The Leadership Review Team

India: A Wounded Civilisation

The Leadership Review Team

India a Wounded Civilisation_VS Naipaul_Web


“India: A Wounded Civilization” by V.S. Naipaul is the second book of his famous India trilogy. Neither as despondent as the first one nor as forgiving as the second, this one looks at India with just the right amount of objectivity from the eye of an insider-outsider. Inspired by his travel through the hinterlands and cities run by ‘babu-dom’, it may come across as an insensitive account of India and hurt sensitivities that we did not know existed. At the same time, in Naipaul’s unique, acerbic way, it presents a very objective perspective to the country we believe we understand and leaves us with a lot to ponder upon.

To begin with, Naipaul drives the point that riches of the ancient world and the plunders of the medieval times do not seem to bury down under the burden of centuries which India has been through. He found Indians, awed by their history (more accurately, their perception of it), preferring to recreate it rather than charting a new future by drawing inspiration from the contemporary outside world. Even the great Vijayanagar Empire’s capital, he says, was a recreation of past glory – built with ancient looking monuments in medieval times. “India in the late twentieth century still seems so much itself, so rooted in its own civilization, it takes time to understand that its independence has meant more than the going away of the British; that the India to which Independence came was a land of far older defeat; that the purely Indian past died a long time ago,” he writes.

He also points out the inert Indian attitude, which he believes is inspired by the Hindu concept of ‘whatever happens is god’s will’. People live with all the mess around them in all contentment without taking any tangible step to improve the situation for themselves and their generations to come. To demonstrate this, Naipaul cites the example of urban India of 1970s, which was represented by Bombay (now Mumbai) where Shiv Sena was assuming power on the streets and the chawls which were perennially ignored. At ground level, Shiv Sena’s inception was against the rejection the deprived class faced every day in Bombay. However, when he looked at the chawls closely, he saw people lived among their own excrement because cleaning it was not their business – it was the sweepers’, writes Naipaul. The supposed resurgence was getting pitted by the Indian attitude of inaction surfacing this time under the wraps of caste-system.

He found the situation grimmer in the poorest and remotest of villages. There were land owners and landless peasants, and both set of people continued to live in villages with no traces of modern amenities. The landless were happy fleeing the landlessness even though it meant running into the tyranny of the masters. And the landowners were satisfied with the feeling of being masters even though their own living conditions were not significantly better than the landless. In a scenario like this entered Naxalites who, in Naipaul’s words, “knew solution better than the problem.” Abysmal living conditions persisted.

Throughout the book, Naipaul also highlights examples of how even when exercising modern ideas the ‘old’ in the Indian psyche remains dominant. One such example is of the idea of ‘intermediate technology’ – a mix of imported science and traditional Indian way of doing things – that since independence, Naipaul says, has been proven to be a hindrance rather than an enabler for India’s development. He saw the National Institute of Design students, the best design brains in the country, working on perfecting outdated agrarian equipments! He argues that to fulfil the needs of India, the use of technology calls for the clearest vision and highest skills. Same is the situation with press, law and the administration. They have to match Indian needs with a very clear vision and focused efforts to develop skill sets required. India has to break free from the past it has been so desperately clinging to.

He also tells the story of an Indian ‘freedom fighter’ who does not see paying sales tax as his duty, for he was never a ‘freedom fighter’ anyway. He was just following the Hindu tradition of following the Mahatma – in this case Gandhi. And the Mahatma himself experienced and explored England and South Africa and yet returned with a reinforced conviction to focus inwards. This, according to Naipaul, came from the ‘Hindu need’ to reassert, to protect its identity amidst hostility of the medieval times. “Hindu India, decaying for centuries, constantly making itself archaic, had closed up; and the rules of Gandhi’s Gujrati merchant caste – at one time great travellers – now forbade travel to foreign countries. Foreign countries were polluting to pious Hindus; and no one of the caste had been to England before,” he writes.

After Gandhi died in 1948, post-independence India saw most of its leaders rush to claim Gandhian heritage and even today in 2016 it goes on. Naipaul saw it and felt that even the most dedicated of Gandhians hardly follow his path in its true spirit. Gandhi was able to do what other leaders of that time could not because he understood the mindset of a common Indian villager and communicated with them at that level. However, Naipaul argues, while he awakened the Indian nation enough for it to gain independence he did not leave an ideology behind. He was representing the Indian race but this concept was alien to Indians who always saw differences amongst each other. Although, he was not leading a religious movement, he became the holy Mahatma. His ideology got diluted when he practiced his Hindu version of nationalism and was declared a mahatma. His uniqueness of being the leader of Indian race was engulfed by the Hindu traditions which have been fostering Indian attitude of withdrawal. So, the Gandhism to Gandhians , in Naipaul’s words remained “a solace still of the conquered people.”

What Indians picked from Gandhi’s ideas, to his mind, was mostly remained limited to practicing rediscovery of old ways. “At its core were the old Indian attitudes of defeat, the idea of withdrawal, a turning away from the world, a sinking back into the past, the rediscovery of old ways, ‘simplicity’,” he writes. However, it is exactly opposite of what India was committed to post independence. It was committed to glory. Only opposite of this simplicity is seen in the red-tapism and dirty politics. He argues that this sense of simplicity perhaps is the withdrawal from the challenges coming India’s way on the road to development which seemed almost insurmountable. A mere expression of old Indian attitude of defeat and disconnecting from the external environment to preserve a false sense of calmness.


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