Friday, July 15, 2005

The Manmohan-Oxford Issue, Arguments, Counter-Arguments, My Take

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statements while delivering a lecture in Oxford, acknowledging the beneficial consequences of the British Raj has created a controversy among the intellectual circles in India. But first the political overtones. The BJP came up with a criticism immediately, at the same time as the ultra-left coming up with its own critique of Dr. Singh's lecture.

The BJP criticism has to be pooh-poohed for these set of rightists were never even part of the Indian freedom movement. The ideological godfathers of the BJP in the RSS had always considered the national movement for freedom not worthy of their cause (which is to create a Hindu fascist state out of India). Scores of RSS ideologues before India's independence were actually pro-British and supported the extension of British rule in our country. As for the Hindu Mahasabha, it's greatest leader, V.D.Savarkar, after his incarceration in the Andamans, from where he left prison after writing pathetic mercy petitions, actually adhered to the diktats of the British to keep his freedom (from imprisonment) assured. V.D.Savarkar's volte-face from a nationalist to a Hindu fundamentalist has been well documented indeed. Hence the entire "nationalist" argument provided by the BJP in the end leads to mere politicking to make an issue. These set of rightists in their six years of government always tried to delink India's autonomy and link India's foreign policy to the global project of imperialism still followed by such countries like the US of A, allege anti-imperialists and leftists.

As for the ultra-left (the CPI(ML))'s criticism is concerned, their theoretical understanding of the current Indian state still suggests that it is "semi-colonial" (which is of course a nuanced and slightly variant position from that of the remaining Naxalites (Maoists) who consider the Indian state to be "imperial"). Taking this theoretical stand in perspective, the Ultra-left's criticism of the PM's speech needs to be put into context. As the CPI(ML) feels that the current bourgeois government's disposition is not merely favoring the elements of semi-feudalism and malignant monopoly capitalism, but also there is a comprador link between the Indian bourgeoisie and imperial capital, any statement by the Prime Minister eulogizing or even acknowledging a role for the Imperial Britishers in India' s progress confirms their theoretical understanding of both the Indian State and that of the Indian Bourgeoisie.

Surely, the contention that the Indian state is semi-colonial can be almost easily disputed (considering the relatively impressive success of parliamentary democracy, the strength of India's democratic structures, India's relatively independent Foreign Policies etc); thereby putting the entire wholehearted criticism of the Ultra-Left under a slight question mark of whether this criticism is overhyped and amounts to name-calling.

Now that I have put the political debate into perspective, its now time to understand the intellectual debate that has unfolded on this issue. The first salvo on Dr. Manmohan Singh's speech was provided by Prof Irfan Habib, renowned historian from Aligarh Muslim University. Prof Habib's criticism was taken into consideration by The Hindu's editors who contexualized it in their editorial on this issue. Contentious for Prof Habib were these lines from Dr. Singh's speech: "..Consider the fact that an important slogan of India's struggle for freedom was that 'Self government is more precious than Good Government'. That, of course, is the essence of democracy. But the slogan suggests that even at the height of our campaign for freedom from colonial rule, we did not entirely reject the British claim to good governance. We MERELY [emphasis mine-Srini] asserted our natural right to self-governance".

Prof Habib, in his letter to The Hindu, questions the notion of "good governance" alluded to by Dr Singh. He quotes, "The supreme truth that our IAS is a creature of the Anglo-Indian ICS is apparently a gift of such overwhelming value that we can forget the loss of lives of millions of Indians in famines like those of 1896-97, 1899-00, 1943; forget too the heavy taxation of the poor; the suppression of modern industry by all possible devices; the miserable level of expenditure on health and education; the exclusion of Indians from all high offices and positions of power; and the suppression of civil liberties (Dr Singh's attribution of a "free press" to Britain notwithstanding). Indian civilization did not "meet" the British empire; it was laid low by the latter by sword and shot."

Prof Habib is scathing and rightly so. Dr. Singh's eulogies of the British "good governance" cannot stand the scrutiny of truthful analysis of British rule. True, the unintended consequences of British systems of administration brought such implements such as the Railways, the Postal system etc., but the key word is "unintended"; the intentions seemingly remained on strengthening the colonial structure to squeeze India's economic wealth better in order to further British enterprise in the form of her markets and industries. Prof Habib has infact written a series of essays where he elucidates how India could have done better off without the colonial rule intervention from the 18th to the 20th century. Here is where Prof Habib departs from Karl Marx himself in his analysis of the effects of British rule in India.

The next great critique of Dr Singh comes from Prof Prabhat Patnaik. Prof Patnaik's argument has to be contexualized considering the left's view of Dr. Singh and his policies and ideas on economic "reform". The Left characterizes Dr. Singh as a person who though brought reforms in good intentions, has created an environment which is seriously jeopardizing India's autonomous economic path. By linking India's economic development with the maze of international markets, by linking India's fiscal exercises with the diktats of the WTO-IMF-WB combine, the Left feels that India is doing gross injustice to those who are directly being affected greatly by such policies and whose lives can be ameliorated by ensuring a socialist path of development. A look at Dr. Utsa Patnaik's articles to look at the problems faced by the agrarian sector due to the impact of the policies of neo-liberal economic reforms, the study of poverty in the late 1990s, a survey of problems of unemployment etc all point toward a semblance of truth in the Left's constant harpring and refrain against neo-liberal economic reforms.

Getting back to the issue though, Prof Patnaik feels that by referring to the British models of governance in India as "good" and "beneficial" (albeit in a nuanced way), Dr. Singh is continuing in his neo-liberal vein. The linking of governance to the issue of corporatization/marketization etc is a neo-liberal thesis, Dr Singh being one among those subscribe to this; allege the Left and so does Prof Patnaik.

Prof Patnaik's critique of Dr Singh's speech can be read in the upcoming People's Democracy issue. A peek into the article has been provided by the TOI correspondent, Akshaya Mukul, who doesn't unfortunately refrain from using terms such as "Don" to refer to the economics professor.

As an analogy to the entire critique of Dr. Singh's speech, one can take the case of the Internet. The Internet, all of us know, was spun off from the ARPANET funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Indeed, the DARPA's purpose for the development of such a network was to suit defense research, a major lot being spent on that during those days, inevitably because of the ensuing Cold War between the two big countries representing two different systems (the USA & the USSR). If a neo-conservative today, says that the Cold War was beneficial because it resulted in the Internet, he would have been criticised by the liberal, by the peacenik or anti-militarist and by the social-constructivist. If however, a technologist would have said matter-of-factly that defense research spun off research and scientific advances in communication technology, the statement would never have been made an issue.

Analogous to the above example, Dr. Singh's speech has welcomed criticism from the intellectual circles owing to the fact that Dr. Singh is seen ideologically as a neo-liberal, as also because the British rule is seen in its entirety as wholly unwholesome to India at all.

Yet another angle to the entire "Britishers were beneficial" point has not been covered at all in the media or even by the intellectuals. This was the point provided by Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, who during the course of his political career, despite conscious to and ferociously opposed to colonialism, acknowledged that the amelioration of India's Depressed Classes from the wretched entanglements of casteism and social oppression was slightly possible due to British rule. This angle was not mentioned by Dr. Singh himself though in course of his lecture. My Ambedkarite friends here are not surprised at all though. But again, that's material for yet another blog perhaps.


Subhanil said...

good article. keep it up.

Vinayak said...

Your blog lead me to think of India and India's image in the world arena.

Leftists and their cohorts seem to be attacking and maligning Indians regularly. they want us look like a bride burning civilization

To counter this, do Indians lack organizations that promote India in the International arena, that boost our public image ?

India, a multicultural society, contributed immensely to Society (say our Dharma), Knowledge (right from Ship Building, Sashtras to Mathematics, Avaita), and political science (Arthashashtra for e.g.), medicine (ayurveda) over 2 millennium

However, thanks to the invasions and colonial legacy, we were stuck with a curry and snake charmers image for a few 100 years. Even now we seemed to have shaken that thanks to Info Tech and IT pros.

Be it politics or social issues, Why do Indians whip ourselves in public ? Look at the Ramdev Issue. We don't need Witzels and outsiders to smear us

Are we turning into a self hating civilization or is our media Left and anti Indian ?

More at
Gudia, a Muslim girl and Ramdev ji, a Hindu male !!


Vikram said...

Well written, nice analysis. I wonder how a person like Mayawati would analyse British rule in India.