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Freeing India from Feudalism

In what sense is India still trapped in medieval feudalism?

May 5, 2004

In what sense is India still trapped in medieval feudalism?

India needs new economics for its agriculture and industry — not just for the New Economy of information technology.

India once negotiated a social contract when it gave up its feudal structure soon after independence. But the feudal mindset has not yet disappeared.

The intermediary class — which replaced the feudal interests in Indian politics and business — has also adopted the feudal mental framework and adapted it to its rent-seeking mentality.

The intermediaries flourish in a system where trading and control have primacy over creation. Under this system, the state sector grows in a distorted fashion.

To establish an India based on core values of right action and justice will require negotiating the underlying ethical contract. This is obviously challenging.

It will need initiative from the creative agents of the society. In 1757, and again in 1857, princes lost battles to the British. In 1947, the foreign rulers had to leave. In the 1960s, land reform and abolition of privy purses ended feudalism.

The time is now up for rent-seeking civil servants, politicians and businessmen. This is not to say that there is no place for civil servants and politicians.

In fact, those politicians and civil servants who abolish rents and seek partnership with entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs — especially from the agrarian economy — can construct the architecture of a new ethical order.

A critical mass of change agents needs to play a catalytic role in raising the national consciousness to a higher level.

The transformation of India is inevitable, because life is not about the survival of the fittest. Life is about the advancement of each and all.

The question is whether we want to see the transformation taking place by violent means — conflict and collapse of the civil society — or whether we want to facilitate a peaceful change.

If we want peace and prosperity instead of discord and decay, it is necessary for the Indian mind to rise above the conflict between the ideal and the practical.

We have to reject the prevailing concept of life as a cricket match, fixed through manipulation, or a wrestling tournament, where the winner takes it all. We need to perceive life as a marathon. Of course, this means nothing less than reform of the Indian mind.

If Indians, led by a values-driven critical mass, sincerely and seriously desire a new ethical architecture, it should be possible for them to construct it. There will be difficulties, since most things worth doing are declared to be impossible — until they are done.

But if people are committed to emancipate themselves, they will be able to do so, just as they were able to liberate themselves from colonialism only 50 years ago. Someone just needs to make a beginning.

About 30 years ago, I used to live in a small suburb of Mumbai, which was notorious for crime and communal conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. Communal violence was a regular feature of our town.

One afternoon, in the heat of the riots, a militant Hindu mob wanted to kill our Muslim neighbors. We offered shelter to the latter in our kitchen.

As the angry mob learnt that the Muslim family was in our house, they tried to enter.

My illiterate grandmother dared the mob to kill her before they could cross the threshold. We were extremely tense.

They were puzzled. After some time, one by one they bowed before her and walked away, without harming the Muslim neighbors. That was the end of the riots that evening.

And there have been no more riots in my small town ever since, despite the extremely painful rupture between the Hindu and Muslim communities in the last decade.

The ethic of the town has changed forever. It has other problems, but the specter of communalism seems to have disappeared.

It's one thing to pacify one town. It's something else to make a breakthrough in an unethical and unjust social architecture.
So, what should we do? We can start by emancipating 250 million farmers and agricultural workers from draconian laws. Agricultural market reforms — if complemented by public/private partnerships for capacity building — will empower rural youth.

Second, we should lobby our chief ministers to hold district magistrates and department heads accountable for publicly announced development objectives. The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh has tried it and it works.

Third, we should demand change in campaign finance laws to introduce heavy penalties on givers and takers of payments in cash. In addition, we should demand an electoral ban on criminals.

Fourth, we should form a coalition of clean businessmen, civil society activists and others, to draft standards for the performance of parliamentarians and state legislators.

The coalition should then publicize the performance of our representatives — with a view to naming and shaming them.
Fifth, we should demand ethical audits of companies. Of course, this will all create friction. But breakthrough — by definition — creates friction.

If we make a beginning with these, or similar, initiatives, it will still be the beginning. There will be greater challenges ahead. Is it possible?

When someone insists on the incongruence of the ideal and the practical, I recall that afternoon in my childhood, And when someone asks the question "Why?", I wonder "But why not?"

Excerpted from Frank-Jürgen Richter and Pamela C.M. Mar’s (editors) “Asia’s New Crisis: Renewal Through Total Ethical Management” Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte Ltd. Used by permission of the publisher.