The Australian Who Wanted to be Indian

Shashi Tharoor


I Mean What I Say

I asked him once why he wanted to be Indian, and his response was simple: 'I feel Indian,' he said. 'It's the country I love, the place whose history matters most to me, the nation whose aspirations I share. It's India's people I love. It's where I am most comfortable.'

Dr David Baker
Dr David Baker | Photo Twitter @AusHCIndia

Some years ago, a fresh-faced young man told me with great glee that he had not only graduated with Honours in History, like me, from my alma mater, St Stephen's College in Delhi University, but that he had relied entirely on my 'tutes' - short student essays, properly known as 'tutorials' -- in order to do so.

I was suitably gratified, but also curious. How on earth, I asked, had he seen my 'tutes', when he looked far too young to have been in College soon after my time there? I had indeed left my tutorials to college-mates a year younger than me when I left, but surely they had been lost, shredded or forgotten soon after that?

'Oh, I was there in the mid-1990s,' he confessed. 'But more than two decades after you passed out, your tutes were still going around, passed reverentially down to succeeding batches. How did you write such great tutes?'

For all my astonishment, I had a simple two-word answer to that question. 'Dr Baker,' I said.

Dr Baker was a legend at St Stephen's. He was also my tutor when, as an awkward 16-year-old, I had first set foot in College. His academic rigour, clarity of thought, and precision of expression were applied to my work, and I had the privilege of rising to meet his standards. If my 'tutes' were still worth reading twenty-odd years after I write to them, it's because I had learned at the feet of a master.

The scholar David Baker was born in 1932 in Perth, Western Australia, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, and developed an early fascination with India. His academic career as a historian saw him specializing in modern Indian history, particularly the rise of the nationalist movement in the Central Provinces and Berar, on which he has published the definitive book. (Dr Baker is highly regarded internationally in his field, particularly as an authority on central-regional dynamics in the emergence of the modern Indian state and society, and has published numerous papers in major peer-reviewed journals: a typical essay, in Modern Asian Studies, is called 'Colonial Beginnings and the Indian Response: The Revolt of 1857-58 in Madhya Pradesh').

Stephanian students
With Stephanian students a dozen years ago

But rather than pursue a career as an expert on modern Indian history in a western institution like Oxford or Cambridge, or his own country's Australian National University, David Baker decided he wished to stay in India, and took up a teaching position, in 1969, at St Stephen's College in Delhi University. More than half a century later, he was still there, when he passed away at 89 last week.

I met him in 1972. He was both my teacher as well as the 'block tutor' (the faculty member in residence) at Mukharji East, my student accommodation block in college. We immediately took to each other. A slim, spare, rather ascetic figure, Baker lived frugally, devoting himself to books and ideas. With the casual racism that Indians profess to be incapable of, the college had decided they could not have a white man teaching Indians their own nationalism, and he was asked, therefore, to teach British history, a subject that was far removed from his academic concerns. But, if that was the price of staying in his beloved India, David Baker decided he would pay it. Even while pursuing his own field research and scholarly work on modern India, he read up his British history, and taught it to freshmen diligently and rigorously. His 'tutorials' to small groups of students were outstanding and highly valued.

Dr Steven Baker
A picture from 2018. Though I met him once more after that, and spoke on the phone a few times, this may be our last picture together

When I met him, David Baker had applied, much to everyone's surprise, for Indian citizenship, and the authorities were giving him the run-around. 'They treated me as if I was trying to smuggle myself into Heaven, and that it was their duty to throw up as many obstacles as possible,' he chuckled. 'It was only my persistence that made them give up!'

In the first couple of decades after Independence, there had been a handful of cases of 'white men going native' in this way-the scientist J. B. S. Haldane and the anthropologist Verrier Elwin were the best-known examples-but so great were the inconveniences of an Indian passport in those days of foreign exchange restrictions, limited international travel, and hard-to-obtain visas, that many who were entitled to one would have been only too happy to exchange places with Dr Baker.

He persisted -- refusing, to his credit, to call upon the distinguished network of Stephanian alumni in key positions in the Indian government to cut corners for him. It took years, many forms to be filled in, and many frustrating trips (by bus, in his case) to government offices, but in the end all the government officials who were mystified by his quest could find no irregularity in his application, and David Baker became a citizen of India. Well after his formal retirement, he continued to live in or near the university, researching and writing a history of St Stephen's College. That work was completed, or so I hear, before he finally passed on to another world.

I asked him once why he wanted to be Indian, and his response was simple: 'I feel Indian,' he said. 'It's the country I love, the place whose history matters most to me, the nation whose aspirations I share. It's India's people I love. It's where I am most comfortable. I wouldn't dream of living anywhere else, so I felt I should confirm that this is where I belong by taking on the passport as well.'

As an Indian, I feel honoured that a man of the quality, integrity and decency of Dr David Baker chose to be one of us. Now that he has gone to a place where no passport is needed, it is time for us to reflect again on what passport meant to him, and why so many of us have allowed it to mean so little.

About the Author

Dr Shashi Tharoor, a third-term Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram, chairs Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology.

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