Is Prime Minister Modi Turning India Inwards As Ramachandra Guha Claims?

Is Prime Minister Modi Turning India Inwards As Ramachandra Guha Claims?Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Snapshot
  • Passing off ahistorical interpretations as incontrovertible facts can’t be a privilege granted to historians.

    Ramachandra Guha’s interpretation of the Prime Minister’s call for self-reliance as a call for turning inwards is flawed. Here’s why:

“Now, in the 21st century, when the world is so interwoven, the prime minister of India asks us to turn inwards into ourselves. We shall not listen.”

So wrote historian Ramachandra Guha in The Telegraph on 27 March 2021.

But has Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indians to turn inwards into themselves or is Guha’s imagination running ahead of the facts?

Historians, unlike those who engage in the natural sciences – physics, mathematics and chemistry – pay less attention to empirical rigour. History is open to interpretation depending on the mind – closed or open – of the interpreter.

Science disallows such subjectivity. The laws of physics change only when new empirical proof is offered. Einstein’s theory of special relativity still holds 116 years later.

History is more accommodating. Winston Churchill received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

Examine what Churchill – who regarded himself as much a historian as a politician – wrote in a memo in 1919 when he was Minister for War and Air in the British government: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gases: gases can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror on most of those affected.”

That was Churchill’s way of “defending exalted human values” when British colonialism was at its peak.

But back to Guha. He wrote in his Telegraph article: “The Hindu mind was far more open when we were still under colonial rule than at present, when we are a professedly proud and independent nation.”

Ignore the prejudice that populates Guha’s politics. He is as entitled to bias as anyone else. What he is not entitled to is passing off ahistorical interpretations as incontrovertible facts.

Indians through history have exhibited an odd mixture of open-mindedness and introversion. India was open-minded when it generously gave refuge to Parsis fleeing Islamic persecution in Persia.

Jews and Christians received safe haven in India as early as the 2nd century even as less formed civilisations in Europe and the Middle East unleashed violence on them.

An openness of a different kind was on full display when the Portuguese, British and French sought and received trading concessions in India in the 17th century. Colonisation by military force followed.

Colonisation of the Indian mind was still a work-in-progress. Buffeted by, first, the Mughal conquest and then British colonial occupation, Indians withdrew into a shell.

Hindus had always been riven by caste. It enabled outsiders to divide and rule India. Even powerful Maharajas fell into place. They controlled vast swathes of land and wealth in their kingdoms. But in front of a mid-level British officer they were forced to walk backwards on taking his leave so that their backs were never turned to the coloniser.

The colonisation of the Indian mind continued. It would be resisted by nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji who became the first Indian to win an election to British Parliament.

Other reformers like Rabindranath Tagore, Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda played important roles in decolonising Indian minds. They didn’t always succeed.

Guha is right to say India should engage with the world. But like some others he mistakes the Prime Minister’s call for self-reliance as a call for turning inwards.

Consider the empirical evidence. The engagement of Indian startups with foreign investors is increasing exponentially. Young Indians – millennials and zillenials – travel widely, are optimistic about the future and quick adapters of both Western ideas and technology.

There obviously are ways in which the Indian mind must embrace greater modernity. This applies equally to all Indians – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Jains and Sikhs.

Indians must be more socially liberal, accepting and honouring all kinds of diversity – religious, sexual orientation, language and caste.

Modi, despite his governance infirmities, of which I’ve written frequently, is chipping away at the Nehruvian ecosystem that closed India’s economy and created a culture of closed-minded elitist entitlement. The task is incomplete. But time is short and politics is an unforgiving mistress.

Modi is too often guided by what the West thinks of him: he embraces global awards and reacts acerbically, if privately, to negative international media coverage.

These are weaknesses the West enjoys exploiting. Modi needs to improve institutional governance – from academia to tax laws – because it is right for India, not because editors in Washington or London think it is.

India’s antediluvian Marxist media has slammed every “open-minded” reform proposed by the government in recent years: modernising the farm sector; liberalising foreign investment in insurance; privatising public sector banks; introducing changes in antiquated land and labour laws.

Opposing such reforms is what is inward-looking. Historians like Guha, bereft of empiricism, have an uncanny ability of missing the point.

Minhaz Merchant is an author and publisher. 

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