Sulekha Columns, Nov 10, 2000
Imprinting is the key that explains many of our peculiarities. Imprinted birds and mammals act as if they were human. Goslings, when reared by a person, become imprinted to the caregiver, and they will ignore geese. Imprinted people live in their own world of symbols, and their behavior to an outsider would appear strange.
Imprinting occurs during a sensitive window of development. Imprinted animals will mate with their own kind but will prefer the animal to which they have been imprinted. In extreme cases they will refuse social contact with their own kind. Imprinting is fixed for life; it occurs also in motor patterns, as in birdsong. Humans are also imprinted--- to ideas and beliefs they are exposed to in their childhood.
All this has been known for a long time. Herodotus tells us of how hostage children raised in court became loyal to their captors. In the US, Canada, Australia, the children of the natives were forcibly taken from their parents and put in foster homes for this reason.
The Ottoman Empire built a bizarre but effective system based on this idea. It created the institution of the Kapi Kullari ("Slave" or "Ruling Institution"), whose members were legally slaves of the sultan: they were born Christians but were converted to Islam primarily through the practice of devsirme, where able-bodied young children were recruited as child-tribute and immersed in Islamic culture.
The kullars were forbidden to contract legal marriage, to have acknowledged children, and to own private property. They served solely at the pleasure of the sultan, at whose will they were promoted and executed. The slave status divested the kullars of any personality outside the service of the master.
The kullars as Janissaries were the best regiments of the Ottoman army; they also served in the palace jobs and as provincial governors. The Grand Vizier was invariably a kullar. They constituted a superlative bureaucracy: they were devoted to their duties, were completely loyal and since they were isolated from the general population, they were fair. Their non-hereditary status prevented the formation of a ruling elite that might threaten the sultan.
With time, the kullars began seeking reforms in their inhumane system. By the end of the Empire, they had won the right to matrimony. But as their circumstances changed they became venal; what was their strength as an isolated community now became a license to do good only for themselves.
If the kullars constituted the backbone of the Ottoman Empire, an institution, similar in spirit but somewhat different in form (but more subtle and resilient), was formed to safeguard the British Empire in India. This was the institution of the brown sahib, the colonial apologist, formed under the directive of the famous Minute of Macaulay (1835) who wished to create "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.'' These Indian kullars may be properly called Macaulay's children.
The central idea in the imprinting of the Indian kullars was Macaulay's assertion that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India." The British, following Macaulay's ideas, dismantled the traditional pathshala system of village education, which had provided universal literary to the people. William Adam, a Scottish missionary in Bengal and Bihar during 1835-7, estimated that there were 100,000 pathshalas which were popular with all classes of people, "irrespective of their religion, caste, or social status," and the "curriculum was designed towards meeting the practical demands of rural society."
The village school had great room for improvement but it was very effective and was one of the institutions of local power. When it was superseded by the new system, controlled by the British bureaucracy using an alien language whose benefit ordinary people could not see, children of the poorer classes simply pulled out. This led to the illiteratization of the great masses of the Indian population.
The Macaulayite bureaucracy worked against other traditional knowledge also. For example, it targeted the millennia-old system of water tanks, which had been serviced by village councils. In its place was instituted a system of canal irrigation. This was done even where it was unsuitable, and the local councils were disbanded. Soon, the tanks fell into disuse and the water table dropped; this had disastrous effects for agriculture.
In the colonial state, the idea of profit was replaced by that of service of the British empire. The new system of education was instrumental for the socialization of this view. The idea of the other-worldly Indian was promoted.
In 1947, there was hope that India would create a progressive nation-state, but Macaulay's children quietly seized power. Taught to hate India's past and lacking a defining center, they took the fashions of the day--such as Socialism and Marxism--, and elevated these to their religious ideology. The terms Socialism and Secularism--but with a perverted meaning--were even written into the Indian Constitution during the Emergency of the mid-1970s.
In awe of the British and insecure of their positions, those of the Macaulay children who went into governance were good administrators. But as the system of checks and balances eroded after independence, they lost their reputation for incorruptibility.
Blind adherence to an ideology can stunt intellectual and emotional growth. Such people are forever seeking approval from those whom they idolize, and they are unable to grasp the incongruity of their behavior. Emotionally stunted people are like imprinted children, who can be very cruel. (The Khmer Rouge massacres of Cambodia, amongst the most horrific of the past century, were carried out principally by teenagers imprinted to one brand of Marxism.) Adults, with the minds of children, also brook no opposition, although their ways may not be as drastic.
The Macaulayite establishment in India is especially intolerant: it also knows a few tricks of Stalin. It silences its opponents using censorship and a system of patronage. But recently, independent minded American-style Internet magazines have provided a means to side-step this censorship.
Take Arun Shourie's experience: Although India's most famous and recognized journalist and author, winner of the Magasaysay award, he was black-listed by mainstream publishers and the media as soon he turned his attention to subjects considered taboo by the establishment. During the last ten years he has been compelled to self-publish his books and newspapers have banned him. But thanks to his Internet column he remained hugely popular until he joined the Vajpayee administration as a minister and stopped writing.
Having been black-listed once, his books are still not reviewed, and his speeches as a minister are rarely reported unless his words can be twisted to paint him as a monster. He is like a non-person of the apartheid South Africa. The favorite abusive label to pin on the opponent is to call him "communalist" or "fascist", and Shourie has carried these labels frequently.
As another example consider Mark Tully, the distinguished British journalist and author, who was for a long time the bureau chief of BBC in Delhi. Just because one of his books was perceived as somewhat critical of the Macaulayites, he was called names and declared a sell-out. His books have also stopped receiving notices.
This is quite unlike the rivalry between the liberals and the conservatives in the West, where the most partisan writers concede that their opponents have the right to be heard through the print and the TV media.
Some have suggested that the current turmoil in India is just a struggle between the traditional and modern approaches to governance. Nothing could be further from the truth. The opponents of the Macaulayites and Marxists do not wish for a religious state. They want to build a modern society somewhat like that of the United States: forward-looking but yet connected to its culture.
Reading the reportage of the culture wars of India by Western journalists in a hurry, one gets the feeling that the only sane people in India are these Macaulay's children. The reformers are labeled nationalists, swamis, traditionalists, or worse. These journalists do not understand the real nature of the struggle.
It is funny. The West proclaimed a certain imagined view on India, and now its pupils insist this is the real thing, even though there is evidence to the contrary for everyone to see. Could there be a better case of the tail wagging the dog?