Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Colonial Overhang and Emerging India

During April and May 2013, I travelled across India, covering about 10 cities over a few weeks, with two colleagues. My primary goal was to connect with educational institutions, who I wanted to partner with to deliver the courses we were developing then, mainly pathway qualifications that allowed an Indian student to study for the first couple of years of a Bachelors degree in India and enter an UK institution in the final year.  It was a trip full of stories, to be told over a lifetime, as we battled May heatwaves, managed erratic Indian transport and met a wide variety of people, businessmen, educators, students and parents. For my colleagues, exposed first time to India in all its intensity, it was exhausting and exasperating. For me, it was a rare opportunity to see India, and interior India and not just the posh parts of Mumbai or Delhi, with two vantage points all at once - from my own deeply Indian perspective, from the vantage point of my colleagues with whom I enjoyed a close and honest relationship. It did help further that one of my colleagues, my business partner then, was a white man of English origin, and another, a senior adviser and mentor who we both deeply respected for his knowledge and experience, was as eminently English as one could be in manners, culture and education, but of Mauritian heritage. The contrasting treatment three of us got on the street and in the meetings, and its variations in different parts of the country - North and South, Small City and Big City etc - taught me a lot about India which I did not know, could not see, before. 

For me, I see India in two different ways. This is intentional. I left behind a relatively comfortable life in India to embrace a combative and searching life abroad. Therefore, I never left India in a way. I retained my habits, practises, allegiances and passions exactly as they were, and attempted to see India from the outside, which is what the point of the journey was. This goal defined all I do - as my conversations and my work persistently sent me back to it - and I became somewhat an interlocutor. It is at the same time India was becoming more globalised. The first time in its history perhaps, when many young Indians worked in global organisations dealing with global colleagues and clients, Indian tourists jostling with the Chinese for selfies with Mona Lisa,  and for the first time, Indian migrants, some as students, some for work, settling in North America and Europe in large numbers. A range of India experts, those who sold an Insiders view of India to the Outsiders, were everywhere. I, in contrast, was trying to grasp the Outsiders view of India, trying to live an Outside-In perspective despite my deeply Indian personality. 

So, when, summarising the experiences during the tour of India, one of my colleagues reflected that he felt India has not been able to overcome its colonial hangover, it came not as a revelation but as a confirmation of what I was watching. What we saw, my colleague poignantly observed, is some sort of a pragmatic fetish, or fetishistic pragmatism. Most people we were talking to inquired whether we would have tutors from London, and the bold ones asked whether they would be white. Everyone thought going to UK to study would be attractive, but did not ask much about either about the courses or the experiences that the students would have. Many were keen for my white-skinned business partner to address their students, much to his discomfiture as my other colleague of Mauritian heritage was much better placed to do so. However, at the same time, one could see that this fetish did not translate into any kind of commitment. All the educated Indians we met were trying to do are farther their own agenda - either impress a student or to earn a few brownie points by association - by using the colonial overhang that my colleagues clearly noticed.

India is not yet free, we almost said, when we met a legislator in a Southern state. He was an educated man, a retired army officer, very well read and articulate. He stood out from the rest of the people we met, as he talked, almost incessantly, how great the Indian culture was, and about its different practices and commitments, in contrast with the West. While he was very helpful in making a lot of introductions, he was, at the same time, quite insistent that we should look to bring our technologies and practices to Indian institutions themselves, rather than trying to deliver Western qualifications through them. A lifelong member of the Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh (RSS), he wore Indian attire and ate vegetarian food - and introduced us to the finest Rajasthani food one can find in Bangalore. It was difficult to place him, and all the conversations we had, into the schema I was developing through the journey. His was a rejection of the West altogether and going back to a distant time when India was superior, and his objective in engaging with us is, as we figured out, to convince us of the view. 

This view, which is particularly ascendant as the middle classes in India grow in confidence, represents itself in the majoritarian ideology of the emergent India. My quest to develop an outside-in perspective is redundant to this view, as this superior India needs no reference from its outside, and is, indeed, quite ashamed of its colonial heritage. It is quite different from the pragmatic use of the colonial overhang that some others, particularly among the English-speaking classes in Delhi and Kolkata, which is quick to flaunt their Western connections, education, exposure or at least relatives staying abroad. Yet, this second view is also shaped by the colonial heritage as it seeks to invent a story of superiority, either by pure imagination (when fantasies of ancient literature are recycled as proof that everything, from Airplane to Plastic Surgery, was invented in Ancient India) or by false history (like the fabricated quotations from Lord Macaulay circulated on the Internet). In fact, this view is colonial heritage in the inverted form, one of denial that leads to the creation of an imagined identity, just as fabricated as that of the pragmatic anglophiles in the hallowed halls of Delhi.

While in India, it was impossible for me to live outside these two competing paradigms, which the outsiders view affords me now. And, that, I shall claim, provides a third perspective, which, influential as it was at the conception of the Indian republic, has been subsumed in the two dominant views, that of an India comfortable about itself. This was a supranational idea of India, India as an idea or a civilisation rather than a nation in the European sense, that stood outside either the fetish about the West (and cynical attempts to exploit it) or its rejection. This is the idea one can found in the writings of Tagore, or in the texts such as Discovery of India by Nehru, wherein a historical idea of India at peace with the world, and indeed, as a great melting pot, was the keystone of identity. Seen this way, instead of a journey to freedom and self-confidence, the journey of emerging India has been to the opposite direction - to try to fit itself into a world defined by Western parameters, to be a nation in that exclusive, primarily European sense, which comes with either a smug cynicism about all things outside, or its complete rejection.

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