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The threat of Indian globalisation

The last 30 years have seen a particular type of culture permeate the world.

Driven by the microchip, fast food chains and David Hasselhof, this process has conceived an entity named globalisation. The economic and cultural mast of globalisation, (the naughty Americanised democracy-for-McDonalds version we all love to hate) has sown popular uprisings, iconic protests and even developed a new job description: the globe trotting anti-globalisation activist.

Not only has this entity brought the world closer in many ways, but it has also personified difference and amplified non-complying value systems into debates of civilization, or more prominently, the lack thereof. Through expansive media power, images today portray ideology, belief systems, even dictate public opinion. As a consequence globalisation is now a school subject, an essential teaching resource, and ‘beware the bogey American globalisation-man’ — the latest fad.

Yet, the economic plateau has been silently shifting over the past decade, with China growing exponentially, assuming major portals of wealth (in unfashionable localities), and hosting enough debtors to buy off the Kremlin. Indeed, an untimely fart from Beijing could send world markets off-kilter.

The rise of Chinese economic dominance is as ambivalent as the quality of the goods produced in China. Predictably, human rights, labour and environmental issues are some of the concerns at the heart of the Chinese dilemma. The emerging Chinese economic ‘threat’ is well covered, as the relatively new Centre of Chinese Studies in South Africa would testify.

Meanwhile, another breed of pompous cat has been strategically stalking across the globe with a jack be nimble, jack be quick dance routine.

Buddhism, yoga, karma, Shah Rukh Khan, silk, chiffon and turmeric powder – these are symbols of a new emerging cultural hegemon ferociously spreading its seed across the globe with imperial fervour. It is the globalisation of Indianess; a type of fancied cultural globalisation that has got the globe in a tizz.

Today, all aspects of the Orient (read Indian), whether cuisine, fashion, or do it yourself spirituality, is available like a packet of Fritos from the local Spar. The rise of the digital monk, pundit and guru – there to correct ailments ranging from amnesia to erectile dysfunction — is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of Deepak Chopra type spiritual empires that have catapulted these new-age self help gurus to superstardom with the help of the West’s increasing dissatisfaction with itself.

Yet self-reflexivity is only half the story in accounting for the rise of the turmeric stud muffins.

Western democracies are pretty chuffed with India’s democratic status (largest democracy in the world), their economic miracle and the emotional and spiritual depth of their call centre consultants. As a geo-political ally of the West and buffer zone against China, Indian prosperity is essential to the material and spiritual sustenance of the West.

In fact, far from their rebellious nature, Western society is merely following the example of their political leadership’s patronage of India’s new status in the global sphere.

Whereas it was hippy to don Indian fashion, watch Amitabh Bachan and speak of shanti in the seventies, it is now seriously hip to visit a Soofie Dervish, read Shantaram and watch Amitabh Bachan (he is still around). Throw in obnoxiously powerful business heroes of the Indian Diaspora, in the U.S and the U.K – who are only too keen on tightening the imagined umbilical cord to the Motherland — and you have a winning combination.

The confidence shown in India at the highest state levels filters through insidiously onto the psyche and mentality of Western consumers and the Indian Diaspora themselves. This gives carte blanche to India’s increasing cultural dominance that serves to polish its political image.

The image of an age-old civilization reconciling with modernity, through secure democratic values, and religious and ethnic tolerance enabled through the celebration of diversity is what garners our attention. It is also the image of an all encompassing Indian subcontinent rapidly earning respect and prestige as an economic powerhouse through its expert skills base and work ethic. And Bollywood does the rest: manufacturing idealised scripts depicting a fantastical utopia of unity, democracy and historical intrigue.

Topless scenes in a Hollywood movie are simply white saris drenched by an all year round Monsoon in a Bollywood flick. Forty hour working weeks in Birmingham are really an unregulated working environment in Bihar. Two-minute noodles are now available as three-and-half-minute curries.

That fashion, music, cinema and learn-spirituality–in-30-days books are rapidly finding a receptive market in the West is no coincidence.

The West is spiritually starved, and surely a little capitalist endeavour for a lighter mind never did hurt a soul?

Hence the anthropological project of exotifying India takes on a post modern flavour, with the West, the media and even Indians themselves pushing India onto the moral high ground of a superior cultural globalisation.

What results is an entire universe of cohesive mentality that both reduces and negates critical engagement with more authentic Indian-ness, whether ancient or modern.

Unlike other diasporas from states being continuously questioned for what might objectively be described as alternate models of political-reality to the Western norm, the Indian Diaspora is never questioned on the Indian state’s blatant disregard for human rights in the North Eastern rebel states of Nagaland or Assam, the massive military repression in Kashmir, or the continued inhuman caste system, the Indian government’s horrific treatment of illegal migrants, or the pathetic socioeconomic state of its minorities.

While the Muslim condition has been well covered, especially with the emergence of the Sachar report, not much is spoken of the continued discrimination and archetypal caricatures of Christians in mainstream media. Even less is spoken of the anti-conversion laws in four states, which require those wishing to convert to provide district authorities a 30-day notice of their plans to do so, furthering the opportunity to persecute.

Yes, the economic recession will not help, but despite their vivacious economy, India still has the most number of poor in a single country. But this old and new conundrum is lauded in itself. The Indian Diaspora is willing to describe their homeland as a never ending dichotomy. The image of lepers begging at the foot of a returning or holidaying-chauffer-driven Indian is almost celebrated. This is ‘home’, we are told.

The continued relevance of India as a key provider of cheap labour, as well as highly skilled and scarce expert knowledge, makes her an investor’s dream. Strong Indian Diaspora business personalities have ensured that foreign investor’s keep their eye on the ball, of the productivity and cost effective kind. Hence, once a year, a coconut is cracked open, feet are kissed and a little village is purchased to off-set issues of social justice and poverty alleviation.

India has utilised a set of demand-created values to market a brand of Indianess whose meanings are consumed as less perverse to contemporary Western values than other non-Western cultures. This epithet of Indianess is idealistic and misleading. Bollywood is a prime example of celebrated Indianess that has nothing really Indian about it.

In fact, with the subsequent emergence of a strong middle class, not only is it easier to disguise levels of income inequality, but it has also served as a mechanism to cement the political and economic dominance of ruling elites. As a consequence, the Indian boom has failed to provoke sufficient engagement on issues of tangible redress and income redistribution outside India.

No one denies India’s charm, history and diversity. But the real India is also a conundrum of child labour, dodgy human rights records, dangerous anti-terrorism clauses and with a growing tendency to silence internal critics. Needless to say, there exists an India far removed from the fashion, cuisine, and cinematic imagery flashed, promoted and consumed across the globe.

There is still Iraq, the Taliban approaching Islamabad, monks being persecuted in Burma and other depressing issues to distract the world’s attention from all things not particularly shiny in India.


  • Azad Essa

    Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also the author of a book called "Zuma's Bastard" (Two Dogs Books, October 2010) Yes, it is the name of a book. A real book. With a kickass cover. Click on the cover to find out more. You know you want to. or join the revolution: Accidental Academic won best political blog at the South African Blog awards 2009 and is a finalist for 2010.