Self-reliance of intellectuals

After completing my Masters at IIT Bombay and before joining my new job at Noida, I was at home when my mother asked me about my classmates : where are they and what are they doing. I told her that I know few of them and  most of them are in ‘videsh’ (read Europe or US) for work or higher studies. On this she made a pitiful face and said with a deep sympathy, ‘Ha! Aur tu yahi rah gaya!’ (Ha!  And you remained here [in India].) Anyone who has taken any of his degree from a reputed Indian campus know how ubiquitous and strong such expectation is in our style of society. It comes from not only parents but also larger society. The love for ‘videsh’ is immense in rural India but it is no less intense in the most self-congratulatory class of our society, namely our intellectuals, though many of them love to criticize West.

I could not help thinking about it when I was reading this article by a noted activist in EPW where he was bitterly criticising the pathetic dependence of Indian intellectuals in general, and Indian universities in particular on Western ideas. His history revealed that author of ‘Homo Faber’ discovered his Indian roots and pride when he was broadening his mind in Europe during his doctoral studies.

These days I move in a social circle consists almost entirely of a university campus. Thanks to Prof. Andre Beteille writing, I have developed some interest in middle class and its institutes and here we see some of the most curious reactions towards the West. The rural and semi-urbane India have accepted the supremacy of West and their own inferiority; and they (like my parents) accept it passively without showing any discomfort. But the urbane middle class, although under the Western spell, shows a remarkable ambivalence towards West. On one hand they vehemently oppose so-called western values and ideas, and on other hand, they chase successful NRI’s as national symbols — many of them are not even remotely Indians e.g. Sunita Williams. In the past, Nirad C. Chaudhary pointed it out rather bitterly. Our sociologist Ashish Nandy has reflected on it [1]. These patterns are not restricted to Indian society; they are present in all countries which were defeated and colonized by Western powers. A Turkish novelist puts it like this,

The upper classes of most of the non-western world legitimise their power and wealth saying to their people “Oh, we aren’t like you. We are westernised and European and we are civilised because we have Western education and we wear western clothes.” But then faced with criticism from Europe over human rights or free speech they say “Oh but we are not like you because we are Indian or Chinese, we have old traditions, different measurements and our culture is different. We are ancient civilisations so our societies have to be seen and measured differently.”

Some of this ambivalence is natural. We draw away from Western ideas because they make us dependent and corrode the dignity of national experience but we also draw back to them because of their universal scope and amplitude. On one hand we write essays denouncing our fellow intellectuals for their dependence on West, on the other hand, we build our arguments with long quotations from Western authorities. Our ambivalence deepens every day and with it declines our capacity to face the truth about our predicament.

Some of this criticism is perhaps healthy. It is all to good if our intellectuals take a critical view of themselves; and do not isolate themselves from the larger world or become completely dependent on ideas grown outside the country. The root cause of it lies in our close encounter of the West and goes back to the nationalist movement of pre-independence days which created an intelligentsia whose heirs we find around us today. The worst expression of it we see very often; the best of it we see in the personality of people like Nehru. Nehru tried to be sincere to himself when he was caught in the dilemma. After returning from Cambridge, he wrote, ‘But now I have returned for good and I am afraid, as I landed at Bombay, I was bit of a prig with little to command me.‘ This feeling was strong but it was not strong enough to prevent him from sending his only child for education to a school in Switzerland and a college in Oxford. The grandchildren were also sent abroad when the freedom was won and new India was being built.

During the struggle for independence, some of them genuinely found it hard to pursue their studies in India. In twenties and thirties, many young Indians, often from privileged homes, were fired by ideals of nationalism while still in college. And they sought to encounter the rulers not only in its political but also in it intellectual form. In some extreme cases they gave up their studies for English run institutes were the closest experience with an alien institute. But some of them, no less nationalists than others, found their ways into universities of England where they completed their studies. No doubt that Englishmen in England were more pleasant than Englishmen in India and universities in England were less inefficient and more liberal than universities in India. But there were many other advantages of English education : it enlarged one’s mind and prepared better for a career, whether in colonial government or opposition.

After the independence, context and possibility are changed but pattern of our mind did not. Since independence, our policymakers, planners, and politicians have been doing two things : publicly arranging for a vast expansion of higher education for people of this country, and privately arranging for their heirs to be educated in US and Europe. One of our intellectual wrote in his memoirs of listening to a speech of an educationist at his university, ‘pleading that we become self reliant in our education here and now; and learning a few months later that he is arranging to send his daughter to Cambridge, having sent his son there few years previously.

Their sons and daughters are now back among us having become more proud of their foreign degrees and more combative than their parents in denouncing the implementation of foreign ideas in their glorious motherland. A sociologist has noted the following about our Western-educated citizens.

Since they have had the advantage of an education abroad, they naturally know a great deal about the weaknesses of this kind of education, and its inadequacies in coping with the problems that beset our style of society. These these weakness and inadequacies have been exposed for a fairly long time. But all of this does not prevent the very person who does the exposing to try all over again to send their cousins for higher studies abroad…

Reason behind such a high appetite for foreign degree among Indians become more visible when we notice that a huge premium is put of foreign degrees. A foreign degree is not only appreciated by those who know nothing of that the particular type of education, it is also given an added advantage in employment on our institutes of government and higher learning. I’ll speak nothing of public which become either subservient or combative in front of a white man, but one can not but alarmed at a peculiar ambivalence, not to mention hypocrisy, among those who run our educational institutes.

Our chancellors and vice-chancellors make heroics claims of parity between their own and foreign institutions. They claim that products of their institute are as good as the best in the world. But, then, why they give the same added advantage to a foreign degree which was given to them when they were appointed? If our products are still very inferior then why do they make such fraudulent claims of parity on their behalf? And if they are equally good or nearly as good then why they put such a high premium on degree from MIT or Harvard or Cambridge while making new appointments? The nationalist rhetoric of ‘our product are equally good’ no doubt serves some useful political purpose of some, but it unnecessarily blur the policy of appointments. The social networks through which the advantages of foreign degree are taken and given are complex and run very deep in our society, though they are not difficult to detect and expose.

Young people in our universities and colleges, no matter how idealists, are very much aware of this high amount of premium put on foreign degrees. This makes them mix a certain amount of cunning with their idealism if any. As long as they are India, the most articulate among them will complain about the imperialism — academic or otherwise — and how it is polluting their nation. How the science and scholarship of the nation is controlled by the puppets of the West. But all of it vanishes when he comes to the age of going abroad for higher studies. Perhaps their elders should take blame for most of this, but one can not help but struck by the cold-bloodedness with which our young put aside their ideals once a good chance to go abroad comes their way. Although on my campus, IIT Bombay, two things are different. Firstly, students use their seniors rather than elders to figure out openings in universities abroad and second, there is no visible idealism on IITs. The ecosystem of IITs does not make students very conscious of any hypocrisy when they go abroad. If there was some concern in the past, it has been removed by movies like Swadesh. They fancy themselves in a world where an NRI is a messiah who alone can solve the problems of resident Indians. Although there is something which still troubles them for they feel the need to justify why they are leaving when they get the chance, even though no one really wonders why.

The difference between Nehru generation and mine is that in the past declaration of sympathy for one’s nation was genuinely risky. People were locked up or sent in exile whenever they pushed their limits. Whereas today it is almost compatible with – indeed a useful aid in – making one’s career. When our intellectual leaders privately send their children abroad, they must be considering advantages for their children careers. And when they make public declaration of their immense faith in nation’s institutes, they must be aware that this is an aid to their own career. If there is some idealism in it, it is an idealism that is easy to combine with self-interest. Moreover, Nehru generation maintained a civilised dignity about this for they could make a vocation out of their ideals. The case of my generation Western-educated intelligentsia is different and hard to maintain. It must be very hard for them to reconcile with the demand of their ideals and the demand of their career in an honest way. As the gap between their private deeds and public utterance become wider, their voices become shrill and pugnacious. However on campuses like mine, where students care more of their interests than ideals, there is no public display of such dichotomy.

Indians, those have lived abroad for a long time – I come across them more often these days – tend to be super-patriot and nationalist. They find it amusing, on their return to India, to pretend to go native all over again. They poke fun at others, more superficially exposed to West and less sophisticated than they, for aping the habits and ways of West. Curiously, they frown upon the young when they see them motivated by the same reasons with which they were motivated when they applied abroad. There is little harm in it as long as it is done to enliven social chit-chat. But when it turns into a ideology, and all ideology in India invariably turns into playthings, it can be used for some unsuspected political use. No one saw it better than Nehru, nationalism is a dangerous ideology for intellectuals to play with. For nationalism has many faces and not all of them are equally uplifting.


[1] See ‘The intimate enemy’ by Ashish Nandy and ‘Ditchotomy in Hindu Life and its impact on India’s external relations’ by Nirad. C. Chaudhary (published in Quest, Reprinted in, ‘The best of Quest’).
[2] Intellectual cultures, Andre Beteille, June 24, 1974, Times of India.
[3] Edward Shils interviewed hundreds on Indian intellectuals when he visited in India in late 70s. He had written two papers on it. See ‘The culture of the Indian intellectual’, The Sewanee Review, Vol 67, No 2.


Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

4 thoughts on “Self-reliance of intellectuals”

  1. I don't understand this NEHRU fascination in india. When i was kid, my house had mini library filled with nehru and M.K. Gandhi books. I read one or two pages of discovery of india and gandhi stuff, i got bored and never read that bookish stuff. Everyone in my family and in my school was fascinated with Gandhi and Nehru writings but they never intrested me cuz I FELT GANDHI AND NEHRU WERE MORE POLITICIANS THAN LEADERS. THATS WHAT MY INSTINCT SAYS. Hmm am a instinctive person who likes own ideas aka thinking instead depending on others thoughts .i used to skip republic day and independence day celebrations in my school cuz i din't find any reason to celebrate cuz i don't find that patriotism in day to day life.and i don't like giving speeches or talking about gandhi and nehru.being a telugu guy,let me give example of so called pseudo intellectualism of nehru.when nehru visited andhra on occasion of andhra-telangana union ,he gave a speech which says,ANDHRA AND TELANGANA MERGER IS LIKE A MARRIAGE BETWEEN MISCHIEVOUS BOY AND AN INNOCENT GIRL ,THEY CAN DIVORCE WHEN THEY DON'T WISH TO BE TOGETHER OR FIND IT COMPATIBLE.till date the corrupt politicians are fighting over telangana by using this mindless statement made by stupid nehru.well you can find western influence on nehru without understanding local sensibilities.divorce doesn't belong to indian culture.nehru was ignorant of true indian culture which is dravidian and originates from south india.nehru is no different from danny boyle of slum dog people know what intellectualism is?i define intellectual as a person who has clarity in every aspect of life and this clarity comes when you lead flawless life.flawless life is not superhuman,its just applying your school lessons to society which you have read in your school books and bedtime moral stories told by your parents. INDIANS LACK CLARITY ABOUT THEIR CULTURE AND ARE CONFUSED HOW TO ADOPT TO WESTERN INFLUENCE WITHOUT LOSING THEIR BASIC INDIAN CULTURE.

  2. after going through ur entire blog(reading most of ur articles)…i'm in a state of dilemma regarding ur current state of worki) are u doing phd or working in a company..possibly in an IT?ii)if ur working in an firm…thn wat about the real zeal and passion u had towards research which u very well articualted in ur previous blogs. Did money changed ur mind?

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