Emory Report
April 23, 2007
Volume 59, Number 28

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April 23, 2007
From Gandhi to Google: Class explores Indian identity

by carol clark

After earning a master’s degree in English literature, Rohit Chopra briefly worked in a publishing house in Mumbai, India, before switching to become a Web writer for Rediff.com, India’s first Internet portal.

“I wanted to be involved in the Internet. It seemed more exciting,” Chopra said. “It’s really taken hold in India.”
As he surfed the Web in his job, he noticed that Hindu nationalists were reviving and reshaping traditional views via blogs and Web sites. “The Internet is seen as a kind of battleground where the pseudo-secular Indian media can be challenged,” he said.

Chopra was intrigued by the realization that the relationship between technology and Indian identity stretches back to the early days of colonial rule. As an assistant professor in Emory’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, Chopra is exploring that relationship, both in his research and in an undergraduate class he developed called “From Gandhi to Google: Technology and National Identities in Indian History.”

“In the last five or six years, there’s been a lot of talk about India’s economic resurgence and its large numbers of software engineers,” Chopra said. “This discourse, in a strange kind of way, echoes an earlier model. A rich and complex history lies behind this economic miracle of today.”

Sixteen students enrolled in the course — many of them first-generation Indian-Americans.

“This is the first interdisciplinary class I’ve taken,” said Umangi Patel, who is majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology. “I wanted to expand my knowledge and gain some intellectual insight not just into science, but also something that was personally related to me.”

Patel was born in the United States, but her parents both emigrated from India. “It’s interesting to look at the difference between them and me, and what caused that. I’m learning about the history of Indian identities and how the Indian diaspora is changing modern Indian culture — not only in America, but in India itself.”

The class began with an overview of recent Indian history. By the mid-19th century, most of the country was under the rule of the British. “It’s like India was their giant laboratory,” said Chopra, alluding to the colonial drive to survey, map and measure India’s geographical regions and conduct a census “that pigeonholed all Indian identities into certain categories.”

In 1835, the British started teaching Western-style science and technology to the elite class of India. “It was a very pivotal moment,” Chopra said. “Previously, the British essentially justified their colonial rule by saying that they were civilizing savages, making the idea of colonialism benign.”

But if technology was a defining feature of Western rationality that the natives lacked, then the British decision to teach this skill to Indians was an admission that they possessed the capacity all along, Chopra said.

As the anti-colonialism movement grew, “the challenge then became for the Hindu elite to incorporate technology in a way that made it their own, and not just a gift from the West,” he said.

Mahatma Gandhi viewed science and technology as “enormously violent and destructive,” Chopra said. “Modern civilization, for Gandhi, was the problem itself. He believed that science and technology would only make things worse.”

Nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru, however, was a strong proponent of technology. When he became India’s first prime minister in 1947, he set up the Indian Institutes of Technology. “He believed that a scientific temperament, in tandem with secularism and socialism, would lead India to catch up to the West,” Chopra said.

Nehru’s vision laid the foundation for the current boom in India’s IT industry, which was accelerated by a series of free-market reforms in 1991.

“Everything in India happens on a massive scale because of its huge population,” Chopra said. The IT boom has helped fuel growth in the middle-to-upper class of the country, which now consists of 300 million people, although the vast majority of the population remains poor. Software engineers are part of this privileged elite, lionized for their association with technology.

And technology is driving the debate of Indian identity, linking views of the Indian diaspora with those of the home country. Tamils, Bengalis, Punjabis, Sikhs, Assamese Muslims and Hindus – virtually all of the myriad communities that make up India have a lively presence on the Web today.

“The tradition of debate has been an important and fundamental fact of Indian life through the centuries,” Chopra said. “Today people are using the Internet to have a vibrant discourse about identity claims, rights and competing versions of their histories.”

Anna Heilbrun, a psychology major, said she did not know much about India beyond current events when she signed up for the class. “Reading the work of Gandhi and Nehru was really valuable for their opinions,” she said. “But looking at how they inform Indian identity in the modern world was also valuable. This is a topic that is very relevant to the global community and what’s going on in the world right now.”

Chopra hopes the course fosters critical thinking — a useful skill, no matter what your major. “The ability to recognize the identity of another culture in all of its complexity fosters better communication,” he said. “It allows us to respect both the sameness, and the differences, of others.”