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A Different Take: Colonial lens creates distorted image

India New England, Issue Date: August 16-31, 2007, Posted On: 8/24/2007

By Bal Ram Singh

Some time in early April 2001, I recall William Bulger, the astute Massachusetts politician-turned-president of the University of Massachusetts, talking at a function honoring faculty and staff, when he brought up a joke about the then Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci. Paul Cellucci had resigned the governorship to take up the post of U.S. ambassador to Canada. Bulger started his address by mentioning that he had called Cellucci the previous night, to ask him to get some outstanding issues resolved for the university before he left for Canada.

Taking a dig at the general knowledge of the Republican governor, Bulger revealed the governor’s response. “Billy, I am very busy packing for my new assignment. You must realize that this is my first overseas assignment, and I need to prepare for it very carefully.”

I was reminded of this joke recently when I received my overseas citizen of India card from the New York consulate. I chuckled at the general knowledge of Indian bureaucrats (the IAS cadre, considered the cream of the society) for their choice of the word “overseas” for foreigners, or for people of Indian origin living abroad. While NRIs in the United States will be fine with tag, since they are actually over “seas,” those in Europe or Asia will have a difficult time justifying the label. Its Hindi translation, “videshi Bharatiya Naagarik,” is no better, and is actually an oxymoron.  How can one be “Videshi (foreigner)” and “Bharatiya (Indian)” at the same time?

As I paused to understand this type of intellectual bankruptcy in a land known historically for its intellectual prowess in the origin of languages of philosophy (Sanskrit) and sciences (mathematics), I realized this phenomenon must have started a long time ago, and was even prevalent amongst leaders of India’s independence.

At that time the word citizen was translated into the word “naagarik” when 90 percent of its population lived in villages. “Nagar” means city, and given India’s concept of lifestyle, the word “citizen” was not appropriate. 

Many Indian words — Desi, Bharatvasi, Bharatiya — could have easily been appropriately used, even if they did not want to say “grameen (villager)” of India.

The word citizen was expedient, convenient, and acceptable to westernized Indian intellectuals then, and so our westernized leaders readily promoted it, with no consideration to either intellectual or social implications in India. In addition to not being reflective of reality, it set out wrong policies in India, ignoring Gandhi’s vision of empowering villages.

Consequently, today India’s cities are unmanageable centers of corruption, pollution (both physical and cultural) and social evils (such as dowry deaths, female foeticide, prostitution etc.).

Today, many of the practices of India’s traditions are ignored. If these continue to be ignored, there is a danger not only to Indian society but also to the survival of the planet itself, given the abuse of planetary resources.

This is just one example of how adoption of an alien concept, no matter how much practical and convenient, leads to long-term trouble.  It also shows us how India’s ethos remains trampled within its social and political life, as a result of adopting western political systems and blindly applying their terminologies of secularism and citizenship.Caution is thus needed in promoting quick and expedient adoption of alien concepts to one’s own life. It holds people back from becoming their own definition, a concept that is essential for freedom, independence, and innovation, needed for the progress of any society.

These ideas are not only relevant to Indians or NRIs but also to the whole world. Today’s world, facilitated by the Internet, media, and frequent travel, is fast turning into a globalized society, where it is becoming increasingly important to know one another reliably, without any prejudice. Useful ideas from all corners of the world are needed to move forward in a sustainable way.

Intellectual competence and integrity is as critical for the largest democracy, India, as it is for the oldest, the United States. American society, with its history of freedom and civil rights movements, expects from and relies upon its intellectuals, both within the academia and outside, to provide such knowledge about the world, including other civilizations.

Indian civilization, although quite ancient yet living, has been unfortunately seen from a colonial lens by the western world for a long time. However, that lens is obviously neither appropriate nor applicable in today’s world where direct information is freely available. This is causing a conflict between the old guard of slow information and limited knowledge in the academia and public which quite often also consists of people about whom the knowledge is still being formulated using those old lenses. This phenomenon couldn’t be more acute for Indians. With a diaspora of about 25 million spread throughout the world, their written history and culture have been controlled by outsiders for almost a millennium, most lately by the Western world. A sharp increase in the presence and accomplishments of Indians (consisting largely of Hindus) in the western world has forced an intellectual showdown between the old beholders of knowledge in the academia and the young and vibrant community.

A new book “Invading the Sacred” (edited by Dr. Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio T. de Nicolas and Aditi Banerjee) released in July 2007 is a first serious, albeit provocative, effort to challenge the parochial characterization of Hindus by western or westernized scholars. The book is path-breaking and takes to task those scholars who have been engaged in false stereotyping of Indian culture, and shows the importance of challenging such biases. It will hopefully lead to a more balanced and respectful discourse, debate, and discussion, on many issues facing humanity as a whole, for which much information is available in the Indic civilization.

It is in this context that use of words, values, traditions, cultures, and civilizations should be viewed in the globalized world today. Indians must do their part by learning, practicing, and asserting their traditions for the global good. 


Bal Ram Singh is the director of the Center of Indic Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He can be reached at bsingh@umassd.edu.

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