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Western ‘superiority’ has been singularly damaging for India

analysis Updated: Oct 01, 2016 21:24 IST
Amitav Ghosh

Two of the most important industries responsible for the industrial development which took place with the discovery of steam were shipping and railways(Getty Images)

In his thought-provoking book Climate Change, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh writes of Western Modernity’s “enormous intellectual commitment to the promotion of its supposed singularity”. To singularity I would add superiority. This effort to convince countries like India of Western singularity and superiority has done enormous damage.

Read: Amitav Ghosh says India-China ties are hit by mutual ignorance

If we look back at the fundamental changes brought about by the industrial revolution and the creation of the carbon economy, we find there is no reason why similar developments should not have taken place in India if it were not for the heavy hand of the British Raj and Indians’ willingness to believe the Western singularity myth imperialists peddled.

Take two of the most important industries responsible for the industrial development which took place with the discovery of steam — shipping and railways. Ghosh describes the successes of the Bombay shipyards before they were strangled by the British Registry Act, which placed severe limitations on Indian shipping. He also points out that there was no shortage of Indian technicians whose traditional skills could be employed in shipyards.

Before the dawn of India’s railway age, Karl Marx had prophesied that when the railways came they would become “truly the forerunner of modern industry”. This he said because he foresaw that trains could not run “without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion”. But India did not reap the benefits Marx had foreseen because so many of its railway requirements were manufactured in Britain.

Sir Frederick Upcott, commissioner for the Railways, provides us a prime example of the promotion of Western singularity and superiority. When told that Dorabji Tata had raised the money to start manufacturing steel in India, he committed himself “to eat every pound of steel rail they succeed in making”. He would have had severe indigestion if he ate the 1,500 miles of steel rails the Tatas sent to Mesopotamia during the First World War.

All that is history but I think it is history that could be relevant today. If Indians were to be more aware of the fact that they were conned into believing they were incapable of industrialising, that they had to have the British to build their railways and the trains to run on them, they would not fall victim to another myth perpetuated by those who go on about the country’s 1,000 years of oppression. They give the impression that there was a golden Hindu age, after which it was all Islamic darkness, followed by submission to the British. India succumbed and there were no worthwhile Indian achievements. Instead of rummaging in the Vedas to unearth Vedic pilots and nuclear scientists of doubtful authenticity, it would be more uplifting to sing the praises of those who contradicted the idea of Western singularity — people like Dorabji Tata, those ship-builders, and the Kerala School of Mathematics, which was working on Newton’s laws 250 years before the apple fell on his head.

Read: Tata Steel board put sale of UK steel business on hold

The Western intellectual commitment to the promotion of its supposed singularity and superiority was not just a feature of its policy towards its colonies. The effort continues today, particularly in economics. After the Second World War, statism became the doctrine of the Western world. So Jawaharlal Nehru was persuaded that statism was the only way ahead. Now this is not to say that statism was a disaster. Writing in The Guardian, Martin Jacques, who foretold the rise of neo-liberalism, pointed out that the most dynamic era of Western growth was from 1947 to the early 1970s — the era of socialism.

But statism was taken too far in the West and in India. Governments became too intrusive, and labour too powerful. This opened the door for the entry of Thatcher and Reagan’s neo-liberalism. It took India some years to react to the problems created by statism. The economic crisis of 1991 forced Narasimha Rao to accept what he was told was the singularity of neo-liberalism. Ever since then India has come under Western pressure to become more and more neo-liberal.

Read: Living in an unequal world

Now the singularity of neo-liberalism is being questioned because of the long-running economic crisis which has led to almost a decade of stagnation in Western economies. There is also the chronic inequality neo-liberalism has led to. And there is the revolt against that inequality by the supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in America as well as the Brexiteers in Britain. At the recent G20 summit in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a former Goldman Sachs banker, warned of the need “to civilize capitalism”. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, said “growth has been too slow, too long for too few”. The Chinese president set the tone for the meeting in an address to business executives in which he said, “Development is for the people. It should be planned by the people and its outcomes should be shared by the people.” Will the West come up with a new economic system for which it will claim singularity? Will India fall for that claim?

The views expressed are personal