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Indian paradox: Lessons in identity, religion and national confidence

Xn Iraki
 Hindu has many gods and is more “worldly.”  [iStockphoto]

Britons officially ruled India from 1858 to 1947. They had been there longer from around 1600 when the British East India Company got a charter in 1600.

It’s strange how a company could rule a country! But it was fashionable then. The Crown took over from the company in 1857 and ruled the country indirectly through principalities and other pre-existing institutions. Indirect rule was the British ingenious way of running the vast country and other difficult colonies. By not disturbing the existing social order, Britons got more easily accepted. It was also economical.

In Kenya, they kept to the title of the chiefs but appointed their chiefs, some elevated to paramount to rule over other chiefs and possibly annoy them. The principalities in India were about 562. They enjoyed suzerainty, and self-rule with Britons in charge of foreign affairs, finance, and general order. The freedom in a suzerainty was tokenism.

The size of India and its strategic location made it the jewel in the British Crown. For more than 300 years, the British ruled the Indian subcontinent, directly and indirectly. But there was a paradox; the three centuries of British rule did not change India as much as 68 years of Britons in Kenya. Why? Indian identity emerged, and we are still trying to get the Kenyan identity, 60 years after Uhuru.

One factor could be religion. Hinduism has firm roots and stands against Christianity. It’s a very different religion from Christianity. That explains the Indian reluctance to embrace Christianity. Today, only about 2.3 per cent of Indians are Christians.

In Kenya, it is 85 percent. Not hard to explain. Most traditional African religions are monotheistic just like Christianity. That could have made conversion easier. Hindu has many gods and is more “worldly.” The incompatibility of the two religions possibly helped India keep her Indianness.

So deep are the Hindu roots that Indians carry their religion to other parts of the world. You see their temples in Kenya and elsewhere. And their sari and turbans. And the red dot on the face? Some Indians did get converted to Christianity starting with the Portuguese, but they never reached a critical mass. Keeping an identity is easier with one's religion. You rarely get Indians named Jayden, Liam, or Ethan.

It has also been suggested that Hinduism is not just a religion but also a civilization. That mixture made it very hard to “destroy.” Few African societies had such a mixture, making them vulnerable to new influences. India’s BJP party has leveraged this mixture to gain power and keep it. Remember Hindutva?

Advances in medicine and technology, though not as advanced as the West, gave India national confidence. An Indian won a physics Nobel Prize as early as 1931, and another worked with Albert Einstein. If you studied physics (like me), you should recall the Bose-Einstein equation in statistical mechanics. In Kenya, Indians taught me high school maths, physics, and chemistry.

By quickly embracing Western science and technology, with deep cultural and religious roots, India easily gained the confidence to stand up against both the West and the East. They even sensed the coming of artificial intelligence by focusing on computer science earlier than we did. While in primary school, our president banned “new maths,” the basis of computer science. We studied base 2 and 10 together. Experts in computer science will tell you 1 and 0 are the basis of computer science, hence base 2. We could have been on par with Indians, who dominate computer science beyond their borders.

India has also made substantial investments in STEM. Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) ensure a constant flow of a highly educated workforce to propel advancements in science and technology. It’s only recently that we designated some of our universities as technical. Met any Indian study political science or social sciences? What about landing on the moon and joining the nuclear club?

Indians probably saw Britain as a worthy competitor culturally. We saw them as superior. And by the names given to our babies, we still see them as superior. Table manners refer to whose manners? Indians kept their foods and traditions like dowry payment, which is opposite to most Africans. Eaten tandoori? Naan? Chicken Tikka Masala?

Perhaps Indian leaders' early encounters with Britons made them realize the importance of national identity. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and her daughter Indira Gandhi all studied in the UK. Our leaders, starting with the founding fathers, were in the UK too. Did they learn the same lesson or an earlier one, divide and rule?

Britain could not have conquered the world without her identity espoused by the Anglican Church and traditions. Not sure if English tea is part of British traditions. The English take their traditions wherever they go. With the era of conquest gone, religion and culture are the new weapons to conquer and subdue others. Better than nuclear weapons. What is streamed through your TV, movies, and radio? And politicians are quick to notice that. Last week we discussed the rise of BJP in India, and the hustler movement in Kenya, and forgot the rise of Trumpism in the USA. All these have religious undertones.

Any lessons from the Indian paradox? National identity is a prerequisite for economic growth and development. Watch Tanzania. Noted how the USA, despite all the races and tribes, has an identity? 

Two, once you get a national identity, you can fan to the rest of the world, and extend your influence and markets. That’s why Americans of Indian extraction head Google, Microsoft, and IBM. Are we targeting such jobs in proposed labor exports? Did you hear the British prime minister of Indian descent talking about his Hindu faith? National identity gives you an anchor and wings to fly.

Identity gives us the confidence to face new realities, explore, and extend the frontiers. The ultimate badge of Indian national confidence is not accepting foreign aid in case of a disaster. Think of that again! Beyond muting dynasties, our new government (KK) should give us the Kenyan identity. That should be one of its legacies.

Finally and in whispers does lack of identity for the children born to single parents mute their confidence and success in life?


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