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Home > News > Columnists > Rajeev Srinivasan

Uttarayanam: A time of hope, of new beginnings

January 30, 2007

According to traditional lore, Makara Sankranti is the peak of Winter: after all, it marks the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day, although it is late by a couple of weeks because of the precession of the Earth's axis. In the Indian calendar, there are six rtus or seasons: vasantam, grishmam, varsham, sarat, hemantam, sisiram. I always find this a time to take stock, contemplate, regroup, and await the arrival of Spring, vasantam.

I remember the patriarch Bhishma, grievously wounded and resting on his bed of arrows, awaiting the arrival of the auspicious time of uttarayanam, literally the passage of the Sun to the North. For he had been given a boon that he could die at a time of his choosing. It is telling that, in contrast to the very European Dr Faustus, who could never decide on the perfect moment, the very Indian Bhishma knew exactly what the moment was. India, in a way on its own sara-sayya, awaits its time to blossom again.

I wonder about the moral dilemmas in the Mahabharata. What would the just Vidura have made of Singur and Nandigram, of the dispossessed and the damned? Where would he draw the line? Is it acceptable in a spirit of utilitarianism to evict farmers? I remember the striking G Aravindan film Vaastuhara, about dispossessed refugees from Bangladesh, endless columns of the wretched in 1971. What is it about Sonar Bangla, that blessed and spirited land, the home of the Indian renaissance, that makes it so bleak for its children?

The Brahmaputra Delta and the Kaveri Delta were the two most prosperous parts of India prior to European imperialism -- it is no wonder those were precisely the areas the marauding British first targeted. Together, these two areas, rich from agricultural surplus, accounted for 10 to 20 per cent of the world's manufacturing -- yes, almost a fifth of the entire world's -- before 1750 CE.

The Battle of Plassey in 1757 CE was a strategic inflection point, as it caused the products of these lands to go from high-value, specialty goods with high demand ( for example, fine muslin) to low-value subsistence commodities (eg. indigo) with little differentiation.

The colonialists decimated Bengal and forcibly impoverished the artisans and craftsmen: overnight, skilled, urban, middle-class people were turned into unskilled, landless labourers, and permanently made into an underclass -- with results visible to this day.

This, of course, was followed by a series of man-made famines orchestrated -- or at least tolerated -- by the imperialists, which led to the deaths of some 20 to 30 million people in Bengal and the Deccan. For details, see the classic Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davies. For the impact on India and Britain -- India's share of world GDP went from roughly 25 per cent to 2 per cent in a century, and Britain's went from 1 per cent to 18 per cent -- see Angus Maddison's The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. India, the richest country in the world for a millennium and a half (per Maddison's data from 0 CE to 1500 CE), was systematically plundered (of some $10 trillion in today's money) and reduced to penury.

How very ironic, but how very unsurprising, that the Marxists are now repeating this rape of Bengal, in the name of industrialisation! The Marxists, while spouting rhetoric about the common man, have, just as the British did, conspired to destroy Bengal's industrial base, and allowed its agriculture to stagnate: all the better to keep the average Bengali illiterate, starving and poor. Otherwise they might wise up and cease voting for the Marxists (and the Congress's) empty slogans.

Bengal's parlous state is a testament to the utter futility of the Nehruvian model, wherein the mixture of capitalism and socialism resulted in a chimera that had all the ills of both (crony capitalism on the one hand and the dead hand of central planning on the other) and none of the benefits of either.

The fact of the matter is that India's prospects look better day by day -- for instance, see The Economist survey of the global economy, The new titans, from September 16, 2006. On January 24, 2007, Goldman Sachs updated its earlier BRIC report to paint an even more rosy picture of India's prospects, in India's Rising Growth Potential also available at link thanks to reader horizon. They suggest India is going to overtake the US by 2050.

The Marxists and other demagogues are irrelevant in the new scheme of things, and they know it, but they are determined to not go 'gentle into that good night': they insist on dragging thousands of innocent peasants down with them. They cannot get over the mantra that heavy industry is the saviour of the masses -- after all, that is the only thing they have seen in their sacred homelands, the Soviet Union and China.

On the contrary, India's core competence has always been in agriculture and intellectual property generation; as remarked by reader Ghostwriter on my blog, this is reflected in the respect given to the cow and the Brahmin in Hindu lore. India's future lies in these areas and in light engineering; massively polluting heavy engineering has about as much of a future as a dodo -- or a Marxist. Send that to China, let them poison their land.

Part II: India must stop pretending

Comments welcome at my blog at

Rajeev Srinivasan