What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

By Anjum Altaf

The peculiar thing about South Asia is that it has not had a social revolution. Compare it with Europe or Russia or China where feudal, monarchical or other pre-modern forms of governance were swept away to be replaced by new ruling classes. Social revolutions preceded modern forms of governance, democratic or autocratic. South Asia moved from pre-modern to modern forms of governance, midwifed by the British, but the same social class remained in charge reinventing itself in new roles.

What are the implications of South Asia skipping a social revolution? For one, our forms of governance are modern only in appearance; their spirit remains essentially unchanged. For evidence, look at the amazing prevalence of dynastic rule across the region, from the upper echelons down to the composition of the subnational assemblies. The ethos of the region remains distinctly monarchical, both for the rulers and the ruled, with the latter now legitimizing the dynasties through the free exercise of their votes.

It is no surprise then that we are saddled with the social outcomes of monarchical rule – a narrow elite enjoying the highest standards of living (a la the opulent royal courts of yore) with the majority of the population completely marginalized. For evidence, look no further than the paradox of India – uninterrupted democratic rule and aspirations to global leadership combined with grinding poverty and malnutrition in children worse than almost anywhere else in the world.

It is social conditions like these and the virtual disregard for the misery of the poor that prompt our question about revolution. Will this callous disregard ever cease without the sweeping aside of a royal class masquerading as representatives of the people?

Perhaps not, but then again, a revolution is no picnic, at least a revolution of the type we have been referring to. Just thinking whether the ideology of the revolution would be of the Right or the Left and whether it would be armed or not is sufficient to yield serious misgivings. The scariest aspect of such a prospect is the contemporaneous bankruptcy of ideas that might drive any revolution in South Asia today. When one thinks of the social revolutions of Europe, one is inspired by the intellectual debates of the times and the stature of the public intellectuals who participated in the debates. The entire foundation of the European Enlightenment emerged out of the contestation of ideas that are studied in academia to this day.

Contrast the above with the intellectual bankruptcy of present-day South Asia. Whether it is the Maoists in India or the Islamists in Pakistan, their angst can be defended but their passions are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Watching our public intellectuals on TV is a foreshadowing of the future if their ideas were to be turned into reality. There is little doubt that the cure would be worse than the disease.

So we are in a bind. We need a social revolution but can see quite clearly that any traditional revolution would likely be a horror story that would make Pol Pot look good. In any case, the time for old style social revolutions of the disenfranchised could well be gone; modern regimes have too much firepower and control at their disposal to be overthrown in the ways of the past – history rarely repeats itself like that.

What, then, is to be done? One suggestion is to aim for an intellectual revolt, a revolution of the minds, an overthrowing of the thrall in which our rulers have enmeshed us for decades – a declaration that from today we cease to believe the lies on which we have been fed, nurtured and reared.

Let me explain. Every country of South Asia has a dominant narrative, one that has been cultivated at great expense, and one to which the majority of the populations have subscribed without question. We have not arrived at these beliefs as a result of our own independent thinking. Rather, we have imbibed, like mother’s milk, the narratives that have been made available to us. Had it been otherwise, we would not see the majority of Indians and Pakistanis, say, holding such completely contrary and polarized perceptions of each other.

Why do we subscribe to these narratives? We are more than ready to argue, with passion and conviction, that the ruling class of the US, for example, has misled its population with a completely false narrative about Iraq, one resting on nothing but blatant lies and misrepresentations. If we believe that, what logical basis do we have for arguing that our own rulers cannot use similar narratives to mislead us in order to further their narrow self-interests? Are we seriously arguing that our rulers are more moral, made of better stuff, when at the same time we castigate them for the most venal types of malfeasance and corruption?

Clearly this is an indefensible position, an acknowledgement that we have forsaken independent analysis, allowed our selves to be brainwashed, and turned into our own enemies. The false patriotism stoked by hyper-nationalism has turned us against each other and ultimately against our selves.

So the starting point of our revolution is the declaration to our respective rulers – WE DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU SAY – WE WILL FIND OUT FOR OURSELVES.

And then, let us use the power of the new technologies to really find out for ourselves. Each one of us should set aside his/her biases and prejudices and seek out a partner from across the border. Let us enter into a myriad conversations unmediated by the rulers or the pundits on TV. Let us talk as one human being to another; let us educate ourselves about our lives; let us generate a new narrative from the ground up.

Imagine this hypothetical scenario – a hundred thousand cross-border marriages! Do you believe that would change the social and political dynamic of South Asia? It is a hypothetical proposition, but can a million conversations begin to have the same impact?

THINK. We need a new revolution for new times. We have nothing to lose but our prejudices. We might just lose our rulers as well and would that not make for a better world?

Back to Main Page 

  • Umang Dixit
    Posted at 06:20h, 22 June Reply

    The Indian Continent is unique in that it has never undergone a genuine revolution of its own. You are right about that. You are also right to point out the intellectual bankruptcy of our continent’s establishment intellectuals as well as those of the main challengers to that establishment – the Maoists in India and the Islamists in Pakistan. Similarly, the actual mechanics of a revolution are difficult to imagine given the monopoly over vast firepower that the post-colonial state exercises.

    I don’t have a problem with kingship in principle. I think it is the best form of government mankind has ever produced. However, the contemporary rulers of India are bankrupt beyond belief and have abandoned their noblesse oblige. So, I am all for a revolution. The question is what comes after that revolution. Not some rule of the masses, but a replacement of the contemporary bankrupt ruling elite with another, meritorious one devoted to civilisational good.

    There are aspects of your post I like and others that I have a problem with. I like the fact that you broach such a large, important topic in the age of micro-specialisation. I think you also speak the truth when you say we need a revolution and that revolution has to be one of the mind, one of ideas.

    Where I disagree with you is on the implication that a narrow elite is by its very nature bankrupt. I think good political order is created always by a narrow ruling class. It is our great misfortune that we have the ruling elite that we do.

    Hence, ultimately your deposition is flawed because it relies on some sort of mass-action to bring about an intellectual revolution on our Continent. I think this is a misguided effort. Any revolution intellectual or otherwise of any degree of meaning that will come about will be led by the few. To rely on masses to educate themselves through internet, television and your website is a fantastical idea. To propose 100,000 marriages as some sort of act of cross-border understanding illustrates the desperate nature of any project of civilisational emancipation on our little Subcontinent.

    Perhaps as Indians or “South Asians” (to use post-1947 politically-correct terminology) we live in fundamentally tragic times. In other words, any attempt to recapture our common civilisational heritage and give it a political meaning beyond petty post-colonial nationalisms is dead from the beginning.

    But I only pretend pessimism for fun. I think the political trajectory of our continent can be altered by meaningful political leadership. Modi is making a lot of noise in India. Let us see what he does.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:04h, 22 June

      Umang: I agree with many of the points you make.

      I too have nothing against monarchy but for a different reason – simply that the form of governance at any point in time has to have some compatibility with socio-economic reality at that time. It would be silly to argue that all through thousands of years of history, there was always the choice to pick either monarchy or representative governance. The limitation of monarchy though is that frequently, too frequently for some, society gets stuck with a monarch who abandons ‘noblesse oblige’ (a la Nero). There is no recourse for those who suffer from the abandonment. The transition of systems of governance has been an evolutionary process. As those who have suffered from the above-mentioned abandonment have found ways to make their presence felt, power has shifted from the monarch to the representatives of the people, leaving, in some places, the monarch in a mere titular role. This has often been a less than ideal transition but has generally been considered an improvement for the majority.

      I have nothing against elites either, in general. But we should always talk about particular elites. The ones we have in South Asia are particularly bad because they are hereditary elites (who consider themselves monarchs) who have abandoned their obligations to the majority. Hence the need to change the elites. You are quite right that the replacement would be another elite but it would be one that would be forced to share more of its privileges with the non-elites just as happened in the transition from monarchy to representative democracy in Europe – the replacement of the aristocratic elite by the bourgeois elite.

      What I am struggling with is the fact that I don’t believe we should be thinking in terms of historical precedents of elite replacement as they occurred in Europe. I might be wrong, but that is how I feel based on the realities in South Asia that I see and have mentioned. What I am suggesting, and it could be completely impractical, is to think of the replacement of an hereditary elite by an intellectual, meritocratic elite rather than a moneyed elite.

      A 100,000 cross-border marriages is clearly an outlandish idea (although a beautiful one) but even a million individuals trying to develop a new narrative is still an elitist proposition in South Asia. I am just trying to imagine what will happen if a bold intellectual elite just rejects the patently false and self-serving narratives of our existing aristocratic elites. Once again, this will not solve all our problems but my contention is that it would be better than what we have at present. It would move to a broader base in the inevitable process of the evolution of governance that has been stalled in South Asia because of the British interregnum. We have lost sight of our monarchical reality by the veil of representative governance bequeathed by the British into which our ancien regime wrapped itself intact and unscathed.

      My final argument is that new technologies now make such a radical transition conceivable and we really have nothing to lose in mounting such a challenge based on cooperation rather than conflict.

    • Umang Dixit
      Posted at 18:09h, 22 June

      SouthAsian: If I may, I would like to emancipate the term “aristocrat”. It derives from the Greek “aristokratia” which means “rule of the best”. When you argue for the replacement of the current moneyed, hereditary elite with a “rule of the intellectual, meritocratic elite”, I believe this is what you mean. And I wholeheartedly support this venture.

      What we have had in India are a succession of Neros, sometimes well-meaning such as Nehru etc but labouring under borrowed delusions and some Neros who have been wilfully extractive without any ideal vision: Zardari, Sharif, Indira Gandhi et al.

      “It would move to a broader base in the inevitable process of the evolution of governance that has been stalled in South Asia because of the British interregnum. We have lost sight of our monarchical reality by the veil of representative governance bequeathed by the British into which our ancien regime wrapped itself intact and unscathed.”

      I think this is a very meaningful statement. There are not many people willing or quite frankly able to see deep enough to make statements of this kind. Movements of emancipation such as Communists in India or Islamists in Pakistan are woefully deprived of intellectual capital.

      Certainly, intellectual and philosophers across the border should co-operate on such ventures. But expecting a million people to participate in this movement is really quite silly I think. It takes a long time and a lot of tapasya for the Indian to decolonise his mind and then bequeath himself with a political vision. Pankaj Mishra for example, writes very tellingly about relations between West and non-West but I feel he is just a litterateur and has no commitment to politics. In order for us to embark on a project of this sort, we would need political animals and they do not seem to exist on the Subcontinent.

      Furthermore, I have learnt that the more the masses are depoliticised the better. It would be a very sad imitation of Europe if we try and transform all of our people, into thinking, acting citizens. I cannot think of a greater dystopia than that. No, this project requires a few good men. Not a million, but a few. And one more thing, “elite” is not a function of numbers. So, I do not accept your argument that just because we have a billion people in India, one million of that is somehow the elite. Being elite has something to do with numbers yes, but more than that it means one thinks elite thoughts, one thinks of oneself as important, one thinks oneself noble and one thinks one as having an obligation to the people to rule them well. An elite wishes to rule. I don’t think most human beings in the world, or for that matter in India suffer form that self-conception. A million people can never think kingly thoughts. We are lucky if in every yuga, we have even one who thinks these thoughts.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:20h, 24 June

      Umang: You are right about the loose usage of the term ‘aristocrat.’ I had a hereditary elite in mind and should have stayed with that.

      I also agree that an elite is more than just numbers (or the lack of them) but I am not sure that an elite always wishes to rule. Perhaps, a political elite might harbor such a desire but it might not be necessarily the same for an intellectual elite. Voltaire and Rousseau were part of an intellectual elite without having a wish to rule.

      What I want is for more people to question and reject the state narratives. Whether that makes them an elite or not is secondary to my concern.

      I am also not as pessimistic as you that we cannot get a million people to sign on to such a campaign over a sufficient period of time. After all, African-Americans were able to mobilize a Million-Man March (it wasn’t exactly a million but still) from a much smaller population base. Any growth in numbers would be a positive in my view and a million is as good a target as any.

      I have to disagree that the more the masses are depoliticized the better. The end result is not depoliticized masses but masses who are duped by one demagogue or the other. Every person is entitled to be a thinking person and no one should be able to take that right away. I realize that this difference of opinion can generate a debate by itself.

  • Reader
    Posted at 14:24h, 23 June Reply

    You mention the revolutions and change in systems of beliefs and values in Europe and the rest of the world. However, quoting Jonathen Glover:

    “There is also the charge of being oblivious of another kind of mistake. In human life, there is a recurring theme of overconfident reconstruction. Parts of towns that have evolved over centuries have been torn down to make room for modern shopping centers and for traffic-flow schemes. Missionaries and colonial administrators have embarked on ‘civilizing’ missions among only partly understood ‘natives’. Communists and other revolutionaries have aimed to create a new kind of human being through the radical transformation of society. Enthusiasts for capitalism have thought history can be ended by the imposed global penetration of the free market. After all these failed projects, with their human costs…” can we be really sure that a revolution in south-Asia will be a beneficial one?

    This is further backed up by Otto Neurath, who says that conceivably over a long period of time our whole system of beliefs, values, norms and principles will change. This is a slow process and has its requirements. But an abrupt change (like in a revolution of intellectual minds) we are bound to lose our current system. An abrupt change from one system to another is never healthy.

    So, how can we be sure that the revolution in intellectual minds of south-Asia will show favorable results and not result in losing our values.

    • Vijay Vikram
      Posted at 20:23h, 23 June

      Reader: I think you raise a very valid point. Man tends to be a little too confident about the life-altering projects he embarks upon. The contemporary prejudice against “revolution” stems from the fact that many revolutions have been failures. Also, the West has been the source of many of the world’s modern revolutions. As we live in the age of Western decline, the West is loosing confidence in many of its life-altering projects, hence it is only natural to find pessimism if one is reading Western intellectuals.

      Many of the readers of this blog (including I believe its authors) will find the French Revolution, with its cry for egalite, liberte et fraternite to be a remarkably attractive and successful example of revolution. I personally remain ambivalent about what happened in 1789 but I do think it can serve as a useful example of revolutionary success.

      Also, I would argue that our current system is:

      a) Not all that attractive.

      b) Was meant to be transformative and revolutionary in its own right.

      Introducing Universal Suffrage to the dustbowls of Hindustan, attempting to eradicate “Caste” and religious prejudice is nothing short of revolutionary.

      The project of post-colonial nation building in India has both been revolutionary and preserved important elements of the discredited old order, so as Subcontinentals we live in a very peculiar and not easily explicable situation. I agree with SouthAsian in that the British interregnum prevented the natural evolution of government on our Continent.

      I have some sympathy to Otto Neurath’s view that it takes a long time for beliefs, ideas and values to change. However, this ignores the importance of shock in history. Determined individuals and movements have rapidly altered the course of civilisation: Jesus of Nazareth being a prime example. So, while I appreciate your gradualist intervention, I do believe “revolution” is an idea that is not yet exhausted. it may or not happen on our Continent, but I believe its desirability is without question.

    • Reader
      Posted at 19:22h, 24 June

      Vijay, I agree with most of what you say.
      But the problem of Jesus of Nazareth demands a response. I don’t see how it violates the idea given by Otto Neurath. Jesus was born a Jew. The Jews of that time (especially of Israel) had a belief that a Messiah is born after a passage of time and he helps the people revive their lost values and “power”. So, the birth of Jesus was foretold thousand years ago. But even though a lot of prophets came but no one was that special kind that Jewish religion had predicted. Some Jew scholars of the time started predicting that the true Messiah will be a savior of not only Jews but of whole humanity. And that’s exactly what happened. Jesus, a Jew, never presented a new system of beliefs. He just modified the old ones a little and that was the precise reason he was crucified. A few days after he was crucified and buried, rumors spread that Jesus had risen from the grave and reached God. And that’s where Saint Paul came into action. He was impressed by Jesus and he spread his views in the Greco-Roman empire. And it was after 400 years after the death of Jesus that Christianity was actually born. King Constantine aided this. 400 years and a lot of modifications in what Jesus had actually said – a new religion.
      and after a further 100 years Islam was born.

      I hope you can guess what I am getting at. Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the Semitic religions – they have many shared beliefs. They have a common base and they originated from each other. It’s one religion with 3 different modifications. Jesus didn’t introduce a new religion. He “attempted” to modify the old one. And most of his ideas were borrowed from the Greek religions of the time. And it took more than 400 years for Christianity to be born. “Change in already held beliefs, over a long enough time”, that’s what Otto Neurath said.
      So, the point is that if you try to shake the cultural, religious and ethnic values of the South-Asians and expect your little abrupt revolution to survive, or worse that people end up changing their values, then South-Asia will be worse off.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:20h, 26 June

      Reader: What we are proposing is not an abrupt change. It is a process of increasing political consciousness among citizens who would demand meaningful change. Are you opposed to increasing political consciousness because that would upset traditional values? What precisely are the values you are afraid of losing?

    • Reader
      Posted at 08:44h, 26 June

      there is no harm in political consciousness. I am just saying that we need to be cautious. Precious values must not be abandoned. the way of life that is typical of and is suitable to the people of sub-continent must not be altered, as I quoted Glover before, capitalism and communist school of thoughts did aim to bring a successful revolution but had human costs and eventually failed, we don’t want that in out lands, so, we need to be very sure that our revolution is in harmony with our values.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:34h, 26 June

      Reader: I am curious about the precious values that must not be abandoned. What exactly are these values that can accept the majority of the population below a physiologically sustainable level of consumption and deprived of basic human rights? And how can increased consciousness threaten values? If everyone stopped thinking, would that strengthen values? Why bother to educate ourselves?

      And besides, the way of life that was suitable to the people of the subcontinent, didn’t it disappear suddenly with the ascendancy of the British? Do you recommend going back to the pre-British way of life in the subcontinent?

    • Vijay Vikram
      Posted at 17:42h, 26 June

      Reader: A fascinating deposition. I am familiar with the argument that Islam, Judaism and Christianity have a common core and it strikes me as true.

      The point that I wished to make with my Jesus example was that a belief system arising in the Near East could envelope Europe, alter the course of Western Civilisation and thereby the world. Christianity may have been consonant with the beliefs of Jews but Jewish beliefs were not European beliefs. So for Europeans, Christianity was a bit of a shock. That is my point.

      Your point about Jesus borrowing from Greek religions is interesting and a possible foil to what I have said above but I am not equipped to comment on this.

      ”So, the point is that if you try to shake the cultural, religious and ethnic values of the South-Asians and expect your little abrupt revolution to survive, or worse that people end up changing their values, then South-Asia will be worse off.”

      I actually do not want to do this. I think the ideal form of government is one that takes into account the character of a people and rules accordingly. It is rather absurd that India’s elites felt that a wholesale replication of the form of government that evolved on a rainy island in the middle of nowhere would be an appropriate fit for the diverse peoples of India. If you believe that government should take into account ”the cultural, religious and ethnic values of South-Asians” then you should direct your criticism towards Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, not me.

      My project for South-Asia is to promote a governmental philosophy at home with the needs and prejudices of its people, not to impose an alien system from top down. I aim for restoration, rather than metamorphosis. But because this requires the overturning of Westernising projects, it is by its nature revolutionary.

      I remain some distance away from theorising a coherent alternative but I contributed a critique of prevailing forms of government in South-Asia to this blog two years ago. Have a read: http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/arundhati-roy/

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:57h, 27 June

      Vijay: There is much to take away from your response.

      First, yes, Christianity did borrow from and adapt pagan rituals and holidays. This should be no surprise since that is a requirement for acceptability. Take slavery as an example. It was an integral part of the society in which the Semitic religions emerged. None could reject it outright; all they could do was to ameliorate the treatment of slaves at the margin. Even much later the American Declaration of Independence, with its explicit acknowledgment of equality, could not do away with slavery.

      Second, I agree that the ideal form of government should take account of the conditions on the ground. I would also accept that Nehru and Jinnah were out of touch with the conditions on the ground and their borrowed models were problematic. But this does not automatically translate into an argument for restoration. The relevant conditions are the ones that exist at present, however they came to be. The need is to adapt the form of government to the conditions that exist, not to transform the conditions to what one might consider more authentic.

      The restoration agenda (which I agree with you would be a revolutionary undertaking) would open the door to the Islamists although they are trying restore many values that are Arabian and never existed in the subcontinent. Hindu restorationists might have some pristine pre-Islamic values in mind. I don’t think this is where you intend to go.

    • Vijay Vikram
      Posted at 22:29h, 27 June

      SouthAsian: You misunderstand. I am not talking about the transformation of conditions but the transformation of government. New forms of government in SouthAsia have altered conditions but not in any fundamental way: the mass of the population still has a raja-praja relationship with its rulers. Your post itself hints at this. I am talking about inculcating a governmental philosophy more at home with this reality, not some theological project.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:32h, 27 June

      Vijay: I was hoping that would be the case. Yes, I have been making the point about the disconnect for a long time.

  • Nabiha Meher
    Posted at 15:18h, 23 June Reply

    Reblogged this on I am woman, hear me roar and commented:
    THIS! “One suggestion is to aim for an intellectual revolt, a revolution of the minds, an overthrowing of the thrall in which our rulers have enmeshed us for decades – a declaration that from today we cease to believe the lies on which we have been fed, nurtured and reared.”

    Let’s do this.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 15:26h, 23 June Reply

    Why would any want a revolution in South Asia? India is having a rocking time, Bangladesh is having a rocking time, Sri Lanka is having a rocking time, Nepal just got rid of a bad monarch and cruel crown prince and Pakistan is doing much better than recent past…

    ‘ye to insaan ki fitrat hai woh agarche jannat men bhi hoga to bhi shiqva shikayat karta rahega’

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:55h, 24 June

      Anil: Only a very tiny part of India is having a rocking time. See this in numbers in this article by Amartya Sen: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?278843

      Within India, Gujarat is considered to be really rocking. But see this from the India Human Development Report:

      “In October 2011, the India Human Development Report released by the Planning Commission drew shocking attention to Gujarat’s child malnutrition levels : Gujarat ranked 13 among 17 States surveyed with 44.6 per cent of its children under five found to be malnourished.”


      The question that such numbers prompt is whether some change is needed or not? If so, would it come from the class in power for the last 60 years?

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 14:55h, 24 June

      SA: The comment was in the context of this article. The assumption of the article being there is something very wrong in this region to warrant a revolution (as if a revolution necessarily is good). There is nothing wrong with South Asia, it is doing better than at any time in past. To use an adage, ‘why mend something which ain’t broken?’

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:18h, 24 June

      Anil: This is an honest difference of opinion on whether there is something wrong with South Asia or not and whether the conditions there are acceptable to the majority. Do those at the bottom of the pyramid consider that South Asian society is something that ain’t broken? And what percentage of the South Asian population is at the bottom of the pyramid?

      The article was quite explicit in saying that a traditional revolution was unlikely to be good in South Asia. That was the reason for suggesting an intellectual revolution that would do no harm even if it failed to do any good.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 14:36h, 26 June

      SA: I have only this to add: When you throw figures of human development index, malnutrition blah blah…… the indirect inference is that in past we were better off. We are not doing as well as we should however we are doing better than at anytime in the past. What we need is tinkering with laws, attitude and not wholesale revolution. This can be achieved easily by a maverick leader but until then we can move on even if sluggishly.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:06h, 26 June

      Anil: You are asserting a claim – “we are doing better than at any time in the past.” How do you support that with evidence? This is an empirical claim that can only be supported by numbers. If you dismiss numbers as ‘blah blah’ all we are left with are competing claims.

      The indirect inference is not that we were better off in the past. It is that even though some aspects might be improving, we are too far below generally accepted benchmarks to be complacent. This is the argument of Amartya Sen, an Indian and a Nobel laureate. He begins with this paradox: “Is India doing marvellously well, or is it failing terribly?” and argues persuasively why high rates of economic growth are not necessarily the same as development: “Almost any composite index of these and related indicators of health, education and nutrition would place India very close to the bottom in a ranking of all countries outside Africa.”

      Then he shows the trends with meticulous data: “One indication that something is not quite right with India’s development strategy is the fact that India has started falling behind every other South Asian country (with the partial exception of Pakistan) in terms of social indicators, even as it is doing so well in terms of per capita income (see table below).”

      “As expected, in terms of per capita income, India’s rank has improved—from fourth (after Bhutan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) to third (after Bhutan and Sri Lanka). But in most other respects, India’s rank has worsened, in fact, quite sharply in many cases. Overall, India had the best social indicators in South Asia in 1990, next to Sri Lanka, but now looks second-worst, ahead of only Pakistan. Looking at their South Asian neighbours, the Indian poor are entitled to wonder what they have gained — at least so far — from the acceleration of economic growth.”

      Here is Sen’s conclusion: “There is probably no other example in the history of world development of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of broad-based social progress.”

      And here is his suggestion: “this requires a radical broadening of public discussion in India to development-related matters — rather than keeping it confined to simple comparisons of the growth of the gnp, and naive admiration (implicit or explicit) of the high living standards of a relatively small part of the population. An exaggerated concentration on the lives of the minority of the better-off, fed strongly by media interest, gives an unreal picture of the rosiness of what is happening to Indians in general, and stifles public dialogue of other issues.”

      Nobody is talking of a wholesale revolution. Rather the aim is to raise political consciousness of the reality that is presented so convincingly by Sen. Why is it that despite the availability of such careful analysis, myths of India doing very well continue to persist?


    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 02:01h, 27 June

      SA: Why the claim is empirical? What social parameter has fallen behind in contrast to India’s own past. Has poverty increased or literacy declined or malnutrition multiplied? Not one examples compares India with its own past. All the comparisons are with other countries, some of them so small that many states in India are larger than those countries. What complexities these countries have in comparison to India? India is not just a country, it is akin to a continent. The fact that some states are doing exceeding well in raising various social parameters exposes how unfair the comparison is! Amartya Sen is also talking about lack of spread of prosperity and not increase in poverty. It is not a myth that India is doing well, it is doing well but you have compare it with its own past to know that.

      If we are not talking about revolution then where is the dispute? Everybody knows that there are problems social, political and economical…

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:25h, 27 June

      Anil: I feel you are taking this too literally. For me, the important message from Sen’s analysis is the following: ““There is probably no other example in the history of world development of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of broad-based social progress.”

      Progressing at a snail’s pace may be acceptable to some (yes, technically it qualifies as getting better) but not for others who are at the bottom of the pile. There are immense problems leading to this snail’s pace. The question is what is to be done about them? How are they to be fixed?

      Even your question (“What social parameter has fallen behind in contrast to India’s own past”) could have challenging answers that would depend on recourse to data. When in the past were there so many suicides of farmers? When was there so much corruption? When were there so many people in parliaments with criminal records? When were there so many people in power with dynastic links? If you start with 1947, what are the answers likely to be?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:07h, 02 July

      Anil: You asked what social parameter has fallen behind in contrast to India’s own past. Today’s op-ed in The Hindu provides one parameter:

      “With a figure of at least 14,027 in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the total number of farm suicides since 1995 has touched 2,70,940.” The figure in 1995 (earliest shown in the table) was 10,720. According to the op-ed this is an under-estimate:

      “This, despite heavy massaging of data at the State level for years now, even re-defining of the term “farmer” itself. And despite an orchestrated (and expensive) campaign in the media and other forums by governments and major seed corporations to show that their efforts had made things a lot better.”


  • bilafond
    Posted at 16:32h, 23 June Reply

    ‘Intellectual revolt, a revolution of the minds’ is the scarlet thread of what we have been reading above. There is too much talk of revolution. It requires sacrifices at individual level. It should be contagious and communicable. If the society represents a cube where do we focus to start with?. What are the signs of the signs of revolution. Would it go towards the centre of the cube and implode or decompose rapidly? I am reminded of Jim Morrison’s quote “The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”
    So in our society of pulls and pressures I do not see the practical manifestation of our intellectual thoughts in short or mid term at least. We are presently not even seeing a shift towards that.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:06h, 24 June

      Bilafond: We disagree. I think there is not enough talk of revolution considering the conditions that exist on the ground.

      Also, I do not believe society resembles a cube, it is much too uneven for that. A movement can be set off by the smallest of incidents – sometimes just one man getting slapped around can do it. Societies have always been marked with pulls and pressures; yet societies have also seen radical change at times. There is no reason to think that we have reached some kind of end of history.

      What is being suggested is a personal revolution first – a refusal to buy in to a false state narrative. Every movement begins with a first step. How did slavery end? How did women get the vote?

  • uc59
    Posted at 17:18h, 23 June Reply

    I would like to point out though that that there have been revolutions in minds too, but these revolutions could not take root uniformly throughout the subcontinent. It is also worthwhile to point out the type of revolution that happened in the west took place at a time of huge economic colonization by them of the rest of the world, whereas these attempts in the subcontinent took place in the context of deep exploitation and abject social inequality. Though much remains to be done, we must not also come to believe that we have been altogether culturally and intellectually bankrupt in the domain of social transformation – in my opinion that will a different kind of jaundiced view.

  • Mahar Safdar Ali
    Posted at 10:42h, 24 June Reply

    We need a new revolution for new times. We have nothing to lose but our prejudices. We might just lose our rulers as well and, together we can fight against injustice, illietracy, Poverty , and support Peace on all levels.

  • udayachandran menon
    Posted at 13:10h, 24 June Reply

    The problems have been analysed very well but I disagree with the solutions offered.
    For india the best way to bring about this ‘revolution’ would be to change its geography first and then the electoral system.
    Divide the country into 25 metros, 25 cities, 25 union territories including religious towns and armed forces specific areas, 25 red states with a majority of so called upper castes, blue states with a majority of backward,sc,st population, an urdu state, and 3 autonomous regions.
    Independent police commissions, judicial commissions, vigilance commissions.
    The german/french model for elections where the first 2 will contest finally.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:32h, 25 June

      Udayachandran: I agree that jurisdictional, administrative, and electoral reforms would also make a positive difference. However, if the ruling groups are not seen as taking these measures or taking them too slowly or reluctantly, the case for alternative kinds of change would be strengthened.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 23:58h, 25 June Reply

    This article mentioned the narrative of the America state. Here is what a former President, Jimmy Carter, has to say about American practice:


    Is the American state telling the truth to its citizens? Should US citizens be more or less politically involved?

    Also, read this for the one-sidedness of the dominant narrative in South Asia:


  • Vikram
    Posted at 00:17h, 28 June Reply

    SouthAsian, I do agree with you that there are serious political and social problems in India today, although I would perhaps not frame them in the manner either of you have done here.

    An argument often propounded at the SA idea is that India’s political model is incompatible with its social realities. And reference has been made to Amartya Sen’s article which claims (rightly) that Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and China have done better than India in many regards.

    My question to you then is, do you regard the political models of China (a semi-authoritarian Leninist state, see http://www.amazon.com/Party-Secret-Chinas-Communist-Rulers/dp/0061708771), Bangladesh (a monolingual, Islamic state), Sri Lanka (a semi-authoritarian state which conducted a massive civil war on a particular ethnic group) as more ‘tuned to the social realities’ of those countries ?

    Lets go further. Do you think that the Indian model was more tuned to the social realities of Uttaranchal, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu (which do as well on social indicators as any of the countries mentioned) than UP, Bihar or Rajasthan ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:22h, 28 June

      Vikram: You have misinterpreted the argument. The compatibility of the form of governance with the socio-economic structure is not being measured by the relative rates of economic growth. If this were the case, one would be forced to argue that democracy was compatible with Greek conditions some years ago but is not so any more.

      The point being argued is that there are a lot of things going on in India (South Asia in general) that are much easier to explain if you assume it is really a monarchy more than the apparent representative parliamentary form of governance. Many illustrations can be cited: dynastic politics; patron-cleint relationships; going on fasts to effect change, etc. Even within monarchies, performance can vary with good or bad monarchs so performance is not what is under discussion for this particular argument.

      The essence of the argument is that the present model of governance is not the outcome of an organic process within South Asian society as it was in Europe. Rather, it is an imposition from the top which was completely alien and to which society has not yet adjusted – hence Laloo Prasad-Rabri Devi kinds of episodes. This is at the bottom of many of the paradoxes and problems in India.

      To relate it to this thread, one can claim that the imposition of representative governance in India was a revolutionary change that was completely out of tune with the prevailing social and political values. Not surprisingly, it had many tragic outcomes (at least in terms of the toll on human lives), including the two partitions of the subcontinent and the conflict in Sri Lanka.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 00:16h, 03 July

      South Asian, I fail to see the link that indicates representative governance in India as the main culprit for the partition tragedies and civil war in Sri Lanka. But I do see a clear link between representative governance and India’s success in negotiating diversity and empowering women and many caste/tribal groups (of course there are failures as well).

      In my opinion, the effect of widespread poverty and the scarcity of talent and capital is perhaps more important from the point of view of basic indicators. Poverty creates social stress and drives away talent. The average person in Haryana makes almost four times more money than the average person in UP. And the average family size in UP is around 4.3 persons, while that in UP is around 5.5 persons. The infant mortality rate is 42 versus 60 in UP. And they are right next to each other, with virtually identical social systems.

      I do of course, agree with you that India has a quasi-feudal social setup and that greatly affects its politics. This is why we still have honour killings and caste discrimination in both Haryana and UP. For basic indicators like infant mortality, fertility, social setup matters but not as much as poverty and family size.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:43h, 04 July

      Vikram: The first is a detailed argument that has been made many times before on this blog. Of the top of my head, I can refer you to three posts:


      There is an interesting recent review in the LRB that talks of many things but do look out for the reference to ‘mathematical considerations’ in the narrative. Such ‘mathematical considerations’ only arose with the electoral system, which was alien to India, and did much harm to it.


      Poverty (and family size) may indeed have the impacts you postulate, but the real question is what causes poverty and large families? Social systems are not the only variables – geography, ecology play a part but the most important is politics. Why is such a resource poor country like Japan not poor?

      As for India’s success in negotiating diversity, that depends on the starting point, doesn’t it? Diversity only became a problem as we know it with the introduction of the electoral system – there was no parallel to the carnage of partition in the 5000 years of Indian history.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:08h, 04 July

      Vikram: Something to think about. Why can’t the state in South Asia do what has been demonstrated to work in Africa?


  • sree
    Posted at 18:10h, 30 June Reply

    Having an intellectual revolution and generating a new narrative would be good, but only if it is sure to produce something better than the present system. But I think none of the revolutionary ideas currently in the running – Maoism, Hindutva and middle-class fascism – would be a pleasant alternative. The best hope is allowing the current system to evolve, which it is bound to with the improvement in access to education and economic prospects by the population.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:52h, 01 July

      sree: The article tries to stress the distinction between an intellectual revolution and an ideological revolution. For South Asia today, it rejects ideological revolution – Maoism, Fascism, Hindutva, Islamism – for the reason you mention; it is unlikely to lead to better outcomes for the majority. However, an intellectual revolution – which consists of nothing more than a liberation of minds, a rejection of patently false narratives – is an essential requirement both for peace in the region and for an acceptable improvement in the lives of the majority.

      The current system may improve but as has been mentioned earlier, with reference to the analysis by Amartya Sen, it is improving much too slowly. And there is really no guarantee that the kind of education and economic growth it is fostering are amenable to sustained improvement. One can argue that the type of education is lending impetus to the sentiment of middle-class fascism and the type of economic growth is at the root of growing inequality and exploitation to which Maoism is a response.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 05:39h, 03 July Reply

    I think P.Sainath has to clarify what he means by ‘farm suicides’. New work published in the Lancet indicates that the story of rural suicides might be more complex than farmers becoming indebted due to high input costs and taking recourse to suicide.


    “suicide deaths in unemployed individuals and individuals in professions other than agricultural work were, collectively, about three times greater than they were in agricultural workers.”

    And while the regulation and introduction of GM seeds in India needs a lot more research and thought, Bt cotton (which activists have blamed very often for the suicides) seems to have been extremely beneficial and farmers have been adopting it on a massive scale, http://www.epw.in/special-articles/failure-bt-cotton-analysing-decade-experience.html

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:53h, 04 July

      Vikram: The point is well taken but it does not refute the main argument being made about all social indicators improving over time. However Sainath is defining farmers, that definition is staying consistent over time which means that the number of suicides is increasing. The Lancet article is saying that suicides in non-farming groups are equally high, if not higher. What it means is that the number, and most likely the proportion, of ‘all’ suicides is growing over time. As the article says, there is need to understand the causes of the despair that is leading to this phenomenon.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:01h, 08 July

      Vikram: This article tries to explain suicides in a different group – students from marginalized backgrounds. This is a new phenomenon since earlier there were fewer opportunities for education and so this particular stress was absent. This is just an illustration of the tribulations of all marginalized groups in the world, not only in India.


  • Vikram
    Posted at 07:57h, 20 July Reply

    A much better researched article on the suicide issue in India’s elite colleges,

Post A Comment