I am always amused when someone in my extended circle of acquaintances refers to my fellow Indians as intelligent. They base this on the usual clichés trotted out by NRIs, about how Indians run Silicon Valley. They also base this on random WhatsApp forwards that have increased over the past five years, touting our superiority in every sphere of human activity without any proof whatsoever. These inane forwards allow the senders to conveniently ignore the fact that there are few signs of intelligence among the 1.3 billion people who make up this country.
How is one to quantify the intelligence of a people anyway? Does one base this on the fact that a handful of them manage to find high-ranking jobs in the West? Does one count the Indian doctors and engineers abroad and simply assume that a majority train to become doctors or engineers? Also, does a career in medicine or engineering automatically qualify one to be referred to as intelligent? A little scratching of this surface is all one needs for these myths to vanish quickly.
Everything we do is based on our herd mentality. Our parents urge us to study the sciences, not because they believe it is an intrinsically worthy thing to do, but because their friends and neighbours urge their own offspring to do the same thing. Millions of us trod predictable paths set down in stone long before our parents consummate their arranged marriages. In rural India, it is the administrative service for boys and early marriage for girls, along with the pressure of choosing law, medicine, or engineering in the largest city around. In urban India, it is the same emphasis on predetermined professions, the only difference being students pointed towards higher ranking institutions or a university abroad.
It is more accurate to call ourselves acquisitive rather than intelligent. We urge our children to study subjects that can make them richer, not better human beings. In the bargain, what we accept are shortcuts with no real substance. This explains why a shockingly large number of Indian engineering and management graduates are routinely deemed unemployable by companies outside India. It’s because of our relentless emphasis on rote learning rather than genuine understanding.
Take a look at the businesspeople we respect most, to get another sense of how warped our notion of intelligence is. We look up to people who game the system, rather than those who bring about change. People who manage this ruthlessly do so at our collective expense, because it is our taxes that end up lining their pockets, but we applaud them anyway and invite them to conferences so they can talk about how the rest of us can aspire to be as wealthy. Our business tycoons haven’t said anything intelligent in decades, but we think of them as brilliant simply because their assets are many times the size of our own. It is their bank balance we respect, not their worth as human beings because they do so little.
If we were genuinely intelligent people, we wouldn’t be swayed by the things most developed nations have moved away from. We wouldn’t be easily diverted by politicians who know which buttons to push and fall for propaganda on Twitter instead of noticing how every pillar of what constitutes a healthy democracy is being systematically weakened around us.
We have to evaluate what it means when we lie to ourselves about our superior intellect, because everything that ought to be cultivated by us is ignored in the race towards a higher salary. Our upbringing is reflected in the way we treat those less fortunate than us, by our support for inhuman and unnatural social practices, and by how we transmit our many prejudices to our children instead of teaching them to be better, more empathetic, and emotionally intelligent people.
The clearest indication of how intelligent we are ought to have come in the wake of this year’s pandemic. While countries with the lowest fatality rates focused on extensive testing, social distancing, and phased lockdowns, we accepted extended curfews that had no rationale behind them, an absence of planning for migrants and the most vulnerable among us, and the dispersal of flower petals instead of the distribution of medical equipment.
If you find the time, do some research on what percentage of its GDP is allocated by our glorious country for healthcare as opposed to defence. That number should tell you what the average IQ of most Indians really is.
— First published in the Mid-Day