Jean Dreze’s fantasies: Misleading statements of an economist

published on April 28, 2009

Jean Dreze has made several false and misleading statements in the article

Interpretation of Dreams”


( TOI ). Almost all her claims were wrong except the one regarding Macaulay’s statement. The following essay is an answer to Jean Dreze on the various misstatements made by her.


This is a response to the article “Interpretation of Dreams” written by Jean Dreze.


The author has made several false as well as misleading statements in the article. The author seems to think that “occasional famines” translates into “economically poor nation with hunger being common”. This is a very misleading statement. All we need to do is to go through Fa-Hien’s as well as other such travelogues to know that India was definitely a very rich nation. Just because there were a few famines in a century, a nation will not be a poor nation. After all, famines were ‘exceptions’ and the normal condition was that there were bountiful crops and hunger cases were very rare. Mahabharata and other Itihasa-Puranas do state about occasional famines which are few and far in between. But they also categorically state that the nation was otherwise very rich and state that people lived without the fear of hunger and chronic poverty.


The author as well as Romila Thapar seem to suffer from selective blindness in that only famine-related passages appear visible to them. If you consider a text to know about the economic situation in India, you must consider the text completely but unfortunately, today’s “historians” do not seem to think so. The fact is that India was a wealthy nation and it is substantiated by both the Indian and foreign sources.

The author seems to disbelieve the claim that plastic surgery was practiced in India before 400 CE. I would advise Dreze as well as the readers to go through Sushruta Samhita. Rhinoplasty was performed in India even in the 18th century when the art was dying out. In fact, Joseph Carpue used the Indian rhinoplasty method to perform the first rhinoplastic surgery in Britain in the early 19th century. The method came to be known as “Carpue”s operation” (sic) in the western world.

Next, Dreze does not seem to give much importance to the testimonies of Megasthenes. That is perfectly justified. But one cannot simply wish away his work. After all, the very foundation of Indian historical eras is based on the identification of Megasthenes’ Sandrocottus with Chandragupta Maurya. It is true that Megasthenes wrote many fanciful stories but his testimonies in those cases have to be accepted where we have local evidences pointing towards the same. If such rigorous methods as prescribed by Dreze are applied to ancient “history” texts, most contemporary records prior to 1st century BCE have to be completely ignored which is both impossible as well as foolish to do. Also, Dreze’s statement that Joshi has not cited local sources makes me laugh. It is a case of die if you do and die if you don’â. When local sources are cited, these “historians” pooh-pooh the evidence.

When foreign/neutral sources are cited, they ask for local evidence. BJP’s manifesto is not a paper on history. It is illogical to expect Joshi to cite each and every source. In fact, his insistence on neutral sources seems to be a conscious effort to overcome unnecessary scepticism but even then, people like Dreze continue to make careless statements.

Similarly, Dreze does not seem to know about the state of mathematics in medieval India which substantiates the claim that India was far advanced in knowledge due to Bharatiya tradition. The Kerala school of Mathematics was far advanced than its contemporary Europe. Many mathematical 2discoveries” of the 17th century Europe were already known in India before the 16th century. This school came to an end due to the Portuguese, Dutch and Islamic invasions of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. One can see that the discoveries seem to stop with the 16th century when peace in Hindu Kerala was disturbed by external forces.

The book by Dr Gopalakrishnan of IISH, “We Claim These Are Indian Discoveries”, lists the sources for various such mathematical discoveries made in Kerala. Prof. Dreze will do well to look at this book once as well as similar books published by IISH. The book makes us wonder whether the European discoveries were not a case of “unacknowledged” borrowings. After all, there was a huge European presence in the subcontinent and the chances appear to be very large. Therefore, the claim made about Indian knowledge is not completely wrong. The author seems to have been carried away in a European mindset that the Indian nation was neither rich nor very intelligent during the pre-British era. The mistake of the author in adopting this stance is even more clearly proved in the statement about Indian literacy rate.

The author seems to think that Mahatma Gandhi was wrong in stating that India became more illiterate under the British rule.

I would ask the author as well as the readers to read the book “The Beautiful Tree” written by Sri Dharampal. Dharampal has cited the British archives to conclusively prove that every village had a school in the Madras as well as Bengal provinces and that India’s literacy rate was higher than that of England during the early 19th century.

What is more important is that he has shown that these schools were open to all castes and students from every community including the lowest castes who were allowed to learn at these places.


Jean Dreze has made a huge mistake by simply parroting European fantasies rather than the ground realities. The truth is that in the first half of 19th century, India was stripped of her village schools by the British administration and hence, it contributed to an increase in illiteracy. In fact, the increase in the literacy gap between the higher and lower castes was due to this British vandalism. The author will do well to read the sources before stating “opinions”

Finally, Prof. Dreze has got one issue right. Macaulay did not make any such statement in the British Parliament. Sri Joshi seems to have been carried away by its ubiquitous presence on the Internet. But this does not excuse Joshi’s act of quoting this fabrication. Any person should be careful about the sources and verify them before quoting them. Joshi has definitely made an error in this case. But then, Prof. Dreze in haste to prove Joshi wrong seems to have forgotten the fact that it is absolutely necessary to check the sources before stating “opinions”. Dreze has made the same mistake as that of Joshi and that too, in a far huge manner.

I wonder whether we will ever get any “real historian” outside these Habibs, Thapars, Drezes etc. We need a historian who does not impose his/her beliefs on the sources/evidences but actually cite the evidences and go with the inherent logic conveyed by the same.

Ravilochanan G

(A student of MBA from Institute of Management, Nirma University, Ahmedabad)

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