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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
I think you need a visit of Psychiatrist immediately.
It’s a very poorly written article. It’s quite aimless.. started well to outline that we as a country did not invent enough..but then went on directory which had no purpose.. Also I believe that while we may not have invented much.. we did well to innovate..and continue to do so.. Innovation probably contributes more to a country’s progress than innovation.. although I agree that our country needs to move into that mindset of inventing stuff
Tik tok videos won’t feed the empty stomach of Indians, most of the videos of Tik Tok were spreading haterd among the groups. This is not a big deal to provide an alternative to Tik Tok, we have that capacity to code a more superior video app like this one. The article talk rubbish about the caste relation with almost all things of India, which has nothing to do with the manufacturing. India can Ban China app but what India needs to do is ban the license Raj in all sectors to fight for its own economy. The government employees permit rules are so rigid that one cannot easily produce in India but he can import the same easily from China. The Toys that China are supplying to India can be easily manufactured in India but it’s not easy to satisfy the hungry Government officials of India to opearate that business in India. The author has focused on caste and religion which has nothing to with this. What and which castes number of professors are there in an University doesn’t make any difference. This is something irrelevant and diverter one. What you are upto? They are there by choice and most of the Government employees in Central Government and State Government are of backward caste, aren’t they have responsibility to make their nation String?
There is a great point in what this article says. But I would also like to point out that there are many Indian origin apps and e-commerce companies active. It is just that the creators sell out to American and Chinese investment once the e-business becomes competitive. Paytm and Ola are an Indian invention but are backed by Chinese investment. Flipkart is of Indian origin bought by Walmart because it became too popular and began giving Amazon competition. Thumbs Up was Indian but sold out to Coca Cola.
Indian entrepreneurs have a bad habit of selling out to foreign investment.
A lot of highly qualified or skilled engineers prefer taking up jobs abroad depriving India of innovative minds.
So it’s not that there is no eco system for tech or a hegemony of caste. There are other elements at play too here.
And the hub of IT in India i.e Bengaluru has a lot of call centers now that are catering to domestic customers which means that the number of successful startups in India have increased. It is sad though that a lot of these startups have Chinese investment which then makes it a Chinese app or business and contributes to their global tech footprint and their economy at the expense of our talent and our market.
aree bhai har cheez mein caste ghusedna zaroori hai kya. You as an writer and journalist have a very narrow worldview and try to shape opinions with the same. shame on you
By banning Tic Tok, Modi also took away a source of income from many young Hindustanis who were earning decent amount from this app. This proves that similar to how Modi had hastily instituted the lockdown without any due consideration with only a few hours of notice, this too wasn’t through.
We have CASTIEST politics and china will finance this CASTIEST to divide and hurt INDIA.
Cannot agree more with the Author, However would like to caution that enlargement / diversification of talent pool shall not be on the cost of Merit. We shall have a system wherein all kind of skills are assigned some level of merit points which means caste based occupations shall also drive some merit points. Instead of giving reservations and compromising the educational merits we shall add occupation based merit points to overall selection process.
LOL, Thats What Is Our Motive, If You Think TikTok Was Our Motive, There Would Be No Greater Fool Than You In This World.
I seem to recall that yoga became popular in India only after it became internationally approved so to speak… most of Mr. Iyengar’s early disciples were from the West and Japan…!
What has prevented Shri Mandal from inventing something of genuine use, instead of reasons to divide the Hindus?
Very well argued write up on a difficult subject. I have personally witnessed the hidden network of brahmins in a large state owned institution where the so-called merit AKA general category recruits used to shield their corrupt fellow officers. If you are a low caste person even accepting a ₹5 cup of tea from a customer is noted as unjust enrichment.
With caste names passed off as last names in India we are in a no win situation
No never India will invent anything
Jo system chale aa raha hai.. waise hi chalega .
Hum sab hindustani hai. Pagal nahi… Jo the Print ki news ko seriously le ..
Finally a well argued article from the author. The human brain finds its greatest expression through the hands. Unfortunately the Indian belief system has always placed manual work on a lower pedestal. Since according to the author reservation hasn’t worked maybe it’s time to look for a better system. It’s amazing that those who have been most affected by India’s caste system have accepted it and failed to find creative solutions to end it.
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