Un-Asian values

May 17, 1996

Indians make an enormous contribution to intellectual life today, particularly in economics and in the sciences. It is to be hoped that the recent election will not affect this adversely.

On a recent visit to India, Noam Chomsky observed, without exaggerating, that "the lifestyle of the Indian elite is amazing . . . I've never seen such opulence even in America". The remark was widely quoted in the Indian press, but commentators did not know quite what to make of it. Was this cause for self-congratulation or for self-criticism? Is conspicuous consumption of the most blatant kind to be the Indian way? Or is the indifference to wealth of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and other independence leaders still a powerful draw for Indians?

The uncertainty underlies the mess of Indian politics. Almost 50 years after independence, the Congress party has finally lost its monolithic control of India (see The THES, May 3). No doubt its lacklustre leaders, many of them publicly mired in corruption, were in part responsible for this defeat. But there is a deeper trend at work: the 1990s liberalisation of the economy and growing economic prosperity have accentuated divisions in Indian society. V. S. Naipaul was correct when he spoke of "a million mutinies now" in the subtitle of his book on India published in 1990.

But while some, including Naipaul, are sanguine about the change, no one can deny its sanguinary effects. The storming of the mosque at Ayodhya by militant Hindus in 1992 and the subsequent Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay were signs of increased tension - between ideologies and between religions, between castes and between haves and have-nots generally. The very name Bombay is now taboo in the Indian press; national newspapers call that cosmopolitan city Mumbai, the name of the local Hindu goddess, for fear of offending the local ruling party.

An all-India poll, pre-election, revealed that 43 per cent of the electorate disagreed with the government policy of opening up India to foreign investors, 1 per cent more than were in favour. Indian resistance to being swamped by multinationals (albeit staffed, in many cases, by Indians resident abroad) is both understandable and honourable.

Less admirable is the increasing tendency to see Indian cultures in conservative terms, to preserve them from the "'pollution' of western ideas and thought", in the words of the India-born Harvard economist Amartya Sen speaking recently in Calcutta on film-maker Satyajit Ray and "Asian values". Thus, when the great physicist and Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar died last year, he merited a mere paragraph in a leading news magazine - because he had chosen to settle in the United States, instead of India, to pursue his science. But, says Sen, "in our heterogeneity, and in our openness, lies our pride, not our disgrace".

Whatever the sectarian Indian political parties may say, there is no such thing as the "purity" of Indian culture, or for that matter, of British culture (especially post-Rushdie). More than perhaps any other land, India has interacted with other cultures, leading to some of its greatest human achievements. Even Gandhi, who was profoundly influenced by Ruskin, admitted and welcomed the fact.

Satyajit Ray, whom Martin Scorsese on a recent visit to India for his next film described as "one of the all-time greats", borrowed freely from many cultures to enrich his work. On receiving an Oscar for lifetime achievement just before his death in 1992, Ray said: "The most distinctive feature of my films is that they are deeply rooted in Bengal, in Bengali culture, mannerisms and mores. What makes them universal in appeal is that they are about human beings." Indians tempted to be chauvinistic about the West should remember Ray's example.

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