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"The Idea of India" and Colonialism's Long Shadow

|Includes: WisdomTree India Earnings ETF (EPI)
Orphans in Andhra Pradesh, August 2005

Colonialism casts a long shadow, and it still obscures America's full understanding of India. The country's complex internal politics also blur the view from overseas, leaving Americans with foggy misconceptions about race, religion, and India's national identity.  

Fortunately, Sunil Khilnani sheds some light in The Idea of India. This book disabused me of many deep-seated assumptions, especially regarding the transformative effects of democracy and global capitalism. I hope that his insights will help American investors to better understand the country. Most importantly, Khilnani notes that Nehru's Marxist view of colonialism still informs India's self-image today. Obviously, so does Hinduism. These influences might lead to an "Indian flavor" of democratic capitalism that is just as successful as American capitalism. But certainly different.  

Before I describe Khilnani's book, I should note that I am returning to India in January for a four-week tour. Drew University is sponsoring a three-week tour of Bangalore, Delhi, and five other cities, and then I will stay for a week at an orphanage in Andhra Pradesh. I described my last trip in 2006 in this article published on Real Money, a subscription website run by If you prefer photos, please check out this slideshow on For a full picture of my  charity work in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere, has all the details. I welcome donors, volunteers, and well-wishers of every sort. 

As I mentioned, my travels throughout India this January are part of a cross-cultural course at Drew University. My goal is to learn more about the political and social challenges facing Americans working in India. For this, I found Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India to be invaluable.

Flawed Assumptions

As an American, I had blithely assumed that India's exposure to democracy, capitalism, and English would be rapidly erasing unpleasant memories of colonialism, leaving little social residue. Unfortunately, my unspoken assumptions betrayed a flawed understanding of the country.

Sunil Khilnani provides a sweeping history of modern India, and highlights the importance of Nehru's influence on the country's history and self-perception. Khilnani confirms some of my assumptions about what India values most: constitutional democracy, state-directed industrialization, and economic/social redistribution.  (The Idea of India, page 76) This is consistent with the socialist policies of Western Europe after WWII, and this should not surprise most American investors.

A Marxist Twist
But Nehru's thinking had a critical twist: A Marxist view of imperialism and colonialism that puts a high value on economic and political sovereignty. More importantly, this deeply critical view of colonialism remains a challenge that any outsider must understand.

Indeed, Nehru's harsh view of imperialism makes it easier for me to understand why Hinduism represents more than a religion for modern India: Hinduism represents the country's inalienable cultural roots, and a point of political pride that survived oppression of the nation under colonialism. This helps to explain the emergence of Hinduism as a political force in India. 

Hinduism Defined
I should note at this point that "Hinduism" is a Western term used to describe a wide range of religious beliefs. The term was originally used by Europeans, and was not a description used by Indians themselves. As Wikipedia describes it, the word "Hinduism" evolved to "denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India."

Eventually, the European name stuck, and is now the umbrella term for religious traditions practiced by over 900 million people worldwide and 80% of India's population. Just as India's borders were drawn by outsiders, so too,  the "borders" of Hinduism were also drawn by outsiders.  

Affirmative Action and Caste Identity
Another critical social consideration is the policy of affirmative action that is part of the Indian Constitution. To remedy historic injustices caused by the caste system, the Constitution reserved government jobs and other benefits for members of oppressed groups. This policy was intended to be temporary, but instead gave "categories of caste…new vigour as political self-identifications" (pages 36-37). This was one of the unintended results of affirmative action: "The Constitution, and the politics it sanctioned, thus reinforced community identities rather than sustaining a sense of common citizenship based on individual rights" (37).

Thus, an appropriate cultural understanding of India must explicitly address group identity as well as individual identity. It is easy to espouse unity, and assume that democracy and global capitalism will heal old wounds by breaking the chains imposed by the caste system. This overlooks, however, the fact that many Indians have now voluntarily chosen to emphasize caste identity as a prominent part of their personal identity.

Religious Plurality and Cultural Unity

The partition of India in 1947 into a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India means that approximately 80% of Indians are Hindu and 13% are Muslim. This religious divide deeply affects the country's culture, domestic politics, and foreign policy. Meanwhile, 2% of Indians are Christian, while the rest are Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, Jains and other religions.

At times, Hindu nationalists and Muslim extremists have both inflamed religious tensions within India. It is not easy to keep these at bay since India is not united by a dominant race, religion, language, or ideology. Nehru, however, offered the country a cohesive self-image despite periodic domination by invaders. Nehru imagined India as a country "moved by a logic of accommodation and acceptance. In his imagination, India appeared as a space of ceaseless cultural mixing, its history a celebration of the soiling effects of cultural miscegenation and accretion" (169). Nehru's idea of India was one of continual evolution, where plurality and syncretism are positive, synergistic forces of national pride.

An Indian Flavor of Capitalism?
This is the "Idea of India" that Sunil Khilnani describes so well. I believe it helps Americans understand how India conceives of itself, and how Hinduism and caste identity are unique elements of Indian identity. Investors must also remember that for India, unbridled global capitalism is still associated with colonialism. Therefore, we cannot assume that capitalism will transcend India's religious history and two centuries of colonial oppression.

Instead, I believe that India will develop its own distinct flavor of capitalism, which is informed by Hinduism and which rejects colonialism. This form of capitalism would have a large role for the state to direct industry and redistribute wealth. It would also limit any global trade that appears exploitive or imperialistic. We shall see if my upcoming trip confirms this hypothesis.

In the meantime, I look forward to seeing the orphans in Kakinada, a town in Andhra Pradesh. (I am shown below with Pastor Abraham Samuel.) My thanks to Sunil Khilnani, whose insights prompt me to work with a little more humility, and a little more sensitivity to India's culture, society, and history.

Disclosure: No position in stocks mentioned