In my last two columns I advanced some thoughts on the significance of the millennial moment in which we are living. Today, I should like to conclude my reflections on the century that has just passed from our midst. In my last column I expressed concern that as many as 30 countries are regressing, not progressing, in terms of human development. There are probably as many reasons for this as there are countries, but one crucial reason is that the knowledge gap – embracing information, eduacation, and access to technology – is widening. Since I have touched on this at length in one of my earlier columns, I shall dwell on this only briefly.
There can be little argument that information and freedom go together. The information revolution is inconceivable without democracy and true democracy is unthinkable without freedom of information. Already, the spread of information has had a direct impact on the degree of accountability and transparency of governments around the world (and not just democratic ones). What is new is the realisation that in today’s increasingly democratising world, restraints on the flow of information directly undermine development. Global interdependence means that those who receive and disseminate information have an edge over those who curtail it. And its consequences are apparent in all fields of human endeavour, from agriculture and environmental management to health and eduacation.
The challenge facing the world today is how to widen the reach of information – how to make it available to people everywhere, whether they live in the industrialised world or the developing. We must increase access to information. The ability to receive, download and send information through electronic networks, and the capacity to share information, including publishing newspapers and journals (and on-line web-sites) without censorship or restrictions, have already become the hallmarks of development.
Communications and information technology have enormous potential. As in everything to do with computers, the young will lead the way; we have to make information the centre-piece of a new attitude to education that moves away from rote learning for exams and into the innovative, creative skills needed to adapt and use information in a rapidly-changing world.
And what of India, as it stands poised on the brink of a new century? In my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, I have argued that India is standing at the intersection of four of the most important debates facing the world at the end of the twentieth century: what I called the “bread versus freedom” debate, the “centralisation vs federalism” debate, the “pluralism Vs fundamentalism” debate and the “coca-colonisation” debate.
There is also a fifth debate I did not discuss in my book: what one might call the “gun versus butter” debate, the case for expenditure on defence against spending on development. With the century ending amidst renewed talk of nuclear confrontation, there is anew ideological battle looming between advocates of military security (freedom from attack and conquest) and those of human security (freedom from hunger and hopelessness). It is difficult to deny that without development, there will not be a country worth defending.
These are not merely academic debates: they are now being enacted on the national and world stage, and the choices we make will determine the kind of India our children will inherit in the 21st century. In resolving these great debate of our time. The challenge for Indians is to sustain an India open to the contention of ideas and interests within in; unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world has to offer; wedded to the pluralism that is India’s greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfil the creative energies of its people. Such an India can make the 21 st century her own.
I believe that India can set an example for the rest of the world; that Indians will stand for democracy, tolerance, freedom. That Indians will realise that the devolution of power – accepting that answers to every question in Dharwar are not necessarily found in Delhi – can strengthen democracy rather than dilute it. That though we are not by nature a secular people – religion plays too large a part in our daily lives for that – that a pluralist India will let every religion flourish. And that, finally, India will show the world that it is possible to drink Coca-Cola without becoming coca-colonised. I do not believe that Indians will become any less Indian if, in Mahatma Gandhi’s metaphor, we open the doors and windows of our country and let foreign winds blow through our house. Our popular culture has proved resilent enough to compete successfully with MTV and McDonalds; there will always be more masala dosas sold in India than Kentucky Fried Chicken. Besides, the strength of ‘Indianness’ has always lain its ability to absorb foreign influences and to transform them, by a peculiarly Indian alchemy, into something that belongs naturally on the soil of India.