White Man’s Burden – Worshipping False Gods and saving the Environment

(Part I of a two-part series)

(The title of this article, and the article itself, both are provocative and politically incorrect, and are so by design. If you have hyper-sensitivities, the time to stop reading this article is now. Please do not complain later that you weren’t warned.)

Jairam Ramesh, a Minister whom I normally consider too arrogant and profane to learn anything from, recently made a very profound statement. He said that “if India adopted the western developmental model, it would be a recipe for disaster”! The statement made me think long and hard, and also question as to why we Indians so deeply want to follow western models. What is it that makes us junk our own 5000 years of developmental experience, and blindly ape the west?

One of the most bitterly painful and offensive images seared into my sub-conscience from childhood is of Britain, as represented by her queen, receiving gifts from a dark-skinned lady, representing the East in general and India in particular (Roma Spiridione’s The East Offering its Riches to Britannia). It is funny that even in those days; the irony was totally lost on those 18th century bigots, that it was an impoverished and poor country that was still “giving” to a relatively rich western power (and not the other way round). The poem written by Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden” somehow legitimized this perception of a “god-given” right to rule over the East, and exploit her people and her resources (as exemplified by Britain over India, and also ironically, the US over the Philippines, despite the fact that the US itself was a colonized country which had won its hard-fought freedom from Britain).

This background is important to understand why a hesitant Asia is taking such reluctant baby steps towards providing global leadership, despite the obvious writing on the wall that global economic momentum has once again decisively shifted towards the East, after an almost uninterrupted run for the western world, of over 250 years.

A cornucopia of European powers fought over the vast territories of Asia (and frankly Africa too) for colonial control, and did not have the slightest doubt that they were actually doing the local natives (who were considered savages in any case) a favour by bringing development to them (for a small transaction fee of course). The local histories of these countries were first explored, then manipulated, and finally de-legitimized, so as to not allow a sense of pride to develop in the local population (the opium wars in China, Macaulay’s education policy in India, and the infamous and debunked Aryan Invasion theory, are cases in point). These exploitative regimes not only enriched their home countries phenomenally, but also served a pernicious agenda of religious conversions, led by fundamentalist zealots in the garb of “benign” missionaries, who were enthusiastically supported by their political masters. This sustained campaign was brilliantly successful in the Philippines, while only marginally successful in China and India – although very successful in Goa under Portuguese rule.

The tide dramatically started turning against these imperialist powers post the Second World War, driven both by the rising awareness and aspirations of the ruled populace, as well as the inability of their now impoverished economies to be able to maintain control over these colonies by force. One by one, these countries started becoming free, some by force, and some through more peaceful means, like India, which was led to freedom by Gandhi. These newly freed countries were drawn into becoming part of a cynically titled Commonwealth of Nations. However, a mindset of freedom took a long time to get created in these countries, and is still largely, work-in-progress.

All these newly freed countries did face an unseen enemy which prevented their own rapid growth – they themselves. The British in particular, were great psychologists and also institution builders, but these institutions were built to perpetuate a colonial power and rule over natives, and not for a free country to govern itself. All these countries left these inherited institutions largely intact. The British brilliantly succeeded in developing a mentality of inferiority in the people they ruled, and in large parts of the non-white world, and this mentality still exists. This insufferable feeling of inferiority to the white man became institutionalized in these so-called “coloured” peoples. I still recall this photograph of Pandit Nehru subserviently bowing and fawning over Lord and Lady Mountbatten, and this when he was the first PM of a “free” India.

Derisively categorized as “third world” countries (nobody explained to us what third world meant, although it sounded as a derivative of “third class” – and interestingly there were no second world countries), the desire to become “developed” countries like the ones in the “first world”, became an article of faith, irrespective of whether they were democracies or dictatorships. We dreamt of either being able to build ourselves into the white man’s image, and if not, then at least be able to emigrate to these countries and vicariously partake of some of this development, even if it meant living as a second class citizen or in ghettos (like in London).

It is pretty difficult for the white man to understand how intensely we “coloured people” wanted to become like them (just read the matrimonial columns of any Indian newspaper and you will understand the depth of our fascination for “fair skin”). Any attempt to relook at our history and propose a seemingly more favourable alternative was looked down upon and banished as “revisionist” or even “fascist” (the last ditch battle being fought by the beholders of the Aryan Invasion theory in India would have been funny, if it wasn’t just so sick).

The godly deference shown to white people in India (say when tourists or business leaders come) or even in the Middle East has at times to be seen to be believed (thankfully it is changing very rapidly in modern India). The pleasure we got by being able to merely speak a few broken words of English or French, in front of our ‘foreign guests’ was almost heavenly. We had started almost worshipping these gods, and I am sure that Roma Spiridione would have been ecstatic at how well we had started living the mood of his infamous painting.

Somehow, the world started changing once again, around 30 years back. Non-western nations finally started to demonstrate that they could also become “developed”. The success stories of Japan, Singapore, South Korea started emerging, China next and finally India. There was this quivering confidence that started developing in these countries, and we all finally felt that we could not only aspire but maybe also become as developed as these “developed economies”. In the process, we started building our cities in their likeness, driving cars like them, wearing clothes like them (Japan and China have almost forgotten their own clothes of over 3000 years of culture, and are now almost totally attired in western clothes, except during ceremonial occasions).

Willy-nilly, our destruction of the environment also started catching up with that of the West. Even for all these efforts, many of us had to go and genuflect in front of the IMF and the World Bank (the Bretton-Woods twins) and subserviently follow the insipid “medicinal” advice given for the economy (like restructuring, opening up the economy without any local institution-building, current account convertibility, etc., which in many cases turned out to be disastrous).

Then the climate change issue burst upon the world like a nuclear bomb.

What we now suddenly find is that these erstwhile “masters” telling us that while it was ok that they nearly destroyed the world in their process of development, we cannot similarly develop ourselves now, as that would destroy the world in toto! While largely true, there is a huge sense of institutionalized unfairness in this, and guess what, there are no apologies being proffered by the western countries for bringing the world to the brink of environmental disaster.

The most destructive force on the face of the planet for the last 250 years has been the western world – politically (the two world wars), economically (brash, unchecked and unregulated free markets that led to the creation of the Lehman and Enron fiascos), socially (the still ongoing war to harvest “heathen souls” into Christendom – no less than Pope John Paul II said this on his maiden trip to Asia), and environmentally too (the current emissions, pollution and climate change).

It now transpires that for all the time that we were aspiring to blindly ape the white man, we were worshipping false gods!

That needs to change and we need to move on from our white-man fixation. We need to treat them like just ordinary people, like anyone else, with the same rights and duties towards the world, and yes, the same per capita carbon footprint eligibility!

The developing world needs to realize (mainly now led by India and China) that the world does not have resources to be able to allow the 2.5 billion people in these two countries alone, on the basis of western model, as we will need at least 2.5 planets for that. The Middle East (with its oil-fuelled, arrogant autocracies) has set a very bad example for growth, and that cannot be emulated by others.

The difficulty is that we are still looking towards the West for answers, for technology and funding – both of which will only stunt our growth and increase dependence on them further. There is no help coming from them, as the western world has clearly indicated (and rightly so) that any developmental aid which may be provided, will go only to the most impacted and vulnerable countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, etc., and yes of course Tuvalu (the hero of Copenhagen last year).

The model of development that both India and China have to follow has to be fundamentally different, and in consonance with the genius of their respective 5000-year old cultures, and has to be much less carbon-intensive than the western model. China needs to ask itself whether it wants to just be the “factory of the world” and live with the pollution this brings! India needs to ask itself whether it wants to be the “back-office of the world” and be called “cyber-coollies”! We need to cater to our own requirements and also build on our strengths.

The gods that we need to worship and are now within us, and not without – long live Confucius and the Vedas!

Postscript: It would obviously have upset any white people who have read this article. While an apology is due (and tendered herewith), there are still a couple of additional points to be made:

  • While the western world has been the most destructive thing to hit planet earth, it has been one of the most constructive things to happen to it also. All modern institution building doctrines have an unmistakable western ring to it. The amazing work done by individual westerners in areas of medicine, wildlife conservation, science, etc., is just immense. This has to be and is hereby acknowledged.
  • There is a strong and lingering sense of deep injury that the developing world still feels from the excesses of colonial rule of the west. The western world has still not found the decency (or the heart) to be able to apologize for these excesses upon non-white people. So while the Holocaust and the Irish Potato famine have been apologized for, the Bengal famine and the Opium wars are not found fit for the same treatment. The missionary excesses in the Philippines have not even been acknowledged (although Australia has done a good job of apologizing to the Aborigines). The descendants of the Incas and Mayas have not been apologized to. While it may sound petty to some of you now (as you had nothing to do with it, and rightly so), trust me, an apology from “erstwhile gods” still has an amazing cathartic value for us. The Germans have come out stronger after accepting and openly teaching about the horrors of the holocaust to their kids. The British still hide their record of infamy in India from their children (Prince Phillip had made an extremely insensitive and boorish statement on the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, essentially calling us liars). This attitude doesn’t help!
  • The arrogant way in which national boundaries have been distorted and re-drawn, sometimes on paper napkins (the way Churchill famously claimed for Jordan), makes it incumbent upon you to assist with settling and healing these festering wounds (and maybe also apologizing for). There are just too many boundary conflicts in the world that are an inheritance of colonial legacies. You need to help set that right. For starters, open your archives so that we can see and judge for ourselves what thoughts were behind these decisions.
  • Britain still naively describes its vicious colonial rule over the Indian Subcontinent and its violent vivisection, as part of its “long shared history”. Very very duplicitous and insensitive. We haven’t forgotten your record in India. However, I will say something nice about the British, as compared to the record of France in Algeria, Portugal in Brazil (and Goa), Spain in Latin America, and yes, even the US in the Philippines, if at all India had to be ruled by a colonial power, the British were the “least worst”, although it is frankly not saying much!
  • Please also be prepared that as Asia takes baby steps towards reclaming its global leadership position, there will be quite a few amongst us who will lash out at the western world irrationally, as an Ex-Environment Minister, Ms. Maneka Gandhi had done some years back. Learn to live with it. The clock has turned, and you will face some flak because of your past sins.
  • While you might think that this is unnecessary and being over-sensitive, try and remember that Asia has a long memory and the wheel of time is turning fast. People here remember past actions for long and very soon (say in a decade or so) many westerners are going to be desperately knocking on doors here to get “green card” equivalents, maybe a “saffron card” from India and a “red card” from China. It would be smart thinking to try and heal these wounds. Also note that the mother of all memories is not of the Indian Elephant but the Chinese Dragon!

(Part II of this article will cover what the Indian government needs to do to facilitate a low-carbon intensive economy in the form of specific implementable ideas)

I do once again apologize for any offence that this article might have caused. What I can say, however, that writing it itself, was highly cathartic for me personally! The West has a long way to go before it can understand the chaotic and emotional, but intelligent and gentle people of Asia!

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2 Responses to White Man’s Burden – Worshipping False Gods and saving the Environment

  1. The Dude says:

    Very nicely written article and I wholly echo the ideas and sentiment.

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