Dialogue  January - March, 2008 , Volume 9  No. 3

India and the West: Emergent Structures and Perceptions of Relationship

Yogendra Singh*

The relationship between India and the West has had a unique historical depth and continuity. It has also undergone qualitative and dimensional changes through time. Any scholar who has taken interest in comprehending or evaluating this relationship would encounter formidable challenges to decipher its metaphors, symbolic contents, material conditions and overall perceptions of each other. To the western mind, China and India as two sub-continental civilizations which have always evoked a measure of acute self-consciousness in making comparisons and in trying to decode their civilizational texts. Here, for any discerning Indian intellectual who has even casually perused the vast literature dealing with the West’s evaluations and perceptions about the nature of these two civilizations and about how the West should respond to them in determining the various facets of relationships would not miss the underlying normative premises on which the judgments are based. For instance, a widely known major premise makes a distinction between the Occidental and the Oriental civilizations. It involves a good deal of abstractions which lack historicity. In sociology, Max Weber’s formulations about Hinduism in India and Confucianism in China offer us an example of this mismatch. The normative premises apart, the serious limitations that such attempts have suffered from may be traced to the limitations of access to reliable data. It is particularly relevant in the case of India, a civilization which has been pre-eminently been embedded in orature, (the oral traditions of knowledge and culture) in conjunction with literature (or the written texts). China has, probably been an exception in this regard. But in the Chinese case too, the philosophical and methodological issues of abstraction of conceptual categories grounded in empirical-historical contexts have been difficult to formulate for much of the Western scholarship has suffered from the limitations of value-premises for comparison.

As we move from the epistemological to the substantive contexts of comparison of India and the West in the western literature, we once again witness how the social construction of difference carries the baggage of normative pronouncements of doubtful validity. For instance, the writings of the British, German and the French scholars, the Orientalists which exude appreciation and enchantments for the Indian philosophical and cultural ‘great’ traditions are entirely textual. On the other hand, the evangelical writings by the western missionaries have painted India in a totally contrary hue, often derogatory in content and orientation. We come across in such writings not only presumptuous value judgment but a deliberate attempt to de-contextualize Indian social and cultural realities. Both approaches in the construction of the Indian reality illustrate how categories and normative premises through which differences between civilizations are perceived for comparison are indeed socially and culturally conditioned.

As we shift our analysis from epistemic to historical and social structural aspects of comparison between India and the West, the most crucial determinant tends to be that of the changing political economy. It is a noted fact, that India and China together had the maximum share ( roughly estimated to be near about 80 percent ) of the global domestic products well up to the end of the fifteenth century. It determined the centre of gravity in trade, commerce, manufacturing and social, political and cultural contact with countries within Asia and those in the West. This was probably achieved through a measure of integrative equilibrium between the economic, technological, political and cultural aspects of society which remained stable for many centuries. In the long run, a dysfunctional consequence of this stable equilibrium was that India ( as also China ) became insular and static as regards changes in matters of scientific and technological innovations in the world outside. It halted the contacts of the ruling classes and the intellectual elite with the changes taking place in the world of science and technology, modes of production and social and political transformations in the West. Despite the successes achieved in the system of production and economy as a whole, the institutions of polity, society and culture began to falter in achieving viable levels of integration and tended to lag behind in promoting innovations. Both technologically and in terms of the dynamism of social structure and social mobility India began to lose its pre-eminence.

About this time, the West was on technological, scientific and cultural ascendance. The political revolutions for democratization and secularization of social and intellectual institutions, the religious reform movements, the emergence of nation-states leading to new political norms and rules of democracy, the industrial revolution, replacing manufacture by what Karl Marx calls, ‘ machino-facture’, the emergence of the factory mode of production and massive urbanization leading to the expansion of cities and the establishment of civic rules of governance with legal reforms and civic rights etc. in the West brought about a qualitative change and dynamism to the Western civilization. This led to the rapid changes in the power structure and terms of interaction between India and the West. The technologically driven forces of expansionism and colonization of other countries on a global scale followed and soon India fell its victim. A.K. Saran, an eminent philosopher- sociologist appropriately describes this Indian encounter with the West as one between a declining and the other a dynamic civilization which was on the rise. It led various western nations to attempt to establish their colonies. The British, finally established their colonial rule in India

Colonialism changed the nature of discourse between India and the West. It traumatized the Indian literati and the ruling elite. It contributed to structural displacement on a large scale, massive de-industrialization and de-urbanization. The colonial fiscal policies and their terms of trade, dumping of machine- made goods together with appropriation of natural resources shattered the traditional political economy of India. For the British this was not enough, since they realized that colonization remains incomplete without the colonization of ‘mind’ and of the intellectual and cultural traditions of the people being colonized. The historical depth of the Indian civilization, the resilience of its plural character to accommodate and adapt to the new currents of westernization without loss to the basic cultural identities defeated the colonial cultural designs. The British innovations and institutionalizations in the fields of administration, education, judicial organizations, transport and communication, army and police services etc. contributed to the emergence of a new system of governance and state formation. But, it also contributed to the growth of a middle class in India which began to question the legitimacy of the British rule, on the one hand and, on the other, became acutely self-conscious of having been colonized by an alien power. This set into motion a series of reform movements ranging from revivalism of the ancient traditions to selective adaptive accommodation of the western social, cultural and scientific values. The British set up many organizations to prepare a reliable data and information base for their administrative purposes. These covered a vast domain of social and physical features of India ranging from the Survey of population, castes and tribes, languages and dialects, the land records and its settlement, profiling of the districts and regions to India’s physical features, mineral and natural resources and so on.

These did help them in understanding and administration of India as designed and intended. But for the rising middle classes in India these surveys also provided a serendipitous opportunity for self-understanding and self-critique. This gave impetus to the growth of nationalist movements and patriotic ideologies and triggered a cultural and intellectual renaissance in India. Now, the terms of the relationship between India and the West underwent a transformation. The disruptions that colonialism brought to India in the economic, social and cultural sectors and its exploitative character were impressed sharply in the consciousness of the middle classes and the elite. Added together, this historical process generated a strong tradition of dialogue and critique within, which apart from taking into account a large measure of self-introspection offered challenges to the western normative and cultural paradigms. Gandhiji played a supreme role to augment such realization. His normative principles and agenda for action and reform were not only meant for the Indian masses, which indeed they were. He addressed the humanity beyond India at a global scale. His tradition of nonviolence and its moral paradigm for the self and society had a global significance which is now being increasingly realized.

The social, political and cultural renaissance energized during the national movement won India freedom in 1947, thus, a new era of relationship with the West ensued. Most of our national leaders had grounding in the western education and were fully conversant with the ways of the west in the domains of politics, economic policies and culture. They had also diagnosed the weakness of India from this perspective. From their points of view, these weaknesses arose out of the lack of the principles of equality, civil rights, freedom, democracy and economic and industrial modernization in India, in its polity, society and culture. The opined that sustained innovations and researches in science and technology were intrinsic aspects of plans for achieving these objectives. Science and technology held the key to the enlargement of the potential of productivity in agriculture, industry, and for enlarging the scope for generating opportunities for increase of wealth. This required institutional and economic reforms. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister understood these needs for reforms. As a disciple of Gandhi, he recognized that social transformations in India should focus upon the abolition from society social structures and institutions which perpetuated exploitation and poverty, which promoted parasitic mentality of feudalism and hindered the growth of scientific worldview. The republican Constitution that India gave to itself after Independence reflects in some measure the attempt towards bringing a synthesis between the Gandhian normative principles and the modernization ideologies for which Nehru had a deeper philosophical commitment.

Consequently, several structural reforms were introduced in the sectors of economy, polity, culture and society. The implementation of land reforms and abolition of the institutions of zamindari, jagirdari and princely estates led to the empowerment of peasantry through resgtoration of ownership rights in land. It brought radical social, political and cultural results. It strengthened the foundation of democracy and broadened its base. Indeed, power shifted from the traditional ruling elite to the middle class peasantry, tribes and to a large proportion of the weaker sections who received advantages from the policies of positive discrimination. Massive investment in capital goods industries, in higher education, institutions of research in the frontier areas of knowledge, such as the space, nuclear science and basic sciences etc. consolidated the pace of research. Apart from investment in the heavy industries, growth in agriculture was a dire necessity since India faced acute food shortages. To overcome this lacuna largescale dams, irrigation projects and extension services were given priority. Many petrochemical industries to produce chemical fertilizers were established and a set of agricultural universities for research in high yield varieties of seeds and agricultural technologies received sustained attention. All these efforts bore fruits in the coming decades. A ‘green revolution’ was ushered in India, which gave it a measure of self-sufficiency in a strategic area of concern. It augmented social mobility in rural areas and led to the emergence of a middle class peasantry which soon began to claim its loins share in political power and access to the coveted sectors of economic and social privileges. The backward class movement was a natural product of this process.

While these changes gave impetus to significant social structural changes in society, particularly the shifting in the power structure of the nation and cumulative growth in the size of the middle classes, it also generated social contradictions. One major contradiction seems to have emanated from the failures in the primary and secondary sectors of education, its spread and access to people, its quality and administration and generally in the failure of the abolition of illiteracy. Failures have also been witnessed in the population policy and its outcome. Yet, the structural changes that such reforms and development measures brought about in India did impact upon the quality and dimensions of our relationships with the West and its perceptions.

Changing Perceptions

For a long time, traditional India which had achieved a strong measure of economic and cultural supremacy was perceived by the outside countries, including the West, as a land of wealth and social and cultural opportunity and excellence in quality of its products, philosophy, culture and ideas. This period was followed by India’s technological and organizational insulation from the new currents of changes overtaking the world outside. Industrial and republican civic revolution gave the West the technological means to colonize other nations in Asia, Pacific and the new worlds. India also fell victim to colonialism. Consequently, the western perception of India changed. The evangelical west considered India to be barbaric in culture and customs in addition to being a case for religious conversion and reform. The British utilitarians who ruled India considered its traditional systems to be outmoded and primitive in dire need of reform on the western models. A small section of the traditional Orentalists, however, still demonstrated empathy for India, but it was not without a tinge of patronage. At this historical conjuncture the national movement and India’s nationalist political and cultural renaissance intervened. Freedom followed, and India once again ushered in revolutionary changes in its worldview of itself and of the world. It happened during a period when world was divided ideologically and a cold war had created a schismatic tension. India pursued a policy of internationalism and non-alignment and created for itself a space for considerable influence among the new nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The perception about India had changed. It was viewed by several of them, and to some extent even by the western capitalist nations as a role model of democracy, non-violent revolution and pluralism. This euphoric approval of India, however, turned weak as many other Asian nations progressed faster as they adopted economic and educational policies which were more conducive to growth. They over took India. South Korea and other pacific nations registered much more rapid progress in economy and education, particularly in the removal of illiteracy than India. In India, the state control on the policies and measures of economic reform, such as the industrial policy, rules of capital investment and quota license policies obstructing entrepreneurial freedom rendered growth slower. The state policy favoured autonomy but resulted into autarky and bureaucratic control in governance. Governance suffered and creative entrepreneurial initiative of a large section of potential innovators and investors was held back. The western perception of India was also affected. The metaphor used for India was that of an “elephant”, big but slow in motion as against the “Asian tigers”, China, south-Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia etc. where leaps exuded agility.

India’s New Economic Policy, Globalization and the West

A rethinking on the need for introducing changes in the economic policies and planning of economy had begun in India since 1978. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were conversant with the need for reform and for a large scale technological modernization and liberalization of the eonomy. They began to realize the weaknesses of bureaucratic controls and the crucial role that non-governmental organization played in the implementation of state policies. But the real process of economic liberalization was set into motion only during the 1990’s. This led India into a totally new mode and momentum of growth. In this process, the foundation that Nehru had created in the realms of knowledge, technology and higher education added a depth and speed and augmented the multiplier effect. There has been a phenomenal increase in the number of middle classes, employment opportunities in the sectors such as the services, information technology and knowledge. Even in the capital intensive industrial sectors such as steel, power, oil and petrochemicals etc. the private Indian entrepreneurs and industrial classes are making landmark contributions not only within India but at a global scale. Due to structural and social imperatives of globalization, expansion of the market and movement of people and information a completely new vision of India is emerging. A large population of Indians working or settled abroad not only contributes significantly to the Indian economy and resources but it also establish new linkages, cultural, economic and social with the outside world. For a long time, India suffered from inadequacy of foreign currency and had to borrow from the international agencies and depended upon foreign aid. Today, India has foreign currency reserve of several hundred billion dollars. All this has contributed to a new perception of India. Estimates indicate that by 2050, India and China would overtake the economic pre-eminence from the western developed nations. Thus, India may regain its status in the world that it once enjoyed in the past. But it would indeed be a qualitatively different India.

Despite these positive changes and the social mobility and opportunities that it has created for the middle classes and new entrants to this social segment we should not be oblivious to the stark social and economic contradictions that remain in our society. About sixty percent of our population remains still dependent upon marginal farming where productivity has increasingly declined due to paucity of technological and financial investment. No country in the world which calls itself developed has such a large proportion of its people engaged in agriculture, and that too with precarious existence. This structural imbalance in our society is further compounded by the massive levels of illiteracy and half hearted measures that our power elite have taken in the sectors of primary and secondary education. The victims of this neglect are the poor, dependent upon marginal agriculture or manual labour in the informal sectors of our economy. They are deprived from access to the fruits of globalization and the opportunities that it offers for social mobility and employment. To establish equilibrium and for augmenting an integrative process of development it would be imperative for India to move faster in order to abolish such contradictions .

Nevertheless, the current phase of development in India though skewed in favour of the educated urban and rural population with requisite skills by themselves constitute roughly one third of a billion or more total population. The advantages of scale and skill have favoured India and brought into play a new perspective of relationship with the west. This perspective or perception is based on the western estimates of the future potential of India in the economic and human resources fields. These changes are bound to alter the relationship of India with the West. It would emerge in the ambiance of the global factors of change, some of which like dangers of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and environmental issues in global warming etc. go beyond the control of a single nation-state. These call for a worldwide response. India, emerging as a major power in the sectors of knowledge and economy, given its successes in democratic governance based on policies of pluralism, inclusiveness and freedom can occupy a position of eminence in this scenario of global transformation. It is bound to establish a new paradigm of relationship with the West.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati