Closing Of The Indian Mind: 1

Kishore Mahbubani calls India an 'Open Society with a Closed Mind' - in contrast with China's 'Closed Society with an Open Mind' - and he is certainly right. The apparent diversity of India, its vibrant democracy, quarrelsome TV programming and English speaking middle classes hide more than they tell: The first impression of 'everything goes' is deceptive and India presents one of the toughest environments for new ideas.

This may sound counter-intuitive to those who are always afraid of the Chinese stealing their intellectual property. I am not necessarily arguing that the Chinese don't, but rather that they do because they are in the same race of creating new stuff. India is a comparatively safer environment not because Indians are more honest or they have greater regards for intellectual property in the Western sense, but because they care less about new ideas. 

The other contra angle is certainly that of the great inventors and thought leading Indians who could be found all over the world, leading their fields. If Indians are not inventive, where do they come from? This is the other distinction that needs to be made: This is not about the Indians not being inquisitive or inventive, but rather about the ideas environment in India that generally discourages new ideas. The argument I make is not about Indians' minds, but about the abstract 'Indian Mind'.

So, what about it? Those who work with new ideas know that there are two kinds of environments: There are those places where new ideas are met with curiosity and excitement, and then, there are places where the first reactions are always reasons why they may not work. Indeed, most new ideas don't work and this is not about the merit of the ideas at all. In some cultures, new possibilities are welcome and encouraged, and tried on - and fail if they must. In the other, new ideas are discouraged and one must prove that they work before getting an audience. Indian workplaces - businesses, universities and government departments - are usually the latter kind of space than the former.
Indeed, broad stereotypes such as these invariably can be excepted. There are great innovative places in India, surely, even if I don't know of them. In real life, my thumb rule is usually to ask people I am talking to, even before I started discussing anything new with them, what books they read: I assume I have better chances with fiction readers - science fiction readers are absolutely perfect, but I can live with those read Thrillers or Historical Fiction too - than those who read Management books (particularly those with seven rules or sixteen tips). Indeed, this is a very imprecise stereotype: There is a whole category of 'sedative fiction', not those which put you to sleep but allow you to stay awake without your brain working, which I overlook. But this has generally worked for me. But, this rule also upholds my observations about 'Closed Mind', India being one of the most vibrant markets for management books, with a thriving market of sedative fiction and an impressive output of Cinema with borrowed or stolen themes or tunes. Originality does not seem to be a commonly admired trait.

Why is this so? There are kind and unkind historical explanations, which offer a good starting point. Indian culture is dominated by 'settled people', the inhabitants of Gangetic plains, and one can associate a level of contentedness with settled cultures. The predominant religion of India, Hinduism, is a 'locative' religion, which sees the current state of human life as a manifestation of nature's will and consequently lacks the 'utopian' zeal to search for a better world in the future. Also, within the broader Indian worldview, nothing new actually can be created - all new things are essentially discoveries of pre-existing possibilities - and some observers cite this as a contributing factor. And, indeed, there are the unkind explanations, such as tropical climate contributing to a certain lethargy of body and spirit, and Max Weber's characterisation of Hindu religion as 'Irrational and Inactive' (so much for German love of all things Indian).

However, none of these explanations would really stand any scrutiny, primarily because Ancient India had this extraordinarily inventive civilisation. It was only more Hindu then! Besides, India is not all Hindu, and definitely not just one flavour of Hindu - the religion itself was extremely diverse and open, and Indians went on to create more than one major World Religions. Some observers, notably Sanjeev Sanyal, point to the opposite cause therefore: They locate the 'closing' of the Indian mind somewhere around the Eleventh century, when Indian princes lost out to Arab invaders, and India went through nearly thousand years of 'foreign domination', serving the Arabs, Central Asians and latterly, the English. However, this is also somewhat motivated telling - Mr Sanyal was trying to invoke a new, Hindu, renaissance of India - because this narrative omits what it wishes to omit, eight hundred years of very varied and multicultural history of innovation and progress under Pathan and Mughal rule, a part of an Islamic Enlightenment whose heritage is idelogically uncomfortable in today's India. The historical diagnostic of 'closed mind' is itself an example of 'closed mind', therefore.

On the contrary, it is rather easy to point to another time period - from early to Middle Nineteenth Century - when the old landed elite was replaced by a new rentier class (who had little connections with the land and the communities they governed), a new education system trained a new professional class to replace the old scribal classes, and the Indian imagination was put in a decidedly subjugated position. With the deliberate decimation of Sanskrit and Persian, Indians were suddenly a people without history. As the Indians signed up to learn English and find a new life, they accepted their positions not as originators and shapers of ideas, but implementers and foot-soldiers of received ones. The tradition, as evidenced by the popularity of Management Books, continues.



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