Our prime minister’s great reputation for getting things done aroused expectations of improvements in administration and the economy; nobody associated him with diplomacy. Yet, his most striking initiatives so far have been in international affairs, reviving our repeatedly discarded potential for being a leading player in shaping tomorrow’s world. The imagination and finesse shown there cannot substitute long for the efficiency and growth essential to any real role. These will continue eluding us, unless we restore the primacy of reason. The ridiculous — and ominous — has been permitted at our science congress; the bizarre fantasies aired there are yet another manifestation of tendencies that threaten not only that global potential but our being part of the modern world.
Aldous Huxley observed (90 years ago!): “One of the evil results of (colonisation)… is… out of the scattered and isolated facts of history… to build up Cloud Cuckoo lands… Thus the… hairy chieftains of Ireland became the Great Kings of Leinster… Through centuries of slavery the Serbs idealised the heroes of Kosovo… for the oppressed Poles, (their) medieval Empire was (greater) than the Roman.” In India, “a huge pseudo-historical literature has sprung up… the melancholy product of a subject people’s inferiority complex… A sentence of a dozen words, obscure even to the most accomplished Sanskrit scholars, is triumphantly quoted to prove that the ancient Hindus were familiar with the chemical constitution of water. Another… is held up as proof that they anticipated Pasteur. A passage from… the Mahabharata proves that they had invented the Zeppelin. Remarkable people these old Hindus. They knew everything that we know but were unfortunately too modest to state the fact baldly… A little more clarity on their part, and India would now be centuries ahead of her Western rivals. But they preferred to be oracular… only after the upstart West has repeated their discoveries (can) the modern Indian… interpret their dark sayings as anticipations… Free men would never dream of wasting their time and wit upon such vanities.”
Even after 70 years of being free, we still waste not only time and wit but opportunities for betterment. The Hindutva extremists, particularly, behave as continuing victims. Foisting fantasies — and prejudices — onto us cannot undo the decline which the same abandonment of reason made us suffer before. Instead of blaming conquerors as nasty evil-doers for conquering us, our obscurantists should strive never again to succumb to our failings. They ignore the real questions: with all that advanced knowledge, why were we conquered or why did we become backward? We fell because we did not keep up with the times, we wallowed in discord, disunity, sloppiness, corruption.
Plassey, by itself, should be lesson enough. That it was “more transaction than battle” is a damning indictment; communal bigots dismissing it as Muslim nawabs betraying each other must remember the villainous Chand Seths. We were all guilty, and remain so. Just 3,000 men dispersed nearly 1,00,000. Elementary duty was neglected: when rain interrupted battle, the British covered their ammunition, we let it get soggy and useless. India was lost to 50 casualties; a handful of islanders needing over six months to reach us, took us over in bits and pieces because we lacked their organisation, discipline, conscientiousness — and, above all, their modernity.
Modernity here means simply the readiness to use improvements in knowledge to improve life, including instruments of death. Other reasons apart, we lost to improved weapons. We have such talents, put an Indian anywhere, she excels abroad; only at home we stifle ourselves, not least through prejudice and deliberate ignorance. How badly we have abandoned the rule of reason in politics is most starkly symbolised by Parliament’s descent from informed argument and debate into bedlamite disruptions. Giving nonsense a platform at a science congress is one of several signs of the rise of irrationality in other areas, even the intellectual. Colonialism was an obscenity, but it added one more layer to the numerous Indias that coexist, and a seminal one: the modern-minded learners from the Enlightenment. They — we — are most to blame for becoming irrelevant. Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals threatens India, as it weakened France; but the growing assaults by our obscurantists is the greatest threat of all.
That our ancestors in early India opened up or enlarged great areas of knowledge is universally recognised, needing no obscurantist embroidering. Take our Ayurvedic remedies — many work wonderfully, but we still don’t know how. Of course, we should study what we once discovered — but scientifically. Our ancient achievements flowed from reason — the Vedic yagnas demanded rigorous use of the mind. Asked how he quoted the Rig Veda when his nuclear explosion succeeded, Robert Oppenheimer explained he enjoyed studying it “because those Hindus asked the key questions.”
We now have so many intolerant groups enforcing their unreason that questions are forbidden. Whatever some self-appointed guardian of some dogma proclaims must be accepted. (The well-intentioned law to promote the acceptance of, if not genuine respect for, the historic beliefs of various religious groups, has been perverted by hooligans erupting violently at having their “feelings hurt!”).
The taunt levelled (unfairly) against Erasmus applies to too many in our country: “Leading by incantations people needing a surgeon’s knife”. We all proudly sing Iqbal’s great anthem: India continues, while “Yunan, Misr, Roma” vanished. Aren’t we making (or have we made?) ourselves as unlike our ancient forebears as today’s inhabitants of those other once-great countries are to their originals?
Howsoever you might feel about this government and some of its affiliations, it has looked like giving us another chance to revive the country. It is surely our last chance. That sounds melodramatic, but is the stark truth — if this government cannot succeed, can anyone seriously envisage another capable of greater decisiveness? Other parties manifest no ideas, no capability for stable government; one cannot discern any other forces at work that could retrieve the India that ought to be. The BJP itself was in as great disarray as the Congress until Narendra Modi single-handedly salvaged it. Granted, even the strongest leader has to keep his followers happy, but surely the extremists have nowhere else to go. In defending his sadhvi minister, the PM sought allowance for her inexperience and background. Is India’s greatest achievement becoming its greatest drawback? Our democratisation has extended, perhaps transferred, power to hitherto oppressed elements of society, but their “inexperience and background” are no justification for the bigotry, active intolerance, downright goondaism rising among us. Worse still is the irresponsibility of the supposedly educated. Unless unreason is checked, these forces will negate whatever the government might achieve.
The writer is former ambassador to Pakistan, China and the US, and secretary, MEA