The Birth of a Bhakt: Sociology, Journalism, and My Personal Passage to India

In the bag was $4000 cash. Not the plastic, rainbow-coloured Australian variety. Cold, hard American cash.

By Dr Salvatore Babones

It was a dark and stormy night. Jim was late.

Normally I don’t mind when people are late, but Jim had the money, and I mind about the money.

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Not that his name was Jim. It was Mathukumalli, or Mokshagundam, or something unpronounceable at least for me. I was getting none of it. You might as well try to say Thiruvananthapuram.

So, I called him Jim.

Not that Jim ever knew it. Jim didn’t speak English. Not even Hinglish. And I didn’t speak tongue twister south Indian language he called his mother tongue.

Anyway, Jim wasn’t paid to talk. Jim had one job, and that was to deliver the bag. And he did it like a true Telugu dadagiri. Without saying a word.

In the bag was $4000 cash. Not the plastic, rainbow-coloured Australian variety. Cold, hard American cash. Benjamin Franklins, all forty of them.

I counted. Jim looked the other way.
And that was that. Jim did his job. I did mine.
And that’s how I became a “foreign agent”.

Or at least: that’s how it must have sounded to readers of The Print, when it broke the news “Sociologist Who Called Indian Intellectuals ‘Anti-India’ Listed as ‘Foreign Agent’ in US, Australia”.

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Yes, both.

I suppose that makes me a double agent? A double-agent whose cover is … teaching sociology? In Australia?

It wasn’t the first time that a sociologist had been outed as a foreign agent, and it won’t be the last.

People with (very) long memories might remember the 1942 spy thriller Across the Pacific, starring Humphrey Bogart as an undercover intelligence officer out to expose a Japanese foreign agent played by the always-sinister Sydney Greenstreet. And what led Greenstreet down the path to perfidy in this particular film? His study of sociology, of course.

Sociology teaches us to systematically examine societies. It demands that we put aside our personal impressions, our likes and dislikes, and treat people not as friends or foes but as data. Sydney Greenstreet’s traitorous Canadian sociologist had spent a lifetime studying Japanese society, and his scientific calculation was that Japan would win the war. So he did the only rational thing. He sold American war secrets for Japanese gold—and a one-way ticket to Tokyo.

Across the Pacific (1942) - Turner Classic Movies
ACROSS THE PACIFIC; Image Source: www.tcm.com

In the end, Humphrey Bogart foiled the plot, flattened the sociologist, and saved the day. Sydney Greenstreet tried to commit seppuku ritual suicide, but lost his nerve and begged for mercy. Well, he was Canadian after all. Bogart got the girl, and the sociologist got ten years of hard labour in the Andaman. Or something like that.

Thus it was that as a committed sociologist and classic film aficionado, I came to my scientific calculations about India.

I read the Indian independence literature; I ran democracy regression models; I even rented RRR. And I came to the conclusion that India was going to be the next big thing, at least on Twitter. So I packed my bag, bought 50,000 new followers, and set out for Mumbai.

Rajdeep Sardesai, did the rest.

Thanks, Rajdeep!

Shekhar Gupta, Dr Salvatore Babones and Rajdeep Sardesai

Unfortunately, being a Bharat Bhakt in 2022 doesn’t pay quite as well as being a Japan bhakt did in 1941. Then again, no one expects a Bharat Bhakt to commit ritual suicide, and I still have my day job. Good thing, too. Twitter doesn’t pay either. Maybe I should go back to spying.

The problem is that I don’t make a very good spy. Spying, like journalism, is all about the personal touch. And I just don’t have it.

When a hitman like Rajdeep or Shekhar plans a job, he needs a setting, a story—and a star. The minority shopkeeper whose business is wrongly bulldozed. The young lovers arrested for wanting to marry. The prominent journalist who is booked in absentia for sedition, but never has to appear in court.

Life’s little tragedies pull at the heartstrings and seem to tell us something deeper than mere data ever can.

Except they don’t.

There are 140 crore stories in the naked city, and there’s always one to suit any agenda. To really understand society, you have to turn to the facts. Not the anecdotal facts of the journalist (or spy); the systematic facts of the objective sociologist. How many businesses were bulldozed? How many lovers were arrested? Do journalists fare worse than ordinary citizens when charged with sedition, or do they fare better?

These are the kinds of facts that underpin a truly scientific understanding of society. It’s on the basis of these kinds of facts that I’m proud to be a ‘Bharat Bhakt‘. Not a foreign agent, mind you.

You can’t be an agent if you don’t get paid, and Twitter only wants me to pay them.

So someone please tell Jim to bring me eight George Washington in an unmarked paper bag. I have a friend named Elon. He wants his $8.


Contributing Author: Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the author of Indian Democracy at 75: Who Are the Barbarians at the Gate?, a research paper exposing flaws in international evaluations of Indian democracy.

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