I’ve devoted my entire adult life to the study of India and the promotion of a sensitive public image of India. And I think I’ve been successful, teaching some 200 students every year, who leave my classes with respect for India. Deeply disturbing, however, is the realization that Indians don’t much care about this. In fact, increasingly it seems that they’d rather put impediments in my path and that of most foreigners, as India calls us, who give so much to the nation.
The realization was sparked when my membership in the Indian International Centre was about to increase some 35%. While that’s a huge increase, far beyond my salary, my concern was the disparity between the amount Indian citizens pay and the amount foreigners – again, that distancing term – pay. Indian citizens pay Rs. 4500 or if they are outside the NCR – but not so far that they are outside India – they pay Rs. 2700 per year. That’s logical. he farther from India an IIC member is, the less he/she is likely to use the facilities, and so the membership rate should be low. But normal logic fails with the rate applied to foreigners: $675 per year, i.e. Rs. 40,500, or approximately 100 times the fee charged Indians. A foreigner, who comes to India for a relatively short time, is treated as a kind of money-tree, not a collegial member.
If it were only the India International Centre that charged foreigners an exorbitant fee, one might forget the situation, but foreigners, who already pay massive amounts just to get to India, are invariably charged many times the rate applied to Indians. That does not make us feel welcome. But more than that, it makes some aspects of our work almost impossible to undertake. As an art historian, I need to visit sites protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. If a site happens to be a World Heritage Site, I have to pay Rs. 250 every day I enter the site; an Indian pays a mere Rs. 10. Thus long-term art historical research for a scholar of India’s ancient cultural heritage is prohibitive.
This policy is applied on a racist basis. If one looks like an Indian, one is charged the Indian rate, regardless of nationality. If one has a foreign appearance, the foreigners’ rate applies. As one of my Indian-American students told me, when she visits an Indian site protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, her family tells her to remain silent lest her American accent mark her as foreign.
But still more than the cost is the feeling that such a vast disparity inculcates: We’re not wanted. And if, despite that, we chose to come, we must pay the price. The practice extends to taxis, tourist shops, and just about every other institution that serves (or gouges) foreigners. As one shopkeeper told me: If the government can charge dual prices, then certainly I can.
How different that is from the experience we extend to Indian citizens who come to the U.S., particularly those who pursue advanced degrees at American universities. Over my years of teaching, I have had dozens of Indian postgraduate students. Every one of them, without a single exception, has paid precisely nothing. That is, the university has extended financial aid, so in the end they pay less than an American self-supporting student is obliged to pay.
I am at the end of my career, and so this feeling matters less and less to me, particularly as I increasingly focus my research on Southeast Asia, where I am welcomed as an International Guest, not a foreigner. But overall, the way foreigners are valued in India is marked not by the lip-service given to the term atithi, but to the actual practice that foreigners experience, one of discrimination.
So what about the Indian International Centre? Let me take this opportunity publicly to resign my membership. Not only can I no longer afford the fee as I head toward retirement and my days on a pension, but I don’t much like the feeling that I am valued only for the money I might provide rather than the collegiality of collective membership in an institution.
(Frederick M Asher teaches at the University of Minnesota. The views expressed by the author are personal.)