Long overdue apology

in retrospect
Last Updated : 09 June 2012, 12:41 IST

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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 25 years ago, when, soon after graduating from college, I decided to spend my entire life ‘uplifting’ the ‘needy’.

I headed to a ‘development’ NGO in eastern Uttar Pradesh to work as a volunteer. The organisation 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 100 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 realise 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 classmates had done the ‘normal’ thing of going in for an MA or an MBA or appearing for the civil service examinations, I decided to spend the rest of my life in a remote village 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 fully realise the implications of this missionary zeal then, 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, 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 as well.

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 an apology.

A quarter of a century after that brief encounter with him, I’ve realised the folly of nationalism and also of the ‘development’ and ‘education’ that I had come to his village, determined to impose on its 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?

Published 09 June 2012, 12:41 IST

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