Over the past few months I have had the good fortune of interacting with students of some Indian academic institutions both in the northern and southern states on issues relating to the country’s foreign and security policies. I found them well informed and forward-looking about India’s place in the region and the world. It is reassuring that a sufficiently large number of young people all over the country are seriously concerned about India’s external environment and interests. Most of them do not have the inhibitions of the past; they are focussed on the challenges of the future.
An overwhelming majority of students consider that India’s main challenge stems from China. This may be a new development even if I cannot establish it from empirical data. Till almost a decade ago most university students would have, I suspect, called Pakistan as posing the greatest threat to India’s security. Pakistani policies which seek to harm India have to be countered but it is significant that the students took a long-term view of India’s interests. These are signs of maturity in young minds. Indian security and political classes can learn from the views of these young minds for they are looking the world with fresh eyes.
There is little doubt that China poses a comprehensive challenge to India and the young students recognise that. Perhaps the events in Ladakh and elsewhere along the Line of Actual Control in the summer of 2020 began a churning in the young minds. The Galwan incident which led to the death of twenty Indian soldiers entered their consciousness. Indeed, it will be looked upon in the future as a development which changed India’s outlook on China. Certainly, it made an impact on the attempts which Prime Minister Narendra Modi was making with President Xi Jinping to move bilateral relations on an upward trajectory.
The young students were also aware of the vast difference in India and China’s national power. The fact that China has become the world’s leading manufacturing power and is now the factory of the world is no secret. But the fact that China has made rapid progress in important and select areas of science and technology is more dangerous for Indian interests. That too the students knew. Indeed, the Western powers which contributed to China’s development as a manufacturing base hardly realised that it would pose a challenge in crucial areas of scientific and technological knowledge and its applications.
One of the questions that I posed to the university students was whether in the current digital age the gap between India and West in science and technology was increasing. I gave them the reason why I was concerned about this issue and why I thought that it had a direct bearing on India’s future.
India was not only on par with the West but was superior in many areas of individual and social life till the industrial revolution which took place in Europe and in other parts of the Western world. It was this development which led to the inexorable rise of the West at the cost of India and other Asian countries as well as those of Africa and South America. The industrial revolution was based on advances and breakthroughs in science and technology. It led to India’s enslavement and the rise of colonialism. The leaders of the Indian freedom movement were determined to not only reduce the gap between India and west in science and technology but were also determined to ensure that India gradually India came to the forefront of scientific and technological knowledge. For this purpose a network of institutions was created soon after independence and gradually as India’s human capital in these areas increased the gap between India and west began to reduce. But all this was relevant till the world was in the analog age.
Now the world has truly entered the digital age. Indeed it is passing through the fourth Industrial revolution which is based on the growth of artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things. While India is using the applications which are emerging in the current digital age for social betterment and enhanced administrative efficiencies the question is whether it is producing original ideas and concepts which are the backbone of advances in any area of knowledge, including scientific and technological. It is one matter to use applications and quite another to have the human capital which is making fundamental theoretical and conceptual breakthroughs. It is only if that human capital is available can India claim that it closing the gap with the west in the frontier areas of knowledge.
It is to the credit of the university students that they appreciated this point. In fact one pointed out to me that while oil rich countries had achieved great material success they could not be called advanced countries because their material progress was based on the possession of oil and that they were dependent on foreigners to manage their industries. Besides, all breakthroughs in the oil industry itself was taking place in the western world.
It is necessary to take a dispassionate and comprehensive view on where India currently stands as a producer of basic ideas and concepts in science and technology in this digital age. Naturally, the answer would lie in the competence of Indian human capital and that too capital retained within India and not in the diaspora. While taking a view on this issue it would be essential to realise that the idea that the fruits of research can be purchased and hence the production of knowledge itself need not be undertaken is misleading. No country ever parts with its cutting edge knowledge. That is a lesson of history.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.