This morning, Times of India celebrates the headlines that, “Harvard gets biggest international donation in 102 yrs, from Tata Group.” The timing on the eve of Obama’s India visit has strategic importance. This whopping $50 million gift is part of a massive trend that deserves some thought, so here I go…
Many years ago, when RK Mishra (Dhirubhai Ambani’s right-hand man) was alive, he and his wife stayed a weekend with me specifically to get briefed on what to do about Harvard’s request for funding chairs there. I brought in 6 scholars who were part of my team studying the state of South Asian Studies in the west. The data we supplied were eye-openers for Mishra, as they had never been made aware of the anti-India tilts in places like Harvard. One talk I gave compared how harvard studies China with great respect, while India is seen through the human rights lens – caste, women’s “oppresion”, minority “oppression”, etc… Others gave specific areas of biases as well – from Aryan theory on. The result was that Mishra went back and advised the Ambanis to NOT give Harvard a dollar, until they would make changes to their stance on India. China, I was able to show, gets treated as a serious civilization. One factor was that China studies is done largely in Mandarin while India is studied in English. Also, China regulates visas for western scholars such that it blacklists those it finds troubling, whereas India is open and welcomes everyone without supervision, and fails to do any analysis after the fact as to whats being produced. In fact, Indians find it a compliment when westerners study them, as though suffering from an inferiority complex of feeling left out. Finally, a key difference is that Indian intellectuals are heavily anti-India because of pseudo-secularism and marxism deeply entrenched in Indian intellectual circles, and most important Indian scholars are western trained and/or funded and/or craving to be in their good books for fame and prestige. Chinese do not suffer such complexes, which in India are the after-effects of colonization. This is because Gandhi got superseded by Nehru in defining the elitist Indian ethos. Gandhi was emphatic about his Indianness, whereas Nehru bragged to John Kenneth Galbraith that he was the “last white man to rule India.”
This intervention by me through R.K. Mishra did put a temporary dampener on their crusade to dip into the pockets of rich Indians. It also put me on the hit list of harvard. I also ended Infinity foundation’s annual sponsorship of the Indology Roundtable at Harvard which was my “listenind device” of what they were up to. As a follow up to this saga, my friend, JC Kapur in Delhi, called up the head of FICCI at the time, and told him point-blank to stop supporting Harvard’s PR campaign with Indian industry for such funding. This too worked, and grudgingly the FICCI head at that time stopped opening doors for harvard in India. But the lure to become famous in harvard and dine with the who’s who of white american establishment is too powerful for Indians to resist. The real “success” for most is when they are recognized by the west. This is what the west knows well, having studied Indian culture for centuries, and used precisely this knowledge to manage, control and topple one raja after another in the 17th and 18th centuries. Take the kids to Cambridge, play polo with them, have western women to flirt, etc. – so they can feel like admitted to the club as honorary whites in front of other Indians. After independence, the brits got replaced by the americans, hence the strategic importance of places like harvard.
Some years later, there came a call from a prominent Indian that Anand Mahindra was being roped in by Harvard, and he had given them office space in his Mumbai HQ. So I was set up for a persional one-on-one meeting with Anand Mahindra. He is a very decent, gentle, open-minded executive for sure. He listened to my frank talk. He was unaware of these issues which clearly bothered him. But he made clear that he owed a lot to harvard, as they had given him a scholarship to study there when his father had refused to support him go there. So it was payback time for him, nothing more. Not to worry, he said, because he was giving only very small sums of money, such as $20,000 at a time, and that too for Indian students to go there as scholars. He suggested that I write to him my objections concerning harvard, so he could pass it on, and make sure they change their approach. I also suggested to him that Indians who want to fund Harvard should fund their business school, which has become pro-India, but NOT the humanities which are the nexus of this “south Asian” nonsense. A few days later, at Mr. Mahindra’s suggestion I had a brief phone chat with Harvard’s Sugata Bose who was visiting India as harvard brand ambassador to raise funds. I have publicly criticized Sugata Bose for his writings that depict pre-Mughal India as uncivilized, his idea of colonial problems focusses only on British but exempts the islamic colonizers, and he sees de-colonization as the return to a unified south asia under quasi-islamic civilization (positioned as “secularism”). This, of course, his girlfriend and co-author, Ayesha Jalal, has very skillfully managed to make into the core curriculum on south asia at places such as Harvard. (Jalal while not on the Harvard faculty was on the committee of their South Asia program until I pointed this strange anomaly out, and then she suddenly left that visible spot.) Prof Bose was cordial and frank, and we agreed to continue to chat later – which never materialized. Bose also lashes out against his great grand-uncle, Subhash Chandra Bose, the freedom-fighter, portraying him as a fascist. Music to the ears of the harvard establishment. These folks bring in Kashmir separatists, Maoists, “abused Hindu women”, Dalit activists, etc. routinely as the “voices of the real India.” Anand Mahindra announced last month that he is donating $10 million to Harvard specifically designated for the Humanities.
About 5 years ago, my colleague at Infinity Foundation, Krishnan Ramaswamy, and I went to see Rajat Gupta (McKinsey) to meet privately for several hours. I raised the topic that before Indian philanthropists give funding to US unversities, people like Rajat should do “due diligence” on what a given program has produced, how it fits into the image of India that the philanthropist has. After all, no management consultant proposes an investment by his wealthy client in any venture without due diligence. It struck a chord with him. Then I pointed out that nobody other than me had attenpted any such arms-length critical study of South Asian Studies in USA. I mentioned that Chinese government and Chinese private donors do an annual report on the state of China Studies in the west, just like any industry analyst would do for an indistry, and this guides them where and how to invest. This gives them the basis for evaluating a given program and negotiating from a position of knowledge about what is what in the discipline. He was candid in confessing that he had not studied the south asia studies discipline to be able to tell me what went on in depth. But, he remarked in typical India style, he thinks the persons involved in such studies seem like “nice guys” and decent folks. I responded that in evaluating a business investment, the due dligence would not be based on whether the management team were “nice guys” or decent folks in their personal lives, but that it would look for hard-hitting data and evidence to evaluate. Had he or anyone else studied the writings of such departments over the past 50 years, to be able to evaluate what was going from the Indian point of view? The answer then reamins the same today – no, they have not!
In one meetng after another for 15 years, I have raised such issues. One example of such an article I wrote in 2003 is on Rediff.com, titled, “Does South Asia Studies undermine India?”. I have also proposed that India could use its own India Studies and even South Asian Studies based in Indian universities (as a way to study neighbouring countries with an India-centric lens). I have argued that the money used to fund one Harvard chair (at least $5 million) could fund a whole department of scholarship in India. The irony is that even those who claim to be patriotic, nationalists, including those being described as “Hindu nationalists,” seem confused and mixed up. The GOI has given major funding to western studies of South Asia – including both BJP and Congress led governments. Yet there is not a single government or private philanthropist report on the state of this “industry” that studies India, which consists of several thousand scholars full-time who come from various disciplines – religious studies, history, anthropology, sociology, political science, human rights, women’s studies, etc. On the other hand, China Studies in the academy is secure in China’s hands, with western scholars are “outsiders” craving to be allowed entry.
Before spending money, one must have a strategic clarity as to what ideas of India are to be promoted. Otherwise, well formulated ideas of India by various other institutions get to dominate – such as ideologies of seminaries, US government thinktanks, academic south asian marxists-islamists, etc. Indians participate but not on their own rules. Tragically, Indians do not even have clarity on this amongst themesleves much less being able to project it. At a gathering at Ram Jethmalani’s house last year, I was invited as the featured speaker for the evening. I spoke on this very issue that Indians must take control of India Studies. One prominent woman activist (Madhu Kishwar) diverted the issue by asking whether the studies would be done in Hindi! The whole gathering easily got distracted by any odd and irrelevant idea, that should not have diverted them from the core proposition being discussed. Some others asked “whose idea of India” would be studied, would it be the Muslims’ idea and dalit idea, or would brahmins dominate? Indians do not even have a consensus on what is India as we want to see it.
Earlier this year, there was a rumor that Infosys founder Narayan Murthy was giving $15 million to harvard to translate and publish ancient Indian texts into English, for popular reading. On the surface this seems good for us. But the details count and such details are typcially glossed over by Indians. The editor appointed for the series is none other than Prof. Sheldon Pollock (Columbia), even though he takes an explicitly Marxist view of Sanskrit – explotation by brahmins of dalits, women, muslims, etc. His famous writing, “The Death of Sanskrit” laid out his idea of its history as a source of power in the hands of a few. He has been editor of the CLAY series of Indian Classics already, and one has to see that to get an idea of his biases. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clay_Sanskrit_Library ) While doing a great job bringing out the “beauty” of the indian materials, the fact remains that he simply assumes and states the Aryan invasion/migration theory as a given without even raising any issue with it. Very elegant and beautifully produced, this series already has 46 volumes in print, and its influence is considerable. My concern was that the Murthy family might not have invested time and resources to go into the details of the issues at stake in the translation of Indian classics in the west. The Murthy donation will also take this new series from harvard, and send it back into Indian education, making this “Made in USA” depiction of Indian Classics the canon for Indians to study as their definition of themesleves. This is what max Mueller’s works did a century ago. It is their money and they have a right to do what they please with it. But wouldn’t it have been wiser if they had funded something to do with their area of expertise and competence, so they could at least evaluate and monitor professionally, and not depend on “they are nice fellows” level of naivete. When this rumor was critiqued by me, the head of the Hindu American Foundation inquired and concluded that the runor was false based on his “inside” information from the Murthy’s. A few days later the official announcement was made. Also, Prof. Pollock was awarded the Padma Shri award by GOI at a Republic Day ceremony in Rashtrapathy Bhavan, for his great contributions to the study of sanskrit.
None of the reactions from the “Hindu activists” have made any sense either, be it issuing petitions or writing angrily to the parties concerned. They have failed to understand the deeper mechanisms at work. You dont fight a patient’s infection by holding playcards shouting slogans against the germs! The doctor has to understand the mechanisms of the disease and how/where to intervene. But a lazy, incompetent man (despite his good intentions) would have no time to go to med school and learn all that, and THEN be competent to defeat the disease. He is in too much of a hurry, wants to make a big splash in public to look important; and hence he stands outside the hospital shouting slogans against the germs. This sounds like a strange analogy, but if you examine closely the “activists” at work, it is a fairly accurate one.
By: Rajiv Malhotra