Whence premium mediocrity in India?


Indians are successful the world over, literally in all fields. So people ask, why is it that they have not done equally well within their own country?

The critics recognize that India is making progress and the GDP in nominal terms has reached number five in the world, but they say that this rise is driven mainly by the very size of Indian population. India has many individuals who have made noteworthy contributions, but as nation, collectively, it hasn’t done as well.

As comparison, they mention China and South Korea, both of which, seventy years ago, were behind India in industry, technology, and education, and now they are far ahead.

India punches well below its weight: Hardly any Indian university is listed in the top tier in world rankings; Indian scholarly output lags Western nations both in quality and quantity; India does not figure at the top in international design or art scenes; and there is hardly any manufactured or software product that has been adopted worldwide.

Indian books or journalistic essays do not make waves around the world and Indian intellectuals remain tethered to the Anglo-American ecosystem in a mimetic role.

The malaise

Indian products that one sees in Western markets are either food items sold in Indian groceries, or low-technology products in department stores. When attention if called to this fact, people either blame British Raj or Nehruvian Socialism. But both these events happened long, long ago, so there must be some other reason.

Here’s a really serious example of the Indian malaise: Digital is supposed to be India’s forte. But India has no company in the Digital Top 36 (whereas Asia China, Japan, and Korea have 12), and only two companies in Digital Top 100 (China, Japan, and Korea have 30). TCS and Infosys, which are in the top 100 (at lowly 38 and 71) mostly contract out programmers or do projects for clients, so they shouldn’t even count.

China’s success is from its strategic path to develop its own search and ancillary networks. Its focus on social media has been particularly prescient for it led to local innovation related to messaging apps, sharing and tagging images, audio and video, and browser-based games, and these technologies seamlessly fit into a variety of multiparty computations, AI, transportation and eCommerce. The world’s top 11 Internet sites include 8 that are Chinese (Baidu.com as search engine, Qq.com as social media, Taobao.com for shopping, and Tmail.com for premium shopping, & others). India, on the other hand, has no real social media, search, or eCommerce presence.

Why has India done badly?

Scholars and journalists ask: Indians are brilliant as a people, why are they not doing vastly better?

Their analysis: Indian businesses rarely have a large strategic vision. At best they operate for near term profits and they are risk-averse. There are too many scams with businesses ripping off banks. Unlike Japanese CEOs, who apologize immediately and are even known to do hara-kiri, Indian CEOs evade arrest by sudden “chest pains” to get into hospital, or just flee the country. They don’t seem to have the courage to accept punishment with dignity; in this they are very different from poor farmers and other ordinary folks who show extraordinary fortitude and under extreme pressure have even given up their lives.

What’s the matter with elite businessmen in India compared to those in China or Japan. I think it is a matter of character together with a deficit of true faith in oneself that for want of a better word one might term lack of atma-vishvas (आत्मविश्वास, ātma-viśvāsa).

“Every man carries with him through life a mirror, as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow,” said the poet W.H. Auden, and it is true of societies as well.

India’s image in the collective mirror is responsible for the loss of atma-vishvas. It is the image taught to students in school and college that emerged out of European racism and colonialism to serve the purposes and goals of British Raj, which image India has been unable to shake off or overwrite.

Repeated endlessly in schoolbooks, it has been internalized by the Anglicized elite and it informs their judgment. The historians strove to justify British Raj on two main points: 1. India is a mosaic of castes and not a nation; 2. Indians have no science, so they needed to be guided by the West.

Much of social science curriculum in India is based on accounts of the past about “caste” for which there is no equivalent in any Indian language and as we know now, the straightjacketing of jātis into “caste” was done by the British.

It is amusing that the moralizing Europeans do not mention their own unpleasant past, including droit du seigneur, (French: “right of the lord”), a feudal right giving the lord the right to sleep the first night with the bride of any one of his vassals. Voltaire spoke of it in his Dictionnaire philosophique (1746), and he also wrote a play around it.

India is the only nation in the world where government funded education poisons the minds of the school children based on half-baked theories that were put together by biased colonial writers decades ago. Having done so, we expect the products of the schools and colleges to be different and be understanding of Indian culture.

There is a saying: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Indian school and college curricula are insane: there is not a single course on the history of Indian science!

Indian students get to internalize that at best they had primitive farming and textiles. They don’t know, for example, of India’s metallurgy, chemicals, mechanized machines, and much more.

Here’s an assessment of shipbuilding by the historian Dieter Schlingloff: “The ancient Indian merchant ships differed from the Roman merchant ships in one respect, namely in their multiple masts. While in the entire European area the ships only possessed a single mainsail (and at best a fore-and-aft sail) right up to the late Middle Ages, in India two, and later three sails were common. Of course the home territory of the Indian seafarers was not an inland sea like the Mediterranean, but the Indian Ocean. Hence they developed a sophisticated system of sails which in number of sails was only matched and surpassed by the explorers’ ships of the I5th century.”

A three-sail ship shown in Cave 2 of Ajanta (Dieter Schlingloff)

Indians who have left the country and prospered outside routinely go through a process of self-discovery where they jettison the colonial nonsense that has held India down. And if India is making progress it is because the common person does not accept what the schoolbooks say.

Yet for advanced projects on the international stage we need the elite to find their atma-vishvas. They need to get into Yoga in the spirit of योग: कर्मसु कौशलम्, that is devotion to excellence in all action.

Without such devotion you can’t design great products and then keep on improving them. There is mention of jugaad as if it is something unique to India and we should be proud of it. People in all countries do jugaad and in the leading nations some of these slapped-together designs get scaled up to become world-class products.

The skills gap and coding

One of the bizarre things about the Indian education system is teaching of computer programming through English. The poor student must first struggle with this foreign language and only then allowed access to the secret world of computer programs.

Coding is like mathematics and logic; it should be language neutral. Imagine the damage that will be caused if students had to prove proficiency in English before being taught algebra and calculus.

Computer programs may use the Latin script, but that does not necessitate the requirement of English language. Japanese, Chinese and Koreans are great at programming without having to be burdened with English.

Coding is a skill like that of the carpenter and the artist. India’s requirement that coding be only taught through English is like letting only children of merchants to make furniture or do painting. This explains why Indian coders generally lag those from China, Japan, Russia, or US where coding is taught in their own languages.

It is true that perhaps 5% of Indians are perfectly fluent at English, but that makes for a relatively small group when competing with our Asian neighbours. And many of the English-fluent Indian children are not even keen to excel at programming, which requires a particular kind of tenacity and focus that is not emphasized in the private English-medium schools of India.

A matter of the heart

In reality the problem is much deeper. Why India has floundered whereas Japan has not was foreseen by Sri Aurobindo over a century ago in his essay The Bourgeois and the Samurai (1906–1907). Japan remained true to its spirit and chose the path of the Samurai, while India merely adjusted to serve the interests of its foreign rulers. He said: “In India, the bourgeois, in Japan, the Samurai; in this single difference is comprised the whole contrasted histories of the two nations during the nineteenth century.”

India continued with this bourgeois path after Independence. Aurobindo had warned that it was a destructive path because it is based on lies. He wished the foundations of modern India to be based on truth and a higher purpose. Sadly, Indian elite chose the path of the fearful office manager without pride or self-confidence.

He added: “The doctrine that social and commercial progress must precede or will of themselves bring about political strength and liberty, is a fourth and very dangerous lie; for a nation is no aggregate of separable functions, but a harmony of functions, of which government and political arrangement is the oldest, most central and most vital and determines the others.”

India’s education must embrace the best of the West and the East, and be imbued with the spirit of inquiry. It can neither be based on untruthful accounts of the past nor be lacking in positive commitment to universal truth. At present, Indian institutions remain bound to their colonial structures and without fundamental change, India can aspire at best to premium mediocrity.

Companion essays:

1. The idea of India

2. The big scandal of Indology

3. Indian foundations of modern science

सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store