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India: A Wounded Civilization

Summary:
India has made a lot of progress in the years since V.S Naipaul wrote India: A Wounded Civilization in 1977. But three recent articles in The Economist demonstrate that, at least in a political sense, India is moving in the same direction as China.Recall how Xi Jinping responded to Hong Kong election outcomes that he did not like by abolishing the (very limited) democracy in that city-state. Now India’s central government has done the same with New Delhi: When Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, stripped Kashmir of its statehood in 2019, most Indians cheered. . . .Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an academic and columnist for the Indian Express, a national newspaper, was one of the few to raise misgivings. A government that gleefully twisted the law and suspended local democracy

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India has made a lot of progress in the years since V.S Naipaul wrote India: A Wounded Civilization in 1977. But three recent articles in The Economist demonstrate that, at least in a political sense, India is moving in the same direction as China.

Recall how Xi Jinping responded to Hong Kong election outcomes that he did not like by abolishing the (very limited) democracy in that city-state. Now India’s central government has done the same with New Delhi:

When Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, stripped Kashmir of its statehood in 2019, most Indians cheered.. .

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an academic and columnist for the Indian Express, a national newspaper, was one of the few to raise misgivings. A government that gleefully twisted the law and suspended local democracy in one place could surely do the same in another. Mr Modi proposed to “Indianise” Kashmir, noted Mr Mehta. “Instead, what we will see is potentially the Kashmirisation of India.”

Sooner and closer to home than anyone expected, Mr Mehta’s prediction has come to pass. On March 22nd Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rushed a bill through the lower house of parliament to strip the elected government of Delhi, the capital, of much of its power and hand this instead to the lieutenant-governor, an official who represents the central government. 

Freedom of speech is also taking a beating:

Despite running what is often hailed as the world’s biggest democracy, [India] has gained a taste for curtailing freedom before speech.

Just ask Siddique Kappan, a journalist who has been detained since October under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. His sin was to have been caught driving towards Hathras, a district in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Other reporters had gathered there to cover the alleged gang rape and murder of a Dalit woman by upper-caste men. Mr Kappan never reached the village of the 19-year-old victim, whose family assert that state police sided with her alleged killers, to the point of seizing and cremating her brutalised corpse to conceal the evidence. On the defensive, police have claimed a wider conspiracy to cause caste conflict. They accuse Mr Kappan, arrested at a highway toll booth, of “intent” to stir up trouble of this sort.

Human rights in India’s villages (where most of its people live) are appallingly bad. But things are also getting worse in the universities:

In another move to pre-empt open discussion of touchy issues, the foreign ministry has imposed new rules on academic conferences. In addition to the existing, stringent scrutiny of foreigners invited to conventional events, it will now require state-run institutes and universities to seek prior permission from the ministry for any online conference or seminar “clearly related to India’s internal matters”. Professors may soon find it harder to travel abroad, too. Police in the state of Uttarakhand have announced that henceforth, anyone they deem to have posted “anti-national” content on the internet will not get a passport. Not to be outdone, police in Bihar say that anyone who joins a protest can forget ever having a government job or contract—a jarring rule in a country that won independence through peaceful protest.

The article also details how the internet is being selectively shutdown to prevent protesters from organizing, again a technique pioneered in Kashmir. Kashmir is to India what Xinjiang is to China. The parallels are increasingly frightening.

A third article points out that India’s police are active participants in Modi’s anti-Muslim policies. It also explained that Modi’s virulent Hindu nationalism has deep roots:

It is a shame that India, as a republic, increasingly seems to set aside its own original and excellent toolkit, namely its constitution of 1950. The divergence has been a long and slow process, but there is little doubt it is speeding up. One hint as to why may have been revealed by the culture ministry, which on February 19th, for the first time ever, issued an official tribute to “The Profound Thinker” M.S. Golwalkar, an early leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or rss, the mothership of the Hindu nationalist movement and progenitor of the BJP. Among other controversial views, Mr Golwalkar believed that Nazi Germany’s management of its Jewish problem “represented a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by”. He was not happy with India’s constitution either, judging its makers “not firmly rooted in the conviction of our single homogeneous nationhood”. His call for a change of toolkit has found a powerful audience.

As soon as next year India may surpass China in population. After a few more decades, the gap will grow to hundreds of millions of people. Let’s hope the world’s largest democracy doesn’t become the world’s largest dictatorship.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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