Indian history is relevant, even for economists – S. Gurumurthy

S. Gurumurthy“Economics historian Prof. Angus Maddison, in his study World Economic History: A Millennial Perspective, showed that India was the leading economic power of the world from the 1st year of the first millennium till 1700—with 32 per cent share of world’s GDP in the first 1000 years and 28 per cent to 24 per cent in the second millennium till 1700.” – S. Gurumurthy in Boss gets the Hindu rate of growth wrong at the CII meet 

Samuel P. Huntington“Yes, India was global economic superpower for 1,800 out of 2,000 years. Conceded. But what is the use of recalling past glory. Look at our current state — poverty, hunger, malnutrition and illiteracy. The present alone is relevant. Future is critical.”

This is how some react at any reference to India’s great past. Their reaction is justified. Yes. Nations cannot survive or prosper just by recalling their past. Yet, no nation, whether developed or developing, ancient or modern, gives up the sense of its past. Because sense of the past is the core of a nation.

Samuel Huntington’s last book Who are We? is an exploration of America’s past, which spans less than 300 years. In contrast, India and China have an antiquity that history dare not probe. The relation between past and present is indeed enigmatic. The present is relevant. Undeniably. But is the present alone relevant? And is the past totally irrelevant?

George  SantayanaA deeper reflection would counsel that it would be wrong, even dangerous, to dismiss the past as irrelevant. Particularly if, in the past, a society had committed mistakes or got invaded or colonised. It needs to recall and analyse, not forget, the past so that the past error is not repeated. That is why scholars keep citing George Santayana, Spanish philosopher, who said that those who did not learn from history were doomed to repeat it.

Revisiting the past is a learning process. Also an unlearning one. But, colonial construction of its history denied India both learning and unlearning experience. The colonists’ version of India’s past harmed its present and threatened its future. Take a glaring instance, the Aryan-Dravidian theory constructed by the colonialists that virtually split India racially and regionally, almost fomenting a huge secessionist movement in the South.

Anglican Bishop Robert CaldwellThe 19th century colonial version of the theory testified to “civilised Aryans” from outside invading India and building a high Vedic civilisation. But after Harappan excavations, the colonialists shockingly made a U-turn. They relabelled the Aryans as “nomadic”, “pastoral” and even “barbaric”. And alleged that the uncivilised Aryans invaded and violently ran over “civilised Dravidians”. With ‘violent invasion’ theory soon losing steam for lack of archeological support or oral traditions — the theory was repackaged as “peaceful Aryan immigration” post-Harappan collapse. Soon, with Harappa throwing up more and more ingredients that correlated to Vedic culture, the pre-Aryan construction of Harappa began to fade away. Further, with the rediscovery of Vedic Saraswati river, studied by satellite imagery and its palaeo-waters (from Himalayan glaciers) tested in Rajasthan deserts by Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the so-called ‘non-Aryan’ Harappa is now Indus-Saraswati civilisation with Vedic confluence!

Saraswati River MapThe Vedic Saraswati was real, not mythical as the colonialists had dismissed. The Saraswati shifting its course and merging into Sutlej and Yamuna and its main flow drying up as the result were  major factors for the collapse of urban phase of Harappa. Relentless interrogation of colonialist construction of India’s past by national and international scholars only could expose the canard of Aryan invasion. Here the recall and review of India’s past were of great relevance to the present and future social relationships within India and national political discourse. So, the past and the correct view of it are important. But the question is not why, but when, should a society recall its past.

Indian EconomyA society should not get obsessed with its past just for pride. Nevertheless it becomes inevitable for colonised societies to review the colonialist version of its history that demeans its faith, philosophy, forefathers, traditions and economy, and pervades the society’s academic, intellectual and public discourse. After an in-depth study, Kaisa Illmonen of University of Turku writes: “Post colonial subjects will be imprisoned in their colonial history unless they can find or figure out their own place in history. History must be retold and rewritten in such a way that a person excluded from the records of the Western history can still have knowledge of his or her own past.” This not just about the history of identity. A society’s economic history is critical in a world that is increasingly driven by global economic agenda.

The Indian people ought to know whether they have a history of worshipping poverty as the colonialists had made their elites believe or do they have a tradition of building prosperity. Modern Western history has universalised the perception that prosperity building was the preserve of the West. The rest of the world, particularly Asia, including China and India, was ever steeped in poverty — almost claiming that colonialists had actually improved their lot!

Montek Ahluwalia & P. ChidambaramThis disgusting colonial discourse almost took rebirth in 1990s when, to drum up support for globalisation, the likes of Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia began arguing that India did not have the tradition of wealth-building; so it needed to learn that culture from the West. As late as in 2007, Chidambaram said “whoever propounded the myth about India being a rich country is wrong and the books that propounded the glorious past of India are liable to be burnt” (Business Standard, 27.8.2007). This is long after Bairoch-Maddison studies had nailed the lie, and independent researches (See ‘Boss, read the true history before talking’, TNIE April 6) had corroborated Bairoch-Maddison’s view that Hindu India was the topper in global economy. Imagine Bairoch-Maddison had preceded Marx, Weber and Raj Krishna. Weber would not have dared to disqualify India for market economics for following ‘world denying’ Hinduism; Marx would not have called Indians ‘semi-civilised’ for worshipping Hanuman and cow; and Raj Krishna would not have dared to point at Hinduism for India’s slow growth. They all spoke the way they did, because they believed India was economically an underperformer. But, their Indian intellectual heirs who hold — or choke? — the national voice, continue to demean India’s past. To answer them, India’s past needs to be recalled, again and again.

J. Bradford DeLongThe 2008 global crisis has shaken the world to realise the need to study economic history. Till then, modern economists had dismissed the past as irrelevant for the present or future. But the global meltdown has questioned all modern economic theories grounded in the present. The 2008 Nobel Prize winner in economics Paul Krugman said “much of the past 30 years of macro economics was spectacularly useless at best and positively harmful at worst”. Barry Eichengreen, well-known economic historian, said “the crisis has cast into doubt much of what we believed to be economics”. Result: economists are now scrambling back to study economic history. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics, University of California, declared “it is not economic crisis, but economics in crisis” and pleaded “we need historians of economic thoughts”.

A conference organised in early 2013 by Project Syndicate, a think tank of highly influential thought leaders, including economists, has called for intense teaching and study of economic history. Any more evidence needed about the relevance of the past to the present, including in economics? – The New Indian Express, 13 April 2013

» S. Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on political and economic issues. Email: comment@gurumurthy.net

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3 Responses

  1. What is the point of this article, written by an accountant.
    If the writer will look at the Syllabus of Economics Honours in any Indian university, he can find economic history of India, Soviet Union, USa, UK, Japan as compulsary subjects. In the MA in Economics, also, there is a paper on history of economic thought and Indian economics.
    Thus, there is no shortage of economic history in the Economics syllabus any way.

    The author before writing this article, where all these Aryan Invasion etc are unneccessary, should have seen the syllabus of indian universities.

  2. When arrogance goes with ignorance in a person in power it is dangerous and must be ruthlessly exposed. Gurumurthy has done a great service to the people of India by quoting Chidambaram’s arrant nonsense. People with no sense of identity will not only not prosper but will not survive. A sense of identity requires truthful knowledge of the past. Colonial rendition of history of a people must be re-visited by the people when they become free because the past told by the colonial power and its minions contained more falsehoods than truth. Incidentally what a pity we in India have to resort to foreign economic historians such as Angus Maddison! When will Indians demonstrate expertise and courage to write the Indian people’s economic, social and political story from indigenous primary sources?

  3. Dear guru sir, its a delite to read your articles. It gives courage, confidence and inspiration to all the nationalists around. Our history was glorious, but this was never narrated in a lucid and proper way to the masses. This is a big reason why, many of the readers and listeners to your view, complain, about repeating the history. To make out present and future, glorious again, I think we need to research and re-research about each and every aspect of Hindu way of living and believing. What we had been able to achieve in past, was because of deep research oriented views of our saints, rishis and gurus. In India, we are not researching enough and in right way. Once we will start to do it, papers and magazines will be full of explanations. I am surprised that west is doing do much research on indian topics, our beliefs, our language, our way of life, our ancient literature and so much, but in India, we are doing nothing. Time has come, when we start to build universities, which researches, and publishes to prove whatever we do in Hinduism is well researched and tought of and not just vims and fancies, which communists and socialists keep hurling at us.

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