21 Jan South Asia: In Search of Roots
By Anjum Altaf
There are two theses about South Asia that I keep returning to often and feel strongly about – that democracy is alien to South Asia and that the British period was epiphenomenal. But I haven’t been able to bring the two together to my satisfaction. Oddly enough, it was a column on mathematics (Finding Your Roots) that suggested a way out of the quandary. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all that odd; what I needed was a different paradigm, a new way of looking at my problem.
Let me first lay out the two theses. The claim that democracy is alien to South Asia was articulated clearly and early by Dr. Ambedkar and I have quoted him frequently to that effect: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”
The claim that the British period was epiphenomenal (an epiphenomenon being a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside or in parallel to a primary phenomenon) is supported by the evidence. In Dr. Ambedkar’s analogy, one could say the Indian soil is reclaiming its place and the top-dressing is becoming thinner by the day.
In order to push my understanding of South Asia, I have kept resorting to a thought experiment. Suppose an interlocutor, with no prior knowledge of the region but familiar with European history, were to ask me to convey the essence or capture the ethos of the region in one or two descriptors, what descriptors would I choose?
Let me restrict the discussion to India for the moment simply to retain the focus on the issue of interest. Would I say ‘India is a democracy’ and assume that the interlocutor would be able to imagine a fair picture? Or would I choose the descriptor ‘secular’ and hope that the image that would form after passing through the interlocutor’s mental filter would be an accurate one?
I believe there would be agreement that these would not be the best descriptors. If I said instead that ‘India is hierarchical’ the interlocutor might infer a better sense of the foundations of Indian society. This would capture Dr. Ambedkar’s description that “by reason of our social and economic structure, [we] continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”
If I added to that by saying that ‘India is religious’ and ‘India is dynastic,’ the interlocutor’s overlays on the foundation would also be accurate. Caste and religion based elections would corroborate the first claim and he/she could crosscheck the second by looking up a research site that showed, among other interesting facts, that every member of the lower house of the Indian parliament under the age of 30 has inherited his or her seat.
So far there is not much new in what I have said. All I have done is to buttress my claim that one would get the most accurate conception of India (indeed of South Asia as a whole) if one were to use the image of a religious hereditary monarchy as one’s starting point. The situation has evolved, of course, but this still remains the best starting point for the kind of interlocutor I introduced in the thought experiment. He/she would be able to refer to the knowledge of the religious hereditary monarchies of Europe and understand South Asia better than if the starting point had been a secular and democratic republic.
Anyone who knows South Asia well knows that the people’s representatives think of themselves as monarchs; that bureaucrats fawn over the representatives much as courtiers would fawn over monarchs; that well-off citizens respond to any attempt at accountability with the retort ‘Do you know who I am?’; and that the rest, the vast majority, think of themselves as subjects in a mai-baap culture, leaving their fate to the benevolence of the lords and at the mercy of a transcendent power.
The insight that is new to me, and that I credit to the article on mathematics, relates to an understanding of the path that we have followed since the departure of the British. For example, the database on dynastic politics mentioned above shows that only 18 percent of the members of parliament over 50 years in age had inherited their seats. The percentage rises to 47 for those below the age of 50 and to 100 percent for those below 30. So it is clear that the aristocratic system based on heredity that the British had displaced is reasserting itself – the Indian soil is pushing aside the British top-dressing; the primary phenomenon is reasserting its primacy over the epiphenomenon.
How do we understand this trajectory? In the paradigm suggested by the article on mathematics, we can think of India as a very complex system of equations. But every system of equations, no matter how complex, has a solution – in mathematical terms, a ‘root’ (of which there can be more than one). In the context of our discussion, the ‘root’ we are looking for is the true ethos, the best descriptor, of Indian society.
Let me illustrate this idea with the simplest of examples. Take the equation 3y = 21. This is easy to solve analytically; we know that the value of the unknown variable y that ‘solves’ this equation is 7. In mathematical terms 7 is the root of the equation.
Now there are other, brute force, methods of solving equations because most equations are not this simple and are solved by machines using algorithms which are iterative processes following simple rules. Let me illustrate a brute force method for this simple equation to be employed by a dumb machine that had no prior idea of what the true root might be.
The machine can begin the solution process by choosing an arbitrary root, say 1. It will substitute 1 for y in the equation and derive the result 3 = 21. This is clearly not true. Next, the machine will note that 3 is less than 21 and infer that the value of y needs to be increased to make the two sides equal. In the next iteration, it will increment y by a fixed amount (say 0.5) and repeat the process. After a certain number of iterations the two sides of the equation would balance (21 = 21) and the machine would (triumphantly) flash the message that the true root of the equation was 7.
Now here is how I employ this paradigm. Let us keep thinking of India as the simple equation 3y = 21 (in reality it is better thought of as a complex system of non-linear equations but we don’t need to venture there). Before the British arrived everyone knew what the system was like (it was what Dr. Ambedkar characterized as the Indian ‘soil’). The ‘root’ of this system was 7. The British didn’t think much of this system; they wished it to be in the image of their ‘superior’ system – they wished to create an Indian system whose root were 1.
Now two things could have happened following the British transplant. Either the graft would have been so attractive that the system would have realigned around it and transformed into one whose root was truly 1 (the top-dressing would take root); or the newly imposed solution would trend inevitably towards the true root (the soil would reassert itself and reject the graft). Clearly, the British had hoped for the first outcome. This was what Macaulay had in mind when he had said: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” The outcome was less certain in Dr. Ambedkar’s mind – he finished his thought, quoted above, with the question: “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”
The ‘life of contradictions’ had to resolve itself one way or the other. With the benefit of hindsight we should know quite clearly the direction in which it has evolved – the drift has been towards the status quo ante, most clearly in the smaller countries in South Asia and least obviously in India which has retained the form while shedding the content.
Needless to say, things never go back to exactly where they were after a system is subjected to a shock – this we know from another concept (hysteresis) in physics. The different countries in South Asia have all followed varying trajectories and moved at different speeds in the drift towards their roots depending upon intervening events, rates of economic growth, and the quality of leadership, etc.
But notwithstanding these variations, the fact remains that a ‘religious hereditary monarchy’ remains a better descriptor of a country in South Asia than a ‘secular democratic republic’ – the reality is different from the appearance. This conclusion is not a value judgment, just a statement of fact. There is nothing inherently wrong with a religious hereditary hierarchy. In fact an argument could be made that the British epiphenomenon was harmful for South Asia; without it South Asia would have tended faster towards a political configuration that would have been much more organically rooted in its soil. Now we can only speculate on what that solution might have been like.
Postscript: A concrete example might make the argument clearer. In 1947, Mr. Jinnah said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Clearly his hope was that Pakistani society would realign itself around this secular, democratic core. Instead, it moved back fairly rapidly to its anti-secular, anti-democratic ethos. The type of liberal, secular gentlemen epitomized by Jinnah are now a dying breed and on the endangered list in Pakistan.