On the Real Poverty in South Asia

By Anjum Altaf

Reflecting on the official pronouncements of poverty in South Asia reminds me of the Marx Brothers saying: ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes.’

There are two kinds of poverty: monetary poverty and intellectual poverty. Together, I will argue, they make for a lethal combination.

The monetary and physical poverty in South Asia is undeniable; the controversies relate only to the few percentage points it might be above or below what is clearly an unacceptably high base level. The intellectual poverty is a more subtle phenomenon that, in my view, comes in the way of appropriately addressing the physical poverty.
Let me illustrate the existence of intellectual poverty in South Asia via an analogy that might help set up the discussion. People rush into places that have something rich to offer; if they can, people rush out of places that are impoverished. What do outsiders come to savor and learn in South Asia? Among other things, its aesthetics (music and dance), its spiritualism (yoga and sufism), and its cuisine. No one comes to South Asia to learn the theory or the methodology of any of the social sciences.

Why is that the case? It is because South Asian aesthetics, spiritualism and cuisine are unbroken indigenous traditions that remain alive today. In the social sciences, all that is left are great names, unfamiliar to most, from a history that is dead; the traditions that existed were swept aside or under by the interregnum of colonization.

The theories and methodologies of social science that are alive today were developed and are refined outside South Asia. Smart South Asians, and there are many, either leave South Asia to learn them abroad or learn them second-hand in India.

Consider just one example: the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, is justly famous for his theory of justice and although he speaks of niti and nyaya, he places himself squarely in the line of thinkers that stretches from Adam Smith via Bentham, Marx and John Stuart Mill to Sen. His theory challenges an alternative formulation that derives from Hobbes via Locke, Rousseau and Kant to John Rawls. Surely there are indigenous South Asian theories of justice but they are not part of a tradition that is alive in academia.

Is that a problem? Yes, in my view, because thinking is different from producing. All the high-tech things are designed in the West and manufactured in the South but that works because most products are shipped back to be consumed in the West as well. But just as pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in drugs that are needed by people without purchasing power in the South, so social scientists have little incentive producing theories that are rooted in the traditions of the South.

Theories emerge from the experience of the West; most of those we work with are products of the European Enlightenment and their subsequent modifications. These theories are then universalized and applied in other places. But a theory determines what data we look for in the application; it is not the raw data from the locale of the application that yields the theory.

Take Marxism and feudalism as examples. How much effort has been devoted to identifying kulaks, middle-peasants, and feudals in the South Asian countryside and with what results?

This brings us back to poverty. The prevalent approach to poverty alleviation – identifying the poor with a poverty line, targeting them through means-testing, and distributing welfare support through agents of the state, is relevant in places where the poor are a small proportion of the total population, where most transactions are negotiated through the market, where the agents of the state are not themselves poor, and where the institutions of the state are credible and robust.

This approach is ill-suited for places where the conditions are quite the opposite: the majority of the population is poor, there are many non-market transactions, state agents themselves are poor, and the institutions of the state are weak. Identifying the poor, means-testing them, and getting public support to them results in about Rs. 15 reaching the poor out of every Rs. 100 intended for them.

Asides from the vast corruption engendered by this approach, it creates social tensions by dividing the poor and the almost-poor, sets up perverse incentives for households and groups to be identified as poor, and is financially untenable. Seriously addressing poverty on this scale via welfare payments would surely bankrupt the economy.

Once again, an analogy might help. The treatment for an incipient cancer is not the same as that for one that has spread throughout the body. It has to be radically different. This is obvious to all. Why is not so in the case of poverty alleviation? The one answer I can think of is because we have been blinded by borrowed remedies, have not thought of them ourselves, and have marginalized those who do have indigenous wisdom to offer.

When Montek Singh Ahluwalia defends the Indian poverty lines of Rs. 26 and Rs. 32 per capita per day, he is technically correct. The universally employed poverty line is $1.50 per capita per day; converted at purchasing power parity it would yield the figures offered by the Indian Planning Commission. But these lines are good only to track, if one so desires, the number of individuals or the percentage of the population below them. They have no bearing on the appropriateness of a poverty alleviation strategy. For the latter, the percentage of the population that is poor, much like the spread of cancerous cells in a body, is of much more relevance.

If one thinks about it, even the simple counting could be problematic. If the number of individuals below these poverty lines are decreasing over time what is the assurance that they have been lifted out of poverty? Many might simply be dying early at this level of bare sustenance. Unless someone can provide data for income-specific life expectancies and rates of mortality, I would be justified in remaining skeptical of the official claims.

How have we arrived at the point where a man of Mr. Singh’s qualifications and credentials is seriously suggesting a survival proposition that any illiterate child would tell him cannot be true? Is it because the illiterate child is looking at India through his own eyes while Mr. Singh is looking at it through the eyes of others?

Therein might lie the real story of South Asian poverty.


  • Vijay Vikram
    Posted at 08:07h, 14 November Reply


    A compelling argument and one that I endorse.

    What I would like to say is that the road to intellectual self-emancipation for the colonised Subcontinental soul passes through the West. It is just a pity that most humans who travel on that road end up swallowing wholesale the reigning delusions of the West and don’t quite complete the journey.

    It would be foolish of us to think that we can transcend the West. The West is world-historical and the intellectual history of the West now forms part of the intellectual heritage of human collectivities everywhere. Thus, the process of ideational decolonisation is a creative one. It requires us to pick and choose.

    Perhaps we can take some politically-incorrect inspiration from Sayyid Qutb and the Conservative Revolutionaries of Weimar Germany. Both argued (I simplify) that Anglo-Saxon Modernity is composed of two strands: Physical and Philosophical. Whilst the former is to be embraced, the latter must be rejected decisively.

    This is an admittedly stark dichotomy and there are strands of Western European philosophical modernity that I would not be hostile to. Still, there is something to be said for the above approach.

    As I have mentioned on this blog previously, the most exciting practical manifestation of this intellectual syncretism is taking place in China with its model of Market Authoritarianism. As Slavoj Zizek argues, “Capitalism with Asian values” might well turn out to be more dynamic than its Western counterpart (http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/talktojazeera/2011/10/2011102813360731764.html?utm_content=automateplus&utm_campaign=Trial6&utm_source=SocialFlow&utm_medium=MasterAccount&utm_term=tweets).

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:31h, 15 November

      Vijay: I agree. It is not an issue of transcending the West or being hostile to it. Rather, it is to stress that all knowledge, models and worldviews are contextual. To assume uncritically that the models are universal is at the bottom of many of our problems. An illustrative example pertains to democracy. One hears all the time learned people lamenting that political parties in Pakistan are personal dynastic fiefdoms. This is labeled as an unfortunate problem to be fixed in accordance with a normative model that refers to Westminster. This, in my view, is an upside-down approach. What is needed is an analysis of the socioeconomic context that gives rise repeatedly to personal dynastic fiefdoms and to arrive at modes of governance that are compatible with that reality.

      I am not a fan of the market authoritarianism but I do agree that there is a lot less derivative thinking in China compared to South Asia. I see a constant search for the best global ideas and practices which are then adapted to the local conditions, carefully tested through pilot experiments (a big change since the 1980s), and then implemented after the kinks are worked out.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:55h, 14 November Reply

    The diagnosis of the problem seems correct and there isnt much to disagree with you there.

    However, I am skeptical about attributing the current scenario solely to colonial rule. For example, you say,
    “But just as pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in drugs that are needed by people without purchasing power in the South, so social scientists have little *incentive* producing theories that are rooted in the traditions of the South.”

    I think the issue here might be more environment than incentive. Not producing theories that are rooted in South Asian traditions might have happened because the institutional arrangements that enable scholars to produce such theories are either absent or in a poor state. As an example, consider higher technical education in India. There was no indigenous tradition of such education that I am aware of, but the state invested heavily in creating institutions (modeled of course on institutions in the West, but with indigenous elements as well, think for example of the JEE) and the standard of technical education in India today is in general better than it was in 1950.

    I dont think one can explain the intellectual poverty that you have so correctly identified without taking into account institutional poverty of higher education in India.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:40h, 15 November

      Vikram: Could it be that the institutional poverty of higher education itself results from an uncritical attitude towards higher education. The best institutions are supposed to be carbon copies of Harvard and MIT and everything else is second best for those who don’t make it to the former. The institutions are not really geared to understanding, let alone addressing, the overwhelming needs of the Indian majority. The needs that are considered salient are themselves derived from a borrowed model of modernization.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 21:38h, 15 November

      “Could it be that the institutional poverty of higher education itself results from an uncritical attitude towards higher education.”

      I think to answer that question we need to consult folks who have considerable experience in Indian academia. The reasons might be very complex. Among the factors I can remember, caste politics within institutions, the lack of appropriate mechanisms to enable academicians affect policy and generally sub-par leadership in the administration stand out.

      Let me also point out that in the case of India, it is only the MIT-Caltech model that has been borrowed and not the Harvard or the American public universities one. This distinction is very important. If there was indeed a Harvard or even a UC Berkeley in India, chances are that Amartya Sen would have stayed in India and even worked on more native intellectual traditions.

      Also since we are talking about higher education, can you point me to an alternate (and successful) model of higher education other than the Western one ? I am not saying that would make the Western one the automatic choice, just want to see what successful alternatives actually exist out there.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:02h, 16 November

      Vikram: Politics, lack of appropriate mechanisms, and sub-par leadership are common features of institutions in South Asia, whether the latter are borrowed or indigenous. So we can ignore them in the discussion and focus exclusively on the orientation of the institutions. It is true that in structural and organizational terms institutions would look similar to one another across regions. What one has to see is whether and how they are organic to the societies in which they are located. MIT is very organic to the US but if one were to locate its clone in India and orient it outwards, it would be much less organic to India. The issue we have to debate from the ground up is what kind of education system does India need. I don’t think we have debated that sufficiently keeping in view the interests of the majority of Indian citizens.

      The Western system of education looks uniform but in actual fact the structures are quite different in the US and Europe and even within individual countries in Europe. Each of them reflects some continuities with their specific traditions. Another system we might look at (I don’t have enough knowledge of it at this time) is the one in China. There is a very long tradition of bureaucrats in China being produced by this system. This is to be contrasted with South Asia where the bureaucrats with the highest cachet are the products of Oxbridge. Does this make a difference in how the elites relate to the rest of society?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 16:15h, 16 November

      I think we can give this discussion more focus by sticking to the question of what kind of higher education systems might be appropriate for India. Perhaps a separate post on that matter might help the debate, I could try and write one if thats ok.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:57h, 16 November

      Vikram: That would be a very worthwhile post and should generate a much needed discussion. Thanks for the initiative.

  • Vijay Vikram
    Posted at 19:49h, 15 November Reply

    On the topic of reviving/engaging with non-Western, native traditions, allow me to mention Rajiv Malhotra’s new book, “Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism” (http://www.harpercollins.co.in/BookDetail.asp?Book_Code=2845)

    Malhotra is an education activist in the US who works towards increasing the study of Indic-Dharmic intellectual traditions in American higher education institutions.

    I have yet to develop any real intellectual curiosity for Indic traditions. But I will soon begin work on a project to theorise non-Western political modernity. So, I will try to read his book.

    Malhotra is on a lecture tour in India at the moment, so if any of the readers happen to be in those neck of the woods, they should consider attending one of his lectures (http://centreright.in/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/rajiv-malhotra.pdf)

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 20:50h, 15 November

      Vijay: We don’t really have to go looking for “native-native” intellectual traditions although that too should be an academic activity. There were many intellectual streams that were marginalized because they were considered out-of-tune with the modernizing sentiment or the modernizing persona. Gandhi’s ideas about history, development, governance and secularism were a lot more indigenous but were swept away so easily as being absurd and quirky. For Gandhi’s ideas on secularism, see Akeel Blgrami’s essay archived in The Best From Elsewhere section of the blog – it is #79 or 80. A fascinating book to read is on Maulana Madani by Barbara Metcalfe. It has a much more indigenous (and sophisticated, in my view) argument for secularism in undivided India from inside the Islamic tradition – something still considered an impossibility. It never got a serious intellectual hearing compared to the completely borrowed understandings of the modernizers like Nehru and Jinnah who were the representatives of Macaulay’s native elite.

  • Narmeen Hamid
    Posted at 08:50h, 16 November Reply

    I endorse what you have written and have a personal account to illustrate it. Obviously what you write for economics or poverty lines holds equally true for other disciplines as well. I have been trying now for the past two years to carry out a research study on higher education of women in Pakistan with a view to develop an alternate, indigenous model of women empowerment for our part of the world, but the obstacles I have come across in getting funding find answers in your article. The ‘funders’ are simply not interested in issues that have relevance only for us. And unless we pursue these issues, we keep aping the west or recycling their theories. I applied to many foreign donors, universities and foundations. All said ‘wonderful idea, but sorry no funds’. Local NGOs do exist but their research funding is also foreign and therefore driven by what is considered relevant by the latter.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:02h, 16 November

      Narmeen: There is a dilemma here. Foreign pharmaceutical manufacturers are private, for-profit firms. It is understandable if they don’t invest in drugs consumed by people who are unable to pay. Foreign aid agencies are public, not-for-profit organizations that are ostensibly concerned with the development of the recipient societies. There is less of an excuse if they shy away from issues that are relevant for the latter. Still, the organization that provides the funds is within its rights to specify what the money is used for. It is really the responsibility of the recipient states to realize the importance of investment in understanding the dynamics of their own societies and not to leave it to the charity of external donors. Alternatively, the research proposals should be such that they couch their objectives in the frameworks that are favored by the donors. It is a second-best option but one can piggyback an incremental module on a more conventional product.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:58h, 08 December Reply

    A new report from the OECD says that income inequality has doubled in India in 20 years and 42% of its population lives below $1.25 a day.

    “Inequality in earnings has doubled in India over the past two decades, a new report says, making it one of the worst performers among emerging economies.”


  • Pingback:{ Brown Pundits } » The Changing World of Urdu
    Posted at 16:26h, 13 December Reply

    […] Also from the same weblog “On the Real Poverty in South Asia“. […]

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 04:00h, 28 May Reply

    In India, It is back to measurement issues. There is still no consensus on how to get a credible poverty line:


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:45h, 24 July Reply

    Amartya Sen talks about his new book: An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions.


    “Your book speaks of the deep deprivations India still has. Does it surprise you then that many economists are currently questioning whether we should be spending on basic entitlements?

    “No, I am not surprised. In defence of a position with which I am not in agreement, those who are against entitlements or what is called redistribution, their main argument is that the process of growth would be much faster if we didn’t do it now, and then once we have grown, we can do it very quickly. I can understand what the thinking is at an analytical level. The fact that there isn’t a single example of any country in the world which has developed education and healthcare way after they became rich makes me think that the empirical presumptions behind that theory may not be very strong… The fact that there are lots of examples — Europe, America, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan — of the opposite, namely that they do education and healthcare and their growth rate goes up and they can do very well, makes me think that the connection we are focussing on is empirically more solidly grounded. I don’t think there’s anything evil or nasty about taking the other view. I do happen to think that it’s mistaken.”

  • Indian
    Posted at 21:54h, 23 January Reply

    Anjum, I think this is a poverty that the East suffers from as a whole. We often speak of this failure as if it is unique to our nations but even the most advanced and modern Eastern nation, Japan, suffers from the same affliction. I am reading Jared Taylor’s book, “Shadows of the Rising Sun: A Critical View of the Japanese Miracle”. This book was written when Japan was considered an economic threat to the United States. On page 122, he writes “In the liberal arts hardly anything that is new comes out of Japan. Its universities devour the latest from the West but contribute next to nothing of their own. Even Western specialists would be hard pressed to name a Japanese economist, psychologist, philosopher, historian, or critic.”

    Thus, even a rich nation has an intellectual deficit. As Ashay Naik has pointed out in his response to Aatish Taseer’s essay on Brahmins in Benares (http://indiafacts.org/the-conflict-between-tradition-and-modernity-in-india/), the realm of worldly knowledge that constitutes social and political thought has been conceded to the West. Japan has made greater strides than any other Eastern nation in mimicking the West’s technical and scientific modernity but even there it lags behind an Apple, a Google and a Facebook. However, it has at least made a good showing. In the realm of what the Indians would call vyavaharic thought it stands completely naked just like India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria and every Eastern cultural and political entity in existence.

    Jared Taylor’s book is available free of charge here: http://gen.lib.rus.ec/search.php?req=+%09Shadows+of+the+Rising+Sun%3A+A+Critical+View+of+the+Japanese+Miracle&open=0&res=25&view=simple&phrase=1&column=def. Reading it is like reading an essay on India.


    • Vikram
      Posted at 23:20h, 23 January

      I attribute Japan’s relative poverty in humanities intellectual production to its lack of longstanding empire, and enduring post-colonial contact with former subjects.

      The origin of the kind of humanities intellectual production we see in American/British universities today was the colonial project. For example, Sanskrit studies at Oxbridge started with the objective of converting Indians to Christianity, and endorsing the colonial project.

      After political independence, such Western centric intellectual production has continued in the ex-colonies at places like JNU/DU, but more recently the governing ideology of such production has been promoting Leftist and Islamist ideologies.

      It must be noted that when the Japanese do engage intellectually with Indian traditions, the results are first rate:

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:09h, 25 January

      Vikram: First, we should make a distinction between the social sciences (like anthropology, sociology, etc.) and the humanities (history, philosophy, literature, etc.). There is definitely no reason to believe that Japanese output in the humanities has been poor. I also believe the output in the social sciences has been considerable but in the Japanese language and so not accessible to the English-reading audience. This is my gut feeling for which I do not have evidence.

      Many of the social sciences (particularly anthropology) were used in the colonial project but to equate their origin to the colonization might be going too far. It is probably correct that the study of Sanskrit was associated with the British incursion in India but one can’t say the same for history, philosophy or religious studies whose origins go much further back in time.

      It is also correct that the model of education adopted in India is the British one but the education provides tools for research which can be employed to research anything. The fact that most Indians in higher education are not sufficiently familiar with local languages keeps them from researching the archival material available in India. This is not a problem in Japan or China, for example.

      I am not sure what you mean by the “governing ideology of such production” – what is it? And why would JNU and DU promote Leftist and Islamist ideologies?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 01:38h, 26 January

      “And why would JNU and DU promote Leftist and Islamist ideologies?”

      The assault on India here is similar to the sustained assault which led to Egypt losing her ancient civilization and Europe her vibrant ‘pre-Christian’ theologies and mythologies.

      The deep seated aversion of Hinduism/Indic traditions, which is rooted in basic precepts (fanatic monotheism, intolerance of heterodoxy/non-believers, belief in ‘judgement day’ etc) of Semitic ideologies, is openly and fully manifest now. These inclinations are also present in Marxism since it was born in a Semitized region.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 07:41h, 26 January

      Vikram: Please try and help me understand this because I find it very hard to comprehend. Are you saying that there is a group of Indians inside JNU and DU who are launching a sustained assault to destroy Indian civilization along the lines of the assaults that “led to Egypt losing her ancient civilization and Europe her vibrant ‘pre-Christian’ theologies and mythologies”?

      Are you saying this group has a deep-seated aversion to Hinduism/Indic traditions because its members believe in Semitic ideologies? They are not real Hindus?

      Marxism is associated with atheism. So how can it share a belief in ‘judgement day’, etc.?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 08:22h, 03 March
    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:20h, 25 January

      Indian: Thanks for making this point about Japan which is really provocative and forces a rethink of one’s position.

      You have referred to a fairly old essay on this site and I have had to re-read it to refresh my memory of what I was trying to say. I feel what I would stress today is the following: “Surely there are indigenous South Asian theories of justice [and other values] but they are not part of a tradition that is alive in academia.”

      It is not the absence of excellent social scientists and humanists in India (there are many) but that their ideas, in general, do not connect with South Asian traditions. These continuities need not just be of acceptance; critiques are just as valid and needed. The linkage with tradition enables a connection between the scholars and the rest of the population that has to a part of the conversation even if a passive one for the moment. That raises the important question: Who is the audience for the scholarly output in South Asia.

      In this perspective, I hold a slightly different position on Japan. I seriously doubt the claim that there is no worthwhile output in the social sciences and humanities in Japan. My guess is there must be quite a lot in the Japanese language in local publications very little of which gets translated. But whatever there is must be connected with Japanese traditions because one does not see the kind of cultural disconnect in its elite as one sees in South Asia. Perhaps this has to do with the continuity of the Japanese language as the carrier of ideas and conversations unlike South Asia where English has been the wedge separating tradition from scholarship. Most South Asian scholars are unable to access original sources in the indigenous languages and are referring to second-hand translations by outsiders.

      I offer these speculative thoughts for further discussion.

    • Indian
      Posted at 09:25h, 25 January

      Dear Anjum, thank you for your considered response. I do not think there can be excellent vyavaharic thinkers in India (my term for your “social scientists and humanists”) if they are not grounded in Indian tradition. As Ashay Naik points out in his ground-breaking essay, “Hindu Political Thought: Liberal, Conservative and Reactionary”, the Indian thinkers have lost the adhikara to comment on their traditions as they are not conversant in them and seek to read into them the key features of Western liberalism or whatever is fashionable in the West at the time. Because they have no grounding in their own traditions, they are also not able to make any noteworthy contributions to the Western discourse. Thus, they have lost their adhikara as intellectuals. We also must note the language that we use. We speak of worldly thinkers “in” India as if they somehow stand apart from her and isolated from her people. Language of course reflects reality and we say “in” because the thinkers “in” India are articulating an alien discourse. We find it problematic to speak of Pankaj Mishra as an “Indian” thinker because we know in our heart he is not articulating an Indian discourse. Of course, he is formally an Indian in the sense he grew up in India, carries an Indian name and passport and has a recognisably Indian phenotype, but that’s where it ends. To account for this discrepancy where “Indian” does not necessarily mean “Indian”, thinkers and neologists have coined the term “Indic” to refer to those who are keen in studying the Indian intellectual past and crafting a discourse from that past that allows us to exist in the here and now. Doing so is essential because Indians continue to exist in that past and find the contemporary discourse utterly incomprehensible.

      I disagree with your position on Japan. Modernity has been traumatic for all concerned, Occidental and Oriental alike. However, as Ashay points out, the Western past continues to exist in some form as modernity is a transformation of the Western past. In all other places, it has completely supplanted all existing traditions leaving people completely helpless. The author of the book I referred to, Jared Taylor, though an American, grew up in Japan and speaks Japanese fluently. Moreover, when he speaks Japanese, he articulates the Japanese or the Eastern discourse, which for our purposes is identical to the Indian discourse. He speaks of the pain and trauma in Japanese intellectual publications about their country’s interaction with modernity. Japanese say of themselves, “We are not rational”, “We are not capable of abstract thought”, “In Japan, the group dominates the individual”, “Japan is a conformist society”, “Japanese only know how to mimic”, “Japanese students are very passive and do not ask tough questions of their professors”, “There are no original ideas or thinkers in Japan, only conformity”. This sounds remarkably like the lamentation of Indians and Easterners in general. We like to fancy that an organic modernity exists in Japan. It doesn’t. It is a failed society like all others. We do not ask tough questions of Japan because it is rich, clean and capable of producing trinkets. However, we have no choice to ask tough questions of India because the disorder, dirt and poverty is too obvious. Clearly, there must be a profound intellectual explanation. And we look for it in the areas you have outlined. The only difference between India and Japan is that in India, only the “elites” are alienated. In Japan, everybody is. If you need any proof of Japan’s dysfunction, please read this: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:42h, 25 January

      Indian: I feel we should make a few distinctions.

      It is not the case that there are no excellent social scientists and humanists in India. There are. But it is equally true that the majority of social scientists are not communicating with the mass of Indian citizenry.

      It is not the case that case that no Indian social scientists and humanists have made a worthwhile contribution to Western discourse. They have – texts authored by them are quite integral to curricula in Western institutions. They may not be rooted in Indian traditions but that is a different matter not relevant to the excellence of the contributions within the fields in which they are offered.

      We should also distinguish between the modern social sciences and the humanities. The comments above relate much more to the former. In the humanities we may not be aware of the output in the local languages that speak much more to the lives of ordinary people. In fact some may be speaking so forcefully that there voices have been threatened or silenced.

      Regarding Japan, somehow the argument does not appeal to me but I don’t have the insight to provide support for my position. An example that comes to mind is Japanese corporate culture and industrial organization. It has not been swamped by Western models but quite rooted in Japanese tradition. In fact, there have been sporadic attempts to emulate it in the West without much real success.

      I don’t quite see why one would call Japan a failed society. What are the indicators of success you have in mind? And if Japan is rich, clean, efficient, and free of street crime and violence, how has it achieved that without a coherent worldview shared by the people? One has not witnessed any overt coercion (as in the USSR) that has forced the people to adhere to a model alien to their traditions. Nor has one witnessed a model that has not bothered to include the people as in India.

      The example you have linked of Japan’s dysfunction did not convince me. Dysfunction can only be defined with reference to a norm which can be quite arbitrary. Your norm is conditioned by your experience and has no independent validity. Sexual attitudes are changing all over the world – recall Dalrymple’s article on Sex in India in the NYRB. I thought the idea of replacing love and sex with other urban pastimes made a lot of sense.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 01:40h, 26 January

      Japan’s fertility rate of 1.41 is higher than Germany’s at 1.39 and not very different from white American’s at 1.75.

  • Indian
    Posted at 11:45h, 25 January Reply

    Haha! This is a hilarious review of Pankaj Mishra’s new “book”. Just like the last one, it says nothing at all. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2017/01/eighty-pages-age-anger-i-still-had-no-idea-what-it-was-about

  • Indian
    Posted at 12:20h, 25 January Reply

    Dear Anjum, I am sorry for posting links continuously on your site. But, I came across this excellent post yesterday on the nature of women. It jibes with the gender theory in the Panchatantra uncovered by Ashay Naik. Ashay argues that women have no essential nature and seek only to follow men. Thus, feminism is an invention of men and women merely follow. Similarly, the author of this piece argues that “Women are not interested in the social order. They are just interested in reinforcing it.” This explains why women make such eager liberals. As the dominant order is a liberal one, women valiantly reinforce it. In the past, women have been great defenders of tradition as that was the dominant order. Men shall only have to alter the current order from a liberal to a conservative one and women shall soon follow. https://alternative-right.blogspot.in/2015/04/women-are-not-interested-in-social.html?m=1


  • Indian
    Posted at 14:40h, 26 January Reply

    Dear Anjum,

    I have just emerged refreshed, energised and astounded from Ashay Naik’s latest salvo at our contemporary ways of thinking. It takes the form of his speech on 22nd January at the Indic Academy in Bengaluru, a grand name for what is in essence a rather dire enterprise. I found this sentence particularly poignant: “This in a sense is what the West has done to us, it has stolen our dreams.” We are used to left-liberal proponents of intellectual “decolonisation” making such mawkish claims. When a conservative mourns like this, it has another beauty altogether. I am leaving the speech here for your enlightenment as well as for those who chance upon it: https://satyanrtam.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/cons-pancatantra/

    Yours truly,


  • Vikram
    Posted at 06:40h, 29 January Reply

    “led to Egypt losing her ancient civilization and Europe her vibrant ‘pre-Christian’ theologies and mythologies”

    Do you not agree that these statements are true ? If not, why so ?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 11:04h, 29 January

      Vikram: That is not the relevant question. Yes, Egypt ‘lost’ her ancient civilization – which place still retains its ancient civilization? And, yes, Europe ‘lost’ its ‘pre-Christian’ theologies – but does anyone mind or mourn that loss?

      The questions to answer you have avoided. How are these processes similar to what a group of people are doing in JNU and DU? Are those people anti-Hindu or anti-Indian? If so what do you recommend should be done with them?

    • Indian
      Posted at 11:44h, 29 January

      Actually, they do. I think people all over the world mourn the loss of their ancient civilisations. It is most obvious and understandable in the East. But even in the West, where Christianity originates, people mourn the loss of paganism and the clan. I read an article recently about Iceland, perhaps the country most isolated from mainstream Western influence despite being a kind of Western country itself. The Icelanders were not very interested in becoming Christians. They were happy in their old clannish ways. But they came under a lot of pressure from the Danes and others who would not trade with them if they did not become Christians. So the Icelanders started adopting Christian names, customs and festivals. But it was more superficial than in other parts of Europe. Paganism survived below the surface. Now that Christianity is relaxing and allowing others to breathe, Icelandic pagan traditions are re-asserting themselves in a more formal way. I cannot find that article now but it was very interesting.

      In response to the questions you have asked Vikram, of course these people are anti-Indian. This is not a special, unique or new phenomenon. All Eastern societies when faced with and dominated by the West have entered a long period of depression and self-hatred. They seek to emulate the West and in doing so destroy their own traditions. This has happened from Japan to Java, India to Iran. There is no great mystery. And when you seem to question the connection between Marxism and Christianity, I am surprised. It is well-known that Marxism is a variant of Christianity. I am sure John Gray would have written about this somewhere. I am not explicitly familiar with Marxist and Christian categories but it doesn’t take one long to guess that Christ’s Judgement Day is secularised as the rise of the proletariat in Marxism.

      As to “what shall be done with them [protesters, malcontents and so forth]”. Nothing. Both the Indian State and Indian intellectuals and activists lack the political and intellectual imagination to do anything about such trifling matters. Nothing shall change as long as Indians and others do not develop a discourse that suits them. The process is beginning with the writings of Ashay Naik but one cannot know what shall become of all this.



    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:16h, 29 January

      Indian: Now that Christianity is relaxed and there is no pressure of any kind why don’t all the mourners renounce Christianity and go back to paganism?

      I read you as saying that all those who don’t agree with Indian are anti-Indian? That’s not a surprising position for those wishing to restore ancient civilizations.

      Since you have determined to equate Marxism with Christianity, you are bound to find Judgement Day somewhere. If it is not the rise of the proletariat it would be something else.

      Re ‘protesters, malcontents and so forth’ – if it is such a trifling matter why the hue and cry? I am sure Vikram would dispute that – he puts it in the same category as the destruction of the Egyptian civilaization. And if “The Indian State and Indian intellectuals and activists lack the political and intellectual imagination to do anything” all we can do is wait for Ashay Naik.

    • Indian
      Posted at 16:49h, 29 January

      Come on Anjum. Let us play nice. There is no need to get angry.

      Even though you are upset I am going to attempt a response. I thought it was well-established by now that Marxism and indeed much of Western thought owes a substantial parental debt to Christianity. How could it be otherwise? Here is John Gray musing on the subject: http://omnologos.com/the-christian-roots-of-marxism-and-secular-thought/ But, Christianity is not sui generis as S.N. Balagangadhara (Balu) would have us believe. In the words of Ashay Naik, (who you now seem to have developed a distaste for) “…if Western thought is problematic, it is problematic to its very core” (https://satyanrtam.wordpress.com/2016/12/17/gr-christianity/). It is the West that we have to deal with and yes, to the extent that Christianity is a manifestation of the West we shall deal with it. As Ashay Naik teaches us, it is the ancient West that separated logos from mythos and that is the beginning of many of our troubles. Christianity itself is a product of the Hellenic colonisation of Jewish traditions. But to be honest, I am not really interested in Marxism and I am not interested in Christianity. I am interested in the West and how it has shaped and destroyed our world (in addition to destroying itself). What I can understand about Christianity, (and yes, it is with the aid of Ashay) is that it sought to ground vyavaharic (worldly) behaviour on paramarthic (ultimate) truth. This may be the seed of much of our chaos. Paramarth has no place in vyavaharic life. All living creatures understand that. It is when we forget this or are made to forget this that we invite our own destruction.

      On the subject of the “trifling matter”. I have not read Vikram’s contribution but I assume it is about some student protests that routinely take place in India and the world. It is a trifling matter for us intellectuals because we cannot react to everything, we cannot react to current affairs. There would be no time left for anything else. The function of the intellectual is to probe as deeply as his thought shall allow him. It is trifling in that sense. However, it is not trifling for ordinary folk. They are just trying to survive and get-by. They are upset when they see these things and can react only to them. They have no desire to build an intellectual foundation that shall challenge the ecosystem that sustains such protests and makes them fashionable. For example, yesterday, the Indians we excited about an Indian film director being roughed up because he was accused of portraying a Rajput Princess willingly submitting to a Muslim marauder in his film. In reality however, she is said to have flung herself to death rather than submit herself to the marauder. The locals were upset so they beat the chap up or slapped him about a little bit. These are precisely the things I do not want to waste my time with. Hence, I call them trifling.

      I sense you are irked with my repeated invocation of Ashay Naik. Of course, it is a bit difficult to imagine that a people numbering more than a thousand million have been unable to mount an intellectual response to the West. I myself have difficulty coming to terms with it. However, it is sadly true. Indians (and Easterners in general) have not demonstrated the appetite to engage seriously with the world around them. The Indian intellectual response consists of either reading Western liberalism into Indian thought and demonstrating the latter’s perfect compatibility with the former or retreating from the worldly realm altogether and claiming that Indian thought is “adhyatmic” and not interested in left vs right, development vs environmentalism, utopianism versus idealism or conservatism vs liberalism. However, these are the dichotomies we have been presented with and we shall have to choose a side. If we don’t, we might as well give up and go home. Ashay is important because he wishes to restore worldliness to the Indians. He tells us precisely where the Indians have been going wrong and how we can go about engaging with this strange and unfamiliar world. That is why I invoke him. I could do the fashionable thing and quote “Indian” “thinkers” like Hanky-Panky Mishra, Suzanne Arundhati Roy, Ramachandra Guhan, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and the others. But, what are they actually saying? Nothing as far as I can see. They offer no vision, no solutions and no diagnosis of the Indian problem. For them, India begins in 1947. For the rest of us however, we know things are a trifle more complicated. That is why I keep saying, let us engage with Ashay and learn from him. He is not a celebrity. He responds to e-mails and he is polite and respectful and open to disagreement. All the qualities we profess to admire. I hope you publish this response so that we may continue our productive discussion on this matter.

      Kind regards,


    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 08:16h, 01 February

      Indian: It stands to reason that Marxism and Western thought have emerged out of a Christian milieu – how could they not – but Marxism is not Christianity and the attempt to find one-to-one equivalences is not very enlightening. Just for interest why don’t you go ahead and complete the set – you still have the Holy Trinity, the Resurrection, the Eucharist, etc. to work through.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 06:52h, 29 January Reply

    “Marxism is associated with atheism. So how can it share a belief in ‘judgement day’, etc.?”

    Makarand Paranjape had pointed out this connection between Semitic faiths and Marxism in his response to a letter from a JNU leftist:

    “I still might have refrained had it not been for the ominous warning at the end of your letter: “History will not forget that at this critical moment, you chose not to stand with it.” I wonder if you noticed how the dire threat of Judgement Day of the Semitic faiths now reappears in your missive in the garb of damnation at the dread hand of History.”


    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 10:56h, 29 January

      Vikram: I am surprised that you base your understanding of Marxism on the letter of a JNU leftist without even trying to figure out whether his/her remark and Paranjape’s response make sense or not.

      What has the leftist said: “History will not forget that at this critical moment, you chose not to stand with it.” What is wrong with this statement? Does History have a religion? Do people not have historical memories? Do they not assign blame or praise based on historical actions? Do you forget the actions of invaders in India? Does that mean you subscribe to the Judgement Day of Semitic faiths?

      The same thing is said all the time by rightists. Paranjape’s response makes no logical sense except reflecting his ideological bias and blindspot.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:18h, 29 January Reply

    “If so what do you recommend should be done with them?”

    The struggle here is to make intellectual spaces more accomodating and tolerant of diverse view-points. So nothing has to be done to anybody, people just have to learn to listen to others without getting outraged and hyperbolic.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 08:59h, 03 February Reply
  • Indian
    Posted at 02:57h, 16 February Reply

    “As for your discomfort with my criticism of Balu or Yogananda, I find this a typical attitude among Indians. When a person has reached a certain ‘level’ we are reluctant to criticise him and prefer an accommodation. Unfortunately, I am too Westernised to act in this way. I have nothing against Balu or Yogananda or Vivekananda (I presume you haven’t read my posts about this intellectual giant :). What I find wrong in their writings I point it out. What I find right, I will applaud.

    You say that I am “overanalysing a single point or a set of points from a vast canvas and attempting to make meaning out of it and attach context to it.” I disagree. I appreciate Balu’s struggle to understand Indian thought on its own terms and Yogananda’s struggle to make the Gita comprehensible to a Christian audience. I just don’t think they are doing it right. In an intellectual discussion, it makes no sense to cut anyone any slack just because their heart is in the right place.”

    There is much Indians can learn from this response of Ashay’s to a comment made on his post about that great friend of the Indians, S.N. Balagangadhara.


    PS: Anjum, I think it is time you included https://satyanrtam.wordpress.com/ on your blogroll. Surely, it deserves that most minimal recognition?

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