January 25, 2007

Uttarayanam: A time of hope, of new beginnings

Rajeev Srinivasan reflects on the season of hope

According to traditional lore, Makara Sankranti is the peak of Winter: after all, it marks the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day, although it is late by a couple of weeks because of the precession of the Earth’s axis. In the Indian calendar, there are six rtus or seasons: vasantam, grishmam, varsham, sarat, hemantam, sisiram. I always find this a time to take stock, contemplate, regroup, and await the arrival of Spring, vasantam.

I remember the patriarch Bhishma, grievously wounded and resting on his bed of arrows, awaiting the arrival of the auspicious time of uttarayanam, literally the passage of the Sun to the North. For he had been given a boon that he could die at a time of his choosing. It is telling that, in contrast to the very European Dr. Faustus, who could never decide on the perfect moment, the very Indian Bhishma knew exactly what the moment was. India, in a way on its own sara-sayya, awaits its time to blossom again.

I wonder about the moral dilemmas in the Mahabharata. What would the just Vidura have made of Singur and Nandigram, of the dispossessed and the damned? Where would he draw the line? Is it acceptable in a spirit of utilitarianism to evict farmers? I remember the striking Aravindan film Vaastuhara, about dispossessed refugees from Bangladesh, endless columns of the wretched in 1971. What is it about Sonar Bangla, that blessed and spirited land, the home of the Indian renaissance, that makes it so bleak for its children?

The Brahmaputra Delta and the Kaveri Delta were the two most prosperous parts of India prior to European imperialism – it is no wonder those were precisely the areas the marauding British first targeted. Together, these two areas, rich from agricultural surplus, accounted for 10-20% of the world’s manufacturing – yes, almost a fifth of the entire world’s – before 1750 CE.

The Battle of Plassey in 1757 CE was a strategic inflection point, as it caused the products of these lands to go from high-value, specialty goods with high demand (eg. fine muslin) to low-value subsistence commodities (eg. indigo) with little differentiation. The colonialists decimated Bengal and forcibly impoverished the artisans and craftsmen: overnight, skilled, urban, middle-class people were turned into unskilled, landless laborers, and permanently made into an underclass – with results visible to this day.

This of course was followed by a series of man-made famines orchestrated – or at least tolerated – by the imperialists, which led to the deaths of some 20-30 million people in Bengal and the Deccan. For details, see the classic Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davies. For the impact on India and Britain – India’s share of world GDP went from roughly 25% to 2% in a century, and Britain’s went from 1% to 18% — see Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. India, the richest country in the world for a millennium and a half (per Maddison’s data from 0 CE to 1500 CE), was systematically plundered (of some $10 trillion in today’s money) and reduced to penury.

How very ironic, but how very unsurprising, that the Marxists are now repeating this rape of Bengal, in the name of industrialization! The Marxists, while spouting rhetoric about the common man, have, just as the British did, conspired to destroy Bengal’s industrial base, and allowed its agriculture to stagnate: all the better to keep the average Bengali illiterate, starving and poor. Otherwise they might wise up and cease voting for the Marxists (and the Congress’s) empty slogans.

Bengal’s parlous state is a testament to the utter futility of the Nehruvian model, wherein the mixture of capitalism and socialism resulted in a chimera that had all the ills of both (crony capitalism on the one hand and the dead hand of central planning on the other) and none of the benefits of either. How likely is it that the Salim Group of Indonesia enriched the coffers of the Marxist party handsomely?

The fact of the matter is that India’s prospects look better day by day – for instance, see the Economist survey of the global economy, The new titans, from September 16th, 2006. On January 24th, 2007, Goldman Sachs updated its earlier BRIC report to paint an even more rosy picture of India’s prospects, in India’s Rising Growth Potential, also available at http://www.business-standard.com/general/pdf/012407_01.pdf link thanks to reader horizon. They suggest India is going to overtake the US by 2050.

The Marxists and other demagogues are irrelevant in the new scheme of things, and they know it, but they are determined to not go ‘gentle into that good night’: they insist on dragging thousands of innocent peasants down with them. They cannot get over the mantra that heavy industry is the savior of the masses – after all, that is the only thing they have seen in their sacred homelands, the Soviet Union and China.

On the contrary, India’ core competence has always been in agriculture and intellectual property generation; as remarked by reader Ghostwriter on my blog, this is reflected in the respect given to the cow and the Brahmin in Hindu lore. India’s future lies in these areas and in light engineering; massively polluting heavy engineering has about as much of a future as a dodo – or a Marxist. Send that to China, let them poison their land.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, George Dubya Bush has just made a rather subdued State of the Union address. He has reason to be restrained, as the new Democratic majority in Congress is in no mood to give him an inch, especially now that several of their own have stepped into the ring for the 2008 elections. Many Indians have a knee-jerk preference for the Democrats, but I can guarantee that Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama aren’t exactly lying awake nights figuring out how to work with India.

Bush has more immediate problems, however. The blunder in Iraq has presented him with a miserable Hobson’s Choice: he’s damned if he pulls out, and damned if he doesn’t. Bush really doesn’t have any good strategic options, but it is clear the tactical option he has chosen, the ‘surge’ of adding new troops to those already in Iraq, is pretty much the only thing he could possibly pursue.

The Iraq invasion wasn’t a brilliant idea in the first place, but I thought it was on balance a good thing because it opened up another front against Mohammedan fanaticism. But I admit I did not expect the Americans to get bogged down so comprehensively: Iraq is a tar baby, a Himalayan blunder.

The reason why Bush cannot afford to pull out is that it would give an immense psychological boost to the Mohammedan fundamentalist: he can claim, with truth, that he defeated both the Soviets and the Americans. Thus having dispatched both superpowers, triumphalist fundamentalists will believe that world domination (promised to them) is in sight. They will get bolder in their terrorism and other acts to bring about the Millennium, as it were. This is bad news for America, and everyone else.

Having badly miscalculated the magnitude of opposition to their occupation, the Americans now have to go to Plan B. The original Plan A, I suppose, was to quickly subdue the stray elements of the Ba’ath party, put in place a government of national reconciliation with due representation for Kurds, Shias and Sunnis, and move out gracefully to wild applause from all bystanders.

The reality, as we know, is different: sectarian violence, an ungovernable population, increasing American casualties, complete chaos. And an Iran that seems to be going from strength to strength via its Shiite allies in Iraq and the region (eg. Hezbollah in Lebanon).

Therefore Plan B may well be as follows: do a balancing act by getting the Shiites and Sunnis to checkmate each other. There is some evidence that this is working. The two sects have begun indulging in mass reprisals against each other, and each has out-of-control militias running around. Intriguingly, a new fatwa http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/12/29/africa/ME_GEN_Saudi_Shiites.php by a top Saudi scholar declares Shiites to be infidels, worse than Jews and Christians, link thanks to reader Shahryar.

Thus, if the Arab Street can be manipulated into all-out Sunni-Shia fratricide, America would escape being Number One on the hit list of the most violent Mohammedan fundamentalists. This may well be the best Americans can hope for. It would achieve several things at once: reduce Iran’s (Shiite) growing influence over Arab (mostly Sunni) populations, cause extensive bloodletting (Shiites are numerical minorities in most Mohammedan nations, and vulnerable), and help Saudis to retain their primacy over Iran.

There is Plan C, of course, a scenario that Americans have war-gamed extensively: physical control over Mecca and Medina. This is what America will do if driven to the wall. The calculation is that an American takeover or destruction of Mohammedan holy places — or even the restriction of access to them — would cause severe trauma to the psyche of the Mohammedan fundamentalist. After all, destruction of others’ holy places has been a hallmark of psychological warfare by Mohammedans (and Christians) – see Bamiyan or the Portuguese Inquisition in Goa.

The other aspects of Bush’s speech were overshadowed by Iraq, but there is a welcome proposal to accelerate the search for alternative energy technologies, to reduce dependence on foreign (read Arab) oil, and to reduce emissions. He called for an attempt to reduce oil consumption by 20% in 10 years. There is a rising tide of support for alternative fuels – as seen in the spirited debate over Proposition 87 in California and in the increased investment by venture capitalists in these areas (including by India’s own, rock-star VC Vinod Khosla) – which in the long run will help India’s interests as well.

A chastened Bush, alternative energy on the horizon, some attempts to control sky-rocketing health-care costs in the US; and a semi-successful effort to rein in rampaging Marxists in India: not bad for a Winter’s tale.

Interestingly, in contrast to the Marxist’s travails, the much-reviled Narendra Modi has succeeded in getting industrialists to commit enormous amounts to developing ports and SEZs (no farmers involved, as the coastal land is mostly marginal and saline) through the Vibrant Gujarat initiative. See the excellent article in The Pioneer by Ashok Malik, India’s China, http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnist1.asp?main_variable=Columnist&file_name=ASHOK58%2Etxt&writer=ASHOK&validit=yes link thanks to readers Kapidhwaja, Abhiha and habc.

It is worth remembering that Bharuch in Gujarat and Muziris in Kerala were the greatest ports on the West Coast in classical times. Alas, in Kerala these days, it is Marxist rule again, and their friends the Mohammedans are running amok. Hindus are being killed, probably by Abdul Nasser Mad’ani’s NDF cadres, and hate posters are being put up all over Mohammedan-dominated Malappuram district http://www.rediff.com/news/2007/jan/24kerala.htm and http://www.hindu.com/2007/01/18/stories/2007011808880400.htm . Why? Because Narendra Modi has been invited by a Hindu organization to give a speech in Trivandrum.

This is a stark reminder, along with endemic abuse of Hindu rights all over the world (eg. riots in Bangalore, the silence by the government over temple demolition and religious persecution in Malaysia and Central Asia, the astonishing fatwas by UPA big-wigs to give preferential claims on national resources to non-Hindus, the move to outlaw the swastika in Europe) that there is still a long way to go towards fairness and equity. That promised Spring is indeed far off.

The Aravindan film Uttarayanam ends with the protagonist consigning his mask to the flames: India too needs to stop pretending it’s something other than what it really is. “This above all, to thine own self be true”. Only then will its native genius allow it to reach for the stars, once again.



9 Responses to “Uttarayanam”

  1. Ghost Writer Says:

    The Brahmaputra Delta and the Kaveri Delta were the two most prosperous parts of India prior to European imperialism
    Rajeev – one of the most stunning indictments yet of
    the truly evil empire is in the book “The Scandal of Empire”, by Nicholas Dirks http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/DIRSCA.html
    I am not sure if this book has been recommended /reviewed on any of your blogs, but it gets a 5-Shinning Stars rating from me.

    It deals with the British coming to Bengal and Madras (the areas you mention), the trial for Hastings’ impeachment by Edmund Burke (who himself has money invested in the East India Company) and the vilification of India as a form of defense of Hastings. The author contends that the idea of “Civilizing” India was in order to distract attention from British corruption and savagery. It is a truly fascinating account. A lot of folks have written about British loot and British appropriation, and subsequent vilification of India’s culture (Willie Jones, Asiatic society blah blah) as separate subjects. This is the first I have read where the author has combined these two to explain how one justified the other.

    I am only half-way through it – and the mind reels, the soul revolts at the sheer duplicity of the British. Men such as Robert Clive and Warren Hastings should be tried for crimes against humanity. I am also convinced that the British national character can only be described as being the ‘ire of an ugly woman that has been spurned’ a la. Surpnakha (Ravana’s sister). Such people can only say that others are bad, that others are vile and indulge in calumny and character assassination. This – please note is the only British specialty. Sadly, it gets them nowhere in the competitive global economics of today when others can see and judge for themselves – instead of relying on pretended British ‘expertise’ as distilled through the imperial experience.

    Angus Maddison’s effort is magnificent. Interestingly a lot of Hindu revivalist author’s, including Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup contend that British Imperialism, though bad for Hindus, was not as bad as Islamic imperialism. I have come to see this point as debatable. The Islamists try to wipe away our culture by force and largely failed, while India continued to dominate economically. The Brits tried to wipe away our affluence by force and our culture by trickery – and largely succeeded in both (poverty and McCaulay’s children are everywhere in India). Your views on this would be interesting.

    Apologies for the long comment – I am feeling like writing today 🙂

  2. Vivek Kumar Says:

    “I remember the patriarch Bhishma, grievously wounded and resting on his bed of arrows, awaiting the arrival of the auspicious time of uttarayanam, literally the passage of the Sun to the North.”

    Minor crib about the phrasing: You can’t possibly “remember” any such thing.

  3. My comment is nothing about Uttarayanam, but certainly about India.

    This is my understanding of the India-US Nuclear deal. Consider paying $45 billion “importing” oil wells (N-reactors) from Saudi Arabia (USA). Next, we keep paying Saudi Arabia (US) for crude oil imports (N-fuel) for running those oil wells (N-reactors) avoiding a (N-reactor) meltdown. Further, we sign an agreement to buy crude oil (Uranium) in perpetuity with no guaranteed supply from Saudi Arabia (USA). And we lobby the OPEC (45 member NSG), informally assuring them never to test N-Weapons. Finally, the King of Saudi Arabia (US President) can stop fuel supplies for waking up on the wrong side of the bed. This makes no sense at all. Shri. Manmohan Sigh is a brilliant gentleman. I hope he is taking care of our interests.

  4. Nita Says:

    I am definitely going to read this book. I too feel the ancestors of the British were hypocrites (I am saying ancestors because I do not know the psyche of the average British citizen today) and also very cruel. However, they condemned India and Indians when they were worse.
    It is also interesting to note that the Goldman Sachs report places Britain very poorly in about 30 years from now. Soon Britian will be such a insignificant country that we won’t talk about her anymore

  5. srinilakshmi Says:

    Rajeev writes:
    > India’ core competence has always been in agriculture
    > and intellectual property generation;

    imho, this somewhat ignores Indian manufactures which have been considerable and of high quality throughout history. If I may point to a few examples from the pre Muslim period which continued down to the Colonial period when some of these industries were destroyed: cloth, all manner of metalwork esp., iron and steel forgings (‘Saladin’s Sword’), gems etc.. Indian exports have always included value added goods in addition to cash crops like cardomom, pepper etc.

    Take a ship’s bill of lading as an example: In early 1640, the ship of a certain Shaikh Malik Mohammed left the Andhra port of Masulipatnam for Bandar Abbas with the following goods: 200 large and 100 small packs of textiles, which probably came from Warangal, Glconda, as well as the Krishna and Godavari deltas, 500 maunds of Bengal sugar, brought to Masulipatnam on the coastal network (i.e., Pipli and Balasore), seventy packs of cinnamon, brought from Ceylon on the same network, sixty packs of benzoin (probably from Aceh), 100 khandi iron from interior Andhra, and 500 khandi rice, probably from Bengal and Orissa. (from Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Political Economy of Commerce, South India, 1500-1650, CUP, 2004).

    Most of the Indian temples in Burma and South East Asia (except the huge grand ones) throughout history down to the 19th century were all donated and endowed by Indian trading guilds viz., nanadesi, manigramam, nagarathar etc. This is indeed the case with the still functioning Hindu temples of Singapore.

    The pre Islamic personal name Mohannad (sword bearer) derives from the Arabic word for India, ‘al-Hind’. I think this would have refered to the much sought after wootz steel swords exported in large numbers from the Peninsula. This is a material import 🙂 as opposed to the Arabic concept of the numeral (‘Hindsah’) also from ‘Al-Hind’, a clear case of borrowing of IP 🙂

    I have no arguments about Indian core competence in IP generation. Just that it puts the other material achievements altogether in the shade. This is so only because the western thought has really lagged behind in IP generation until the Renaissance.

    Hope this helps.

  6. rajeev2007 Says:

    Ghostwriter, fantastic pointer, thank you very much. This sounds like a fabulous book, will you please post a short summary for those of us who may not get to read the book? This sounds like it ranks alongside ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ as an indictment of imperialism at at time when revisionists such as Niall Ferguson and Max Boot are arguing that it was somehow benign. It wasn’t. It was barbaric, naked aggression for self-aggrandizement.

    Vivek, interesting point about remembering. Something vividly imagined is as real as something actually seen. It is arguable that the Mahabharata is even more vivid in my imagination than things that I have seen on video (which may of course be doctored). Can you believe things that you see on video? Remember the film ‘Rising Sun’? There are those who claim that the entire moon landing was faked on Hollywood sound stages! Shruti and smrti — that which is heard and that which is remembered: intriguing philosophical arguments there, and therefore I stand by my phrasing. I in fact do remember what I saw in my imagination.

    Srinilakshmi, great post. I agree with you that India was no slouch at light manufacturing, and the wootz story is of course well known. But then, what is it that India’s core competence is in? China’s is in innovation of a practical nature — magnetic compass, gunpowder. India’s is in abstract thought — Panini’s grammar, Patanjali’s yogasutras. But then India’s practical genius is seen in Karikala Chola’s Grand Anicut, the 1960-year-old irrigation system. My claim is that a) temperamentally Indians are suited to IPR generation; b) endowment-wise Indian land and water are better at agriculture than almost anybody else (57% of our land is arable compared to 14% of China+Tibet’s). India can be the world’s breadbasket — I doubt if monocrop America is going to be able to do this; and this will give India tremendous clout and seller power (compare to OPEC).

    This doesn’t mean India cannot do light manufacture either (else how would we have accounted for 25% of the world’s GDP in 1750?). The question is where do you have sustainable competitive advantage, even unfair competitive advantage, and the answer is IPR and agriculture. In light manufacture, India is good, but not the only game in town. So let China do the manufacturing, especially the heavy, polluting kind, and we can sell them rice for their electronics. That’s putting it simplistically, of course.

  7. rajeev2007 Says:

    Further, Srinilakshmi, on trade: why was Vijayanagar so fabulously wealthy? Two reasons: agricultural surplus on the Tungabhadra and Kaveri; but more importantly, they controlled the trade routes on both the east and west coasts of Peninsular India. Yes, I believe traders, most practical people (eg the Chettiars of Burma and the Gujarati diamond merchants of Surat and New York) are great wealth-generators. I am talking of the production, however, and where the emphasis should be: agriculture vs. those white-elephant State-Owned Enterprises in heavy industry.

  8. rajeev2007 Says:

    Nita, Today’s Britons are no better, so far as I can tell. The national character is best seen in football hooliganism, which may be their best-known export these days.

  9. srinilakshmi Says:

    You make some very good points re agriculture, Rajeev.

    By its very nature, IP generation is a job for a small element of the population. Manufacturing, of whatever kind, needs to occupy a much larger segment of the population. And that’s a genuinely large segment.

    After all, we are speaking of a country which is probably many orders of magnitude more complex than a company. And core competence is merely a management construct, with all that it implies.


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