Thursday 15 October 1998

Crossroads: India's Tryst with the Future

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

Across Asia, there are two broad tendencies. The first is the West
Asian model, the second the East Asian. Afghanistan and Pakistan
reflect the first, while Indonesia and (as yet) Malaysia practise
the second.

The West Asian model postulates a society where one
community is supreme, the others being given inferior status.
Women are part of the underprivileged group, and the use of
violence to achieve political and foreign policy objectives is
encouraged. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, one segment of society
has been given the monopoly of power, with the rest condemned
to servitude. In Saudi Arabia there are no churches or Buddhist
viharas. In Pakistan, Shias, Sindhis, Baluchis and the religious
minorities are discriminated against. As an Islamabad satellite,
the Taliban-controlled regime follows its master’s model in its
own country.

The West Asian model promotes feuds and confrontations,
and allocates a low score to orderly economic development. It
rejects the concept of a plural society that slowly evolves a
composite culture. Within India, its most ardent followers are
the activists of the Viswa Hindu Parishad and the Jamaat-I-
Islami, which would like to adapt the Pakistani model to this
country by relegating ”unbelievers” to second-class status. The
VHP would like to destroy places of worship the way temples
have got demolished in Pakistan. Those who promote caste and
regional divisions also fall within this category.

The East Asian model puts the highest premium on economic
growth, and on the development of private initiative as a means
of ensuring this. Progress requires social - as distinct from
political - stability, and this means a polity where no group feels
discriminated against. In both Indonesia and Malaysia the
minorities are treated on a par with Muslims, though in both
countries certain politicians are now trying to promote the
Pakistan model against their own. However, till today they have
not succeeded, with the result that communal harmony still

Rather than the West Asia model conquering South and East
Asia, there is need for the Eastern model to spread to the other
parts of the continent, so that societies there can avoid the
bloodshed that sectarian policies generate. An example is Sri
Lanka, where the 1950s-1960s attempt to make the Sinhalas
dominate over the Tamils led to the rise of the LTTE. Today there
is an effort to reverse anti-Tamil policies to damp down the roots
of the rebellion. In India, despite pressures from Hindu, Muslim,
Sikh and Christian extremists, the East Asian composite culture
has prevailed, as illustrated by M. F. Husain, a Muslim painter
proudly depicting scenes from the Rumuyana and the Mahabharata.
As an Indian, Husain has as much proprietorship over these
epics as Uma Bharati has. Sadly, however Homer’s epics are
given more prominence in Indian classrooms than home-grown
epics. An example of West Asian thinking where epics too are
given religious connotations rather than historical ones.

There are numerous individuals in India who follow the
West Asian model while parading as liberals. These are the
people who ban the teaching of Indian epics and who downgrade
most manifestations of local culture. Thanks to them, the word
"secular" has acquired an anti-religion character, when in fact
the truly religious are the most secular. The phoneys are the
individuals who seek to banish international languages from
Indian classrooms and who are opposed to large-scale industrial
projects allegedly on environmental grounds. At the same time,
they claim they want to abolish poverty. Presumably this will be
done the Stalin way—by finishing off the wealthy. The "Left"
and the "Right" appear to share the common goal of diverting
public attention from the need to focus on economic development
by throwing up red herrings in the shape of demolition of
minority houses of worship or the banning of investment even
from friendly Asian countries.

The battle for establishing the East Asian model - while
harmonising it with the imperatives of political democracy -
needs to be won in India. Thereafter, this country has to serve as
a disseminator of a development-friendly and moderate cultural
paradigm to the region, especially the western and central
reaches, where fanaticism reigns. One way of helping this task
would be the beaming of more Indian programmes to the region,
through strategic alliances with Asian programmers. If there is
an improved constituency within Pakistan for better relations
with India, some of the credit must go to the numerous Indian
television programmes that are getting aired within that country.
These sitcoms show that people of other regions and faiths are
not monsters but very similar to oneself.

Lal Krishna Advani is a politician this writer admires, hence
the sorrow when he gives the impression of believing that the
destruction of places of worship in Varanasi and Mathura are of
greater importance to the 900 million dirt-poor Indians than
orderly development that can change their lives the way it has
happened in Korea or Malaysia. Why does the BJP look towards
Pakistan and Afghanistan for inspiration, rather than to these
two countries? As for the "secularists", should they keep putting
roadblocks in the efforts of the Gujrals and the Chidambarams
to free the economy from Nehruvian chains, the people of this
country will remain poverty-stricken. The country has yet to
forget Pranab Mukherjee demanding higher taxes from the
middle class or Sitaram Yechury opposing foreign investment in
any Indian state except of course Bengal, or any move to inject
competition into key sectors such as banking and insurance. Of
course, funds from well-off businessmen profiting from their
monopoly positions may dry up if sensible policies get pursued.
But surely Mukherjee and Yechury want the rest of us to enjoy
the standard of living that they themselves are used to.

Unfortunately, the Gujrals and the Chidambarams are not
doing much to checkmate the Mukherjees and the Yechurys.
Rather than expose their double-talk, the politically correct path
these days is to play along with the fiction that the Mughal-
British-Nehru framework was good for India. By down-grading
the importance of economic issues this school focused attention
away and on to regional, caste and communal issues.

India has the ingredients in place to become a world power.
However, it lacks a political class that has confidence in its own
people. Hence the pussyfooting on developing a nuclear deterrent
or the avoiding of policies that would increase investment from
Asia and from those EU members not dominated by US-UK
perceptions about the subcontinent. Jaswant Singh, Madhavrao
Scindia and Palaniappan Chidambaram step forward. It's your
turn to try and free the Indian people from the colonial web of
restrictive laws fused to a legal system that takes a hundred
years to decide on cases. Do that, and your fellow-countrymen
will do the rest.

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