Ziauddin Sardar marvels at the brown sahibs

Brown sahibs love nothing better than to indulge their fancy for tearing each other apart with finge

I am afraid I have upset one of our greatest living writers. I refer, of course, to none other than Mr Salman Rushdie. In an unimportant review of an unnecessary book in the Independent, I ascribed a certain pedigree to him. The famed novelist immediately fired off a letter to the editor accusing me of taking "cheap shots" by describing him as a "brown sahib". It is, he says, "something I have never been called, to my knowledge, by anyone in India, where, Sardar tells us, it is a 'recognisable sociological type'".

I am intrigued that a man whose métier is to offend others, who defends the right to offend all and sundry on the pretext of freedom of expression, should be so offended by my innocuous categorisation. Brown sahibs are not only well established but also on the ascendant on the subcontinent.

Nowhere is their presence felt more strongly than at the Calcutta Club, undoubtedly the most prestigious club in that city. New members are up in arms at the intransigence of the old guard, who are refusing to extend the privileges of membership to the "fairer sex". "It's been many years since the British left the country," writes an angry correspondent to the noted website www.indiaprofile.com, "but indelible impressions of the Raj continue through institutions founded and popularised by them. The age of the white sahib might be no more, but the brown sahib is doing very well for himself, thank you." Others have noted that the new breeds of Indian business schools are nothing but factories for churning out brown sahibs. Still others bemoan how brown sahibs control large segments of the Indian economy.

But who are these brown sahibs? And what are their chief characteristics? The term was first used by the late Varindra Tarzie (V T) Vittachi, a distinguished Sri Lankan journalist. In his 1962 book The Brown Sahib (André Deutsch), Vittachi explained that this was a particular type of Indian co-opted by the colonial administrators, who set out to produce a "go-between" between the rulers and the ruled. The brown sahibs had had their "neural intellectual circuitry" rearranged to fit "the colonial pattern". It was a calculated move on the part of the British to "replace a clear white colonialism with a murky brown colonialism".

The brown sahibs were selected from among those groups that offered the least resistance to the colonial administration. They came mainly from two classes: the physically and psychologically battered pre-colonial ruling elites, who had been transformed into feudal landlords during the colonial era; and middle-class traitors who had been rewarded for their efforts with junior positions in the colonial administration.

In his follow-up The Brown Sahib Revisited (Penguin India, 1988) Vittachi, who has become so celebrated that an international conference is held regularly in his honour, explained that the elite co-opted as brown sahibs were subjected to a distinctive and systematic education. Special high schools were set up, often by Christian missionaries, where junior brown sahibs were indoctrinated into the ways of Europe and taught that European civilisation was the yardstick by which all cultures are measured. From these schools, the young brown sahibs went straight to Eton, Rugby and Harrow, where they learned that liberalism was the mother of all superiority and that Hobbes, Burke, Locke and Hume were absolutely correct. Their contempt for the thought, religions and cultures of the subcontinent, and their ignorance of great literary works in Urdu and Hindi, were reinforced at Oxford and Cambridge - where they also acquired a tendency towards secular absolutism.

The brown sahibs returned to occupy the juiciest posts in the Indian administration. They appropriated the gymkhanas and other social clubs that had been the exclusive domain of white men during the Raj. Some went on to become noteworthy scribes. Others stayed in England to seek fame and fortune by representing India - as they were thought to do, in the colonial image.

Now, I put to you this simple thesis: Rushdie fits the bill.

Alas, Rushdie is not the most prominent brown sahib on the planet. The top dog is the even more legendary V S Naipaul. One of the principal characteristics of brown sahibs is that each one considers himself to be the only authentic article, the true representative of the ideology of the colonial masters. So they direct most of their venom at each other. As Vittachi put it, the brown sahibs love nothing better than to indulge their fancy for "tearing their own kind apart, limb from limb, skin from bone, with finger-licking tooth-sucking glee".

When Mumbai's Sunday Observer asked Naipaul what he thought of Rushdie, way back in February 1989, at the height of the Satanic Verses affair, the Nobel laureate was utterly dismissive. "I don't know his books," Naipaul declared. He found Rushdie's views "trivial and antiquated" and "about fifty years out of date". Asked what he thought of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, Naipaul answered, "It's an extreme form of literary criticism," and burst into laughter.

The Pakistani-American cultural theorist Sara Suleri, who has made an extensive study of "liberal secularist" brown sahibs such as Naipaul and Rushdie, describes them as the "anus of imperialism". Now that, I think, is really offensive!