Friday, October 17, 2008

Indian Renaissance

I am reading Sanjeev Sanyal's Indian Renaissance - a fine book, as I have noted earlier. On the second reading, its principal thesis is becoming clearer to me, and I have started to disagree.

The principal thesis of the book is how Indian civilization went into a decline for about a thousand years, before turning a corner again in the nineteenth century Bengal, and finally coming into full bloom again after 1991, on the wake of Manmohan Singh's liberalization efforts. The author maintains that the civilizational decline was accentuated by a 'closed' approach to innovation, change and new ideas. And, all of this came back in fashion after 1991 - when Indian entrepreneurs were unleashed on the world. And, that started an Indian renaissance.

However interesting this formulation may sound, the timeline mentioned here are bound to raise eyebrows. This sounds too familiar - in line with Hindu Nationalist thinking of a golden Indian past, followed on by a dark age under Islamic domination. The concept of a Hindu civilization - open to new ideas, allowing infinite social mobility, entrepreneurship and innovation - is also old, but possibly flawed. Not only social mobility got severely limited by the caste system in the late vedic age, and stories of persecution and repression of the lower castes and later, Budhdhists, abound. While it is plausible that India did contribute more than 30% of the world's GDP in AD 1 [against China's 26% and Roman Empire's 21%] and undeniably Indian universities excelled in their intellectual leadership, it is difficult to imagine an open society - of ideas and innovation - in the pre-Islam India.

It is, further, harder to accept the thesis about India's decline. The author blames it on the inward-looking, insular culture that took hold after, more or less, the Islamic invasion. Here, the Indian civilization is made synonymous with Hindu civilization, and a broad generalization of history was made. While India's 'share' in World's GDP may have declined, but India's GDP did indeed go up significantly. Between AD 1000 and AD 1820, Mr. Sanyal quotes Angus Maddison, India's share of World's GDP went down from 29% to 16% [and by 1947, it fell to 4%], but this happened in the backdrop of a great Chinese expansion and post-Roman Empire consolidation of European states. The author here blames this 'relative' decline on India's attitude towards technology and new ideas, though the Muslim emperors of India greatly expanded their empire, promoted scholarship and invested in building cities and military infrastructure.

The author's expectation of how India turned a corner is even more surprising. He believes that while a renaissance was under way since the days of Raja Rammohan Roy, the doors were finally unlocked by Manmohan Singh's economic policies in the 1990s. This allowed new ideas and openness, encouraged entrepreneurship and innovation. He expects that this will lead to a great economic and social revival of India.

The treaties will go down well in the current myths spread about India and its emergence, though it rehashes a central thesis - a golden India wasted by Muslim invaders - and therefore demonstrates the greatest threat to modern India. An interesting polemic, though written in a tired style of business plan, the book misses the point by a mile.

Here is why. Indeed, I shall accept the fact that Indian civilization declined - but I shall rather look at later Mughal era than the dawn of Islamic invasion of India. I shall repeat my favourite quote, that of Cambridge professor William Ralph Inge, "Every institution not only carries within it the seeds of its own dissolution, but prepares the way for its most hated rival". The point I shall make is that every civilization fails, unless it builds a peaceful mechanism of self-destruction and renewal within itself. While the glory of India's past is being touted, one must realize that its destruction came from within. This is all but natural, and seeing it through the prism of civilizational conflict is motivated and misleading.

Without the intention of spoiling anyone's party, my view is that any judgement about new India is still too soon to make. It is not fair to contrast a micro-event - a few budget decisions of Mr. Singh in the 1990s - against a broad historical trend, like the thousand year decline under Islamic rule. If I have to make a comparison, I shall try comparing Mr. Singh's liberalization to Sir Thomas Rowe's visits to the Emperor Jehangir, both of which can be treated as significant steps towards economic openness, hopefully with contrasting results.

Also, alluding to Mr. Sanyal's proposition that a civilization thrives on openness - towards new ideas and people - the modern, post-1990 India is no more open to India in Jehangir's time. We have brought the civilizational strife right in our middle, branding some of our citizens as aliens and refashioning our history through the prism of political convenience. The country we run today are no less elitist than Mughal India, no less exclusionary than the Brahminical times. Much of our population is excluded from any prosperity that we attained in the recent times. We fear all foreigners and their ideas, and increasingly, that fear is fashionable. Innovation, entrepreneurship and freedom - the key drivers of a dynamic civilization - do not thrive in this setting.

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