Cultural maps needed

Sabka Vishwas

School students form the map of India during Republic Day celebrations, in Mumbai. PTI

In India, antagonistic cultural differences are sharply etched onto our political consciousness. The frequent attacks on the communities from the North-East in Delhi, Biharis in Mumbai and the suspicion with which people of Kashmir are occasionally held, to enumerate a few, offer a massive challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s romantically ambitious quest for sabka vishwas (everyone’s trust).

While it is true that ‘unity in diversity’ has long been the guiding leitmotif in our policies on culture, education and federalism, has it succeeded in mending the fractures which plague our society? As the argument runs, acts of acceptance precede overtures of trust, and acceptance is premised upon true recognition.

The prime minister’s project entails, in no small part, a sympathetic appreciation of cultural specificities which animate politics in religious and ethnic minorities. Observing a ‘Kashmir week’ or a month-long focus on Northeastern literature in government-aided institutions across India will reap far greater dividends.

However, although we have a ministry for culture, India lacks a national cultural policy which could create conditions necessary for trans-regional/ethnic empathy. Such a policy, led by the ministries of culture and human resource development in particular, can create an environment for mutual recognition, enhance people to people contact and defuse mistrust.

A national cultural policy implies a planned approach to government-aided cultural activities, keeping in perspective broader goals which have been debated among the citizens, and identified through consensus. The absence of such a policy in India contrasts sharply with global trends. Virtually every country, including the most diverse ones, has a well-defined cultural outlook. To comprehend this absence, we need to understand the general suspicion with which terms such as culture, policy, national and government are held in contemporary India. Particularly so when they appear together in a sentence.

In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1943), American–British poet T S Eliot describes culture as constituted by a set of organic ‘basic structures’ which get transmitted hereditarily and cannot be fabricated. Unfortunately, in most intellectual discourses, culture is viewed as a disruptiveintervention, which is either fictive or imaginary.

Academic fervour is expended on hyphenated concepts such as sub-cultures, anti-cultures etc. Trends in both social media and universities suggest that many maintain a safe distance from everything ‘cultural’ or ‘national’, except when invited to critique it. It is feared that advocacy of a national cultural policy is anchored to conservatism, parochialism and majoritarianism.

But did India always lack a national cultural outlook? To answer this question, one need not go any further than Sahitya Akademi, India’s cultural avant garde. Established in 1954, the Akademi seeks to celebrate those elements which are organic to India, however variegated their expressions might be.

‘Indian Literature is one, but written in many languages’, its motto proclaims. Bodies like Indian Council of Cultural Relations (1950), Sangeet Natak Akademi (1953) and National School of Drama (1959), some of which were instituted by parliamentary resolutions, mooted by India’s first education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, reflected the government’s official cultural outlook with aplomb.

To the founding fathers, it was clear that promoting elements ‘organic’ to our national identity has to be an integral part of nation building. Establishment of Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) during the regime of Indira Gandhi in 1972 stressed the need to introduce national perspectives in historical research too.

The objectives of ICHR, compiled in March 1972 by the Ministry of Education and Social Welfare, identify the need to provide “national direction to an objective and rational presentation and interpretation of history” as one of its priorities. It, therefore, strikes me as ironical that in the past few decades, the loudest opposition to a policy framework on culture has come from academicians and scholars who have been at the helm of affairs in the institutions mentioned above.

In 2008, an 18-member committee was constituted to draft a policy for modernisation and coordination among government-aided cultural institutions. As expected, most of the members abstained from the meetings and the proposal was dismissed without a fair trial.

Our experience of whatever modicum of planning which has been made to bear upon cultural activities in India contradicts their oft expressed fear. All the aforementioned bodies, without an exception, have promoted India’s cultural plurality, in all its richness.

Sahitya Akademi, together with its several regional centres, has created a veritable repository of our linguistic and literary diversity. Ever since its establishment, the National School of Drama has been promoting folk elements on the national stage. It has also commissioned folk professionals to train actors in Delhi. The ICHR too, as stipulated in its memorandum of association, has been striving to promote ‘popular literature’ and support research in “neglected and new” areas.

Modern movements

Still, the apprehension that cultural policy may be a garb for promoting unscientific appropriation of past remains unsubstantiated too. Many of these institutions have triggered modern movements
in arts, literature and research. But our cultural institutions are plagued by sheer lack of coordination. This often results in effort-duplication and resource wastage. A national policy on culture would lead to a greater alignment between institutions, funding agencies and cultural goals.

Through concerted institutional efforts and periodic revision of focus areas, retrieval and promotion of diversity will become much more effective. Further, institutional support for local cultural groups to engage with regionally diverse art forms and a body like National Cultural Coordination Committee (NCCC) for greater cultural traffic across regions would be extremely useful.

It is about time that the Ministry of Culture furnishes a policy draft for debate. This will go a long way in securing a truly integrated society; an integration which is not restricted to the coda of tolerance, but based on the ethics of trust.

(The writer teaches English at the University of Delhi and writes on literature, print and popular culture)

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