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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Flawed inheritance: Games of mobilisation

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is by now sufficiently clear that the West Bengal government’s ostrich-like attitude to the vandalism witnessed around the Kaliachak police station in Malda district on January 3 has resulted in a political muddle. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s initial policy of pretending that nothing of any significance happened that day may well have been based on the belief that it is always prudent to underplay incidents that have communal dimensions. In the past such an approach—that has the tacit blessings of Bengal’s ‘progressive’ intelligentsia and even the media—has paid dividends and prevented sectarian tensions from spreading in a state that has a rich mix of communities. So, why has the political fallout of Kaliachak been greater than was initially anticipated? 

To blame the entire kerfuffle on ‘trolls’ and ‘bhakts’ in the social media, as one articulate Trinamool Congress spokesperson has done, is rather self-serving. No doubt it was the sustained outrage in the social media over the initial mainstream media blackout of the violence that helped generate widespread concern, particularly outside West Bengal. Certainly, it was also an opportunity for those who believed that the reaction to the Dadri beef lynching in Uttar Pradesh was disproportionate to hit back at the double standards of the intellectuals who had returned their literary awards in protest. However, the plain fact is that the violence that resulted from a mobilisation of nearly a lakh of people just couldn’t be brushed under the carpet. And more so since there was revealing footage to substantiate the menacing attitude of a mob that happened to have been driven by a sense of religious indignation. 

The comparison may be inexact, but there is an eerie parallel between the official reactions to the Kaliachak violence and the hooliganism that was witnessed in Cologne, Germany, on the night of December 31. Just as the Kaliachak violence resulted from the mobilisation of local Muslims by an obscure organisation, the molestation of women in Cologne appears to be the outcome of a below-the-radar mobilisation of young males from West Asian and North African communities, including a large number of asylum seekers. In both cases the police appears to have been caught entirely by surprise; and in both cases the governments reacted with a mixture of denial and disbelief, for fear that the situation would be exploited by political opponents of the regime. The reaction has been more pronounced in Germany which is suffering from a bout of indigestion over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s extra-generous accommodation of asylum seekers from West Asia. By contrast, there has been no visible fallout in West Bengal but the incident has served to resurrect the underlying disquiet over what has been called the TMC government’s “appeasement” of Muslim petulance. 

It is important to recognise that, at least in India, all state governments have a daunting task balancing competitive and, occasionally, conflicting identities. West Bengal may not have had significant communal clashes since 1965 but that is not to suggest that mobilisation along sectarian lines has been absent. 

On the Hindu side, Bengal presents an interesting case study. A large chunk of the intellectual component of what is called Hindu nationalism originated in Bengal in the 19th and early-20th centuries. The contributions of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Bhudeb Mukherjee and Swami Vivekanada are important in this respect. The founder of the Jana Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee also cut his teeth in the local Hindu Mahasabha and was in the forefront of the move to prevent the incorporation of West Bengal into East Pakistan in 1947. However, after Mookerjee’s death in 1953, the Hindu nationalist impulses in West Bengal were blunted. Whereas the collective memory of Partition was an important component of the Hindu nationalism that emerged in North India after Independence, the Hindu refugees from East Pakistan became a reliable vote bank for the Communists after the 1950s. Indeed, in the six decades of post-Independence electoral politics, ‘Hindu’ parties have never managed to secure a meaningful toehold in the state. 

It is not that the state is devoid of any self-conscious sense of Hindu-ness, but this has not translated into political mobilisation. One possible reason could be the intellectual hegemony of the Left—a phenomenon that has led to complacency over pressing problems such as the illegal immigration from Bangladesh and disinterest in the steady demographic transformation of the state. The Left was electorally decimated in 2011 but the advent of the TMC has not led to any significant shift in the intellectual landscape. ‘Anti-communalism’ in West Bengal has remained true to a flawed secular inheritance: opposing ‘majoritarianism’ alone. 

An autonomous domain characterised as ‘Muslim politics’ was a feature of Bengal politics from 1905 to 1947. However, after Independence, Muslim communities subsumed their larger political interests—mainly centred on representation—in the dominant ‘secular’ parties. Initially the beneficiary was the Congress, subsequently the Left and, today, the TMC. Where Mamata Banerjee has differed from the Left is in accommodating the explicitly religious impulses of the Muslim communities. Unlike, say, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who was wary of maulvis and madarasas, the TMC government has sought to make the religious leaders of local Muslims stakeholders in her political dispensation. In the context of the global resurgence of Islamism, this has resulted in the Muslim leadership upping the political ante and demanding its pound of flesh from the local administration. This has included political protection to Islamic radicals and even turning a blind eye to a section of the underworld that has expediently used religion and community as a cover. 

The Chief Minister’s tacit justification of the Malda underworld’s conflict with the Border Security Force which initiated a crackdown on counterfeit currency smuggling and the production of narcotics may have been dictated by compulsions of the Assembly election due in the summer. But it is also a commentary on the extent to which a section of the local Muslim leadership now believes it can call the shots. In different parts of eastern India, Muslim community leaders appear to be experimenting with different political expressions. In Assam, the Bengali-speaking Muslims, particularly in the districts where Muslims are dominant or near-dominant, the inclination is to promote a separate Muslim political party that seeks to share power with a ‘secular’ party on its own terms. In Bihar and West Bengal, on the other hand, the preference is still for promoting community interests through traditional ‘secular’ parties such as the Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the TMC. In Malda, where the TMC and the Congress are in direct competition for the votes of a predominantly Muslim electorate, it is understandable that Mamata Banerjee is anxious to not do anything that could antagonise powerful community leaders. 

In the game of mobilisation along explicitly sectarian lines, the Muslim community, it would seem, is far ahead in the game. There has been no corresponding Hindu mobilisation—this may explain the absence of inter-community clashes of the type witnessed in other states. This pattern may not change in the short-term but in view of the growing, but still largely muted, disquiet over aggressive Muslim mobilisation, the coming Assembly election could initiate trends that could become ominous. Experience shows that if there is simmering anger (or even fear), it takes only a small, local incident to bring all the contradictions to the surface. The signs so far are not encouraging. 

The Telegraph, January 15, 2016

  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Yes, Pak is schizoid but does India know what it wants?

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the course of an interview to the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in November 1972, when he was at the height of his position as the mastermind of US foreign policy, Henry Kissinger warned against his policies being subjected to facile moral judgments. The “history of things that didn’t happen”, he asserted, had to be considered before passing a verdict on things that did happen.

Kissinger’s invocation of the counter-factual to assess the road travelled comes to mind in the context of the loud criticisms of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dramatic overture to Pakistan on Christmas Day. If the attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot nine days later was a direct jihadi response to Modi’s Lahore visit, would India have been better served had the Indian Prime Minister preferred protocol over impulse? After all, there was enough evidence — dating back to Pakistan’s post-bus diplomacy perfidy in 1999 — to indicate there would be a violent reaction each time there was a hint of forward movement in diplomatic relations. By this logic, India and Pakistan must stick to the script of a holy war.

The options before India would have been simpler had there been a consensus that relations with Pakistan should be kept to a bare minimum and aimed merely at preventing a full-scale war. Unfortunately, there are few takers for a policy of benign neglect. Apart from the fact that Pakistan itself craves for India’s attention, even if it is just to nag us on Kashmir, there are those in India who either dream of a common market or cherish confused notions of a composite culture.

The choices may have been more uncluttered had most of Pakistan been made up of either fanatical jihadis fulminating from the pulpit or demented generals making a spectacle of themselves on TV. That isn’t the case. There is a Pakistan that shares literary, artistic and even entrepreneurial impulses with its Indian counterpart. There is also the large Pakistani diaspora that is often indistinguishable from overseas Indians. And finally, there are Indians and Pakistanis linked by family ties, not to mention elite connections forged in American or British universities. Together they don’t necessarily make for a ‘peace’ constituency but they are certainly a deterrent against popular demonology becoming state policy. There is a widespread distaste in India for Pakistan as a nation but the loathing doesn’t extend to Pakistanis. Indians are forever engaged in the quest for the ‘good Tricky ties: As India engages with Pakistan, Pathankot will surely not be the last

Arguably, it is this layered perception that is at the heart of the inconsistencies and hesitations in India’s neighbourhood policy. By now there is an overweight of evidence to suggest that Pakistan is a schizoid state, unable to decide whether it wants the modernist Kemal Ataturk as its role model or whether it seeks salvation through the medievalist zeal of a Taliban clone. Variations of both tendencies are present in the Pakistan establishment, and neither can cancel the other out.

Prime Minister Sharif was perhaps not insincere in his attempt to cobble together a working relationship with India built on pragmatic considerations. He was not insincere in 1999 either, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Lahore. But it is extremely unlikely he will be able to act on India’s demand to come down hard on those who organized the Pathankot attack. Recall the zero progress made in the prosecution of those responsible for the 26/11 Mumbai massacre. The reality is stark: taking an Indian life doesn’t constitute criminality in Pakistan. Many see it as the passage to a blissful afterlife.

So, would Modi have been better off sticking to conventional, protocol-based diplomacy with Pakistan? It would certainly have been a riskaverse approach. From the moment he landed in Lahore, Modi was inviting retaliation from the holy warriors. It was a combination of readiness and luck that ensured none of the military objectives of the mission were met. But Pathankot will not be the last. Indian resilience will be severely tested.

The jihadis know why they are conducting suicide missions. Does India know what it wants from Pakistan? Mere ‘friendship’ is too feeble a goal. A meaningful Pakistan policy must be prefaced on objectives that are noble enough to lose lives for.


Sunday Times of India, January 10, 2016

Friday, January 8, 2016

Why the 'nation' fell silent on Kaliachak

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

Last Sunday morning, even as the country’s attention was focussed on the terror attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, another drama was unfolding in the Kaliachak area of Malda district in West Bengal. A mob, whose numbers are estimated at anything between 50,000 and over a lakh, first attacked the local police station, drove out the small police force, set fire to all the records in the thana and then proceeded to attack shops and set fire to as many vehicles it found in the vicinity. Although no one was killed in the mob violence—it can hardly be called a riot since there was no retaliation—the damage to property was considerable. 

 

The mob, whose composition was exclusively Muslim, had gathered at the call of an obscure organisation, was apparently protesting against some disgusting comments by a Hindu extremist made a month ago in Uttar Pradesh, for which the culprit had been promptly arrested and jailed. Offensive as those comments undeniably were, there was no reason why the Muslims of Malda—one of the many Muslim majority districts of West Bengal—should feel exceptionally aggrieved enough to direct their ire at the local administration. But then there was no reason why a Muslim gathering in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan in August 2012 should have felt so particularly agitated over the fate of the Rohingyas in Myanamar to go on the rampage in an Indian city. On that occasion too—when a martyr’s memorial was vandalised—the mobilisation had been at the call of an obscure organisation, albeit one with a history of promoting radical Islamism. 

 

Subsequent police inquiries have suggested that the violence in Kaliachak had been masterminded by criminal elements—particularly those involved in contraband drugs trafficking and the distribution of counterfeit currency—that have made the area its centre. It would seem that the area has increasingly become a no-go area for the local police because the criminal groups have taken full advantage of the West Bengal government’s known reluctance to do anything that could be interpreted as offending minority sentiments. This is the same logic that explains the ease with which criminal networks thrive in some Muslim ghettos in Kolkata and neighbouring South 24 Parganas. In the 1980s, a diligent police officer was lynched by a criminal mob in Kolkata for daring to take his law-enforcement job a bit too seriously. And Kaliachak had witnessed open-air gunfights last year as criminals waged quasi-political turf battles. 

 

The immediate aftermath of the Kaliachak violence has been two-fold. First, the local police and administration have been so totally intimidated that it is unlikely there will be any meaningful action against those who engineered the violence last Sunday. The fact that the organisers took shelter behind a religious cover has only served to drive home the administration’s helplessness, and more so because the West Bengal Assembly elections are due in May this year. With the Congress—which still has a large presence in Malda district—trying to drive a political bargain with two courtiers—the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress—the Muslim politico-criminal elements chose an opportune time to flex their muscles. 

 

Secondly, while the violence in Kaliachak was not a riot in the accepted sense of the term, it was also tangentially directed against the Hindu minority. There are media reports that Hindu-owned shops in the bazar bore the brunt of the organised vandalism. This targeted violence has meant that the Hindu population in Malda, as well as neighbouring Muslim-majority districts, now live in a state of intense insecurity. Although it may be rash to suggest that what we are witnessing is the creeping creation of autonomous Islamic republics along the border with Bangladesh, it is important to recognise that such threats exist in the long-term, particularly if the state government turns a blind eye to the problem. 

 

It is worth acknowledging that the authorities in Bangladesh have repeatedly alerted the Indian authorities of the dangers posed by Bangladeshi extremists who have taken refuge in West Bengal ever since the Awami League government turned the heat on them. 

 

It is entirely possible that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee does not endorse the growing militancy among a section of West Bengal’s Muslim population. Unfortunately, she has done precious little to tackle the problem. Maybe she is mindful of the disaster that struck her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee for his attempts to counter an incipient Islamist threat. She must also be aware of the dire political predicament of Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi who has to enter into either a formal or informal understanding with Badruddin Ajmal of the United Minorities Front of Assam to compensate for his loss of support among the Assamese Hindu population.

 

However, Mamata cannot be singled out for her cynical capitulation to organised communal politics. What the Kaliachak incident also demonstrated—as has many other unpublicised incidents in West Bengal involving abductions and denial of religious rights—was the increasing reluctance of the Bengali intelligentsia to raise awkward questions centred on Muslim politics. Just as Taslima Nasreen found little support for herself among the bhadralok intellectuals of Kolkata, the embarrassed silence over Kaliachak has exposed the double standards of secular ‘group-think.’ 

 

No two incidents are alike but even if a fraction of the outrage over the Dadri lynching in Uttar Pradesh had been showered on the vandalism in Kaliachak, it would have sent a salutary message. Alas, the resounding silence, including that of the ‘nation’ (meaning Delhi) media has served as an encouragement to some of the more extreme communal elements in the Muslim community. They will not be mistaken in believing that they can get away with just about anything.


Asian Ge, January 8, 2016

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Being a conservative: Reconciling the eternal India with the changing India

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

And the Ploughman settled the share

   More deep in the sun-dried clod:

‘Mogul, Mahratta, and Mlech

   from the North,

   ‘And White Queen over the Seas—

‘God raiseth them up and driveth them forth

   ‘As the dust of the ploughshare flies in the breeze;

‘But the wheat and the cattle are all in my care,

   ‘And the rest is the will of God.’

 

[Rudyard Kipling, ‘What the people said’]

 

One of the prescribed Bangla texts during my middle school years was a short essay by a writer (whose name escapes me after so many years) describing his visit to a corner shop. He recalled the loving care with which the venerable shopkeeper, in between serving customers, instructed his grandson. Returning to the same place some decades later, the writer was surprised to see the same shop and what appeared to be the same grandfather teaching his grandson. On inquiry he discovered that the grandson he had observed in his youth had now become a grandfather and was doing what his grandfather had so lovingly done: transmitting knowledge over the generations. 

 

To the writer, this experience resonated with symbolism and meaning. To him, this was the essence of an India that despite outward change was essentially unchanging at the core. 

 

The notion of an eternal India has fascinated both natives and foreigners over the ages, but particularly since the encounter with post-Enlightenment Europe. Despite his own unwavering commitment to the Empire and even the “White man’s burden”, Kipling was convinced that the modernist impact on India was only skin deep and that “a life as full of impossibilities and wonders as the Arabian Nights… [exists] outside of our own English life…” His ‘What the people said’ written to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was, in effect, an assertion that British rule in India was a passing show—the proverbial ripples on the surface that leave the depths unmoved. 

 

This imperial belief in Indian exceptionalism—a body of thought that runs from Warren Hastings in the 18th century to Lord Curzon in the 20th—was also echoed in Indian society. The idea of an India uncontaminated by destructive Western science and technology may have originated from different sources, but there was a silken thread that linked the Sanskrit pundits in the 19thcentury who abjured all “useful knowledge”—a euphemism for English education—and Mahatma Gandhi who believed that India’s future lay in self-sufficient, self-governing villages and not in the creation of a desi Leviathan.

 

In the contemporary language of insolent modernity that abounds in the media, the loose commitment to an eternal and unchanging India is almost certain to be greeted with derision and mockery. Terms such as ‘conservative’, ‘traditionalist’ and ‘reactionary’ have been used almost synonymously to distinguish this amorphous body of thought from nobler ideals, encapsulated in terms as ‘modernist’, ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive.’ In recent times, expressions such as ‘right wing’ and ‘communalist’ have also been added to the list of sneer words. In a world that is knocking at the doors of a largely incomprehensible post-modernism, almost any body of thought that stems from pre or non-Enlightenment traditions are almost certain to be ghettoised in a Jurassic Park. 

 

The assumption of intellectual superiority by those who flaunt the self-conferred label of ‘public intellectuals’ has scaled new heights with the victory of Narendra Modi in the 2014 general election. Even the halting conversation that once existed between the divergent political and intellectual currents in India appears to have come to a halt. Those upset by Modi’s victory and the rise of an Indian ‘Right’ have shed their internal disagreements and forged a common front aimed at not only preventing a recurrence in 2019—a perfectly legitimate political endeavour—but to deny the new government any legitimacy and space for governance. The revolt of the intellectuals against perceived ‘intolerance’ has bred a counter-intolerance of all ideas that are deemed offensive to an arbitrary and, often, excessively Nehruvian ‘idea of India.’ 

 

Indeed, what is being witnessed is something fascinatingly bizarre: the almost total repudiation of democracy in the name of superior sensibilities. There are certainly precedents for those professing to be avant-garde to opt out of all conversation with the mainstream. But for those who before May 2014 represented the cultural and intellectual establishment to become petulant as an organised group following a defeat in a free and fair election is quite unique—and all in the name of defending democracy from the barbarians. In terms of churlishness it ranks several notches higher than the denial of an honorary degree to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (also a distinguished alumni) by the dons of Oxford University in 1985. 

 

Since ‘progressive’ and ‘modernist’ thought were elevated to the heights of an unofficial national philosophy, the Indian mainstream has been hostile to all those who questioned the fundamentals of Nehruvian nation-building. This did not include the adherents of the 57 varieties of Marxism whose divergences were generously accommodated within a broad church. However, this generosity didn’t extend to what was loosely dubbed the ‘Right’, or more particularly the cultural Right. 

 

One of the principal targets of ideological engineering was history. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of individuals such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar, R.G. Bhandarkar, G.S. Sardesai, R.C. Majumdar and others, including a clutch of British scholar-administrators, the study of Indian history had tried to blend documentary rigour with literary flourish—basically the emulation of Carlyle, Macaulay and Gibbon. This was essentially work in progress because the traditional Hindu sense of ithihas was impatient with the distinction between facts, chronology and mythology. More to the point, the early initiatives in history writing took place outside the institutional framework of the universities and, consequently, involved a lively engagement between scholars and interested sections of society. Also, while the influence of European scholars was discernible in the approach of historians, the emphasis was on empirical rigour rather than any ideological construct. Indian historians were principally engaged in recovering the past from collective amnesia. If there was a political purpose, it lay in establishing the richness and antiquity of India’s heritage. 

 

This world was seriously unsettled after 1969 when the Congress led by Indira Gandhi outsourced its intellectual outreach to Marxists. Fuelled by lavish state patronage and control over university departments, the country witnessed an organised re-writing of Indian history and the slow replacement of empirical rigour with theorising. Variants of economic determinism replaced narrative histories, making the subject abstruse and inaccessible. The old masters were dubbed ‘communal’ and removed from reading lists, replaced by the dense prose on ‘modes of production’, ‘feudalism’ and ‘syncretic thought.’ Eclectic thought was replaced with regimentation and tentativeness with ideological certitude. 

 

A collateral casualty was the systematic destruction of traditional knowledge systems, particularly Sanskrit. Already beleaguered by the 19th century imperial onslaught, the post-Independence repudiation of classical studies led to a complete reordering of intellectual value systems. Apart from the enforced banishment of serious Sanskrit scholarship—whether religious or otherwise—to enclaves in the West, Nehruvian education policies heralded the creation of many generations of Indians completely detached and disengaged from the thought processes that had moulded the society of their ancestors. The ‘scientific temper’ came to mean unfamiliarity with India’s intellectual inheritance. 

 

In this intellectual greenhouse, professing to be either ‘Right’ or ‘conservative’ was always daunting since it meant being exposed to sustained hostility and, occasionally, ostracism. 

 

Social exclusion was never a problem I had to encounter in the mid-1980s when I joined journalism after a longish stint in the United Kingdom. For a start, being right wing was considered a harmless oddity and equated with an admiration for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were systematically redefining economic policy and international relations. By then, with Rajiv Gandhi at the helm aggressively promoting a post-Indira Gandhi modernity, there was a general recognition that the Indian state had over-reached itself and was progressively becoming dysfunctional. Under the circumstances, being sceptical of an over-bearing state wasn’t necessarily viewed as blasphemy. 

 

In another sphere, the 1980s also marked the beginnings of a general dissatisfaction with the turgid history writing of the Congress-Marxist establishment. Already discredited thanks to their close association with the Emergency, the Nurul Hasan-spawned history establishment encountered a serious intellectual challenge from the Subaltern Studies group. Detached from the old Left, the early Subaltern historians broke new ground on two counts. First, they brought a new perspective into the study of historical documents and re-injected empirical rigour into historical studies. The subalternists explored folklore and even religious beliefs to get a better sense of the moral economy of the past. Secondly, in arguing against recreating history from the perspective of dominant sections of society, they enlarged the scope and range of historical inquiry to cover ‘subaltern’ groups—the hitherto voiceless. 

 

In hindsight, the Subaltern Studies series exposed the severe limitations of the official ‘Left’ and ‘secular’ approach to India’s past. However, because the attack was seen to be coming from a fraction of the Left and because its interventions were completely detached from wider political tremors—the Naxalite movement was by then history and China was in the first stages of embracing market capitalism under Communist guardianship—it was accorded an indulgence that has since not been extended to other dissidents. Quite unwittingly, the subalternists created cracks in the ideological edifice of the Congress-Left establishment. 

 

By 1989-90, the years that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the spectacular response to L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, the indulgence extended to me transformed into outright, unrelenting hostility. There were good reasons for this mood shift. 

 

First, the Ramshila pujas that were observed in some three lakh villages (the Home Ministry estimate was two lakh) and the ecstatic response to Advani’s rath yatra from Somnath clearly indicated that were certain impulses in Hindu society that hadn’t been killed off, but were merely dormant and awaiting a trigger. This alarmed both the political establishment and its supportive intelligentsia. Initially their responded with denial but as the scale of the response became apparent and threatened to blow away the V.P. Singh government, the mood changed to outright hostility. I recall that a Times of India reporter who had reported the outpouring of emotions in Gujarat during the rath yatra was asked by an unofficial kangaroo court convened by secular worthies at Delhi’s Press Club to explain his reportage.  

 

Secondly, the Ayodhya movement became the occasion to initiate a long overdue debate on the meaning of Indian secularism and the version of Indian history that had been approved by what Arun Shourie mockingly described as the “certifying authorities of secularism.” The many histories and assessments of the Ayodhya movement and the “saffron surge” have almost all been written by scholars who see it as a dangerous turning point in Indian politics. Consequently, what has been ignored is the huge intellectual flowering of an alternative narrative that resurrected facets of India’s political and nationalist inheritance that had been deliberately underplayed over decades. Girilal Jain’s The Hindu Phenomenon published shortly after his death in 1993, but now, alas, out of print, gives us a glimpse of the energies—both intellectual and political—released by the Ayodhya movement. Yet, a larger sympathetic study that also delves into the impact of the Ayodhya movement on the popular imagination is overdue. 

 

For me, Ayodhya was a professional turning point. As perhaps the only columnist in a mainstream English-language publication with sympathy for the movement, I became a special target. A group of historians from JNU and Delhi University petitioned the Times of India asking it to desist from publishing my articles, suggesting they were better suited to the Organiser. Many of the editors were inclined to agree but my fortnightly columns were published intact and without any form of censorship. The reason, as the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma suggested to me once was simple: “the readers are anxious to hear the other side.” 

 

The heady emotional fervour of the Ayodhya soon waned and more mundane concerns such as elections—three general elections between 1996 and 1999—took over. However, Ayodhya made it possible for some of us to mount a sustained intellectual challenge to the one-sided portrayal of India’s past and present. Today, despite being in a minority, there are many more individuals presenting what might be loosely called a ‘Right’ and ‘conservative’ perspective—although not all of them write in the English language. The social media, despite some of its rough edges, has added a much-needed support system in which alternative narratives can thrive. 

 

Yet, despite the fact that the Ayodhya movement and the corresponding rise of the BJP as an alternative ecosystem broke the Nehruvian monopoly over the public discourse, complications persist. The end of Left domination over the intellectual airwaves has been followed by the emergence of self-professed liberals who have taken up cudgels against the Right. Although much less doctrinaire than their Marxist predecessors—they are, for example, much more inclined to accord faith and even theology a contemporary validity—the liberal polemics are peppered with generous dollops of condescension. For the Indian liberal, the ‘other’ is invariably neo-literate, crude, lacking intellectual pedigree and philistine. The country’s most high profile liberal, Ramchandra Guha—with whom I have the warmest of personal relations, dating back some four decades—has argued that the Right not only lacks intellectual rigour but that the Modi government is perhaps the most “anti-intellectual” of all regimes. 

 

At the heart of the derision is the belief that there is no worthwhile ‘Right’ and ‘conservative’ tradition in India. At one level, there is a case for clarification. Apart from C.Rajagopalachari, the founder of the erstwhile Swatantra Party, who used to describe himself as a conservative, non-socialist politicians seem disinclined to see themselves as either ‘Right’ or ‘conservative’. Preferring the term ‘rashtravadi’ (nationalist) to other labels, they have argued that these terms, being principally European in origin and context, are inapplicable to India. 

 

They are not the only ones. Many of the doctrinal shorthand terms that emerged in Europe and the United States had, in many cases, no worthwhile conceptual and linguistic equivalents in the Indian languages, particularly Sanskrit. In his Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire, Chris Bayly alluded to the unsatisfactory translation of ‘liberal’ as udara and liberalism as udarvad. I encountered the same difficulties locating conservative and conservatism in Indian languages. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, to whom I presented the problem, appreciated the problem and suggested seeing conservatism in oppositional terms: anudar panthi as the opposite of liberal, rudhivaadi as opposed to progressive, a-samanta vaadi as anti-egalitarian, and so on. All in all, a not very satisfactory solution. 

 

This lack of a clear-cut binary divide had profound implications. In the context of India, Bayly has suggested that, at least until the 1920s, “liberalism and neo-conservatism were joined at the hip from birth.” In part this stemmed from the all-round recognition that with British rule India had lost its sovereignty. Almost all the public intellectuals of the 19th and early-20th centuries were preoccupied with how to recover and establish India’s self-esteem. On this question their paths deviated—and principally on the question on which facets of the past to conserve and what to ether discard or reinvent—but without necessarily locating them firmly in either the liberal or conservative camp. Indeed, the mismatch between their personal lives and their stated beliefs were often so glaring that one historian has described it as “neurotic.”

 

The common theme of national recovery produced different responses. Bhudeb Mukherjee who wrote a counter-factual history of India in the aftermath of a Maratha victory in Panipat over Ahmad Shah Abdali, for example, believed that the sense of patriotism shown by the British was the result of “observing codes appropriate for their country and their faith.” For Indians this could only mean doggedly pursuing the way of life prescribed by the shastras. For Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who in Anandamath saw in the British conquest a much-needed Hindu respite from Muslim tyranny, Hindus had to eschew ascetism, abstruse philosophical speculation and all ritual embellishments accumulated over the ages; they had to evolve a dharmic code based on niskama karma (selflessness). 

 

Yet, despite divergent emphasis, there were three broad themes that established the parameters of conservative thought. 

 

First, Indian conservatism was inherently suspicious of individualism—its point of departure from the liberal emphasis on personal freedoms. It was the conquest of self and its merger into a larger corporate mission that formed the basis of the different expressions of “non-political patriotism.” Hence the stress on building charitra (character)—a theme that runs through Marathi historical plays, Jadunath Sarkar’s diagnosis of Mughal decline and the writings of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. An energised political culture, it was presumed, was prefaced on the self-discovery of a people. This theme resonates strongly with the RSS whose self-image is that of a cultural organisation. 

 

Secondly, India’s conservative tradition elevated the idea of India into one of godliness. The unity of India, its sacredness and its destiny were intertwined as never before. Bankim Chandra whose Vande Mataram popularised the deification of the nation was quite clear this was an invented tradition: “The ancients had made a mistake by submerging patriotism into the higher love of all created things and the balance had to be redressed.” On his part, Savarkar took the divinity of India a step higher by declaring it to be both the punnyabhumi (holy land) and the matribhumi (motherland)—a problematic formulation that excluded the followers of non-Indic faiths from the embrace of nationhood, though not citizenship. 

 

Finally, this heady blend of loss—the thousand years of servitude—and a revitalised feeling of Hinduness had an overriding shortcoming: the lack of inclusiveness of some minority faiths. The BJP attempted to fill the gap by invoking a loose sense of cultural nationalism, with Hindutva forming a central, but not exclusive, element of nationhood. However, the suspicions of Indian conservatism being exclusionary persist. And it is an issue that conservatives must address as it moves into the next phase of its expansion and evolution. 

 

To me what is important is the recognition that conservatism is not a doctrine or even an ideology: it is not universal. It is, at the end of the day, an approach to change and a constant endeavour to understand the evolving common sense—detached from both impulsiveness and fashion. Reconciling the eternal India with the changing India must remain the conservative priority. 


Open magazine, New year double issue, January 11, 2016

Friday, January 1, 2016

Beyond wariness - India and the liberalization of human capital

By Swapan Dasgupta

A Pakistani TV reporter’s outrage over the visa-less entry granted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his impulsive Christmas visit to Nawaz Sharif’s grand residence in Lahore has gone viral on social media. No doubt the reporter’s breathless anger was amusing but it would seem he was also making a serious point. Had a person of lesser standing than India’s Prime Minister presented himself at the immigration counter of Lahore airport with an Indian passport and no valid visa, he would have been lucky to be merely bundled back into the first available flight out of the country. More likely he would have spent Boxing Day and more being subjected to unending interrogation. 

Visa-less travel may have been the general norm prior to 1914 when even passports were a rarity. However, as the world has become a smaller place and international travel more common, there has been a corresponding determination to regulate entry (and, occasionally, exit) into sacred national boundaries. The many tens of thousands of refugees from Syria who entered Europe from across the waters in Turkey did no doubt make a mockery of the belief that national boundaries can be effectively policed—something India had experienced all along its borders with Bangladesh. However, the net outcome of the exodus from Syria was to increase the determination to regulate immigration into the countries of the European Union. In fact, the future of seamless travel within EU is itself in some doubt. 

In India, however, we are witnessing a movement in an opposite direction. After the refugee influx from the two wings of Pakistan, from Burma and from Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of Independence, there was a determined move to enforce border control. From the late-1960s, when Indira Gandhi discovered the destabilising ‘foreign hand’, entry into India for foreigners who preferred the legitimate route, became a daunting proposition. Some of this was a consequence of the alarm over the evangelical activities of Christian missionaries in parts of India. An ‘inner line’ permit was evolved to keep out most foreigners from North-eastern India, and this—maybe quite unintentionally—took its toll on the expatriate planters who were such a quaint fixture of North Bengal and Assam. Along with draconian foreign exchange controls that were a feature of the Congress Party’s ‘socialism’, the message was clear: foreigners were not welcome to make India their place of livelihood. 

This No Entry principle even rubbed off on tourism. Until two decades ago, securing a tourist visa for India involved filling cumbersome forms, providing needless documentation, negotiating officious clerks in India’s overseas missions and, finally, providing explanations to uncomprehending policemen manning the immigration desks. India was a democracy but a foreigner from the West could be forgiven for imagining that he had landed in a country behind the Iron Curtain. 

What changed attitudes significantly was the sudden realisation that the ‘brain drain’ and a demand for cheap labour in West Asia had created a community of non-resident Indians, many of whom had expediently abandoned their Indian passports for the protection of either Her Majesty’s Government or the US President. The NRI’s were lavishly courted for their hard currency and their ability to offer some relief to a fortunate few in a shortage economy. This recognition of the NRI’s strategic worth in turn fuelled a demand for dual nationality—a feature of countries such as Israel, South Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

The idea of Indians having divided allegiance, however, proved unacceptable and a typically Indian halfway house solution was found in the form of long-term or even lifelong visas: the People of Indian Origin cards and Overseas Citizen of India status. In other words, officialdom found a way of catering to their ‘desi’ brethren without, at the same time, lowering the guard against the ‘real’ foreigners. 

The distinction between the favoured foreigner who enjoyed all rights of an Indian citizen—except the right to vote and run for public office—and the non-privileged foreigner—who was never given a right to permanent domicile—was crafted on purely racial grounds. A person of Indian origin from, say, one of the Caribbean countries, can claim OCI status if he demonstrates that a grandparent (or even great-grandparent) was born in undivided India. However, this privilege will not be granted to, say, a ‘gora aadmi’ who may be able to demonstrate equally formidable links to India. The similarities with Israel’s controversial ‘right of return’ policy for all Jews, are striking. 

Nor have globalisation and the need for international expertise made a dent in attitudes. India is always fond of invoking the principle of reciprocity but this is eyewash. A foreigner with legitimate investments or profession in India can at best be given a five-year right to stay after which he must return to his country of origin and re-apply. There is nothing akin to Britain permanent resident status or the US’s green card. To my mind this is iniquitous. 

This institutionalised wariness of the non-desi foreigner could have been dismissed as a minor irritant till the end of the century. However, as the country proceeds on its Make in India initiative, created substantially on foreign direct investment, there is a compelling need to give more and more talented or high net-worth individuals something of a stake in the country. India needs to make those who are contributing to India’s development and paying their taxes in India feel wanted. A visa status doesn’t automatically ensure hospitable living but at least it frees individuals from the harassment of petty officials. 

Till Independence, India attracted a lot of unlikely talent from across the world. These included Jewish refugees from Europe, exiled Russians and even communities from China, Afghanistan and Central Asia. There were also the Anglo-Indians and Britons whose connections with India went back to the 18th century. These communities are sharply diminished today, not least because India went through a very bad patch for the first four decades after Independence. 

The situation today is different. Despite the unhealthy air of our cities—a big deterrent to growth—India is fast turning into a land that offers opportunities that are often lacking in countries nominally more advanced. These opportunities are not merely confined to the investors. India needs to import skill sets in large areas ranging from education, health services, entertainment, publishing, hospitality and even construction. Maybe we still need to exercise a measure of political caution—recall the David Headley case, not to mention the hiccups caused by illegal immigration into eastern India—but if India is to make an international mark, it will always need to replenish home grown expertise with targeted import of skilled manpower. This policy must go beyond the ghar wyapsi for overseas Indians. An enlightened immigration policy is a skills multiplier. 

More than just being a statement of intent, there has to be a mindset change in officialdom. The idea that national security is guaranteed by sealing the country—the same principle is followed in VIP security—still defines the Home Ministry. It has to be modified with a realisation that the route the country has chosen for its development necessitates the opening of doors and windows. With his innate pragmatism that easily subsumes doctrinaire nationalism, Modi has the ability to effect this liberalisation of human capital.  

The Telegraph, January 1, 2016


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2016 presents opportunity for PM Modi to retrieve lost momentum

By Swapan Dasgupta

If there is indeed a tide in the affairs of man, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was its shining manifestation in 2015. In the preceding year, he had demonstrated his golden touch by captivating the national imagination, breaking a 21-year jinx and winning a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha, and setting the stage for a remoulding of India.

The dream run, however, ended in 2015. Beginning with the devastating defeat in the Delhi assembly election and culminating in the pre-Diwali decimation in Bihar, Modi was shown up to be politically vulnerable. Sustained Opposition pressure and misgivings within his own coalition ensured that the Land Acquisition Bill was abandoned. And it was an unrelenting Congress, determined to make life as harrowing as possible for the government, which stalled the passage of the goods and services tax legislation through the Rajya Sabha. In between, the administration was wrong footed by a revolt of the intellectuals centred on fears of growing intolerance. A polarised political climate also ensured that the goodwill for India generated by the punishing pace of his overseas visits was insufficiently reflected at home. In 2015, the Modi government was contested every inch of the way, including in spheres where it should have earned rich accolades. Until the surprise Christmas visit to Lahore re-established his audacious streak, it almost seemed that with more than three years of his term remaining, the Modi government was inflicted with a debilitating limp.

The largely favourable response to his brief stopover in Lahore to bond with Nawaz Sharif carries two important lessons.

First, it is apparent that the belief — widespread in some ‘liberal’ circles — that Modi has exhausted his reserves of popular goodwill is both rash and premature. There may be disquiet that the flowering of India’s unrealised potential people expected after the 2014 outcome hasn’t become visible, but there is no indication that the impatience has led to the government and the prime minister being written off. India still wants Modi to succeed and even usher something resembling the promised achche din. The aspirational urge that Modi successfully tapped into in 2014 is still intact and hasn’t been subsumed by despondency.

Second, it would seem that the Modi government experiences popular traction the most when it demonstrates out-of-the-box audacity in both domestic and international affairs. Whether it is the voluntary surrender of the LPG subsidy, which may have released some Rs 12,000 crore for other productive uses, the announcement of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train or even the Swachch Bharat programme, which has so far yielded patchy returns, Modi has always been seen to be inspirational when he thinks big and seeks to propel India into the 21st century. This has less to do with the incrementalism versus radicalism debate that agitates policy analysts than with the popular expectations from Modi. There are moments in history when a country is inclined towards charting a safe course. However, the 2014 excitement over Modi was not based on expectations of stodgy governance. On the contrary, the verdict was for a disruptive shift in politics and governance. When Modi feeds those impulses, he wins endorsement. Caution fuels disappointment.

If this assessment of the national mood is true, it would follow that the Modi government’s setbacks in 2015 stemmed from a flawed political management. Discounting tactical miscalculations — such as positing the national Modi, rather than the local Modi, against Nitish Kumar in Bihar — which can be rectified, the larger problem stems from a mismatch of expectations between the BJP’s activist base and the floating voters that determine political outcomes.

It is by now clear that Modi’s passion is rapid development and the transformation of India into a developed economy. If there is a conscious cultural agenda, it lies in creating a nationalist consensus around symbols that may be either secular modern or rooted in heritage. The Congress sought to instil a form of ‘constitutional patriotism’ whereas Modi is partial to a more organic nationalism. However, this cultural agenda, while important to the voter base that is in constant search of bhavnatmak (emotional) themes, is secondary to the bigger project of the material transformation of India. Over much of the past year, there has been a tussle (so vividly captured in the social media battleground) between activists who seek to push through rapid cultural change and a government that is travelling down a very different road. This has produced a political incoherence that has been gleefully exploited by those whose image of Modi was frozen in 2002. The Prime Minister has tried to change the culture of governance but hasn’t addressed the fact that his political support systems are often singing a different tune altogether. His refusal to negotiate the contradictions head-on has served to create an erroneous impression that he has a collusive relationship with the hotheads.

It is also a communications mishap. The government has failed to make its performance the central agenda of discourse. Many of the more people-centric initiatives such as financial inclusion, the MUDRA scheme and the creation of self-contributory-cum-government-subsidised welfare schemes are important measures that have suffered from a publicity deficit — particularly when compared to initiatives to improve the ease of doing business. This has meant that the government has had to do battle on agendas determined by either its opponents or a headline-seeking media. And even when development has been in the public gaze, the focus areas have been rarefied. Was this a factor behind the inability of the BJP to retain the support of poorer voters in Delhi and Bihar?

From Modi’s perspective, it is fortuitous that the alarm bells have been sounded even before the government is halfway through its term. 2016 presents an opportunity to retrieve the momentum.


Hindustan Times, December 30, 2015

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas is for everyone

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

Having spent the first 16 years of my life in Calcutta—as it was then called—Christmas has always been burra din to me. It was (and probably still is) the best time for visiting the city that has been marginalised by history. It’s the time when, traditionally, the old ‘white town’ around Park Street assumes a joyous character, when the clubs resurrect their long-forgotten specialities such as suckling pig and when gentlemen dress their part. 

 

For the small Christian community in the city, there is a special religious character to Christmas. Some of us have even witnessed this in the midnight mass at the grand St Paul’s Cathedral—an imposing monument to the time when our rulers nominally paid allegiance to the Church of England. In my childhood, the Christian service was conducted in English, and I have extremely happy memories singing robust Anglican hymns at the morning assembly in school. I still chuckle recalling the Friday sermon of the erudite Reverend Subir Biswas, then Bishop of St Paul’s, not least because of his measured, halting delivery and his unending use of the line “when I was in Durgapore”—he always pronounced it as Durgapore, never Durgapur. 

 

In my personal experience, Christianity wasn’t much of an evangelical religion. Yes, there were odd occasions when some visiting padre—they mostly happened to be American for some strange reason—would try to impress us with sermons explaining why Jesus Christ offered the only salvation. But these were stray distractions. In the main, La Martiniere, despite being nominally Christian, was really not very religious. The morning assembly had a Christian dimension and the Lord’s Prayer was dutifully recited but the ethos was unmistakably non-religious and aimed at inculcating a collegiate spirit. It didn’t really matter—unless there was a pronunciation mishap—what the lesson of the day was about. The more important announcements were yesterday’s cricket match or the forthcoming ‘social’ with the girl’s school across the road. 

 

For many years after leaving school, I could never fathom the place of Christianity in my school education. Yes, I knew Book of Common Prayer, had my selection of favourite English hymns and was broadly familiar with the King James version of the Bible, but these seemed to me to be facets of English culture which, while peppered with religion, was also both secular and national. Decades later, I read a book on Englishness by the journalist Jeremy Paxman. He too appreciated the casual and laid back attitude of the Church of England—and described it as the “God is a good chap” approach. It encapsulated my encounters with Christianity in Calcutta and subsequently at St Stephen’s College, Delhi (another institution established by the Church of England) and colleges in London and Oxford. 

 

I am told and that this unobtrusive approach has been long discarded, in India at least, and replaced by a more in-your-face Christianity—the hallmark of the evangelical churches in the American Bible belt. By this logic, Christmas is automatically transformed into a festival for believing Christians only, with no role for those who observe December 25 as a cultural festival, celebrating a facet of Western life. 

 

Not that this truncation of Christmas into an occasion for true believers alone is something that I have observed in the United Kingdom—the place from which burra din travelled to India. 

 

This year, I spent much of October and November in London that gave me an opportunity to spend a lot of time with old friends. Invariably our conversations veered to Christmas and the traditional family lunch that accompanied it. One college friend, a Barrister, explained at length a recipe for Christmas pudding she had been bequeathed by an eccentric great uncle that involved using suet—which she collected from her local butcher—but no flour. Another friend, now a professor at my alma mater, narrated the elaborate steps she had taken to ensure that the turkey would be delivered to a neighbour, awaiting her return to London on December 23 from a lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand. She had already prepared many Christmas puddings for her own use and for distribution to her friends. I look forward to having it on Christmas Eve, along with the mince pies I picked up at the duty-free shop in Heathrow. 

 

Neither of my friends is a church-going Christian. One is married to a cartoonist who is a leading light of a movement for a secular Britain. The other, also nominally a Church of England Anglican, is married to a non-practicing Roman Catholic. For them, as I observed, Christmas is both a public occasion—witness the endless rounds of office parties and pre-Christmas gatherings where vast quantities of alcohol is consumed—and a family gathering where presents are exchanged and where it is customary for the inebriated to listen to the Queen’s speech in the late afternoon. It so reminded me of the Bijoya celebrations on the last day of Durga Puja that is so important to Bengalis. And it reminded me of the family reunions that mark the week around Diwali. 

 

Over the years, particularly with the explosion of consumerism around Durga Puja, Diwali and Christmas, the religious underpinnings of the festivals has been sharply eroded. In Bengal I have also noticed how the ‘Durgotsav’ has been secularised by called it ‘Sharadutsov’ (autumn festival). 

 

I am sure that there are similar attempts in the UK too. The number of nativity tableaux has shrunk and the odd Christmas card now says ‘Season’s Greetings’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas.’ It has been suggested that this shift is propelled by multicultural impulses—why assume everyone is a Christian in UK? The point is well taken but the underlying assumption is flawed. Why should we assume that my festival is a closed shop for believers alone? In the case of Christmas and, for that matter, Diwali or the four days of Durga Puja, the celebration is both of a faith and a culture. 

 

In most societies, religion and culture are intertwined. By confining it to narrow, exclusive compartments, we lose out on the richness of human experience. 

Asian Age, December 25, 2015