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Open Letter to RSS Chief: Why Blame the British?

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
13 Mar 2023
The British set up three universities in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras which helped in the spread of modern education.

Dear Shri Mohan Bhagwat Ji,

I was happy to hear your views on health and education, as expressed during a talk you gave in Haryana recently. There is a need to increase the government spending on public health and education and I know you have the power to have your wish fulfilled. If you monitor the figures, you will realise that India spends a lesser percentage of its GDP in these sectors than Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

The government seems to think that the private sector should step in to fill the gaps little realising that even in the Mecca of capitalism, i.e., the United States, the government spends heavily on education and public health. In the US, an overwhelming majority of the students are enrolled in schools run by the state where education is free. In many Scandinavian countries, the private sector is allowed to run schools but they can’t charge fees because the government compensates such schools with a liberal subsidy.

If you look around, you will find the private sector setting up state-of-the-art hospitals like the one Mata Amritanandmayi set up in Faridabad but they are not affordable even for the middle class, forget the poor. Pauperisation is what happens if a poor man is struck by a problem like the failure of kidney or heart or liver for which there are remedies for persons like the late Arun Jaitley, the late Sushma Swaraj and, now, Lalu Prasad. For the poor, they can only recite “Ram Naam Satya Hai” or "Samayamam rathathil" (In the chariot of time) as they take the body for cremation or burial!

I hope the government will wake up to the need to set up more schools, hospitals and dispensaries where free education and medical care are available to the poor. If your speech serves that purpose, I would really be glad. What prompted me to write this letter is a reference you made to how the British destroyed the education system in India under which 70 to 80 percent of the Indians were educated and there was no unemployment.

Your claim is hilarious, to say the least. Do you realise that much of India was under Mughals when the British arrived in India to do business? When they landed in Surat, they sent a delegation to Agra to meet the Mughal rulers and seek their permission to do business. Do you mean to say that the education system under the Mughals was perfect and that 70 to 80 percent of the population was not just literate but “educated” and everybody had a job?

The British replaced the Mughals with support from the Hindus. You are from Maharashtra. Goa is close to Maharashtra. Five hundred years ago, a large majority of the Goans were Hindus while the rulers were Muslim. The Muslim population was less than five percent. When the Portuguese arrived, how could they replace the Muslim rulers and rule the state for five centuries? You can use your own imagination to get the answer. Incidentally, Goa was the first port of call for the Europeans.

Here, I would like to mention that India was never a poor country. In fact, it was India’s famed wealth that attracted a horde of invaders to the country. Educationally and technologically, we were superior to the Europeans. When you are in Delhi next, please visit Qutub Minar where you will notice the Iron Pillar, built by the artisans of India, when metallurgy was unknown to the Europeans. The construction of Qutub Minar involved great engineering and architectural skills. Burj Khalifa in Dubai has remained the world’s tallest structure since its inauguration in 2010. Remember when Indians built the Taj and the Qutub, there were only tents in Dubai.

While in Delhi, also, please find time to visit the National Museum. You will find paintings that depict shipbuilding activity in coastal Kerala from where people would travel to distant places to sell spices. How did the seafaring capacity of the Indians end? Because of the injunction by the Brahmins that if one crossed the sea he would lose his religion. Mahatma Gandhi had to fight this superstition when he went to England for higher studies.

I am not talking about the hoary past. I knew teacher and poet Vishnu Narayan Namboothiri. After his retirement, he was engaged by a temple at Thiruvalla to do priestly duty. There was a protest against his appointment because he had visited England and polluted himself. How did the artisans who built the Iron Pillar fade into oblivion? The reason is simple.

They belonged to a certain caste which did not get respect. Thomas J. Bata was a Czech-Canadian. He became one of the world’s greatest businessmen when the shoes that bore his name were sold by the millions the world over. Had he been in India, he would have been treated as a cobbler and he would never have enjoyed the status he enjoyed in the world. The other day I read a feature about a lady who is a toddy tapper. She does the job to find food for her children.

Her job is tough and it is risky too. A slip can land her in the bed or in the mortuary. A Bharatnatyam dancer, who does not require as much skills as she needs to keep her alive, is feted and celebrated while she is ignored. Had she shown her face in a movie, awards would have followed her like leeches. But because she is a toddy-tapper, she does not become an icon. The British left 75 years ago and can they be blamed for the low status she enjoys? I have travelled all over India and I have always marvelled at some of the wonderful structures we created in the past.

The Tanjore temple, which has the world’s largest Nandi; the temple at Rameswaram, which has the world’s longest corridor; and the Konark Temple, which has the largest single piece of rock which supports the super-structure of the temple are some of them. I recall with fondness my visit to the Madurai Meenakshi temple where I enjoyed playing with the musical pillars. There are many other structures which are nothing but engineering marvels.

Now, my question is, why was this technology not used to build bridges and dams? That is because temple construction got priority over every other construction. The British built the first irrigation projects in the country. In Tamil Nadu, people virtually worship Colonel John Pennycuick, who lived in the 19th century. Why? Because he used technology to provide irrigation to unirrigated areas of the state. Today, Indians are all over the world. Economically, they are doing well. What do they do abroad? They construct temples. You can see such temples all over the US and the UK.

That is what the Modi government is also doing. After building the temple corridor at Varanasi, it is busy supervising the construction of the Ram temple in time for the next election. In the US, a newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer built an island and the pedestal for erecting the Statue of Liberty donated by the people of Paris. His readers contributed the money. Modi used public money to build a statue larger than the New York statute for which he had to approach China to build parts of the Statue of Unity.

As mentioned, the British came to do business, i.e., to make money. They did not want to disturb the system here. That is why initially the British supported the Sanskrit-based education system which was of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. When Sant Tulsi Das translated the Ramayana into the then local language, the religious pandits objected to it because they did not want dissemination of knowledge. A few years ago, I remember a Shankaracharya admonishing a woman because she recited, needless to say, beautifully, the Vedas before the function, where he was the chief guest, was to begin.

Did you know that Hindu reformers like Rajaram Mohun Roy submitted a memorandum to the British rulers that their children needed to be taught science and other modern subjects, not just Sanskrit shlokas? They had the sense to realise that reciting mumbo-jumbo would serve no purpose. That is how the East India Company earmarked Rs 1 lakh for promotion of education. The amount kept increasing.

In my childhood, buckets and trunk boxes were made of metal. Today, they are made of plastic and other synthetic materials. They are less heavy and are far more durable. Can we say that plastics destroyed the metal industry? New York had at one time thousands of people employed to remove horse dung from the streets. When Henry Ford introduced the car and it became popular, the horse carriages disappeared. Does anyone blame Ford for their loss of jobs?

I heard some portion of your speech. You spoke in Hindi, not Marathi or Sanskrit. Did you know that when Gandhi and Tagore met for the first time, they agreed that India had little future as a nation without Hindustani becoming our national language. Neither of them had a vested interest as one was a Gujarati and the other a Bengali. A century before they met, British missionaries like Henry Martyn and Rev Gilchrist laboured to develop Hindustani as our national language. Modern Hindi and Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, grew out of their Hindustani.

I would like to add one more thing. The Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha did yeoman service for the spread of Hindi language and the Devanagari script. Do you know that the key figure behind the work of the Sabha was a missionary, Rev E. Greaves? The other day, I visited the Delhi Book Fair. I suddenly heard a commotion and some people shouting the slogan “Hai, Hai”. It ended as soon as it began. A few seconds later, I went to that area and did not find anything amiss.

Later, I learnt that some people were protesting against the free distribution of the Bible. I saw the Bhagavat Gita, the Quran and Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s Satyarth Prakash being distributed free or at throw-away prices. There was no objection. The objection was only to the free distribution of some books from the New Testament. For once I learnt one thing, the proponents of Hindutva fear the Book, which is what the word Bible means, for it undermines their caste-based social order. There was a cut-out of the Prime Minister distributing the Gita. I wish there was another cut-out of Modi distributing the Quran! I can imagine you laughing at this suggestion.

You and your organisation, the RSS, hold Savarkar in high esteem, though he sought and obtained clemency from the British. It was Savarkar who described the 1857 Revolt as the First War of Independence. It was a success. The revolters captured the Red Fort. Thereafter, they did not know what to do. So, they installed Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was idling away as a poet, as the Emperor. Within no time, the British were able to recapture the Red Fort and send the Emperor to Burma where he died of old age.

In the same year, something more important happened. The British set up three universities in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras which helped in the spread of modern education. The father of Indian nationalism, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who gave India its national song, Vande Mataram, declared, “By reading English, Bengalis have learned two new words, Liberty and Independence”.

I can go on and on but I know you hardly have the time to read it. So, let me conclude by just quoting Nani Palkivala, “Our history goes back to 5,000 years. More than a dozen civilisations waxed and waned in different parts of India over these 50 centuries. Which system could we have possibly adopted as the national system?” Was it Travancore’s or Kashmir’s where Hindu orthodoxy prevailed since time immemorial? Thoughtless words and thoughtless action are two sides of the same coin of ignorance.

Yours etc


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