By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
21 April 2012
The old man shook his head and answered, in a language I could barely understand. ‘No, sir, I’ve never heard of “India”.’
‘What about “Bharat”? Or“Hindustan?”
‘No, no, sir,” he stuttered.
What about Uttar Pradesh, the state where his village was located, I asked him.
He shook his head again. He had not the faintest clue what I was talking about.
‘How ignorant!’ I thought to myself. ‘These tribals are really backward. Imagine not knowing what or where India is!’
That was some twenty-five years ago, when, soon after graduating from college, I decided I would spend my entire life ‘uplifting’ the ‘needy’ and headed to a ‘development’ NGO in eastern Uttar Pradesh to work as a volunteer. The organization claimed to be engaged in ‘development’ work in several dozen ‘most backward’ villages in what was said to be the ‘most backward’ part of one of India’s ‘most backward’ states. These villages were inhabited, for the most part, by ‘most backward tribes’, mainly Cheros, Baigas, Kharwas and Gonds.
After spending a few days at the NGO’s headquarters, I was sent to a remote village to teach in a school that the NGO had set up. The village was far off the nearest tarred road. The closest qasba was several kilometers away, and was reached on foot, a journey of several hours. As in most other such tribal villages in the area at that time, there was no electricity or running water. I was to stay in a mud-hut, sharing it with another, non-tribal teacher. We cooked on a firewood stove, bathed at a communal well and carried our lotas at dawn to the nearby lake to wash after relieving ourselves. It was like nothing I had experienced before.
What, you might ask, drew me to that village, to work as a teacher for a couple of hundred rupees a month? At that time, I had my own ideas as to why I was there, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that they were hardly as altruistic as I had fondly imagined. Looking back, I now understand that my dream of spending my life ‘doing good’ for the ‘poor’ in ‘backward’ rural India—which actually lasted hardly a year!—was simply youthful rebellion against my family that I detested and against the suffocating norms and expectations of the society I was brought up in. It was, to put it bluntly, much more of a negative reaction against conventional middle-class morality than anything else. Certainly, my motives were a lot less selfless than I then believed.
I had just finished my BA in Economics, and while most of my class-mates had done the ‘normal’ thing of going in for an MA or an MBA or appearing for the civil service examinations, what I then thought had led me to think I would spend the rest of my life in that remote village was a burning desire to ‘uplift’ the ‘backward’ tribals, who, or so I then imagined, were in urgent need of ‘development’. I thought of myself as a selfless do-gooder, doing my little bit to enable the tribals to enjoy all the comforts that I had been reared on. Although I didn’t then fully realize the implications of this missionary zeal, what it really meant was that I wanted to make the tribals behave, look, think and live just like me. Unaware of it, the underlying assumption was that if I could speak English like a native, wear jeans and a T-shirt, live in a brick house, watch TV, eat ice-cream and play video games, it was unfair to deny the tribals the same ‘right’.
And so, I imagined myself as a missionary of ‘development’ to the ‘hapless’ tribals, who deserved my pity for lacking all the trappings of ‘modernity’ that I enjoyed. To be fair to myself, though, this was roughly what the NGO I worked with, too, believed. And I wouldn’t be wrong if I suppose that this continues to remain ‘development orthodoxy’ in NGO, media and government circles today, too.
Given what I then thought of as my reasons for being in that village, you can understand my horror on learning that the old tribal man had never even heard of “India”. You might not believe me but he had not the faintest idea if India was a thing or a person or a place or a country! That brief encounter made me harden my resolve that the ‘tribals’ simply had to be rescued from the ‘ignorance’ in which they wallowed. They really were ‘backward’ and simply had to be ‘developed’ by any means necessary!
The old man is perhaps no more. But I still I owe him a long overdue apology. A quarter of a century after that brief encounter with him, I’ve realized the folly of nationalism and also of the ‘development’ and ‘education’ that I had come to his village determined to impose on his people. He was happy, I presume, carrying on in the ways of his ancestors, tilling his little field and tending to his band of goats. What need had he to know what or where or who “India” was?
Yoginder Sikand is a regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com