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December 24, 2006
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December 24, 2006

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Home > 2006 Issues > December 24, 2006


Treating history as fiction

By M.V. Kamath

India: Another Millennium? Edited by Romila Thapar; Penguin; pp 317; Rs 295.00

India: Another Millennium! What a fascinating subject! How would things be in India in the year 3006? For that matter how would things be in 2106? In just one hundred years more? Of course it is a matter of speculation. But one could try to speculate intelligently. What would intellectuals in India have said about the end of the twentieth century in the year 1900? Would they have predicted the departure of Britain from India in 1947 and the Partition of the country? Could they have even dreamt of the coming of radio and television and the impact Information Technology would make not only on the economy of the country but of changes in social values?

The subject is so wide-open for speculation that, as is said, anything goes. Romila Thapar who needs no introduction had asked 14 intellectuals to state their views and while, obviously they possibly cannot cover all subjects, their expressed views call for study and analysis. The experts chosen are understandably from different fields.

Krishna Kumar is professor of Education at Delhi University. Dhruv Raina is a scientist at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies. Bina Agarwal is professor of Economics, Institute of Economic Growth. Sunil Khilnani teaches at Birbeck College, University of London. And to mention just a couple of the names, N.R.Narayana Murthy is chairman and CEO, Infosys Technologies, Bangalore and Kaushik Basu is professor of Economics at Cornell University. They may sound like a motley crowd but necessarily have to be so.

The beginning of a millennium, as Romila Thapar says in her introduction, is a moment when the digits of a calender not only change but establish the termination of a past and the anticipation of a future in a more dramatic way than in other calendrical changes. No two experts can reasonably be expected to agree, knowing only too well that even the most knowledgeable and far-seeing among us have no divyadrishti-divine foresight. Will the next millennia usher in a utopia?

After all these centuries people the world over surely would be-or should be-wisen, saner and more accommodative? Would religion continue to guide our ways? If so, how? Would religious perceptions themselves change? Will Marxism which attempted the re-structuring of societies in the past have a relevance for the construction of new societies in the future? Will-can-religions changes occur? What role will technological improvements play in controlling environmental degradation?

Romila Thapar says that ?the present is an uncertain transition and expectations are unbounded?. Naturally. Will weaker sections in India finally get what is due to them? Sunil Khilnani says that the ?lines of conflict in India in the years to come will be many and given their political character are impossible to anticipate.? That goes without saying. Gopal Guru who is Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Pune is more specific. ?Belonging passively to a physical entity called the nation, dalits would? he writes, ?seek to redefine nationalism so as to make possible the material realisation of their cultural aspirations.? That is fair enough an observation.

Prabhat Patnaik who teaches Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University is pretty defensive about Marxism. As he states his case, ?the difficulties of transcending capitalism do not make Marxism obsolete? and that ?the fact that the tasks which Marxism saw as essential for human freedom are difficult to achieve does not mean that they are unnecessary.? Mankind, according to him, does not give up the agenda of liberation so easily.?

But what is ?liberation?? Liberation from what? Globalisation? The depredation of international finance capital over much of the Third World? Shri Patnaik is not very clear. Actually, as Kaushik Basu says, as of now, ?the world economy is witnessing more frenetic economic activity and change than ever seen before?, ?several of the rich and the middle-income countries are growing at unprecedented rates and disparities between the rich and the poor are becoming larger.? Yet, says Basu, he expects India at least ?to do well? economically.

Narayana Murthy is equally optimistic. Considering that India ?has gained immense respect among the world community and has emerged as a leading destination for foreign trade and investment activity, especially in the IT industry,? says Narayana Murthy, he is an ?eternal optimist? and believed India can marshal ?the will and determination and bring about the changes required to make India a significant IT player in the world market.?

N.Ram, editor of The Hindu, writes on the Great Indian Media Bazaar. He tries to understand what makes newspapers sell. As he sees it, Kerala is the ?classic India case of politicisation spreading to large sections of the population and creating a newspapers-reading culture.? Similarly he says that ?the dramatic expansion of the Hindi daily press over the past 15 years is in response to the political and social upheaval generated by the Ayodhya-centred communal mobilisation by the Hindu Right.? But what he does not try to explain is whether the print media will survive in another hundred years or will give way to something like, say, SMS.

The last article is by Mahesh Rangarajan, a former Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and a historian of ecological change. He does not predict; he merely suggests changes. As he sees it, ?If there is one thing that the coming period will do, it will be to remind us repeatedly of the complexity of natural systems.? So what? One thing common among all writers is their hesitance in predicting what will happen, or even can happen. In that sense this book does not provide excitement. It could be that intellectuals know only how to analyse the past and comment on the present, but are afraid to predict the future. That calls for daring into the unknown. But whoever said that intellectuals are daring? In the larger sense, this book, then is disappointing. But perhaps we should not blame the authors. Predicting the unpredictable is not within the intellectual?s realm; astrologers may step in where fools fear to tread and this may be the intellectual?s only excuse. Understanding, but not convincing. Romila Thapar must invite a different set of writers.

(Penguin Books Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)

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