Closing of The Indian Mind: 2

In trying to explore the roots of the 'closed mind' - the inhospitable environment for new ideas in India - I concluded earlier that this has nothing to do with an unique Indian character, culture or religion; it is not, as some observers put it, a result of India's Hindu heritage, nor a throwback from the Islamic conquest and domination. It is rather a legacy of the transformation of India in the mid- to late-Nineteenth century, when India was reconfigured after the Victorian laws and ideas, and it developed a 'colonial mind'. (See the earlier post here) In this configuration, the ideas reside elsewhere - in the metropolitan centre in London - and India is a mere receptor and Indians are recipients of new ideas, not their originators. An Indian idea, to be accepted in India, had to be first accepted in the West; an Indian intellectual needed the blessings of the metropolis to be considered a success (hence, Swami Vivekananda's address in Chicago made a difference, and Nobel Prize made Indians recognise Tagore).

Ironically, in Indian history, Mid-Nineteenth Century is celebrated as one of progress, rather than subjugation. In the narrative chronology of British India, the moment of humiliation was a century earlier - in the middle of Eighteenth Century - when the English East India company became a vassal state of the Mughal Empire, taking over Bengal, one of the richest provinces in the country. However, while the company had some impressive military victories around the time, it was neither the pre-eminent military power in Indian Subcontinent - that would be the Marathas even after the defeat in the hands of the Afghans - nor they would have the kind of cultural influence they were later believed to have had. The early company administrators were trying to adopt to India, learning its languages and following its laws, giving primacy to the existing scribal classes who conducted their business in Persian, the language of the Mughal empire. And, despite its decadence, the 'location of culture' in India in the Eighteenth century was still Agra, Lucknow, Nadia in Bengal and various centres of Tamil cultures, not Calcutta and its English education. This would all change in the next half century, when a new, English educated Hindu Indian middle class will emerge,whose ideas would be shaped, and limited, by the colonial experience, and whose education would primarily be for company's employment. In a way, the location of culture would now be England (and not Scotland, despite the strong Scottish influence in early English education in India).

However, my argument is not about foreign influence closing the Indian mind. That would be ironic, because foreign influence is supposed to achieve just the opposite. It is not the foreign influence in itself, but rather its purpose and its working, and this is why I would locate the 'closed mind' in the latter half of the nineteenth century rather than its earlier years. English education in India became popular among Hindus, particularly in Company administered areas, as it allowed them to look for employment with the company, while the Muslim inhabitants of the same areas steadfastly refused to sign up for the same (despite the company's efforts to co-opt the 'ruling classes', i.e., the Muslim aristocracy, in its early administration) and they stuck to Persian, which was still the language of the courts. The early decades of Nineteenth century mark a period of experimentation in English language education - rapid spread of English medium schools and new private institutions, all set up by private initiative - the main beneficiary of which were the Hindu population (with some notable exceptions). However, this period of experimentation was over, and the new Imperial state intervened to impose a structure and define the content of education, in the immediate aftermath of Sepoy Mutiny and disbandment of the Mughal Empire. This was not just foreign influence: This was foreign education, primarily on English laws, Science and Engineering, designed to create an Educated class of Indian who are completely disconnected from their own countrymen. And, this - the purported act of creating an educated class who would be disconnected from their own surrounding - is the key to my 'closed mind' thesis.

And, indeed, this continued post-Independence, as India essentially continued the colonial format of creating an elite, educated class, a contingent of captains of the public economy, as was the stated goal of establishment of the IITs. It was not universal education, nor a Liberal one, such as the one tried out by early Colonists in America: The goal of Indian education, after Independence, was not citizenship or inclusion, but technical mastery. And, the ideas revolved around Western skills and cultures: Well-educated Indians prided themselves on speaking better English than Englishmen (it did not matter that their benchmarks were often set against the state-educated commoner rather than classics trained elite) and the success of IITs were measured in terms of the success of their alumni in California, and in global corporations, rather than their impact on Indian society. The Indian public debates were shaped around 'foreigners know better' assumptions, and even when the foreigners were  replaced by English-speaking Indians, the local knowledge, the sort of sweat-and-grime thing that makes innovation and new ideas possible, were totally excluded from the conversation.

Indeed, one could plausibly argue that India is in the middle of total inversion of this culture. The technocratic vision of India has failed, with its English educated elite discrediting itself, and a popular rebellion is now underway: A Hindu nationalist hegemony is in the making in Indian politics, and a nationalist upsurge locates the Indian culture firmly back in the country's past. But this still revolves around the ideas of an elite, defining Indian history around the Hindu-Muslim faultline just as told by Colonial administrators, and following the Victorian formula of controlling the institutions of thought. And, crucially, it still ignores Asia: India, which was part of an Asian civilisational continuum, was ripped apart as a nation, one that pivots around its coastlines rather than its great plains and mountain-passes, primarily by the seafaring European powers. Even as the Hindu imagination takes hold, it is centred around the European, national, idea of India, a country which is somewhat suspended in history, ancient but one that didn't exist for about a millennium since the Islamic invasion.

I locate the 'closed mind' in India in this double disconnection: First, from its own people, and second, from its own past. As India looks to rediscover its place in the world, it is still hindered by its limitations to come to terms with itself. That the education of Indians means primarily a progressive process of dislocation from their context, shaping of their identity outside their communities and continuities of time, this closes, rather than opens, Indian minds.


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