Reinterpretation of Dreams – a critique

by Ritwik on July 2, 2009

The following is a critique of Jean Drèze’s article Interpretation of Dreams published in the Times of India [April 28,2009]. Read it here

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In an article published in the Times of India, noted economist Jean Drèze has launched a stinging attack on the BJP [‘Interpretation of Dreams’, Apr 28], calling the preamble to the party manifesto an “exercise in obfuscation”.  Undoubtedly, the BJP’s politics is based upon deception. BJP ideologues, if given a free reign, would love to rewrite Indian history to suit their own world view. But in pointing out the excesses of the BJP’s rhetoric, Jean Drèze has swung to the other extreme. His article has ended up sounding, perhaps unwittingly, like an apologia for colonialism.

To take just one example, Drèze cites the Ramayana, Mahabharata et al to prove that famine existed in India and thus India was not a “land of abundance”. Famine has existed in all societies. What is pertinent is not just the occurrence of famine but the rate at which successive famines occur. W. Digby, noted in “Prosperous British India” in 1901 that :

stated roughly, famines and scarcities (in India) have been four times as numerous, during the last thirty years of the 19th century as they were one hundred years ago.

In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis points out that here were thirty one serious famines in one hundred and twenty years of British rule compared to seventeen in the two thousand years preceding British rule.

It is generally accepted that this was because of the mercantilist economic policies thrust upon India by her colonial masters. Wikipedia tells us:  “British policies led to the seizure and conversion of local farmland to foreign-owned plantations, restrictions on internal trade, heavy taxation of Indians to support unsuccessful British expeditions in Afghanistan, inflationary measures that increased the price of food, and substantial exports of staple crops from India to Britain.” (Dutt, 1900 and 1902; Srivastava, 1968; Sen, 1982; Bhatia, 1985).

In view of this, it would be difficult even for an eminent economist like Jean Drèze to prove that economically, India was better off under the British than without them. It seems that Indians knew how to manage their agriculture better than their “advanced” colonial masters.

Does Indian nationalism exist? Do Indians have a sense of national pride, some sense of the history of their civilization?  Reading Drèze’s article, one would think that such sentiments would by and large be restricted to the so called upper castes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even though the BJP’s manifesto talks of the “hurt pride” of India, Drèze considers it appropriate to substitute India for “upper castes”. In doing so, he denies the freedom movement, which derived its strength from the support of various sections of society. In contemporary times, the BJP, according to Dreze’s argument, should be the natural party of so-called upper castes. But it derives its strength from so-called other backward classes [OBCs]. Examples of OBC stalwarts like Narendra Modi, Kalyan Singh and Vinay Katiyar can be cited and multiplied, but will it open Dreze’s eyes to the fact that the hurt pride of India does not constitute the hurt pride of upper castes only but also that of the under classes?

Colonial rule contributed not only to misery but also to cultural stagnation of Indian society. Most non-European societies had to undergo the painful experience of colonialism which didn’t allow indigenous modernity to grow organically. European ideas were thrust upon non-European people with minimum regard to their histories and experiences. Apart from pauperizing the colonies, colonialism broke the continuity of civilizations. In matters of caste too, colonialism wasn’t a silent spectator; it played an active role in altering caste dynamics. Thus, Indian society is unequal today both because of its own ills and because of the ills perpetuated by colonialism. Any comment on Indian society which fails to note this point, as Drèze’s intervention appears to, can hardly be deemed fair.

Medieval European society was characterized by widespread inequality and cruelty. Europe was witnessing “witch” burning on a massive scale; hundreds of thousands of women were most mercilessly put to death, often with the authorization of the Holy See. Europe’s dark past does not prompt scholars to dismiss achievements of European Civilization out of hand. Similarly, Drèze should not flippantly disregard Indian thought and tradition because society was (and is) unequal and discriminatory.

The problem with Drèze’s approach is that it concedes the patriotic space to the BJP – which in turn does not hesitate in making pernicious use of it. Undoubtedly, India has many failings, but at the same time there are real achievements to the credit of the Indian civilization. More than occasionally, Indians have been known to take pride in the achievements of their countrymen even if they are not related by caste. People may be attracted to support aggressive votaries of India “pride” when they see famed scholars casually dismissing the glories of India’s past.

The BJP is definitely given to constructing a romanticized ideal of ancient India as a society free from all defects. But equally, Drèze must examine his position and determine whether by denying the achievements of Indian civilization, does he manage to successfully ridicule the BJP or does he end up making himself ridiculous in the eyes of the average Indian?

5 comments

unwittingly, yes, it ends up sounding like an imperial apologist stand. but knowing him personally, i don’t think that was the desired intention.

where he loses the plot, for whatever reason, is his construction of the article. the way he calls the achievements of the indian civilisation as the ” india shining ” variety tends to create the picture that most, if not all, heights of the indian civilisation were over-hyped or wrongly credited. and this is where the article only begins.

in fact his argument on the famines seems wholly unnecessary. that space could’ve gone to criticising some other obfuscation in the manifesto.

sadly it became a partial picture which really has no debate. joshi said, we were abundant. dreze says, no we had famines all along. the simple point being that every geographical zone on this planet has had a share of both. simply because in the pre-modern years, everything depended on the strictly natural course of rainfall.

additionally, what is good and needed is the tone of criticism, that is necessary in a popular newspaper like the TOI. but he seems to be too swept away by the tone, given that he’s clearly decided his political stand. and this results in a dilusion of necessary well-framed criticism.

the last paragraph is highly contentious. as you rightly said, the freedom struggle was due to the hurt pride of everyone, not just upper castes. everyone feels bad that foreign powers hold so much sway over our minerals and natural resources. and then this – “..their coping strategy is that we were ahead all along..”

only, it’s not a coping strategy at all. we were definitely ahead in so many ways. keeping achievements like literary epics, architecture et al aside, as far as simple traditional wisdom goes, we had greatly different ideas. in fact, before the IRRI forced countries to use puddling for the cultivation of rice, we grew rice like most other crops… and practically the whole country had rice until the central asian conquerors came along. so in crude terms, keeping famines aside, we had massively huge harvests.

it is important to recognise that in a localised setting, social innovations and traditional wisdom play a huge role. it may be unequal, but to make it more equal there has to be an evolutionary process initiated from within these traditions. these traditional customs, wisdom and organic ideas need to be accepted and then questioned. this allows for radicalism to grow deeper roots and thus the progressive trend retains the good parts of the old order. it only serves to keep us grounded in reality.

if we start homogenising everything that existed within a broadly feudal system, across all continents, then we end up with a direct conflict of the homogenised perceptions of modernity versus the same ones of traditionalism. all this, within a similarly homogenising sphere. this is the exact reason why indian tribal regions find it so hard to come to terms with the modern developmental nation-state. they see no link between what is really indian and what is broadly an adulterated discourse of modernity that prevails due to western ideas badly enforced upon us.

one rule doesn’t fit all. it may well be argued, therefore, that the indian civilisation’s achievements can be extolled in a different light, which is a healthy mix of due credit and due self-criticism. one can’t suffice by succinctly calling everything feudal and discriminatory.

sadly, he suggests the above mildly only once…” their agenda is to restore india’s glory, as they perceive it”

this shows that they have a biased perception that is homogenising every part of indian history with the labeling of a great artistic edifice. dreze ends up mirroring the exact opposite bias. the lost glory is much more than just another social order.

by utathya on July 8, 2009 at 3:51 am. #

@utathya: reading Dreze’s article, one is reminded of the old saying- the path to hell is paved with noble intentions. His intentions are indeed noble but at least this article of his shows a very poor, in fact, imperialist reading of Indian history. He should concentrate on practical things like food security instead of going for grand theories of Indian history, a task for which he is not equipped. Another saying, in fact a line from some poem- fools rush where angels fear to tread. Dreze should try to resist the temptation of becoming an example.

by purushottam on July 18, 2009 at 10:48 pm. #

Its something so humiliating that it forced me to leave every other work aside and criticize propaganda by anti-national ,neo-colonialist forces within the country.
As those who are close to me know that I asked my newspaper supplier at hostel to stop giving me Times of India and I replaced it with Hindu ( Even Hindu has dissapointed me).
But I again started reading TOI to see whether they have improved or not

Although Britishers have left the country but some “brown skinned britishers” continue their proganda and myth of “White man’s burden”.

They are perhaps not able to digest the fact that 5000 years when their ancestors were roaming without clothes(reading and writing was far away) every Indian child was reading Bhavadgita.

I hope that some of you must have read the editorial in TOI today by Jean Dreze

A person sent by west to destroy Indian Pride.

let me come to the point and expose the propanganda by neo-colonialists.

this is what he wrote:

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Opinion/Editorial/TOP-ARTICLE–Interpretation-Of-Dreams/articleshow/4455896.cms

Now let me put some light on the truth

derez wrote

a series of myths (of the “India Shining” variety) about Indian history and civilisation. According to this preamble, India used to be “a land of great wealth and even greater wisdom”. It was not only the most fertile land but also far ahead of other countries “in the technical and educational fields”, with “a well organised health-care system” as early as 400 AD. Even “plastic surgery” has been “practised for centuries” in India according to Joshi. These achievements had their roots in the “Bharatiya or Hindu world view” of ancient sages and Vedic rishis.

REALITY:
The person is perhaps not aware of indian medicinal system and Sushruta who wrote about surgery many years back and even western doctors and scientist recognize his work.I dont need to tell anyone about ayurveda and yoga.

More info about Sushruta’s original work can be found in the book

“ANCIENT INDIAN SURGERY SYSTEM BASED ON SUSHRUTA SAMHITA”
10 Volumes.
http://www.saujanyabooks.com/details.aspx?id=379

Not just in medicine Indians were experts in other fields like mathematics,chemistry,physics,musics,linguistics.latest research has shown that ancient researchers in India had discovered principles of mordern maths much before newton did and you can check out here
http://www.hindustantimes.com/StoryPage/StoryPage.aspx?sectionName=&id=6012bc3f-d22a-4eb8-9399-d6ae622fe41a&&Headline=Kerala+scholars+beat+Newton:+report&strParent=strParentID

Indeed it was passed by missionaries from india to newton,who claimed that the work was his own.

This is not what any Indian is saying but is found by a western scholar Dr George Gheverghese Joseph, an Honorary Reader of the University of Manchester, says the ‘Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy,’ identified the ‘Infinite Series’ — one of the basic components of calculus — in about 1350. ( But it was even before Christ,some more research will tell Dr. George)

How jealous western people are !!!!

There are many other things also which will make this letter lenghty and “boring” for you so I am keeping this letter short showing only evidences against the attempts by anti-nationals.

Derez wrote:
Joshi describes pre-colonial India as a “land of abundance”, with an “economy as flourishing as its agriculture”. Hunger and famines, in his perception, were obviously unknown in that period. But the fact is that famines have a long history in India. They are mentioned in the Jatakas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Arthashastra and Manu’s Dharmashastra, among other ancient texts. As historian Romila Thapar notes: “Famine was common and is mentioned in Indian texts. We do not have to go looking for certificates of merit from foreign visitors.”

REALITY:

No one can stop famines caused by natural reasons and they took place in ancient India also but they were rare and Hindu scriptures unambiguously that the welfare of people is the supreme duty of the administrators.He further mentions Romila Thapar ,what a kind of historian she is????
I remember Romila Thapar claiming during Ram Setu controversy that “LANKA” was perhaps an island in “Caspian Sea”,What a Weird Idea to save congress party.

Indeed it was man made famines during British Raj days due to which crores of INDIANS DIED. The number of people died in India because of British Policies exceeded the number of jews killed by NAZIS and British Raj was far more brutal than nazis.

This is not what I am claiming but recent research in history has shown.
Viceroys like Lytton,Curzon were wasting money holding luxorious durbars and took no interest in relief work for famine victims
Lord Lytton arrived as Viceroy of India in 1876. In the same year, a famine broke out in south India which claimed between 6.1 million and 10.3 million people

some British and American historians recently argued the famine was man-made due to Lytton’s policies

Here is what historians say about Lytton.

1. The British Created an Indian Holocaust, by Kathakali Chatterjee, University of Wisconsinm 17 July 2007
2. ^ Mike Davis, 2001. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso, London

DEREZ WROTE:
In a similar vein, Joshi states that Gandhi was “absolutely right in saying that India was more illiterate in 1931 [than] in 1870”. The fact, however, is that Gandhi was wrong on this. We know that from census data. Perhaps Joshi considers Gandhi as a more authoritative source than the census. But Gandhi, for all his wisdom, was not infallible, and this is not the only occasion when he was carried away. Elsewhere, he touchingly described “the Indian shepherd” as “a finely built man of Herculean constitution”, at a time when the vast majority of the Indian population was wasted and stunted, with a life expectancy of less than 30 years. His hasty comment on literacy belongs to the same genre wishful thinking.

REALITY:

Another bunch of lies by Derez.It is well known that nearly every village in India had a Pathshala or Madrassa before bristishers destroyed traditional indian education system.

DEREZ WROTE:
This “quote” (abridged here) is a wonderful prop for Joshi’s arguments. But there is a catch Macaulay never said this. The quote is a well-known fabrication, which has been the subject of many comments and articles. This does not prevent it from being publicised on numerous Hindutva websites. On a dissenting note, one of these websites advises against using this quote, as it “has a bad reputation amongst scholars of Indology who generally ridicule it”. Joshi is evidently not among these “scholars of Indology”, despite his emphasis on the need for the nation to “understand itself”. Incidentally, Macaulay was in India on February 2, 1835, making it rather unlikely that he would have addressed the British Parliament that day.

REALITY:
Macaulay like derez was jealous of ancient India’s achievements , he had said that Indians are so much proud of themselves that they treat us as “MALLECHCHAS” or untouchable meat eaters .So he had advocated introduction of british education in India to destroy their pride and produce Indian “clerks”.
Unfortunately the system to produce clerks is still in place and must be replaced.
APJ Abdul Kalam had also criticised Macaulay Education systems .
You can check what he said about Macaulay. Well I am gathering some proof of what Macaulay said exactly but one thing is clear and unambiguous that he wanted to attack Indian Education Culture to conquer India thats why he wanted to introduce an education system with aim of producing mindless clerks.

Unfortunately we have many “Macaulay’s Children” here in India.

DEREZ WROTE:

Behind this fairy tale are useful insights into the psychology of Hindutva leaders and the political strategy of the BJP. The dominant theme of Joshi’s preamble is the hurt pride of the higher castes (or “of India” as he calls it). Humiliated by foreign dominance in so many fields today, their coping strategy is to claim that “we were actually ahead all along”. Their agenda is to restore India’s lost glory as they perceive it. This lost glory is nothing but the traditional, exploitative social order dominated by them. Over the centuries, this domination has been achieved partly through force, and partly through deception. The BJP manifesto’s preamble continues this tradition of “deceive and rule”.

REALITY

Caste system in India was not hereditary.Shrila Prabhupada ,founder of ISCKON,who wrote “Bhagvadgita as it is” has clarified that castes (whether brahmins ,kshatriya,vaishya or shudras ) are not hereditary but allotted on basis of one’s ablity and interest.In scriptures there is no mention of “birth” in brahmin family to be a brahmin,any intellectual can be a brahmin.
However in medieval india, with decline in our knowledge of scriptures,caste system became hereditary.for more details you may read “science of self realization” by Prabhupada.

Neo colonialists are still trying to humiliate us by shameless propaganda and we must be aware of this.

I hope that all of you will lodge your protest with times of india to publishing this editorials…..

If neo-colonialist and Macaluay’s children will try to control India again then its the duty of every patriotic Indian to wipe them off………..

Thanks and regards

by ppandey on July 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm. #

Where can i find your rss? I cant find it

by Rashad Roques on October 15, 2010 at 10:07 am. #

@Rashad: http://www.ritwikagrawal.com/feed

by Ritwik Agrawal on October 15, 2010 at 11:11 am. #

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