A Foreigner’s Guide to Understanding India’s Social, Political, and Cultural Issues
This India explainer contains essential information for the non-Indian to understand several key issues about India, including the Hindu-Muslim problem; the two-nation theory of Jinnah that still plagues India today; the problem of caste-based discrimination in Hinduism; the influence of British rule in India; the Westernization of India and its post-Independence leaders; the role of English in India; the state of women in India and the problems that India inherited from the past; the progress in the rise of the status of women in India; the science and technology deficits in India that allowed foreign cultures to dominate India for centuries; the defects in the Indian educational system that were remedied by the introduction of secular education in English; and the reactionary response to the progress achieved by a liberal democracy for 70 years from those who had benefited the most from that liberal democracy. The article explains the rise of the BJP and its leader, Narendra Modi, as a consequence of these reactionary responses, charts the recidivism that is characteristic of India today, and concludes with an assessment of where India is headed as a nation.
An epilogue also addresses the broader implications of what is happening in India, and relates it to what is happening in the rest of the world – the rise of racism, discrimination, violence, and tribalism the world over.
I was recently corresponding with a good friend in the US, a White American whom I knew from graduate school. Whereas usually we do not discuss India, I did share with him one of my recent posts on Facebook about the economic policies of the current government and the debate between supply-side and demand-side economics – something of relevance to the US as well. Since this was a post about India, it contained some specific India-related context.
In response, my friend shared with me a couple of articles from the Washington Post about India with his reactions to them. It became immediately obvious that
- The current situation in India is of significant interest in the West, and
- My friend could not relate to even the most elementary concepts about India such as caste, and did not really understand the Hindu-Muslim problem.
I realized then that while we Indians take the background of these issues as obvious, they are not at all obvious to most outsiders due to the sheer complexity and historicity of the issues involved. This should not be a surprise to those of us in India — we would be equally illiterate about the scope of the problems facing other countries.
That is why I thought of writing this explainer on current Indian issues for non-Indians: a concise summary of the principal social, political, and cultural issues of India, and their historical causes (Although, at nearly 8000 words, some may contest the adjective “concise,” given the scale of the problems involved in India, I would argue that 8000 words is indeed concise. You could write an entire book about this subject.)
Understanding these issues is crucial to understanding the future trajectory of India, and given India’s importance in the modern world, the future trajectory of the world.
Muslim Rule in India
India was a largely Hindu country until the end of the 10th century CE. There were other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, but they had been relegated to the status of minority religions by the 10th century, and Hinduism reigned supreme throughout the land. It was then that the large-scale Muslim invasions started.
The early invaders, such as Mahmud of Ghazni, were plunderers who looted and went back to their countries outside what is considered the Indian subcontinent (including Pakistan and Afghanistan), but the first Muslim empire was established in India at the end of the 12th century by Muhammad of Ghor after defeating the ruler of Delhi, Prithviraj Chauhan. For the next five centuries, Muslims dominated power in India. These Muslims came from foreign countries, but settled in India. They spread their religion, Islam, mostly through vigorous proselytization and through differential treatment of Muslims. Even though Muslims were a minority in India, you could get ahead in life if you were a Muslim, maybe get a position in the administration, so they were able to convert a lot of people to Islam. This changed the demographics of the Indian subcontinent. Today's India has about 14% Muslims.
The last Muslim dynasty to rule India also ruled India the longest, for about 200 years. These were the Mughals, whose dynasty started with the invasion of Babur, who defeated the ruling Muslim king of Delhi in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. The Mughal empire was strong under his successors – Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan, and Aurangzeb – collectively known as the “Great Mughals” - with the empire starting to crumble after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707.
Thus, for centuries, Hindus were under the yoke of Muslim rulers. Now, in Islam, Muslims are considered first-class citizens; Christians and Jews, who are considered “people of the Book,” (the “Book” refers to the Old Testament, which is common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are considered second-class citizens, and those who do not believe in either the Old Testament or the Quran are considered infidels or “kaffirs.” These are third-class citizens. And so, to Muslim rulers, Hindus are kaffirs.
In Islam, kaffirs exist at the mercy of the state. Technically, they have to pay something called a “jiziya,” or a “religious tax” to guarantee their survival. Essentially, this is protection money. Any nonbeliever has to pay this tax, and Hindus had to pay this tax for centuries under Muslim rule, whereas Muslims did not have to.
Not all Muslim rulers enforced these strict rules, but some Muslim kings were highly bigoted and imposed severe rules on Hindus, such as jiziya. In particular, the Emperor Aurangzeb demolished many Hindu temples and built mosques on top of them. He also forcibly converted many people to Islam at the point of a sword. Other Muslim kings, but not all, have also been guilty of these excesses. In particular, Mahmud of Ghazni, in his sack of the Somnath temple in the modern Indian state of Gujarat, famed for its riches, is said to have broken the “shivling” (stone symbol of the Hindu God Shiva) and incorporated the stone pieces in the steps of the Jama Masjid (the Grand Friday Mosque) that he built in Ghazni in modern-day Afghanistan with the looted wealth from India.
Because of all this history, there has been bad blood between Hindus and Muslims for centuries. This is not to say that Hindus and Muslims did not live in peace at all – indeed, there are several unifying forces between Hindus and Muslims. Many of these come from art. The Mughal rulers, in particular, were great patrons of art. The Taj Mahal, the emperor Shah Jahan's monument of love to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, was built using the labor of thousands of Hindu craftsmen. Most Mughal art and architecture is a fusion of Hindu and Muslim art forms. A second syncretic art form is that of the Mughal miniature, which is a fusion of Hindu, Persian, and European styles. Music is another important bridge between the two communities. Indian classical music took a completely new form after it acquired patronage under the Muslim empires of India, starting with the Delhi Sultanate and continuing with the Mughals. The music acquired influences from Persia, and new musical forms were created, which survive and thrive to this day in what is known as Hindustani music. Other syncretic musical forms which survive in India to this day are Ghazal and Qawwali, both of which derive from a branch of Islam known as Sufism. These art forms are enjoyed by Hindus and Muslims alike. The influence of Sufism in India goes beyond music. Sufi saints in north India are venerated by both Hindus and Muslims, and people from both communities visit these shrines to pray for their desires to come true.
However, of late, the negative aspects of the shared history between India's Hindus and Muslims appear to have taken centrestage and have tended to overshadow the positive aspects of the relationship.
British Rule and Introduction of Western Ideas
In 1612, the first British traders approached the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, to ask permission to trade in India. Their trading company, called the East India Company, gradually transformed from a trading company to the company that ruled India by taking advantage of the constant warfare between Indian kings. In 1757, they achieved their first significant military victory in the east of India to gain their first territory in India, Bengal. From here, within a century, the British had completely conquered India, and the Indian subcontinent (including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan) became part of the British colonial empire.
The British stripped India to the bone for their greed and impoverished it, but they did two things that were beneficial to us Indians. One is that they welded the various diverse kingdoms and provinces into a united “British India.” The other is that they brought western ideas to India – science, technology, the ideas of liberal democracy, and all the combined knowledge and wisdom of western civilization from Plato up to the modern age. One aspect of this, which has benefited India a lot, is the knowledge of English, which today is the lingua franca of the world.
Unlike the Muslim rulers, the British did not settle in India. To them, India was only a colony to be exploited. They allowed Christian missionaries to convert people, but in most of India, Christians, even today, are a minority, except in the north-east states, where some states are almost 100% Christian.
The British needed people to govern a huge country like India. They could not import officers from Britain to man the entire government. So they started setting up Universities in India where they could teach upper-crust Indians the ideas of the west so that they would have an officer class that would understand how to govern India according to the vision of their British superiors and with whom they could communicate in English. The amazing thing about British rule in India is that most of the junior officers in the administrative service were Indians, and the entire army was composed of Indians; and yet, the British ruled India for 200 years.
British rule allowed many of the better off Indians from wealthy families to study in London. Many of independent India's future leaders studied law in the elite law colleges of London and became successful and wealthy barristers in India. Some of these elites realized that something was very wrong in the colonial slavery that bound India to England, and started the freedom movement. Mohandas K. Gandhi, aka Mahatma Gandhi, who is considered the “Father of India,” was a barrister at law in London before he first moved to South Africa to practice law. While in South Africa, he began to understand the injustice perpetrated by the White government against people of color, and started to preach nonviolent struggle. Gandhi later brought the same ideas to India when he moved from South Africa. India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, was also a lawyer educated in Cambridge, who had a successful practice in India before he took up the leadership of the freedom movement, guided by Gandhi.
When India became independent in 1947, it was leaders like Nehru – western-educated, liberal, scientifically inclined, believers in equality – who took power. They wrote the Constitution of India, which was modeled on the liberal Constitutions of the US and Britain.
But they were very different from the masses of India whom they ruled. Most of the Indian population was illiterate and stuck in the dark ages. Many still are. And therein lies the existential problem of India.
The Two-Nation Theory
When the time came for the British to leave India, the Muslims of India, led by a man called Mohammed Ali Jinnah, said that the Muslims, who were at the time about 30% of British India, would not feel safe in a Hindu-majority India, now that the British were not around to keep the peace between the two communities. They claimed that Hindus would revenge themselves on the Muslims for centuries of Muslim rule, and the only way to prevent this was the partition of India into Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority countries. In two regions of British India, the far west and the east, the percentage of Muslims was high enough to convert these provinces into the Muslim nation that Jinnah wanted – and these two regions together became Pakistan in 1947.
In 1947, before the partition of British India, Nehru and Jinnah held out two visions of a post-Independent future of the subcontinent. Jinnah propounded the “two-nation” theory, which essentially postulated that Hindus were one nation and Muslims another, and these two nations should go their separate ways. Nehru, inspired by the pluralistic values that he absorbed in Europe, pitched for a secular India, where people of all religions would be equal under the law. Jinnah wanted an Islamic Pakistan. Nehru and other Indians tried hard to convince Jinnah to buy into the pluralistic vision of a united India, but Jinnah stuck to his guns and partition happened. Partition resulted in a pluralistic and secular India, and an Islamic and theocratic Pakistan.
But Nehru and his party, the Congress, did not necessarily speak for all of India. There were many in the India that remained who believed in Jinnah's “two-nation” theory and said that if Pakistan should be the home for Muslims alone, then India should be a home for Hindus alone, a “Hindu” nation where Hindus would be the first-class citizens and others would be second-class citizens. This feeling has grown in the 70 years since Independence, and today I would say a majority of Hindus in India today feel that Nehru and the other Congress leaders made a historic mistake in 1947 by not making India a Hindu nation when they had the chance. This is one key issue driving Indian politics today.
Later, in 1971, Pakistan was further split on linguistic lines to form Bangladesh in the east. Pakistanis from the west spoke the Urdu language and those from the east spoke the Bengali language, and the Urdu speakers of West Pakistan had started to discriminate against the Bengali speakers of East Pakistan. East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, in a war in which India helped the Bangladeshis. The 1971 war, in effect, was proof that Jinnah's Two-Nation Theory was wrong, because it proved that the Muslims of British India could not remain united as a nation on the strength of their religion alone.
Pakistan has also been engaged in conflict with India to wrest the Kashmir valley from India. In 1947, “Jammu and Kashmir” was an independent princely state ruled by a Hindu king, even though most of his subjects in the Kashmir valley were Muslim. There were many princely states in British India at the time of independence, and they were given the choice to either join India or Pakistan or remain independent. The king of Jammu and Kashmir chose independence, but almost immediately Kashmir was attacked by Pakistan. The panicked king then asked for military assistance from India to defend his country, and was given it to repel the invaders in return for accession to India. Kashmir acceded to India and the Indian army was able to keep the Pakistanis at bay; but a significant portion of Kashmir had been lost to the Pakistanis. This has been a sore point between India and Pakistan, because both countries claim the Kashmir valley – India due to the king’s official accession to India and Pakistan due to the region’s Muslim majority. India and Pakistan have fought four wars over Kashmir, and Pakistan has been funding and arming an insurgency in Kashmir for over 30 years now.
Since the conflict has its roots in the religious composition of Kashmir, this too adds to the already inflamed state of relations between Hindus and Muslims in India.
Hinduism and Caste Discrimination
Most people who have not lived in India do not really understand caste. Caste is very different from class. You can be born rich or poor. That does not decide whether you will be rich or poor in your entire life. President Bill Clinton was born into fairly humble circumstances and rose to become President of the United States. Others, like President Donald Trump, have inherited huge fortunes and squandered it away.
But caste is a unique feature of Hinduism. Caste is a marker of social status, and is earned only by birth. You cannot gain or lose it. Once you are born into a particular caste, that remains your caste all your life.
A higher caste person will not marry a lower caste person, and the two may not even eat together in traditional Hindu society. Lower caste Hindus will not even sit at the same level as higher caste Hindus. Often, if the higher caste Hindu is seated on a chair, lower caste Hindus will sit on the ground in front of them. Even today, there are frequent instances where lower caste Hindus are killed merely for walking through higher caste neighborhoods or for riding a ceremonial horse on their wedding – they are expected to “know their place” in society. Higher caste people get to do more interesting, enjoyable, and lucrative things; lower caste people are doomed to miserable occupations, generation after generation. For example, Brahmins, the highest caste, are supposed to spend their time in learning, become teachers, etc. Kshatriyas, or warriors, the next highest caste, are supposed to fight as soldiers and generals or rule as kings. Vaishyas are the merchant or peasant class, and come third in the pecking order after Brahmins and Kshatriyas. At the bottom of the ladder are the Shudras, or manual laborers, who will do the carpentry, fishing, and other trades. Even below these are the untouchables, also known today as the “Dalits,” who have to work in the leather trade, cremate dead bodies, and do manual scavenging of human excreta. The jobs for each caste are decided in advance, and someone born into one caste cannot change to another in his life. The untouchables are termed so because it is considered polluting for an upper caste person to even be touched by an untouchable. Some upper-caste Hindus consider even the shadows of the untouchables inauspicious and go for a purificatory bath if the shadow of an untouchable falls on them. Within each category – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, or Dalits, there are hundreds of sub-castes.
Hindus believe in reincarnation - that the body dies but the soul is reborn in a new body. Hindus believe that higher caste people have “purer” souls, and lower caste people have progressively more impure souls as you go down the caste hierarchy. The purity or impurity of their souls are determined by their actions in previous births – if a person does good deeds in this life, his soul is purified, and he may be born in a higher status in his next life, and if he does bad deeds in this life, his soul is degraded, and he may be born in a lower status in his next life. Therefore, if someone is born into a low and degrading caste, it is believed that he has himself to blame for his actions in a previous life that have brought him to this pass. Hence, he cannot complain about the degrading duties imposed on him by virtue of his caste. This is known as the theory of karma. Needless to say, the theory of karmic reincarnation cannot be practically tested, as nobody has verifiable knowledge of their previous lives, if at all rebirth of souls is a fact.
Caste has been the basis of social injustice in Hinduism for thousands of years. On the basis of this theory, people belonging to certain castes were denied even basic education because their souls were believed to be so evil that any education would only be utilized for evil. They were therefore effectively prevented from doing anything except the most menial and degrading occupations. People from lower castes who tried to get educated were often punished by death or mutilation.
In 1891 CE, a remarkable man was born into a family of untouchables. Despite suffering countless indignities in his life because of his low caste, this man, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, managed to get a Masters degree from Columbia University and a doctoral degree from the University of London in Economics, as well as a law degree from Gray's Inn in London on the basis of his prodigious intelligence and his perseverance. In my estimation, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (or Babasaheb Ambedkar as he is often respectfully called) was the greatest Indian public intellectual of the 20th century. And he was a Dalit.
Ambedkar returned to India in 1917 and became the leader of the Dalits, demanding the ban on untouchability in Hinduism and demanding equal rights for them. His tireless efforts made it impossible for Indians to ignore him, and he became the Chairman of the Drafting Council for the Constitution of India and the first Law Minister of independent India. Under his leadership, India drafted a Constitution that banned any form of discrimination against Dalits.
But the mass of Hindus has never been convinced. Hindus, by and large, continue to observe caste discrimination whenever possible. Most Hindus choose their life partners only after first verifying caste compatibility. Atrocities against lower castes continue. People are even today routinely murdered – often by their own parents – because they dared to love someone of a different caste.
One of the signature measures implemented at Ambedkar's instance was the reservation of jobs (Affirmative Action) for Dalits in schools, colleges and government jobs. Upper castes in India have been trying to undo this for decades. Such is the opposition to the upliftment of Dalits among non-Dalit Hindus that every measure taken by the government to improve their lives is sabotaged by non-cooperation and obstruction by the people who are supposed to implement them. The result is that even after 70 years of reservation, Dalits have not progressed as much as they should have.
The Status of Women in Hinduism
To a newcomer to Hinduism, the presence of female Goddesses in the Hindu pantheon might seem like an enlightenment. After all, the Abrahamic religions only have a male God. Christianity talks of His Son Jesus, not of His Daughters. Women are never at the top of the religious hierarchy.
But in India, Goddesses are widely worshipped, and in many forms. There are temples to Goddesses across the length and breadth of the country. They occupy an equal status with male Gods in the temples.
Yet, the life of the real woman in Hinduism is not exalted. For centuries, it was the custom to burn a widow alive on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. This cruel and evil practice was called Sati. If the woman was not burned alive along with her husband, then she was made to wear white robes with no colour at all, was not allowed to wear any ornaments or decorations, and her hair was shorn off. She was not allowed to eat anything tasty, was not allowed to go out of the home, was considered inauspicious, and was asked to spend the rest of her life in a corner in the home, invisible. The reason for both burning the widow and making her life hell is that people were afraid that a single, unattached woman would attract married men and cause them to become unfaithful. So, in the same way that the Taliban today forces women to cover up from head to toe to stop the men from committing sin, Hindu widows were also made utterly unattractive in order that they would not tempt men. To compound the problem, not too long ago, the practice of child marriage existed in India, in which small girls were married to men much older than they were. Needless to say, this meant that a teenage girl might find herself a widow when her 60 year old husband died, and had to spend the rest of her life in this living hell. Many widows ran away from their homes and went to cities to live as prostitutes rather than endure this horrific state of affairs.
Hindus were content with this state of affairs for centuries. The decisive step to end part of the horrid state of affairs was made by the British Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, when he passed the law in 1830 declaring the practice of Sati illegal. He was opposed by a petition signed by thousands of well-to-do Hindus in India, and the matter went to the Privy Council in London, which upheld Bentinck’s law.
Similarly, the right of widows to remarry and actually enjoy their lives instead of being condemned to a living hell was drafted by Lord Dalhousie, another British Governor-General of India, and passed by Lord Canning, yet another British Governor-General of India.
Hinduism is patriarchal, and what this means in practice is that only sons can perform the funeral rites for parents in order that the souls of the parents go to a better place after death. Needless to say, this means that daughters are less valued than sons, because they cannot do this most important duty for their parents. Consequently, daughters did not receive a share of the paternal inheritance.
One consequence of this hankering for male children is that many couples keep giving birth to girls until they have a son. This leads to large, unaffordable families. In addition, the practice of dowry is widespread in India, and so girls are seen as a burden, especially in poor families, which often leads parents to not invest at all in their education or skills. Another consequence is that women are forced to abort fetuses if pre-natal scans reveal the gender of the unborn baby to be female. This has led to relatively high sex ratios in some parts of India, such as 890 females for 1000 males. To stop this, the government passed a law banning pre-natal sex determination in 1994, but the procedure continues to be performed illegally because of huge demand from the Indian public. High sex ratios mean that men in north Indian states, where female foeticide is most widespread, have problems finding women to marry.
Since Independence, under the aegis of government policies enacted by liberal, pro-women governments, more and more women have been able to get an education. A lot of this has not gone down well with traditionalists in India. In particular, educated women are more assertive, and are not likely to be bulldozed into decisions regarding whom they will marry and how many children they will have. Financial independence also means that women will not continue to rot in abusive marriages. Women who work challenge concepts of male superiority, especially because they take their education more seriously than men and, as a result, may earn more, because they are more qualified than their husbands.
In villages in north India, even today, the local laws are decided by what are known as “khap panchayats” or village councils. Many of these khap panchayats have ruled that girls should not wear modern dresses, that they should not use mobile phones as it allows them to socialize with boys and perhaps enter into marriages that are not sanctioned by the elders. These instances illustrate the conflict that Indian women are experiencing even as they have enjoyed greater freedom since Independence, mostly under the watch of progressive, liberal governments.
Until the 10th century CE, Indian science and technology was at the forefront of the world. Indian mathematics was world-famous and gave the world the decimal system of numbers. What are today known as Arabic numerals were, in fact, Indian numerals that Arab mathematicians had learned from India and published in books in their countries. These were, in turn, translated in the west. Indian mathematics was world-famous, and their exponents, such as Bhaskara, Aryabhatta, Varahamihira, and Brahmagupta were centuries ahead of their counterparts in the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, this mathematics was primarily not used to service the physical sciences but used to predict the motion of planets. The motion of planets was only needed to aid in the pseudo-science of astrology. Kings as well as commoners used to believe in astrological predictions, and these in turn depended on the positions of planets and constellations, and so anyone who could predict these with great accuracy could, in theory, predict the future better. Physical sciences were not studied in India; and due to general ignorance in India about the West, the scientific advances of the West in physics and chemistry were not known in India until the advent of British rule.
The failings of Indian technology were made painfully clear when India was repeatedly defeated by Muslim invaders. To take an example, the first Great Mughal, Babur, was the first person to introduce cannon to India. Babur, in turn, had learned about artillery from the Ottomans, and his artillery general was an Ottoman veteran. Indian kings did not know what to make of it, and had no answer to it. The Mughals were one of the three so-called “gunpowder empires,” the other two being the Ottoman empire and the Persian empire. The Indian kings only had elephants, and the elephants were terrified by cannon fire, thus nullifying the one major advantage that Indian kings had possessed in warfare for centuries.
However, Mughal cannon did not keep pace with the development of cannon technology in Europe. Other local powers in India copied Mughal technology, but it had fast become outdated relative to European artillery. As a result, when the British arrived in India, their technology was far superior to that of any of the local kings, including the Mughals. Indian kingdoms always had to beg Europeans for artillery. The Maratha king Shivaji tried several times, unsuccessfully, to persuade the British to sell him cannon because he knew how significant their technology was; but the British demurred every time, saying that they were traders and did not want to take sides – the cannons they had, they said, were for their self-defence. Other Indian kings tried to make alliances with the French to get artillery. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the great Sikh king of the Punjab, for example, had French artillery generals commanding his artillery. But Indians did not have the capability to make their own artillery or to even understand how to use them effectively, because they did not understand the science of ballistics behind it, as the physics of projectiles was a western discovery. They did not even know of Isaac Newton and his laws. Whatever they understood of cannon operation was by watching their foreign generals; but not knowing the science, they could not improve on the weapons or even optimize their use.
The industrial revolution happened in Europe, and Indian kingdoms were not acquainted with the language of western science to even hope to keep up with Europe. Steam power was a western invention, and Indians did not even know how to utilize it effectively. Indians lacked the workshops needed to produce the precision metal parts that were needed for the interlocking gears that were used in these machines. This meant that the Indian textile industry was at a disadvantage relative to that of Great Britain. Powerloom technology, which relied on steam, was capable of much higher productivity than Indian handlooms. This, in turn, doomed the Indian handloom industry.
What happened to the textile industry was a microcosm of what happened to the Indian economy as a whole. By 1700 CE, close to the death of the last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, the Mughal economy made up roughly 27% of the world GDP, larger than that of China or Europe at the time. At the close of British rule in India in 1947, that percentage had gone down to 3%. While authors like Shashi Tharoor blame colonial exploitation for this decline, and while there is definitely truth in such assertions, and while it appeals emotionally to the grievance industry in India, what is probably a more likely cause for this decline is that Indian industry simply could not compete with British industry because the industrial revolution happened in Britain and not in India, resulting in widespread adoption of steam power and automation, whereas most Indian industrial processes were manual. Indian industry simply could not compete with the West in terms of productivity, even though it had niche products such as Dhaka muslin which relied on a very high level of manual skill.
The Indian Educational System
The deficit in technology that led to the decline of India as a world power was indicative of a fundamental weakness in the educational system in India at the time of the arrival of European powers. For centuries, India had fallen behind in science. Physical sciences were not even studied in India, because of a general arrogance about Indian superiority – the idea that Indians knew all there was to know.
Nothing illustrates this better than the educational system that existed at the time the British took over, in the early 1800s. An educated Hindu would end up studying Sanskrit, master the Vedas and other texts of Hinduism, and maybe a little elementary arithmetic. Only the Brahmins really went to school.
There were two dominant court languages that one had to master in the pre-British era: Sanskrit and Persian. Just as knowledge of Sanskrit was closely tied in with knowledge of Hindu scriptures, knowledge of Persian was associated with the Quran. Neither system provided a good secular education, with the exception of some mathematics. After all, the main purpose of an education was perhaps to get an administrative position in the government or the Court, concerned perhaps with the administration of revenue, the collection of taxes, or otherwise issuing general public notices in the official language.
This state of things was changed by the Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, in 1835, on the advice of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, part of the Governor-General’s Council, when the official language was changed from Persian or Sanskrit to English.
The move to teach English in India paved the way for the building of great public Universities, and this brought the entire literature of the western world to India, including all the rapid advances in science and technology that had been made in Europe that Indians were completely unaware of. This made Indians realize just how backward their land was.
Once the British had complete control of India, which was achieved after they quelled the last pocket of resistance in India from the few kings who tried to put up a final resistance in the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion, and once English was the language of education for all Indians, a new generation of Indians grew up under this new, unified system.
This was the reality they had to face. The military of India had proved to be inadequate against the military of first, the Islamic invaders, and later, the British. The science of India was very backward compared to the science of the West – Indians were unaware even of the basics of physics. Due to western education, Indian students studying in school learned that practices like Sati and the treatment of widows were wrong – ideas that their parents and grandparents did not necessarily agree with. Indian technology was behind the technology of Europe, because we had been left out of the industrial revolution. The western medical system proved capable of treating and curing many diseases that usually had meant a death sentence in pre-British India. All the modern developments in the world were recorded in European languages like English, and so adoption of English was the fastest way to catch up and fill the yawning gap in knowledge between India and the West.
A few Indians understood the state of things and embraced the new system with enthusiasm. These became the doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers of the new British India. Some of them also became the assistants to the British administrators of India after passing the Indian Civil Services exam, and became the new elite.
But not all were happy with these developments. One of the people credited with the revival of Indian values in India, Swami Vivekananda, wrote about the state of things as they existed in the late 1800s:
The child is taken to school, and the first thing he learns is that his father is a fool, the second thing that his grandfather is a lunatic, the third thing that all his teachers are hypocrites, the fourth that all the sacred books are lies! By the time he is sixteen he is a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless.
Many Indian intellectuals like Swami Vivekananda were unhappy and unwilling to come to terms with the reality that there were flaws and gaps in the traditional Hindu knowledge base. They would have liked Indians to believe that the Hindu system was perfect. For this reason, Vivekananda, in his teachings, emphasized whatever positive content was in Hindu scriptures and did not dwell on the many negative things in Hinduism. He wanted Indians to have pride in their culture, and created an illusion that their culture only had good things by sweeping the nasty parts under the rug.
But reality taught another group of Indian leaders quite the opposite. These, led by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, embraced the path of Westernization and modernization to fix the gaps in our understanding of the world in the years after Independence. Our schools and colleges were based on the model the British had left us. The measure of the success of the British system can be seen from the fact that even in British India, a Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to an Indian, Professor CV Raman, in 1930. Another great scientist, Har Gobind Khorana, got his Bachelors and Masters degrees in the Government College in Lahore before moving to England for higher studies in 1945, two years before Independence. Khorana got the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1968.
Nehru, who ruled India as its first Prime Minister, worked very hard to bridge the gaps that had been revealed to Indians by its historic failures. He built great Universities such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO); built a network of coal and steel plants to hasten the industrialization of India; built a network of dams to harness hydroelectricity; and started the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Nehru surrounded himself with scientists and rationalists, and was committed to a scientific vision for India. Nehru was also a staunch believer in democracy and secularism, both ideals he had imbibed from the West. His 17-year reign was a very important reason for India’s political stability after Independence.
A Clash of Civilizations
While Nehru did the right thing in continuing with the British model of education, he and his allies in government were unable to make this model penetrate deep enough into India. The result was that Westernized education, which was the ticket to prosperity and a good life, was restricted to a small, well-off segment of the population. The great mass of the population was unlettered.
Nehru’s economic policies and those of his daughter Indira Gandhi, who succeeded him as Prime Minister, did not help. These policies instituted state socialism as the official economic policy and shackled the natural creativity of Indians. As a result, the students who graduated from the IITs that he built did not find a market for their skills, and this led to most of them leaving India and going to places where these skills were more valued, like the USA.
Indira Gandhi’s policies impoverished India and led it to the verge of bankruptcy. In 1991, faced with a balance-of-payments crisis, and in danger of defaulting on its debts, India approached the International Monetary Fund for assistance, and was told that it would get assistance only if it instituted free market reforms.
With no choice, the Indian government of the day complied, and the ensuing economic reforms resulted in an explosion of economic growth. In the next 25 years, it is estimated that continuous economic reforms have led to about 140 million Indians being pulled out of wretched poverty. The party that was mostly in power when this transformation was achieved was the Congress Party. It was the ideological successor of the party of Nehru and Indira, but had made a 180 degree turn in economic policy.
The resulting economic prosperity led to a newly rich middle class in India. India benefited from the Information Technology (IT) boom, which made huge metropolises out of towns like Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Pune. Riding on the coattails of the newly minted middle class was a lower class whose condition was rapidly improving. What was happening was trickle-down economics in a very real way. As the middle class burgeoned, an attendant service class also boomed – a class of car and bus drivers, clothes launderers, maids, au pairs, watchmen and security personnel, food and goods delivery personnel, waiters in the booming restaurant industry, and the like. The prosperity in the cities led to lower unemployment both in the city slums and in the villages from which people were moving to the slums, leading to a growing urbanization in the country. This was driven largely by a rapidly growing private sector.
Having solved their problem of making a living, this newly rich middle class and the classes they were helping up through their lifestyles finally had time to think of India’s place in the world. And when the Hindus among them reflected on India’s journey in the last several hundred years, they were not happy.
- They had been humiliated and made to feel powerless, first by Muslim Invaders first and then the British.
- They had learned that their science and technology were backward – that even their current prosperity was only possible because of western advances in science and engineering.
- They had learned that their religious texts were considered backward in the world because of evils such as the caste system.
- They had understood that their ticket to prosperity was a knowledge of English, not the myriad languages of their country. Many of them felt uncomfortable in and inadequate with English, and this inadequacy greatly troubled them.
- They had seen that their ancient medical system was inadequate against most maladies – and that their own lives could not be guaranteed without western medicine.
- They were troubled by the equality of women that the policies of liberal democracy had achieved. Even though women occupy a lower status in Hinduism, women in modern India have become more and more empowered. They can divorce their husbands and bring up their children themselves because of their education, something that was unthinkable 100 years ago.
It is against this backdrop that we need to understand who Narendra Modi is and what he represents.
The BJP, the party that Modi leads, and other right-wing Hindu organizations offer the perfect antidote to the conflicts plaguing the modern middle-class Indian.
- They say that all of India’s problems today are because of Muslim invaders, the Hindus who collaborated with them and converted to Islam, and the British colonizers. Thus Hindus today can exorcise their humiliation of centuries by revenging themselves on the Muslims of today and making them second-class citizens. (There are no British descendants of any significant number living in India today for Indians to revenge themselves on.) This is best done by making India a Hindu country, where adherents of other religions have no rights.
- They say that although the West appears to be far more advanced than India, ancient Hindus were far more advanced than even this; that the ancient Hindus possessed atom bombs thousands of years ago; that, even though the archaeological evidence does not suggest this, the Hindu civilization is actually 5000 or 7000 years old (or even older, depending on your fancy); that they possessed airplanes 5000 years ago, far before Orville and Wilbur Wright discovered flight; that Indians knew all about astrophysics and quantum mechanics long before even physics as a science was discovered in the west; and so on.
- They assert that the caste system is not the evil subjugation of some humans by other humans but a “division of labor,” as though someone freely chooses to perform the job of cleaning toilets when he has a choice of being a CEO. Thus Hindus today can close their eyes to the persecution of low caste people and convince themselves that the evil is not in Hinduism but in some perverted individuals.
- They claim that Indians should not be educated in English but that they should be taught in their own languages, if necessary by translating all the works of science and technology into Indian languages – even though they themselves have risen up by their limited knowledge of English.
- They claim that ancient Hindu medical texts had the remedies for all illnesses – some have even claimed that Covid is treatable by ancient Hindu medicine. These remedies just need to be rediscovered.
- They view the emancipation of women resulting from the liberal policies of the Congress as a wrong, and believe that women should be confined to the home to raise children and cook for the men.
So today, there is a conflict in India between two Indias:
- One, a liberal, pluralistic, scientific, and rational India that does not see its minorities as enemies; that believes the evil of caste should be rooted out; that believes that knowledge of English is a liberating influence because it gives a person access to the world of technology and progress; that believes in freedom of speech and expression, and the freedom to criticize tradition and religion;
- And another, a backward-looking, hidebound, superstitious, and ritualistic India that seeks refuge in the myth of a great past civilization; that believes in caste hierarchies; that believes in the Muslim as an enemy; that sees English not as the international language of technology but as the language of a colonial oppressor; and that reacts violently to any criticism of its traditions, however justified they may be.
The overwhelming majority of upper caste (i.e., non-Dalit) Hindus (who form roughly 66% of the population) today subscribe to the latter worldview. They are the power behind Modi.
Since 2014, Modi and his party have led a frontal assault on the secular framework of India. The Constitution has still survived, but barely. I am among those who believe that it is only a matter of time before the Indian Constitution is amended to make India a Hindu state. The BJP, Modi’s party, has already been modifying textbooks in many states where it is in power to spread the BJP’s ideas on how ancient Hindus already had all the knowledge that the modern world is only now rediscovering, that Hindus of ancient Indias had flying craft, that Hindus of ancient India possessed the techniques to revive the dead, and so on. The same textbooks claim that the caste system is a marvellous organizing principle of society.
All this is happening even while India is nominally a secular state and before the official conversion of India into a Hindu state.
But even without that formal structure, you can easily mete out injustice to groups you do not like. Muslims do not get a fair shake in Modi's India today because they have to deal with Hindu police, Hindu lawyers, and Hindu judges. The same goes for Dalits. It is not very different from the systemic injustice that Blacks face in the USA.
For nearly seven decades, India had been a bright shining light in the world – a successful Third World country that was the envy of most of the Third World for its liberal democracy and for its scientific achievements. India has been praised for its ability to maintain unity and tolerance in spite of its staggering diversity in religion, language, and culture. While many other Third World countries, many of which became independent at the same time as India or in the next decade or two, descended into chaos, India was the rock of stability that the entire world looked up to. While socialism slowed India’s economic growth considerably for the first 45 years of its independent history, the economic progress achieved in the last 30 years as a result of free market reforms seemed to indicate that the one gap in India’s journey as a young nation, viz., its lack of economic development, had finally begun to be bridged.
But the events of the last 6 years have seen India take a giant step back. We have seen this country turn its back on 70 years of religious and cultural tolerance, and majoritarianism is now ruling the roost. A country that used to be a model of openness and rationality has gone into a shell and is living in the past and in superstition. A country that made giant strides in the emancipation of women is now harking back to conservatism, much as Iran did in 1979. A country that bravely implemented social reform legislation designed to remove the blot of caste discrimination that has scarred India for millennia is now turning its back on the same.
Values like liberalism, freedom of speech, scientific thinking, openness - all of these are at risk of being completely wiped out in India. India today is very close to becoming a Hindu version of Iran.
My guess is that it will happen in the next five years.
Epilogue: Implications and Future Outlook for India and the World
A foreigner who is trying to understand India and who has made it to this point might wonder, “What happened?”
Because, after all, what I have chronicled in the preceding nearly 8000 words could also be titled, “The Decline and Fall of the Secular Liberal Indian Republic.” The alert reader would be wondering, “Why did the wonderful liberal values that Nehru try to inculcate among Indians – tolerance, a scientific outlook, openness, a world free of prejudice, whether religion-based or caste-based – why did these values not take root among the people of India? Why has the India of 2020 essentially rejected the values that Nehru and his comrades in the freedom movement, such as Patel, Rajaji, and Azad, as well as Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution, adopted as the values of independent India?”
Maybe because liberalism and a scientific outlook cannot be imposed on a people. These values have to be lived by a people and adopted by those people. Nehru and his colleagues were inspired by these values by the examples of America and Britain, and they had great admiration for the egalitarian values that were enshrined in the foundations of these democracies. They hoped that India, too would be able to enshrine these values in our democracy.
But it was only the leaders of independent India who had been exposed to the idea of these freedoms and the benefits they bring. The mass of the Indian public had lived a very different reality for millenia – a reality in which inequality, caste discrimination, class discrimination, religious intolerance, misogyny, and tribalism were the norm. And you cannot erase these long-standing, deeply held beliefs by a Constitution or by laws.
Perhaps a couple of examples will help understand how deep-rooted these prejudices are. One of these is from the public domain and the other is a personal example.
The first example is that of the great musician of the Hindustani Classical music sphere, Ustad Amir Khan (1912-1974), widely considered one of the greatest vocalists of that tradition. A younger contemporary of his is the much lesser-known Gokulotsavji Maharaj, who is the head of a religious Hindu institution, who modeled his singing style very closely on that of Ustad Amir Khan, by listening to his recordings. The interesting thing, though, is that Gokulotsavji Maharaj never met his musical idol, Amir Khan, because Gokulotsavji Maharaj is the head of a very orthodox Hindu sect and Amir Khan was a Muslim. So deep are the divides in Indian society.
The second example is that of my late aunt, who used to type movie scripts in Tamil for a fee decades ago. In those days, the late M. Karunanidhi, who would later become the Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu, was a very popular story and script writer for Tamil movies. He would hand write the script and my aunt would go to his home and type the script in Tamil. My mother tells me that in those sessions, Mr. Karunanidhi would tell my aunt, “I know you Brahmins will not eat anything at our home, so can I get you a bottled cold drink from the nearby store as a refreshment while you do your job?” (Karunanidhi belonged to a low caste in Hinduism and was one of the leaders of the DMK party, which was founded to fight caste discrimination.) While this was from a time soon after Indian independence in 1947, it still illustrates how deep-seated caste discrimination is.
That this kind of discrimination continues to this day is illustrated by a news story from last month, in which an elected village chief was made to sit on the floor while her subordinates sat in chairs at a meeting because the village chief is a Dalit.
This is why Nehru’s attempt at transplanting the values of the Enlightenment to India did not succeed, and are not likely to succeed in the future. India has taken an irreversible turn towards illiberalism and rejected the values of the Enlightenment, because India’s divides are too deep to be bridged by intellectualism.
But what of the countries from which the values of the Englightenment originated? The whole world is seeing a rise in intolerance. Four years ago, the USA elected Donald Trump as its President, and with Trump’s rise, America has been polarized as never before. Economic factors definitely played a major role in Trump’s rise in 2014, but equally important is the rise in racism, which has intensified as America has changed from a white-dominated society to one which is much more multiracial and multiethnic.
Four years later, Americans are not much better off economically, and yet, in the election that has just concluded, Donald Trump almost won again. Almost 50% of America voted for a racist, misogynist, foul-mouthed believer in White Supremacy. The apparent defeat (it has not been officially confirmed yet as of the date of this post) of Donald Trump, if confirmed, is no relief for those who do believe in the values of the Enlightenment. That Joe Biden had to win such a close victory despite Trump’s monumental mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic tells us that the US was extremely close to electing Trump for a second term. And there is no guarantee that they will not elect Trump in 2024, if indeed he stands for re-election. More than 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2020. The divisions in America do not look like they are going down; instead, things are only getting worse from the point of view of liberal values.
Let us look at the United Kingdom. The UK stunned the world four years ago when it decided to break away from the European Union that it had joined in 1973. What happened to make the UK leave the EU? Many observers have concluded that the real reason for the UK to leave the EU was racism. Being in the EU meant that people who might have immigrated into Europe from the Middle East and Africa and become citizens of European countries could now settle down in the UK, thus changing the demographics of the UK, and many people simply did not like this. People in the UK already had a foretaste of this in that immigration from Eastern European countries into the UK had dramatically increased in recent years, and many residents of the UK did not like this change.
So, in both the US and in the UK, the reason for illiberalism seems to be a rather homogeneous population gradually being replaced by a multicultural one over several decades. One might then ask, were the principles of the Enlightenment, which are supposedly the ethical and moral basis of several western countries, including the US, the UK, France, written in a day and age when these countries were fairly homogeneous, when these countries could faithfully follow the principles of the Enlightenment without any conflicts, and so were never tested until now? Is that why, when put under the kind of pressure they have been subjected to lately because of immigration and globalization, these principles have been found unpalatable by the residents of these countries? Did these countries adopt these principles as the bedrock of their civilizations without understanding their full import and without an understanding of what might happen if their demographics were to significantly change?
This is a seductive theory – that Western nations have always believed in the principles of the Enlightenment but are now at a crossroads – but collapses on further interrogation. To understand why, let us understand what the Enlightenment was and what its timelines were.
The Enlightenment was a movement that started in the 16th century and continued until the end of the 18th century. Some of the key ideas of the Englightenment were the ideas of the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to ownership of property, the primacy of reason, the idea of evidence-based reasoning, scientific thinking, religious and cultural tolerance, fraternity, the separation of Church and State, the idea of a Constitution enshrining principles of behavior, and the limitations of kingly authority. This is why we find in the American Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, the following sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.“ This is why the motto of France is “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity).
One of the chief thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment was John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher. Locke is considered the Father of the Enlightenment. In 1689, Locke wrote his famous “The Two Treatises of Government.” This seminal work argued that all men are created free and equal; that the only legitimate governments are those that have the consent of the people; that no country has the right to seize the property of another through war and conquest. Locke argued that inalienable and natural rights of human beings were life, liberty, and the right to property. In 1692, Locke wrote his seminal “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” in which he argued that the State and its Courts could not determine the truth of religious beliefs and hence advocated both a separation of Church and State and religious tolerance.
With this understanding, let us now look at the histories of the UK and the USA and ask if they have, in truth, believed in these principles that they profess to hold dear. The USA became an independent country in 1776, following the War of Independence with the British. At that time, America was a fairly small country, containing only the original 13 states. The majority of the country was in the hands of various Native American tribes. Pursuing a policy of imperialist expansion, Americans both deprived Native American tribes of their territory as well as indulged in a genocide of Native Americans. By the middle of the 19th century, the Native American tribes were almost completely annihilated as a consequence of the combination of imperialist warfare and genocide. How does this square with the principles of the Englightenment, and in particular, with Locke’s principle that a war does not entitle the conqueror to the conquered’s property or territory? How does it square with Locke’s principle that the life of every human is a fundamental, natural right?
Likewise, the US is a country that actually practiced slavery until its abolition during the Civil War in the 1860s. Even after this, until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, Blacks did not have the same rights as Whites. How do these actions follow principles of the Enlightenment? Locke said that liberty was one of the unalterable and natural rights of every person, yet slavery made a mockery of that right. Likewise, the discrimination that blacks have endured for centuries shows that in truth, Americans did not believe that all men were created equal.
Let us look at the British. Locke, the Father of the Enlightenment, was an English philosopher who died in 1704, but the British Empire, that giant vehicle of enslavement of nations around the globe, took off in earnest only after that. The East India company won its first battle in India in 1757, and by 1857, Great Britain was in control of all of India. The colonization of Africa started in earnest in the second half of the 19th century, and all European powers were involved in what is called the “Scramble for Africa” – a race to enslave the African continent. All of these “liberal” countries are said to have been influenced by the Enlightenment. There was even a conference in Berlin from November 1884 to February 1885 where 14 countries – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, the US, France, the UK, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire – sat together to decide how to carve up Africa for the purpose of exploitation and enslavement. “Life, liberty, and the right to property” went out the window right there.
One would have to conclude that when push came to shove, no country has actually believed in the ideals of the Enlightenment, especially those that relate to the rights of the individual and the rights of sovereign nations to take over the property of other nations and other peoples. These individual rights are the basis of jurisprudence in each of these western countries, and they are the basis on which justice is delivered to their own citizens; but these countries did not think that other countries and peoples were deserving of these same rights. Locke said that all men were created equal, and all men had the right to life and liberty. He did not say that only citizens of western countries had these rights. The American Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal,” not “all Americans are created equal.” Yet the Native American and the Black were not considered equal to the White Settlers when the goal was their exploitation. And certainly the British have never believed that all men are created equal.
This is why I believe that, on being threatened by the “browning of America”, Americans will go back to the behaviors they exhibited when they felt threatened hundreds of years ago, by the Native Americans – when their greed for land overcame whatever principles they might have held dear. Just as it was necessary to dehumanize the Native Americans then in order to grab their land, today Mexican immigrants are being dehumanized by calling them drug addicts and murderers, and Black men are shot at the slightest pretext by racist White police officers.
The West has never believed in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment has only served as a basis for the internal justice systems for its own citizens, but the West has always completely disregarded it when it came to those it did not consider as their own. I am, of course, talking here mainly about the aspects of the Englightenment related to the rights of individuals and countries. But the Enlightenment is failing in the West even on other grounds, such as the separation of Church and State and the role of scientific thinking and reason. Many American states are considering passing laws that allow teaching of creationism as an equally alternative “theory” theory to evolution. Americans' belief in science has also significantly waned, as evidenced by denial of climate change, questions on whether Americans actually landed on the moon, and several of President Trump's outrageous claims, especially in the fight against Covid, where he was only too happy to embrace any quackery claims in preference to real science – claims that were enthusiastically embraced by his more than 72 million followers.
If the Enlightenment could not succeed in the countries where it originated, what hope then of it succeeding in a country like India to which it was transplanted by a bunch of western-educated Indian idealists?
What we are seeing around the world is that civilization is simply a veneer, and humans will revert to their venal and tribal selves whenever the going gets tough. This is why racism, discrimination, violence, and tribalism are increasing the world over, from Trump in the USA to Johnson in the UK to Erdogan in Turkey to Bolsonaro in Brazil to Orban in Hungary to Modi in India.
And things are only going to get worse.