That was a scene from the classic movie, “Around the World in 80 Days,” where David Niven decides to save Shirley Maclaine from being burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. While this movie was made half a century ago, we sometimes suffer, to this day, from romantic but highly colonial notions about India.
Yet India, which marked its sixtieth year of independence just a few weeks ago, has much to teach us.
Since the media are often criticized for having a very insular, parochial, view of the world, let’s fight that tendency. Let’s look at India’s past, and present –and how it is, that for an emerging global power, one of its main rivals is the Philippines.
I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.
This is the Explainer…
I. The India connection
A clip of those big dance scenes from indian musicals, like this one-
-are hip these days.
Though to most of us Filipinos, I daresay our attitudes towards Indians are usually racist: we equate them with usury, or 5-6, while never asking ourselves why Indians –to be precise, often Sikhs, who wear those turbans- are the entrepreneurs who provide credit, which our own banks won’t do.
The more enlightened among us, perhaps, are looking at microfinance as a valuable weapon against poverty.
But I’d like to begin with a personal story. We all know the romantic story of the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum complex, including a mosque, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife.
His wife’s name was Arjemand, but when she became the Shah’s wife, he called her Mumtaz-i-Mahal: the Chosen of the Palace. Then Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth. A mausoleum was built –the Taj Mahal, which means, the Crown of Mahal.
As a kid, I came across this story from a book I received from my father. This book. It’s called “Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels.”
Halliburton was a great adventurer, in fact he disappeared in 1939 while trying to cross the Pacific in a Chinese junk. My father had read it when he was a kid in the 1930s and he wanted me to experience the sense of wonder he had, reading about Halliburton’s travels to the great sites of the ancient and modern world.
One story involves Halliburton’s ambition to see a sunset from the Taj Mahal. He hid himself on the grounds, and then wrote of how he swam in the great monument’s reflecting pool by moonlight. A beautiful and haunting story.
But here’s the thing that struck me about that story.
We’re used to hearing that there are many words in English – bungalow, pajamas, pundit, nabob, to name just a few- that originated in India. And here on your screen is a whole cloud of those words:
Arrange these words on a slide, all clumped together:
atoll, bandanna, bangle, betel, camphor, catamaran, cheetah, chintz, chutney, copra, cot, curry, cushy, dinghy, dungaree, guru, hemp, jungle, karma, khaki, lacquer, loot, mantra, musk, nirvana, pukka, punch, sari, shampoo, sherbet, sugar, swastika, tantra, thug]
So many interesting, at time beautiful, even basic, words-look at copra, sugar, karma, and shampoo for example- but none of these words hit as close to home –and connect India so intimately to you and me- as the mahal.
Beginning with our word for beloved, mahal, there are many words, and the ideas they represent, that have come down to us from India. Here are some:
Arrange these words on a slide, all clumped together: asawa, Bathala, dalita, diwa, dala, dukha, guro, lakambini, muni, pantalon, potong, puri, rajah, sarong, tadhana, wika
Aren’t these marvelous words? Words of whimsy –muni-muni for example- and of great significance –wika, dukha- and even mysticism –puri, , diwa, tadhana and Bathala.
The connections are there, predating Western colonialism, but the connection continued during the colonial period, too.
The late Octavio Paz, Nobel Laureate, once served as Mexico’s ambassador to India. He wrote a little jewel of a book, titled “In light of India.” As a Mexican, he was, of course, also conscious of another country, our country, with whom Mexico has had a centuries-old relationship.
Through his book, he introduces the tantalizing possibility the Philippines served as an intermediary between Mexico and India.
Here’s an example. He points out that the chili came from the Americas; when he was Mexico’s ambassador, he found out the ancient cuisine of India didn’t include chilis, now an important ingredient in Indian food. Octavio Paz suggests one of the ways the chili reached India may have been through the Philippines!
He also wrote that the chico may have reached India through the Philippines, while of course the chico came to us from Mexico –just as Paz says, the mango reached Mexico from India, through the Philippines, though the finest mangoes in Mexico, to this day, are known as Mangoes of Manila.
If Octavio Paz is right, here’s a wild guess as to how the chili and the chico reached India via the Philippines.
Perhaps it was through the British invasion and occupation of Luzon. India was ruled by the British East India Company, and it launched an expedition to seize Manila in 1762. In 1764, the British returned Manila to Spain, after the Treaty of Paris –another Treaty of Paris, of course, two hundred years later had the Spanish handing us over to the Americans- but the British stayed in Sulu until 1773.
The loot from Manila was so massive, that three centuries later, precious items were being put up in auction in London, by the descendants of General Draper, the command who’d supervised the plundering of Manila.
But an altogether different kind of permament mark was left by the British occupation. It was in the town of Cainta, where some Indian troops, known as sepoys, decided to stay rather than return to their native land.
From the sepoys that settled in Cainta, we go to the sepoys who launched a revolt against the British.
In 1857 Indians revolted against British rule, and just like our revolt against Spain in 1896 and then our war against the Americans, they, like we, were defeated, with great bloodshed. The last Moghal emperor was exiled; the process began by which the Queen of Great Britain became Empress of India by 1877.
The British, as the victors, called the revolt the Indian Mutiny; just as the Americans until quite recently, called the Filipino-American War the Philippine Insurrection.
The end result, for Indians and us, seems the same: another way had to be found. The costs of revolt were too great, whether in India in 1857, here at home in 1870, for which the elite was persecuted, and in 1896, for which the new middle class and the masses too up arms, and then, again, for us, from 1899-1903 in our war against the Americans.
When we return, more similarities.
II. License Raj
That was a scene from the movie “Gandhi,” which you may remember from a previous episode of this show. The subject of our last show, Ninoy Aquino, was profoundly impressed by this movie. It inspired him to pursue non-violence and to give up his life for our freedom.
So the 20th Century would see, for both India and the Philippines, a remarkable, unprecedented development in the history of colonized nations: a generally peaceful, political, struggle for independence.
Like the British in India, the Americans set out to create a class of professionals in addition to the established rulers, through whom they ruled; and who would, because they were educated in the ways of the British, instinctively pursue reform by means of the law and not the gun.
Just as our peaceful campaign to restore our independence was led by lawyers, so, too was India’s. All three of it’s greatest independence campaigners, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah: wanted independence, but through peaceful means.
Indeed Nehru and Jinnah, left alone, might have pursued matters as Filipinos did, through independence missions. But Gandhi developed something he called Satyagraha — the resistance of tyranny through mass civil disobedience, which firmly founded upon ahimsa or total non-violence.
Stanley Wolpert’s “Nehru: A Tryst With Destiny,” a fascinating account of that statesman’s life and times, tell us of the unease some of Gandhi’s closest associates, like Nehru, felt with the idea of civil disobedience. The Muslim leader Jinnah simply hated it.
The story told in Wolpert’s book reads like our political history from the 20s to the 40s.
Their independence struggle, like ours, is a tale of leaders generally from the upper and professional classes that led the independence movement. Their vehicle was a single party, the Congress Party, which dominated politics for generations, just as here at home, the Nacionalista Party dominated the independence movement. Even now, the instinct of our political class is to form a superparty, just as much of India’s modern history has been dominated by the Congress Party.
And independence for India, as for us, come, some felt, too soon, but not a moment too soon, because the Americans and the British were finally prepared to recognize independence, after decades of insistence on the part of Filipinos and Indians.
America had thought it could use the Philippines, as an entry point to the China market. Britain thought it could reap riches from India. For a time, both nations did well from their colonies’ resources, but eventually, the Philippines proved too much a threat to American sugar and vegetable oils interests, independence was finally promised by 1935.
A Russian scholar, Victor Somsky, told me not so long ago, that Carlos P. Romulo once interviewed Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s. Gandhi told Romulo, if he’d been able to secure an independence law from the British the way Filipinos did from the Americans, he would have accepted it with delight.
For a Britain exhausted by two world wars, independence for India too, became inevitable. When the British decided on independence, they were in such a rush that after having promised it by 1948, all of a sudden Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, advanced it to 1947. A British lawyer was summoned to draw a line across the map, determining the border between the two countries.
If you go on YouTube, you can view an entire documentary, titled “Partition: The Day India Burned,” by the BBC, for the details of the sudden, and violent, rush, to Indian independence. Pakistan, the state for the Muslim minority terrified of living under Hindu rule, came on August 14, 1947. India’s independence came on August 15, 1947. A further split would come when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan on March 26, 1971.
Returning to India, it’s modern history was dominated by the Congress Party.
The affairs of that party was marked by scheming, passionate debates, intrigues, even corruption; the independence secured was not everything that independence advocates wanted; and after independence, the economy tended to be closed, favoring the established elite, suspicious of foreign investments; and dynasties have dominated their post-independence politics.
Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, became Prime Minister, at one point she tried to establish a parliamentary dictatorship, but public protests and the Indian Supreme Court blocked her moves. She was assassinated in 1984.
Her son Rajiv Gandhi, in turn, became the third of the Nehru dynasty to become Prime Minister of India, succeeding his mother. He was assassinated in 1991.
His widow, Sonia Gandhi, an Italian, had a chance to be Prime Minister in 2004, but declined. But her children have entered politics, the fourth generation of the dynasty in politics.
Amartya Sen, also a Nobel laureate, tackles this mixed history of greatness and pettiness, of idealism and corruption, in “The Argumentative Indian.” A Filipino can read with a mind-boggling sense of familiarity and sympathy.
But let’s look at India since independence.
Last year, in Foreign Affairs Magazine, an article appeared, titled “The India Model.” Written by Gurcharan Das, a former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, and currently a venture capitalist. You may remember that we mentioned Joseph Stiglitz’s observation, that the Great Depression made Indian independence leaders skeptical of the world economy.
Well, Das writes that this inward-looking approach had its benefits:
The notable thing about India’s rise is not that it is new, but that its path has been unique. Rather than adopting the classic Asian strategy — exporting labor-intensive, low-priced manufactured goods to the West — India has relied on its domestic market more than exports, consumption more than investment, services more than industry, and high-tech more than low-skilled manufacturing.
What does this mean? Das says this:
This approach has meant that the Indian economy has been mostly insulated from global downturns, showing a degree of stability that is as impressive as the rate of its expansion. The consumption-driven model is also more people-friendly than other development strategies. As a result, inequality has increased much less in India than in other developing nations.
But these successes were in some ways, despite of, and not because of, government policies. I think our guests will find Das’s description of the economic errors Indian leaders committed, familiar reading.
Take this passage, where Das describes the economic legacy of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawahalal Nehru:
Nehru set up an inefficient and monopolistic public sector, overregulated private enterprise with the most stringent price and production controls in the world, and discouraged foreign investment — thereby causing India to lose out on the benefits of both foreign technology and foreign competition. His approach also pampered organized labor to the point of significantly lowering productivity and ignored the education of India’s children.
And this, Das wrote, led to a situation that reminds us of how the Philippines was around the same time, that is, the 50s and 60s:
But even this system could have delivered more had it been better implemented. It did not have to degenerate into a “license-permit-quota raj,” as Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari first put it in the late 1950s. Although Indians blame ideology (and sometimes democracy) for their failings, the truth is that a mundane inability to implement policy — reflecting a bias for thought and against action — may have been even more damaging.
If British imperial rule was called the British Raj, post-independence government policies led to what Indians have called the License Raj: the tyranny of the bureaucracy and government officials who farmed out patronage by means of licenses and permits.
Now let’s ask our guests why an Indian today, would find this so bad. …
When we return, how we’re in a mano y mano struggle with India.
At this point, I’d like to bring up a recent article from The Economist, titled “The Jeepney economy revs up”.
The Philippines has rapidly emerged as India’s main rival in business-process outsourcing (BPO) and now hosts the call-centres of many American firms. A recent study by the Asian Development Bank reckoned that BPO could provide jobs for up to 11% of those joining the Philippines’ labour force between now and 2010.
Now let’s discuss this further with our guests. How can little old us be such direct competitors with big, grand, India?
IV. My view
Any struggle, whether a peaceful or violent one, involves sticking to a goal but making compromises to achieve that goal. We can, and we should, often revisit our past; but we should also celebrate our present. Not because we should paper over our problems, but because we should celebrate the one, enduring thing independence gives us: the potential to improve ourselves.
Think of it: India today has ambitions to being a great power; it is making great strides economically. Like us, the Indians have their share of angst. Like us, many of their best and brightest found their futures not at home, but abroad. Like us, they have used necessity as a chance to improve their country’s possibilities.
Think of how impressive it is, that a great, huge, wealthy country like India is our direct rival in a way other places like China aren’t. It’s a testament to our own potential as a people, that we can go head-to-head, with a country planning to be a superpower.
We should never find such dreams beyond our grasp, either. We must dare –even if to dare begins with daring to dream big.