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The Rediff Special/ Amartya Sen
The new millennium began with the rise of Islamic power and it is ending with an established Western dominance of the globe
Islamic Rule and Influence
These are some of the details of history as the new millennium began, but if we take a more panoramic view of the millennium, two big changes cannot escape our attention. The new millennium began with the rise of Islamic power in the world, and it is ending with an established Western dominance of the globe. Both these developments changed the nature of the world, but had particularly profound effects on India.
For one thing the governance of India shifted from the collection of diverse Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms at the end of the last millennium to a diversity of Islamic rules, culminating in the Moghal empire. And this in turn gave way to the British Raj, taking us almost to the end of the millennium itself. An assessment of the millennium from the Indian perspective cannot but address the impact and implications of these major trends of history.
The coming of Islamic rule in India was part of a larger process. Indeed, if we examine the world in the early centuries of the new millennium, we see a nearly continuous band of Islamic rule from the Atlantic, across North Africa, around the Western Mediterranean, on to West Asia, and to India.
In India it commenced with raids rather than conquests. Just around 1000 AD, the early invasions by Muslim kings across the Khyber Pass began with great severity. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni kept visiting and revisiting India, concentrating on plundering and ravaging rather than ruling the country. But in the centuries to follow, these invasions would give way to Muslim rulers settled in India, form the Sultanates to the Moghals. India would become a partly Muslim country.
The absorption of Islamic influences within the body of Indian civilisation is resented by some Hindu activists who look to the pre-Muslim period as the era of purity of the unalloyed Indian civilisation. This raises the interesting question as to whether such a purity did, in fact, exist in the pre-Muslim period. It also raises the question: How best to view the integration of Islamic rule and culture in India, and how to assess its impact on the identity of Indian civilisation itself. I must briefly address these questions.
Nature and Reach of Western Dominance
The second set of questions relates to the rise of the West in the latter part of the millennium. This includes, of course, the British Raj itself, but there is a more general issue that engages the attention of many contemporary commentators across the world. This is the issue of Westernisation and of the dominance of the West, which enjoys not only political pre-eminence, economic authority and military superiority, but also cultural influence of a kind that no civilisation in the past had.
The world was much more evenly balanced in 1000 AD while the beginning of the changes that would usher in the Renaissance were already in the making, and the economic, political, cultural and social developments that would lead to the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment could be seen in parts of Europe, there was no great asymmetry yet between Europe and the rest of the world. Emperor Otto III may have made Rome his permanent residence in 1000 AD, but the world did not shiver at the thought of any new Roman conquest as the first millennium came to an end.
Venice, the rising star in the Mediterranean, did manage to reign over the Dalmatian coast and the Adriatic Sea, but this was a strictly local power base, and the flourishing trades with Asia and Western Europe in which Venice and Genoa both engaged, were not unlike what Asian and Arab traders were doing for centuries. China, Japan, India, Iran, and Arab world, African kingdoms, and other civilisations and societies continued to have their own ways without being bossed over by the West.
Aside from these old world centres of power and authority, there were, of course, great civilisations in the American continents. While 1000 AD is precisely the date on which Leif Ericson, the son of Eric the Red, is supposed to have 'discovered' America, his journey, if true, did not take him beyond the remoteness of Nova Scotia, and it gave the old world no clue of the splendours of the Mayan civilisation which was then at its peak in the Yucatan Peninsula, nor of the Tiahuanaco civilisation which covered all of Peru.
The dominance of Europe was, in fact, nearly 'total' in the way the American continents were reshaped in the latter half of the last millennium -- totally subduing and sometimes obliterating the central features of the preceding civilisations that were overrun and overpowered by Europeans.
The subjugation was not quite as total in Asia and Africa, but the question of Western dominance arises there too, and it is a question that continues to engage attention today. There can, of course, be little doubt about the asymmetric power of the West in the contemporary world, but a more interesting question is raised in the diagnosis of the sense in which the world we live today is 'Westernised.' What counts as Westernisation? How much dependence does it generate? How destructive are its consequences? These questions have to be asked.
A central normative issue concerns the acceptability of what is seen as Western cultural influence on non-Western worlds. The dominance of the West leads to triumphalism in some quarters and great resentment in others. How should we assess all this? This is the second basket of questions I want to examine briefly, in this lecture.
Islam and India
I begin, then, with the first set of questions, concerning the absorption of Islamic culture in India and how it affects the nature of Indian identity and civilisation. What did the Islamic influence do to India? Did it, in fact, change what is sometimes characterised, by some contemporary commentators, as a homogeneous culture -- an allegedly 'pure' pre-Islamic culture -- into an inescapably hybrid one? The sense of a loss of Indian pureness in the early years of this millennium seems to have some hold in political discussions in contemporary India. How sound is this way of seeing what happened in the last millennium?
Amartya Sen, the world renowned economist, delivered this UNESCO lecture in Delhi, recently.
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