Discovering the ‘Argumentative Indian’ in me

From “India: Government & Politics in a Developing Nation” by Hardgrave, Jr. and Kochanek [link]:

In the aftermath of decolonization following World War II, theorists and statesmen saw the problems of poverty, economic stagnation, accelerated socioeconomic change, ethnic upheaval, and the need to create and sustain political order and legitimacy as a unique set of challenges that confronted the new states of Asia and Africa on their way to modernization and development. By the early 1970s, however, the advanced industrial societies of Europe, North America, and Japan were themselves convulsed by similar challenges as rapid technological change, global energy crises, raw material shortages, and a deteriorating environment found governments straining to satisfy rising expectations in a world of diminishing resources. It became increasingly evident that the problems of change and institutional adaptation were not the product of some isolated process of transformation from traditional to modern, agrarian to industrial, or developing to developed, but a continuous process of social, political, economic, and psychological adjustment to persistent pressures and challenges generated by alterations in the internal and external environments. There was no final social or political order that somehow would be reached by a magical process of “development” or “modernization,”, but a constant set of challenges that would continue to test human ingenuity in adapting to changing political, social, economic, and institutional imperatives.

With a trip to India imminent, my interest in Indian foreign policy, current affairs, and politics is revived. This book, which contains the above as one of its opening passages, has a direct style which I find informative. Yet there’s something about it that I find slightly disturbing.

To take one example, the description of Hinduism as having “a quality of resignation, of passiveness and fatalism…  [a] religious belief that has manifested itself in the political attitude of the many Indians who simply accept the government they have as the one they deserve” may be interesting, but it makes me feel defensive. Both theologians and historians could take issue. All the Hindus that I personally know fall far outside this generalization. But it is just a generalization, and the authors know that, and other readers must realize it, too. I’m also aware that my sample of Hindus is not representative of the population, and so on and so forth. So okay, I need to relax and let my hackles down.

Or should I? “Despite the creation of Pakistan, partition did not solve India’s communal problem. India still has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world.” Wait — is that saying that the population of Muslims in India are a problem? That’s as abrasive to me as if someone discussing US history were to claim the black population was a problem. Communal conflict due to diversity — any type of diversity — is a result of attitudes and prejudices, not the presence of the minority population. Was this an accidental miss-phrasing? Perhaps, but not one you would ever catch Amartya Sen making.

In contrast to Sen’s portrayal of India, this book — at least as I read each of them — this book is far less confident in the country’s future, using words that betray a wary skepticism that its challenges can and will be met. “India’s masses are an awakening force that has yet to find coherence and direction”, it notes, and “the image of spiritual, Gandhian India pales before continuous agitation, intermittent rioting, and a rising level of violence.” Especially considering my copy is an old edition (1993 — ancient history in the fast-moving sub-continent), there is nothing in these words that I could fairly contest. But…

… But even Edward Luce (“In Spite of the Gods”) alternated his doubts and pessimism of India with a sense of awe; he seemed ultimately to feel that the worst of it all was temporary turbulence in the rise of a great nation. Perhaps Hardgrove and Kochanek will do the same later in the book, but they certainly aren’t yet. [I’ll check back in when I’m further in.]

I should perhaps be reading the latest edition (2007, I think), but I find it provocative (in multiple ways) to read this one. I like reading a book and stopping frequently to argue with it in my head. It keeps me on my toes. Sure, a lot has changed since 1993, but history is as interesting as current affairs, and it is true that many of the “old” problems in India remain problems today. Perhaps I’ll get even more out of this older edition than the 2007, and I can always read the 2011 when it comes out.

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