By banning 59 Chinese mobile apps, including TikTok and UC Browser, the Narendra Modi government took the Ladakh stand-off to the zone of innovation and capitalism. But China cannot do a tit-for-tat ban on Indian innovators. Why? Because India, the IT superpower and the largest producer of engineers, has no presence in the top technology innovations of the world. This is because of India’s complicated, cultural relationship with technology.
That India is an IT superpower is a misnomer. We are ranked a lowly 46 among 64 countries in global IT business in terms of competitiveness. It’s true that we are producing a large number of poorly paid IT professionals who are fluent in English, but this alone will not make India an IT powerhouse.
India an I-T superpower. Are we?
While banning the Chinese apps, India cited safety, data privacy, defence and national security as its reasons. India is a big market for Chinese apps and some of them are quite popular. TikTok has as many as 20 million users in India. Six of the ten most downloaded apps in India are Chinese whereas other four are of US origin.
Should this worry us? India is the largest producer of engineers in the world. Engineering colleges in India churn out as many as 1.5 million graduates every year. Many of them are from IT and software streams. Yet, the combined might of this huge technological workforce is not delivering the products we use in our day-to-day lives, with the Chinese and US companies filling the gap.
Where did we falter? As a nation, India and China started their journeys together in the late 1940s. India got independence from the British Empire in 1947 and China was liberated two years later. Both countries started the process of economic liberalisation roughly around the same time. China had one big disadvantage in the sphere of information technology — the country’s English-speaking population was very low. They still lack in that count.
A ‘no invention’ nation
The mystery of not inventing or developing any public utility in India is not unique to the present era and so the inquiry has to transcend the matrix of a particular government or party. We, as south Asians, have not invented anything worthwhile in the entire epoch of modern history. The waves of Enlightenment, scientific and industrial revolutions came and went without touching this part of the world.
I sometimes do this simple exercise of asking university students during a lecture or seminar to list the objects around them, and name any item that might have been invented by Indians or Indian institutions. Not once have I encountered anyone affirmatively naming an object. It holds out if we just look at the items in our homes — bulb, fan, cooler, air conditioner, air purifier, washing machine, OTG, microwave, pen, watch, phone, TV, radio, etc. We can’t attach a single invention to an Indian name. This proves that India being a no invention nation is not limited to the IT sector.
India and the world cannot and should not live with this status quo where one-sixth of the humanity is not contributing to the advancement of science and technology.
Here’s a list of few hypotheses that can provide an entry point into the conundrum of why India is a ‘no invention’ nation.
Distance between work and knowledge
We have segregated work from knowledge. The dominant Indian belief considers manual labour a ‘lowly’ job to be done by ‘lowly people’. This also means that there is little technological brainstorming towards making manual labour easier. Moreover, large swaths of the population engaged in manual labour have been historically kept out of the knowledge domain.
This disconnect is detrimental to the advancement of technology, which only prospers at a workshop. James watt invented the steam engine in a workshop. Modern watch was invented by a locksmith. So was the printing press.
In India, however, these works have been done not by individuals but by castes, whose members have no access to knowledge. We had (and still have) a caste to wash clothes. The knowledgeable rishis in gurukuls never felt the need to make a machine to make their work easier.
Idea of knowledge
The Indian idea of knowledge is grossly mistaken. We do not accept that the artisans, farmers, persons associated with animal husbandry or the tribes have produced any knowledge. The Indian idea of knowledge has religious connotations and puts a premium on memorising texts. China has a tradition of writing texts, whereas in India, “mechanical rote learning of orally transmitted Vedas, Shrutis and Smritis” is considered the highest form of knowledge. Professor Kancha Illaiah Shepherd, in his book Post-Hindu India argues that all knowledge produced in India belonged to the subaltern classes and tribes.
Traditionalism over capitalism
Traditionalism has killed the spirit of capitalism. The Hindu dogma of samsara (world) and karma (deed) has put shackles on the Indian mindset, making us believe that all individuals are born into a caste because of their deed in the previous life. Sociologist Max Weber, in his treatise The Religion of India, explains that, “So long as the Karma doctrine was unshaken, revolutionary ideas or progressiveness were inconceivable. The lowest castes, furthermore, had the most to win through ritual correctness and were least tempted to innovations.”
Weber goes on to argue that “it is extremely unlikely that the modern organization of industrial capitalism would ever have originated on the basis of caste system.” He explains that since Hinduism holds any change in occupation as ritual degradation and bad karma, it is not capable of giving birth to industrial and technical revolutions.
The upper caste hegemony
Despite constitutional provisions of reservation, all centres of higher learning in India are mostly manned by members of the upper castes. Most professors at universities belong to this small caste group. Journalist Shyamlal Yadav of The Indian Express has reported that 95.2 per cent of professors, 92.9 per cent of associate professors and 66.27 per cent of assistant professors at India’s central universities belong to the general category.
Sociology professor Renny Thomas, while studying the upper caste domination in India’s scientific research institutions, undertook an ethnographic fieldwork at the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and found that there is “a Brahminical identity to science in India”. “They (Brahmin and upper caste scientists) have been perceived to be the natural inheritors of scientific practice.” This hegemony of the upper castes limits the catchment area for talent, and makes these places of learning incompetent and uncompetitive.
Unless these factors are acknowledged and efforts made to counter their prevalence, we can only dream about that day when the US or China will threaten to ban Indian apps. The Indian idea of merit and knowledge needs a catharsis. Until we achieve it, we can be happy being a self-proclaimed IT guru and keep on supplying cheap coders to the world.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.