Symbolism over Pragmatism – India’s Nemesis

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Indians love symbolism, especially those in power. That has been their hallmark, right through the last millennium and the trend continues to date. Strangely, for inheritors of some of the world’s greatest civilizations, the native Indian rulers of yesteryears, barring rare exceptions like Chhatrapati Shivaji or Maharaja Ranjit Singh, revelled in creating monuments and memorials, when they should have been focussing on the welfare of their states and the people. Lavish tombs like Taj Mahal, grand palaces and temples dotted the land, while it lacked the infrastructure for an efficient administration. No wonder, they found themselves wanting in military capability to defend their domains, when foreign powers came calling and the Subcontinent ended up being colonized. Have we learned our lesson from history? It does not look we have, if one is to go by the frenzied activities and gestures of the powers-that-be that are rich in symbolism, but lacking in pragmatism.

I will confine myself to the latest initiative to cleanse the armed forces of the so-called ‘colonial baggage’. Do the politicians and bureaucrats who thought up this cranky idea, think that the top brass of the armed forces at the time of independence and later years consisted of mindless morons, who were not sensitive to the national sentiments? The fact is that the military establishment itself carried out the necessary changes after independence to remove the colonial stains and transform our armed forces into purely Indian entities in both looks and ethos. How else could the armed forces of the country emerge as the most admired organizations in the country in public perception? For seventy-five years now, they have epitomized the national spirit as nothing else did, by not only sacrificing life and limb to defend the country from external aggression, but also standing out as the sole organizations that truly adhere to the cardinal principles enshrined in the constitution of India, in letter and spirit. They don’t need the crafty politicians and selfish bureaucrats to tell them how to be nationalistic or patriotic in style and substance.

True, the Indian armed forces were once the pillars of the British Empire. They also left behind a grand legacy of their fighting prowess through the two World Wars from France and Flanders to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. To this day, they are looked upon with admiration by people all over the world, including those of the countries they fought against, like Germany or Japan. That is not a baggage, but a heritage. Also, the Indian armed forces assuming Frankenstein-ian proportions in the aftermath of World War II is what made the British quit India in a tearing hurry, is a fact of history our civilian establishment prefers to underplay. Let us not forget that when the Royal Indian Naval Mutiny of 1946 sent shivers up the spine of the British establishment, it was the Indian politicians who betrayed the mutineers, in their overt eagerness to take over the reins of power.

What exactly are the colonial trappings, we wish to get rid of, anyway? The British, for all their depravity, never tampered with the ethnicity of the Indian troops and wholly respected their social and religious sentiments. The universal practice (and unique) within the Indian armed forces of an officer having to turn a follower of the faith of his men, is one we inherited from the British officers. As far as the names of the units went, the infantry regiments were named based on the ethnicity of the troops, leaving no scope for any change after independence. In the case of the armoured corps, the prefix of British names some regiments carried, were replaced by numbers after independence, Skinner’s Horse becoming 1 Horse and Hodson’s Horse becoming 4 Horse, being two examples. By force of habit, some old timers might have been taking old names for a while, but all that has died down.

With a little oversight that would obviate extensive review, names of some buildings could be replaced with Indian names. In any case, in popular usage, it often takes years for a new name to replace the old one, a typical example being Anna Salai in Chennai, which is still commonly referred by its old name, Mount Road, after many years of it being renamed. What I am suggesting is that such changes are merely cosmetic and don’t contain much substance. You cannot erase history; you can only learn from it and be wise. Unfortunately, our political class does not seem to appreciate that.

Coming to the officers’ mess customs and other items of protocol followed by the armed forces: We may have inherited those from the British, but those are part of the military etiquette followed by fighting forces all over the world, with minor variations. Surely, we do not want our officers and soldiers to be ignorant of such internationally followed practices, and be odd people out, while we are aspiring for our country to be a global player. The crux of the matter is that we cannot really wish away the historical link of our armed forces with their British counterparts. However, our armed forces having grown in size and stature, surpassing Britain’s, it is time we shed our inferiority complex, and stop wasting time and effort on such meaningless exercises like reviewing military traditions. We ought to be focussing on improving our combat potential. The enemy is not going to bother what your accoutrements are, but your firepower and accuracy will certainly have his attention.

About changing names: Are we talking about finding Hindi equivalents of ranks and suchlike? What exactly is our problem with the present English words? For that matter, what is the problem of our higher-ups with English language? We did not unlearn our mother tongues because of our learning English. On the contrary, our mastery of a global language like English has only helped popularize our vernacular literature to the world at large, through translations, and vice versa. Despite our learning English for over two centuries, the indigenous languages of the land have in no way withered. Incidentally, English is a constitutionally recognized Indian language, and India has one of the world’s largest English-speaking populations. The proficiency of our students in English language has always given them a competitive edge internationally and it continues to do so. We have seen the disastrous consequences of curbing English education resorted by some states, putting their young at a terrible disadvantage in a competitive environment, and how they had to wholly embrace it again. To cut to the chase, the English language is one of few benefits we accrued from our colonial experience. Let us not squander it away, for misplaced nationalistic perceptions.

If changing names is an attempt to promote Hindi in the garb of nationalist values, it is an ill-conceived move, bound to prove counterproductive. In a multi-linguistic society like that of India, imposing any one language over others could only cause bitterness, even if it has been recognized as the national language. As it is, Hindi has been steadily gaining ground thanks to Bollywood, rather than the Hindi Prachar Sabha or governmental initiatives. It would be far healthier to leave it that way, to gain a level of national acceptance over the years as a link language, which is what can be expected at best. English is doing eminently well as the official language and can continue to do so, as long as we don’t discourage our children from learning it.

Finally, before signing off, let me make a humble observation for the powers-that-be. An entire generation, like mine, has grown up in India without the colonial hangover, and wishes to see this country taking giant strides as a modern state. We have no time to squabble over irrelevant and archaic aspects of our colonial past. British imperialism was bad, but it is done away with and buried. Most Britons themselves don’t want to talk about it. It’s time to bury the ghosts, and move on like the great country we pride ourselves to be.

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1 year ago

The current power-at-the-centre does not only want to clean the slate of colonial vestiges, but also of any Nehruvian legacy as well. In their urgency to create a “Naya Bharat”, they seem to have lost their fundamental moorings – that of cultural plurality.

Overall, the developments do not seem promising in the long run. One “cannot erase history; you can only learn from it and be wise”. That neatly sums it.

Lt Col S V Sundar
Lt Col S V Sundar
1 year ago

Well analysed and thought provoking. The fact that officers assume the religion the troops they command has been well brought out by the author. Meddling in systems that are working well is most inadvisable. The violent reaction to the Agniveer scheme which was implemented in a hurry and the political dispensation’s trying to pass it off as an army initiative is yet to fade ftom recent memory. The army is the last Bastion and Capt Ramachandran has well brought outthe need to leave traditions and customs alone and concentrate on equipping and keeping this fine army combat worthy . An… Read more »

Col JDS Jind, SM
Col JDS Jind, SM
1 year ago

Very well-analyzed and written. The British, who were the largest Colonial power knew fully well what drives and motivates a person to lay down his life for someone else’s cause. Whether they be Indian or African with a multitude of religious customs and traditions. The British never created ‘India’ as a nation. They simply dealt with the many principalities to do their bidding, while creating British Indian Army to further their expansionist goals, whether in China, Afghanistan, Tibet, or for plundering the material wealth of India. No one to date ever fought for his country. They were motivated to do… Read more »

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