Illusion of Indian purity is fraught with danger

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2007, 12:00am

India will mark the moment of colonial liberation today by focusing on an Oxbridge educated prime minister moving through a series of rituals inherited from the British. The spectacle encapsulates an argument raging at the heart of modern India. Structured around a delusive myth of purity, it is an argument fraught with danger whose resolution will define India's identity and shape its destiny.

On one side, fatalists argue that Indians might have won temporally but can never shake off the intellectual chains with which the British colonised their minds. In such a reading of history, removing the British served no purpose, since native officials rule as ignorantly and rapaciously. Focused on traditional elites, they mistake them for all of India and thus miss the majority dynamic of Indian society.

Essentialists in the opposing camp offer a dangerous antidote - an illusory return to a 'pure' India uncorrupted by British rule. Their argument that restoring this mythical India is the balm for its woes ignores the flux of Indian society. Throughout history, foreigners have added themselves to the fabric of India. There is thus no essential Indian past to be captured, much less reproduced.

The fatalist argument draws powerfully on a wealth of colonial sources. Indeed, creating 'a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect' ( the avowed aim of Lord Macaulay, the founder of India's education system) paid dividends in India's first prime minister, Harrow and Cambridge educated Jawaharlal Nehru. He uncritically transposed a western modernity on a land that was historically, culturally and physically completely alien to 20th-century Europe.

In practice, this translated into policy disasters. Top-down planning, heavy industry and elite universities created symbolic capital - status in the form of grand projects and Nobel prize-winners - but basic education and health for rural areas was ignored. Internationally, India was ridiculed as its diplomats propagated non-aligned ethics in pukka British accents while Indians languished in abysmal poverty.

The essentialist project of turning its back on western modernity closes off a wealth of opportunities. It also ignores the inherent flexibility of India's poor. Testimony is the average Indian's - read poor and uneducated - response to the language of the conquering English. They transformed it into 'Hinglish' - a pervasive mishmash beyond state control. It has spread from below and even ministers no longer aspire to imitating the queen.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is forging a path between the two alternatives by trying to combine the benefits of modernity with the traditional flexibility of impoverished Indians. Unlike Nehru, he accepts Indian reality. However, that does not translate into fatalism. Dr Singh's leadership style of combining modernity with traditional India is not to erase but transform the latter.

India's present five-year plan focuses resources and technology on the rural poor. It promises credit and the latest farming technologies to subsistence farmers. New technologies will not be applied in a heavy-handed manner dictated by high-powered bureaucrats. Instead, experiments are being carried out by farmers to find out what suits them.

As with English, Dr Singh believes that the poor can pragmatically appropriate from the state what is beneficial, and use it innovatively.

This syncretism in the formulation of modern policy brings traditional India back into the processes of modern government. It limits the state to providing access to a plethora of internationally approved choices and demonstrates a fundamental confidence in the ability of poor Indians to manage the alternatives.

Doing so allows India to escape from the failed Nehruvian top-down modernity and reaffirms its traditional flexibility.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based historian and commentator on Asian affairs.