M Hamel, in Alphonse Daudet’s The Last Lesson, states to the villagers and students gathered in his classroom, “When a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language, it is as if they had the key to their prison.” Through this, Daudet tries to emphasise the importance of preserving one’s languages and culture as a means of ensuring the identity, legacy, and unity of civilisation. These are inextricable threads in the fabric of life. A nation cannot become a great power without creating an identity for itself based on its cultural heritage.
Ironically, while The Last Lesson is a part of the school curriculum in India, it may be evident that we have not learned any lessons from it. Indian society has become an anomaly on the world stage, a civilisation that is thousands of years old and considered as one of the world’s most significant powers similar to China and USA, yet one which seems equally eager to forget its roots. Our society, especially the middle and upper classes, has little to no knowledge of our history or languages. Most history and philosophy books in our country are filled with the ideas and analyses of Western thinkers and scientists like Plato and Galileo. There is no mention of Indian thinkers and scientists like Adi Shankaracharya and Aryabhatta who have made significant contributions towards humanity. We may have heard of and read JK Rowling and William Shakespeare but what percentage of our younger generation has read Munshi Premchand or Mahapandit Rahul Sankrityayan? Quite likely, a very small one. This goes beyond the realm of knowledge and ignorance. Such a society is heading towards impending spiritual doom, a state of an acute identity crisis, and moral decay.
The study of Indian philosophy, traditions, and means of communication have increasingly become an esoteric field disconnected from the masses. It is acceptable and indeed desirable that we are taught about our flaws and the achievements of other civilisations. But if we create a dichotomy between other societies being inherently superior while the indigenous one as having no significant contributions, it can lead to a plethora of issues.
To prevent historical and cultural chauvinism, one cannot resort to historical negationism. The consequences of our inferiority complex and copycat mentality have begun to appear. The “educated” section of our society has a very superficial understanding of our ways of life, customs, and languages. Merely knowing the names of a few kings and attending a few traditional theatre performances does not qualify as a benchmark of our appropriate understanding of cultural legacy. A community and a nation which do not take pride in its heritage cannot become a truly great power. Nations such as China, Japan, Korea, Germany, and even a place as diverse as the United States of America have carved out their own unique identity. It can be argued that the use of English is important for social mobility and as a means of communication in a country as diverse as India, but it should not come at the cost of native languages.
The states which have no problem teaching children German or French suddenly raise a massive hue and cry whenever it is suggested that Hindi be taught. A simple solution for this could be that languages like Tamil or Assamese be taught in the schools of the Hindi belt, while in reciprocation, Hindi is promoted elsewhere. This shall increase the feelings of mutual brotherhood and unity. If we cannot even find solutions to such problems after so many years, then it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we are still in the clutches of Macaulayism and divide and rule policies of the colonial times.
However, this isn’t merely just an issue of pride. There is a more insidious effect of these policies as well. Due to the educated classes having ignored Indian philosophy and customs, they have lost their ability to evolve. Therefore, progress has stagnated, and a large part of society is stuck in age-old superstitious beliefs that are no longer relevant. Extremist groups take advantage of the frustrations of people to help advance their agendas by pushing their twisted understanding of culture. While, the educated classes, instead of taking steps to ensure the dynamic nature of culture is maintained are instead busy bashing it. Thus, society has become bifurcated between two broad sections: One which is educated yet has rudimentary care for its traditions and languages, and the other, which has a narrow and outdated view of it.
We, as a society, are staring at the brink of losing its morals, ethics, values, languages, and cultures almost simultaneously. These are not mere words; they are rapidly becoming a grim reality that needs immediate measures to be rectified. The debate cannot be if we preserve our culture; it must be how we do it. Intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy will be the inevitable outcomes if we fail to do so.
M Hamel’s words have great relevance in our context. We need to heed them and ensure we take measures to halt the decline. Otherwise, the people may remain, yet the nation shall fall. Some may point out that it is hypocritical to criticise English and the West while using it and the technology that came from there. A counter to that could be, what led us to this stage?
The writer is a class XII student. The views expressed are his own.