The Paradox of Indian Students

S.N. Balagangadhara on June 2, 2021

Responding to the statement: “Indian culture lacks free independent thinking and discourages innovation.”

In order to think in a serious fashion about the current Indian situation, you better begin taking the comment seriously (with some nuance about ‘culture’ though).

In the first place, this is what the British discovered about Indian students a century after they introduced the English university education in India. By the time they left India, they concluded that the university education had failed here. Indian students, they discovered repeatedly, were interested in acquiring a piece of paper (the degree certificate) and not in knowledge or research. (Please read the book by Sashikala Srinivasan, Liberal Education and Its Discontents: The Crisis in the Indian University, Routledge 2018, where she talks about the British experience, among other things.) It would be correct to say that the education system of India (of the last 200 years) “lacks free independent thinking and discourages innovation”.

The problems, however, do not begin with the British: they encountered this when they introduced scientific education. It was there for almost 700 years before that: the Islamic rule generated and cemented this over centuries. In this sense, it is now a part of Indian ‘culture’, even though our culture is intrinsically inimical to this tendency. How do we know this? Almost every Indian student who goes abroad is capable of doing (and does) original and interesting research. Had they stayed in India, they would have been unable to do this. You need to look at the number of Indian researchers in industries abroad (or in scientific institutions abroad) to understand and be amazed by this.

Those small groups of individuals (small in percentages but huge numerically), who are forced to go abroad because of the twin problems of the inept bureaucracy and reservation system in India, flourish and do research abroad. Those who are forced to remain in India (mostly) are either third rate researchers (not all but most) or stop doing research because of how India has developed since her independence.

Thus, a thousand years of “lacking free independent thinking and discouraging innovation” weighs on Indian students. Most industries do not invest in R&D: think of the auto industry before the so-called liberalisation of Indian economy when every few years Ambassador and Fiat cars would change front grills and present them as ‘new’ models or what happened to the Indian smartphone industry when the Chinese, the US and the Koreans entered the Indian market. Indian managers, ex-students from the Indian education system, find that R&D reduces profit and is inimical to quarterly results. (But they talk the management bullshit of doing R&D.)

Researchers, who remain in India, become n-th rate business ‘managers’ and follow the IAS bureaucracy that leads research institutions in India. Illiterate and corrupt people become ministers of education and slavishly follow the clerks (namely, the IAS) because that administration shows the way to become rich for these politicians. Neither scientific education nor the Sanskrit education goes beyond the strict limits drawn by 1000 years of colonization. (Yet, Indians excel when they go abroad for higher studies.) That is why Indian education will soon resemble Black Africa of the 1920s and 1930s.

This degeneration of Indian education system (that began under colonialisms) also seeps very deep into society. Most business firms want to make a quick buck: Indian business has the reputation of being dishonest, cheats, liars, etc. abroad. (Contrast this with how the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. business is known.) Because it is the dream of the youth to become entrepreneurs and begin start-ups, the ‘astute’ businessmen are being overrun by people who want to make a million by beginning a start-up with a “‘game-changer’ business plan”. I have lost count of engineers setting up SMBs, sending good products in their initial batches but sending cheap and defective products once they got the contracts. Most also have gone bankrupt.

Just when China and others (even Vietnam) are following the path of growth, India is very rapidly retrograding. In both classical and scientific education, we are producing incompetent people. If we do not change these processes urgently, we will only be left with loudly shouting ‘make in India’ and cheering the reservation system on. Every other good and beautiful thing will begin to disintegrate.

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