Past is relevant, even for economics

Published: 13th April 2013 07:26 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st January 2014 03:07 PM   |  A+A-

“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?

A 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.

The 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!

The 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.

A 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!

This 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 Rajkrishna. 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 Rajkrishna 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.

The 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?

S Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on political and economic issues.



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