Bewildered by his choice of words, I prodded Union minister Mahesh Sharma to explain what he meant by his phrase “cultural pollution.”
Sharma, a first-time member of Parliament, whose official profile describes himself as a “dedicated follower of the RSS since childhood,” had been quoted as having said: “We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored, be it the history we read or our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over the years.” Now, the minister — who holds three key portfolios of culture, tourism and aviation — had sportingly agreed (very few are game) to debate the comments with his critics on national television.
The words seemed so contentious to me — a prelude almost to a cultural purge — that I thought he might — as so many politicians do — say that he had been misquoted or misunderstood. Instead, entirely unruffled, the minister said he “absolutely” stood by his remarks. “Western encroachment on Indian ideas is an example of cultural pollution,” he told me. What is Western and what is Indian and who will define it in an ever globalising world and in fast-changing society, I argued back. After all, tomorrow, someone may say that English — the language he and I were talking in — is Westernised; does it automatically become polluted?
Without flinching and slipping into Hindi with enviable bilingual ease, the minister replied. “It’s a matter of misfortune that we read our textbooks only in English…this doesn’t happen in a country like Japan.” I was struck by the irony of the statement.
Sharma is a trained doctor schooled in the same ‘westernised’ education system he was now dissing. An owner of a super-specialist hospital chain in Uttar Pradesh and a self-described lover of golf and cricket, there was nothing especially non-western in many of the influences that had shaped him. And of course, Hindi revivalists among our politicians would be the first to send their children to study in English-medium schools. But doublespeak is only one aspect of this debate.
I could have seen the minister’s point had he spoken of the need to encourage greater cultural-rootedness without calling aspects of how we, in urban India, live and think — “polluted.” I would have been the first one to support him had he lamented the flattening, homogenising cultural impact of globalisation.
He would have been applauded if the emphasis was on wider dissemination of ancient Indian literary texts, as Rohan Murty has done — at his own cost — with a beautifully curated Classical Library. Yes, indeed, why should our sense of classical literature be informed only by works of Greek and Latin and not by Surdas or Bulleh Shah or Abu’l-Fazl?
As a Punjabi who only began to learn to speak the language now, in my forties, I would be the first to admit that an entire generation of us may have been brought up somewhat culturally dislocated from our roots. But, I also went to school in New York— both as a child and a graduate student — and Sesame Street and Muppet Movie are as much a part of my cultural instincts as Odissi (which I learnt for 15 years) or ‘Punjabi Billi’ online videos, my rather recent low-brow love.
There is a legitimate basis to challenge the over-arching colonisation of our historical and cultural legacy — though as Shobhaa De refuted in the same show — India is not a “giant laundry where colonial stains can be washed away”. None of it is that simple.
But what made Sharma’s comments disturbing is that he did not frame them as part of a debate over de-colonisation. Coming against the backdrop of a series of RSS-affiliated ideologues being placed in key positions in the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the National Book Trust — and timed with the current decision to reboot the focus of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library — the ‘culture wars’ appear to be nothing more than an extension of a larger political and ideological battle.
Right-wing ideologues constantly condemn what they claim is media hypocrisy. Why, for instance, they ask, is it ok for a Marxist narrative to dominate India’s sense of history or for some personalities from the independence movement to be privileged over others?
From most Indians the answer is — we reject any ideologies that hold us captive, on the Right, or the Left. We demand the right to free thinking; the right to not be imprisoned by dogma. We, especially, do not want something as amorphous, yet individual, as culture to be proscribed by the State in any manner. In any case if it is about civilisational history — ours is built on diversity and assimilation.
In the 1990s, James Davison Hunter, at the University of Virginia, first coined the phrase ‘culture wars’ to argue that there was a fundamental split in the United States between orthodox and progressive views on social values and personal morality. But he also noted that “most Americans occupy a vast middle ground between the polarising impulses of American culture.”
Those words hold just as true for India.
As citizens at home in a global world, we see no necessary contradiction in being somewhat Westernised AND fully Indian simultaneously. We certainly don’t think of ourselves as ‘polluted’. We also recognise that Culture has elasticity— what was not permissible two decades ago is perfectly kosher today and so on.
Finally, with us unable to agree, I asked the minister to give me one concrete example of the “cultural pollution” he wanted to battle. “Old-age homes,” he said, after much prodding.
I wish he had said instead ‘khap panchayats, caste discrimination, gender inequality and the continuing criminalisation of homosexuality’.
(Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. The views expressed are personal)