Shashi Tharoor’s latest book originated in a debate at Oxford on whether Britain should pay reparations to its erstwhile colonies. The YouTube clip of Tharoor systematically demolishing the opposition, his brilliance evident in the thrust and parry of debate, has been watched by more than three million viewers. But the author says he felt a “moral urgency” in informing the “layman and students” in India and in Britain, about the “horrors” of colonialism and hence this book.
The book is conveniently divided into eight chapters. Unusually, each is virtually self contained though each focuses on specific topics, as for example, the extent of the loot; dividing, rather than unifying India; subverting Indian diversity in ersatz modern British institutions; the policy of divide and rule; the absence of enlightened despotism et al. Whilst this stratagem of comprehensive rendition adds to the length, it facilitates selective, speed reading. There are also 295 helpful references to other works—both Indian and foreign, a veritable treasure trove.
The Raj – long on loot short on local benefits?
The author deploys the familiar nationalist tactic of talking up the wealth and virtues of pre-British India, while playing down the inadequacies of much of post-independence India, to book-end the “horrors” of the Raj. The benefits from the Raj are dismissed as few and that too, unintended, barring the development of a pan-India modern press and media; development of canal irrigation; scattered electrification of towns; and of course -the railways. Oddly, the planning and building of regulated, urban settlements for the British, expanded versions of which, subsequently, also became the refuge of India’s political, business and professional elite and in less oppulent versions for India’s middle class, goes unacknowledged.
The “loot” neither began nor ended with the Raj
The litany of colonial woes is expectedly long. Nothing attracts instant attention more than stories of loot and rape inserted early on in a book. The British drained 8 per cent of India’s GDP as per Paul Baran’s 1957 estimate. Annual outflows are separately estimated by William Digby at 4.2 billion British pounds during the 19th century. Extrapolating this trend onto the first half of the 20th century, the additional outflow was 2 billion British pounds. Huge as this cumulative sum seems, consider that Indians themselves are estimated to have amassed $500 billion of illegal wealth abroad in less than seven decades of India’s independence as per the CBI in 2012. Consider also, that against the less than 10,000 British subjects employed in India, the Report of the Indian States Committee of 1929 lists a total of 562 princely states, each with a retinue of vast numbers of relatives of the ruling family living off the state treasury. There is no corresponding account of how much these effete rulers and their families cost the ordinary Indian.
Indian Maharajas delighted in maintaining humongous households and extravagant habits – and why not,
since the aam admi paid for it all.
Yes, the British used India as a source of capital and raw material for their industries, which stilted Indian industrial development. Yes, they helmed organised commerce in India via the Managing Agencies. But just as surely, Jamshedji Tata’s dream of establishing a modern steel mill saw fruition because British India guaranteed the off-take of steel and built the railway to link the steel mill with raw materials and markets, thereby making it India’s first Public Private Partnership.
Jamshedpur, 1912: The first steel ingot is rolled
The author cites the regulations forcing Indian mills to produce only British Specification Steel as a low stratagem to make them uncompetitive. But it could also be viewed as the first step towards internationalising standards in Indian industry. Not producing to international standards was our failing till we liberalised industry and opened our markets to competition in 1991.
The Raj was neither elightened nor did it serve a moral purpose
Of course, the British, as a colonial community, were rapacious, openly racist and self-serving. But the evidence is thin that they were any worse than the long line of Indian rulers that preceded them. Admittedly, it mattered where you lived. The princely states of south and west India were generally better managed and more progressive than those in north and eastern India.
Colonial consequences: The death of institutionalised privilege & rise of the new middle class
Tharoor’s view that neither the political unity of India nor the adoption of democratic norms was a direct outcome of the pan-India political architecture of the Raj is inadequately backed up with evidence. The mere fact that Arabs refer to all Indians as “Hindi” is hardly evidence that pre-British India was already integrated. By this logic, all those living south of the Vindhyas are “Madrasis” because that is what ignorant North Indians called them and all of Arabia is one because we refer to people from there as “Arabs”.
The author ignores the greatest accomplishments of the Raj—the decimation of the old order of inherited privileges and rights; kindling of the spirit of democracy and incubation of the great Indian middle class via government jobs in the railways, the army and in civil governance.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, by abolishing privy purses in 1971, ended what the British began—the consigning of India’s numerous Maharajas to the dustbin of history. By institutionalising the common law and opening up vacancies—admittedly too few—at the very top, the Raj inspired millions of young, ordinary Indians to aspire to be literate and professionally qualified. That three generations of Indians had to serve as clerks to British superiors, not necessarily more accomplished than themselves, is a regrettable but possibly an inevitable consequence of gradual transition.
The Indian Constitution – equity, liberty and inclusion
The Indian Constitution is a direct outcome of the groundwork done over the previous four decades, since the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909, to implement consultative democracy by including the professional middle class in the process. Ask any Dalit, backward caste, tribe or other minority and they will ascribe their liberation from traditional shackles to the modernist, reformist social and economic thinking which emerged, possibly as a nationalist response, to British rule.
Babasaheb Ambedkar: Iconic messiah of dalit inclusion
It is not for nothing that Babasaheb Ambedkar wore a suit and a tie rather than a dhoti. For him the suit was a symbol of liberation from the oppressive rule of India’s traditional, upper caste elite and the Constitution was his guide to a more equitable future. Mayawati, Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Modi are the organic outcomes of the much-needed, albeit self-serving, prising open, by the British, of India’s dormant, traditional cleavages—a black box of competing religions, castes and regions. Consolidation of these traditional identities at the national level via democratic institutions is what has changed the social landscape of India.
Sans the Raj – either a balkanised Hindustan or Red India
Tharoor speculates that if only the East India Company had not been as successful as it was, India would have found its own way to modernity. But what if we had remained hopelessly Balkanised instead? Why would we have not succumbed instead to the romance of Communism and gone the Chinese way? Would bloody revolution, social upheaval, the end of private enterprise, de-legalisation of religion and cultural diversity, unrelieved even by the constitutional promise of human rights and freedoms, have been better?
Contempt for the “box wallah” and the bania -Colonial hangover or the convenience of ersatz socialism?
Tharoor speciously links our inward looking, anti-business attitude in the first four decades of independence till 1991, to our bad experience with the East India Company. This looks awfully like a red herring. It would be more instructive instead to examine the role played by our ineffective brand of ersatz intrusive socialism, used by the elite as a cloak, to retain domestic privilege. The ordinary Indian has looked westward for higher education and advancement, primarily because the professional choices at home have been too narrow and the glass ceilings too low.
Even the author accepts that the British Raj was more efficient than the domestic institutions it replaced. He is right that the rapacity of the Raj was exaggerated, precisely because its extractive capacity was greater than the loosely regulated Princely States. Consider the establishment of land records and the uniform and regular assessment and collection of revenue.
High taxes, yes but also efficient systems and records
Tharoor bemoans the high rates of taxes and the resultant penury for landowners since the burden of taxation fell on land and not trade. Yes, indeed. But that very system also bequeathed an embedded practice of recording individual property rights and updating transactions thereof, which is fundamental for development of private enterprise and for access to bank finance. The British left us with a treasure chest of land tenure, revenue and demographic data and an entire community of rule-bound “babus”. Better this than the institutional anarchy many other developing countries faced, post-independence.
Tharoor packs in masses of information and opinions around the British Empire in India. But it is all done in a grand, Quixotic style of tilting at windmills. The book is a hard-hitting, one-sided debate and caution is advised in succumbing to its mesmerising message, that the Gora (white man) is to blame.
Adapted from the authors book riview in Swarajyamas December 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/tilting-at-windmills
Ramchandra “Ram” Guha’s latest book- Democrats and Dissenters – a collection of sixteen essays – is a meandering but delightful read. Part one explains India. Part two is about the scholars who have helped Ram do so. The link between the two parts is a stretch unless part two is the marshalling of a scholastic framework used in part one. By this logic inverting the sequencing – reading part two before part one, helps.
Ram Guha’s thought leaders
In this pantheon of six scholars, Dharma Kumar (1928 to 2001) is the only woman. The Delhi School of Economics professor and economic historian is the archetypal “nurturer” – mentoring students; incubating research; being a role model for unselfconscious women’ s empowerment; a “liberal polemicist”; determined opponent to fundamentalism and to the politics designed to take advantage of such bigotry.
Professor Dharma Kumar, Ram Guha’s “fellow radical” and the “last Liberal”
Possibly Dharma Kumar was the engaged academic, the one Ram decided never to became. Eulogising Dharma is his way of atoning for the consequential social loss.
Eric Hobsbawm’s (1917-2012) life-long commitment to Marxism illustrates the perils of sacrificing scholastic distance to wed ideology. Guha builds on this theme in the chapter on the eight barriers to freedom of expression in India -ideologically committed writers being one.
The rooted, intellectual energy of the revered Kannada novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) is implicitly contrasted with Hobsbawm’s dogmatic obsessions. Ananthamurthy, a Lohiaite had scant regard for identity obsessed Lohia descendants. His advocacy for sustainable development strikes a chord with Ram’s green roots, as does his dismay with Narendra Modi’s style of combative politics. For Ananthamurthy – and one suspects for Ram – building a “supple” India is far more important than building a “strong” India.
Benedict Anderson (1936 to 2015), an Irish scholar earned his spurs by deepening the study of nationalism in Latin America and Asia. His is the framework, Ram prefers, for nation building – “modern, contingent, forged out of struggle and contest…. replacing faith in God with faith in the nation …. never rooted in ancient history or in ties of blood or soil”. This is Guha’s elliptical manner of pointing out where Indian nationalists are going wrong.
Guha poses a provocative question – why are there so few right wing, conservative Indian intellectuals, other than in economics? R. Jagannathan, writing in the Times of India, has riposted that bench strength is not a good measure of intellectual vigor. Independent scholastic thought depends crucially on the availability of a supportive environment, which is rarely a feature of developing countries.
Guha’s gold standard for right wing conservatives is C. Rajagopalachari 1878-1972. Out of sync in the post-independence, ersatz socialist, Congress party, Rajaji left to found the Swatantra party in 1959. Rajaji defies conventional pigeon holing – a devout Hindu and a liberal, he presciently advocated against “big government” and the “megalomania of …. big projects”. His advice to the Hindu right wing Jan Sangh in 1968 was to go beyond mere toleration of the minorities. Guha’s view is somewhat similar – “a credible conservative intellectual tradition can only emerge outside the…. (reactionary) …. ecosystem of the Sangh Parivar”.
Andre Beteille is to sociology what Amartya Sen is to economics. More high praise for the sociologist comes by way of Ram labeling him the C. Rajagopalachari of our times. Devoted to field work related research; committed to no ideology or utopia other than his vocation; far removed from the convivial seductions of Delhi (much like Ram), Beteille embodies the ultimate scholar. Consider this understated gem from him, which speaks to the divide between Bharat and India: “While educated Indians are inclined to think and speak well of the village, they do not show much inclination for the company of villagers”
Andre Beteille, sociologist extrodinaire and diligent practioner of evidence based analytics.
Roots and how to not abuse them
There is a long chapter on Ram’s book review of Sen’s, “The Argumentative Indian”. Ram objects to Sen imposing modern concepts like “constitutional secularism” or “judicially guaranteed multi-culturism” to the pre- modern practices of emperor Akbar’s court. Sen’s motives are progressive, in portraying medieval Muslim rule as not wholly anachronistic. But Ram apprehends unintended negative consequences from other revivalists, similarly departing from historical rigor, by sanctifying the past to further current political objectives.
A distant glorious past dictating the present is Guha’s worst nightmare as in Pakistan – a revivalist country so devoid of outstanding current accomplishments that it compulsively harkens back to medieval times for inspiration. Vignette one is Pakistani liberals being nostalgic over dinner for the “high noon of Muslim political power in the sub-continent”. Vignette two is the rewriting of Lahore’s history – casting over it “an Islamic glow” whilst ignoring past accretions to its culture by the Sikhs, the Hindus and the British.
“likes” and “unlikes”
Ram does not take kindly to the political philosophy of Hindutva. For him accepting majoritarianism means abandoning inclusion and secularism – fundamental principles that India, unlike Pakistan, was founded on. In a similar vein, he privileges democracy versus authoritarianism. This is the message Ram carries on his travels to China in 2008, to a conference on multi-culturism. His host- a Professor Lin – whilst generally approving of Ram’s credentials as a proselytizing, liberal, gently remarks “If India were not so economically backward, it would persuade the world more easily about how it has nurtured democracy and diversity.
India: Free to be desperately poor
The Congress party – makers of modern India or merely savvy rentiers
Ram is an intellectual- one who has much to be immodest about. But often the polemicist prevails. How does one square his more than fulsome praise of the Congress party for making India “less divided, less violent, less hierarchical, less patriarchal, less intolerant, less unequal and less unfree” with his assessment of its progressive decline and its eminent death due to its conversion into a family business by Nehru’s “abysmally incompetent and self-seeking” successors. He may yet have to eat his words as political Phoneixs rise routinely in India. Add to this that he flags the ill-judged, abandonment of the party’s liberal, secular credentials for perceived political gains in 1975-77, 1984, 1986 and 1992? Three of these figure in Ram’s list of the eight worst years for India. Consider also his assertion that India lacks a culture of actively preserving the constitutionally mandated freedom of expression and the acknowledgement that subversion of this right occurred as far back as 1951 via an amendment to Article 19 (2) inserting “public order” as an additional exception for curtailing this freedom. Put all this evidence together and you would be hard pressed to align it with Ram’s assessment of the largely benign impact of the long years of Congress rule.
Make peace not war
On the use of violence as an instrument of self-determination Ram’s conclusions are pragmatic and surprisingly conservative. He notes that in the past half century only two nations have been born from armed struggle – Eritrea and Bangladesh. He could have also included the most recent case of South Sudan in 2010. His advice to armed secessionists in Kashmir is sound. Learn from the failed insurrection in Sri Lanka. Emulate the Dravida movement of Tamil Nadu and the Mizos. Both abandoned entrenched isolationist ideologies seeking independence – the former in 1963 and the latter in 1966. Both are better off for it.
The no-where people: Adivasis of Central India – caught between joining the rat race at the bottom or remaining at the top of a hunter-gatherer past.
The theme of alienation and marginalization continues into the essay on the Adivasi tribes of central India. Unlike tribal communities in the North East, the Adivasi do not dominate the region they inhabit. In no state are they in a numerical majority, despite the creation of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Consequently, they remain politically disempowered. Predictably the result has been the convenient “harvesting of souls”, earlier by Christian and Hindu missionaries and most recently by the Maoists – none of whom have the welfare of the Adivasi as their prime objective. Ram, ever the pragmatic peacenik, advocates that the government give Adivasi tribes the safeguards assured to them by the constitution and the Maoists learn from the evolution of the CPI, the CPI (M) and the Maoists in Nepal and reconcile themselves to electoral democracy – though he admits that this advice is likely to fall on deaf ears.
This book is mixed fare from the high priest of Indian liberal thought.
Ram Guha, historian and creator of word symphonies.
What is sorely missing in this book is recognition that this “unnatural nation” has moved on, along the lines suggested by Professor Lin, to Ram, a decade ago. Even as revivalist conservative scholars dredge up past glories- somewhat futilely; right wing, conservative politics is creating the space – economic and political, for strengthening this great but “unlikely democracy” that is India. Meanwhile vigilant, liberal, alarmism – as by Dharma Kumar earlier and now by Amartya Sen and Ram, to flag deviations from this path, can only help.
Adapted from the authors book review in Swarajyamag, November 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/in-guhas-latest-book-the-polemicist-often-prevails-over-the-intellectual
Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution, Parag Khanna, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016
In the 1980s, Disney World, Florida offered a gripping, virtual journey as viewed by a blood corpuscle as it rushes through the arteries, veins, into and out of organs in the human body. Parag Khanna’s fourth and latest book –Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution – does much the same for the world of physical and digital infrastructure -roads, railway tracks, power lines, communication cables, oceans, rivers, canals and electrons joining suppliers to customers, uniting families physically and virtually, whilst creating ever widening value enhancing networks around mega cities.
In this world, national borders are little more than irritants; national sovereignty a barrier to be overcome; national passports a poor substitute for global identity options and the ownership of land valueless, unless it is part of global supply chains.
Parag is a self-confessed global citizen. He was born in India, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in the US, works in Singapore but feels at home anywhere – chatting with Chinese workers in Tibet, Turkish Gastarbeiters in Germany or breakfasting with the President of Mongolia in Ulan Bator. There are around 300 million others like him. This book describes the way the world could be from the view point of global citizens. A world without borders or intrusive governments; self-regulating businesses kept customer friendly by competition; open markets allowing capital and goods to move freely, perpetually in search of optimizing costs and maximizing value.
The virtues of the “open economy, networked” universe are generally accepted today, even if most peoples’ view on markets is similar to their opinion of democracy – not the best option but better than anything else available.
Parag hammers away at re-establishing these generic concepts with relentlessly energy via a high octane delivery, interspersed with a wealth of granular information to buttress his argument. It helps that the book is extensively researched. Its bibliography lists nearly 500 references and almost each page has a quotable quote. An added attraction is the 38 color plates which illustrate what connectography could look like. Maps or traditional cartography which represent geographical or political features, actually tell us very little about the world. These are of little use beyond being partial navigational aids. Consider that Singapore is a mere dot on the world map with just 0.1 percent of the world’s population. But if countries were mapped to scale on the size of their GDP, it would be twice the size of Bangladesh. Does Singapore’s land size or population determine its function in the world today or its economic heft?
Connectivity is key
The book is divided into five parts. Part one dwells on the truism that connectivity and not territory or resource endowments, are the arbiter of how nations grow. In a riposte to the reasons listed by Paul Collier of why nations fail, Parag argues, that countries can overcome the disadvantage of poor geophysical endowments. There is hope even for land locked nations, like Rwanda. Despite being resource poor, it is one of the fastest growing economies, in Africa, because it actively searches out opportunities for becoming part of global supply chains.
The withering Nation State
Part two posits controversially, that the nation state is an artificial construct whose longevity is explained by inertia rather than any irreplaceable value addition ascribable to it. This is especially true in nation states which spend much time and effort to reconcile mutually antagonistic and parochial domestic stakeholder identities. Far better then, to devolve power away to homogenous, smaller sub entities – tribes, communities, companies and cities which, in any case, are the basic framework for solidarity and common interest.
The recent splintered vote in Britain, with London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union whilst the rest of the country voted to exit, seems to illustrate the inherent fragility of nation states in the face of sharp internal divisions based on self-interest. The nation state is similarly powerless against the loss of sovereignty to larger regional aggregations- earlier the United Nations, cold war alignments and now regional trading blocks. Better connectedness and communications fosters this trend towards aggregation, driven by Metcalfe’s law that the value of a network increases proportionately to the square of the number of interconnected users. Scale is everything.
Sub- national entities are stable
Part three asserts that a future world of connected sub-national entities aggregated into large regional entities, is a more stable and competitive arrangement than the present geopolitical architecture. Sovereign nations seem besieged by split mandates and dissidence at home whilst simultaneously assaulted by external threats. Competitive connectivity trumps national sovereignty. There is no incentive for destabilizing any actor because all are connected for mutual gain. In comparison, Orwellian instability is built into the DNA of competing nation states.
Snap shot of a connected future
Part four fleshes out the future as a landscape of connected megacities. Multinational businesses will be replicas of the Dutch 19th century colonial empire – a web of small enclaves – business hubs for a global supply chain. The nodes of growth would be the four thousand Special Export or Economic Zones, which dot the world today and are also the foundation of China’s extraordinary economic growth.
….and everything else
Part five is mixed fare – an overview of current issues in the digital economy; the genetic transformation resulting from human cross breeding inherent in the physical movement of more people across the globe than ever before- provocatively titled “a mongrel civilization”- and how to best deal with the competing needs of conserving nature and welfare enhancing growth.
For resilient readers only
This is not a book for the faint hearted. The style varies from the explanatory; the exhortatory to being chattily conversational. Some parts are too dense for a lazy afternoon’s read. Others, particularly where the author links his own experiences to more generic issues are lucid and revealing. Editing is unfortunately, lackluster. Rwanda is not a country which is natural resource rich as claimed on page 94; the lead paragraph on page 337 under the attractive title “The digital identity buffet” is an incomprehensible, single sentence of seventy-one words! Deng Xiaoping’s reforms kicked in during the 1980’s in China, not the 1970s as page 380 claims.
Read this book if you are interested in knowing more about the intersections between globalization, geopolitics, business, technology, urbanization and culture. If you are looking for deep knowledge in any one of these areas, you are likely to be disappointed. If you are looking for a new theory of development or growth, it isn’t here. What you do have is masses of information brought together anecdotally in a narrative format.
This is a tour de force of contemporary world trends with attractive, self-explanatory titles to each of the seventy-eight sub chapters. Each of these is self-contained so you don’t have to read the book sequentially. And don’t miss the quotable quotes. My favorite is “a smart rabbit keeps three holes to hide in” to explain why large numbers of Chinese citizens invest in the US or Canada as a safe haven option.
If you are looking for advice on very long term business investments, check out the heat map on plate 31. Be warned, India, China, Africa, Southern Europe, the US and South America may all be deserts by 2100 dried out by the ravages of climate change – unlivable but good for generating solar power. Think instead of investing in Canada, Greenland, Northern Europe, Russia and Western Antarctica, where the climate is expected to be salubrious and the resources plentiful for the depleted population which manages to emigrate there.
This book review by the author first appeared in Swarajyamag, August 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/