India in the world
On this special anniversary of our independence we need to ask: why have India’s global concerns narrowed just as its global attainments have broadened?
To the young Lennon and McCartney, sixty-four seemed like a monumental age. The resplendent lads from Liverpool sang about their anxiety, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me,/ When I’m sixty-four?” Independent India has not quite got there yet, but sixty is also a respectable age. The world does not quite have to feed India any more, but how much does the world need it? As the country jubilates about how fast the ‘new economic giant̵
7; is growing, we could perhaps devote a small bit of our time to think also about what India can do for the world today, and what it is actually doing right now.
India jumped on to the world stage from its colonial cage sixty years ago with a vision not only for itself, but also for the world — for a democratic, peaceful world which would respect the freedoms of others and help each other in that pursuit. The quality of our independence movement, especially the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, gave us a considerable standing as well as some commitments. Even as a military and economic weakling, India did what it could for the movements to liberate the remaining imperial colonies. It joined hands with the African National Congress to end apartheid and white supremacy in South Africa. It worked for the rightful recognition of new China by other countries. It backed Vietnam against western domination and napalm. It agitated against nuclear bombs anywhere in the world. It stood steadfastly by the fighters against military dictatorship in neighbouring Burma.
Our successes were not by any means negligible, no matter how sceptical we may have become of what we now see as the ‘babytalk’ of helping the world. We did manage to make the world hear the voice of the non-aligned. Our support for democracy across the board had resonance throughout the world. The great Nelson Mandela had reason enough to come to India first among all foreign countries, as the chains finally broke in South Africa.
All this happened even when our society and our economy were remarkably precarious in many different ways. The persistence of food deficit and dearth — an inheritance from the agricultural stagnation of our colonial past — made us deeply vulnerable and dependent on other countries. The Partition had left a gigantic scar on our political unity. The history of communal killings in the pre-Partition turmoil threatened our confidence about our secular future. The prospects of national solidarity despite the huge multiplicity of languages appeared to many to be extremely remote: certainly nothing like that had been tried before anywhere else in the world.
Our defiantly democratic Constitution seemed to fly in the face of the standard understanding in the world of what is or is not feasible in a country with such overwhelming poverty and massive illiteracy.
Over the decades, India has put most of these doubts to rest. Our democracy is flourishing, with regular and orderly elections and a free and energetic media. While secularism is threatened by actions of some sectarian groups, and by regional governments that are in the pockets of these groups (in one region in particular), the massive support for secularism across India has asserted itself again and again. Even though we have not been able to overcome the separatist tendencies in the north-east and in Kashmir (that is a different story altogether, in need of further engagement), the country is, in general, not falling apart on linguistic — or any other — line. We still have big agricultural problems, including incomplete land reforms and economic neglects that lead to the suicide of many farmers, but the days of the begging bowl for food in the world are certainly over. On the economic front the big news is not only that the average growth rate of the economy is high, but that the Indian successes have come in areas of hugely competitive modernity, not in the sequestered use of traditional skills and old-fashioned comparative advantages. Another consequence of fast economic expansion, which seems to be less appreciated than it should be, is that along with rapid growth has come an unprecedented increase in government revenue, and the budgetary limits for public spending are now much less severe, opening up more possibilities for much needed social development.
If we had the courage to do our thing and say our piece in the world when the going was rough, we could present our global vision with much greater confidence to a more attentive audience today across the world. And we can hardly have a better Prime Minister to present such a vision than Manmohan Singh, with his deep personal interest in world affairs, his pioneering role in initiating economic reform that can be used not only in India but also in many other countries, his crucially important function in the South Commission, and his masterful leadership of the 2003 Commonwealth Expert Group on Democracy and Development (Making Democracy Work for Pro-Poor Development, Commonwealth Secretariat, London, October 2003). Also, our ability to make an impact on global issues is sharply enhanced now by the fact that India’s economic success is much in the news across the world (sometimes even in a form that is larger than life), and by the further fact that the success of its secular democracy is at last receiving the recognition it had deserved for a long time.
What have we done over the last few decades to give shape to our global understanding of the world? I fear the answer has to be: not much. A country that never liked being confined to just minding its “own business,” seems now dedicated exclusively to that minding, pointedly excluding larger ideas and objectives. In fact, Indians seem to have become comprehensively sceptical of the “vision thing.”
What discernment of a good world do our thinking and our policies reveal today, sixty years on, compared with where we stood as we gained Independence? The transformation is simply gigantic. Now we make deals not with the Burmese people struggling for democracy, but with the military dictators of Myanmar, and sell our goods — some civil, some military — to that dreadfully misgoverned tyrannical country. In competition with China, we are ready to supply arms to the military regime in Sudan that is in league with those who terrorise, rape, and kill people in the south of the country.
We could have used the 1974 flexing of our nuclear muscles to generate more consistent pressure for denuclearising the entire world, including the superpowers. We had an additional qualification to do this since we had faced — rather defiantly I am proud to say — a heavily armed U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, that the Nixon administration sent to the Bay of Bengal in late 1971 with nuclear missiles directed straight at us, reflecting American suspicion of our Bangladesh policy. Incidentally, Henry Kissinger’s later explanation that they merely wanted to scare India away from attacking West Pakistan would be hard to sustain, but Americans might well ponder whether the threatening of India with nuclear arms made many Indians more inclined to welcome the development of indigenous nuclear arms, which went into full swing the following year, in 1972, leading to the explosion in 1974 (there might be lessons in this for American policy today). But we did not choose to use our accomplishments in this deadly field to speak with more authority in the larger cause of comprehensive nuclear withdrawal by all, including the superpowers. Rather, we opted to go instead for immediately concealing what we had done in 1974, and then in the fullness of time, under a different government, go for further nuclear testing in 1998. We are now mainly preoccupied with sanitising ‘our own’ share of that deadly pie.
The alleged scepticism of the ‘vision thing’ is really an alternative vision — one that Gandhi and Tagore, even Nehru, would have found a little difficult to comprehend. We do of course exercise our voice in favour of the causes of a few developing countries. It is not easy to miss, in newspapers across the world, the picture of a smiling Kamal Nath as he walks out of the talks of the World Trade Organisation, joining forces with China, Brazil, and other movers and shakers in the economic world. But how extensive is our camaraderie? Does our activist global role go beyond the coalition of the big economic entrants in the buying and selling of goods in the world market?
Some would see this ethical near-vacuum in our global thinking as an inescapable result of the priorities of a market economy. It would, however, be hard to attribute our new moral apathy to the demands of the markets. Markets are, often enough, useful institutions, but they can hardly be responsible for determining our general philosophy, going well beyond their role as nice little organisational instruments. As it happens, the pioneers who championed the rationale of markets, from Adam Smith to Richard Cobden, also argued for a grand — and often egalitarian — vision of the world. The Manchester League, which spearheaded the intellectual movement for free trade, was committed both to the removal of trade restrictions (its immediate priority) and to placing that advocacy within a broader framework of global justice that would seize the minds and hearts of people across continental barriers.
— Photo, August 2005: V. Sudershan
Global vision: ‘If we had the courage to do our thing and say our piece in the world when the going was rough, we could present our global vision with much greater confidence to a more attentive audience today across the world. And we can hardly have a better Prime Minister to present such a vision than Manmohan Singh.’
The reach of that global vision included, as Richard Cobden, the leading Manchester liberal, put it: “to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails,” where “the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires and gigantic armies and great navies....will die away....when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man.” If that was babytalk, it did move a huge lot of babies across the world.
There is no particular reason why the closing of the licence Raj in India must entail the shutting of our eyes to our international responsibilities, or to our broader commitments of yesteryears (including global democracy, secularism, self-determination, and social equity) that made the independence of India such a major event in world history. And, furthermore, there is nothing in the logic of the Indian economy or society today that goes against our looking beyond the coalition of the new trading successes, with their special interests, no matter how comfortable and well-served we feel in this exalted company.
Do we not do some good to the world even without making that a specific priority? I think we do, for India’s achievements offer some useful lessons to others, just as the experiences of first Japan and then East Asia, including China, helped Indians think more clearly about what we should do. For example, our massive success in the IT industry has not only been good for India, it has also been inspiring for many other developing countries. India’s achievements in pharmaceuticals, including in the production of cheap generic substitutes for life-saving medicines, much needed in the poorer countries in the world (often in Africa), have not only made a huge difference in bringing down the costs of tackling epidemics like the AIDS, but also influenced some other countries to enter such fields themselves. There are other contributions connected with lessons of practice, related to democracy, the media, the legal system, parts of higher education, many achievements of the economy, and of our literature, music, and films.
It is not my point that the world gets nothing from us. Indeed, going beyond these well-known fields in which India’s experience has something to offer to others, let me conclude by saying something about an area of relative success in India which is oddly unsung, and lessons from which can have some global use. It is interesting that so little attention has been paid to the ability of India to have low levels of violent crime, including homicide, despite our exceptional poverty (a majority of the world’s poor, we must remember, are Indians). There may well be something of a lesson in this for the violence-filled modern world, if we are able to move forward with recognising the basic empirical issues in this neglected subject.
I must confess that it came to me as a surprise that my humble Kolkata, notorious for its grinding poverty, has the lowest incidence of most kinds of violent crimes among all the sizeable cities in the world for which I could get data, and particularly the lowest rate of murder and homicide. I had not seen this fact discussed anywhere, and came upon it only very recently while trying to compare global data in the context of preparing a lecture last March on “The Urbanity of Calcutta,” given in New York (it was a lecture in the name of the late Lewis Mumford, the celebrated city planner and architect), and while working for a more ambitious lecture on “Poverty, War and Peace” in Johannesburg and Cape Town (named after Nadine Gordimer, one of the truly visionary writers of our time, and delivered in her thrilling presence). It also emerged that while Kolkata was by a long margin the city with the lowest homicide rate in India, the Indian cities in general, almost without exception, are strikingly low in the incidence of violent crime by world standards, and are beaten only by much richer and more well-placed cities like Hong Kong and Singapore.
We grumble so much about crime in India that these assertions might look like figments of my fevered imagination. But the dissatisfaction partly reflects the fact that our standards are high and we are concerned to make sure that our crime rates should not rise. However, our comparative positions are not what we might think from the nature of our discontent. Here are some numbers relating to 2005 or the closest year for which I could get data. The average incidence of homicide in the principal Indian cities (including all the 35 cities that are counted in that category) is 2.7 per 100,000 people. The figure for Delhi is 2.9, for Chennai 1.9, and for Mumbai 1.3 per 100,000. The corresponding rate for homicide is as low as 0.3 in Kolkata.
How does all this compare with other principal cities in the world? Paris has a homicide rate of 2.3, London 2.4, Dhaka 3.6, New York 5.0, Buenos Aires 6.4, Los Angeles 8.8, Mexico City 17.0, Johannesburg 21.5, Sao Paulo 24.0, and Rio de Janeiro an astonishing 34.9. Only our Patna is in the big league with a figure of 14.0 as the homicide rate – no other Indian city gets even to half that number, and the average of Indian cities is, as mentioned earlier, only 2.7. Even the famously low-crime Japanese cities have more than three times the murder rate of Kolkata, with 1.0 per 100,000 for Tokyo and 1.8 for Osaka, and only Hong Kong and Singapore come close to Kolkata (though still more than 60 per cent higher), at 0.5 per 100,000, compared with Kolkata’s 0.3.
In the lectures, to which I have referred earlier, where I talked about these comparisons, I have tried to speculate on the influence of different parameters in keeping the homicide rates and violent crimes low in India in general and in Kolkata in particular, such as mixed neighbourhoods, the hold of family life, the role of cultural lives, and in the case particularly of Kolkata, perhaps the mainstreaming of economic discontent in regular politics rather than leaving it to find violent outlets in irregular crime. But these are all highly speculative conjectures, and we badly need probing empirical investigation of this momentous but neglected issue.
To conclude, the world may get something from India’s experience even when we do little to help others in an active way. While some lessons are in well-known fields, including democracy, secularism, the media, and others, there are further areas that may be worth bringing into comparative analysis. The incidence of violent crimes and of homicide may well prove to be an area of great importance for global comparisons and for learning from experience. We certainly need more research on the empirical issues underlying the hugely varying rates of violent crimes.
And yet, even after taking note of what India may indirectly do for the rest of the world, the absence of much direct concern with helping others would be difficult to justify, or even fathom, especially given the commitments with which India arrived on the world scene sixty years ago. No contribution through experience and lessons can remedy the valuational meagreness of our international thinking. The contrast with our days six decades ago cannot be sharper.
It is true, of course, that our global vision came with our ceaseless blathering about our moral concerns (as we like to do on most subjects), but there was indeed something quite substantial to blather about. On this special anniversary of our Independence, we have reason enough to ask whether our global concerns should have narrowed as much as they have done even as our global attainments have broadened. India does not belong only to a special interest group in the WTO. Nor need more success entail less thought.
Dr. Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998 and was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1999, is Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University. Between 1998 and 2004, he was Master of Trinity College at Cambridge.
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