Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tryst With Modernity -Reaffirm our traditional inventiveness in embracing and using new ideas and technology (by Deep K Datta-Ray)

With the clockwork regularity befitting a nation aspiring to modernity,India has just marked the moment of colonial liberation with the usual stirring ceremony harking back to our mixed ancestry. This was epitomised by the man at the centre of the celebrations,an Oxbridge educated PM who,having risen from rural poverty, moved through a series of rituals inherited from the British.The ceremony negates a delusive argument structured around the myth of purity and fraught with danger raging at the heart of todays India. On one hand is the fatalist argument that Indians might have won temporally but can never shake off the intellectual chains with which the British bound our intellectual elites thinking.In such a reading,removing the British served no purpose since native rulers are but a reflection of our erstwhile masters and rule just as ignorantly and rapaciously.Fatalists say British rule fundamentally polluted the Indian mind,leaving us with no escape from the predicament of misrule.Focussed on traditional elites, the fatalists error is to conflate them for all of India and thus miss majority dynamic of Indian society.

Essentialists in the opposing camp offer a dangerous antidote : an illusory return to a pure India un- corrupted by British rule. Their argument,that restoring this mythical India is the balm for our woes, ignores the flux of Indian society. Foreigners have always added themselves to the fabric of India and transformed its warp and weft.There is thus no essential India to be captured,much less reproduced. The fatalist argument draws powerfully on colonial sources.Indeed,creating a class of persons Indian in blood and colour,but English in tastes,in opinions,in morals and in intellect paid dividends in Indias first prime minister,Harrow and Cambridge-educated Jawaharlal Nehru.It is argued that he uncritically transposed a western modernity on a land that was historically,culturally and physically completely alien to 20century Europe.The argument is given added impulse because Nehrus grand vision could not be challenged.As a newspaper,then British-owned and edited,noted at the time,though Nehru addressed the Indian masses as a democrat,the Indian masses revered him as a demi-god.

In practice this translated into policies of top-down planning,heavy industry and elite universities which created symbolic capital status in form of grand projects and Nobel prize-winners but basic education and health for rural areas were neglected. Internationally, India was ridiculed as its diplomats propa-gated nonaligned ethics in pucca British accents while Indians languished in abysmal poverty. The corrective,insist the essentialists,is to turn our back on western modernity.To do so would be fatal for it would close off a wealth of opportunities.That course also ignores the inherent flexibility of Indias poor in managing modernity.A testimony is the average north Indians response to the language of the conquering British.They transformed it into Hinglish a pervasive mishmash beyond state control that has spread from below so that even ministers no longer aspire to imitating the Queen.Hinglish boasts of airdashing to a crisis (famine or fire) lest newspapers accuse them of being on the backfoot.A vivacious mixture of English and native tongues,Hinglish is a dialect pulsating with energy and invention that captures the essential fluidity of Indian society. Academics mistake this as hybridity.It is not because it is motivated by an underlying and uniquely Indian ability to assimilate. Spirituality explains it best. Attracted by the vast numbers in need of salvation, Jesuits flocked to India. However,disillusionment followed as Indians learnt about Christ but only to displace him from his unique position,and render him as just one in our traditional pantheon of gods.

It is this Indian tradition of innovation,of appropriating goods and ideas and using them in our own traditional ways,that ought to guide the state.The way to do so is to devolve decision-making from the Soviet-style planning system we still use to the rural poor.Though the current five-year Plan has shifted the emphasis from industry to the countryside,there is much more to be done.Microcredit has to be expanded and,while only the state is capable of developing and bringing new technologies to the poor,only they can inform the state about what works locally.

As with English,the poor are capable of pragmatically appropriating from the state what is beneficial (whether ideas or technologies) and use it innovatively.Given his background,no one knows this better than Manmohan Singh.Paying tribute to our traditional dynamic at Oxford University,he noted that in indigenising English,we have made the language our own.To do so with the rest of modernity,Singh must draw on our traditional flexibility to devise policy originating from the bottom to erase that other enduring facet of our tradition: poverty.

Bringing the local back into the processes of modern government is to limit the state to providing access to a plethora of internationally approved choices.It demonstrates a fundamental confidence in the ability of poor Indians to manage alternatives themselves and permits fine-tuning choices to local conditions. Doing so allows India to move beyond Nehruvian topdown modernity while reaffirming our tradition of innovation. (The writer is an historian.)

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