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On Preservation of Culture and Language February 20, 2010

Posted by Chetan Chitre in मराठी भाषा समाज आणि सेस्कृती.
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These days one hears a lot of talk about preservation of language and culture.

I sometimes wonder what it all means. What is culture? What is language? How do they come into being? Do they grow? Do they morph? And if they do what do we exactly mean by preservation of Culture and Language? Is culture and language a singular object which can be identified and preserved?

I do not see obvious answers to some of these questions.

For example what do we understand by a culture or a language? Let’s take for example the Marathi culture. Who decides, what is Marathi culture? Is it the Shiv Sena, is it Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar? Is it the government of Maharashtra? I think we often get confused between being a part of the culture and representing or talking on behalf of the Culture. Certainly the Shv Sena or Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar are part of Marathi Culture. But do they have the authority to decide, what is Marathi Culture? Do they represent Marathi Culture?

I think, Culture is by definition a social phenomenon. It is not the government or the political party who decides the content of culture. It is the millions who thru their day to day actions create culture of a society. When my feet start tapping on hearing some music, it is creation of culture. When I whistle at a woman walking down the street it is creation of culture. Conflict arises when one has to make a value judgment on Culture. The next logical question is – who takes a decision on value judgment. In the good-old days it was the religion and the Brahmin class. In the modern society it is the government and the legal system that decides on the good and the bad. (While this is not a subject matter of this note, we may also note here that other extra-constitutional entities such as religion and caste, village elders, etc. still continue to have a control over social consciousness over these matters.)

The legislature of the day in a democratic country is popularly elected. The electoral process is nevertheless imperfect. The mandate is for a broad set of core policies. Every government, however, gives itself some leeway as far as far as making laws on some other issues which are not a part of core policies. The fact that there is no explicit opposition to such an issue either indicates acceptance or indifference. The fact that there is neither acceptance – is a sure sign of a social indifference to such an issue. A case in point here is the law requiring Marathi name-boards on shops in Mumbai. The fact that there was neither opposition, nor acceptance from the general population and that too over such a prolonged span of time despite attempts by some parties to rake up the issue over and over again, is an indication that as far as the people in general are concerned this is a non-issue, or atleast not a core issue over which they would bother to change the government. The society goes on following its own wishes in such matters. An intelligent government realizes this and is not very insistent on implementing such laws. One has to appreciate that if the government is serious on implementing such laws, it will have to undertake a reformist agenda. So, merely making laws against eve-teasing will not solve the problem. The government will have to convince and educate the people on the issue of dignity of women.

The question then is, how aggressive can the government get in imposing such a reformist agenda. In some cases, where there is clear violation of basic human rights, such as those regarding the treatment of women, the government may enjoy certain amount of freedom in being more aggressive about its agenda.

However, when it comes to cultural issues such as beliefs, language, religious practices, the answers are not simple. There can be a valid argument that these are matters of personal choice, and so long as one is not defaming any other religion or language, a person should enjoy freedom of choice in these matters. The state will certainly enjoy the right to punish a person who causes bodily hurt to another person in the name of religion, for example in cases of human or animal sacrifice, sati, unjust treatment to women, etc. But can the state resort to punishment in case a person refuses to believe in a particular religion or refuses to speak a particular language. To what extent can the State be insistent on such issues? Does the State have any role to play in such matters at all?

Which brings us to our next point – attempts being made by some of the elements to “preserve” culture. Is culture some solidified entity, a thing which can be captured and pickled and preserved? According to me any attempt at “preserving” culture are by very definition working against the interests of that culture. Culture is an organic entity, the contours of which are dynamically decided by millions of people thru their millions of day-to-day actions. It is a flow, which keeps moving, and while on the move keeps assimilating and in the process growing. The end result is an entity which is a continuation of its previous form and which is at the same time a totally changed being. Any attempt at arresting or reversing this flow under the garb of State or elite enforced “preservation” is bound to lead to death of that culture.

The very attempt to present a culture as some integrated, whole and homogenous thing – “thingification” as one of my friend likes to call this process – is in itself illusory. If one looks at Marathi Culture during times of Dnyaneshwar, Shivaji, Lokmanya Tilak, Vasantrao Naik and Sharad Pawar, one will notice that there were atleat as much points of differentiation as there were similarities in the contours of Marathi culture and society during each of these times. Also, even within these times, there have been differences between various regions of Maharashtra, as they are even to this day. So do we continue to be the same culture? I am sure Dnyaneshwar, if he was reborn during any of these times would have felt equally strange in his motherland.

Another important point to note in this phenomenon is the change in language. It is often mentioned that language is the primary identity of societies and therefore societies are often referred to on the basis of the language that they speak.  While I am not a linguist, however, as a lay observer, I find that most of the words used in Dnyaneshwari are not in use among the Marathi speaking population today. An average Marathi speaking person cannot understand the book without a tutor. Does it not mean that the language of Dnyaneshwari is as foreign to me as any other language of the world? One may argue that linguistically the Marathi spoken in Maharashtra today is an evolution of the Marathi used by Dnyaneshwar. But then so do many other languages have similar roots in the Indo-Arabic family.

So are we trying to say that for the last 800 years since Dnyaneshwar the Marathi rulers have not made an attempt to preserve the language, and therefore, the wrong needs to be set right?

One has to realize that culture, language, etc. are living and dynamic entities. They cause an impact and they get affected by the techno-socio-politico-economic realities around them. It is impossible to live in isolation and it is impossible to remain unaffected. The pace of change during the recent years may have us stumped at times. We, as a society may be discarding some of traditional values and systems without much thought. A case, therefore, can be made for a more involved social debate in these matters.

But without such a process, to declare the intention to “preserve” a culture or any part of it is nothing short of a fascist tendency. More worrisome is the fact that such an approach is more likely to lead to stagnation and death rather than preservation and growth.

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