I recently wrote a piece in a Delhi magazine about a Bangalore-based holy man lobbying for the Nobel Peace Prize. Among the mails I received was one which enclosed, as proof of the holy man’s holiness, the English translation of an article in an obscure Finnish weekly which praised him and his works. My article had made it plain that I too counted Bangalore as my home town and place of residence. Why then did the correspondent suppose that I would place the verdict of a Finnish magazine above the evidence of my own eyes?
This exchange confirmed, once again, a theory I have long held about our self-proclaimed patriots—that the more Indian and the more Hindu they claim to be, the more they seek and need certificates from white men. At the height of the Ayodhya movement, the Sangh Parivar circulated, at vast expense, the writings of an obscure Belgian ex-priest which claimed that Hindus had been victimized for thousands of years by Muslims and Christians, and that destroying a mosque, building a temple in its place, and sacrificing thousands of (mostly innocent) lives along the way was the only way that this cumulative historical injustice could be avenged.
This ex-priest had little training as a historian, and even less credibility. But unlike the other similarly untrained ideologues of the Hindu right, his citizenship was not Indian, but Belgian. The hope was that the colour of his skin would trump the shallowness of his arguments.
As it happens, the hunger for foreign, and specifically Western, certifications runs deep among the Indian left as well. In 1991, the Government of India initiated a wideranging policy of market-friendly economic reforms. The argument for these reforms was that they would stimulate innovation and productivity, and hence incomes and jobs; the argument against them, that they would enrich only a small section of the population and widen social inequalities. It was a debate well worth pursuing, for there was (and is) something to be said for both sides.
In the first few years of the reforms, the polemics were particularly intense. Then they seemed to die down, in part because the media put its not inconsiderable weight behind the opening up of the economy. Now, in a bid to revive the debate and shore up the credibility of the anti-free-marketeers, the Indian Marxists invited a white man to come speak for their side. Unlike the Hindutva-leaning Belgian ex-priest, he was a figure of some intellectual significance, a Professor at the Massachussets Institute of Technology, no less.
The chair that this man commanded at the MIT was in the field of Linguistics. It was a professorship he had earned many times over, for he had transformed our understanding of how humans acquire the elements of language and how they communicate it. In later years, this man had turned from scientific studies of language to activist analyses of international politics. In this sphere his writings were more controversial—while some admired him for exposing the imperialist intent of American foreign policy, others pointed out that in criticizing his government he had sometimes come close to defending the indefensible actions of countries other than the United States.
Anyway, Noam Chomsky—to give the man his name—had two rather different intellectual reputations, of which the one in political commentary was somewhat more contested than the one in linguistics. However, in the field of economic analysis he had no reputation at all. Moreover, he had never visited India and knew no Indian language. These twin disadvantages did not deter his Indian hosts, nor, it must be said, did they deter Chomsky himself. He visited a few cities in India, met a few English-speaking left-wing intellectuals, and professed himself satisfied as to the utter unsuitability of the economic reforms in India.
Like the extreme ends of the spectrum, the political centre too is scarcely immune from the search for Western approval. At about the same time that Noam Chomsky visited India, Jeffrey Sachs, then a Professor at the equally prestigious Harvard University, came here at the invitation of the Congress-led Government in New Delhi. After a few conversations in hotels and offices in the capital, he spoke out, as his hosts naturally expected him to do, in favour of the reforms.
Admittedly, as a professor of economics rather than linguistics, Sachs was slightly better qualified than Chomsky in this particular field of enquiry. The operative word here may be ‘slightly’: for Sachs too had no knowledge of India, while his previous experience of foreign consulting had been to advise the post-Soviet Government to undertake the ‘shock therapy’ of going from total state control to total state withdrawal, a policy which had quite disastrous consequences.
Why do Indians, of all shades of opinion, left, right and centre, so desperately seek approval, for their actions and their prejudicies, for their policies and their politics, from white men of uncertain knowledge and credibility? I ask this question not out of arrogance but in humility–for as a writer who lives in India, I am not wholly immune from this craving myself.