The Telegraph
Monday , April 2 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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No longer a cultured people

‘It is hard to believe that the same people dwell in a city like Guwahati, with its piles of rotting garbage strewn upon roadsides...”

Culture is an existential determinism for an individual or a society. One must, however, first understand the nuance of the term itself in order to judge whether an individual or a society can be deemed “cultured”.

At the individual level it is not merely the possession of “taste” for art forms or the ability to paint or sculpt or write poetry which determines whether a person is truly cultured or not. Culture at the personal level, in fact, implies an attitude towards life which comprehends that one is a member of a society and must respect the needs and rights of other members of society.

It is this ability to balance one’s own needs with those of others which lies at the cultural core; the moment the balance begins to tilt towards one’s own way at the expense of others, philistinism begins.

Thus, to be educated is not necessarily to be cultured. This is testified to by the fact that often the so called “cream” of society displays unacceptable boorish behaviour, while on many occasions illiterate segments show a civic consciousness which is indubitably a benchmark of culture.

Similarly, the possession of a rich literary tradition or a body of performing arts by a specific community does not automatically imply that it is a cultured society. At the community level, a truly cultured society is one where individual rights are respected, irrespective of religion, language, economic background.

When positive values degenerate — for instance, when it loses its secular character — society can no longer call itself cultured, no matter how many classical dance forms it might have or how many musical icons it may have produced. Culture is a binding force within a specific community. It invests individual members of the community with certain common traits and a common ethos, thereby giving them a specific identity. Cultural degeneration occurs in a society not when, for instance, items of folk or high culture become endangered or are vulgarly commercialised.

It occurs when positive traits are neutralised and there is vulgarisation of the common ethos. Assamese society had once prided itself as a cultured society. Justifiably so, because it exhibited traits denoting genuine culture.

One example of such positive elements was the goodwill, tolerance and respect that different religious communities displayed towards each other. It was one of the few regions in the nation free from communal clashes. It, too, was a society where the minorities were absolutely integrated into the social mainstream and made enormous contribution to every aspect of society, literature, music, arts, service to the community, medicine.

We, of the older generation, grew up within such a tolerant and liberal environment within which one’s religion was an insignificant factor in building up of friendship or social inter-exchanges. Can we truthfully assert that the same liberal environment persists in contemporary Assam?

Demagogues have succeeded in converting what had basically been a demographic issue into a religious one. In the process religious tolerance, which is the hallmark of true culture and was prevalent in Assam, has been replaced by the worst forms of bigotry and hatred.

That there have been communal clashes in Assam in the post-Independence period is no coincidence, the outcome of a changed ethos. It is indeed sad that a segment of the intelligentsia, which should have been at the forefront in the effort to regain the past liberal environment, have become victims of paranoia and exhibit hypocrisy on religious issues. Another positive aspect displayed by Assamese society in the past was egalitarianism, with very few, if any, social barriers existing between various segments. Since the economic gap between the so-called “haves” and the “have-nots” was not too wide, there was little evidence of economic exploitation.

The influence of Mahapurush Sankardev having to a large extent made barriers based on caste irrelevant, there was far greater internal democratisation of society than in other parts of India. We Assamese could be proud of the fact that the “caste” system prevalent in some other parts of India was notable in its absence in this state, as also such abhorrent systems as dowry. Ostentatious flaunting of wealth was frowned upon. Yet today, especially in urban conglomerates, unabashed flaunting has become a rule rather than an exception, opulence being synonymous with social “stature.” Crass poverty was unknown in rural areas because the community extended help in times of distress to economically challenged members. Yet today, Assam has one of the highest numbers of below-poverty line individuals in the nation.

In the past, honesty had been one of the traits of Assamese culture. Yet Assam at present holds the unenviable reputation of being the most corrupt state in India! A government job is viewed not as a means of social service but as a passport to acquire wealth; the lack of an acquisitive mentality has become an anachronism in today’s context.

It seems that in Assam everything and everyone can be bought for a price, as a visit to any government office will testify. The predilection for making easy money instead of sweating for one’s bread and butter has ensured that Assam has become one of the most crime-ridden states in the country. Changes in cultural traits are evident even in minor aspects.

For instance, earlier people from outside visiting Assam would be astonished at the penchant of the Assamese people for a clean environment. In towns and cities, dwellers worked hard to keep their own compounds as well as the neighbourhood clean. In rural areas, no matter how lowly a hut, one found it well maintained and clay floors well scrubbed.

It is hard to believe that the same people dwell in a city like Guwahati, with its piles of rotting garbage strewn upon roadsides, stinking drains and fly-infested markets! There has been a deleterious and dramatic transformation in every aspect of life in Assam, but undoubtedly the most disastrous change has been the loss of the atmosphere of peace and tranquillity that once reigned in this region.

To those of us who had grown up within the relative tranquillity which marked the decades immediately following Independence, with occasional hiccups like the Chinese aggression disturbing the peace for short spans, the atmosphere of murder and mayhem that prevails now seems to belong to another society. The region has spawned a high number of insurgent outfits, many of which are nothing but brigands in pseudo-patriotic guise. However, it is not only the insurgents who are responsible for reducing this once tranquil region into a hotbed of violence. One has only to look at any newspaper and read about everyday accounts of kidnapping, killing, community clashes, public violence on some pretext or the other, vandalism of public property to comprehend the depths to which our society has descended.

Yes, there was a time when we justifiably prided ourselves on being a cultured people! But, having lost almost all the positive elements in our societal ethos, we can no longer make such a claim. The transformation in Assamese society has been all too dramatic to be palatable to our generation. Naturally, we look to the younger generation to lift our society and recover the cultured ethos which had been an integral aspect of our identity. However, given the materialistic streak among today’s young generation and the intensely competitive, dog-eat-dog environment we have created for it, the prospects do not appear to be bright for the Assamese community.