India’s premier private TV channel, NDTV, in association with the country’s largest industrial conglomerate, TATA sponsored a national event recently at the Indian President’s official residence, Rashtrapathi Bhavan in Delhi. The event was organized to honour what the sponsors called ‘the greatest living legends’ of India.
The lineup of twenty five individuals drawn from diverse fields such as business, arts, sports, science, civil society and education was truly remarkable in so many ways. They were all global figures, so, their achievements were already recognized globally. They all spoke the same language, both literally and metaphorically. They are all firmly rooted in India, yet displayed a broader cosmopolitan orientation. They all subscribed to a set of core values that are connected as much to long-standing historical traditions of India as to widely-shared universal values. Though there was not a single politician in the list, the President of India who spoke at the event was not any less impressive.
He emphasized the fact that the individuals who were honoured had not just excelled in their respective fields to become outstanding global figures but contributed immensely to make India what it is today, a global leader in industry, arts, sports, civic action, science, innovation, etc. He further pointed out that India’s long -established institutional fabric and continuing social and political reforms have enabled many individuals to excel in their respective fields and become global leaders.
It is remarkable that many of those who were honoured repeatedly talked about education, excellence, innovation, knowledge, opportunity, freedom, hard work, achievement and recognition. In other words, there was a thread that ran through the Indian story that speakers alluded to. India, in spite of all the turmoil both past and ongoing, has continued to pull its act together and stayed on course to strike a judicious balance between continuity and change. The country has remained wedded to a set of core values while facilitating social and political change in keeping with the changing local and global circumstances.
A well-known French anthropologist, Lois Dumont compared India with the post-revolution European societies. He used the term homo-heirarchicus to describe Indian society. What he meant was that the Indian society has remained broadly hierarchical, as against the emergent western egalitarian societies.
So, inequality has not been something alien to Indians, in spite of continuing contestation of the fact over time. So, elitism of all forms, as against equality, has been part of Indian social life, both at a community as well as at societal level, in spite of increasing emphasis placed on equality today, both at an ideological as well as policy level. While India’s post-colonial leaders like Nehru became strong advocates of equality and enshrined such values even in the Indian constitution, wide social and economic disparities have continued to characterize the Indian social structure at all levels.
The issue continues to be discussed and debated, both politically and socially, leading to many attempts by the Indian state to deal with it through various interventions. Yet, India at a national level has made an effort to avoid populist measures to bring everything down to the lowest common denominator, be it in education, distribution of public resources or in the appointment of officials to various institutions.
The result is that India has continued to produce and reproduce elites in almost every field. These include world-class scientists, Nobel laureates, global business leaders, world-renowned writers, globally-recognized sportsmen and women and civic activists who inspire millions of people in India and elsewhere.
Sri Lanka has a great deal to learn from the Indian experience. It is true that India’s achievements in diverse fields are overshadowed by widespread poverty, great social disparities and continuing social and political turmoil. But, the country has the second largest population in the world after China, spread across the vast sub-continent characterized by great cultural diversity. Its population more than doubled after independence to reach 1.2 billion people. Population pressure on natural resources is tremendous as the vast slums in cities show. While the Indian state has to grapple with many challenges arising out of poverty, population pressure and cultural diversity, these should not prevent anyone from recognizing the many achievements of distinguished Indians and the country at large.
Sri Lanka by contrast is a small island with a relatively small population. Its population has already reached a point where runaway population growth is no longer an issue. It’s resources, if rationally and fairly managed, could easily ensure a decent existence for everybody. It already has the basic social and physical infrastructure, and, if upgraded, these can provide a sound basis for improving quality of life and the life chances of the ordinary masses. Yet, the country has pursued certain public policies that have not only effectively undermined the formation of a diversified elite covering all spheres of human activity but also contributed to social and political discord among communities.
The continuing exodus of talented individuals in diverse fields from the time of independence prevented the formation of networks of world-class writers, scientists, industrialists, entrepreneurs, artists, civic leaders, etc. Some of those who left the country have done well elsewhere but deprived successive generations of young people of the opportunity of emulating exemplary role models in diverse fields. Many young people today feel that they could do well by leaving the country.
I began this article with a brief account of a recent event in India. The way it was organized was highly significant. It brought to the foreground a set of eminent Indians who had excelled in their respective fields. The only politician present was the President of the country who had already left active party politics. It highlighted the fact that it is mostly the exemplary leaders in various fields who have put India on the world map, not populist politicians who are running around the country addressing large crowds of ordinary Indians.
On the other hand, policy interventions of many successive governments in post-independence Sri Lanka have ensured that we no longer can put together a group of similarly placed Sri Lankans to be honoured at a similar event in Colombo. In fact, today, we seem to be doing a great deal to prevent the emergence of truly global leaders in the diverse fields mentioned above in the foreseeable future.
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