Total Pageviews

Follow by Email

Thursday, February 28, 2013

APOLOGY EXCHANGE - The debate about Cameron at Jallianwala Bagh is rather silly


By Swapan Dasgupta

The accomplished British cartoonist Martin Rowson is—as befitting his profession—naturally attracted by the absurdities of public life. Last week, he directed his fire at the Think Tanks. “Let’s form a Think Tank”, he suggested to his Twitter followers, “Call it… ‘Policy Carousel’…Front it up with a couple of nerdy teenagers in suits…and start issuing press releases…arguing the dumbest things that comes into our heads. Insist that children reared in trees are better at French; nurses who eat nothing but jam have better mortality outcomes; if the moon was painted mauve reading standards would improve among ‘White British’ mice living in buckets…Then see how long it is before lazy news editors at the BBC makes our latest batshit…the third story on their main morning news…”

As a response to my endorsement of the whacky scheme, Martin suggested I open a Delhi chapter of Policy Carousel. Ever helpful with identifying the bizarre, he suggested an opening initiative—an ‘Apology Exchange: Amritsar for Black Hole.”

Since the authenticity of the Black Hole of Calcutta remains in some doubt—there are grave suspicions that an imaginative account by a survivor written many years after the event was responsible for the infamy that was bestowed on the area around the majestic General Post Office—there are other possible initiatives that Apology Exchange can mentor. How about restoring the beautifully crafted Angel of Cawnpore to the original site of the Bibighar massacre where an estimated 120 people, including large numbers of women and children, were massacred by the troops of the ‘perfidious’ Nana Sahib on July 15, 1857? After Independence, the memorial was relocated to a corner of the All Souls Church in Kanpur.

And, just to demonstrate that it is not merely the loathsome Lt-General Dyer who is being pilloried by history, how about an appropriate memorial in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk to commemorate one of the worst massacres of civilians in India? I am, of course, referring to the massacre of Delhi by Nadir Shah on March 9, 1739 in retaliation for the mob fury the night before that led to the killings of some 3,000 Kazalbash troopers. According to a contemporary account, the Iranian troops began the carnage at 9 am “and forced their way into shops and houses killing the occupants and laying violent hands on anything of value… No distinction was made between the innocent and the guilty, male and female, old and young.” By the time Nadir Shah called off the pogrom after six hours, the roads of Delhi were blocked by heaps of bodies. The death toll was said to be anything between 8,000 and 40,000—a darn shade more than the highest estimates of those killed in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

Nadir Shah, who continues to be celebrated in modern Iran as a great national hero, also made off with the Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor diamond (which subsequently found its way into the Tower of London). Indeed, to this day, the term ‘Nadirshahi’ is used is northern India as a synonym for brutality and oppression. How come, therefore, the frequent visits of Shah Reza Pehlavi in the past and more infrequent visits of the stalwarts of the post-1979 theocratic regime these days isn’t peppered with calls for either the return of the Peacock Throne to Delhi or at least a heartfelt but grovelling apology? Instead, the representatives of Independent India lose absolutely no opportunity to emphasise the “deep civilizational ties” that bind the peoples of Persia and Hindustan.

Going back a little further in time, there was also the invasion of the Moghul Tamerlane in 1398, a mere 615 years ago. That invasion was marked by an equal show of blood-thirstiness by the Moghul army. Having taken nearly a lakh prisoners during the course of his advance from the Indus, Timur was apprehensive that they would “join their countrymen against him” when he attacked Delhi. To forestall that possibility, he massacred the lot of them in cold blood. Having taken Delhi, Timur allowed his soldiers to go berserk. According to a contemporary account Firishta, “the Hindoos, according to their custom, seeing their females disgraced, set fire to their houses, murdered their wives and children , and rushed out on their enemies.” A massacre followed and, like in 1739, the streets were clogged with corpses. “The desperate courage of the Delhiyans was at length cooled in their own blood, and throwing down their weapons, they at last submitted themselves like sheep to slaughter…”

The irony is that 228 years later, a scion of the Timurid dynasty established the Moghul empire in India, an empire that is celebrated as an authentic encapsulation of the Indo-Islamic encounter. In 1857, when the sepoys and dispossessed chiefs rose against the firinghees of the East India Company, they did so in the name of the bewildered and bedgraggled Mughal who was perceived as the alternative pole of sovereignty. In the 459 years between Timur being loathed as the barbaric invader and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s emergence as the symbol of what some historians regard as patriotic resistance to the British, the Moghuls had been recast. Their legitimacy was no longer a contested issue, a reason why street names in the showcase Capital of the Republic bear the names of Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Shah Jehan and even Aurangzeb.

There are many reasons why the absorptive powers of India which Rabindranath Tagore wrote about—and, incidentally, included the English, along with the Huns and the Moghuls, as communities of ‘them’ who became ‘us’—has escaped the British Raj. One of the possible reasons could be expedient erraticism that accompanies the already feeble Hindu grasp of chronology. In contemporary discourse, for example, the Great Calcutta Killings and the accompanying bloody Partition of India is ‘history’, as is, say, the Emergency of 1975-77. At the same time, the Jallianwala Bagh butchery that happened 94 years ago still warrants a limited debate over whether visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron should have opted for an unequivocal apology—akin to his predecessor Tony Blair’s ‘sorry’ for the Irish famine or former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s famous genuflection in Poland in 1970—rather than mere ‘regret’.

Without underplaying the importance of the Amritsar killing which effectively broke the moral backbone of an Empire that had cast itself in a paternalist garb, today’s debate is rather silly. For a start, the pressure to distance an economically beleaguered United Kingdom from its Empire inheritance hasn’t originated from the Dominions and the former colonies. Its origins are strictly rooted in the post-colonial angst that has gripped the younger and more cosmopolitan generation of Britons. In India, the Raj is well and truly history and a toy wheeled out by the tourism industry for hard currency. Apart from politicians and xenophobes who peddle pop history as political slogans, the mass of young India crave for proficiency in the English language, western culture and global opportunities. M.K. Gandhi and Tagore would have squirmed in despair.

Ironically, that doesn’t make them any less nationalist. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction Indians drew from Cameron’s visit was not the ‘regret’ in Amritsar but the caricature in a British publication depicting Cameron as the supplicant before the throne of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. The perverse like me  would say that this wasn’t a parody of Sir Thomas Roe in the court of Jehangir; it corresponded more to Lord Clive extracting his due from a cowering Shah Alam whose realm, as we all know, extended from Delhi to Palam.

History is cruel but fun. Why kill it with pedestrian earnestness?

The Telegraph, February 28, 2013 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Victimisation bogey eroding India's peace


By Swapan Dasgupta

It is probably absolutely grotesque to even suggest that any Indian, apart from a handful of the totally demented, would derive satisfaction over the blasts in Hyderabad that killed 15 people on Wednesday evening. Yet, at the risk of sounding wilfully outrageous, I would venture the suggestion that there exists a band of people who will argue that “the country had it coming”.

Such a perverse response had, in fact, been articulated by some ultra-radical and ultra-liberal European and West Asian intellectuals after the 9/11 attacks. To them, the world was shaped by a clash between a series of Muslim grievances (that, apart from Palestine and Bosnia, also included Kashmir) and the smugness of the West-Zionist alliance. India, predictably, was lumped with the latter.

We are yet unclear as to whether the terrorist module that carried out the bombings was driven by the determination to extract revenge for the execution of convicted terrorist conspirator Afzal Guru. If the ever-smiling Home Minister’s suggestion that certain cities had been alerted to the possibility of a terrorist attack after Afzal’s hanging is true, it would seem that the likelihood of the Hyderabad attack being a tit-for-tat incident should not be entirely discounted—at least at this stage of the inquiry.

Whenever an incident like the Hyderabad bombings take place, the political class and the voluble media rush to point an accusing finger at flat-footed policemen and an over-politicised intelligence apparatus. The exasperation with the state apparatus is perfectly understandable. There is enough evidence to indicate that India’s policing priorities are horribly skewed. There is an over-emphasis, for example, on VIP security which leads to police deployment in all the wrong places. There is also a needless preoccupation with political intelligence, including election management. And finally, there is the preoccupation with using the police and intelligence agencies to settle political scores—the latest being attempts to ‘fix’ Gujarat politician Amit Shah and the bid to manufacture an imaginary phenomenon called “Hindu terror” that can be used as a stick to beat the BJP with.

That these distortions need urgent correction is by now well acknowledged and even appreciated by police officers, including those who grudgingly dance to the tune of the ruling dispensation for the sake of career advancement. Leader of Opposition (Rajya Sabha) Arun Jaitley made a passionate plea in Parliament last Friday of the importance that must be attached to the de-politicisation of the police, particularly the wings that are involved in counter-terrorism. It is hoped that he plays a role in incorporating the promise to professionalise the law and order machinery in the manifesto of the NDA for 2014.

A series of incidents, including terrorism, the safety of women and investigations of financial crimes, have served to place police reforms on the political agenda. However, the battle against terrorism isn’t merely about having alert beat constables, tech-savvy officers and a single-minded determination to get to the bottom of each and every terrorist crime. The term ‘roots of terrorism’ has been discredited by the inclination of do-gooders and human rights entrepreneurs to locate terrorist motivation in the imagined sense of hurt of the perpetrators. Yet, if the baggage of indignation is removed from the need to also explore the larger environment, there is a case for understanding why a city such as Hyderabad has become a breeding ground for every conceivable act of treachery.

Assume, as is being hinted, that the initial finger of suspicion points to the Indian Mujahedeen, it is important to understand that the rebellion of a small section of Muslim youth has its origins in the political mindset of separatism that is so widespread in the ghettos. The political ideology of IM that prompts it to take recourse to exploding lethal bombs to cause maximum hurt to the ‘other’ didn’t emerge in a vacuum. It was an inevitable consequence of a rhetoric (and we have seen enough evidence of that in recent months) that seeks to distinguish Muslims from ‘Hindustan’. Some of it is born of plain nostalgia for a time when Moghuls and their successors ruled the state. But the poisonous element is injected by the invocation of victimhood—the preposterous claim that the Indian state is driven by a single-minded desire to beat the Muslim community into submission.

The political use that has been made of the Batla House encounter in various Muslim-dominated localities around the country is an example. Egged on by radical human rights activists and even Vice Chancellors who have donned a political mantle, this incident has been used to fuel the impression of institutionalised targeting of Muslim youth. Read with the unexpected mob fury that was witnessed in Mumbai as a reaction to the clashes in Assam, the victimhood syndrome is contributing to a steady deterioration of inter-communal harmony all over the country. Even West Bengal, which has been relatively spared of the sectarian virus for decades, witnessed belligerent attacks on Hindus in South 24 Parganas.

In the case of West Bengal, the media was forced to take note of the destruction of nearly 200 homes by a mob after social media took up the cause relentlessly. But this ostrich-like behaviour isn’t going to make the problem go away. There is a need to first sensitise Indians of a disturbing phenomenon. The ways to cope with it emerge in due course. Denial is exacerbating the problem. 

Sunday Pioneer, February 24, 2013

There Is No Single Reality That Defines The Past


By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a time when history was an engagement involving the dead, the living and the unborn. Today, thanks to the multiplication of isms and the epidemic of prefixes (post-modernism, post-colonial, neo-liberal, et al), the story of the human experience has been reduced to conversations involving tiny groups of ‘professional’ historians. The wider citizenry that should, ideally, have informed perceptions of their heritage and inheritance have been disdainfully left out of the process.

The results have been horrible. An India that was in any case relatively unconcerned with history has become even less so. An enlightened yet critical view of how our ancestors coped with challenges and uncertainties have been replaced by either idyllic or prejudicial fantasies. By far the most damaging contribution has been that of ‘scientific’ history which, thanks to its impersonal nature and inherent dryness, has virtually killed popular interest in the past. For the aam aadmi, history has become a Bollywood hand-me-down.

This perversion has had two consequences. For some, not least the political class, the rendering of the past has become an aspect of contemporary politics—tales to be moulded and presented as facets of a contested nationhood. To the completely uninitiated, history has become an extension of mythology—a process that conveniently bypasses chronology and empirical rigour. By definition, any appreciation of the past involves a great deal of tentativeness. Yet, if mass reaction is any guide, everything from Shivaji to Gandhiji has become bound in unflinching certitudes.

As a busy politician preoccupied with problems on his doorstep, it is unlikely that British Prime Minister David Cameron was sufficiently sensitised to the minefield he was walking into in Amritsar last Wednesday. Having chosen to visit that city, primarily to visit the Golden Temple, he couldn’t escape the obligation of visiting the Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the infamous massacre in April 19. Under the circumstances, he did what modern sensibilities demanded: he called it a “deeply shameful act” that “we must never forget.”

Cameron is a consummate politician, deeply conscious of doing the “right thing”. As such, his measured comments in the condolence book were a darn sight more tactful than the Queen’s equivocation in 1997. During her disastrous visit that year she had described Jallianwala Bagh as a “difficult” episode whose “sadness” must, however, be balanced by the “gladness” that also marked the three centuries of Indo-British engagement. The Duke of Edinburgh—who, incidentally, was more fascinated by a sign advertising Bagpiper whiskey during his drive into Amritsar—added his inimitable touch by asking if the casualties were really as high as Indian nationalists had claimed.

Predictably, Cameron’s expression of remorse didn’t satisfy the permanently aggrieved. They wanted nothing less than a full-throated apology, akin to former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt going down on his knees before a Holocaust memorial in Poland in 1970. My friend, the historian Patrick French tweeted his astonishment that Cameron had invoked Winston Churchill—a man whose callousness contributed to the deaths of some three million people in the Bengal famine of 1943.

The allusion to Churchill’s indignation may well have been odd but viewed through the prism of history Cameron may unwittingly have made a more complex point.  The killing of peaceful protestors outraged Indian opinion as never before—much more in fact than the bloody recriminations that followed the rebellion of 1857, an event that, ironically, spurred a wave of loyalism to the Crown. More significant than Rabindranath Tagore returning his Knighthood, Jallianwala Bagh destroyed the moral edifice on which the British Raj was constructed. In asserting his no-nonsense implementation of martial law, Lt-General Dyer in fact scored a self-goal from which British rule never recovered. It lost its self-esteem.  

If Cameron had any scope for apology, it is to Britain for Dyer’s pig-headedness, an idea riddled with comic absurdity. For India, the Amritsar massacre was a human rights violation; for Britain it was an imperial catastrophe and the beginning of the long road to national decline.

Viewing history as a series of certitudes forecloses awkward conclusions. Like the present, there is no single reality that defines the past, a point to consider the next time we make it a contemporary battlefield. 

Sunday Times of India, February 24, 2013

Friday, February 22, 2013

Imperial ties, modern tenor


By Swapan Dasgupta

Maybe it’s a question of sheer familiarity but the annual Queen’s Birthday Party hosted by the British High Commissioner on the lawns of his spacious bungalow Delhi is among the more agreeable diplomatic parties in the overcrowded social calendar of Lutyens’ Delhi. Last year, when the focus was on the Queen’s Jubilee (yes, she has been on the throne for over six decades), the organisers did something that I thought was a trifle odd: they decorated the place in a very unmemorable Indian way.

Perhaps the idea was to underplay the imperial links that bind the United Kingdom to the former Jewel in the Crown—let’s not forget that the Queen’s father was the last King-Emperor of India. But it prompted a guest to ask a British diplomat whether he imagined that Elizabeth II was still the Queen of India.

I don’t know how the representative of Her Majesty’s Government responded but judging from the squeamishness that accompanies any reference to the Raj, the diplomat may well have imagined that the attempt to Indian-ise the Jubilee celebrations in Delhi may well have given unintended offence. And giving offence to the ‘natives’ is what the new generation of politically correct Britons dread most.

Last Tuesday, the representatives of the Queen didn’t dial any wrong numbers. The occasion, additionally glamourized by the presence of Prime Minister David Cameron, suitably showcased a Britain that Indians are familiar with and, more important, have grown to like. The liveried waiters served a suitably fruity Pimms, the more exotic blends of Johnnie Walker and there was even a stall serving a curious cocktail of Twinnings Earl Grey tea and Cointreau. The military band, specially flown in for the occasion, refrained from experimenting with Bhangra Pop and Reggae and stuck to iconic tunes that included the theme tune from Dam Busters, Land of Hope and Glory and even Jerusalem. With some British companies showcasing their products, it was a happy mix of Sebastian Coe and Stephen Fry.

Making the UK (no one talks of England any longer) relevant to a resurgent former colony in the 21st century is calculated to be daunting. There is, of course, the troublesome but inescapable baggage of history. How to eradicate the pukka sahib image that exists in the minds of Indians—it has long disappeared from the erstwhile Mother Country—is a constant preoccupation. David Cameron addressed the issue far more successfully at Jallianwala Bagh than the Queen did during her diplomatically disastrous visit in 1997. This, however, is entirely a contemporary British or, rather, a Guardian problem. At the Jaipur Literature Festival held a month or so ago, Indian audiences were quite willing to discuss even seemingly touchy subjects such as Rudyard Kipling and the Empire as history—not contemporary politics.

For the UK and particularly for modernist Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair and Cameron, the more relevant challenge was to convince Indians that there is more to Albion than the mandatory stopover in London during the summer vacs. The need for this arose out of the conviction that India will emerge as an economic powerhouse by 2020 and that the UK should be in a position to use its traditional links to forge a meaningful economic partnership with it.

The assumptions behind Cameron’s initiative in 2010 to strive for a near-special relationship with New Delhi were unexceptionable. The real problem the UK faced was one of image. The sustained economic decline of Britain that began in 1945 and continued till Margaret Thatcher put some life back into the ailing country meant that the ‘sick man of Europe’ image took deep roots. Britain was perceived as a declining economy, lacking in drive, innovation and competitiveness—a point that, despite the high level of investments in that country by the Tata Group, was driven home quite recently by Rattan Tata in an interview that created quite a stir. There was a time when the Indian use of the term ‘West” invariably included the UK. But over the years this association became more and more tenuous.

What is interesting about Cameron’s sustained bid to upgrade his country’s standing in India is that it is not overtly dependant on the government. During a brief interaction with the British Prime Minister last Tuesday, I asked him whether his untiring diplomacy had been reciprocated. He answered that Indians were among the largest investors in the UK.

That he chose to ignore the Indian Government’s lethargic response to many outstanding issues was revealing. The UK is now selling itself directly to the private sector over the heads of the Government—although there is the desperate hope that the India-European Union Free Trade Agreement will be inked this year. It is emphasising the competitive rates of corporate taxes, the economic freedoms that appeal to entrepreneurs and the centrality of the City of London in raising capital. To these existing advantages, Cameron has promised a flexible immigration policy to harness Indian businesses and entrepreneurship.  

Indians sometimes mistakenly assume that the UK’s primary objective is to use India as a profit extraction zone. That consideration isn’t absent. But it is being increasingly balanced by the desire to give Indian money a profitable outlet in the UK. It is the diplomacy centred on a two-way traffic that India’s officialdom has not quite grasped. It is South Block not Whitehall that is in a time warp. 

Asian Age, February 22, 2013

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Later Gandhis same as later Moghuls?


By Swapan Dasgupta

Indians have an elevated perception of their own moral standing in the world—as the nation that has been wedded to lofty spiritualism for many thousands of years, as the civilisation that put personal ethics over the quest for power, and as the karmabhoomi of the Buddha, Guru Nanak and Mahatma Gandhi. What is less appreciated is that this faith in collective self-superiority is not universally shared, and certainly not in the West. The Occident’s view of what the Orient represents doesn’t make very flattering reading.

Some of the most damning indictments of the flawed Indian have, naturally enough, come from Britons who have had the most sustained engagement with Hindustan. Robert Clive, the rogue who cut every corner to establish the foundations of the British Empire in India, made a fortune from his swashbuckling ways. Yet, when he returned to England to enjoy his fame and fortune, he found himself the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry for acquiring assets disproportionate to his known sources of income.

Clive defended himself with characteristic gusto, claiming that in view of the temptations, he was “astounded by his own moderation.” But more than emphasising his own uprightness, Clive’s defence rested on the assertion that corruption was a way of life in India. “From time immemorial”, he told his inquisitors, “it has been the custom of that country, for an inferior power never to come into the presence of a superior without a present. It begins at the Nabob and ends at the lowest man who has an inferior.”

The omnipresence of Indian venality was recognised by the stalwarts of the East India Company as an inescapable reality. If Britain was to do business with India, it would have to recognise the grim truth of Lord Cornwallis’s claim that “Every native of Hindustan, I verily believe, is corrupt.”

Nor was this accommodation of local custom limited to graft. Duplicity in dealings and negotiable standards of truthfulness were the two other features of public conduct that confronted the foreigner. Innumerable civil servants who were entrusted with dispensing justice were aghast at the ease with which witnesses committed perjury if that suited their self-interest. In February 1905, while delivering the address at the Calcutta University convocation, Lord Curzon (one of the few Viceroys who was genuinely fond of India) lit a bush fire by claiming that “I hope I am making no false or arrogant claim when I say that the highest ideal of truth is to a large extent a Western conception… (U)ndoubtedly, truth took a high place in the moral codes of the West before it had been similarly honoured in the East, where craftiness and diplomatic wile have always been held in much repute.”

In Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale of the Anglo-Indian encounter, the Eurasian street urchin watches the disoriented Tibetan lama narrate his search for his disciple to a passer-by: “Kim stood amazed at this, because he had overheard the talk in the Museum, and knew that the old man was speaking the truth, which is a thing a native seldom presents to a stranger.”

Subsequently, describing the boy’s friendship with the spy-cum-horse trader Mahbub Ali, Kipling stressed Mahbub knew that “Kim was the one soul in the world who had never told him a lie. That would have been a fatal blot on Kim’s character if Mahbub had not known that to others, for his own ends or Mahbub’s business, Kim could lie like an Oriental.”

There is a strong temptation these days to dismiss these awkward observations on the Indian character as being racially and political prejudiced—what Edward Said has characterised as the condescension of “Orientalism”.  Equally, there is an inclination to highlight the role of ‘dharma’ in moulding the individual India’s perception of right and wrong.

Actually, it would seem there is no contradiction between the two. Just as the Indian manages to effortlessly reconcile a strong sense of personal hygiene with public squalor, the tendency to see salvation as a personal initiative has invariably prompted a detachment from the disrepute of public life. “Responsible Government” the British ICS officer Sir Michael O’Dwyer (who earned notoriety with the Rowlatt Act) wrote after a lifetime in India, “has no meaning to the Indian peoples, no equivalent in any Indian vernacular”. 

O’Dwyer was not entirely correct because “Ram Rajya” came to denote virtuous and enlightened governance. But he was right in emphasising that in the hierarchy of values, Hindus have attached greater value to the self over the state. This isn’t because of any insufficient attachment to wider dealings: the importance of trust in Indian business practices has been known and appreciated for centuries. Yet, there is a profound alienation from the ethical underpinnings of politics and governance which outsiders have noted and repeatedly taken advantage of.

The latest saga of the 10 per cent or so commission paid to agents and an unnamed ‘family’ for facilitating a Rs 3,600 crore helicopter purchase from an Italian firm has an air of eerie inevitability about it. Short-changing the public exchequer, subverting public officials and discounting the larger good have been the driving principles of national life for too long.

I haven’t read what the Italian whistle-blower deposed before the Magistrate and public prosecutor. But I won’t be surprised if they resemble Lord Clive’s observations on the India of the decrepit Moghul Shah Alam. The later Moghuls and the later Gandhis: is there any difference?

Sunday Pioneer, February 17, 2013 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Terrorists must pay for their sins

By Swapan Dasgupta

        As someone who has always had ethical problems with the death penalty, I may be forgiven for not 'celebrating' the execution of Afzal Guru for his involvement in the attack on Parliament in December 2001. At the same time, it is undeniable that Afzal received a full and fair trial, and there was nothing knee-jerk in last Saturday morning's executive decision to carry out the sentence. Indeed, those who maintained that there was absolutely no need to wait for such a long time before carrying out the sentence after the Supreme Court upheld it in  2005, have a strong case. By dithering over the decision for more than seven years, as the file meandered from the table of one babu to another, the Government can quite rightly be accused of wilfully politicising the issue.

        Actually, there are reasonable grounds for the belief that the UPA Government lacked the moral resolve to implement the judicial verdict speedily. True, there may have been some individuals who had moral qualms. But those were very few in number. The real hesitation stemmed from the belief that somehow the death sentence on Afzal would be viewed as an example of minority targeting in some parts of the country. Certainly, there  are separatists in Jammu and Kashmir who will use the execution of Afzal to provoke anti-India feelings. The Government will have to use both tact and effective policing to cope with the problem.

         That there will be a small political fallout from Saturday morning's execution in Tihar Jail is undeniable. Since both Ajmal Kasab, the only one of the 26/11 butchers who was brought before a court of law, and Ajmal Kasab, who conspired in the attack on Parliament, happened to be Muslims, there will be those who will see in the two death sentences evidence of an anti-Muslim bias of the Indian political and judicial establishments. Such puerile but potentially inflamatory logic will even have a few takers among those who believe that India is an appropriate place to wage a holy war. These fanatics won't be the ones to appear on TV chat shows but they will be the ones who will craftily disseminate their poisonous message inside the ghettos and among those Muslims who feel that life has short-changed them.

        For the political class as whole, the emergence of a motivated fifth-column is a challenge. The technology of terrorism is such that it takes only a handful of individuals to create fear and devastation. Certainly this was the case with the Indian Mujahedeen which was responsible for many  terrorist outrages a few years ago. However, as events in the aftermath of 26/11 showed, a purposeful counter-terrorism outfit, guided by strong political direction, is in a position to keep the situation well under control. As Home Minister of India, Shivraj Patil was an unmitigated disaster. His successor, P.Chidambaram, on the other hand, addressed his responsibilities with single-minded commitment and played a major role in curbing the terrorist threat.

        The question that is uppermost in the minds of most Indians today is: can Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde live up the exacting standards set by Chidambaram? The initial assessments of him have not been rosy. Apart from his penchant for casual utterances, he appears to have, of late, been preoccupied with scoring political points against the BJP on the 'Hindu terrorism" question. After the execution of Afzal this issue is almost certain to be further highlighted, if only to demonstrate that there was no pre-mediated targeting of minorities.

        I am not one of those who believe that 'Hindu terror" is an oxymoron. There were tiny groups of fanatics in the mid-2000s that believed that the only way to fight jehadi terror was through retribution. Some of these loonies have been caught and some of them are reportedly still at large. Breaking up these so-called Hindu terror modules is an important task before the police forces of the states and the Central investigating bodies. However, if the Centre decides that 'Hindu terror' is a delicious handle to score political points against the RSS and BJP, the outcome will not be a happy one.

        On many occasions, politicians have maintained that terrorism knows no religion. Academic studies of the phenomenon may not confirm this over-simplistic thesis. Religion has played a role in motivating individuals to undertake direct action against those they perceive as their enemies. However, as a philosophy governing policy, the principle of terrorism as a phenomenon separate from religious beliefs is unexceptionable. The job of the state is to guard against violent threats to fellow citizens, irrespective of whether the potential mischief-makers are inspired by theology, politics or dementia. In the eyes of the law, an offence is an offence regardless of what has prompted it.

        Most Indians believed Afzal deserved the death penalty because he was involved in a heinous conspiracy to attack the most important symbol of Indian democracy. His faith was irrelevant in determining whether he should be given clemency or made to pay for his crime. If politicians cutting across party lines stick to this line of reasoning, any adverse fallout resulting from his hanging will be short-lived. If, on the other hand, nervous politicians, fearful of any adverse impact on community support, decide that this is the time to swing to the other extreme and target some other group, it will open the floodgates of sectarian bitterness.

To a minusculity, Afzal will be a martyr, just as the assassins of Indira Gandhi were martyrs and Nathuram Godse an oracle. In a country as large and diverse as India, there will always be a fringe. The important thing is to be focussed on the fact that an overwhelming majority of India believes that terrorists must pay a heavy price for their actions.

Sunday Pioneer, February 10, 2013

In a climate of cynicism, hope for the young

By SWAPAN DASGUPTA


Only the most audacious of astrologers would presume to anticipate the course of politics. Even the most discernible of trends can often be overturned by either events or accidents of history. So it is with the run-up to the next general election scheduled for April-May 2014.

A few weeks ago, dispirited Congress loyalists were celebrating Rahul Gandhi’s angry young man act at the Jaipur conclave where he was formally anointed heir-apparent. For nearly a week, the Congress believed that the apparently reluctant Gandhi had finally decided to take the plunge and commit himself to rejuvenating the party. The party’s optimism also stemmed from the belief — by no means unfounded — that the BJP was in the throes of internal disarray, with the heart of the party and the organisation pulling in different directions.

In less than a month, events have conspired to change reality. Rahul is still very much in the reckoning, working assiduously at his long-term plans to build a secure foundation for the party he will inherit from his mother in due course. However, it is now plainly apparent that the Congress and its allies will not be the default choice of the Indian voter. Rahul will be challenged every inch of the way by Gujarat CM Narendra Modi who has been catapulted to the very top of the BJP pile by popular acclaim.

It is the manner of Modi’s rise and rise which makes the political story enthralling. In emerging as the first among equals in the BJP hierarchy, Modi had to overcome many seemingly insurmountable obstacles. There was, first, the vexed issue of the Gujarat riots of 2002, an event that continues to polarize public opinion. Then there was Modi’s assertive leadership style that offended a section of the RSS establishment. And, finally, there was the visceral opposition to Modi from an intellectual establishment that feels Modi is too radical and challenges something called the “idea of India.”

It is not that Modi has overcome all these obstacles . However, what he has successfully done is to expose many of his detractors as paper tigers. Contrary to initial expectations, he hasn’t engaged in frontal combat with the sceptics: he has bypassed them by appealing to an untapped constituency and letting them do the talking on his behalf.

In choosing India’s most well-regarded Commerce college to deliver his first vision statement for the nation, Modi was not merely playing to his strength as the great moderniser. He was also doing what Indian politicians are loath to do: link the future of India to the lives of the best and the brightest students. In other words, rather than use a public platform outside Gujarat to launch into a diatribe against the nine wasted years, he delivered a positive political message: that India will be the land of hope and opportunity as long as we can fix the problems of governance. Amid a climate of cynicism and despondency, Modi proffered a dream for the young.

Modi’s dream will undoubtedly by challenged by what a former US Vice President in the early ’70s called the “nattering nabobs of negativism”. Yet, there is no doubt that in invoking youthful aspirations and positive energy, Modi departed significantly from the caricatured portrayal of him as the proverbial ‘merchant of death.’ This adroit positioning is certain to put his opponents (including those in the loony fringe of the Sangh parivar) in a quandary. This may be a reason why Modibaiters are desperately hoping that the likes of Pravin Togadia continue to deliver hate speeches and derail the aspirational agenda.

Modi cannot hope to disregard the alternative nightmare scenario painted by those who both fear and hate him. Sooner or later he will have to come down hard on those who cannot look beyond hateful identity politics. Modi’s appeal rests on his no-nonsense leadership style and his ability to make the Togadias of India redundant. If these divisive noises from within the Sangh Parivar don’t cease, Modi will have no choice but to flex his muscles and ask his colleagues to choose between him and the Hindu counterparts of Akbaruddin Owaisi.
It’s a battle he can’t lose because he has public opinion on his side. More important, it is a battle that he cannot afford to opt out of. To win India, Modi must also reshape his own ideological family in his own image. Making the likes of Togadia irrelevant may well make Modi’s journey to Race Course Road that much easier. India will have a better idea of what he stands for, something that can hardly be said for his challenger whose appeal rests on privilege and entitlement.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Loonies of the world unite!

By Swapan Dasgupta

        There is a famous photograph of V.I. Lenin, shot sometime in 1917, addressing a gathering of 'revolutionary' workers during the course of the upheaval that led to the Bolshevik Revolution. It is a photograph that has been published and re-published on many occasions and, like Adolf Hitler's iconic images during the Nuremberg rallies, it has become synonymous with the Communist movement.

        However, the photograph underwent a change over the years. The original showed Lenin declaiming while flanked by a galaxy of Bolshevik leaders, some known and others largely forgotten. By the mid-1930s, the photograph underwent some innovative editing. Leon Trotsky, who was in the original photograph standing next to Lenin was expediently air-brushed away. Trotsky had lost out in the inner-party struggle with Stalin and was banished from the Soviet Union. Consequently, he became a non person and was dubbed a fascist collaborator. Entire generations of pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese Communists learnt their history of the movement without any understanding of the role of Trotsky in 1905 and 1917 and the basis of his critique of Stalin. In the annals of official Marxism, Trotsky became a shorthand for treachery.

        History doesn't repeat itself as a carbon copy. However, there is something eerily familiar about the manner in which the writer Salman Rushdie is being transformed into a non-person by the custodians of faith in India. In 2012, the author was prevented from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival this year the West Bengal Government prevented him  from attending the premiere of Midnight's Children directed by Deepa Menta. Rushdie had also been apparently invited to a sesson of a literary festival in Kolkata but the local police sent word to him that he would be sent back if he landed up on any flight to the city.

        Apart from Satanic Verses which was banned by the Rajiv Gandhi Government in 1988, there is no ban on any of Rushdie's other books. They are available in all good bookshops in India and the film Midnight's Children is being screened in many movie halls all over India. Yet, for all practical purposes, an unofficial ban has been imposed on Rushdie making an appearance at any public function. As the holder of a PIO card, Rushdie can, of course, travel to India whenever he wants to but in terms of his public persona he has been declared a non-person.

        Rushdie is not the only one who has been permanently banned from public occasions. The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen was more or less hounded out of Kolkata three years ago and now leads an undercover existence in an Indian city. Each year, when her visa comes up for renewal, pressure is put on the Government of India to deport her. So far the Government has withstood the pressure but it would be hazardous to believe that this constitutes the last word on the subject.

        Rushdie and Taslima are both foreign nationals and there is a suggestion that the authorities need not go out of their way to defend the civil liberties that are guaranteed to Indian citizens. Yet, the same harassment greeted M.F. Husein, till, in exasperation, he took up the citizenship of Qatar and spent the final year of his life outside India. Mercifully, no similar harassment has yet greeted Ashis Nandy for his comments in this year's Jaipur Literature Festival. Indeed, two days after the kerfuffle in Jaipur, Nandy was photographed releasing a book in the company of Vice President Hamid Ansari. I don't know if a similar indulgence is likely to be shown towards the four Kashmiri girls who had formed an all-woman band.

        There is a temptation to interpret these attacks on creative individuals and the recent fuss over Kamal Hassan's new fim as evidence of India's intellectual regression. To some extent this is true. There is a growing body of individuals, not least in the social media, who are inclined to believe that they have a monopoly of the truth. This astonishing self-assurance is coupled with the belief that certitudes are more important than open engagement.

        That there are individuals with closed minds is a problem that is not limited to India alone. Even the most evolved liberal democracies have individuals who are not merely resolute in their views and prejudices but are even willing to even kill for it. In India, on the other hand, the problem  is not individuals but the effortless forging of collectives. In the cases of Rushdie, Taslima, Nandy and Husein, it was the fear of deranged and fanatical mobs that forced the state to buckle under pressure.

        It may be said that the mobs cut across religious communities. Hindu mobs targeted Husein's art exhibitions; Muslim mobs threatened Rushdie and Taslima; and the fear of Dalit mobs haunt Nandy. But this cross-community outrage is hardly a source of reassurance. On the contrary, they suggest that what was triggered by Islamist itolerance has become contagious. 'If Muslims get so easily offended', it has been said, 'why should we show enlightenment?'

        This is a point that needs to be addressed seriously. The reason     why there are alarm bells ringing all over India over the deterioration of our democracy is precisely because an increasing number of Indians are becoming prickly. There is not enough anger at the disgraceful treatment meted out to Rushdie and Taslima precisely because self-professed members of the majority community joined the witch-hunt against Husein and Nandy.

        It may sound provocative but the harsh truth is that minority blackmail succeeded precisely because the majority community allowed its loonies to go berserk. If the persecution of Husein hadn't happened, Centre and state governments wouldn't have had the moral authority to capitalate to the clerics. In 1988, when Satanic Verses was banned, it was  possible for the BJP to put the Government on the mat. In joining the chorus against Husein, the BJP forfeited its right to speak for a expansive democracy. To reclaim our eroding freedoms, it is the majority community that must be willing to be stand up and be counted. The rest will follow. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, February 8, 2013

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Indian Democracy Compromised


By Swapan Dasgupta

On hearing that the Supreme Court has directed the police to refrain from arresting Ashis Nandy, arguably India’s most celebrated contrarian, a wicked thought entered my head. Imagine a situation if, instead of Nandy, some other (perhaps lesser-known) non-political public figure had given similar offence, real or contrived, to a group that enjoys exceptional Constitutional protection? Would the Judges have used their common sense and brushed aside the contention that a casual statement in a discussion constituted an “atrocity” that must automatically be accompanied by a non-bailable arrest warrant against the deemed offender?

Asking an awkward question does not imply that I am demanding that Nandy be arrested and peremptorily sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment. Far from it. Nandy, as even his academic friends who signed petitions in his support maintained, was guilty of clumsy formulation, unwarranted impishness and even lack of empirical rigour. These are grave charges to be levelled against a public intellectual of Nandy’s standing. Anyone else would have been pilloried mercilessly for such failings and perhaps even been castigated as a “goonda intellectual” –Dalit activist Kancha Ilaiah’s gratuitous description of Arun Shourie and me at a CNN-IBN programme last week. But since Nandy’s heart was apparently in the right place, his defenders insisted that a literalist interpretation of the law would be a travesty.

I have enormous sympathy for this argument which also has found favour with the Supreme Court. Nandy’s analysis of the social contours of corruption would not have contributed to social tensions. Indeed, had it not been for a panellist who carries a permanent chip on his shoulder, I doubt whether it would have been noticed outside the Jaipur Literature Festival venue. After all, such festivals are occasions where the chattering classes can let their hair down and say a few outrageous things—as long as some red lines aren’t crossed.

By suggesting that the corruption story in India couldn’t be written without a special section on Madhu Koda and that Bengali wholesomeness had been preserved by maintaining the caste character of bhadralok society, Nandy did cross the Lakshman Rekha. Interestingly, as a British MP of African origin pointed out, so did former diplomat Pavan Varma when he alluded to the “half-castes” of the former British Empire. But since Varma’s target was cultural inter-mixing and a defence of national purity, it was overlooked. I daresay if Varma had spoken in a similar vein at a literary meet in Britain, he would certainly have been booed by the audience. He may even have had a case under the Race Relations Act slapped on him.

Of course, if such a case had indeed come up before the British courts the judges would—like our Supreme Court—have dismissed it out of hand. Labelling a   phenomenon as ‘half-caste’ is very different from a racist assault on miscegenation. The law, as Mr Bumble famously said in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, “is an ass—a idiot.” But experience also tells us that “show me the man and I will show you the law” principle is a universal one. It is also one that is unduly influenced by prevailing fashion. If the citadels of intellectual power in India had not stood by Nandy, it is entirely possible that a ham-fisted state machinery would have harassed him no end.

There are two possible conclusions from the fuss over Nandy. The one that may strike a chord among the permanently aggrieved is that there is not enough justice to go around, and that the man got away because he was well connected. A less famous pamphleteer who may have put the same views in colloquial terms would undoubtedly have been languishing in jail by now, completely un-mourned.

The other conclusion which I am tempted to pursue lies in a simple question: why have such absurd, inflexible draconian laws at all? This is a relevant query in the context of today’s India. The past few years, especially since ‘civil society’ became the arbiter of right and wrong in society, has seen every crime, misdemeanour or a perceived act of injustice being accompanied by spirited and angry demands for harsher laws. The Roop Kanwar sati was followed by a new law that made the ‘glorification’ of that awful custom a crime; the rise in Dalit assertiveness was accompanied by the Act that landed Nandy in such a mess; dowry deaths prompted legal changes that turned the presumption of innocence on its head; and the outrage against the Delhi gang-rape last year is likely to lead to a significant enlargement of the legal meaning of rape.

The point to note is in all these legal modifications brought about as a consequence of sectional indignation over horrible events. Yet, no one can seriously deny that most of these draconian laws carry the potential of cynical misuse. The SC-ST Atrocity Act has been used to settle personal scores, the Dowry Act has been used for extortion, and I have no doubt that the new rape laws may also become a cynical plaything in the hands of the unscrupulous.

In recent weeks, the quality of Indian democracy has been compromised by assaults on basic freedoms. What is curious is that every assault has had the backing of the letter of the law. It is time India explored the virtues of less laws (however well intentioned) and more freedom (however ill intentioned). 

Friday, February 1, 2013

DELICIOUS IRONIES - Self-confident cosmopolitanism in a literature festival


By Swapan Dasgupta

When I first attended the Jaipur Literature Festival six years ago as a speaker for their concluding public debate, the event was held in the Durbar Hall of the Diggi Palace Hotel which could, at best accommodate some 300 people. These days, the Durbar Hall counts as among the smaller meeting rooms for the Festival, an annual event which, this year, registered something like two lakh ‘footfalls’—up by an astounding 80,000 from 2012.

The complaint which I have often heard, that the Literature Festival has been transformed into a general tamasha where people turn up for no apparent reason, is probably legitimate. This year, I was astonished to see nearly 800 people crowd into the tent where the popular classicist Tom Holland delivered a fascinating lecture on how Persia emerged as the middle kingdom in the classical world. I am not sure how much of Holland’s erudition sank in but at least there was a sense of relief that no fringe group rushed to the dais to attack the author for his innovative interpretation of early Islam in his earlier work In The Shadow of the Sword.

Tom’s sibling James, nursing a black eye from a game of cricket the day before, may have had other fears. A military historian with nearly a dozen published works under his belt, he was understandably concerned whether anyone at all would show up for the session on his book Dam Busters, about the 1943 air raid that destroyed two iconic dams in western Germany. As the moderator for the session, I shared James Holland’s anxieties. There is, after all, nothing more dispiriting than addressing five drowsy individuals and 295 empty chairs.

We did succeed in attracting a modest gathering of some 60 people, including many whose initiation into World War II history was courtesy Combat comics that depicted all Germans as clumsy oafs whose vocabulary didn’t extend beyond “achtung” and, for some inexplicable reason, “donner und blitzen”.  They appreciated James’ potted history of the making of the bouncing bombs, the skills and hazards of low-flying precision bombing, and his spirited debunking of the belief that Britain won the War by clinging to the coat-tails of the Americans. There was even an awkward smirk on the faces of the handful of Britons when I made a fleeting mention of Squadron Leader Guy Gibson’s black Labrador—immortalised by the legendary 1955 film starring Michael Redgrave. Overall, it was a lovely, quirky session that appealed to the handful that appreciated the difference between the Lancaster and the Mosquito.

It is this appeal to minority tastes that distinguishes the Festival in Jaipur from other similar exercises in India. Yes, there is the ritual genuflection at the altar of ‘bhasha’ correctness, the mandatory sessions on Bollywood (where Javed Akhtar can hold any audience spellbound) and cricket (this year it was Rahul Dravid’s turn to be mobbed), and the invariable celebrations of spiritualism featuring the holiest of holies—the Dalai Lama, no less. But these, I would like to believe, is largely to attract the sponsors. If it wasn’t for the large numbers of youngsters who throng to Jaipur—“We never see young faces at similar events in Britain”, Howard Jacobson (author of The Finkler Question) told me happily—the likes of Coke, Google and Tata Steel wouldn’t have cared to sponsor a literature festival.

Two years ago, I even noticed the London Library on St James’s Square among the sponsors. It was a noble gesture based on hyperbolic assumptions. Amid all the hype and the needless controversies centred on Salman Rushdie’s threatened presence last year and Ashis Nandy’s off-the-cuff wisdom this year, there is a paradox that India needs to address. There has been an explosion of literary festivals that amount to a celebration of reading. At the same time, there has been no corresponding growth in either the sale of books or the reading habit.

Yes, there has been an exponential growth in the number of publishing houses setting up shop and the numbers of people convinced that they are the next best thing after Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh—for some odd reason, no one talks of Sir Vidia Naipaul any longer. Indeed, the Eton-educated British MP of Ghanian origin Kwasi Kwarteng, who possesses a wicked sense of humour, offended many literary groupies in Jaipur by suggesting that the Indian who parachuted into a God-forsaken African country in search of a disaster travelogue was guilty of the same presumptuousness that whites were once charged with by angry ‘post-colonial’ audiences. Fortunately, as I discovered in Jaipur with an enormous sense of relief and reassurance, earnest young women mouthing platitudes in a language that is both strident and incomprehensible may well be a thing of the past. Or, at least, the phenomenon hasn’t seriously infected the Pink City Circus.

In a land where, at least for a disproportionate number of English-reading people, the road to enlightenment runs through a Chetan Bhagat novel and an MBA degree, it is easy to intimidate people into looking for the Exit sign at the mention of literature. What used to be a pleasurable activity involving the human experience was successfully transformed by the high priests of ‘post-modernism’ and other lifestyle diseases into something utterly fearful or, worse still, boring. For me, a worrying feature of literary festivals in India was the nagging fear that the appreciation of books and writing would degenerate into a seminar on the inadequacies of the intellectual architecture of what we, bound up in reams of ‘false consciousness’, imagined was creative stuff.

In what I thought was a piece of delicious irony, the Festival organisers scheduled a discussion on Rudyard Kipling involving three of his biographers—Charles Allen, David Gilmour and Andrew Lycett—on the morning of Republic Day. As the moderator for the session, I had gently told the three Britons that they should speak their mind and not be concerned with how Kipling is perceived in the corridors of political correctness. At the same time, I was a little concerned that some prickly soul in the audience wouldn’t find the ‘White Man’s Burden’ and the grudging tribute to the Fuzzy-Wuzzy in the Sudan terribly funny, and respond with the “unreasonable petulance of small children, always morbidly afraid that someone is laughing at them”—Kipling’s amusing caricature of the Bengali.

Belying expectations, I discovered something that restored my faith in Hindoostan: that decades of contrived anti-imperialist propoaganda hasn’t been able to kill India’s abiding love for Kipling. Gilmour explained the paternalist underpinnings of ‘White Man’s Burden’; Lycett read “We and They” which could well have been written by a professional multiculturalist; and Allen held forth on Kipling’s love affair with Buddhism in Kim. An intervention from the audience suggested that Stalky & Co hadn’t been bettered as boy’s boarding school tales; an IAS officer disputed that there were few Bengalis in late-Victorian Lahore for Kipling’s Bengali allergy to have been born of ignorance; and a woman journalist reminded everyone that politics be damned, Kipling remained the master of children’s stories.

For me, this Republic Day was really an Empire Day as I shuttled between Kipling, Lord Cromer, Lord Lugard and the legacy question. I was struck that the full-throated demands for the de-colonisation of the mind were swamped by the self-confident cosmopolitanism of a generation willing to discuss Empire, appreciate it and laugh at its many thousand absurdities. Jaipur facilitated that conversation because it was structured on the belief that Indians aren’t the narrow-minded, dreary, uptight bores the official custodians of taste make them out to be.

The Telegraph, February 1, 2013