INDIA has always been at some turning point or other in its several millenia of history on the planet. There have been conquest, invasions, occupations. Within the subcontinent itself the thread of continuity has been maintained by something called Indian culture. The oldest and most enduring substratum has been Hindu civilisation which has shaped incoming cultures and also shaped itself in response to them. Consequently, the most recent debate as to whether there is an Indian culture versus some aspects of contemporary modernity, is well taken and timely.
NDTV had one such debate where the question posed was whether pub culture was compatible with Indian culture. Is there a culture war ?
The participants were liberals of every hue, and the youthful audience, both women and men were extremely critical of the attack on women in the Mangalore pub. Of course, any one in his or her right mind would criticise the actions of Ram Muthalik and his comrades. The BJP and RSS have criticised them in no uncertain terms. While Ram Muthalik may have had legitimate goals in preventing women drinking at pubs, this was certainly not the way to go, they said.
But the NDTV debate addressed itself to a larger question. Are certain social practices(such as pub drinking) incompatible with Indian culture ? What exactly is Indian culture ? Is it a monolith or is it a laid back composite of a variety of practices ? One member of the audience pointed out that India was the land of the Kama Sutra. On the face of it the answer seemed to say that it was okay to drink at pubs and that Indian society had always been tolerant of such practices.
Now, of course, the Kama Sutra was written as a manual for courtesans. One writer has argued that even if it is widely read today the practices recommended are done privately, not in public. There is also the question of the wide spectrum of social practices, which if not publicly condoned, go on quietly away from the glare of public scrutiny.
Hence, the question of whether pub drinking is incompatible or not with Indian culture is a thorny one. The Indian liberal today is caught in a creation of his or her own making.
Freedom of expression, especially in the arts and also in private life, is an enshrined ideal in any liberal democracy. Further, there is the feminist dimension of the oppression of women the world over, not just in Indian society. The youthful audience that night was in high spirits and well they should be.
And Renuka Chowdhary, Union Minister for Women pointed out correctly that it is not the specific question of pub drinking but the violence against women that cannot be condoned. From the reports it did not seem that women were actually attacked. They were pushed and shoved. Neverthless, this cannot be condoned either.
But apart from the youthful exuberance of the largely young audience, how far can the more mature panelists go in upholding freedom of expression ? This is where the debate goes slightly off the track. Ram Guha, the noted historian and author of India After Gandhi, was at his spontaneous best in his remarks. However, at one point he slipped into the inevitable error of making this a Right-Left issue. He even went so far as to cite former RSS leader Guruji, MS Golwalkar as having said that both cricket and English should be banned from India! Guha was obviously being critical of Guru Golwalkar. It is not clear whether Ram Guha has read any of Golwalkar'swritings, especially Bunch of Thoughts where the writer appears as a tolerant, wise and creative thinker concerning Hindu civilisation, not as some intolerant crank as the modern liberal historian would have it.
Readers must note that such utterances (concerning cricket and English, both associated with the Raj) were common in the days when Indians of all political parties were engaged in a life and death struggle with the colonial rulers.
Even Mahatma Gandhi, suggested that English should not be the medium of instruction in Indian schools. Ram Guha'scomment was intended as a typical liberal put down of the RSS and associated organisations labeled as the Hindus? right and it is certainly unfair to a patriot and a nationalist such as Golwarkar. At any rate, such labels as ?Right? etc. are not applicable to Indian conditions. Liberals who employ this mode of thinking are merely captives of a mechanical mindless importation of concepts from the West.
And today, when India is embroiled not only in culture wars, but also in her very survival against malign neighbours and internal unrest, it might be useful to forget the old labels and divisions and engage in a serious national effort to deal with India'sproblems. The first step would be a revival of interest in the Indian freedom struggle so that the youth of today can understand the great sacrifices that all Indians of the time made to secure India'sfreedom.
Cricket can continue apace and the Indian cricket team has brought honours to the country and deserve to be feted. The pub culture certainly needs to be modified, because many of them may become fronts for other activities. The young woman who said that she goes to pubs, but does not drink alchohol, only pepsi, she just wants a place to hang out, must be provided the space to do so. University students must surely have a place to hang out without the attendant dangers to their safety. Indeed the stats. are that 40 per cent of road deaths are caused by drunken driving and the majority killed are young people. Parents worry about daughters staying out late in what are not perceived as the best places to hang out.
In the West, drunk driving and alchoholism have become important priorities for educationists and social activists.
English will contine to be an all India language and indeed may turn out to be a vernacular after all, in the way India has absorbed outside influences and made them her own. At the same time a case can be made for teaching Sanskrit as a compulsory language in schools, not only because it is an ancient language but because it has been the conveyor of Indian continuity down the ages. All Indian languages are heavily influenced by Sanskrit either in grammatical structure or vocabulary or both. This need not cause consternation among Indian Liberals since there is no danger of the Indian population sliding back into some mythical regressive mode. And the Sankritisation of Indian culture has been there since time immemorial, since the very inception of Hindustan. To reject it is to be unhistorical.
In the end, the serious question should be not whether pub culture is incompatible with Indian culture but how it can be incorporated into social life without exposing the young population to commercial values and to physical dangers.
(The writer taught Political Philosophy at a Canadian university.)