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A HISTORIC SHIFT - The visible and invisible costs of offending an ascendant India

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  • Published 26.01.07

At 57, India is a middle-aged republic, a nuclear-weapons state and a country, which — say market forecasters — could even outpace the American economy by 2050. Today’s India is a far cry from the one which gave itself an enlightened Constitution in 1950, but whose future as a united, democratic nation was mired in uncertainty. Yes, India has travelled a long distance, negotiated many obstacles — some deftly and others less so — and arrived at a point where the future of our children seems far rosier than ours had ever been. Three decades ago, no January 26 or August 15 was complete without some notable pontificating: Whither India? Today, few deem the country to be at the crossroads; India is on a roll.

This gung-ho assertiveness was in evidence last week over a British television programme which intelligent people would balk at. Reality TV is one of those cretinous American inventions aimed at satisfying the voyeuristic instincts of the bored and the stupid. A handful of strangers — some of them minor celebrities — are enticed by handsome fees to spend weeks under the same roof, with every movement and conversation telecast to millions of gaping viewers. The idea is to generate a hothouse effect which will bring out the worst in any human being. Reality TV thrives on displays of pettiness, conflict and abuse — everything that constitutes bad neighbourliness. It caters to the underside of a society that believes restraint clashes with liberty.

Taking the cue from British Asians who got all worked up over the Bollywood star, Shilpa Shetty, being picked on by at least two of the other contestants, India reacted with indignation over what it perceived as vile British racism. There was anger over Shilpa being allegedly called a ‘Paki’ — Channel Four later clarified that she was actually told “See you next Tuesday”; the anger mounted when she was also described as “the Indian” and had “Poppadum” suffixed to her name; and the threshold of liberal tolerance was crossed when her culinary abilities and eating habits were called into question. Some 30,000 complaints were received by the TV watchdog body.

The main culprit was Jade Goody, a loudmouth from Bermondsey who, in earlier episodes, imagined that Saddam Hussein was the name of a boxer. Jade laid into a bewildered and frightened Shilpa with the vehemence of a polecat or, if you prefer, the lager lout who has seen his football team thrashed 3-0 in a home game.

It was a veritable clash of civilizations. There was the demure Shilpa, elegantly wrapped in a throw and speaking the convent English like any well brought-up Indian lady, being confronted with the Saturday night aggression of a proud-to-be-working-class monster. Shilpa was a throwback to what the poet Philip Larkin called the pre-1963 England; Jade, flaunting a needlessly low-cut dress, epitomized contemporary, post-deference Britain. Racism or not, Celebrity Big Brother gave us a valuable glimpse of an uncouth class war.

In the past, cultural outbursts which incorporated racial prejudice would have, at best, led to a bout of tut-tutting in India. For centuries, racism was something that Indians naturally expected from Britons. From the whites-only clubs that dotted pre-Independence India — in some cases these persisted till the Sixties — to the humiliation heaped on the natives throughout the 190-year Raj, India has had a rich experience of imperial power being complemented by racial effrontery. In a persistent display of schizophrenia, Britons combined a real love for India and their Indian servants with an abiding contempt for Indian values.

For instance, Rudyard Kipling believed Indians were blessed with “an absolute incapacity for speaking the truth”. In his convocation address to Calcutta University in 1905, Lord Curzon bluntly asserted that “truth took a high place in the moral codes of the West before it had been similarly honoured in the East, where craftiness and diplomatic wile have always been held in much repute”. The irony is that Curzon also believed that it was unbecoming of Indians to become too Anglicized; while imbibing Western knowledge, they must, he felt, be rooted in their own culture and religion. On his part, Lord Cornwallis, in the employment of an East India Company that made corruption into a fine art, didn’t blink from asserting, “Every native of Hindustan, I verily believe, is corrupt.”

Racial put-down was an important instrument of imperial control. The Indian Empire, where the Briton was outnumbered by Indians as much as 700:1, would have been impossible to run if the natives didn’t also hold the foreign rulers in awe. This explains why Britons were innately uneasy with Indians who could outdo them in Englishness. It took a lot of soul-searching on the part of the university authorities before Ranjitsinhji, for example, was allowed to play cricket for Cambridge. The novelist Paul Scott’s account of the visceral antipathy between Hari Kumar, the English public school-educated journalist and Ronald Merrick, the not-so-pukka English police officer, was an example of race, class and culture clashing to create a bloody mess.

For most Indians, this meek acquiescence in racial subordination was partly a consequence of Hindu political subjugation for six centuries before Plassey. Equally important was the fact that after the Industrial Revolution, Britain acquired a dynamism, which Indian indigenous institutions found impossible to match. The bitter truth is that this imbalance persisted even after Independence when Indians still felt inadequate economically, intellectually, and even on the cricket field. In occupying the lowest rung of the labour market, the first wave of Indian immigrants till the mid-Seventies replicated the skewed power relations that existed during the Empire.

Even something as horrific as the virginity tests conducted on some Indian women visa-applicants didn’t become an international scandal because New Delhi lacked the requisite self-assurance to stand up for its own citizens. At that juncture, India needed Britain far more than Britain bothered about Indian sensitivities. It was racism no doubt, but it also reflected socialist India’s pathetic standing in the world. Till India’s entrepreneurs and professionals began turning the world upside down in the mid-Nineties, an Indian passport was an object of derision in the consular sections of Western embassies. And remember the ship-to-mouth existence of the Sixties which the aid agencies loved to paint?

For Jade, things haven’t really changed and India is still the proverbial area of darkness. To the British establishment, however, the outrage in India over insults hurled at Shilpa was a matter of concern. Having missed the bus in China, a much more market-savvy Britain wants to be in partnership with an economically resurgent India. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, but India clearly has the upper hand. India has a wide choice of potential partners, but Britain is not so favourably placed. This explains why everyone from the prime minister, Tony Blair, and the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, to the directors of Carphone Warehouse came down on Channel Four like a ton of bricks. They had one simple message: get the loudmouth Jade off the screen.

What was remarkable about the Big Brother controversy that hit India last week was the ease and promptness with which it was resolved. Equally astonishing was the absence of anyone significant standing up for the right of the ignorant to be obnoxious. Even David Irving had more defenders than Jade Goody.

Was this revulsion evidence of the multicultural Cool Britannia that Blair promised to create? It may well be. This Republic Day, however, it seems a case of a West suddenly counting the visible and invisible costs of offending an ascendant India and its people. It’s a historic shift.