Sunday, January 4, 2009

Foreign Certificates

Ramachandra Guha in his biweekly column in the Hindu, today wonders (in an eponymously titled article as this post) why we Indians always need a foreign certificate to convince us that we are doing the right thing. (The Hindu right produces some obscure Belgian priest to bolster their claims of Hindu victimisation, the left regularly trots out its poster boy Noam Chomsky to justify their opposition to economic reforms (even though Chomsky a giant in his field of linguistics has little or no knowledge about India or economics) and so on.

This got me thinking about whether scientists like us also have this tendency to look for pats and plaudits from the white man (or Westerner). I think most of us who have collaborated with Westerners or interacted with them in conferences and other such venues, can testify that collaborations by their nature tend to be egalitarian in their interactions since it's a collection of minds trying to jointly solve a problem. With rare exceptions, I would say that our dealings with Westerners is little different from those with other Indians as far as scientific interaction goes. This could be due to the fact that what is right or wrong in the physical sciences (as opposed to the social sciences where there is considerable subjectivity) is determined by your calculations and not by any subjective judgement. In that sense science is indeed colour neutral. Where it could make a difference is the attention the work receives in the West by virtue of having appeared from the East, or the importance that it is given. Even here, I think attitudes in the West are changing and no longer are papers from India or China or South Korea treated with any condescension. As a result, scientists in these countries do not feel that they play an inferior role in the global scientific establishment -- at least not to any large extent. Though it cannot be denied that recognition of one's work amongst significant numbers of Western scientists is not unwelcome, but that is natural.

As least in the social sciences, the Indian system is also considerably at fault. Intellectual stalwarts like Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen were only recognised after the West put its stamp of approval. Amartya Sen has always been a very distinguished economist (albeit a highly prolix one). However, it is only after he received the Nobel Prize that he became a fixture in various programs, forums, discussions and the general media.

But let me return to science and scientists. There are minor ways in which being a Westerner in India is different from being an Indian of the same stature. For instance, a Western visitor to an institute is always treated with somewhat extra care. It could simply be a matter of making sure there is water in the bathroom, the geyser is working, the towels and sheets are clean and so on. An Indian visitor would not perhaps get the same degree of attention. This could be interpreted positively, of course. An Indian, being part of the system would know how to handle these problems and bring it to the notice of the appropriate people. A Westerner would be more uncertain about what to do and therefore needs more attention. It could just be the Indian notion of hospitality towards a guest from a distant land who is unfamiliar with the system (Atithi Devo Bhava).

But perhaps it is also just that little bit of extra deference that subconsciously an Indian lavishes on a white man. And perhaps pats and plaudits from the West are just that little bit more important than those from India.

I look forward to your comments on this issue.


Anant said...

How about beginning charity at home? Why not we scientists of colour invite one another to come and spend a few days or weeks at each other's institutes, come up with good collaborations and put out good joint publications? Of course that is what TPSC and programmes like that are for, but why not increase the popularity of such programmes by injecting some energy into them? Why save endowed lectures only for those with arthritis, by-passes and those above 80? You comments (I will not say oh learned mastah in deference to wishes of other sensitive readers of this blog)?

AMOK said...

Well the foreigners have the money. 200 Years of Servitude have not helped either. Ever seen a marriage ad "Bride/groom is dark-complexioned". Mastah, in your wide readings you must have read a certain Mr. Gladwell . Please share your contempt or adulation.

Are you acquainted with your identical twin ?

You do leave many questions unanswered Mastah -- sometimes I wonder if you read your own blog..! I recommend it.

Rahul Basu said...

Anant: Indeed what you say is right and I can say for my own institute that people of colour (heh! heh!) are invited far more often than people uh, without :) . Of course we could think of making it even more frequent but we are already deluged with seminars - this week there being five :(

AMOK: Nice to have you back. Exactly which question have I left unanswered, Sire, that concerns you so much?

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