Globalisation & Indian tradition

By Gail Omvedt

THE ``CHALLENGE of globalisation'' is a frequently-heard theme in India today. Ironically, the challenge does not now seem to be coming from the U.S. or other imperialist countries - rather it is now ``Chinese aggression'', meaning consumer products invading markets, rather than soldiers invading borders. Ironically also, whereas in the early 1990s the fear was of Indian manufacturing losing out, now it is agriculture, the least globalised sector in the last decade, that is thought to be in danger. It might also be added that China, which is now thought to be the greatest part of the challenge, achieved its greatest progress in agricultural productivities, in the development of small-scale village industries, and in the reduction of poverty in the seven-eight years after 1978, when economic reforms centered on agriculture.

There are obviously many issues to consider. However, in doing so it should help to remember that ``globalisation'' is part of Indian tradition. Two thousand and more years ago, India was linked to both Rome and China by trade, and considered a land of wealth and fine products. Buddhism spread as a missionary religion, to central Asia, South East Asia and China. Tamils sallied forth to bring Saivism and Vaishnavism as well to South East Asia. Trade goods went along with these. Culturally, the tendency to characterise all foreigners and foreign products as ``mleccha'' was countered from the very beginning by the trend of offering the best of Indian culture and products to the world. Even as late as the 17th century, it was British manufacturers who were afraid of and opposed to free trade because of the competition from fine Indian cotton cloth, while merchants supported it.

Colonial rule was a turning point for two reasons. One is that the colonial power did not so much force free trade as take over the regulation of Indian trade for the service of British manufacturers, grabbing a market for free entry while levying excise duties on products manufactured in India. But along with this was the technological threat, the great productivity and growing sophistication of consumer goods made possible by the industrial revolution. These together devastated many of India's weaving communities, while British taxes devastated the peasantry.

This led to the first ``modern'' debate on globalisation in the 1880s. Here again two trends emerged. The nationalist elite formulated at that time the ideology of swadeshi - ban foreign goods from India's markets, buy and use Indian-made products only, and build a national solidarity on this basis. The ``economic nationalism'' of the elite had its beginnings at this time, and swadeshi was its theme.

This was not, however, unopposed. Generally speaking, the non- Brahman and Dalit movements were suspicious of swadeshi from the beginning. Writing in ``Shetkaryaca Asud'' in 1882, Jotirao Phule saw the proclamation of nationalism as only a cover for maintaining the social and religious superiority of the upper castes. He argued that the masses should not fall prey to ``those stalwarts of purity (who) have been hiding their sword of religion under the guise of being great lovers of swadeshi, and telling the Shudras, Parsis and Muslims through their books, newspapers, Sabhas and similar methods that they should put aside all grumbling about the hierarchies and distinctions among those in the country and become united; and without becoming one, this unfortunate country will never make progress''. Phule also believed that from the time of what he believed to be the Aryan conquest, closing off the country and preventing exchange with ``outsiders'' was one method of maintaining elite control.

His was, however, not a simple conspiracy theory. He was quite aware of the danger posed by a flood of foreign products. But he offered a different solution. This broadly had two thrusts - first, mass education to create a mass of people capable of dealing on their own with ideas and products worldwide. Thus, he criticised the British for not spending the ``local funds'' they collected on setting up schools throughout the villages, and himself became one of the early founders of schools for both girls and untouchable boys. He also, as early as the 1970s, urged compulsory, universal primary education - a promise still not fulfilled in India.

Second, Phule wanted access to up-to-date technologies. The philosophical basis of this was his view of humanity - what differentiated people from animals, he believed, was intelligence, innovativeness, creativity, which made it possible for them to change (the word ``progress'' was not used in Phule's time, but he would not have despised it!). Due to their ability to harness invention and innovation to production, America and Europe had progressed; to make this possible in India education, but especially technological education which made accessible new innovations, should be provided. Thus the children of artisans, he thought, should also have special schooling, designed to unite their traditional techniques with the latest innovations, along with providing basic skills in literacy.

These themes remained. Later Dalit leaders such as Iyothee Thass in Tamil Nadu and the Namashudras in Bengal opposed the swadeshi campaigns of the early 20th century on much the same grounds as Phule did; they also put their hopes in mass education. Non- Brahman leaders in Tamil Nadu questioned the orientation of education in India to professional and literary skills, noting that in Japan, in contrast, there was a much higher proportion of technical schools. Non-Brahman movements generally included universal primary education as a major demand.

In many ways, all of these themes appear remarkably ``modern''. Phule's orientation is like that of Amartya Sen: globalisation holds its dangers, but will have positive benefits for an educated and healthy population whose capacities are developed. Up to now, the productivities of sectors such as agriculture in India have been among the lowest in the world, caste-based ``indigenous knowledge'' has by and large remained unlinked with innovations and even over 50 years after Independence, India has still not achieved universal primary education and remains far behind other countries in Asia - especially as regards women.

Today, the challenges of globalisation cannot be met by further protectionism or other means of closing off the country; the old ``Nehru model'' of development has resulted in backwardness and its continuation today would only prolong backwardness. India has already shown what its educated, information-savy skilled workforce can do in such areas as computer technology; the same skillful use of markets and people has to be extended to the areas such as agriculture and simple consumer goods which still employ the largest numbers of people.

Education and modern technologies - including the controversial areas of biotechnology and irrigation - have to be truly universalised. The future is not dark, but it is time to stop romanticising the backward aspects of the past, and learn from the equally Indian tradition of using globalisation.

Referred by:Dr. K.P. Singh
Published on: February 31, 2001
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