Self-loathing and India’s Anglophones

Paraśurāma killing Kārtavīrya Arjuna, 18th century. British Museum

Many international observers have written about the high level of self-loathing in India. I think this is not true of the general population. Like people from other nations, most Indians are proud, self-confident, honest and resilient and this explains their success at science, business, arts and politics around the world.

Yet, there is a kernel of truth in these reports. India’s Anglophones, who are the ones that interact with international authors are indeed a class that is obsequious and servile to the outsiders while being insufferably shallow and narcissistic amongst its own. So what’s the origin of this self-hate?

To answer this, we must go back to James Mill, author of the highly influential History of British India (1817), who wrote this about the entire populations of China and India:

Both nations are to nearly an equal degree tainted with the vices of insincerity; dissembling, treacherous, mendacious, to an excess which surpasses even the usual measure of uncultivated society. Both are disposed to excessive exaggeration with regard to every thing relating to themselves. Both are cowardly and unfeeling. Both are in the highest degree conceited of themselves, and full of affected contempt for others. Both are, in the physical sense, disgustingly unclean in their persons and houses.

Elsewhere he condemned Indian culture as “barren, perverse and objectionable.” And he wrote of Indians: “under the glosing exterior of the Hindu, lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy. [And] the same insincerity, mendacity, and perfidy; the same indifference to the feelings of others; the same prostitution and venality are conspicuous in both [Hindus and Muslims].”

One could call this sweeping judgement the ravings of a crazed asshat. James Mill (1773–1836), ordained as a minister by the Church, worked for the East India Company and became its chief apologist. He never visited India or knew any Indian language and his idea of India was a fantasy based on second and third hand accounts. Historians like Grant Duff and H.H. Wilson, who had lived in India, condemned the book as being entirely wrong.

But Mill’s ideas were to shape British policy in India directly as a high official of the East India Company, and indirectly through Thomas Babington Macaulay who devised a system of English education for the Indian elite.

Okay, Mill was a racist twit, but why should we care?

He has been dead a long, long time.

Mill’s ideas matter for they remain powerful. Indian Anglophones have become, in the memorable phrase of Macaulay, “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” Sadly, their accents sound fake and they are not equal in intellect to the best in Britain. They remain unaware of the psychological truth that one must love oneself before one can love and understand others.

As purveyors of shallow opinions like that of Mill, they hate those who are not trying to be like them, and they have a visceral aversion for the customs of the land. Ridiculing those who can’t speak English with the fluency they have, the people who get ahead in their circles are not necessarily the most competent.

Macaulay called Mill’s book “the greatest historical work which has appeared since that of Gibbon.” It was to become the text-book for the candidates for the Indian Civil Service and English educated Indians for several generations. Worst of all, its larger premise still underlies school and college curricula in India, and Indians continue to be exposed to the propaganda underlying this work.

An example of the self-loathing of Indians are the Bollywood actors of Hindi-language films. On Hindi TV programs, most of them insist on answering questions in English!

Indian judiciary works under a system of language-apartheid. Article 348 of the Indian Constitution (about “Language to be used in the Supreme Court and in the High Courts and for Acts, Bills, etc.”) states that “(a) all proceedings in the Supreme Court and in every High Court… shall be in the English language.”

Imagine that over 70 years after Independence, lawyers in India’s Supreme Court cannot present their case in any Indian language. In 2008, the 216th report of the Law Commission declared that only English qualified for use in the Supreme Court:

It is important to remember that every citizen, every court has the right to understand the law laid down finally by the apex court and at present one should appreciate that such a language is only English.

Given this oversized focus on the supposedly right language, there is much less attention given to logic and critical thinking. Some of the stuff the justices churn out in their opinions is sophomoric, with allusions to Shakespeare and Marlowe or Foucault and Habermas in misplaced settings.

A language-apartheid also exists in fields of science. Education at the highest level is imparted in English, and one is not allowed to submit dissertations for Ph.D. degree in any Indian language.

Continuing denigration of Indian culture and character has led to loss of self-confidence amongst the Anglophones. It is not surprising then that when it comes to competing internationally in the field of technology, most business leaders in India are reluctant to go beyond providing back office support to Western companies.

2.

In The History of British India, Mill set out to attack the history, character, religion, literature, arts, and laws of India. He justified the colonization of India and the rapine of its resources as a byproduct of bringing civilization to the country.

Mill’s ideas provided the rationale for colonial rule that was described by Kipling as “The White Man’s Burden.” It has been estimated that British colonial rule, with its destruction of Indian industry and education, cost India $45 trillion in today’s dollars. But worse, India’s Anglophone elites swallowed the colonial nostrums about Britain’s civilizing role and embraced what the American historian Thomas Trautmann has called “British Indophobia” [another name for Hinduphobia].

China dealt with attitudes such as that of James Mill with the slogan to end “The century of humiliation” and in the past half-century has striven to match the glory of its imperial past. China was able to rediscover its spirit of excellence because, unlike India, its elites are not alienated from its own culture and history.

Seventy years ago, India’s education bureaucrats decided to keep out India’s own sciences and other scholarly traditions from school and college curricula on the false pretense that they are part of religion .

3.

Kapila Vatsyayan, modern India’s eminent scholar of art and a good friend, who passed away just a few months ago, once told me that colleges Britain founded in India served their own needs for clerks and soldiers to help in the extraction of Indian wealth and to protect the Raj, with some effort thrown in to understand India’s past so that they could control it better.

The fields that they left alone — art, music, dance and yoga — are the only ones that have any vitality left. Indeed, people from all over the world travel to India to learn these fields.

Behind these fields lies Indian philosophy, that remains sidelined in Indian academia as something provincial, fit only for those who are stuck in the past.

See also:

On Indian philosophy: The Nine Darśanas

The Colonial Notion of India

The Office Seeker and the Warrior

Whence premium mediocrity in India?