The Indian Grand Narrative: How Britain Can Make Amends For Colonial Past
The disconnect between the popular mandate of the people and the warped narrative emanating from the ivory towers of the old establishment needs to be fixed.
The policies of Britain must be aligned to the people’s choice in India and not to the voices that have clearly been rejected and discarded.
This is an edited transcript of Rajiv Malhotra’s recent talk in the British Parliament. It was exceptionally well-received, with concrete plans being developed to carry the ideas forward. The video of this is available here.
We can easily agree that Narendra Modi is a global brand today. But who voted Modi into power? It is not any fringe or marginal group that voted him to power but a groundswell of support that catapulted Modi and this is not going away any time soon. This is the voice of the new India which has been suppressed for a few decades and is slowly regaining its vigour and vitality.
Indians have overthrown the old narrative for a new one. Despite this, people subscribing to the old and warped narrative about India still enjoy prominence overseas. The out-of-work intellectuals move their wares to London and they are warmly welcomed because they can market themselves. This disconnect between the popular mandate of the people and the warped narrative emanating from the ivory towers of the old establishment needs to be fixed. The policies of Britain must be aligned to the people’s choice in India and not to the voices that have clearly been rejected and discarded.
This is where the parallel with BREXIT can be brought in. In both instances what has been discarded and thrown by the wayside is an ultra-left “liberal” voice. This doesn’t mean in any way that liberalism isn’t good. It is just that liberalism had gone into excesses. It had become arrogant, hypocritical and in some cases outright corrupt. Hence this ideology is being rejected and overthrown not just in India and Britain but in fact in the entire world. You can see it happening as a global phenomenon. This has to, therefore, be understood in the proper context. People want that their grand narratives be restored.
Thus, BREXIT is the voice of the people demanding that its old grand narrative be restored and heard. People were dissatisfied with the new liberal narrative that was not giving them the fair treatment they deserved. Perhaps the liberal narrative had given rise to too much oppression, so as to conform to the often outlandish and intolerant liberal norms. This resulted in the eroding of pride for the heritage. It is obviously the similar sentiment that has brought Prime Minister Modi to power in India.
State Of The Indian Nation Today
Post-Independence in India, there was a measure of political autonomy for the nation. In the last 15-20 years, there has been a fair degree of economic autonomy, too. However, the decolonisation in the intellectual sphere is yet to happen. The books that are written about our culture and history are still replete with denigration and disparaging accounts of both. And this is completely an Indian problem. It cannot be blamed on anyone else. India has been free from the clutches of colonialism for 70 years now and it’s about time we did something about this skewed narrative. In the present time, people of India are disgusted with the state of affairs in the country. They are appalled at what is being taught in the schools and chaffing at the asymmetric imposition of secularism that one has to live with.
One of the most glaring and jarring examples of this skewed secularism can be seen by the example that Hindu temples in India are controlled, operated and administered by the government while churches and mosques are not. The government can take over any temple if it wants to, but it is powerless in the cases of other religious establishments. How can this be allowed in a secular state? This is simply not secularism but a kind of minority appeasement. It is not that there is anything against the upliftment of minorities. We should do so and we should respect their narratives. However, respecting one cannot be at the cost of disrespecting another. Some 80 per cent of the population cannot be trampled just to gain the votes and approval of 20 per cent of the population. This model of secularism has roundly been rejected by the electorate.
Grand Narratives And The Left
A misplaced extreme Left thinking is that dismantling and eliminating grand narratives is essential for peace and harmony. It concluded that all grand narratives are tribal and bad and that they had to be replaced with a category of human being with no sense of identity. Mao Zedong tried this in China and failed. Today, Maoism in China is dead and is replaced by the Chinese grand narrative. The shell of the Communist Party of China remains but they have brought back Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism in a big way and they lay great emphasis on modernising without westernising. Perhaps China learnt from the fall of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a huge resurgence of religion which had been suppressed for a very long time. Despite the massive resources spent in educating Russians in science, scientific reason, logic and so on, the one thing that came back with extra vigour when the Soviet Union collapsed was religion. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) thought that it was doing away with the primitive ideas of faith. However, it was not to be, and people were very keen to understand their past. They wanted to understand their history and culture in a positive manner.
The understanding from these is that overdone secularism, atheism, and dismantling of narratives in a nasty and pejorative way has limited shelf life. Identities are important to people and unnatural suppression will be repulsed.
The first epoch of human history was about multiple grand narratives that were fighting each other. This was later replaced by the ideology which said that any kind of grand narrative is bad and that all grand narratives must be dismantled. It was believed that religion and a search for identity was the opium of the masses and, therefore, must be eliminated. However, as we have seen, that has clearly failed. This dismantling of the ultra-Left ideology in India, with similar parallels in Britain, offers an opportunity for a new kind of cooperation. The time is ripe for a third epoch in this evolution, where space must be given to grand narratives, since as we have seen the urge for one is almost impossible to eradicate. However, unlike the earlier times, the grand narratives have to coexist with mutual respect rather than in a constant state of conflict.
A New Paradigm For Grand Narratives
Two decades back I started advocating the idea of mutual respect. In 2000, there was an event at the United Nations, where the world religions were asked to deliberate and come up with a document for improving inter-faith relationships. Certain religions proposed “tolerance” as a way to ensure religious harmony. I was tasked with representing the Hindu point of view by Swami Dayanand Saraswati and I proposed that we should reject the concept of mere tolerance for mutual respect. This was met with a lot of opposition because it meant that if one truly respected another’s faith, then it would be impossible to denigrate it. It would become impossible to say that someone following a faith different from your own would be going to hell because of that. With mere tolerance, one had the licence to call another’s faith illegitimate while putting up with it.
The analogy I used was to state how insulting it would be if a husband told a wife that he was tolerating her in the house and vice versa. Another analogy was to say that a guest is tolerated. The insult is immediately evident in these cases. So, tolerance is a façade and it is disrespectful, patronising, demeaning and talking down to another person.
Tolerance must be rejected in favour of mutual respect. And mutual respect would definitely be accompanied by respect for differences. Differences between faiths and their adherents would be distinct and there would be no need to erase them. Similarly, the concept of mutual respect should be applied even in the matter of grand narratives and I think that should be the way forward for nations to work with cooperation.
Breaking India Forces: Obstacle To The New Paradigm
However, I believe that the intellectual apparatus in India has not caught up with the public sentiment which exists, simmering under the surface or in fact even explicitly expressed today through social media, which has changed the rules of the game.
The intellectual apparatus in the universities is still very anti-grand narrative, making fun of the concept and in fact even being hostile to it. I call this Hinduphobia because the Indian grand narrative is Hindu and dharmic at its core. And this anti-grand narrative discourse has given rise to Breaking India nexuses, which support the cause of separatism. It is a phenomenon observed worldwide that the roots of a violent physical conflict always lie in intellectual engineering. The first stage is the creation of the separatist identity in the intellectual sense. To achieve this end, history is manipulated, fault lines in society are created or exploited and finally the intellectual separatism fuels action on the ground leading to violent conflict as has happened in many places around the world.
The Breaking India forces are partly in India but they also have alliances internationally. The nexuses can be found in Europe, Britain, the United States and Canada or other first world nations. These forces, in academia mainly, operate under the leftist ideology which has an agenda to dismantle grand narratives. India is one country, where they have been unsuccessful in dismantling the grand narrative completely partly because it is such an old civilisational entity. Thus, India poses a very serious threat to these groups. The UK needs to leverage the opportunity provided by the popular rejection of the anti-grand narrative nexus to forge strategic and significant alliances with the India of tomorrow. The history of UK and India is inextricably intertwined, and it presents a unique opportunity for UK to come to India’s aid.
The Ravages Of British Colonialism In India
Trade was the first activity indulged in by the colonial powers. Through trade, the East India Company systematically drained and dismantled the financial, economic, commercial strength and what we call the vaishya capital of India. Next, they attacked the kshatriya capital of this country. The kshatriya capital is the military and political capital of a country and in India they dismantled this varna by ruling on behalf of the king. The British kept naive and foolish kings of India in a kind of a happily drugged state by offering them superficial ornamentation and then ruling on their behalf. They offered the king honorary gun salutes, the grandeur of being paraded on an elephant, a seat at Cambridge and facilities to play the elite game of polo and so on in lieu of the opportunity to rule the country.
The British East India Company was perhaps the first large-scale outsourcing company. They told the Indian rulers that by managing the police force they would ensure the safety and security of the ruler’s kingdom while he would still be sitting on the throne with the symbolic title of king. This successful model for outsourcing brought about the political dismantling of India. Finally, came the dismantling of the intellectual capital of India that we call the Brahmin varna. The intellectual capital was eroded by systematically replacing Sanskrit with English as the medium of teaching. It would have been great if instead of replacing one with the other, the British had allowed the Indians to retain their own language to teach their culture and ways but added to this English as another language to the milieu. But that is not what they did. In fact, it was very clearly articulated in the British parliament in the 1800s, that the one way to really subjugate the Indians was to remove their language, deny their history and snatch away their sense of self-esteem.
A point I want to emphasise here is that when I talk of these categories or varnas, I do not mean them to be defined by birth. They are to be imagined as categories of social capital. Thus, was the social capital of India depleted by the ravages of colonialism.
This depletion of social capital is now being reversed and the first part of the reversal came through political independence from the British in 1947. Economic capital is back in India since the last two decades through steady gross domestic product (GDP) growth. The last frontier remaining is the intellectual capital. That needs to be revived and this is where the grand narrative lies. This would be the return of India’s soft power.
However, in this sphere of intellectual narration, the space has been controlled and is still controlled heavily by the Left. The Indian Left has had five waves of Indology and import of ideas from the West. First on the scene was Marxism, then came post-colonial studies, followed by subaltern studies. Then came post-modernism and finally today, we have neo-orientalism. I have elaborated on these five waves elsewhere and won’t go into its particulars here. The point to note is that every one of the above theories is an imported one with no local grounding in India. The hubris and alphabet soup of all these imported ideologies has played havoc with the Indian grand narrative and devastated it in myriad ways.
Compounding the problem is the fact that there are any number of Indian intellectual sepoys working for this new kind of imperialism that is being thrust on Indians. The British are perhaps not conscious that they are being used by forces inimical to India and that they are coming off looking bad. It is necessary for the British to be more discerning in their endorsement of this band of Indian sepoys, who come to the UK screaming lack of freedom, human rights and so on in India. They are essentially looking for funding and they are likely to use your name and funds for work that is not very much appreciated in India today. Thus, it is imperative that the British people, the lawmakers and serious thinkers realign themselves with the new reality of India.
One of the ways the British could look for the re-alignment is to look at social media. Social media today is the barometer of popular appeal as opposed to old school mainstream media, which is still controlled by old institutions.
The old system is warped and on its way out. It is a system that controls the writing of text books and even the public service commission discourse in India. In order to join the Indian administrative services or foreign services, the candidates appearing for the exams are required to study authors and books that are all old-school. The questions asked in the exams are loaded with leftist ideology and, despite the common public sentiment against this kind of ideology, the present government is yet to clean up the act.
To illustrate a few things that are characteristic of this ideology we can look at their view regarding India. According to this world view, which is incidentally also reflected in the Western view of India, there was no India prior to colonisation. If there was any pre-colonial glamorous era, it was during the Muslim rule. Hence these are the only periods to be studied intensely, with all of India’s other narratives relegated to the footnotes. Even today, homegrown social theories, political theories, economic theories, like those propounded by Chanakya (Kautilya), formulated a thousand years before Machiavelli, are not taught adequately. However, there are some thinkers today writing books that compare modern economic thought with the classical Indian thought on the same.
The Benefits Of Colonialism For The British
Britain was the beneficiary of a large part of Indian knowledge and Indian power during the colonial period. If you look at the Cambridge history of world economics, you will find that until about 1750, India had about 25 per cent of the world GDP. On the other hand, the West, comprising Europe and North America combined, had less than 20 per cent of world GDP and the rest was the GDP of China. That being the case, what happened to the figures that by the early 20th century, merely 150 years later, India’s GDP had fallen to about 2 per cent and that of the West proportionately increased?
The answer lies in the history of that period. When you look at the early European scholars of India, they used to call themselves romanticists and they had a huge romance for India. However, a hundred years later, the romance began to turn sour and negative. There are copious literary accounts that will testify to this fact. Initially, they respected India’s mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, linguistics, botany, medicine and so on. However, a hundred years later, the story was quite different. The East India Company actually started steel production in India. The late Shri Dharampal spent a lot of time in the UK looking at reports from the East India Company measuring steel production, cost of steel, and so on, with some reports even arguing that some of the Indian steel was better and cheaper and should be sent to UK. In fact, some of the major construction projects requiring a lot of steel in Britain were made with Indian steel. The role of Indian textiles in Britain’s development is also legendary. If one were to take into consideration the first two products that made the British Industrial Revolution successful, they had to be textiles and steel. And if you look at what the East India Company was engaged with in India, they were textiles and steel.
Clearly, the history of what happened to Britain and India during the colonial period needs to be rewritten. Britain benefited not just from expropriating capital from India and using it as a large captive market but also from knowledge transfer from India and this history needs to be revisited. India never had the modern concept of patents and intellectual property rights in those days, and hence the knowledge transfer was free. That this transfer was all one way (from India outward) and that it has never been acknowledged needs to be set right. Britain saved a lot of revenue because Indians never knew the concept of royalty.
The history of the mediaeval period regarding India and its place in the world is so distorted and mangled. For example, if I were to ask American educators why Columbus was searching for India, perhaps one in a 100 would be able to provide me the answer. Columbus was certainly not going to India to preach human rights. But, it is a sad commentary that no one really knows these facts of history. These are gaping holes in the Indian narrative. In fact, the narrative of India is all available out there. One only needs to connect the dots and tie up the loose ends. But these connections give a whole new dimension to the Indian narrative.
To illustrate with another example, the Arabs acknowledged and respected a whole lot of mathematics and astronomy coming out of India, even giving the names of the original texts in Sanskrit or Malayalam that they were translating. But 100-200 years down the line, when these texts travelled from the Middle East to Europe after being translated in Latin, the Indian roots were erased. Hence, celebrated scientists or mathematicians like Newton or Leibnitz did not develop their theories in a vacuum. The history of the theory of infinite series is well known and well respected by historians of mathematics. They know that India was the birthplace of those as well as of the theory of the infinitesimals, which are the foundational blocks of calculus. But, the sad part is that outside of these historians, none know, least of all the Indians themselves.
So, it is imperative that we come up with a history of ideas and how ideas have travelled from east to west and vice versa like a slow version of the internet. This is a clear area of collaboration between Britain and India, to help connect these dots and rewrite the story of India’s soft power. Such a collaboration would earn the immense goodwill of the Indian people who will look at it as a tremendous gift coming back from Britain.
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