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Happy Birthday Lord Macaulay, thank you for ‘Dalit empowerment’

He’s the Big Mac for the Dalit intelligentsia — reviled as the ugly face of English imperialism by detractors, exalted by intellectual renegades.

He’s the Big Mac for the Dalit intelligentsia — reviled as the ugly face of English imperialism by detractors, exalted by intellectual renegades. Lord Macaulay, denounced for trying to dare promote English among Indians, to make them “intellectual slaves’’ of the British Empire, celebrated his 206th birthday today with merriment, joviality and jesting, in the heart of the city.

It was a birthday party organized by Chandrabhan Prasad, Dalit intellectual and activist, who hails Macaulay as the Father of Indian Modernity, for it was after the introduction of his English system of education in 1854, that Dalits got the right to education, he says.

As sodas popped and the whisky poured (aptly called, Teacher’s Scotch) Prasad led his guests – a motley mix of Dalit poets, singers, academia, a sprinkling of the international media, social scientists Ashish Nandy, Gail Omvedt – to the centrepiece of the party’s action. The unveiling of a portrait, English, the Mother Goddess, painted by Dalit artist Shant Swaroop Baudh.

Said Bhan, “Today, English-speaking Dalits and Adivasis are less disrespected, therefore, empowered by Goddess English, Dalits can take their place in the new globalised world.’’ Bhan has three reasons for revering Macaulay – his insistence to teach the “natives” English broke the stranglehold of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic teaching, a privilege of only the elite castes and, he argued,for the European kind of modern education, with focus on modern sciences. “Imagine, if we had only followed indigenous study,’’ said Bhan, “we would be like Afghanistan or Nepal today.’’ “I certainly do not agree with some of Bhan’s thesis,’’ said an aghast Nandy, “but I certainly support every oppressed community or individual’s right to pick up any weapon, be it political, academic or intellectual incorrectness, to fight the establishment. It’s the sheer audacity of it that makes it so forceful.’’

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Dalit poet Parak sang a couplet to the portrait – a refashioned Statue of Liberty, wearing a hippie hat, holding a massive pink pen, standing on a computer, with a blazing map of India in the background – Oh, Devi Ma/ Please Let us Learn English/ Even the dogs understand English, to cheers and laughter, even as Lord Macaulay’s portrait, looking the perfect English buccaneer, gazed below. Bhan then declared his new intention – the painting will be printed on calendars and distributed at all Dalit conclaves and community meetings. “Hereafter, the first sounds all newborn Dalit and Adivasi babies will hear from their parents is – abcd. Immediately after birth, parents or a nearest relative will walk up to the child and whisper in the ear – abcd,’’ he said mirthfully.

“I welcome the fact that English gives access to the world,’’ said Omvedt, “but remember, some of the best English has come from oppressed quarters, like the Blacks in America. Their language, known as rap, their music, poetry, literature, has a dynamism. It’s important to reclaim your regional languages from Brahminism and Sanskritisation,’’ she says. It set the theme for other speakers, and as heaving plates of chicken drumsticks and gobi pakoras were passed around.

“Dalits must no longer see themselves as oppressed and repressed,’’ said Nandy, waving his glass of whisky, “they have their own traditions and knowledge systems which must be preserved. There’s a very powerful tradition of history, music, life, which the younger generation must be proud of.’’ Bhan nodded agreeably – he had certainly hosted an evening of Dalit empowerment and pride. There was no hard luck story here.

First published on: 26-10-2006 at 01:22 IST
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