We have to learn from the West how to be great again. We can be a superpower, that is easy to say and do. But our ambition should be set much higher than that. We must aspire to be a great civilization once more. And because we are creatures who have a double history ~ that of the West and that of India ~ suppressing one entirely in favour of the other will spell national catastrophe ~ Soumitro Das
They may command varying degrees of trust and respect, but as far as vision is concerned, there is little to choose between Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh. Both want India to be a superpower and both think that the economy should provide them with the instruments to achieve this goal. A country defines its ambitions in relation to its perception of what constitutes the might of the West. North Korea, for instance, thinks that the West is great primarily because of its military power and, therefore, puts all its energies to acquiring that power for itself. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, on the other hand, feel that the West is powerful mainly because of its economy and have succeeded in transforming themselves into major economic players on the international scene. India and China, however, think that the might of the West lies in its combination of economic and military power and, therefore, their effort to achieve this same combination on their own soil.
But, if one asks a Westerner what constitutes the West&’s superiority over the non-Western world, he will tell you that it is his civilization. Not only the ability to send a man to the moon ~ other countries should be able to do that fairly soon and the West wouldn’t grudge them the achievement ~ but also, and above all, the ability to produce a steady stream of great poets, philosophers, scientists, artists, musicians, scholars, etc.
Two countries, Britain and France have exercised an influence over the history of mankind that is absolutely disproportionate to their geographical size and numbers. Was this achieved solely through military might or wealth? The answer is no. Clive did not call on the British Army to come over to India to fight Siraj-ud-daula for him. He recruited his troops locally and gave them a European training, that&’s all.
Indeed, Siraj-ud-daula had 20 times more men than Clive had even after the betrayal of Mir Jaffar of which much hullaballoo is made by nationalist historians. Indeed, Nirad Chaudhuri says that Siraj shuddered with fear at the mere mention of Clive&’s name. Interestingly, the Aztec monarch Motecuzoma had a similar reaction when he was told that Cortes and his men ~ mostly made up of indigenous tribes hostile to the Aztecs ~ were at the gates of the great city of Mexico. This despite the fact that, unlike Siraj&’s men, the Aztecs were fierce warriors and fought Cortes ~ his horses and his cannons ~ to the last man standing. What was it that gave Clive and Cortes victory? Military might? Wealth?
Europe has imposed itself as a civilisation of planetary proportions because of the way it has structured its relationship with the world. To go back to Cortes, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who accompanied Cortes and has left us a moving account of the Conquest of Mexico, recounts that the Indian guides lost their way in the jungle and sat down and started crying in sheer despair. Cortes determined from them the general direction in which Mexico lay and then slashed his way through the tropical jungle for a distance of about 20 miles before emerging into the clear.
The Indians were aghast. For them, nature was something to be worked around with, negotiated. For Cortes on the other hand, it was something that had to be dominated, tamed, brought to its knees. Clive and Cortes triumphed not because of their military power ~ Clive hardly got to use his troops ~ but because the idea of civilization that they represented was superior to the idea of civilization represented by their adversaries. The European idea expressed itself as irresistible force.
The reason why India and China are not interested in this idea is because they think they already have a great civilisation, even though nothing original or powerful has come out of them for at least the last 1000 years or so. They don’t think their civilization needs to be renewed, renovated, improved. For the people who run these countries, India and China are great countries even though that greatness died out many centuries ago.
This was not always the case. Bengal responded with lightning speed to the fact of Empire. Within one generation it produced a man, a man of stature, Rammohun Roy, steeped in traditional learning, superficially a man of the ancien regime, who wasted no time in understanding that what Bengal was dealing with was a superior civilization. Superior in two respects ~ in its social and political philosophy and its knowledge system (science and technology). He was clear about whose side he was on.
He called for the abolition of sati and stood resolutely behind those Bengalis who wanted a Western education for their children. Reformer after reformer, writer after writer, during what is sometimes, misleadingly, called the Bengal Renaissance, functioned within Rammohun&’s paradigm: acceptance of British civilisational superiority ~ law, education and, above all, status of women ~ and a vicious struggle against ferocious female sexual repression. This last had something to do with what Hegel describes in his Phenomenology of the Mind as women being the guardians of divine law.
Even Gandhi acknowledged his debt to Christianity, Thoreau and Tolstoy while forging his non-violent techniques of political struggle. It was by holding the British up to their own values and standards that he was able to persuade them to leave India. If it is true that Attlee was more bothered about the Indian naval mutiny it is because Attlee understood that the idea of Britain had run its course in India and Indian soldiers would no longer die for the Union Jack. It is in order to preserve this very idea of Britain that the British left India ~ to its own mercy, as it subsequently turned out.
Modern Indian achievements have been realized by acknowledging the superiority of the West. Because there are no better alternatives (there are many that are far worse). But we too have something to fall back on. Notions of intellectual freedom and the spirit of rational inquiry did exist in our classical culture.
We have to reconnect with the past through the West and its scholarship. We have to learn from the West how to be great again. We can be a superpower, that is easy to say and do. But our ambition should be set much higher than that. We must aspire to be a great civilization once more. And because we are creatures who have a double history ~ that of the West and that of India ~ suppressing one entirely in favour of the other will spell national catastrophe.
THE WRITER IS A KOLKATA-BASED FREELANCE JOURNALIST