THE TRUMP administration’s radical modification of the H1-B visa has, quite predictably, triggered a minor storm in India. In Parliament, many politicians have expressed their indignation and even charged the Government of being mealy- mouthed in its protests. The media, which somehow has come to view infotech as an elevated state of existence, has also jumped into the battle and twinned the issue to the larger liberal crusade against Trump.
To have a contrarian view of the whole controversy is daunting, especially since it runs the risk of being charged with unconcern for Indian interests. However, I believe that the new restrictions may not necessarily be inimical to our national interests.
For the sake of argument, let us keep aside the larger issue of national sovereignty—the right of nations to choose its own norms for foreign workers and potential immigrants. Over the years, the export earnings of India’s infotech giants has depended disproportionately on what is called ‘body shopping.’ They have supplied cheap Indian contract techies to the West for projects that would have cost much had local people been employed. This has been beneficial to India both in terms of providing employment and securing remittances from overseas.
However, the over-dependence on body shopping and the relatively easy money that came with it also created distortions. Indian infotech companies targeted the lower end of the value chain. Body shopping proved a disincentive to companies moving up the value chain. The culture of innovation that defines the infotech hubs in the Silicon Valley or even Cambridge and Tel Aviv is relatively less pronounced in India.
I feel that this has little to do with the competence of Indians. After all, people from India make up a large chunk of technical professionals in the US. Unfortunately, there is something lacking in the institutional environment of Indian companies that prevents this from being replicated in a significant way in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai. The new restrictions on body shopping will, I believe, force dynamic Indian companies to rework their corporate objectives. In the end, we may find that Trump unwittingly did India a national service.
ONE OF MY greatest regrets in life is that I went to a school where scholastic achievements were always at a discount. In particular, the school paid very little attention to the teaching of languages apart from English. There was absolutely no facility for learning a classical language—be it Sanskrit, Persian or even Latin. Even modern Indian languages such as Hindi and Bangla were taught perfunctorily with the sole aim of somehow clearing the final school leaving examination. Things started improving in my last two years of school but the changes came too late to benefit me.
I tried to compensate for my deficiency by trying to persuade my son to take his Sanskrit lessons seriously. It proved an uphill task for two reasons. First, by all accounts the curriculum was dreary and the attempt to teach Sanskrit as a living— as opposed to classical—language was farcical. Secondly, the value system of the India of the 1990s was inimical to anything that deviated from the over-emphasis on science, technology and commerce. In the first flush of globalised existence, India put its intellectual inheritance on the back burner.
What many cosmopolitan Indians regard as worthwhile academic disciplines is often determined by trends in the West. I was therefore heartened by the Latin evangelist Harry Mount’s article in The Daily Telegraph last week. Mount referred to a school in south-east London that is also offering Latin lessons to parents. The classes have been so oversubscribed that the school now holds two Latin classes for parents each Monday.
It is a commentary on changing values that the number of school goers learning Latin has doubled since 2000 in the UK. Maybe most of the budding classicists are in fee-paying schools, but the class bias doesn’t matter. If India is to restore the status of Sanskrit (or, for that matter, the learning of classical languages), it is important that the subject be conferred a certain snob value.
Additionally, I hope our curriculum setters try and address some of the pressing pedagogic problems. Sanskrit will never be a mass subject but its revival is imperative if Indology as a disciple is to be reclaimed by India from its sanctuaries in the US and Europe. Indians can’t complain of cultural appropriation (a silly concept that has entered the campus lexicon) if we are totally unmindful of our own civilisational ethos.