SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 2 JANUARY, 2020
The Anglo-Indian Character
Anglo Indians and their marginality
Historically, Anglo-Indians have several stereotypes associated with them. Often, they are thought of as persons of questionable morality (by Indian norms of ‘morality’), they have expensive habits (beyond what their income allows), they are lazy, and are a generally disorganized group. Perhaps some of these characteristics may be valid for specific persons. But as generalizations for the entire community, they are misleading. Hostility towards Anglo-Indians reached extremes in the pre-Independence period. This was a time when Anglo-Indians were suspect, when anti-British hostilities were strong, when even Western attire was symbolic of Imperialism. The stereotypes that stand out are (a) the Anglo-Indians are stooges of the British, (b) Anglo-Indian women have loose morals, (c) they are traitors to India, and (d) they are opportunists. The entire Anglo-Indian community was attacked, without reference to the characteristics of individuals within the minority.
Reginald Maher describes what he considers the essential elements of Anglo-Indian character. Among the qualities he discusses are – loyalty, devotion to duty, sportsmanship, generosity, physical courage, discipline, obedience to constituted authority, hospitality, love for orderliness and a sense of responsibility towards work. He argues that it is unfair to charge Anglo-Indians with disloyalty to India. He says that on the contrary, Anglo-Indians have historically been loyal to whatever constituted authority existed at any particular time or place. When the British were in power, they were loyal to the Empire. Before the Empire was consolidated in India, they were loyal to the native princes who were in power. Now they are loyal to the government of India as the established authority. He refutes the charge of immorality and profligacy among Anglo-Indians. He says that orthodox Indians trace notions about the questionable sexual morality of Anglo-Indians back to a subjective interpretation of the community. “Behaviour that is regarded as proper and conventional in the Anglo-Indian community may be viewed in a quite different light by orthodox Indians” he writes.
Anglo-Indians are sometimes forthright about the shortcomings and limitations of individual members of their community. A school supervisor in Calcutta was critical of Anglo-Indians in financial straits. “If they are in a sad plight” she said, “it is largely their own fault because they did not save anything when they had good jobs. They are spendthrifts. They want good things but now their incomes are not sufficient to provide these things, or, if they do attain them, there is not enough money left over for their basic needs.” The gap between a Western standard of living, which they idealise, and an Eastern income, which they receive, presents a serious psychological problem for many.
Whatever might have been the patrilineal background of contemporary Anglo-Indians – British, French, Portuguese or Dutch – they now have certain attributes in common: the Christian religion, a Western style of life and English as their ‘mother tongue.’ These cultural attributes have tended to set them apart from the vast majority of the Indian people, though some characteristics such as the Christian faith and the English language are shared in common with a considerable number of other Indians. Anglo-Indians however, are the only minority with English as their ‘mother tongue.’ The cultural gap between Anglo-Indians and other Indian communities – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsee, tribal – is wider. Because, the cultural gap finds its counterpart in the social gap characterizing interpersonal and intergroup relations.
Kenneth Wallace, an Anglo-Indian, writes in The Eurasian Problem constructively approached:
A peculiar snobbishness, inherited from the British, might be noted, the fairer looking down on the darker, all despising the Indian and affecting the European. The community is ninety nine per cent literate, but few are educated beyond the secondary school standard, freshness and breadth of vision are almost entirely lacking. Other features are social inferiority, oversensitiveness, want of confidence, independence or industry, precociousness in the young and an immaturity in the older members. It might also be observed that as a community they do not cohere, that they lack unity, pride of race and initiative. A knowledge of these facts explains why the Eurasians are depressed, poverty-stricken and despised.
The Dilemma of Identity
The problem of identity for Anglo-Indians is traced back to their varied definitions till much of the 19th Century. It was not easy for them to develop a clear sense of identity. Europeans tended to think of them as Indians with some European blood. They were therefore, persona non grata both with Indians and with Europeans. On the cultural and social level, they were alien to most Indians though on the biological level, they were kin. The prejudices against them, real or imagined, or the prejudices they themselves may hold against other Indians, are an obstacle to both group and individual identity. For Anglo-Indians who have left India and have settled abroad, a similar problem of identity again arises. John W. Ricketts is said to be a pioneer in initiating a movement to give them an identity.
Before Independence, both Indians and the British kept Anglo-Indians at arm’s length. The British treated them sometimes as natives and sometimes as British. Frank Anthony describes this behaviour as a case of ‘Britain’s betrayal in India.’ It may be noted however, that they were not the first in India to have progenies of mixed blood. Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in 1498 in search of spices and muslin set the pattern of social interaction much earlier. But it was the British with their dominance for 200 years that played the single-most important role in the growth of the community.
Anglo-Indians are generally aware that they are legal citizens with all rights and privileges of other Indians. It was therefore felt that they identify with India and assume all obligations and responsibilities that go with Indian citizenship. There is reason to believe, however, that some of them do not feel very strongly about their identity as Indian nationals. One Anglo-Indian principal of a Calcutta school stated the dilemma of her identity as follows: “My heart is in England, but my responsibilities are in India.” She later migrated to Britain.
Language and Speech –Barriers to Integration
One of the barriers to social interaction between Anglo-Indians and other Indians is language. Under the British rule, the English language served the needs of Anglo-Indians since it was the official lingua franca and therefore, was adequate for communication in most work situations and in schools. Anglo-Indians made no effort to learn indigenous Indian languages. Thus, they failed to communicate effectively with Indians not conversant in English. Nor could they enter the social life of the Indian people or understand the subtle nuances of their culture. Their relations with other Indians therefore, were often tangential. They still are. Achieving the facility of the local language is an arduous task for Anglo-Indians. They are not motivated to master an indigenous Indian language. The language barrier prevents Anglo-Indians from participating freely in various collective undertakings even if they are otherwise qualified.
John Spencer, a trained linguist, observes that the accents or intonation of Anglo-Indians are somewhat different from English as it is spoken by middle or upper class Britons, or by English-speaking Indians of other communities. The difference may be partly attributed to language instruction in Anglo-Indian schools where Anglo-Indian teachers strive to instruct in ‘pure’ English, or at least English in its idealised form. Through socialization of Anglo-Indian children in the family, the use of linguistic deviations is discouraged in favor of standard modes of speech in English. Equally important was the influence of the radio and English music aired through radio programmes. The Oxford Dictionary states that the term applied to this linguistic deviation appeared late in the 18th Century, about the time the British were adopting discriminatory policies on Anglo-Indians.
This article is part two of a two part series on anglo-Indians and their marginality. Read part one here.