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Why Indians Are Conservative – An Historical Perspective

Posted by RB Kollannur on September 11, 2008


Few weeks back, I came across an interesting article regarding the dearth of entrepreneurs in India – Microsoft/FaceBook/Google from India? Can Indian Society produce Gates/Larry/Zuckerburg? One of the apparent differences that came out was we Indians tend to be too conservative, while Americans which has produced most the entrepreneurs over the last century are aggressive as a society (I have simplified the ability to take risks as a quality of aggression). Being a history buff, I was curious about the evolution of the current day societies that may have inculcated some qualities that may have led to these characters. For simplicity we can consider the world into four spheres:

Europe & the Americas – I am clubbing Europe and the Americas together because for much of the past two millennia they share a common history. To start with, the Roman Empire gave Europe political stability for most of the first five hundred years of the Anno Domini calendar. Rome gave Europe what a good primary education can give us – a strong base to start from. The European successor states grew out of the Roman political structure and did not need to reinvent the wheel. After Rome, its successors constantly fought against themselves vying for European superiority. This provided the European societies a constant avenue for growth. The ease with which Europe conquered the rest of the world speaks of the level of improvement which came about with this constant in-fighting. Europe was blessed with a powerful base in the form of Rome and since then they have been on a path of constant growth in relation to the rest of the world.

The Americas are built together on immigrants from Europe. They already had the inherent advantage of the Europeans, but above that, they were explorers, seeking new opportunities. The risk taking ability of its people allowed the Americas to grow exponentially as a society. Of these, US stood out winning against Britain nearing its peak, while Latin America freed themselves only from a declining Spain and a weak Portugal.

Middle East & Iran – From the days of the Achaeminids, who were stopped by the Greeks in Marathon and Platea, and the Selucids, who succeeded Alexander, to the Parthians and the Sassanids who fought against Rome, Persia provided the biggest rival for the European world. However, the ever changing dynasties meant that each had to start from scratch unlike Europe. The advent of Islam gave long term political stability to the region, but it was still not enough to overhaul Europe (As seen in Poitiers). The rule of the Caliphs and the Ottomans gave Middle East & Iran what Rome gave to Europe, albeit a millennium later. As a result, they are currently playing catch up.

China & Japan – The terrain and the distance from the rest of the world meant China and Japan remained isolated and unaffected by the changes in the world. Since they were never challenged by the outside world till the nineteenth century, they grew at their own pace, unlike the aggressive pace of Europe and US. However, both the countries have enjoyed considerable period of political stability (especially Japan where the Emperor comes from a line of royalty over two millennia old) which has allowed them to bring about consistent growth over the last two millennia.

Indian Sub Continent – The Sub Continent unfortunately has the worst of all evils. Isolated from the rest of the world by the Himalayas and the oceans, we have very rarely been challenged by an outsider. And in all occasions, we have failed miserably; against Ghorids of Mohammed Ghori, the Mughals of Babur and finally the British. Also, there has been practically no state in our history that could give a sense of political stability throughout the subcontinent. The Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals gave some semblance of stability but only till the Vindhyas, and in the South there were the Cholas and Vijayanagara. Mughals came close to giving a consistent rule, but Aurangazeb undid most of the good work they did for two centuries and the Mughals fell over themselves. The British instilled a proper structure and foundation to the society and since then, we have been playing catch up to the rest of the world.

On the whole, progress has had a direct correlation to periods of aggression. However, reckless aggression without proper thought will be similar to the Germanic barbarians attempting to bring down Rome – futile and disastrous. With a proper base, however, aggression can bring positive results.

Conservatism seems to be brought upon us because we have very rarely needed to show aggression. But with global resources stretched to its limit, it is time for us to find the latent aggression and take risks.

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