In 1910, freedom fighter and thought leader, Rabindranath Tagore, penned a beautiful poem in Bengali about his dreams for an independent India that would be a shining beacon for inclusion, tolerance and prosperity. In English, it goes,
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear strength of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
In the context of these powerful words, it is quite clear that the dreams of the Indian society’s thinkers and founders are far from being fulfilled. In fact, in many ways, as a culture, we have traveled away from these dreams of inclusion, in the exact opposite direction.
I started this series a few weeks ago to highlight the need for Indian Americans to get involved in American conversations about inclusion and equality. My goal was to highlight how as Indian Americans, we are a uniquely qualified group to be able to successfully practice inclusion and teach its valuable lessons in multiple societies. In my opinion, understanding the reluctance of Indian Americans to take part in these dialogues starts with our Indian history and our immigration history. So far, this journey has taken us back to pre-colonial and colonial India. We saw that there is no doubt that the Indian society has had a several thousand-year-old history of conflict between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. There is also no doubt that the manipulation of these power imbalances by the British ripped apart the already fragile, hand-woven fabric of India’s diverse tapestry and left it in shreds. But, that is far from the complete picture of the Indian society’s struggle with inclusion. In this post, I want to highlight how many missed opportunities of inclusion affected the Indian people and their psyche after Indian independence. There is so much to say about this, that this has to be a long post. I will start by giving an overview and then go into a bit of detail about how various societal instruments have systemically maintained a separate and unequal society.
The social problems that plagued us before and during colonial times continued to persist in an independent India because of the un-inclusive ways in which we have handled our national affairs and our people in the past 70 years. Religious, caste, class and gender inequities seem to have marginally improved in some ways while they’ve drastically worsened in many other ways. A combination of societal pressures and mismanagement of our societal structures and institutions continue to develop a culture where we are all still outsiders and “minorities” within our young nation. The feelings of “us versus them” have become more visible in all aspects of life over time, as more and more domestic “walls” continue to get built. We live systematically segregated lives that don’t allow us to promote inclusion.
Because of this, conformity to whatever subgroups we are a part of, and obedience to their norms are even more highly valued. Independent thought and individuality are discouraged, especially when they defy group norms. Conversations to address these problems are also frowned upon, as they would only serve to “air our dirty laundry” and perpetuate even more negative stereotypes about our “backwards culture” (a colonial attitude that got internalized by the native populations through a warped educational system). We have evolved into a society with little to no room left for thoughts or efforts on creating an actually inclusive society that leads to cultural and intellectual growth.
A hyper-competitive environment, coupled with conformity, lack of independent thought, and lack of control developed a mindset of fear and intolerance in the Indian populace. There is a very real fear that people will be left out of resources, and an intolerance towards anyone who is competing in the same space as us. The struggle with inclusion in so many aspects of life fundamentally altered the very definition of success, and thus the trajectory and growth of the nation. Success became a very narrowly defined construct, accessible to only a small fraction of the population (the wealthy). Opportunities to succeed and the resources needed for success decreased, resulting in increased competition. This only further widened pre-existing economic, wealth, educational and growth disparities in the population. This in turn bolstered a sense of powerlessness and lack of control in those who couldn’t fulfill this imbalanced society’s expectations to succeed.
India’s uneven and stunted (in some ways) growth under many administrations since 1947 played a key role in creating the inequitable conditions that encouraged multiple massive waves of Indians to migrate out of the country. No doubt, India has experienced economic growth, and has implemented some reforms, especially in the past twenty-five years or so. However, its unstable and un-inclusive foundations as a nation have also indelibly affected the intellectual mindset, and the cultural and social norms and actions of its people.
Lack of Inclusion in Governance, Politics and Policies
By the time an independent India fully formed its government, the colonial rule had ensured that there was barely anything left for Indian people to eat and survive on, let alone to rebuild with. The new Indian government set up a highly regulated, hierarchical State controlled economy that focused on industrial growth. The thought was that rapid industrial growth would obviously expand to a larger labor force and job market. This would then translate to lower poverty levels, higher education and a better quality of life for Indian people. In reality however, this plan simply replaced the bureaucratic and intentionally inefficient British colonial government. It substituted British industrialization that favored British elites, with Indian industrialization that benefited Indian elites.
Both governments were set up in ways that largely removed the majority of the Indian people from any involvement in their own affairs. They created widely disparate and divided communities that were underdeveloped, under-resourced, desperate for help, and ripe for manipulation by power-hungry entities. In an effort to equalize, the Indian government established a temporary caste based Reservation or Quota system for historically disadvantaged communities. But instead of being fair, the system was politically corrupted. It cemented even more divisions and conflict instead of promoting inclusion and equity.
After independence, bribery, corruption, coercion and nepotism (already prevalent practices that were exacerbated by colonial rule) became almost the only way to successfully navigate through the never-ending bureaucracy in India. This benefited a small group of wealthy industrial and political “elites”. They reaped most of the benefits of industrial growth to create massive government subsidized private empires. The revenues generated from this growth rarely, if ever, reached the poorest segments of the population to improve their living conditions. As a result, income and wealth disparities increased, and fair access to opportunities and resources decreased. Especially in the 1970s, the power games played by corrupt politicians stagnated whatever growth India’s founding fathers had envisioned.
Since then, economic liberalization reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an open-trade economy, changes in leadership and larger globalization factors have led to many improvements in people’s lives. But, again, this is largely uneven, and the negative impact of the bureaucracy, inequitable policies and outcomes, and increasing disparities has been undeniable. The structures and institutions within Indian have only served to reinforce conformity within groups and competition between then, and not to actually empower or include them. People continue to internalize and run within these social divisions because their survival and access to resources depends on their group memberships. Success in life has become dependent on these politically manipulated social constructs of “privilege”, instead of being contingent on effort and discipline.
Lack of Inclusion in Infrastructure and Public Services
What the first few administrations of an independent India failed to consider were the true costs of industrialization that would affect all segments of an inclusive society. Industrialization changes the very landscape and orientation of the group that implements it as a tool for growth. Successful industrial growth causes growth in population and increases rural to urban migration. As industrial centers grow, more and more people move to these areas for jobs and access to services. This turns small towns into large cities, and cities into bustling metropolises.
Industrialization increases the costs of urban living and needs a slew of public services such as housing, education, hygiene and health care, transportation and public safety, which are required for the maintenance of the growing community. But, to sustain the economy of an industrialized community, these services need to be upgraded and maintained, not just in these urban centers, but also in all the rural areas that offer large portions of their population as the labor force necessary for industrial growth.
Historically, after independence, the Indian government hasn’t spent much on healthcare, education, roads, electricity, water, waste services, and transportation. Instead it focused first on industrial growth, and then shifted to the growth of the IT service sector in the 1990s. Whatever little was channeled into infrastructure and public services development was mostly focused on growing these industrial and technical hubs, with little focus on rural development. As a result, we now have almost two-thirds of the entire national population living in rural areas with irregular access to clean water and uninterrupted electricity, and limited access to even basic health and hygiene services, educational opportunities, or other resources for growth.
We have about 50% of the population working in agriculture – an underdeveloped sector that contributes only 15% to the national economy, on a temporary, seasonal basis. And, because of the lack of infrastructure development in rural areas, this entire segment of the population has no opportunity to grow unless they move to urban areas where their lack of education and technical skills and high costs of living in urban areas would make survival impossible.
By focusing on just industrialization as a means to a better end, the first few administrations of the Indian government didn’t invest much (if anything) in the non-industrial needs of the people; needs that were critical for the maintenance of a rapidly growing, industrialized society. This is when the limits of success got permanently altered and reduced to being only achievable through largely inaccessible industrial means and opportunities. At the same time, the population of India more than doubled. This was a huge blow on India’s already underdeveloped infrastructure. It created a hyper-competitive environment for survival, let alone success.
Lack of Inclusion in Education and Training
In my opinion, this is perhaps the biggest opportunity in inclusion that Indian administrations have missed and continue to miss. The Indian heritage was founded in advanced technological, scientific, and cultural accomplishments that added incredible value and richness to the lives of its people. And, by absolute numbers, post-Independent literacy levels have certainly improved in most communities. But, in the process of putting so much focus on the goal of industrial growth, the government of 1950 started the modern Indian education system on a fragmented and un-inclusive path that could only lead to the deterioration of the Indian intellect. The continued ffailures to properly develop and efficiently use education as one of the most powerful and universally inclusive drivers of growth made us regress intellectually as a nation.
In an independent, industrial India, there was very little diversity in education or career paths, beyond various types of engineering or medicine. As a requirement for a growing industrial society, math and science education increased, at the cost of other fields of study like arts, humanities, world history, and so on. Students were usually expected to, or encouraged (sometimes, pressured) to pick between these two career paths. They were (and, still are) considered the two main “useful” and respectable professions, with decent opportunities and career growth potential.
Growing an inclusive learning mindset in students got ignored for the sake of growing the technical skill set of the labor force. Engineering and medicine became the only ways to succeed in life. This altered and narrow path to success in Indian society practically ensured that educational attainment simply became a means to an end. The end goal was a paper to prove your technical qualifications and eligibility for the “privilege” of success, and not a journey of growth. In addition, as I mentioned in the previous section, the development of educational infrastructure was largely focused on urban populations. As a result, rural communities – those who most needed the power that education provides – were largely cut off from having access to these opportunities.
Education came to be viewed as a privilege, instead of being seen as a fundamental human need for growth. It became a political weapon to be used by and against the divided subgroups of the Indian population. The political manipulations of the Reservation and Quota system combined with the population explosions of the 1960s and 1970s drastically altered the notion of fair and healthy competition in an already inequitable environment. Suddenly, you had over 30 different groups that were divided along intangible caste lines instead of along real economic needs, vying for the privilege of limited access.
In already overcrowded urban areas, opportunities for growth became extremely hard to come by, and access to these opportunities was severely limited for those who weren’t eligible for a “reservation” as a member of a disadvantaged group. Education got largely privatized, creating massive economic class disparities in attainment. Scores on tests became more important than real grasp of the subject, and standardized statewide exams for admissions and advancement became the policy, further removing intellectual growth from the realm of education.
Here is what that did to the people. Indians became very focused on education, but lost focus on learning. Discussion and discourse got eliminated. The sole purpose of education was to merely earn good scores on standardized tests. The idea that different people have different abilities and interests, and learn differently, fell out of practice in the midst of all the systemic conformity. The competition for “top marks” in math and science became so strong, and the availability of other “respectable” job and life paths became so widely unavailable, that suicides have become a disturbingly growing trend in the student population.
As it evolved, the Indian education system has destroyed independent thought, critical thinking, and tolerance for ambiguity. Hyper-competitiveness, the focus on rote memorization instead of deeper learning mechanisms, the focus on test scores instead of intellectual and emotional growth, and the lack of training and accountability of teachers have guaranteed it. Many generations of India’s future – its large youth population – haven’t had the chance to realize their true value and power amidst this herd mentality. Caught in the never-ending struggle for survival, the majority of Indians have failed to thrive and grow holistically, severely stunting their own potential and that of the nation.
It is important to note here that recent administrations and some leaders have tried to focus on making Indian society less inequitable for its people. Not everyone in India is corrupt or actively manipulating the existing instability in society. The average Indian is still largely concerned with making ends meet for survival, leaving little room to think or act upon higher-order needs such as realizing one’s potential. But, there has been enough of an impact of the inefficiencies and inequities of Indian society, that for those who did have the resources and opportunities for success, emigration to foreign lands became appealing. Those societies that offered more social and professional equity seemed to be a good way to escape the this self-perpetuating cycle of stagnation.
What did they move away from? What did they move into in America? And, what can we move towards? These will all be detailed in the next post, so please stay tuned!