Friday, January 29, 2010


Jakob De Roover in Outlook India
To someone who has no first-hand experience of the academic study of India in the US, it must be difficult to imagine the number of young scholars who say things like `this is what I really think, but I will not say it in public, because I'm up for tenure'.


In Europe, the issue cannot be separated from the colonial past and the present state of affairs, where the old continent is losing its earlier dominance to rising Asian nations that outpace it in every way. In response, Europeans have developed a set of strategies to convince themselves that their civilization is still morally superior. Here, scholars of India have an important role to fulfil. Simply put, they are expected to do the following: acknowledge that India is indeed going through swift economic growth; next, point out that it still has tremendous poverty, the caste system, superstition, religious conflicts, gender inequality, exploitation, child labour, nepotism, bribery, revolts, incompetence...; and provide appropriate details on these flaws and the necessary footnotes or fieldwork. In this way, these scholars should contribute to what John Gray calls the ‘comfort blanket against an unfamiliar world’, which Europe is weaving around itself. ‘Rest assured; we are still on top’.

Naturally, few scholars today would be willing to state explicitly that the European civilization is superior. Yet, while they disavow Eurocentrism, they also reproduce a deep-rooted cultural asymmetry. When European scholars describe India, they tend to connect all ills and atrocities in that society to the nature of Indian culture. One links widow-burning, dowry murder, domestic violence, female infanticide and caste discrimination to ‘Hindu’ foundations. Europe also loves to celebrate Indian authors whose specialty is revealing the ‘dark underbelly’ of Indian society. In contrast, social ills and atrocities in European societies are characterised as aberrations: racism, colonial genocide, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, sexual abuse, etc. are considered as acts that deviate from the true temper of European culture. This stance of cultural asymmetry has become the hidden premise of the European study of India.