Colonialism-in-the-Mind by Gouranga Chattopadhyay – Part 2

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One such noteworthy phenomenon is the scramble for ‘good’ schools that provide education in the English medium in exchange for what, at times, amounts to ‘a King’s ransom’ by contrast with other schools that use ‘regional languages’ as the medium of instruction. Please note that the words ‘regional languages’ have been put within inverted commas. I was born in British India, fortunately in a family of freedom fighters and social reformers. Along with the norm at home of buying everything Indian as opposed to imported British goods, I went to a Bengali medium school. In those days, the medium of education in every Indian language was considered as getting educated in one’s mother tongue and not in a ‘regional language’. We knew that our future careers were likely to suffer irrespective of the quality of English language that we learnt, because we did not go to an English medium school. A strong sense of commitment to our mother tongue allowed us to deal with that anxiety. The British imperialists had tried their best to destroy this commitment and undermine the status of local languages by using the term ‘vernacular’ to describe the various languages that Indians used as mother tongue. The Chamber’s and Oxford Dictionaries published prior to 1930s defined the word vernacular as ‘pertaining to the tongue of the slave’ i.e., the Indians were slaves in the minds of the British as part of the US and European heritage of actual slave trade. The British in India had carried on a slave trade in the garb of indentured labour long after slavery was legally abolished. So their languages were described as the language of the slaves, thus making a great effort to downgrade the various local languages of the Indian sub-continent.

Much later, after the Indian Empire vanished and in its place there came the nations of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, the definition of ‘vernacular’ also got changed in the later editions of those dictionaries. The new definition became ‘the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people of a country or region’. It leaves me to wonder if in the mind of the British Imperialists the status of being the master of its south Asian colonies still exists, so that while the ‘ordinary people’ speak ‘vernacular’, some kind of extra ordinary status is conferred upon those people in former colonies who speak in English!

This emphasis on ‘ordinary people’ seems to have impacted the Indian psyche to produce the idea that students of English medium schools belong to an ‘exclusive’ class, who are perhaps a cut above the ‘ordinary people’ who can afford education only in the ‘regional language’.

So the ‘colonial hangover’ is about being politically correct in raising the status of ‘slave’ to the ‘ordinary’, the ‘hoi polloi’. The tragedy of this country is that the average hoi polloi has also accepted this constructed reality and continue to use the word ‘vernacular’ to denote various local Indian languages, including their mother tongue.

One also wonders to what extent the ‘racial discrimination’ based rules about dress code, special discriminatory treatment by the immigration personnel at airports, such incidents as the killing of an unarmed olive skinned South American in a London Underground station by the British Police without any provocation, and attacks on Indians by White Australians in Melbourne (2009) are part of the colonial hangover passed on to the progenies of those who had ruthlessly conquered the black people’s land and plundered their riches. In fact in Australia even though many non-white people are also Australian citizens for more than one generation, they are not always referred to as Australians. Colloquially, only the white skinned immigrants, even those recently ‘naturalised’, are called Australian. Australian citizens with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian etc. origin are called Asian, and the citizens of Indian origin remain Indian! Behind this there could be an unconscious assumption, which is that non-whites are not worthy of Australian citizenship along with her white citizens.

Another very destructive ploy of the British Imperialists was translating the word dharma into English as ‘religion’, perhaps taking a cue from another imperial European power of that era whose representative, Max Mueller, ‘translated’ many ancient Indian Sanskrit texts. Anyone who knows Sanskrit well and has read some of the sub-continental ancient Sanskrit literature knows that while the word ‘translation’ is generally used to denote rendering the texts in various non-Sanskrit languages, actually it becomes largely a matter of interpretation. One of the reasons for that is that many Sanskrit words have multiple meanings and the choice of a particular meaning depends on one’s understanding of the cultural context. Further, the so-called translator leaves his or her mark by using capital letters for some words since in Sanskrit there are no capital and small letters. Very few people seem to have given much thought to this mistake of using ‘religion’ as the English of dharma. Dharma in the past was a very inclusive term with multiple meanings. Some of these meanings still remain. At one level it is applied to a very wide range of behaviours called monushya dharma to highlight the common human inner realities expressed as behavioural characteristics as opposed to those of animals (or shall we say of various species of animals other than the species termed as homo sapiens). In the past, of course, monushyas represented an ethnic group who were separate from such other ethnic groups as devas, gandharvas, rakshasas etc. The definition of dharma then keeps narrowing its boundary through such meanings as the expected ethics and behaviour of kings and other varieties of rulers ‘by divine right’ (raj dharma), that were accepted and got incorporated in the dharma enforced by the powerful Vedic people, who followed the brahmanya dharma with its four-fold socio-economic classification of brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and sudra, down to the personal philosophy and ethics of creative people who questioned the prevalent culture.

Continued in Part 3

Biographical Note

Gouranga Chattopadhyay is Emeritus Professor of HR of the Academy of Human Resources, Ahmedabad and an independent OD consultant, executive coach and personal counsellor. He can be contacted at

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