Saturday, January 1, 2011

Post Colonialism, the Church, and that Neem tree (again)

Bass guitarist and drummer warming up for today's Service at the Wesley English Church
 Bangalore, Karnataka  SOUTH INDIA, 1/11/11
I began writing today's blog post at 11 minutes after 11 p.m. on 1/11/11 but I'm sure it won't get posted until near midnight.  My eyelids are heavy and my fingers clumsy and slow.  My jet lag is weighing on me heavily today despite the fact that I did little more than roam, eat, and read today...but, still, blog I must!  Besides, I had a great morning and want to share a story from the New Year's Eve Service I attended today (Saturday!) with my friends.

Aunty Iris is a long time member of the Church of South India (CSI), which is the 2nd biggest church in India (after the Roman Catholics) with a membership of 3.8 million.  It is a union of Protestant churches and belongs to the Anglican Communion -- for those non-Episcopalians out there, this means the church is part of a larger family associated with the Church of England (Anglican Church).  As you might imagine, there is some colonial and post- history here to examine!

I met Iris about 10 years ago while doing research at United Theological College (UTC) here in Bangalore.  The seminary is affiliated with and supported by CSI.  I was living in the foreign student housing on campus, using the missionary archives and the seminary library (one of the best in Asia) to write my doctoral dissertation. Iris was there teaching English to theological students from all over India for whom English was their 3rd, 4th, or 5th language (after Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Naga, etc.).  She has been a professor of English for over 22 years and has traveled the world over giving lectures on English language learning.  Last year I had the honor to host her in New Hampshire when she came to present a paper at a conference in Boston, and this year she is returning the favor!  I must confess, I'm getting the better end of the bargain.  She is taking excellent care of me as I spend a few days in Bangalore connecting with publishers, academics, and other scholars interested in regional history.

It is the custom here among Indian Christians, for those who don't go to midnight mass on New Year's Eve, to get up on Saturday morning to attend 9 a.m. church services on New Year's Day.  Praising god, giving thanksgiving for our many blessings,  and praying for a year of health and prosperity for our loved ones are very important to the faithful.  It seemed important and another opportunity to see the sacred and so we went!  
Aunty Iris with her lovely daughter Shobana (a Professor Literature at Christ's College) and son, Mark
The ladies were decked out in the best church saris with gold filigree on the borders and bejeweled elegant footwear.  The gents were in ties, of course, and the children in their party frocks (as they are called still, here).  The female pastor, Rev. Florence Deenadayalan, is an alumnus of UTC and her sermon on making a Covenant with God for the New Year got me to thinking about neem trees again, among other things.  So here we are...

Wesley English Church on Promenade Road in the old colonial British section of Bangalore known as Frazer Town.  Built in 1888 by the white, rich Brits who had a very large military cantonment in the area, it was a spiritual home for many soldiers and colonial administrators (and their families).  Now the Brits are gone and Indians are the pastors and congregation.  It was one of the first and only churches in Bangalore where services were/are held in English.

Since the Wesley English Church is celebrating its 122  year anniversary with a major renovation, we met for service outdoors in a fancy tent-like structure erected alongside the gorgeous colonial sanctuary.  By 9:30 the tent was packed full and the joint was hopping -- the electric guitar and synthesizer drum were warmed up and the choir had their microphones tested and ready.  Modern Protestant churches in India like hi-tech services (often they include power points of inspiring pics and quotes) and usually church services feature an electronic instrument or two.  The songs are peppy and full of Jesus rock.  Solo singers at such hip church services sound a little bit like Mariah Carey (as ours did today) and they hit high notes with glam rock electric gusto.  This is always a bit shock to me,  raised as I was in a stuffy high-church Episcopal setting where eye brows were raised when anyone tried to sneak in an acoustic guitar or a soft folksy modern ballad during communion.  My church elders liked us to stick with traditional tunes on the 100 year old organ.  We sang lots of 18th century stuff.  Hymns were meant to be solemn, for the most part.  No one ever thought about Jesus Christ as a Rock Super Star, really, and I think we outraged some of the blue hairs when we did a few Godspell pieces in 1994 when we thought no one was looking.

Today's service was a feast for the eyes and I would have snapped more photos to share with you but since I was the only non-Indian there AND the only camera toting tourist in the congregation,  I didn't want to draw more attention to myself and my flash bulb.  This plan failed miserably, however, when the assistant pastor asked me to stand and then announced my presence, name, title and career choice to the congregation right before the offertory.   He asked everyone to applaud and welcome me; I turned to face the multitudes and did a NAMASTE hand gesture and bow before quickly sitting down (hoping I hadn't offended anyone with this quasi Hindu gesture).  The assistant pastor had asked Aunty Iris for these details when he greeted us at the tent door upon arrival, much to my chagrin.  I knew why he had asked and I knew what he was up to.  I also knew, from having been in this position before, it was futile to refuse or protest.  

This is typical South Indian hospitality when a foreigner comes to worship in an Indian church but it always makes me a little uncomfortable when I am asked to stand and receive applause during the service.  I think this may be a vestige of colonialism -- it is not uncommon for congregations to honor foreign (white?) guests like this and to put emphasis on one's title (Dr.) or status (Professor) or both.  I've experienced it quite a few times before and it makes me a little squirmy.  

After the service, men usually come up to me to shake my hand and  lecture me about Indian history, highlighting the glory of the Raj.  They rarely ask me about my work or what my areas of interest are -- they are usually just delighted to have someone to share their own historical enthusiasm with someone who won't fall asleep during the topic.  Most of the time such elder men assume I'm Christian (heck, I am white) and want to share all they know about the Glorious British Empire or the Blessings of Christian Missionary work and how it saved India.  As a critic of Empire and as an academic who problematizes the colonial agenda of the Christian evangelicals, sometimes this can be a little awkward for me.  Usually I just nod and smile and thank them for their interest.  I don't want to ruffle feathers.   But every so often, I do want a good debate.  

It happened again today; I was approached by a man who loved history and wanted me to join him in celebrating the British (and the Americans) and all they had done for India.  I opted to cheerfully disagree with this gentleman and he seemed a little put-off by my boldness.  He was a nice chap, an Anglophile, a former Naval Commander in his 60's, perhaps, who wanted to try and convince me that Mughal Rule had been bad for India while the British had been a blessing.  I totally disagreed, as about 90% of the historians in my field would.  This is just the type of rot that the British taught their obedient servants - just the type of bad history that I warn my own college students against.  He went on to praise the superior moral NATIONAL character of the British people and lambaste the degraded Indian National character.  This all smacked of Orientalism, twisted British revisionism, and out right Racism to me, so I had to muster a counter-debate.  Other church folks came over to listen in on the debate and one young, educated, liberal fellow even joined in, supporting my point that Muslim rule had been less destructive and barbaric than English rule, in many ways.  The young fellow used words like 'hegemony' and brought up the Babri Masjid issue so I knew he was well-read and up-to-date on some good theory, despite being an electrical engineer!  In the end, we had the Commander out-numbered and out-maneuvered.  Though he declined, politely, to agree with us, he was a good sport about it all and he shook my hand, smiling as he departed.

After the service, we went outside, and the entire congregation was served a hot spicy Indian breakfast: vada, idli and sambar (with hot coffee). I was sweaty, so I passed.  But everyone else seemed to be heaven enjoying the fellowship and the zesty gravy over steamed rice cakes (idli) and savory fried lentil fritters (vada) under the trees. 

Standing out under the trees, I was reminded of the female pastor's sermon remarks about the Neem tree.  In her efforts to make a connection between the importance of Mankind's humility and the authority of God, she discussed the Neem tree and recent attempts by American companies to try and patent Neem extracts (so as to cash in on and commercialize its medicinal and insecticidal benefits).  She was commenting on the idea of Ownership -- in a broader more cosmic sense.  And in giving this example I think she was criticizing (as many have) the practice some Western companies have about patenting the natural world.  Some accuse the patent creators of being unethical when they rob the indigenous people of the genetic codes (and extract processing techniques) that these native people have 'controlled' for thousands of years.  

Once a process or innovative extraction technique (or method of breeding) is patented by a Company, it is illegal for anyone else to do it/use it without paying that Company big bucks (including villagers who have been doing similar stuff for centuries).  Seeds can be patented and it becomes illegal for farmers to save their harvest seed, modify seeds, or use patent seeds for further breeding (something farmers have done for millenia).   Many eco-activists oppose this -- they say we can't patent conventional methods for breeding animals or plants.  By doing so we're threatening our food security -- we're becoming too removed from the natural process. We are giving too much power to corporations and are becoming too dependent on them for survival -- the plants we grow and the animals we eat are increasingly in their hands.  If this doesn't stop, companies may someday control all the rights to grow plants, seeds and animals.  Nothing will belong to the Commons.  

Simply put: Imagine being a rice farmer and not being able to afford the high cost seed you need to plant to feed your family because one company has a monopoly on rice seed patents!  It is happening.  Even pigs are being patented, which is sort of freaky any way you slice that bacon!!

So this is sort of what is happening to the Neem tree! Our sacred, useful, beautiful tree friend that I waxed poetic about a few posts ago)...

How interesting that this topic should come up in a religious sermon just a few days after my neem blog, eh? Signs from the universe saying to me: Pay Attention to This.  I will admit that I was also a bit surprised, and a little discomforted, by the fact that the Reverend Florence's comments about Americans stealing (patenting) Neem trees were punctuated by heavy glances in my general direction. Maybe she knew about my past relationship with Neem, a somewhat ambiguous one.  But still, I wasn't a patent fanatic. 
I wanted to stand up and shout that I was not one of those Americans and I believed the Neem belonged to the Indian people. I wanted to yell 
"I am not a bio-pirate!" 

The commercialization of traditional medicines is a hot controversy now, globally, especially as it pits marginalized indigenous people in the developing world against big, ugly, powerful companies involved in BIG PHARMA. Biopiracy often exploits indigenous knowledge of nature for commercial gain, usually with no compensation to the indigenous people themselves -- it contributes to inequality between the developed and developing world and it supports the assumption that anyone (or any company) can OWN nature.  

Companies that want to patent a process like extracting anti-fungal properties from the seed of a Neem tree have to prove that there is no prior knowledge of such a process -- that the process they patent is new -- and usually they look for proof of prior knowledge in published form.  If there exists proof that the process existed previously, in a journal or publication of some sort, they cannot make a patent.  Patents, therefore, are meant to reward  'discovery' and 'innovation' --- not theft!  But with bio patents, this is controversial and tricky.

But what if Indians, who have been using Neem for 10,000 years, never wrote about their 'process' in a Western peer-reviewed academic journal?  Does this mean they lose control of and authority over their Neem?  Similar cases have been fought recently over turmeric and basmati rice!  The idea that you must write about your ecology in a formal publication to maintain your rights gives authority to INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY (the written text) and denies authority to thousands of years of traditional healing, oral history and tribal practices that influenced that ecology.  This emphasis on written authority reeks of colonialism.  It pits board rooms of rich white men (usually powerful pharmaceutical companies) against communities of illiterate, disenfranchised, brown indigenous peoples.  The suits get to make the decisions and claim the power -- not those who have established a long relationship with the plant or tree, nor those who have, for generations, seen the plant/tree as something sacred or central to their survival.

Indians just recently won a huge international legal case related to the issue of Neem when a U.S. patent was revoked.  The case against the patent was fought in European Patent Courts by Indian environmentalists under the leadership of one of my favorite eco- activists, Dr. Vandana Shiva.  It was a victory for Neem lovers everywhere!

The fact that the patent was overturned is seen by many in India as a good sign that India's heritage and traditional knowledge will be protected in future.  Now the Indian Government is taking it a step further and digitizing hundreds of ancient Sanskrit manuscripts (on Ayurveda, for instance) that are 1000's of years old to protect their rights!  This effort to 'publish' much of the traditional medicinal knowledge of India is a way to protect India's heritage from exploitation by foreign countries and companies out to make a buck.

Ironically, the ancient and sacred practice of Yoga is under fire, too, as more entrepreneurs claim the right to patent specific postures and breathing techniques for profit!  Indians argue, again, that this is ancient knowledge and can not belong to anyone.  Certainly not to anyone who wants to make something sacred into a commodity to be packaged, marketed and sold.  The famous Bikram Yoga, for instance, claims it owns the postures and techniques are a very specific technique of yoga -- and no one else can teach this yoga, or make/sell a video about that yoga, or share the 'secrets' of this yoga by LAW (without paying Bikram) .  So, the Indian government is also adding 100's of yoga positions to their collections in the Traditional Knowledge Digital library.  If they can prove that yoga is really old and not something you can OWN, then more companies, like Bikram, can't claim license over yoga in order to get rich.

Think about this:

If we live in a world where an Indian villager can't boil neem leaves and use them to heal his family because an American Pharmaceutical Company has a patent on that process, what does that mean for the world's poor who can't afford Western medicines?

If we live in a world where you can't salute the sun during your morning yoga practice because a multi-national gym company has bought the RIGHTS to that sun salute pose, what does that mean for yoginis?

If we live in a world where CORPORATE RIGHTS OF OWNERSHIP out weigh the sacred and the ancient practices of the common people, than what does that mean for you and me?

This New Year's day, as we make plans for the upcoming months... as we think about our rights and our responsibilities... it may do us good to remember the story of the  little neem tree.

Reverend Florence talked about the neem in the context of the sacred because she wanted to remind us to walk humbly before God.  She wanted us to remember that as we make a covenant with God, so too are we making a promise to the world we inhabit.  Stewardship over nature does not give us exclusive rights to exploit that which we have been given.  Stewardship comes with responsibilities.  Or so we might hope...

Blessed be the Neem!


  1. Odd... I always thought you strongly advocated the superiority moral national character of the British people and were constantly degraded Indian culture. I DON'T KNOW YOU! What an amazing piece of writing. I was very pissed off when it ended wanting it to go for several hundred more pages (all of us following this can only hope) You have raised up the unenlightened but sometimes somewhat righteous short and curlies surrounding my own personal neem tree to the point that I'm ready to head over there right now and kick some Monsanto butt!

  2. Iris, Idlis and Ironies!! All sound great!
    Good observations on neo-colonial trends of domination over indigenous people and their land and trees. Enjoyed your blogging. looking forward to the enxt :-)

  3. Michael dear, thanks for clicking on my hyper links. You found Monsanto at the root of a lot of this! I just learned how to insert hyper links into my blog and I was very proud! I am happy to see you share my righteous indignation!

  4. Chitra, thank you for reading my blog and commenting. The triple "I's" have it! Happy someone as well informed and passionate is able to comment here. It means a lot to me you are following the blog. And so nice to talk to you today! Thanks so much, happy new year!

  5. I have so much to learn. Monsanto not included. Stupid colonialists. Thanks Whit. :)

  6. Things look very green. We have advanced here finally from browns to white. So things look especially green in your photos.

    Have no fear. New comers to evangelistic Baptist churches in many USA churches stand and are applauded. So it's really not that unusual.