Sunday, August 09, 2009

Diary: One Asia?

For me, the years of living in Europe was significant learning experience in many ways. I learnt about the deep impact technology can make to daily lives, and saw an advanced economy in action. Besides, I understood how liberty frees up minds and gets the best out of most people, something which 'planned' societies failed to do. But, above all, I discovered my Indian, and Asian, identity, and saw, with the benefit of perspective, how Asian countries pulled themselves down in the past and continue to work against their own interests. My current reading list is full with attempts to go beyond the euro-centric vision of the world, and discover the Asian heritage, which India is a part of it. Paradoxically, I would not have appreciated this as much if I did not stay in Europe, and saw not just unbridled racism in some quarters, but a sophisticated euro-supremacist conception of the world in other, more educated quarters. Not only I found this offensive, but increasingly, I am finding this false and counter-productive. I have started feeling that Asian values in business, while it may not work that well in some areas, may work better in some other areas, and possibly the Japanese concept of 'face' would have saved us from the likes of Bernie Madoff, who obviously thought money is more important than any social obligation.

While I am in this quest of retracing back the history - and by no means I am turning an Asian supremacist of any sort - I am trying to understand why Asia became as backward as it currently is and searching for ideas which sought to build a more prosperous, peaceful Asia. I do think this is a worthwhile exercise, because not only it will allow me to understand Indian history with a more 'oriental' perspective, it will possibly throw up important lessons for my own career.

To start with, I am intrigued by the career of Count Okakura Tenshin, whose Ideals of The East was published in Britain in 1903, and which started with the statement 'Asia is one'. To start with, Count Okakura's understanding of Asia as a geographical entity was different from the understanding of Asia in an euro-centric world. The Europeans saw Asia in the diverse lands lying east of Europe, and saw this as culturally, militarily and economically inferior to themselves. Count Okakura, writing at the time of Meiji restoration and in a resurgent Japan, invoked the Sino-Japanese Budhdhist concept of Gotenjiku [five indies] concept of the world and placed India at the centre of the world, with China as its prominent partner, and sought to promote an unified Asian entity incorporating the Southern Islands and Japan [in which he included Korea]. Unfortunately for Asians, Count Okakura's works were much abused by the Japanese militarists, and this was an accident of timing that his Awakening of Asia was only found long after his death and it was published in Tokyo in 1939, and thereafter he was associated with the Japanese fascism [which made Asians suffer terribly] and generally shunned. But, Count Okakura was a visionary dreaming about a resurgent, united, peaceful Asia based on shared values and principles, a far cry from the militarists of 1930s, who had more in common with European nationalists of that age.

It is sad, tragic, that Count Okakura was associated with Japanese imperialism, because he stood exactly at the opposite end of such imperialist ambitions. He, along with other leading Asian thinkers like Sun Yet Sein, Rabindranath Tagore and Aurobindo Ghosh, looked at an independent, peaceful, prosperous Asia as the answer to the questions we are trying to answer today - world hunger, poverty and terrorism and others. He was an idealist, indeed - he had to be, to think about progress at a time when most of the Asian nations were under colonial rule. His ideas started with freedom and would have been complete with a peaceful federation of Asian nations, which never happened.

This is possibly the precise point we need to get to. Asian nations and people have suffered enormously during the colonial era, world wars, cold war and now in the era of sub-national warfare. The current race to abyss, facilitated by erosion of nationalism and rise of militant Islam, an wobbly financial system which creates more misery than wealth, and an environment teetering at the brink of collapse, can only be accelerated by Asian conflicts. However, the only thing our history and policy thinking revolves around are the Asian conflicts. And, the failure to achieve cooperation and understanding among Asian nations is the key problem we need to focus upon.

Coming to India, a key Asian nation, it seems that we are blissfully unaware of our eastern neighbours. We show little commitment to Asia. To start with, we know little and we care little. We have let our country be run with western ideas and western bias, and modelled our education system following the west. We quietly abandoned the path traversed by thinkers such as Rabindranath Tagore, who sought harmony with the world without abandoning his deeply Indian, Asian, values, and tried to build an elitist, exclusive educational system which leaves out most Indians by definition. We turned history and common sense on its head and started seeing China as our biggest enemies and turned ourselves into a pawn of a global game, which must be fought out on Asian soil.

That is a recipe for disaster. It was never more relevant to think about these issues, as we are closing 2009, a year when 40% of the global GDP growth will come from Asia. A harmonious Asia, and I repeat, this does not mean a militarist one, is of everyone's best interest, and most so for the Asian people themselves. We are waiting for our own Jean Monnet; however, in the meantime, we need to reach a deeper appreciation of the likes of Count Okakura and build the bridges among our ancient nations.

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