[This is an updated and edited version of an article that I wrote in 1998. This is quite negative in its tone. Please bear with me on this. I understand that some things have changed for better in the last few years, however most concerns remain the same. I have added some of the recent events in the flow of the article.]
Someone asked- "Are Indians good only at mastering the skills that have already been proven and established, and lack creativity to create something new and original?"
I don’t think it’s that easy to make a generalization onto an entire nation, but there is definitely a pattern that one can discover which can be applied to a whole class – like, Japanese industries are more quality-conscious, German trains are more punctual. Does that mean all Japanese are quality-conscious and all Germans punctual? Not necessarily, but there is a trait that you can apply to a group or a subgroup as a whole without taking this to an individual level. So, are Indians good only at mastering the skills that have already been proven and established, and lack originality to create something new and original? I don’t think its going to be an easy answer.
We see that
Can’t take risks
There is a general malaise in
Why can’t we take risks? There may be many reasons, but the primary reason is the way we are brought up by our parents. What they do in their lives matter a lot to us. We are always asked to take a safe path. No examples are set by parents that suggest that one can take risks. For example, Families save; and this money never contributes to country's economy. In olden days, we needed to save because there was no other security, with whimsical kings and rulers one’s savings was one’s assets. Times have changed, and it is not necessary to save the same way as we did in olden times. But, we still think that saving is a virtue just because it was once upon a time. Families that save money and stash the money inside their closets think that they are doing a great deed- they look down upon those who do not. Sometimes such savings are converted into extremely useless goods- such as gold ornaments, utensils made of expensive metals, or stashed in pillows and mattresses. Most families shy from investing in Indian industry (which is risk oriented) and consider it equivalent to gambling.
Young men and women are risk-averse and tend to follow already established paths. Most engineers join a branded company even if the work sucks. Very few would venture out to join a startup. Fathers of the brides are not ready to give their daughters to those who work at startups. All young people want to become engineers or doctors. Everyone wants to make a home, buy a car and settle down (and then do what? I don’t know). This tendency to shy away from risk is all pervading and overreaches into other domains outside the family affairs. It does not allow us cross the boundaries imposed by our traditions. The caste barriers and religious barriers are too high to be surmounted- very few marry outside their caste or religion. Even if they do, they carry the stigma for a long time. Therefore, many do not even contemplate on crossing it, either it is a top scientist's family or a famous doctor's family. This holds true for most of Indian population except certain displaced and immigrant urban populations.
Bad education system
The other malaise is our education system which works on age-old system- a mixture of medieval Indian and some what British school system. The key to an emerging nation lies in its young generation. How are we creating our young people? What are the ideas we are seeding into them in schools? What are the dreams and desires of our children?
Indian schools do not promote originality. A student who replicates what is written in texts is given more marks than those who use own words. We call it ‘mugging’, ‘by rote’, ‘pidi’, ‘ratta’, etc, and teachers hail the boys who do it the best as ‘brilliant’ and ‘clever’. The practice of just mugging up and writing down verbatim is continued all the way from primary school to graduate school. Whatever creativity that kid was endowed due to whatever genetic contribution it would be slowly and completely suppressed or extirpated by the time he is done with graduation. Parents contribute to this by forcing the kids to score more. The kid’s performance is solely judged by the scores he attains. This obsession with scores and marks, overburdening of kids with too much homework which involves more donkeywork than any originality, combined with peer and social pressures restrict originality and creativity from burgeoning in these young minds.
The teachers are not only good at encouraging mere reproduction; they also indulge in practice of threatening the student with dire consequences right from primary school all the way up to the bachelors' degree. The young students undergo physical punishment, endure insults and disparaging remarks, and learn to live with humiliation. Such an experience on a young mind is appalling and would be considered a serious crime in the western world. Many kids end up losing self-confidence. Teachers also practice discrimination and are very renowned for favoritism and nepotism. It becomes very clear for the rest of the class whom the teacher prefers. Young minds are attuned to accept this favoritism and here are sown the seeds for all different kinds of discrimination and prejudices that are to follow in his/her life as he/she enters the mainstream of Indian society- casteism, regionalism, communalism, etc.
The next problem is our tendency to make ‘all good and great things sacred’ and to revere them so much that they are transformed into immutable and irrefutable axioms never to be challenged or questioned. While we boast of Vedas, Ayurveda and Arthashastra, nobody ever tries to find new methods that are relevant in the present world. We are complacent about what our ancestors have done and we put a hold on further creation by sanctifying them for all ages to come. When Vedas were created, the authors played with their work, proposed theories contradicting their statements and rectified their work. They could do whatever they wanted because they were not sacred at the time of creation. Nowadays, the norm is not to question them, not to doubt them, not to challenge them, but accept them as they are without regard for amount of time that has elapsed since its creation. There are even efforts to transform these age-old documents into science now. So, instead of bending our backs to work, we take the easy path of achieving the laurels akin to the western world by just converting our old works into science. That turns out to be easy than actually working towards inventing something new.
Not only do we curtail creativity in academics, science and philosophy using the process of sanctification, we also enter the domains of art and music, which actually require that unhindered and unrestrained freedom of expression not bound to any existing rule or law. When it comes to music our plight is dismal. The music teachers do not let their students experiment because music is considered sacred where all the rules have to be strictly followed. Any alteration is disrespect! While we easily welcome an innovation from a westerner, we cannot tolerate an innovative idea from a fellow Indian. Rock and Roll, Disco, Rap, etc, have been gleefully incorporated into Indian Music, while the edifice of Classical Music stands unchanged and unchallenged. While the West has been prolific in inventing new styles of music, we try to retain to the past and curtail any change in the future by sanctifying it. Only those singers who make some modifications to the already established western style to appeal to the Indian audience are accepted and hailed. Therefore you see more remixes and remakes than originals these days. A young student is never given an opportunity to play with his music, art and academics. Little do we realize that creation comes out of tampering and playing with the existing systems! Coming to art, we don’t have any renowned artists. Even if we do have one in MF Husain, we scandalize his art on the name of ‘culture’, ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’, using all the sanctified words that we can come up. We still stick to the dance forms which are some 1000 years old. We could not create a new "Natya".
Another common trait with Indians is that they can copy anything without remorse or guilt. ‘Plagiarism’ is non-existent. Movies, music and books are easily copied. Our theories in economics and management are completely borrowed from the West. We try to apply a social rule proven in western world into our country without realizing our social structure is completely different. We get frustrated when those theories do not work; and then we blame ourselves for not implementing it properly. Little do we realize that we need different theories which are suitable for our social structure! When that western world has awarded one of us (Amartya Sen) with a Nobel Prize, we bask in the glory of that achievement but never seem to implement his theories to work. We might be good at software but almost all computer languages emanate from the West. It turns out that we are only good at its application. Not many products or solutions have come up from Indian software companies though we have an extensive ecosystem. We are good at nuclear technology and space programs, but most of this science has already been established in the West. We have merely learnt to reproduce it.
Even our Indian Cinema is now renamed ‘Bollywood’ directly copying from the word ‘
‘Chalta Hain’ to everything
Our attitude to everything is "Chalta Hain" (everything is accepted). This is the greatest danger of all. Bad roads are OK, bad traffic is OK, filthy streets are OK, bad sanitation is OK; kids begging on the street is OK. We say ‘Chalta Hain’ to everything. We see how our schools work, but we do not challenge the system. We see how they treat our kids, but we accept it all. No parent is ready to stand up and ward off the discrimination his kid had to endure through. Instead he accepts it and makes his kid shut up. We are committing the gravest crime of all- "Killing the individuality" of our kids.
Our attitude "Chalta Hain" is towards politics, infrastructure, administration, and almost everything. We know that Jayalalitha is one of the most corrupt politicians, but still we would elect her back. By electing such leaders back into power, we legitimize the actions they have done and in a way encourage it. Every politician dreams of earning lots and lots of money when he gets elected and he assumes it as a divine right to take bribe- Did he not struggle to get to that position in the first place?
It’s not just the illiteracy and over-population that is the major problem. Being apathetic to what's going on in our surroundings is the root cause for all problems. How come most of the elite who refrain from exercising their franchise are the ones who spearhead the criticism of the present situation in the nation? Citizens of India can easily afford to make their streets cleaner and better, protect their environments, fight for better education to their kids, and work for upliftment of their fellowmen, all without the help or intervention of its government. Who are we to blame here- ‘The man’ or ‘the state’? Nobody makes an attempt to rectify or improve anything. When everyone is apathetic, we have a big nation of passive recipients who accept every ignominy of the society and call it "great Indian Culture".
Lack of heroes
We do not have many examples to learn from. We do not have idols to emulate; we do not have precedents to follow. All those great people from whom we could learn from are gone with the
There are no good examples or precedents for crossing these man-made boundaries. While it is easily accepted among the present young generation that caste is a malaise and that it should be completely ignored in our society, none of them dare to cross these boundaries. Marryng outside one’s caste is a rarity. It’s strange that one would rather select a mediocre partner from the same caste than a better person from a different caste even though we argue for excellence and quality in education, employment and industry. How does one set an example to the future generations when the elite generation of this time itself succumbs to the pressures of the prejudices of the present society?
The pattern that I see from all the above arguments is that while we are ready to accept a new idea only if it has already been proven to work and is firmly established in some western nation, we never allow any revolutionary idea from our own people. There are three fundamental reasons for that- we do not take risks, we sanctify everything, and we say ‘chalta hain’ to everything. These reasons in turn seem to affect us in many ways. There is a lack of self-respect, lack of dignity of work. There is a tendency to undermine ourselves. A philosophical thinker in
So aren’t we original and creative?
I do not believe that a race, religion, caste or a nation is inherently original or creative. Every individual given the opportunity or access can perform better. Some societies create those opportunities for themselves. Every society has potential to become a great civilization. As individuals and as society we Indians seem to suggest a pattern- that we are being less original and less creative. That’s doesn’t mean we are inferior. It only means we are not being effective in using our potentials. Either we are curbing them at young ages, or not accepting the spark when we see it, or we are suppressing such original and creative works from our people.