is also the President of the District Council of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) in the state of Maharashtra, and a noted activist.
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