Gurcharan Das on Hydaspes River

As usual, biz has me on the road accumulating airmiles… and the usual upside is some unbroken reading time — most recently with Gurcharan Das‘s India Unbound. The book is well written and covers a wide span of Indian history and issues both from Das’s direct (and apparently quite privileged) experience as well as his clearly thorough research. Emotionally laced with optimism for the future and regret for the past, this nonfiction book struck a chord in a way I imagine some find in escapist lit. Call it Bridget Jones for the econ-minded. Amartya Sen’s comments on the book are particularly interesting.

Das tackles the age old, highly politicized question of “Why was India rich, why is it poor, and when will it be rich again?” In the dozens of cases Das presents, one particularly unique example is a famous battle of antiquity and the first large scale military interaction between Desi’s and the West – the Battle of Hydaspes River in 327 BC.

The battle pitted Alexander the Great’s Macedonians against Porus (the Hellenic version of “Rama Puru”), leader of the Kingdom of Paurava in what is now the Pakistani section of ancient Punjab. Beyond the general intrigue and war narrative – feints, maneuver, logistics, and so on – Das finds a nugget of explanatory wisdom to his question – Teamwork.

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do – Samuel HuntingtonDepending on your proclivities, Hydaspes may have marked the beginning of Western colonialism in India and thus the beginnings of all that ailed its 20th century history. In Samuel Huntington’s famous aphorism — “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do” — Alexander was perhaps the capstone ancient example. Thus, the Battle of Hydaspes River may have set the imperial template for hundreds more, longer lasting incursions over later millenia.

Colin Farrell Encounters an Indian War Elephant… Would India ever be the same?

Alternatively, the interpretation that both Das and moi come down on, connects “organized violence” to “ideas or values” far more directly. One favorite writer of mine, Victor Davis Hanson, presents this opposing view and has this to say about the cultural significance of the Greek Phalanxes facing Puru –

…the phalanx was more than a singularly deadly infantry unit or a psychological weapon of terror. Its dense columns also reflected the solidarity of free men, who willingly donned heavy armor under the Mediterranean sun, crowded with one another in cumbersome rows, marched in unison — and defined courage as following orders, advancing on command and in rank, and protecting one’s comrade on the left. Aristotle thought the city-state — the very beginning of Western civilization — was identified by the emergence of such a strange way of fighting. Indeed, the polis arose, he wrote, when a new class of farmers — Europe’s first middle class of free property owners — began to fight in unison in these serried ranks, armored columns that other men, whether aristocrats, the poor, or those outside the Greek world, could not or would not emulate.

In this world view, the a priori choice for mankind over the long arc of history isn’t between violence and non-violence per se but rather between organized (law & military) and disorganized (crime, corruption & melee-style battle) violence. Cultural principles in turn determined where on this continuum a society lay — for the Greeks, the principles embodied in their style of organized violence were Equality + Teamwork. The Greek’s way of war, life, and governance were inextricably interlinked.

Battle of Hydaspes River: The Symptom or The Cause of India’s Troubles?

Folks who saw Oliver Stone’s Alexander may remember an, er, apparent portrayal of the Battle of Hydaspes River towards the end of the movie (alas, Stone devotes more filmtime to Alexander’s homosexuality vs. the specifics any particular battle). In some of the more visually arresting scenes of the movie, fish-out-of-water Macedonian phalanxes clash with monstrous elephants in a Vietnam-like jungle setting. A scene from the trailer shows a blood-spattered, wide-eyed Alexander (portrayed by a golden locked Colin Farrell) galloping down a jungle hillside on his noble horse Bucephalus to be challenged by a rearing war elephant….

Now, contrary to the Stone’s implicit portrayal, history generally considers Hydaspes River a decisive, brilliant victory (albeit possibly Pyrrhic) for Alexander — one that marked the furthest eastward expansion of his empire and perhaps the highpoint of an already legendary career. Wikipedia has a fine entry on the battle but for pure narrative power, I prefer this, more colorful take or this one for tactical analysis.

Although the initial order of battle may have tipped raw manpower in Alexander’s favor, Puru still had significant advantages in other, crucial areas –

  • The defender’s advantagemano a mano spear, shield & sword warfare of ancient times often prescribed that the attacker have at least a 200%-300% manpower superiority over the defender to be assured success. By most accounts however, even though bolstered by troops from freshly conquered territory, Alexander may have had at best a 50% advantage and was possibly equally matched with Puru’s forces.
  • Hometown — Alexander’s forces were 5 years and some 3000-4000 miles from home and their most reliable bases of supply and replenishment. Porus’s army was battling on familiar terrain.
  • Terrain — Amplifying his advantages as defender, Porus intelligently choose a swift river crossing to mount his line of defense. The crucial advantages of the Greek way of war was carefully coordinated, massed formations — played correctly, the rushing water would deny the Macedonians both. And hopefully, in those desperate yards as Alexander’s troops and cavalry were focused on the torrent rather than waging battle, Porus’ troops would be showering them with projectiles and greeting their tired, waterlogged masses with an array of sword tips on the opposite shore.
  • War elephants — Alexander’s forces had encountered these beasts only once before at the Battle of Gaugamela some 5 years earlier but in utterly ineffectual numbers (15 vs. 90) and different terrain (open desert vs. dense jungle) versus what Porus had now mustered. Historians like Plutarch and Diodorus vividly conveyed the fear these strange, almost mythological creatures stirred in the Macedonian infantry ranks as they contemplated their charge.

Defeated but not dishonored… Porus was believed to have towered at well over 6 feet tall – a giant in those times. Note his far larger stature in this Le Brun painting than even the victorious Alexander.

But… Puru lost. Though with tremendous honor and courage. Unlike Alexander’s nemesis Darius, Puru fought at the front with his men. And… –

..unlike the king of Persia, Puru did not flee nor surrender. Despite losing the battle, he kept fighting and goading his men to keep their honor. Alexander’s forces were impressed by both his size and his courage. It was only when he was hit by a dart on his right shoulder that, wounded and tired, he turned his elephant to safety… Soon, two envoys from Alexander came up to him. Loss of blood had made him intolerably thirsty. He halted his elephant and got down. Alexander’s envoys honored him and gave him water to drink and he commanded them to lead him to their king

As Puru neared the Macedonian lines, Alexander came galloping out to meet him. He was filled with admiration for his brave and proud adversary and asked Puru how he wished to be treated. “Treat me, Alexander, as you would treat a king,” replied Puru. Alexander was confused and asked him to be more precise. “When I said ‘a king,’” repeated Puru, “everything was said.” [Das, 39-40]

Conventional arguments for “why this outcome?” focus on the superiority of Alexander’s generalship — a factor which no doubt played a significant role and particularly in cases where Alexander found numbers working against him. Alexander clearly targeted his enemy’s logical rather than physical center of mass and lined up his strengths against his enemy’s weaknesses. Das, although “wary of cultural explanations”, puts forth a rather cultural explanation – “it illustrated for me an important weakness in the Indian character — our lack of teamwork“It illustrated for me an important weakness in the Indian character — our lack of teamwork”.” [Das, pg 36]

While militaries throughout history have had their class distinctions – heck, officer commissions were “purchased” by upper class Brits until the 20th century – they ran far more deeply in Puru’s army with far more significant tactical implications –

… beneath the surface, there were important differences between the two armies.. [such as] divisions in Indian society , which resulted in poor coordination in Puru’s army. Puru’s cavalry refused to aid the infantry. On the soggy banks of the [Hydaspes] that morning, Puru’s chariots got stuck and charioteers were unwilling to double up as infantry…

Puru’s upper-caste mounted cavalry did not sufficiently support the lower-caste soldier who was on foot. Jadunath Sarkar, an authority on ancient and medieval military affairs said that although “the Indian defenders of the Punjab were brave, each man fought to death in isolation.” The solders were “unable to make a mass movement in concert with their brethren of other corps.”

…Puru may have lost to the greatest general of his time, but the theme of poor teamwork runs throughout Indian history. Babur’s victories at Panipat and at Khanwa (against the Rajput confederacy, led by Rana Sangha) were partly a result of the same deficiencies. Although the Marathas had more cohesive armies, they too suffered because some subcastes armed themselves against others. [Das, pg 41]

And thus, as the ancient world gave way to a more modern world, and a “strange way of fighting” emerged where courage meant roles, teams, and tactics rather than heroic individual warriors. Along with it, the basis of wealth and governance shifted from artisans, kings and subjects to employees, officials, and citizens. And somewhere along the way, India fell behind… (Per the taxonomy in this article, India remained mired in a type of “limited access” society vs. “open access” warfare of the West).

But, all is not lost. Das’s book is fundamentally optimistic and hopeful and sees the basis for change all over India. On teamwork in particular, he readily draws the connection between competitive necessity and cultural transformation –

I believe that with more competition in the Indian market, we will get better teamwork in the business world. When companies fight for survival, there is less luxury for egotistical behavior; we sink or swim together. Since the 1991 reforms Indian markets have become more competitive, cohesion should gradually increase…. [Das, pg 43]

I readily share Das’s optimism and the seeds not just for Desi progress but actually greatness. The rise of large, efficient Indian corporations like Wipro and Infosys readily indicate that for at least one bleeding edge of society, the teamwork problem is being licked.

109 thoughts on “Gurcharan Das on Hydaspes River

  1. You’re being sarcastic but you’re actually speaking the truth…

    Interesting. What’s so deleterious about English-based education, especially in a country where people speak so many different languages?

    Would it be better if everyone learned chemistry, for example, in the local vernacular? Or when you advocate non-English education, do you just mean Hindi?

    I’m not trying to stir the pot, I’m genuinely curious.

  2. Would it be better if everyone learned chemistry, for example, in the local vernacular? Or when you advocate non-English education, do you just mean Hindi? I’m not trying to stir the pot, I’m genuinely curious

    So am I. And in anticipation of one possible argument, I’d say that any failure of accessibility of higher education (in science, or whatever) because it is English should be attributed largely to the poor primary education system in India, not the absence of higher education in local tongues.

  3. I’m not sure I would hold up China as a paragon of “meeting social needs.” Depending on where you live and your ethnic background, being poor in China can be just as, if not moreso, worse than being poor in India.

    I am personally a Sen-o-phile, but I the impression I had when he said India was doing successfully was that he was referring to its macroeconomic growth, not to the picture “on the ground.” He’s always been pretty vocal about the complete p.o.v. disconnect between upper/upper-middle classes and the lower class. On the same note, Das’s book is almost exclusively written for “business classes” — that is, the upper/upper middle class. Maybe I’m a hater, but like I said, I chalk up the shortcomings to a “business perspective” that is sometimes a bit shallow and absolutely misclassifies different phenomena. That said, it is an easy and accessible read for the same reasons.

  4. Would it be better if everyone learned chemistry, for example, in the local vernacular?

    The answer to your question depends on what you mean by ‘better’. People often mess up things by making ‘performance’ or ‘efficiency’ the dependent variable by default – when arguing against caste based quotas or affirmative action – the dependent variable is ‘representation’, not ‘performance’. Is ‘performance’ the new default?

    vernacular is a dumb idiotic word — verna means “home-born slave, native”. Please do not use that word to describe Indian languages.

  5. The story of India’s human development is an absolute disgrace (and I am not talking about reporters complaining when their expectations of bourgeois comforts are disappointed). I’m not too optimistic about the government (at both the state and federal levels) doing anything to ameliorate the situation in the long-term. However groups such as this does give people like me some hope (and I know of many others trying to do similar things; they deserve our help). I do think it is a huge achievement that India remains a vibrant democracy (and I think Sen does too). It is, for example, the only democratic country in the world where incumbents are highly likely to lose elections. Hopefully the less privileged will organize (not a very easy thing to do) and past (statistical) evidence suggests that organization does have a significant effect. p.s. do not encourage prema

  6. india was supposed to be an advantage india has over china (large eglish peaking educated population).

    Advantage: Whose advantage? There are many Indias. Large:The absolute number is large, but relative to India’s population, it is small. The challenge is to scale English education so that it reaches 600 million students living in 600,000 small villages. Their parents in most cases do not speak English and why would someone who can teach a foreign language to first generation learners — probably one of the most difficult jobs — spend their life in an Indian village? Technology and migration to cities will help, but not unless we restructure the primary education system — curriculum, goals, incentives, financing, ownership — that’s currently in place in the new and old cities, suburbs and small towns people are moving to.

    Would it be better if everyone learned chemistry, for example, in the local vernacular?

    It will definitely be accessible to a lot more Indians. Quality is a different problem and is mostly language-agnostic.

    The language debates often reinforce false binaries. I was recently reading Vidyasagar’s national mass education policy written in 1850s. He stressed a three language policy — English, Sanskrit and the regional language (seconding Naiverealist, can we please not use words like vernacular and local tongues to describe Indian languages?) — and also dedicated his life in implementing that policy in schools and colleges he founded and taught in. In spite of terrible execution — recent misguided experiments with English-elimination until the sixth standard is a good example — residues of that policy can still be found in West Bengal public schools.

    I learned all sciences in Bangla until the 12th standard (high school), learned English as a second language and also learned Sanskrit for two years. My Sanskrit is rusty, but at least I can still read Hindi fluently inspite of never learning the language. Most of the leading Bengali scientists of pre-indpendence era such as Jagadish Chandra Basu and Satyen Basu used to spend a significant amount of their time in writing science in Bangla. Enriching Indian languages is important not just for scaling quality primary education. Each language has its own life with hundreds of years of history and traditions, folk tales and songs which can never be translated. If we do not teach science and technology in those languages, we will slowly but surely lose them all.

  7. It will definitely be accessible to a lot more Indians. Quality is a different problem and is mostly language-agnostic.

    I think India benefits from having as many people have access to primary education as possible, so I will agree with you on that score. But I think science really is a different ball game.

    I don’t know that access to science education is really at that much of a premium. In most rural areas, at least in TN, students can opt to take science classes in the “regional language” (since everyone finds “vernacular” and “local language” so risible). The problem is that it’s hard to translate interest in science at that level to an upper level course, say in college.

    I really can’t see any advantage to teaching quantum chemistry in a regional language, for example. And H.psi = E.psi, no matter what language you learn it in.

    I’m not even sure that all Indian languages have equivalent words for standard scientific terms. I remember thinking that “air conditioning” was a lot easier to say than “sheetvataanukulit”, which is nothing but a completely made-up Hindi word that has no ordinary meaning for the man in the street.

  8. Each language has its own life with hundreds of years of history and traditions, folk tales and songs which can never be translated. If we do not teach science and technology in those languages, we will slowly but surely lose them all.

    Say what? How does the first statement lead to the second?

    As for your argument, I will just repeat my comment #52. I don’t see any additional value in teaching science in local languages, but do see downsides.

  9. I don’t see any additional value in teaching science in local languages, but do see downsides.

    I see a lot of value in teaching science in local languages. Any questions? All this reveals the essential flaw in the faculty of reason. After a few rounds it comes back to tastes. I like blue, you like red. What can be done?

    Listen American citizen: you have nothing, so you will not know the pain of losing anything. Now that I am in your country, and I have to earn a living, I am practising English. When you are in my country, I will make sure to give every drunk imperialist a good doze of vitriol in chaste bengali. At that time, dangling your dollar will have no value for me.

    Gary Becker and Joseph Stigler – two Nobel winning economists – wrote a dumb paper in 1977: “De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum”, a Latin phrase which means ‘in matters of taste there will be no disputes’. The authors’ primary contestation is tastes being unchallengeable axioms of behavior, they leave no room for rational persuasion. Till then, I could understand. Because tastes do not match, either we can have a fight (it is interesting to note Huntington’s observation – a much more realistic and accurate description of the world than Sen’s highy normative pollyanna glad game), or we can just ignore each other. But they did not stop there. They go on to argue, like all economists (including Sen), that it is futile to talk about tastes. These people, who shape so-called rational thought forget that it is ALL about tastes.

    There is no supply and demand. There are mimetic desires. You see an arrogant idiot roaming about in a car, or having some ‘fun in a vacation home’, or wearing a designer whatever, you get impressed (God knows why) and secretly want to be like that idiot.

    Fellow non-english speakers, please talk in your mother tongues boldly, loudly, clearly, in the right pronunciation, with confidence, with your head held high, without paying attention to one-language half-wits – so that one day your kids will want to be like you. Celebrate your past, your language, without bending over backwards for survival.

  10. Celebrate your past, your language, without bending over backwards for survival.

    Yeah, nobody’s really contesting that, your backhanded comments regarding English speakers and Americans notwithstanding.

    The point is, the interests of language are already significantly bolstered by the teaching of regional languages in schools, by the existence of regional language programming on TV, a growing (and in some cases, fully grown) regional language movie business, etc.

    I just don’t see where extending regional languages to science education creates a benefit beyond pride in language (which isn’t exactly in the doldrums in India these days anyway).

  11. Naiverealist, and all others who have defended Indian languages on this thread, you guys are my heroes. I have written tomes about this topic on this very site before, and I have a lot to say now too, but right now I’m exhausted from other stuff (work-related) and just don’t have the energy to counter Rahul and the English-lovers right now. Sorry. Let my track record here on that topic speak for itself. I probably won’t have energy or time to do this topic justice until the weekend (if then)…so if anyone’s interested, check back later. This is a topic very dear to my heart.

  12. Listen American citizen: you have nothing, so you will not know the pain of losing anything

    Personally, I prefer to be insulted as either a Brown Sahib or as an Uncle Tom.

    There is no supply and demand. There are mimetic desires. You see an arrogant idiot roaming about in a car, or having some ‘fun in a vacation home’, or wearing a designer whatever, you get impressed (God knows why) and secretly want to be like that idiot. Fellow non-english speakers, please talk in your mother tongues boldly, loudly, clearly, in the right pronunciation, with confidence, with your head held high, without paying attention to one-language half-wits

    This has been an eloquent and to-the-point defense. Thanks also for wilfully misunderstanding and conflating my point about not teaching science in local languages, with the issue of subsuming all local language education by English.

    just don’t have the energy to counter Rahul and the English-lovers right now.

    Surely, hema doesn’t deserve the indignity of being a nameless other English lover?

  13. I do think it is a huge achievement that India remains a vibrant democracy

    Dont you think its stupid and obscene to keep trying to impress foreigners with boasts of India being a “vibrant democracy” when India remains the hungriest nation on earth?

    A democracy that abandons half its children to hunger and malnutrition, and millions of others to slave labor is a failure and a disgrace. Yet people like you keep bragging about it as if its a “huge achievement”!

    And the deleterious consequences of a predominantly English based education are reverberating and rocking India to this day. But, I must be naive and misguided to even bother to respond. Bring on the boldface!

    Well callous comedian, if you don’t recognize the worst record on earth in feeding its children as a “deleterious consequence” then you are far worse than just “naive and misguided”.

  14. I always thought that english education in india was supposed to be an advantage

    So explain why with this “advantage” India, and other non-white Commonwealth nations, constitute the most impoverished block on earth, poor even by third world standards? And why without this “advantage” nations like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan etc have joined the ranks of developed first world nations?

    being poor in China can be just as, if not moreso, worse than being poor in India.

    Damn, this callousness and denial is just too deep-seated among desis. You just read that India is the hungriest nation on earth. What kind of poverty is worse than that?

  15. And the deleterious consequences of a predominantly English based education are reverberating and rocking India to this day. But, I must be naive and misguided to even bother to respond. Bring on the boldface! Well callous comedian, if you don’t recognize the worst record on earth in feeding its children as a “deleterious consequence” then you are far worse than just “naive and misguided”.

    Oh, sorry for the delay in responding, Prema. I was busy enjoying a delicious baby steak cooked in the blood of innocent children who, of course, were logically starved to death by the ubiquitous English education. Thank goodness I am not in the egalitarian paradise of China where daisies bloom and cherries are picked. You, of course, seem to be intimately familiar with the latter.

    Sorry for the short note, I’ve got some kittens I need to boil.

  16. How does the first statement lead to the second?
    conflating my point about not teaching science in local languages, with the issue of subsuming all local language education by English

    Subordination to some extent is inevitable. Currently two structural options available at K-12 levels:

    a) First language English, second language Indian, all non-language subjects — maths, science, geography, history — taught in English. b) First language Indian, second language English, all non-language subjects — maths, science, geography, history — taught in Indian language.

    There are exceptions, but generally speaking, a)=> ICSE/CBSE boards, private, high tuition, cities, exclusive and b)=> State boards, government(public)=>free or private with grants from state=>low tuitions, all over state, mass. In a) where science is taught in English, there is very little Indian language education going on overall and most students do not learn the Indian language well since there is very little incentive. Hence the last two statements in my last comment.

    Let’s look at some numbers. This year 650,000 students took the West Bengal board 10th standard exam where almost all schools follow b). In the entire country, 90,000 students took ICSE and 700,000 students took CBSE 10th standard. West Bengal’s population is 7% of India’s population, so we are looking at a factor of 12.3. In West Bengal, ICSE/CBSE is probably a little under-represented, so let’s assign a conservative estimate of 10.

    Do you think we can easily move all b) to a) and teach science in English to every Indian when

    1) b)=10*a) 2) b) is distributed all over the country with low students/school and a) is centralized in a few cities with high students/school 3) most b) schools can’t teach English as a second language effectively, let alone other subjects in English (you will need teachers who know English AND science) 4) we have not even started to count the huge number that never go to a school or drop out before the 10th standard

    It might be doable if we can completely overhaul the ownerhip and financing structures of the education system along with huge population migration to cities. Until then, there is a lot of value in enriching Indian languages and teaching science and other subjects in them.

    With b) the big problems are 1) lack of quality materials which from my experience is not true at least in West Bengal until the 10th standard, probably 12th. 2) translating Indian language scientific knowledge to English in colleges and universities — challenging, but can be done if English is taught well.

    I will take the second set of problems, but I am biased as I do not want all Indian schools to become a).

  17. Dipanjan, I totally agree with you that India’s primary and secondary education system is embarrassingly poor, and needs a massive overhaul.

    I am just not sure that the solution is to teach science in local languages. I fear that this will just produce a cadre of engineers and scientists who may not be able to take advantage of developments elsewhere in the world (where English is the lingua franca :-) or contribute effectively to it.

    One hope that I have is that as India grows its manufacturing sector (which it is focusing on now, in its own organic way), the boats of the poor people will be lifted and allow them access to better resources, both for education, and for health.

  18. Dipanjan,

    Will teaching Chemistry in Bangla also make Bengalis more patriotic? I have seen some stats that show that West bengal contributes the least number of personnel to the Indian armed forces proportionate to the population. Apparently Kolkata’s bhadra log are happy sitting around unemployed in college street talking about Marx and Lenin but they won’t ever enlist.

  19. Dipanjan #67:

    Thanks for the detailed breakdown (with numbers and all). I knew that regional language instruction was common and widespread in some states.

    I absolutely agree with your contention that part of the problem isn’t just that science education isn’t accessible in regional languages, it’s that English is not taught well enough to allow for a smooth transition between primary/secondary and university instruction.

    I wonder if the problem is also compounded by the fact that, unlike China or Japan or Korea, India is not linguistically homogenous…which is why English instruction persists at the college/university level.

  20. Meanwhile China which, unlike India, has been smart enough to take care of the fundamentals: food, water, healthcare, education, infrastructure etc is miles ahead of India and pulling away rapidly:

    There are two China’s my friend, the one you speak of, and the one you don’t speak of:

    http://www.time.com/time/asia/covers/1101020617/cover.html

    Let the bolding and underlining begin.

    “China is rapidly replacing Asia’s tiger economies as a global center of manufacturing, and coastal cities such as Shanghai sparkle with skyscrapers, five-star hotels and modern electronics factories. The streets clog with the private cars of the newly prosperous. But for every Chinese who has escaped poverty into the emerging middle and upper classes, there are many others, young and old, trapped in hellholes that blight the outskirts of population centers like Zhengzhou.”

    “Urban joblessness, unheard of when the Maoist government provided cradle-to-grave employment, now averages around 8-9%, according to scholars at the Beijing-based Development Research Center (DRC), a government think tank. (The official rate, by contrast, is a rosy 3.6%.) Joblessness is much higher, perhaps 20%, in industrial rust belts that cut great swaths across the north, where outmoded, bankrupt factories are being shut down and communist-era work units eliminated at a breathtaking pace.”

    “Increasingly, they have nowhere to turn. China lacks effective institutions that can administer job programs and stipends for the out-of-work. Beijing has been trying to placate the laid-off with severance pay on a case-by-case basis. But the country lacks a national unemployment benefits system—and state enterprises and local governments can no longer afford to support the jobless

    I must fess up. I played this song in the background while doing that.

  21. You are emboldening prema…she will just respond will more bolds and underlines…and name-calling and scorn. But seriously this should not be a pissing contest(poor in china vs. poor in India); prema’s interjections are habitually Manichean, devoid of any subtlety (as I think has been pointed out before) and frankly wrong headed and makes every discussion into an a vs. b argument. Please don’t take her baits. let her deal with her own personal psychological issues.

  22. Prema’s gripes,

    • Unfulfilled desire to have been born as a child of South East Asian descent so that Angelina Jolie could have adopted her. • Make enough noise to let people know that Indians are poor and malnourished, so that Angelina Jolie may still adopt her. • Make sweeping generalizations about South East Asians as she did in the Vtech case, so that Angelina Jolie doesn’t adopt another South East Asian infant and adopts here.

  23. Rahul #63: If I have offended you, I apologize. But I hope you understand that this issue is indeed a problem. You are riding on the ‘market forces’, whatever that means, and I am not willing to give up easily. Because the market is not ‘natural’. Economists do not explain advertising or addiction. We all are at the mercy of the entrepreneur.

    Will teaching Chemistry in Bangla also make Bengalis more patriotic?

    It is not only about Bengali. It is also about Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Alchiki, Assamese, Hindi, Malayali, Urdu, Oriya, Bhojpuri …

    Apparently Kolkata’s bhadra log are happy sitting around unemployed in college street talking about Marx and Lenin

    Concept clarification exercise: So-called leftists – Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar – are actually fighting for the protection of private property rights (in Singur, Nandigram, Orissa, internal displacements within India – poor farmers giving up traditional ways of living and becoming rickshaw drivers in moffusil towns). That is another indication that the right-left debate is at best an invented one. Arguing for regional languages is not equal to leftist politics. Although, I agree that the single most harm done to West Bengal is the thirty year communist rule and the encroachment of the communist led coordination committee in all walks of life, and nurturing a culture of pessimism (an antithesis of Gurcharan Das’s optimism). These people have only taught ‘what you cannot let others do’, instead of ‘what you can do’. Some leftist poets do lazy text-weaving, and yet some others sip tea in front of Academy and Nandan (if you are familiar with Kolkata you will know what I am talking of; by the way – intellectuals do not exercise; they smoke). Buddhadeb is trying to deal with the waste of Jyoti Basu dumped all over the state. JB has been a curse on our destiny. We are in the hands of remarkably mediocre people.

    but they won’t ever enlist.

    I have seen that statistics (Kargil war casualties). I cannot offer any spontaneous sociological reasons for that. But your attempt at divide and rule is ignored.


    The real problem is what I call the ‘menace of the cosmopolitan’. It is also about migration (it can have win-win situations: remittances to poor countries, and immigrant entrepreneurs creating jobs in the US). Migration within India, however, isn’t only about money flows. Our country is diverse on many different attributes other than income opportunities. Specification can make us see things more clearly. So next time when someone tells you a particular move has immense opportunity, follow up with opportunity of what? Such qualifiers bring out the essence – suddenly the colorful seem so boring, and the seemingly dull reveal interesting ideas. Obsession with the distant paradigm has many unintended consequences. For example, the ghastly killing of Bihari laborers by the ULFA terrorists in Assam was instigated by migration.

    We know Karnataka and Maharashtra has taken some bold stands on this issue. With Kannada and Marathi made compulsory, birds of a single feather (of any hue – moving migrants, urban upstarts, slighted suburbanites, or poverty-stricken peasants) cannot flock together. May be they still will, but migratory birds have to know the birds of the local habitat. They cannot continue to hang out in their cozy little circle of similar others. For this possible consequence alone, both Karnataka and Maharashtra deserve congratulations.

    If all this posturing comes across to you as fierce nationalism (or that wonderful phrase ‘regional chauvinism’), let me hasten to add that I know I am sticking my neck out. But what isn’t so stark is the slow, gradual, almost innocent, ‘blending in’ – it is more difficult to deal with, because the process is gradual, as opposed to any radical venting of frustration. The gradual process is more oppressive (killing too?) because it works its ways slowly, treating anything other than the prevalent and expected moves as illegitimate. It is the same reason why we have got used to Bollywood worthies speaking in English in the award ceremonies of Hindi cinema. It is the same reason why – even in India – you have to justify your wearing a sari or a kurta. It also creates gulfs between generations, between people, between grandsons and grandparents, and between friends. Driven by economic reason, the migratory birds do not belong anywhere They genuflect to the only God they know, convenience that is, and are generally alert to survival.

    The political leaders of India, as usual, are yet to discuss these issues. Till now we have not heard of any plans to deal with the twin problems of workforce mobility and offspring schooling. CNN-IBN had a shallow discussion on this issue and once again offered a twisted logic about the uselessness of keeping the languages alive ‘artificially’. What is artificial and what is natural? When Steve Jobs dangles the ipod in his keynote, puts it on the shelf of a store and bombards us with the ads, is he not forcing, or creating a market artificially? Not only is this dichotomy misplaced, anarcaps (the voucher people at CCS) should know that there are no market forces for languages. Money may be fungible (economists say that; i have doubts), but language isn’t. The corner store that relies on its ‘location’ in the downtown has a captive audience that keeps coming back, regardless of boom or bust. Location matters (ask the Singur farmers) and languages are location specific. Choice-chasers need to understand that the answer lies in the ‘and/also’ solution: both Kannada and English. The market is speaking in English. When is the right time to jettison Telugu? Or Bengali? Riding on the market wave, if the nonchalant choice-chaser encroaches into others’ way of living, and has an indifferent swagger for local customs, friction is inevitable and only a matter of time. Cause and effect is interdependent as the pratÄ«tyasamutpāda said long ago [recently some sociologists have started interdependent sampling].

    This is not regionalism, but a larger tolerance for many universalities than the oppressively narrow opportunistic recipe of learning the shopkeeper’s language only. English and Hindi are the lowest common denominators for communication in India. The lowest common thing need not rule the roost. As the market drives migration within the country, the LCDs will gradually flex their muscles and obliterate all regional identities. I think parents have a responsibility to teach their kids the mother tongue, the language of the state where he/she has started schooling, and English. If this is too much work, upward mobility seekers are free to make alternate arrangements (for them or for their kids – whichever works best) for 10 years (class 1 – class 10) in their career. Science education (I assume you mean social, physical and life sciences) in higher secondary and beyond can transition to English, if need be. But the government can play parent-parent, if opportunistic parents do not see opportunities to learn local languages/ customs.

    What about your ‘choice’ of moving every year? [The argument for the English-speaking workforce usually comes from those concerned with workforce mobility (ref: NRN Murthy).] Sure, Keep moving. Who is stopping you? But languages need not move with you. You adapt. Indeed, for birds who move every year, the forests need not offer any solution. The government has no burden to attend to choice obsessive disorders. The individual should decide what works best. I think the three language solution is easily manageable as several studies have shown that children pick up languages much faster than older people. It also forces migratory birds to get accustomed to the local birds, communicate with them, and learn and share their way of life. The 3LS also requires some awareness and initiative on the parents’ part, a little less economic reason, and a little force from the government.

    (Some of this is cut and pasted from an earlier post I wrote on this issue.)

    Gurcharan Das’s optimism need not be in anticipation of a certain kind of blanket treatment to the diversity. Bye for now. As Monty Python says, I can argue in my spare time.

  24. Naiverealist #75:

    Good commentary.

    At this point, I’m not convinced that the State needs to get involved in the business of saving Indian languages/heritage/culture from extinction. The migratory birds should have the right to form their own enclaves and isolate themselves from the local birds (even though it is damaging to everyone in the long term). But even more damaging is the iron-hand of State clamping down on individual desires to discard their heritage or refuse to accept local milieu.

    I’m of the opinion that there should be no language policy (3..2..5..) and parents should be able to choose the medium of instruction of their pleasing. However, since the Indian State has erringly assumed the burden of education, I think a two language policy is better (any two). I also believe that courses (History, Science etc) should be offered in any of the two languages the student chooses.

    With this, I believe most parents will choose English and their mother tongue, with Science and Math to be taught in English and History, Geography, Social studies etc to be taught in their Mother tongue.

    International, but rooted in the local.

    M. Nam

  25. since the Indian State has erringly assumed the burden of education

    who should be providing education? is there any functional country in the world where the government doesnt educate the people?

  26. I fear that this will just produce a cadre of engineers and scientists who may not be able to take advantage of developments elsewhere in the world (where English is the lingua franca :-) or contribute effectively to it.

    Pathetic. Japan, one of the least english-proficient nations on earth, has been taking far better “advantage of developments elsewhere in the world” and has contributed far more effectively to science, technology and commerce than the nations of the subcontinent, Phillipines etc who rely on english. Try thinking rationally for a change and see if you can come up with a better reason for this servile anglophilia.

    There are two China’s my friend, the one you speak of, and the one you don’t speak of

    Here we go again with the intellectually and morally bankrupt jingos pointing fingers at countries that are doing a far better job than India, as if that will somehow excuse India’s criminal callousness towards its hungry masses. There are still many poor in China, but unlike the poor in India they arent starving, or selling their children into slavery or child prostitution in huge numbers. Compare India’s ranking in the Human Development Index to China’s for example:

    http://hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/statistics/

  27. Ooh! Ooh! I beat the bold/underline level and now we’re up to tables?

    Obs HR Index Table

    Voila, the human rights violation index table, where our friend China is the top of the lower half. and India is ranked… we’ll it’s ranked.. well, when you think about it, it’s ranked exactly below.. hmm. I’ll get back to you on that one.

    This time, I had this song going.

  28. Both of you quit hogging all the love. Plenty of people need to be insulted on 5.5 mil thread.

    What can I say? As an elitist upper-caste member, I am just used to having everything.

  29. Oh, HMF, you are heartless. Think of the children, the starving children.

    Sick and disgusting. He actually thinks of it as a joke!

    What is a worse human rights violation: condemning half the nations children to starvation diets and millions of others to slavery? Or putting some limits on free speech etc?

    What is funny here is that all these champions of servile anglophilia keep boasting of the tremendous “advantage” adopting english has bestowed on India……..completely disregarding the glaring fact that India continues to lag behind the non-english speaking world! Anyone with half a brain can see that someone with an “advantage” would be ahead not behind those without it. But such simple logic goes over the head of these pretentious creatures.

  30. What is funny here is that all these champions of servile anglophilia keep boasting of the tremendous “advantage” adopting english has bestowed on India……..completely disregarding the glaring fact that India continues to lag behind the non-english speaking world! Anyone with half a brain can see that someone with an “advantage” would be ahead not behind those without it. But such simple logic goes over the head of these pretentious creatures.

    just cause someone has an advantage doesnt mean hes ahead. India does have the advantage of being english speaking. they have benefited from this in the call center work they do. But, they also have many disadvantages. poor infrastructure, curruption etc.

  31. completely disregarding the glaring fact that India continues to lag behind the non-english speaking world!

    Remind me again of which non-English speaking country is as linguistically diverse as India. Japan is a largely linguistically homogenous society, and that does make technological education in a non-English language that much easier. That’s also true for Germany, for example.

    In India, what happens when the prospective engineering student from West Bengal, having learned physics, math, chemistry, etc. shows up at REC Trichy to further his education? Is it really going to help him that the medium of instruction there is Tamil, and not Bengali?

    It’s not so much whether English provides some advantage over the other languages. It’s that it still has some usefulness as a common language. Someone made a comment earlier suggesting that the lowest common denominator doesn’t have to rule, and I agree. But until there is a suitable (and widely accepted) substitute to English, what’s the solution? I believe the best idea is to use English along with regional languages.

  32. The point about the necessity of a link language is a good one, but beyond English being a mere link language, its also the ticket to upward mobility and class status. Sankrant Sanu made this point a few years ago:

    Rank Country GNP per capita ($) Official Language

    1 Switzerland 38,380 German/French/Italian
    2 Denmark 32,050 Danish
    3 Japan 32,030 Japanese
    4 United States 31,910 English
    5 Sweden 26,750 Swedish
    6 Germany 25,620 German
    7 Austria 25,430 German
    8 Netherlands, The 25,140 Dutch
    9 Finland 24,730 Finnish
    10 Belgium 24,650 Dutch/French
    11 France 24,170 French
    12 United Kingdom 23,590 English
    13 Australia 20,950 English
    14 Italy 20,170 Italian
    15 Canada 20,140 English/French
    16 Israel 16,310 Hebrew
    17 Spain 14,800 Spanish
    18 Greece 12,110 Greek
    19 Portugal 11,030 Portugese
    20 South Korea 8,490 Korean

    1 Congo (DRC) 100 French
    2 Ethiopia 100 Amharic
    3 Burundi 120 French
    4 Sierra Leone 130 English
    5 Malawi 180 English
    6 Niger 190 French
    7 Chad 210 French
    8 Mozambique 220 Portugese
    9 Nepal 220 Nepali
    10 Mali 240 French
    11 Burkina Faso 240 French
    12 Rwanda 250 Kinyarwanda/French/English
    13 Madagascar 250 French/Malagasy
    14 Cambodia 260 Khmer/French
    15 Tanzania 260 English/Swahili
    16 Nigeria 260 English
    17 Angola 270 Portugese
    18 Laos 290 Lao/French/English
    19 Togo 310 French
    20 Uganda 320 English

    The vast majority of this list of the poorest countries has a class system similar to the one in India, where the language and culture of the colonial masters is considered superior to the native languages. Much of government and much business is conducted in this language of the elite, often different from the languages spoken inside the home by the majority of people. This elite attends the “colonial-medium” schools and uses those terms and concepts to understand their own experience and those of the “natives.” link

  33. Naiverealist (#75), that was beautiful…every word. Thank you.

    The fact is, Indian languages are in deep shit already. And Indian parents who already know English, simply can not be relied on to transmit the mothertongue to the next generation. I don’t blame them…given the situation in India, if I was a parent living there, wanting only the best for my child, I might be tempted to speak primarily English to them myself. But that just tells you the whole setup, the whole system (socially, educationally) is completely wrong. We will only realise this when we have suffered the fate of Ireland, Sicily, Nigeria, and other nations or regions who have lost or are in the process of losing their linguistic heritages. There is no way English (in India) can be kept just to the job, or the classroom. It works its way into homes, parties, family get-togethers, neighbourly chats… it’s been proven very insidious that way so far. I’m sure most of us can see that change right in our own families…look at the amount of English (and conversely, the mothertongue) our grandparents spoke, how much more our parents speak, and how much absolutely more our generation speaks it.

    These are your mothertongues, people… treasure them, love them, preserve them. They reflect your heritage, your history, your identity, and your culture. The genius of your people. Once they’re gone, they’re never coming back. Don’t just let them be destroyed or downgraded by convenience, money, or the lowest common denominator.

  34. I’m a little confused as to why people are measuring the “benefit of English” in terms of GDP or GDP growth? I’m not trying to be a simpleton, I just think it might be a kind of silly way to measure things. I understand the argument is primarily economic. Personally, I feel knowing several languages is helpful, regardless of your national background. That said, having been in countries with levels of linguistic diversity similar to that of India, having at least 1-2 languages that are spoken across the board is really helpful. It doesn’t have to be English, but from a “political” standpoint, is Hindi really all that much better, or Tamil? I think it’s important to retain local languages, but I would think it would be a disservice for there not to be ANY “lingua francas” across India itself.

    What is a worse human rights violation: condemning half the nations children to starvation diets and millions of others to slavery? Or putting some limits on free speech etc?

    Prema, I feel you, but according to the Human Development Index 2006 report (which is admittedly slightly outdated), India and China are not so far apart in their rankings. I’m not saying underdevelopment in India isn’t important. I just think it is a little silly to jump to the conclusion that China is sooo much better. If you’re one of the many (Chinese) farmers who have been forcibly moved off your land or flooded out right now, I bet you feel pretty similarly to the locals who have been pushed out in the dam struggle in India.

  35. Camille, I’ve never seen somebody who is more ignorant, casteist, naive, misguided, and elitist than you. Oh, asinine too. Except for Rahul, HMF, and hema.

  36. If you’re one of the many (Chinese) farmers who have been forcibly moved off your land or flooded out right now,

    Nah uh. I heard they give you a fortune cookie as a parting gift. and the fortune says, “look at the bright side, at least you’re not in India”

  37. Amartya Sen is absolutely correct however when he criticizes Gurcharan Das for describing the corrupt and failed Nehruvian nexus of brahmin babus and bania industrialists during the License Raj as “socialism”. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is absolutely correct when they deplore the description of certain types of food as “spaghetti”. The corrupt and failed nexus between “pasta” and “meatballs” sold in “cans” is a product of the confusion due to English language signs in supermarket aisles. The use of English represents a classist, ignorant, naive, misguided, and elitist delusion. Such food cannot be described as “spaghetti”.

  38. Nah uh. I heard they give you a fortune cookie as a parting gift. and the fortune says, “look at the bright side, at least you’re not in India”

    …in bed.

  39. Thanks, Rahul. I work on the asinine thing at home. Glad to see the lessons are paying off. ;)

  40. Amartya Sen is absolutely correct however when he criticizes Gurcharan Das for describing the corrupt and failed Nehruvian nexus of brahmin babus and bania industrialists during the License Raj as “socialism”. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is absolutely correct when they deplore the description of certain types of food as “spaghetti”.

    Looks like the wannabe comedians are out in force. One, Rahul, thinks hungry children in India are hilarious; and now this clown is making fun of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. What part of Sen’s critique of Das’s equation of the Licence Raj with “socialism” do you disagree with?

  41. I’m a little confused as to why people are measuring the “benefit of English” in terms of GDP or GDP growth? I’m not trying to be a simpleton, I just think it might be a kind of silly way to measure things.

    So what do you think is this great “advantage” that adopting english has bestowed on India? How do you measure the benefits of this advantage?

    but according to the Human Development Index 2006 report (which is admittedly slightly outdated), India and China are not so far apart in their rankings.

    China is ranked at 81, India at 126 out of a total of 177. China is in the top half and India in the bottom third. And you are still trying to lump them together? China is in a different league than India, other than population size. The Indian subcontinent and Africa are in the bottom league measured by HDI, per capita income, hunger and malnutrition etc.

    If you’re one of the many (Chinese) farmers who have been forcibly moved off your land or flooded out right now, I bet you feel pretty similarly to the locals who have been pushed out in the dam struggle in India.

    Again, read Amartya Sen’s quotes above. There is no comparison between the hungry, illiterate masses of India and the poor of China. Even the poor in Africa are better fed:

    there is also a gigantic prevalence of endemic hunger across much of India. Indeed, India does much worse in this respect than even sub-Saharan Africa……About half of all Indian children are, it appears, chronically undernourished, and more than half of all adult women suffer from anaemia. In maternal undernourishment and the incidence of birth of underweight babies,India’s record is among the worst in the world .” http://www.moneycontrol.com/india/news/politics/hunger-isquiet-violence-amartya-sen/176023 “on the subject of hunger, Sen has written that “India has fared worse than every other country in the world.” “Q: You write in your book that “About half of all Indian children are chronically under-nourished and more than half of all the adult women are anaemic than Africa. Africa still manages to ensure a higher level of nourishment thanIndia.” So where did India go wrong? A: I think it goes wrong in two respects. One, even though Africa has famines, higher mortality rates and much more chaos, but the issue of eating enough is quite a big issue in Africa. The African rebelliious spirit is stronger. The other reason is, women are much more important in Sub-Sahara Africa, they have a much bigger voice. We know, withinIndia, whenever women have had a bigger voice, the hunger problem has dramatically reduced. The fact that gender inequality is far less in Africa is not unrelated to the fact that regular hunger is also far less in Africa than inIndia.”
  42. Looks like the wannabe comedians are out in force. One, Rahul…

    Thanks, Prema. I will be here all night.

  43. Prema,

    I’m hesitant to get into this with you, largely because you seem incapable of accepting any nuance in others’ arguments. I generally agree with a lot of the sentiments you present. That said, the world is not black and white. If it were that simple, it might be easy to come up with simple solutions as well.

    1. The “advantage” of English Personally I think the primary advantage is that it is relatively widely spoken. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier – that in multilingual societies it is generally useful to have at least 1-2 languages that are commonly spoken.

    This “common language” need not necessarily be English; a great example is Tanzania, where Swahili is the state-sponsored language. From what I’ve seen, this sense of common language has been huge in building a sense of a united nation in a country that has historically huge tribal diversity. I don’t necessarily agree with how Nyerere got there, but we see a great deal of growth and collaboration, particularly re: public good spending, in Tanzania. Comparatively, in its neighboring (diverse) countries this is not the case. That said, in India, for better or worse, English offers a common language in many urban areas. I’m not saying “English uber alles” — I think mother tongues are important, also. However, I don’t think their value is purely economic. Can you measure cultural heritage, history, and literature in economic terms? Maybe, but I don’t think you need to to argue that something is valuable.

    2. China v. India/ Human Development China is very barely in the top half, and India is solidly in the middle of the bottom half. As I said before, I am not trying to under-emphasize underdevelopment in India. However, I take issue with you holding up China as a paragon of a developing country that feeds its children. India is certainly at the bottom of the development index, along with most sub-Saharan African countries. That said, my argument is that China has huge disparities in its quality of living, human development, etc. I will continue to lump them together because I think that they both having shocking and appalling levels of corruption, human rights violations, starvation, class inequality, and illiteracy. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that it is better to be a Chinese peasant in Xixao than it is to be an Indian peasant in Rajasthan or UP. They are both living in glaring poverty. I don’t think we need to hold China up to show that India comes up short.

    Also, no offense, but you’re not the only person who reads Sen. As much as I respect him and his writings, his interviews are not the Word of the (Economic) Gods. Just because he thinks women are more empowered or that people are better fed/nourished in sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t make it fact. I think his analyses are interesting and generally spot on, but sometimes I think he overgeneralizes to get in a little “shock factor.”

  44. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that it is better to be a Chinese peasant in Xixao than it is to be an Indian peasant in Rajasthan or UP.

    I’m not sure which would be worse…but the Indian peasant definitely possesses a rich culture, colorful rituals and festivals, and strong extended family (and dare I say caste) ties which do help him to get through an otherwise very bleak life. Rural China is just bleak all around.