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Monday, January 28, 2013

Of Longing and Belonging


By Swapan Dasgupta

Once upon a time, the great newspapers had a separate department devoted to obituaries. Known in the profession as the ‘morgue’, it was a treasure house of long-forgotten information on people, many still relevant but most who were once famous.

Sadly, as with other good things we inherited from the British, the media has dispensed with obituary writing. Remembering yesterday has become an unaffordable indulgence. This may be why the death of Leslie Claudius, a former hockey captain and winner of four Olympic medals (Gold in 1948, 1952 and 1956, and Silver in 1960) found perfunctory mention in the sports pages.  

Mercifully, Claudius died in Kolkata—one of the few cities that values sport above its economic well-being—and his funeral was well attended by people who fondly remembered one the golden boys of the maidan. Since his death also coincided with a week-long reunion of a global fraternity of Anglo-Indians, it also brought back memories of a time this small community was such an integral part of a Kolkata I identified with.

India has always had a self-image of being extremely accommodative and inclusive towards all those people who made it their home. As the erstwhile capital of the Raj, Kolkata in particular was extremely welcoming to every community that came to the city in search of both refuge and fortune. At the time of Independence, it boasted of small communities of well-heeled Parsis, Armenians and Jews, struggling Chinese, and impoverished relics from the exiled courts of Awadh and Mysore. Additional colour was provided by oddballs that included White Russians and Afghans.

Binding them together in a small perimeter around Park Street and around the docks in Kidderpore were the Anglos who were entrusted with the subordinate departments of the government—the police, railways, telegraph, customs and the port.  But most important, the Anglos were the backbone of the city’s non-Catholic, English-medium schools. Anglo-Indian teachers were highly regarded for their English language skills, their commitment to discipline and their love of sport.

Fiercely loyal to imperial rule and full of love and admiration for a ‘mother country’ they had never experienced, the Anglos were sandwiched between two conflicting forces. They were decried by the ‘pukka sahibs’ for their chi-chi accents, their ‘native’ food, their social pretensions and barred from membership of ‘Whites only’ clubs. At the same time, they were mocked by the natives for their ersatz Englishness and their blind opposition to swaraj. Till as late as the mid-1960s, unreconstructed Anglos could still occasionally be heard cussing “bloody Indians”.  

There were many groups that found themselves in a quandary after Independence. Most of them, like the ICS, army and the police, were co-opted and even honoured. Of the 3 lakh-strong Anglo community many chose to depart to a grim post-War Britain. Those who stayed didn’t face any witch-hunt. But they confronted something more devastating from the new masters: social condescension. This in turn strengthened a ghetto mentality.

Yes, they were tolerated and even granted Constitutional protection—the only community given reserved seats in the Assemblies and Parliament. But their true worth as dedicated teachers, outstanding sportsmen, pillars of the hospitality sector and good citizens with exemplary values were never appreciated. It was this sense of not being wanted that explained the outward migration of Anglos to Australia and Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, there are only 1.25 lakh Anglos left in India. In the normal course their numbers should have been more than six lakhs.

In their new homes Anglos found a better material life—would a Merle Oberon or Cliff Richard have acquired the same fame in India?—but India was that much poorer by their departure. As a country we wilfully cut ourselves off from skills and an inheritance that would have enlarged our collective experience.

As someone who benefited incalculably from my Anglo-Indian teachers in both the classroom and the playing fields, I am glad the community is finally being accorded some recognition and, most importantly, respect. We may have lost most of them to other nations but it is still important to send out a clear message, at least to their children: India is your real mother country.

Sunday Times of India, January 27, 2013

Rajnath can’t hope for easy upturn


BY SWAPAN DASGUPTA
In 1940, even as Britain suffered a series of military defeats at the hands of a formidable German war machine, the top echelons of the ruling Conservative Party brushed aside the misgivings of backbench MPs and stood solidly behind the leadership of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Whereas the public clamoured for the decisive leadership of Winston Churchill, the Conservative establishment refused to countenance the claims of a man who was regarded as an individualistic maverick.
The turning point came during a debate in the House of Commons when, quite unexpectedly, a backbench Conservative MP named Leo Amery stood up and denounced the ineffective Prime Minister. He concluded with the ringing words of Oliver Cromwell to the Long Parliament: “In the name of God, go!” Amery’s speech triggered a political avalanche and forced the notables of the party to finally jettison Chamberlain.
Historical analogies are never exact but I would unhesitatingly say that last week Yashwant Sinha assumed the mantle of Amery. By merely sending an aide to the BJP office to collect the nomination papers for the election of the national president, he jolted a smug BJP establishment into the realisation that a contrived backroom consensus which flew in the face of both the wishes of the party rank-and-file and public opinion wouldn’t stand scrutiny.
Yes, there were people who had to swallow their pride and grudgingly acknowledge that the re-election of Nitin Gadkari for another term would constitute an affront to the party’s countless foot soldiers. That wisdom dawned on them belatedly is reassuring. The half-cock change of guard is proof that in competitive politics, the vanguard doesn’t really have the ability to resist the tide of popular sentiment. Even control has to have a large measure of legitimacy. This is not to say that the hapless Gadkari is guilty of departing from his self-professed standards of social entrepreneurship.
The former BJP president may indeed have a compelling defence to the charges of financial impropriety that have been gleefully levelled against him by the authorities. But what was always clear is that in the context of the growing public exasperation with corruption, he was politically damaged.
Persisting with him as the organisational face of the BJP would have had two consequences. First, it would have painted the BJP as a self-serving clique; and second, it would have taken away anti-corruption as a political plank. The impact of both these would have been felt in the elections. The most serious problem the BJP has faced since the defeat in the 2004 general elections has been an inspirational deficiency.
For nearly a decade, the party has been unable to replenish its ranks with fresh blood. The so-called demographic dividend that has accrued to the country and which has kept it going despite nine years of shameful misgovernance, has bypassed the BJP.
Whereas Rahul Gandhi has (despite all his personal imperfections) at least correctly diagnosed the problem inside the Congress, the BJP has been content to playing meaningless parlour games involving a clutch of tired old war horses. The BJP’s smugness has been further compounded by the complete absence of any central authority since LK Advani committed political hara-kiri during his Pakistan visit in 2005.
Attempts to fill the void through organisational tinkering have failed, for the very simple reason that the party has been devoid of a big idea. Activity for the sake of activity is no substitute for good politics, whether played out on the streets or in the meeting rooms of Lutyens’ Delhi.
The election of Rajnath Singh as party president after a night of high drama alters the picture only marginally. The BJP may at least no longer be burdened by the need to explain its president’s business practices but it still needs to address the same problems that have confronted it since 2004. The belief that growing exasperation with the Congress will involve power falling into its lap in 2014 is based on unwarranted optimism.
A spate of opinion polls have, quite clearly indicated that the principal Opposition formation is not the only beneficiary of the anti-Congress mood. Indeed, the clever feature of Rahul Gandhi’s ‘acceptance’ speech to the faithful in Jaipur last week was his attempt to appropriate the Opposition’s rhetoric. Whether or not Rahul succeeds will depend entirely on how the BJP adjusts to emerging realities.
Opinion polls have actually indicated to the BJP the only way to move forward. They quite clearly indicate that there is a staggering difference between the support for the BJP-led alliance as it exists today and a willingness to vote for the formation in the event the leadership is settled in favour of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Few parties can be as potentially lucky as the BJP. In the midst of its apparent paralysis, the country has also clearly indicated that there is a ready-made solution. Had the polls suggested that Rahul enjoys the same degree of public approval as Modi, the Congress would have unhesitatingly taken the next logical step. We may even have seen Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being gently taken on an inspection tour of his retirement bungalow.
Unfortunately, the BJP continues to act as if there are 24 months in a year. It is still grappling with the internal implications of Modi filling the void left by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani. The fragmentation of authority has meant that there are too many leaders and factions worried about the prospect of merging their little fiefdoms into a larger entity. Some of them are even reconciled to remaining permanently in Opposition as long as their little turf remains undisturbed.
In 1940, after it was clear that Chamberlain would have to go, the backroom bosses of the Conservative Party toyed seriously with the idea of replacing him with the Earl of Halifax (he had earlier served as Viceroy of India).
Halifax was considered a safe bet who didn’t suffer from illusions of grandeur. Fortunately for Britain, Halifax understood his own limitations and found the prospect of conducting a war against Hitler too daunting. He opted out, leaving the Conservative establishment no option but to grudgingly endorse Churchill. For the BJP, its Halifax moment has arrived. There is a mismatch between what the top leadership seeks and what public opinion demands. How the issue is resolved will help shape the final outcome in 2014.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

‘The Poor And Afflicted’: Vivekananda’s Many Gods Much of the life-blood of our freedom struggle doesn’t conform to Nehruvian republican ideals. Swamiji’s life must be seen in its socio-political context.


By Swapan Dasgupta

There is a scene from the late-Sixties’ mushy and jingoistic Bengali film Subhashchandra that is worth recalling in a less innocent age.

The moustachioed head of the local thana in Cuttack walks into the book-lined room where a teenage Subhas Chandra Bose is engrossed in his studies. Brandishing his baton menacingly, he glowers at the numerous photographs on the wall—including one of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee the author of Anandamath and one of martyr Kshudiram Bose who was executed for killing an Englishman. The policeman then turns his disapproving gaze on Subhas. “You’ve overlooked one,” interjects the boy insolently and points to another wall. The camera focusses on a portrait of Swami Vivekananda. The policeman stares at the photograph intently. Then, pointing his baton at Vivekananda, he declaims: “That is the raja of all the revolutionaries. Whichever revolutionary we catch, his picture is with them.”

More than 65 years after Independence and with ‘official’ history being constantly reworked, it is both fashionable and obligatory to brush aside the inspirational importance of Swami Vivekananda to earlier generations. He was a sanyasi in saffron robes who was unabashedly committed to the propagation of spiritualism and national regeneration and who, at the same time, didn’t shy away from his self-identity as a proud Hindu. That such a man greatly inspired India’s passage to freedom may seem at odds with the puerile perception that contemporary Indian nationhood is based solely on universalist, secular and republican ideals. A complex past has become unwanted baggage that, if not discarded, is best left in storage. Unfortunately, what we were happens to be markedly different from what the champions of a spurious cosmopolitan modernity believe we are and, more important, should be.

To the Left-liberal elites that have a stranglehold on the citadels of intellectual power, the ‘idea of India’ is governed by the broad acceptance of the Nehruvian consensus and adherence to what might loosely be described as ‘Constitutional patriotism’. Anything which doesn’t fit into this neat scheme is deemed to be in conflict with the national ethos and, as happened to Vande Mataram, quietly relegated to the ante-room. Alternatively, awkward facets of an infuriatingly complex inheritance are sanitised, bowdlerised and, like balls of plasticine, made to fit any shape.

“The intelligentsia of my country”, Nirad Chaudhury wrote slyly in his Autobiography, “have always had the faith—which certainly is justified by the secular changes in our political existence—that they are indispensable as mercenaries to everybody who rules India.” 

In 1993, just after the demolition of the Babri structure in Ayodhya, the then Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh attached considerable importance to celebrating the centenary of Swami Vivekananda’s speech to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The focus then was on projecting the “Orange monk” as the epitome of inclusive religion, tolerance and egalitarianism—in fact a man who anticipated the ‘enlightened’ secularism and even socialism of the Nehruvian order. The underlying agenda was to deny an aggressive BJP and Sangh brotherhood a monopoly claim over Hindu symbols. The project also had the blessings of “progressive” historians and even the tacit nod of a Ramakrishna Mission which was engaged in a bizarre battle to claim ‘minority’ status by declaring itself to be outside the Hindu fold. The Supreme Court, mercifully, rejected that claim in 1995.

Two decades later the enthusiasm for appropriating Swami Vivekananda for the good fight against the dark forces of bigotry appears to have lost momentum. Last year, as the evocative photographs in Outlook (January 21, 2013) reminded us, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi did something characteristically audacious: to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Swami’s birth, he packaged his pre-election tour of the state as the Vivekananda Yatra.  Nor was this entirely a gimmick based on the fact that the Bengali monk and the Gujarati CM shared a first name. As someone who has been inspired by Vivekananda since his youth—he even sought to join the Ramakrishna Mission as a monk—Modi’s symbolism was not disingenuous. It was centred on broadly the same assumptions that made Vivekananda the inspiration for generations of Indian nationalists, particularly prior to 1947.

Three features of Vivekananda’s philosophy warrant special emphasis. First, unlike other Hindu religious leaders who made the quest for God a matter of personal salvation, Vivekananda enlarged the scope of his spiritual quest. It became co-terminus with a nebulously defined national service. “The poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted”, he wrote, “let these be your God, know that service to these alone is the highest religion.” It was an invocation that, in the context of the times, was unmistakably revolutionary.

Secondly, Vivekananda was clear that what distinguished India from the materialist West was its attachment to a Hindu ethos grounded in spiritualism. Yet, he didn’t reject this-worldliness out of hand. In his study Europe Reconsidered (1988), historian Tapan Raychaudhuri argued that Vivekananda saw the West “as an admirable manifestation of rajas, manly vigour, a necessary step to higher things. Indians sunk in tamas, pure inertia and all that is brutish in man, had to emulate that quality first.”  Vivekananda addressed a question that was preoccupied middle-class India at the turn of the 20th century: what facet of the West should India accept or reject? Raychaudhuri suggested that Vivekananda “proposed a fair exchange of ideas, a synthesis based on national dignity.”

Finally, Vivekananda’s priorities for national regeneration were determined by the prevailing conditions in India, particularly the grim realities of political subordination. Despite his avowed defence of the principles of the Vedic caste system—one of the few things he had in common with Mahatma Gandhi—Vivekananda was unequivocal in his denunciation of the corrupted institution, particularly the rules of ritual purity that made Brahmins the oppressor and Sudras the victim. He saw caste as a major impediment to the forging of a purposeful, united nation.

Added to this was his impatience with the physical inadequacies of a subject people and his over-weaning desire to contribute to the emergence of a muscular Hinduism which would not countenance servitude and humiliation. It would be fair to say that the lessons he drew from the Bhagwad Gita was radically different from those drawn by Gandhi.

Vivekananda was essentially a product of his times. He belonged to a period when the early infatuation with westernisation was yielding to a more nuanced understanding of the wider world that blended with the grim realities of India as a subject nation. Moreover, in his short life—he died at the age of 39—he spent five active years outside India fostering an understanding of the India’s Hindu heritage. Predictably, his attention was focussed on projecting India’s innate strength rather than highlighting its many shortcomings. How he would have evolved had he lived to witness the political turbulence that accompanied the Partition of Bengal in 1905 is a matter of conjecture. Would he have retreated into a personal quest within the monastic order he created? Or would he have travelled in a more politically active direction? It is significant that most of his contemporaries believed his message was relevant in shaping public life.  

It is tempting to dissociate Vivekananda from his context and see him through the prism of contemporary politics. This is precisely the underlying tone of Outlook’s sensational description of him as the “The Hindu Supremacist” that implicitly identifies him with a form of Hindu fascism. This approach is in line with other recent interventions that have projected Vivekananda as the epitome of a regressive machismo.

Fortuitously, this attempted vilification of a towering symbol of Hindu pride may have unintended consequences. That Vivekananda was much more than yet another in the long line of eminent Hindu spiritualists preoccupied with personal salvation is obvious. By linking his life and teachings with the evolution of the political Hindu, his detractors may have unwittingly helped in locating him in the larger debate on the shape and future of an emerging India. After all, the liberal elite’s disavowal of everything ‘Hindu’ is not universally shared in India. 

Outlook, January 28, 2013

Friday, January 18, 2013

SEARCH FOR A BETTER LIFE - In economic terms, Gujarat is on a roll


By Swapan Dasgupta

Attending the Vibrant Gujarat summit at Gandhinagar last week, I was pleasantly surprised to find a good representation of journalists from Kolkata-based media organisations. Subsequently, I was informed that the Bengali press had given generous coverage to the event, perhaps in anticipation of the investor meet organised by Mamata Banerjee in Haldia. Whatever the motivation, I was tickled by the idea that the buzz in India’s fastest-growing and most entrepreneur-friendly state was resonating in a state that is being viewed as a basket case. Perhaps something from Gujarat would rub off on West Bengal.

Back in Delhi, I mentioned this to a friend who occupies a senior editorial position in a national publication. “Oh well”, she retorted dismissively, “as long as the coverage was confined to Bengal.” “Here in Delhi”, she added joyously, “the papers have barely mentioned it.”

This supercilious dismissal of a bi-annual event that is the nearest equivalent to a Davos in Asia—minus the fine dining and the paraphernalia surrounding Heads of State—isn’t unusual. Ever since 2002, it has become obligatory for the Left-liberal fraternity to either ignore or debunk the economic achievements of the Gujarat Government. In the early days until 2007 it was believed that a combination of political disapproval, judicial activism and diplomatic isolation would result in Modi falling off the map.  

Every attempt was made to encourage the Chief Minister’s detractors to attack the state government with all guns blazing. Almost every vocal critic of Modi was rewarded with committee posts, Padma awards, Rajya Sabha seats and international prizes. Simultaneously, anyone who dared suggest that there was more to Modi than the failure to prevent the post-Godhra killings was mercilessly hounded. A former Director of Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies was eased out of his post after he wrote a report in 2005 suggesting that Gujarat ranked number one among states in terms of economic freedom. Interestingly, seven years down the line, Gujarat remains at the top of that pile.

That the tide has turned is obvious. Today, Anil Ambani’s hyperbolic testimonial to Modi doesn’t provoke outrage in the same way as Ratan Tata’s 2007 remark that industry would be “stupid” if it wasn’t in Gujarat. India Inc. has given a resounding thumbs- up to Gujarat. For that Modi has, in a small measure, Mamata Banerjee to thank. The story of the development of Sanand as an automobile hub in just four years began when Tata Motors shifted its Nano plant from strife-torn Singur in West Bengal. India has not witnessed such a spectacular success story in recent times.

In economic terms, Gujarat is on a roll. Whether it is Jagdish Bhagwati or Lord Meghnad Desai, there is a growing line of ‘respectable’ people unafraid to sing the virtues of the ‘Gujarat model’ or even suggest that India would realise its full potential if there was a leader like Modi at the helm. Even the US and European Union’s unstated diplomatic ‘sanctions’ against the government in Gandhinagar appears to be crumbling. There was a mega-size British delegation at Vibrant Gujarat and the British High Commissioner’s speech on the occasion was described by someone as representing a “720 degree turn”. The Canadians were there in full strength, as were the Australians showcasing their fast-growing knowledge economy and, of course, the Japanese who have invested heavily in the 1,483 km Delhi-Mumbai freight corridor (nearly 38 per cent passes through Gujarat), the hottest development of the next decade.

Indeed, the Special Investment Region in Dholera is arguably the most talked- about venture in the whole country, blessed as it is with special legislation that meets almost every item (including labour flexibility) on industry’s wish list. Shardul Shroff, the Managing Partner of Amarchand Mangaldas, who briefed delegates on the exciting legal ramifications of the SIR legislation, told me that the investor-friendly facilities were actually available to every state in the country (including West Bengal). Yet, it is significant that only Modi has followed it through with state legislation. Just as Gujarat has circumvented political hostility of the UPA Government and extracted its full quota of monetary allotments from the Centre by adhering strictly to the rules.

The fact that Gujarat has developed a huge land bank for industry and townships gives it a natural advantage for new development. But the transfer of land from low-yielding agriculture to industry would not have been possible unless rural folk had not detected the possibilities of self-improvement from abandoning their traditional livelihood.

The most reassuring feature of contemporary Gujarat—both urban and rural—is this unending search for better opportunities and a better life. The thousands of ordinary, middle-class individuals who flocked to the seminars making copious notes weren’t there as part of the latest tamasha in town. Some of them were there purely to be exposed to modern business practices and some, particularly the owners of the SMEs, were there to sniff for ideas and opportunities. The country seminars whether hosted by developed countries or nations that never feature in the Indian consciousness, weren’t about foreigners investing in Gujarat; they were about inviting Indians to do business overseas and investing there. When it comes to politics, Gujarat is quite spiritedly nationalist (some would say xenophobic) but when it comes to business, Gujaratis are quite unequivocally global. Little wonder that the regressive economics that marks a section of the BJP finds no mention in the political language of Modi.

In a recent, broadly sympathetic article, Vivek Dehejia, a Canada-based economist, has asked an interesting question: in the free-market ethos of Gujarat, why is there such an emphasis on the government and the Modi cult? The implication is obvious: if the impulses observed in the Vibrant Gujarat meets have struck roots in society, they will surely outlive the Chief Minister’s tenure in Gandhinagar.

Gujarat’s development may well be on auto-pilot. However, as the freeze on reforms at the Centre between 2004 and 2012 suggest, it doesn’t take long for an economy to stagnate in the absence of leadership and political direction. Much of what Gujarat has achieved has been due to the single-minded determination of Modi to circumvent political opposition through exemplary economic growth. It is Modi’s no-nonsense style of functioning and his ability to pick the right team and motivate them that has made all the difference. A more laid-back approach that incorporated political venality wouldn’t have ruined Gujarat or diminished its economic importance. However, it would have meant that the state would be deprived of its cutting edge and sustained double-digit growth. A glance at neighbouring Maharashtra suggests the possible plight of a Gujarat that has eschewed the Modi legacy. Without inspirational leadership, Indians as a collective tend to merely chug along. By insisting on a relentless pace, Modi has actually been very un-Indian.  

After his third successive election victory, the discourse on Modi has shifted. His detractors are now asking whether the Gujarat model is applicable to a diverse, fractious country with uneven levels of development. I leave it to Modi to answer that question. However, in a recent conversation he underlined a facet of Gujarat’s development. Gujarat, he told me, merely has a seafront. It has no raw materials—no iron ore for steel, no coal for power and no diamond mines. Yet it has made huge strides in these fields. Imagine, he added, if we had the natural resources of an Assam, a Jharkhand and a West Bengal: “I would have changed the face of India.”

For India’s sake I hope he gets the opportunity. 

The Telegraph, January 18, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Dish Best Served Cold


By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Wednesday, Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control, fired on an Indian army patrol and killed two jawans. They then subjected the bodies to “barbaric and inhuman mutilation”—an act that revived memories of the brutal killing of Captain Saurabh Kalia and the mutilation of his body during the Kargil war.

Not unnaturally, this provocative act has outraged public opinion and nullified the contrived, gush-gush diplomacy of recent months. No foreign policy can work in defiance of the popular mood and, for the moment, attempts to ‘normalise’ India-Pakistan relations are destined to be in deep freeze. However, before emotive calls for retribution unsettle matters further, it is instructive to travel down a by-lane of history.

History is rarely the great healer but its reading can often help understand contemporary events a shade better.

In Return of a King, a thoroughly researched and gripping account of the First Afghan War of 1839-42, popular historian William Dalrymple has vividly described the unspeakable horrors of two military expeditions across the Khyber and Bolan Passes. A passage relating to the return journey through the Khyber Pass of the ‘army of retribution’ in November 1842 stands out: “The following day, (Neville) Chamberlain and John Nicholson cork-screwed down the path just below Ali Masjid, accompanied by the chaplain Allen. Turning a sharp corner the three found the road thickly strewn with the bodies of their colleagues from whom they had parted the previous afternoon. The entire party had been trapped and overwhelmed by an Afridi ambush. Now their remains were ‘lying here and there, stripped and mangled, some already devoured by dogs and birds of prey…’ Among the dead was Nicholson’s younger brother. His body was stark naked, and hacked to pieces. In accordance with Afridi custom, Alexander had his genitalia cut off and stuffed in his mouth.”

Nor was this bestial conduct reserved for the feringhee ‘dogs’, it was extended to the ‘kaffir’ sepoys of the British-Indian army. Indeed, for many of the Afghan tribes participating in the jehad, the Sikhs were a particular enemy on account of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s occupation of Peshawar and Kashmir which the Afghans saw as belonging to them.

As opposed to the rah-rah histories of the imperial age, Dalrymple has proffered an alternative ‘Black Armband’ view of a past British encounter with Afghanistan. Written with a sharp eye on the West’s grim predicament in the war against a Pakistan-backed Taliban, its message is unequivocal: the pacification of the tribal badlands along the Durand Line is a hopeless project.

To an India confronted with an unending conflict along the LoC with an enemy that believes it has a legitimate claim on the Kashmir Valley, this history may sound ominous. But it need not be so.  

First, there are clear lessons in allowing a grand strategic vision—in the 19th century it was the fear of Russia encroaching on India from the North—to determine diplomatic and military options. Mercifully, today’s governing elite in India lacks any vision, strategic or otherwise. Foreign policy tends to be either ad hoc or governed by mushy sentimentalism, neither of which (mercifully) are conducive to adventurism.

Secondly, approaching Afghanistan with a ‘strategic’ baggage, British officials allowed themselves to be swayed by dodgy intelligence reports that reinforced pre-existing convictions. Other ground reports which didn’t fit into a grand design were wilfully ignored, with disastrous consequences. The implication is obvious: no policy is workable without a credible intelligence network which, alas, is not a Government of India priority.

Finally, the disaster which overtook the Army of the Indus was a consequence of the failure to comprehend the complexities of Afghan society and, most important, its value systems. The British made a grave error in judging Afghans through a European prism, a mistake subsequently rectified by the work of the Political Department. Independent India has, unfortunately, frittered away this institutional understanding of local societies with different moral orbits. Policy is often made in a sociological void.

In sum, India needs a prolonged period of capacity building before it can substitute angry frustration with meaningful action to hit the enemy where it really hurts. Do we have the foresight and will to do what it takes?

Sunday Times of India, January 13, 2013 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Rape is rape, in India as in Bharat


By Swapan Dasgupta

In the late-1980s, and for a time between 1987 and 1991, Devi Lal became a prominent player on the national scene. Deeply rooted in the politics and rural ethos of Haryana, he was known for his earthy wisdom and disdain for all things that didn’t fit into his ‘kisan’ experience. A particular target of his derision was that section of the country that has come to be known as ‘India’—as opposed to ‘Bharat’. The true representative of this land, Devi Lal used to say, were those whose addresses would be prefixed with the name of the VPO—Village Post Office.

It was an interesting formulation and perhaps something that even Mahatma Gandhi with his utopian notions of self-sufficient village communities would have tacitly approved. The problem was that it left a lot of people (including myself) with a feeling of being second-class citizens. Urban India may well be the Devil’s workshop but it happens to be the only place many Indians can call home.

Nor is it accurate to regard rural India as the natural epicentre of virtue and holiness. In his lifetime, Babasaheb Ambedkar was eclipsed by the larger-than-life influence of the Mahatma and the Congress. But it is worth remembering that the Dalit icon always regarded Village India as the citadel of prejudice and oppression against all those who were damned for being ‘untouchable’ by birth. The self-governing qualities of the local panchayat didn’t inspire Ambedkar. To him and to many who were concerned with caste-based oppression, rural hierarchies didn’t have space for those who were condemned to live apart. The stereotype of happy kisans harvesting grain, flanked by women in colourful clothes, didn’t always incorporate the brutal underbelly of an economic order where some communities were regarded as sub-humans, and their women treated as commodities.

Rape, the RSS chief asserted in Silchar last Friday, is essentially an ‘Indian’ phenomenon. He is only partially right. The brutalisation of women is more widespread in the ecosystems of Bharat—and has been so for centuries.

Mohan Bhagwat is also entirely right when he maintained that the respect for women is idealised in Indian culture. But he would be the first to admit that traditional society was less than welcoming and applied very different standards to those groups it regarded as being outside its social orbit—an attitude that has been transmitted into the widespread disrespect for white, women tourists. The deep reverence for ‘stree shakti’ in Bengal, for instance, didn’t prevent the cruel custom of sati and the social degradation and sexual exploitation of widows by ‘respectable’ sections of society. It also didn’t prevent collective sanction for the sexual exploitation of women from the ‘lower orders’.

A feature of the vibrant social reform movements that arose in the 19th and early-20th centuries was their willingness to first admit the shortcomings of Hindu society and then address the question of possible remedies. Some of the reformers—notably Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda—were modernists and had imbibed the intellectual currents of the West. But others such as Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar were steeped in tradition and approached the question of reform from a humanist perspective.

The point to note is that for the Hindu stalwarts of the past two centuries, there was a clear understanding that the Hindu, both as an individual and as a collective, wasn’t the epitome of perfection. In today’s context, going by the admission that cosmopolitanism has distorted the minds of ‘India’ and encouraged unwholesome attitudes towards women, the issue to be addressed is: what can be done to change society? After all, there must be glaring imperfections in the modern Hindu that facilitates the ready acceptance of misogyny—the utterances of the Congress MP from Jangipur and a senior BJP minister of Madhya Pradesh being two recent examples. (I am confining my remarks to Hindu society because it sets the tone for India.)

More to the point, the heads of cultural organisations such as the RSS must begin to ask why their unceasing activism over more than eight decades hasn’t altered things. Why have the samskaras they have sought to inculcate in their followers not had a wider effect on society? Maybe the fault doesn’t lie in the samskaras—although a little less patronising attitude towards women would help greatly—but in the priorities of groups that have sought to create a moral leadership for India. If there was greater emphasis on regenerating the institutions of what goes by the name Hinduism rather than on exercising control over a political party, the nation would have been better served.

There is little point celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda in style unless the grand speeches are complemented by serious attempts to cleanse the temples of venality, casteism and even the exploitation of women devotees by perverted priests. Vivekananda spoke and wrote at length of the Brahmanical religion’s cruel indifference to the plight of the Sudra and the Chandal. Was he exonerating Bharat and indicting India? Was he creating false binaries?  

Any rape, whether it happens in Delhi or rural Madhya Pradesh, is a collective blot on both India and Bharat. There is little point in saying that one is pristine pure and the other contaminated because it is just not true. We are the children of the same country and together we must hang our heads in shame. 

Sunday Pioneer, January 6, 2013

Friday, January 4, 2013

A DIGNIFIED RESURGENCE - December 2012 may have unexpected consequences


By Swapan Dasgupta

The past fortnight has been rather unique for a Delhi that often gives the impression of being detached not merely from Bharat but from India as well. For the first time in living memory, the festive season was marked by candlelight marches rather than candlelight dinners. The Delhi Gymkhana cancelled its annual New Year party and a Rap singer by the unlikely name of Honey Singh was forced by the strength of public opinion to give his performance at a leading hotel a miss. Those who could took the flight to Goa to celebrate with the owner of a near-bankrupt airline that also publishes girlie calendars. But most of Delhi’s elite bowed to the prevailing mood and fell back on uncharacteristic sobriety to usher in 2013.

Whether the wave of protests that followed the gang-rape and subsequent death of a young trainee physiotherapist from a modest background, was India’s great middle class moment is for posterity to judge. Coming in the wake of an equally spirited anti-corruption crusade by Anna Hazare that somehow got derailed, the commemoration of the spirit of the one who was named Nirbhaya and Damini has unsettled many assumptions. Far from material prosperity and consumerism luring the youth and the middle classes into individualism and indifference, the anger at India Gate and Jantar Mantar unequivocally demonstrated that public spiritedness is alive and kicking. If the London riots of 2011 revealed one facet of thwarted aspirations, Delhi 2012 gave a glimpse of the wholesome face of an Indian resurgence.

What was witnessed in Delhi was a near-spontaneous exasperation with an old order steeped in insensitivity, arrogance and shoddy governance. There were many brutally blood-curdling solutions to the harassment and brutalisation of women that the young women with placards sought from a nervous Establishment. These included the public lynching of rapists, mandatory capital punishment and even chemical castration. And yet, quite paradoxically, this was not a movement driven by a Madame Defarge mentality. It was in every respect a 21st century movement fuelled by modernist impulses.

It will be some time before the anger over the rape and murder of an ordinary girl whose parents lived in two small rooms of a basement in an unauthorised colony is fully deconstructed. Those who are inclined to dismiss the stir as stemming from the boredom of “dented and painted” ladies from privileged families clearly misjudged the social composition of the protestors. Worse, they were clueless about the fact that the protests struck a chord among many more people than were physically present at India Gate and Jantar Mantar.

This was a misreading that was not confined to the newly-elected MP for Jangipur or even Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde who actually felt that the young people should go home after a small hand-picked delegation had been ushered into the august presence of Congress President Sonia Gandhi to air their grievances. The Congress’ heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi didn’t think the explosion of emotions was serious enough to warrant a modification of his travel plans for the holiday season. A man who the Congress Party believes is destined to rule India, just like his great-grandfather, grandmother, father and mother, didn’t believe that the feelings of so many people warranted anything more than a perfunctory, written statement.

The inability to comprehend the outrage of urban India is certain to rankle in the minds of many long after the dust has settled over this brutal murder. The Prime Minister’s wooden proclamation of sympathy on TV (followed by the theek hai giveaway), the indiscriminate use of water cannons on Raisina Hill, the beating-up of demonstrators in India Gate, the cynical transportation of the dying girl to Singapore and her hush-hush cremation at dawn were tell-tale signs of a regime that just didn’t know how to react to dignified anger. It would have been much easier had the agitation actually turned violent and the protestors had rushed into nearby Khan Market or Connaught Place to loot shops and molest innocent citizens. But that was not to be. The moral advantage remained with those who were angry rather than with those who were shielded by the metal barricades.  

The great fear in the political class is that emotions that galvanised the protests will start affecting political choices, particularly with a general election just a year away.

The Congress in particular has reason to be the most concerned. First, there is anxiety that the blend of cash transfers of subsidies and the promise of a golden age of economic reforms will be overshadowed by mundane issues of bad governance. However, this fear seems exaggerated. A general election has a momentum of its own and it is unlikely—unless the degradation of women reaches epidemic proportions—that the events of the past fortnight will linger in the public memory for another year.

However, the Congress has reason to be alarmed on another count. The outrage over the Delhi rape wasn’t confined to a robust rejection of the social attitudes that contributed to women being viewed as commodities. In a curious sort of way it escalated into impatience with the warped priorities of a government that put greater emphasis on the security of VIPs than on the safety of ordinary citizens. This in turn has led to a questioning of the culture of political privilege that has also been linked to the larger issue of corruption. In 2009, the Congress stole a march over its opponents by giving party tickets to a large number of  young ‘inheritors’ who seemed better able to represent a young and aspirational India.

Ironically, throughout this agitation the young inheritors who are such a fixture on the social circuit of Delhi were nowhere to be seen. Their contribution to understanding and sympathising with the concerns of a young India was absolutely zero. Leading the march to irrelevance was of course the great ‘youth icon’ but the rest of the pack were not far behind. Their abdication of issues that agitated young people was noticed, commented upon and derided. Indeed, the puncturing of the myth of a new political culture to be ushered by the young MPs under the leadership of the Gandhi heir is likely to be the immediate fallout of the December 2012 stir. Nurtured in an environment of privilege and blessed with a sense of both entitlement and noblesse oblige, they have shown their inability to transcend an ossified political culture. Having been accustomed to a supplicant India, they cannot seem to be able to cope with a more self-confident and assertive country that is not moved by hierarchy.

An underlying theme of the protests was the demand for purposeful and no-nonsense governance, particularly in matters relating to crime and sexual harassment. Quite unintentionally, there is now a growing demand for an end to a protracted spell of weak and blundering government. There is a yearning for democratic responsiveness but this is also coupled by the need for a tough rule-based system that puts safety and security of the individual over the human rights of the criminal or insurgent. The search for a leader who can create an environment of modernity and ruthless efficiency of the state apparatus could lead a very large section of India’s voters into unexpected directions. This is what troubles both the dynastic Congress and the stodgy BJP.

History doesn’t always move by design. In hindsight, December 2012 may trigger a series of unintended consequences. We can only await these with unconcealed excitement.  

The Telegraph, January 4, 2013