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India’s Rich History: Myth vs. Reality

We in India know that we have a great history.  I am not sure how we know this for a fact but we know.  The Chinese hold a very similar opinion.  Maybe the concept of the great past is something that our forefathers passed on to us as we pass on to our future generations.  But are we basing our views of ancient India on facts and hard data or are they based on speculation and heresy?

The concept of a great Indian past is one of the foundations of Hindutva-based political and spiritual movements and political organizations.  You will find ardent followers of such groups constantly complaining about the condition of India today and then use the “glorious Indian past” argument to justify the changes that they feel have to be implemented to bring India up to speed again.

In 2004 noted British economist Angus Maddison published a book titled “The World Economy: Historical Statistics”.  According to this book the Indian economy was the largest in the world in the 1st century accounting for almost 32.9% of worlds Gross Domestic Produce (GDP) (remember 1st century is when Jesus Christ was supposedly born).  India retained the top spot for the next 1500 years only to be overtaken by Ming China in the year 1500 ACE.  India remained the second largest economy in the world until 1870 ACE.  Angus Maddison’s book was the manna from heaven that the Hindu fundamentalists have been waiting for.

I would like to list some of the key points that we should be aware of before buying into the hype that books like these create:

Concept of India: We know that the India that exists today was never ruled by a single king or emperor ever in our history.  The British ruled most of modern India but British India also included parts of Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan.  It is also very important for us to remember that the region that is India today is very different from what was known as India in the 1st century.

For most of the ancient cultures like the Greeks, the Romans and the Persians, India meant predominantly the region extending from parts of modern day Iran to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It also included parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Kashmir.  It did not include the Central, Southern and Northeastern India that forms 90% of India today.

So if we use the data from scriptures and other texts to calculate the GDP of India in the 1st century and come to the conclusion that we were the biggest economy, then by default it also means that Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran were also the largest economies of that time.  We also then have to agree that most of modern India that was not part of ancient India was not that rich.

Invasion of India: If you like to read about foreigners invading a country then reading about Indian history would be a good place to start.  India has been invaded by the Greeks, Persians, Turks, and Mongols and more recently by the Portuguese, British, French and the Dutch.  All of these invasions happened when India was either the largest or second largest economy in the world (if you believe Angus Maddison).

Let us look at it from a modern context.  How many countries are there in the world today that can attack and capture territories belong to the United States of America?  The answer is zero.  Once a country starts becoming wealthy one of the first things they do is to find ways to protect their wealth.  This is done by building powerful armies and allies.  If India was wealthy in the past then how do you explain all these successful invasions?  Maybe India was not as wealthy or technologically advanced or motivated as some of the other countries during the past 2000 or so years?

India Was Rich: One of the common reasons given for the successful invasions of India is that India was a rich country.  The Mughals were in India for over 650 years, the Portuguese for almost 500 years and finally the British for almost 350 years.  If India was rich and the Mughals looted all of the wealth then what were the Portuguese and British doing in India?

Capturing another nations wealth is not one of the primary reasons one country attacks another country (can you think of an example in the past 100 years where one nation attacked another over wealth?).  The primary reasons for war are territorial disputes, religion, cultural differences, perceived injustices, suppressing dissent, eliminating competition and the control of natural resources and strategic areas.

It is a fact that once a country falls then its wealth is immediately transferred to the winner.  It is the low hanging fruit.  But the primary reason why the Europeans and others invaded India was to dominate the trading route with India and exploit Indian resources including manpower to their advantage (two million Indians fought under the British during World War II).  This does not mean that India was rich or that countries like Britain were poor but just the opposite.  The Europeans and the Mughals before them had the technology and the resources to travel long distances to capture Indian territory.

Once they captured India they used Indian manpower to produce goods and services and made money by selling these goods and services all over the world.  The profits made their countries of origin richer.  In their spare time they tried to spread their religion to the so called primitive Indians.  This is far closer to reality than believing that the invaders came to India because India was rich.

GDP is Not Equal to Wealth: India is the 12th largest economy in the world today in terms of GDP.  But are Indians richer than the Swiss, Belgians or the Austrians all of whose economies are much smaller than India’s?  Can an Indian even dream of a lifestyle an average Norwegian has?  The per capita income of a Norwegian is about $86,000.  The per capita income of an Indian is $1,170!!

So if GDP is not an indicator of how rich or powerful India is today then how is it an indicator of India’s wealth in the 1st century?  When I hear that India’s GDP was the biggest in the world in the first century then two things comes to my mind: 1) How can we calculate such a complex statistic like the GDP in the 1st century when we cannot accurately determine the names of the rulers of India at that time and 2) The GDP of India was high probably because India was comparatively very populated then as it is now.  India was not rich then and neither is it rich now.  And that’s my point.

Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists” – John Kenneth Galbraith.

Related posts:

  1. India’s Greatest Moment in its History is Now
  2. Myth or Reality: India is prospering but not Indians?
  3. Hinduism: Myth vs. Reality
  4. History of India: The First Indians
  5. India and China: Contest or Friendship of the Century?

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Category: Culture & Religion

Comments (35)

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  1. Murali says:

    Well, I see you have used this opportunity to take a dig at the Hindu Fundamentalists. But for the record, it does make someone like me (I’m a Hindu, but dont see myself as a fundamentalist) proud.

    If not for the sculptures, archaeological sites, structures such as temples, our wealth and advancement can be evidenced by the life of numerous sages who treaded this country – men who were of wisdom and peace, and the words of whom have been a guiding beacon for those seeking the real ‘peace of mind’

    We were richer because of the widespread advancements in philosophy and spirituality that we exhibited 2000 years ago, and not so much because of individual wealth. Save for China or Japan no other culture could even came close.

    • Hari says:

      Welcome Murali and thank you for your feedback in this and other articles.

      I agree with you that in terms of spirituality and thinking outside the box India was probably as good as it got in the ancient world. However, I was arguing mainly from a material wealth stand point.

      • Advitya says:

        Even from the material wealth point of view, the various principalities and kingdoms of India were big on trade, commerce with routes extending from Rome to China. If you take India as it is today then all the then kingdoms were Infact all wealthy, but divided for the most part, which is why they were easier to overrun. As far as this logic Indicating that Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan were rich nations as well-sure they were.Money and size along do not prevent invasions, Alexander was neither richer nor had he bigger armies when compare to the Persians he took apart. Gengiz Khan was again not wealthier or as well established as many of kingdoms he took apart to cement his legacy. History is never as simple. Visit ancient sites in India like Sirthavur and you will realize that even common people could afford reasonable burials.

        • Hari says:

          Advitya,

          As I mentioned in my article we cannot compare the wealth of a nation (equivalent to GDP) and then use it to argue that that nation is rich. India is the 12th largest economy in the world but it is over the 150th mark in terms of per capita income. I am not suggesting that “India” was poor. I am suggesting that “Indians” were poor and ill equipped (materially speaking). India is a rich country today but majority of Indians today live in abject poverty. The ruling elite then like today did not care about the poor people.

          Alexander and Gengiz Khan were rich in terms of their strategy, planning, training, supplies and motivation of their men which is why they were able to pick apart other forces that were mainly dependent on their numbers (most armies of poorer nations today as they did in the past depend on numbers (Porus vs. Alexander being one such example)).

          • Advitya says:

            The quality of life for the common man was not as bad as one would find it today. The collective history of what is now India is ancient to say the least, the better part of it was prosperous. Evidence is not merely GDP, but trade, quality of life, advent of art and architecture and craftsmanship and most importantly account of foreign traders and travelers.
            Yes the won because of tactics, which was exactly my point in reference to what you had said about richer nations being difficult to conquer. The nations they conquered were all richer.

          • Hari says:

            Advitya … the reality is we have very little evidence to show that Indians 2200 years ago or 1500 years ago had a very high standard of living. What you say about India (trade, art, architecture, foreign accounts) are true for all “known” world. How can you say that one of the deductions that we can make after the defeat of India at the hands of the Greeks was that India was rich? If people from great distances came and captured India and ruled the country for significant periods of time shouldn’t we consider the possibility that India was poor and ill prepared?

          • Advitya says:

            Contrary to what you say my friend there is ample evidence to support the notions that people of the subcontinent lived well in those times. You need to visit the sites of the time. You will be surprised! Problem is we dont market ourselves in terms of history as well as say Egypt. For the most part we dont care. Have you been to Lothal? The Indus valley civilization even the parts which were in India were very highly developed. And this is evident in what they left behind. Places in Kerala and Tamil Nadu also show good indications of the life of the times. So to say there is no evidence is not correct. Perhaps you need to visit such places and research it more.

            Well for one Alexader did not conquer the whole of India. Just a few frontier kingdoms. Secondly had he met the Nandas(who were stronger than Porus) in battle perhaps the outcome could have been different. Fact is he never conquered the more powerful Indian rulers of the time. The greeks beat the persians who were both well prepared and rich, so money and preparation alone cant explain why alexander beat those kings. Thats what made him Alexander the Great, wouldnt be so great otherwise would he? The logical reason for people conquering a land is its material and natural wealth, evidence suggests India had both!! This is not just right wing propaganda, its known history as also mentioned from accounts of non Indian sources.

          • Hari says:

            I am from Kerala and I lived in Tamil Nadu for over 20 years. I know India as much as the next person including you.

            I hope you have been to Bihar? I have. People who live there are dirt poor. If the government of Bihar builds a lot of monuments today by spending public money can we a 1000 years from now say that people in Bihar today were rich people because they could afford to build all these monuments?

            What does Lothal and the Indus Valley civilization prove about the poverty, illiteracy and the standard of living of the average human being? Consider the India-Pakistan war, the world wars and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars are fought over many reasons. One of the reasons happens to be wealth. But it is not the only one.

            When a country or a society captures another one and then stays there for hundreds of years the argument that the captured country was superior and richer does not wash (this turns the concept of meritocracy upside down). We are brainwashing ourselves if we believe so. We were dominated by invaders for almost 2000 years. That is a sign of weakness and not strength.

            The invaders captured the people, imposed special taxes on them and used the revenues to build monuments and enjoyed themselves by indulging in the arts, architecture and by living a lavish lifestyle. In the case of the European invaders these revenues were sent back to their country of origins and for the further expansion of their empires. They used Indians to do the dirty work for them including fighting their wars. The Indian army was the largest “voluntary” army during WWII. The real truth sometimes is hard to swallow.

            The number of Indians was and is India’s greatest wealth (not trees, temples, religions or scriptures). For the first time in history we are beginning to take advantage of our strength in numbers. In addition to building a great economy I hope Indians also build a great nation that is way better than the mostly “mythical” Indian past.

            I think enough has been said in this thread.

            ““May the dreams of your past be the reality of your future” – Author Unknown.

  2. Ram says:

    Even materially, I believe India was rich back then; not the India we call now and not the borders that is today. Whatever the land mass that was known as India then, silk and spices were exotic only to be found in India. The natural resources, fertile lands, deep rivers are what were considered rich; not the GDP or budget surplus…. that’s my two cents.

    • Hari says:

      Could be true Ram. We have the very same natural resources today but I do not think that most Indians would consider our nation rich (materially today). Would our ancestors have considered the nation rich 2000 years ago because of these resources? I doubt it. Just like today most of these resources and the revenue generated from them would have been in the hands of the few (mostly the royal family and their cronies).

      • Advitya says:

        The population would not have flourished as much had the nation not been fit for large scale habitation. Natural wealth meant more then than it does now, fertile soil, favorable climate, water etc were enough reason for conquest. The fact that so much diversity, trade, art, architecture, literature etc flourished Indicates a rhobust civilization. Like i said earlier perhaps its not the India as we know post Bri occupation/Independence nevertheless the regions was prosperous enough to have been mentioned so in accounts of various ancient traders and travelers. And as for the elite being better off, that has and continues being the case the world over (perhaps present day scandanavia being an exception lol).
        And also no kingdom will try to subdue another simply for manpower. The brits or other European powers dint come with the sole intention of cheap and dispensable manpower. They could have just used African Slaves if that was the case, would have been practically easier to obtain than to travel half way round the world to do so. Indias wealth did exist, one needs to only look at the ancient ruins to understand that. Like i said the graves in Sirthavur and other such places (India is littered with such megalithic sites) were mostly of common people and if common folk, if they could afford such elaborate ceremonies one can only wonder what must have been!!!

        • Hari says:

          1) All the major invasions on India happened before industrialization. So natural resources and exploiting natural resources were not that critical to a nations economy then as it is today. 2) An average American is poor compared to a rich American. But an average American is very wealthy compared to an average Indian. That is the comparison you should be making and not between the rich and poor in a given country. 3) The Europeans did colonize entire Africa and did take people from their colonies wherever they went. How and why do you think Indians ended up all over Africa, the Caribbean and South America? They were taken there as laborers by Europeans.

          The question is not India’s wealth that comes from its natural resources (it is given not earned). The question is Indians wealth (something that has to be earned).

  3. Lalit says:

    Excellent article.

    • Hari says:

      Welcome and thank you very much Lalit.

  4. Jay says:

    There were so many explorers including Columbus who were looking for alternative trade routes to India. Obviously trade was huge between Europe (many countries) and India. That would also suggest we were producing something good economically. Then add together the travelogues from Europeans who talked about how rich India was. Put together the fact that diamonds were found only in India until 18th century. Put together the vaster agriculture resources in India as compared to Europe and put together the fact that agriculture was the main component of economy for all countries until industrial revolution, I think India was doing great economically. I don’t see you putting any concrete data to prove India was poor during early times. Your logic of using invasion of India as a the reason for her poverty has been easily countered by Advitya. The manpower reason also does not make sense. No Indians were exported for labor until much later. By that time Britishers had sucked India. Even then relatively very few Indians were exported. So the manpower reason that you gave is bogus. Britishers didn’t use Indians to manufacture goods. They transferred the industries from India to Britain. I don’t see a single good logic in your article that will make anybody think that India was indeed poor.

    • Hari says:

      Welcome Jay,

      My logic is fine. If a country is ruled pretty much for 2000 years by outsiders then I have a no problem admitting that my country has some weakness. I do not want to live in some Utopian dream.

      India is not the only country colonized or written about by the Europeans. So was the whole of Africa and North America and South America. So are all these continents as rich as India as well? Then what separates them from India? Other than repeating the same old stories about India’s glorious past (diamonds, farming), no one has shown any evidence to show that an average Indian for the past 2000 years was rich compared to his counterparts all over the world.

      Everybody is writing about India and China today. Almost all companies want to invest in India. India has one of the largest gold reserves in the world and it still has the natural resources. Does this mean that India is the richest country in the world today? On a per capita basis it is one of the poorest. India today is a very good snapshot of how India was in the past (rich in natural resources, rich government, rich politicians but predominantly poor people). Why do we have difficulty admitting this?

      • Jay says:

        Who told you that India has the largest gold reserves in the world? Nobody said that because India was colonized, it was the richest country in the world. I was talking about the high trade between India and the rest of the world and the high importance of the trade routes with India. That is something nobody can ignore. When the travelogues by people who actually visited India in past say India was doing well economically, why shouldn’t I believe them instead of you. YOu haven’t presented any data or a good logic to prove otherwise. The onus is on you. All your logic about “capturing Indian manpower”, “stronger army” etc. has been debunked by fellow commentators. Bring the data instead of making analogies that don’t make sense. Why do you have difficulty in admitting that India was rich when compared to other nations in the world at that time. Modern technology and worldy comforts provide a different meaning of rich now but at early times, you have to look at what was available then that contribute to economic activity – things like agriculture, gemstones, textile, leather, arts, architecture/construction, etc. India had poor people who lived in thatched roof mud houses but overall the country was doing well. Again, it is documented by people who lived during those times. I don’t see why I should believe you when so many things point to support what those people said.

        Nobody is living in utopian world. Accept the fact (or you have trouble in accepting any good fact about India). May be you want to live in depresssed world. India’s economy did well from ancient to medivial times but then started faltering, especially after arrival of Brits when the economy started deteriorate badly (that’s another topic for debate).

        • Hari says:

          I mentioned India’s gold reserve today because you mentioned India had diamonds in the past!!

          Many who support the theory that India was rich have repeated things like 1) It was written in books 2) That is why the invaders came here 3) All of us believe so etc.

          But none of this proves that “Indian’s” were rich or how an Indian was richer than an average person in South Africa? Just because a myth is repeated again and again does not mean it becomes true.

          You want evidence. Let me remind you that I am not the person who is making the extraordinary claim that one of the poorest countries in the world today was the richest country in the world for the past 2000 years. I am not the one making the claim that a country that was literally in the hands of foreigners for 2000 years is better than all those who invaded it. I am also not making the claim that Indians who were forcibly incorporated into the Greek, Muslim and the British armies and asked to fight for their causes all over the world for the past 2000 years are some how better off than the their slave masters.

          If you want evidence all you need to do is to read a book on world history. But I need some evidence on why you claim that Indians were rich.

        • Hari says:

          Jay … I will conclude the argument by saying this. You like many others are arguing that India had a large amount of trade and therefore Indians much be rich. India did have a large amount of trade in the past and continues to do so now (India is the 12th largest economy in the world today). But that does not mean Indians are rich.

          You state that “India had poor people who lived in thatched roof mud houses but overall the country was doing well“. Really? To me people living in thatched roof means poverty. There are millions of Indians who live like that today. We do not call them rich. My argument is based on what we know about India that is documented and making logical conclusions.

          Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. I have not seen it. No one has debunked anything.

  5. Ram says:

    Reading thru the blog and the comments thread, it appears to me that your point of contention really is Indians have a false sense of pride about their history, culture and religion; and not so much whether ancient India was rich or not.

    Your concept of a rich country means that an average citizen is rich – this might not have been true back then, but still India as a land (not people) was probably rich by whatever was the definition back then.

    P.S. – I don’t have any evidence to prove either way.

    • Hari says:

      Ram … I do not necessarily think that Indians have a false sense of pride. Everybody is proud of their culture even if you are from Somalia and rightfully so. But we should be open to the idea that most of what we know about ancient India is mere speculation (for many ancient cultures the concept of India even included parts of Egypt).

      India was rich then as it is today. It was rich in natural resources, rich in spirituality and philosophy. India today is rich in all the same aspects. But there is no evidence to show that this richness of culture translated into rich and prosperous Indian citizens. Our history shows that we were taken advantage of by many cultures for a very long period of time (not 50 or 100 years but for 2000 years). This I argue is not a sign of strength but weakness.

      I also believe that the reason that others invaded India is not just for the wealth. If all of India’s wealth was taken by the Greeks and Mongols early on then what was left for the Mughals and the Europeans later on? If getting India’s wealth was the key reason why did they stay on for hundreds of years?

      They came because they wanted control over India’s greatest wealth (then and now) and that is the people of India. They taxed the Indian public and enjoyed themselves and solidified their nation and empire. They used our soldiers to fight their wars (it was not the British who did this but also the Greeks, Turks and Mongols). They made us build their Mosques and palaces. They built factories and made us work for almost nothing. They forced us to build roads and railway networks so that they can transport the goods and make money all over the world. They spread their religion and culture on our people because they did not think highly of it in the first place.

      • is says:

        I think Hari has a point in his sayings.

        My point: Only in 20th and 21st century we have seen man’s mind to flourish to the extent that it has made possible inventions like electricity etc.

        What was happening to the world or India during the 1800 years. Nobody came up with that idea back then.

        SO MY QUESTION WHY NOW.

        My point is that whatever is the so called history and all inventions and man made things are a product of the 20th or 21st century.

        Its like looking at your childhood days when you are at the prime of your life and think about all the mistakes you did back then. But would you call them mistakes when you were actually a child and doing them.

        A famous Indian American physicist once said – History is what we want it to be (just like what Hitler did).

        The main question is – Who are we ? And why do we perceive history the way we do it. Maybe the ancients saints tried to answer this and came closer to the truth and thats why India was great in the past.

        • Hari says:

          Welcome IS,

          Your points are valid. India in the past was one of the centers of “learning” in a broad sense of the world. I would not say that the literacy rates were high or that the school system was great but there were a select few who were pushing the boundaries of thought.

  6. Ram says:

    I agree with you that India is as rich now as it was then. The people of India may not be rich and many below poverty line. But many Indians rank among the top 20 wealthiest people in the world today, and if you include many un-accounted-for wealth by businessmen and politicians, India is among the richest nations in the world today. Unfortunately it doesn’t translate to individual wealth for all its citizens.

    Same was true hundreds of years ago. There was a lot of wealth in India not enjoyed by ordinary people. The foreigners came in for that wealth among other reasons you stated who then exploited Indian people.

    • Hari says:

      You got it Ram. This is exactly what I am talking about.

  7. Neetu Kaimal says:

    This is a wonderful article. It forces us to think about our past in a different light. I have to agree that most of what we know about our past is mere speculation. There is no evidence to indicate that an average Indian was living a rich and prosperous life in a feudal caste based environment. The documented history of India shows successful conquests of the land by nations from all over. Exploitation like this normally happens to the weak and the poor and not to the rich. It would be foolish to argue otherwise.

    India’s literacy rate in 1947 was about 10% -15% and even today we have almost 35% of the world’s poor. I do not think that this happened overnight or by accident. This is a result of centuries of neglect by those who ruled us. I wonder if India was great back then why did every nation that defeated us also tried to force their religion and culture on us? Maybe they did not have such a high opinion of us as we do about ourselves?

    As you mentioned every culture thinks that somehow theirs is a great culture. India is no exception. I guess it is easier psychologically for some of us to believe that these conquerors came to India because of its wealth rather than face the reality that they came because we were easy prey

    • Hari says:

      Thank you Neetu. An average Indian today in a secular democracy feels frustrated and is without a voice. I can only image what it would have been hundreds and thousands of years ago in a feudal society where 90% of the people have no voice. The Indian government in the past 60 years have done a better job when it comes to literacy and alleviating poverty than anybody else in Indian history.

  8. Vishasa Narayana says:

    Well i guess by 2000 years you mean Aryans and aftermath. The whole point is this cause you indirectly say this. AM i right?? are you trying to say that Dravidians have been ruled by others ever since then. If it is the case then yes i agree. But it is largely because no one actually ruled us and it is just that our ancestors were happy and welcomed people from the far far lands. It is in our genes to be generous.

    • Hari says:

      Welcome Vishasa.

      I also include the Mongols, Turks , British and so on. Welcoming maybe, but we fight with Pakistan and China for every inch of land today. Did our genes change? I do not think so. It is in human nature to protect what is ours.

  9. Neil says:

    I think you should also reconsider what the Greeks considered “India”

    Read this

    http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Indica.html

    • Hari says:

      Welcome Neil,

      The link is shows an excerpt from the book by E.J. Chinnock about Flavius Arrianus. Arrianus wrote a biography of Alexander about 300 years after his death. The first paragraph says the following “The district west of the river Indus as far as the river Cophen is inhabited by the Astacenians and the Assacenians, Indian tribes. But they are not so tall in stature or so courageous as those who dwell east of the Indus; nor are they so swarthy as the majority of the Indians“. So East of the Indus and West of the Indus was considered as Indians (if he ever used that word in his original text).

  10. sangom says:

    I agree with most of what you have written, except the reason for foreign invasion. Whether it was control of trade routes or whatever, it goes without saying that there was something to be traded, there was enough of it (natural resources) and could be exploited by the aggressor for his benefit. In that sense India was rich in natural resources, as the entire south-east Asia was.

    • Hari says:

      I agree with you that trading was one of the reasons for the conquests. The obvious one was spice (salt particularly was important for the Europeans because it can be helpful in refrigeration).

  11. Sachin D. says:

    You seem to be contradicting yourself. In another post I saw, you wrote about Chandragupta Maurya. Here you say “no one ruled the India we see today.” You just need to google dear friend, if you do not have much time to go through history books.

    Funny, indeed.

    Although sorry for posting comments after reading only couple of your lines. I could not survice your warped rationale further…

    • Hari says:

      Sachin,

      You should have read the whole article. Otherwise you would not have accused me of contradicting myself which I did not do.

      In my article about Chandragupta Maurya I do point out that he did not rule most of Central and parts of India like Patna as is generally believed but places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is in sync with my comment here that no one ruled India as it exists today.

      You did not bring anything to the table so far that would indicate to me that I have to start reading more.

      “Logic is in the eye of the logician” – Gloria Steinem.

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