Charity with a colonial complex

India has not really had a vibrant tradition of philanthropy. In feudal times, like everywhere else, the rulers scarcely bothered to use this tool of social legitimacy, so secure were they in their power secured by other means. The wealthy in general, when they did spend for charitable causes, concentrated their efforts and resources on religious institutions rather than any secular activities designed to benefit the needy or deserving at large.
In terms of capitalist philanthropy, the early pioneering industrialists of the late 19th and early 20th century were probably the best that we have had in this regard. The Jamshetji Tatas, Lala Shri Rams and a few others set up educational and cultural trusts and created institutions that the country still benefits from. But since then, the record has been patchy and generally poor. Estimates of the contributions made by the wealthy of India to charitable causes regularly find that they are well below international averages, and usually completely minuscule in relation to the large surpluses generated by the population, which accrue disproportionately to such individuals.
In fact, evidence of the reverse flow of wealth was evident in colonial times. Specifically, it was common to find major and minor princes and other feudal title holders using the wealth extracted by exploiting the peasantry of India to purchase expensive real estate in England, live in luxury there and hold large and flamboyant parties for the upper classes of the colonial power, in efforts to acquire the social acceptance that was made so difficult by the colour of their skin.
Since the colour of money generally dominates other shades, some of these princes did indeed gain entry into elite social circles. But contemporary accounts still reveal the rather amused, ironic and patronising nature of such acceptance, even as the guests had no difficulty in partaking of the lavish hospitality provided by the Indian hosts.
But the new 21st century is supposed to be different from those rather pathetic old days when our ruling classes were slavishly devoted to signs of acceptance from the old white societies. We are now an emerging power, aren’t we, with a rapidly growing economy, a young population that provides lots of potential, and some of the richest and most ambitious capitalists to be found anywhere in the world. So we are now supposed to be much more self-confident, more able to look inwards and to our neighbours and use our resources to benefit our own society and people, right?
Wrong, unfortunately. Our dynamic new bourgeoisie unfortunately seems to have even less self-confidence than the brave individuals who managed to build industrial empires starting from a heavily colonial and difficult context. Some recent moves on the “charitable” front in particular suggest how far this bourgeoisie has to go before it will behave in even the most obvious ways that capitalists across the world have done in order to acquire legitimacy in their own societies.
Our new corporate leaders are mostly those who have inherited wealth, and also have benefited from a wide range of explicit and implicit subsidies provided by the government, ranging from free or cheap land to tax holidays of rebates, access to public institutional credit and little accountability on repayment. Even the “self-made” among them have benefited from the highly subsidised system of public higher education that gave them the skills to conquer the world.
Yet the record of corporate or individual donations is embarrassingly paltry, despite all the tax sops offered for contributions to educational and charitable institutions and all the expansive talk about corporate social responsibility. Representatives of foundations that seek such donations are full of stories about the churlish and penny-pinching ways of our donors. It is not just education in general that has failed to attract sufficient such funds. The extremely constrained ability of several major educational institutions to attract large funds even from the most economically successful alumni tells its own story.
But the surprising thing is that it is not as if such high-wealth individuals do not want to give their charity to education. They do, indeed, but to the biggest and richest and most famous institutions abroad rather than a struggling institution in their own country. It now seems that major donors are competing with each other as to how much each can outdo the other in contributing to these foreign institutions. If one gives $5 million to Yale University, another seeks to provide the same amount to Columbia University and yet another provides $10 million to Harvard. The most recent aggrandising gift has involved $50 million going to Harvard University. Meanwhile, the fuss that the London School of Economics has made over the spouse of another magnate, inviting her to deliver a lecture presided over by academic luminaries despite her evident lack of any academic achievement, suggests that we may soon see a flow of funds to that institution.
None of these donors has given anything like an equivalent amount to any Indian higher education institution, and several of them have shaken off eminently deserving requests for a fraction of these amounts to improve the facilities and quality of existing Indian universities. Of course there may be some direct quid pro quos involved in such donations, such as admission of progeny, but this seems like an excessively high price to pay for what is after all a relatively small matter.
It seems that the same lack of confidence that propelled our feudal princelings to spend the rents extracted from starving peasants to provide munificent hospitality to the sniggering English elite in colonial times still pervades our new bourgeoisie. The urge is to use the resources generated at home to seek foreign acceptance and legitimacy, rather than build in the society which enabled the enrichment.
This particular trait seems to be particularly developed among the Indian bourgeoisie. It is hard to imagine the pioneers of American philanthropy, who created foundations that are now international (like Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur and so on), spending their money in England rather than in the US. So it is not about capitalism in general but the peculiar Indian variant, which unfortunately still bears the marks of colonised minds in a globalised setting.

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