Colonialism through education


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'Global Business Culture'

a new version of colonialism through education to reach South Asia

Jeremy Seabrook



Mumbai: The imagination of the young of South Asia has been seized by a fresh hope, which has come upon them with the force of a revelation. Wherever you go, from Delhi to Dhaka, you meet hundreds of youthful aspirants to the possession of a Master's in Business Administration, a degree in Marketing, and hosts of diplomas, certificates and qualifications - some of them of doubtful accreditation - in Business Studies.

You meet them on the buses going to and from college; in clusters in the public parks; sitting on the walls of shopping centres. They carry textbooks, mostly from the United States, and of impenetrable style, in an English which itself suggests the study of hermeneutics rather than the prosaic and practical realities of business. Their enthusiasm and eagerness are deeply touching; as is their faith that the aim of their studies - the possession of a certificate - will magically open doors for them, and provide them with the key to a world which will furnish them with wealth, security and work for life.

It is the more poignant, since many of them are from families of modest means, some of them even from the poorest urban groups. Many have come from distant villages and small towns, since to study in Delhi or Dhaka enhances prestige; distance from the home-place adds value, no matter how basic, how academically thin the object of study.

This business culture has swept through India and Bangladesh, and has taken root with the tenacity of any irrational cult. For it is quite clear that the vast majority of these hopeful young people will find no place in the global culture to which they aspire. Most are victims of the latest fad to reach the Third World, a reach-me-down version of forms of study which have been devised and formulated in the West, and exported without any regard for their appropriateness to the countries in which they are taken up with such zeal.

Global business culture is the latest version of a colonialism designed to keep yet another generation pacified, filled with hope and commitment to jobs which will certainly never exist for them, to an income that will rarely lift their families out of poverty.

The truth is that India and Bangladesh are full of unemployed graduates. Twenty years ago, their counterparts would have been studying politics and sociology; 40 years ago, liberation and neo-colonialism. At that time, they would have been quoting from Marx or Fanon, and they would have been consumed by a shining-eyed conviction that they would inherit the earth. In the event, most of these settled for whatever they could get. Their destiny has been to struggle in obscure government posts, in small shops and offices, trying to earn enough to send their children to private English-medium schools - in which the language of instruction is often unintelligible.

It is these same children now who are dreaming dreams of business success, and lifestyles fed by an imagery of ancient TV films of The Bold and the Beautiful and Dynasty, nourished by the advertising industry, urged on by a pervasive Western iconography of luxury and a mixture of the Hindi or Bengali film industry. Their fantasies are nourished by imagined lives of ruthless tycoons, whose power is limitless, who fly in their private jets from ranch to city rooftop, from the beaches of California to mountain retreats in Europe.

Most of these students of business have devoted themselves to a learning which is as remote from their experience as the study of Tudor History or the geography of Europe was during the colonial period. This business culture is an arid attenuated thing. 'The market exists to bring together buyers and sellers.' 'To provide what people want at the price they will pay is the essence of marketing.' They intone their lessons like mantras; their English is a poor and uncommunicative version of an alien tongue. At the same time, they are learning to despise the culture and values of their heritage.

The propagation of the business gospel has been going on long enough now for us to be able to perceive some of its further effects. It is already clear that many of its adherents have become bitterly disappointed by the promises implicit in their study, but which have not been translated into any tangible reward. There are simply no jobs. The qualifications do not enable them to pick up the prizes.

Two responses emerge quite clearly in reaction to the rage and disappointment which follow the dawning realisation that yet another generation has been cheated, its idealism undermined, its hopes cancelled. First of all, there is the desire to escape India or Bangladesh, to do anything to move out. A job in the Gulf, any job, driving, domestic service, factory labour, security guard. The coveted qualifications are discarded: they will settle for anything that provides an adequate income. It is already clear to most that their chances of reaching the US or Europe are slender, although Australia and Canada still appear to beckon to some.

But they will attach themselves to foreigners, offer themselves as houseboys, cooks and cleaners to anyone who will take them to the West. A whole generation has been disturbed in the sense of being who they are, where they are, by this alien culture; but since it belongs to the realm of fantasy, they cannot even migrate to the places of which it is supposedly an emanation and expression.

This leads to the second response. Many able young men, incapable of finding a place in the job market, are recruited by criminal gangs. A world of extortion, blackmail, protection money, exists in every slum area in Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta. Many of these are attached to political parties, especially to the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, to the BJP and Congress, even the Leftist parties in Bengal. Gang wars, the fall-out from the corruption and extortion which the occupants of real jobs - especially in the areas like Customs and Excise, the police, the Port Authorities, importers and exporters - are in a position to practise. Equally, property speculation, real estate, the film and popular entertainment industries, offer rich pickings for criminal activities.

Money is also to be made in the trade in human beings - women from Nepal for the brothels of Mumbai, indentors of domestic labour and of workers in the Gulf, many of whose families will mortgage their land in order to pay middlemen to secure jobs which do not exist. The application of business studies does not always correspond to the theory; yet it may still have its uses in the lengthening shadow-world cast by legitimate business.

Some of the criminal gangs are utterly pitiless: kidnappings, extortion, the murder of rivals. Bodies are found on garbage dumps, following some dispute over who has the right to a share of this or that consignment of smuggled goods. The police are engaged in perpetual low-intensity war, sometimes killing small-time crooks at random to persuade the public that they have indeed eliminated some desperadoes, occasionally gunning down known criminals in the street.

But for the moment, the majority of young men studying at their sometimes seedy colleges retain the hope that the riches - not promised, yet somehow inscribed in all the associations of business and its wealth-generating power - will fall into their lap. Their faith and a curious innocence, an artlessness which has made them embrace this latest craze without reserve, continue to animate them.

The rulers of the sub-continent - the real wheelers and dealers who do indeed enjoy fabulous fortunes - have no concern for the fate of these young men (for it is almost exclusively a male preserve); and do not care to wonder on what murderous rage and violence their future and easily predictable disappointment will expend itself. For they have no choice but to make their way in the ravaged and ruined places in which the alien implant of mythical business fortunes are indeed made, but by outsiders, by the mysterious processes that continue, world-wide, to filter wealth from poor to rich. Pity the young, the inheritors of future broken hopes and idle dreams.

(Source: Third World Network Features)

Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .