Open up, India

For a long time in post-independent India, the political and intellectual discourse was dominated by the fear of the ‘outsiders’—an euphemism for the economically and culturally powerful West. India may have been desperately poor with life a constant struggle for its teeming millions, but the omniscient foreign forces were always around to thwart India’s rise. Most memorably, perhaps, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi detected the fiendishly clever ‘foreign hand’ in almost every unfortunate event which blighted this ancient land. Charges of being on the payroll of CIA were leveled regularly at political opponents while the guardians of intellectual citadels zealously guarded their fiefdoms from those tainted by their association with the West. But in a nation still wounded by her long association with colonialism, the inherent distrust of the West and her agencies then was perhaps understandable.

Image: Meena Kadri

India is, of course, very different now. Economics reforms have unleashed the latent entrepreneurial talents of Indians while the forces of globalization and the attendant technological advances have provided her with access to rich markets in the West. Consistently in global surveys, India is one country where US scores the highest approval ratings while Western cultural norms are at least superficially dominant in her cities. India’s rising economic status, her soft power, and status as the world’s largest democracy ensure her a mostly favourable press coverage in the West.

But as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While the Indian middle class has largely moved away from its old irrational fears of the West, the New Delhi Establishment still remains extremely skeptical of the outsiders.

Take visiting research scholars, for instance. It has been well documented in the media how the Indian government has created multiple hurdles for visiting Fulbright scholars—repeatedly delaying their visa on frivolous grounds. Similarly, the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) are not still not allowed to hire foreign nationals as permanent faculty. While the government claims be moving towards a more welcoming system, it remains notoriously unreceptive to foreign scholarship.

Apparently, the lack of openness is justified in the name of security. While minimum regulations may be necessary in some rare cases, it is obvious that paranoia will not serve the larger Indian interests. Prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has often argued that India must eventually evolve into a knowledge-based economy. If this worthy goal is to be achieved, then Indian universities and research facilities must build institutional capacity and collaborate closely with foreign universities and researchers. In any case, in the Internet era , the state can hardly control the free dissemination of ideas; the government’s attitude only antagonises foreign scholars.

But why blame only the leviathan Indian bureaucracy. A recent story in the weekly magazine, Outlook, on foreign agencies who are funding Indian research and policy bodies begins thusly:

“Should NGOs receiving grants from international agencies like the Ford Foundation and others be barred from participating in the shaping of public policy?”

Now, It is entirely unclear how Outlook proposes to “bar” NGOs funded by international agencies from participating in policy debates. Should international agencies like the Ford Foundation be chased out of India? Would writing op-ed columns or policy briefs be construed as interfering in policy debates? Should foreign scholars be permitted to write on Indian policy issues or now a test of citizenship would be prescribed? When an avowedly liberal publication advocates such policy xenophobia, it is deeply disconcerting.

One would imagine that an article which begins by asking such a provocative question may have discovered some great malfeasance at the heart of the Ford Foundation or documented particularly egregious instances of corruption or doctoring of research findings. No! The charge is barely that the Ford Foundation may have an agenda which is broadly pro-market among other things.

To reject a policy or people advocating them merely because they may be funded by reputed international agencies is extremely myopic. Who will then fund Indian research institutions and think tanks? In a nation where the government routinely uses newspaper revenues to twist political coverage, why should government-funded research have any more credibility than private funding? The charge of promoting an agenda can be leveled against virtually any funding agency. Indeed, funding agencies inter alia exist because they wish to shape the policy debate in a particular direction.

It is no one’s case that the claims of Ford Foundation or any other agency should be accepted as the gospel. Nevertheless, imputing motives or accusing well-meaning people of serving foreign interests is little better than hi-tech intellectual lynching. It only encourages further intellectual laziness and policy cowardice and makes people reluctant to challenge entrenched policies. Vigorous and open debate is necessary in the policy market; ideas should be freely and fiercely debated until the best ones are adopted.

Unfortunately, there is little political appetite in India for more open conversations with the world. In fact, for diametrically opposite reasons, it is one issue which unites the religious right with the left-liberal intelligentsia. For the former, shunning globalisation and markets is about “protecting” India culture from Western assaults while for the left-liberal establishment, it is all about conserving their monopoly on policy.

Much as some people may wish otherwise, we live in an increasingly interconnected and globalised world. No country can be an island in itself. Any country which stops the free flow of information — or ideas — is likely to be left behind. India can ill-afford that.