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Friday, May 31, 2013

Morality of terror? There isn’t any

By Swapan Dasgupta

The lazy journalist, it is often said, invariably equates his taxi driver with the aam aadmi. I must confess to falling back on the oldest shortcut in the trade on my journey from Central London to Heathrow airport on the day after two fanatics decapitated a British soldier in mufti on a busy street in Woolwich.

The taxi driver turned out to be an Afghan living in Britain since 1999. A Moscow-trained specialist in drip irrigation from Mazhar-e-Sharif, he was an ethnic Tajik who had fled the Taliban. He was a middle-class Afghan who has been reduced to driving taxis in a country that had no real use for his expertise.

So, I asked, as he helpfully re-tuned his radio to a station devoted to Bollywood music, what did he think of yesterday’s killing in Woolwich. “They are crazy people”, he burst, “and they make our lives miserable. They destroyed Afghanistan with their jihad and now they want to destroy Britain.”

“If they asked me for advice”, he went on, “do you know what I would tell the British Government? I would tell them that you can’t reform these people because their minds are full of half-baked nonsense. There is just one solution: just shoot them.”

London’s taxi drivers are always full of certitudes but even by the exacting standards of the Daily Mail this was going a bit too far. Today’s Britain is so overwhelmingly obsessed with ‘human rights’ that the deportation of a hateful jihadi who entered the country on false pretexts and who has since been subsidised by welfare payments has been endlessly delayed because of fears that Jordan (a country from which he is a fugitive) uses torture to extract information.

Or take the case of a guy named Anjem Choudary, a trained lawyer who was the main inspiration for a group called Al Muhajiroun which has subsequently been banned for its hateful and murderous Islamism. This gentleman, a favourite of BBC talk shows which need a “balancing” voice is said to subsist on welfare payments that come from the earnings of decent individuals. To put it another way, the British state actually pays for Choudary to motivate young British Muslims into jihad and even helpfully provides him a platform to broadcast his demands for the destruction of tolerance and the British way of life. If this isn’t an example of liberal self-flagellation, I don’t know what is.

Since the Woolwich murder, there have been calls in Britain for less tolerance of those who disregard the basic rules that govern public life in a democracy. Pressure is being put on universities to be less indulgent towards students’ Islamic societies that misuse the pluralism of institutions of higher learning for the promotion of murder and sectarian conflict. There have also been calls on the free media to be more circumspect in providing the oxygen of publicity to the overground voices of the underground.

The last issue is a tricky one. There are many supporters of terrorism and jihad who mask their real intentions with clever arguments and diplomatic silence. To demands for outright condemnation of jihadi atrocities, they invariably fall back on the “roots of terrorism” argument. The real culprit, they proclaim grandly, is the British policy of persecution of Muslims in Afghanistan and Libya, its deep links with the US and its friendship with “racist Zionists” who are out to annihilate the Palestinian people.

“Leave us in peace” one of the Woolwich killers hollered at passers-by while flaunting his bloody hands and blood-covered machete. In his mind, he was the victim and the British state the oppressor.

Last week, I heard the very same arguments on Indian TV. Following a perfunctory condemnation of the Maoist massacre of a Congress yatra in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, they would invariably shift tack and talk with poetic indignation on the brutality and even the criminality of the Indian state. Just as the London-accented jihadi will invoke Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan and even Kashmir, these well-heeled individuals will romanticise those who are fighting for the rights of India’s tribals against rapacious corporate houses and their politician friends. Whether it is the massacre of 75 CRPF jawans in a carefully-planned ambush, the decapitation of a tribal policeman in Jharkhand and the orchestrated massacre of political activists last week, the notes of the theme song are common.

The feigned victimhood has been carefully crafted. The overground friends of the terrorists have systematically drawn a moral equivalence between a democratic way which, despite all its many imperfections rests on the will of the people, and an armed struggle that takes Mao Zedong’s infamous assertion of political power flowing from the barrel of the gun as its inspiration. The jihadis are not really fighting for either the Palestinian or the Kashmiri but for a the establishment of a medievalist political order. Likewise, the Maoists couldn’t give a damn about indigenous peoples and poverty: their single-minded goal is the creation of liberated zones that will be used as launch pads for the capture of political power.

Both sets of political predators need what Lenin called ‘useful idiots’ to enlarge the arena of struggle. They are the poets and wordsmiths of murder. And not only do we tolerate them, we accord them social sanction. Perhaps we are the real idiots. Maybe we should employ taxi drivers as counter-insurgency experts. They have the right instincts.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, May 31, 2013 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

When in Britain do as the Great Britons did

By Swapan Dasgupta
Last Friday's British newspapers contained a startling revelation: the number of self-professed Christians in the United Kingdom has fallen below 50 per cent. The Census report, on which this finding is based, has also led some demographers to conclude that by 2060, the majority of Britons will be non-white.
Considering that immigration to the UK from the erstwhile colonies began in full steam from the early 1950s, and mainly in response to the post-war labour shortages, and was given an additional fillip by the movement of European Union nationals from the 1980s, the demographic shifts will be monumental. In just a century or so - a very small time in the history of nations - the Britain which we knew (and in many cases idolized) will be a completely different place. The "green and pleasant land" invoked by the hymn 'Jerusalem' will probably still be there, unless the property developers and road builders are given unlimited powers of desecration, but it will be littered with abandoned churches , pubs serving tepid bitter and samosas and its bustling markets filled with hijabwearing housewives. The England of P G Wodehouse, Enid Blyton, John Betjeman and Agatha Christie will be a thing of the past.
"Change? Why should things change?" Guy Burgess, the upper-class British traitor living in grey Moscow remarked in Alan Bennett's celebrated play 'An Englishman Abroad' . It's a question that many who were deeply influenced by the soft power of Empire often ask in exasperation when confronted by Caucasian waitresses for whom English is at best a fourth language.
"Change and decay" may well be all around we see but transformation is inevitable. Indeed, there is little point opposing it, demanding the return of the pre-decimal currency and the meat-and-two-veg diet that was a feature of the culinary wasteland. The real challenge is to manage change so that the future doesn't break with the past and present entirely.
Fortunately, there are politicians whose vision doesn't merely extend to the next general election. One of the most intellectually stimulating members of David Cameron's government is education secretary Michael Gove, a man many commentators say could end up as a future leader of the Conservative Party.
What distinguishes Gove from the 'modern' Conservatives of the Cameron school is his innate distrust of fashionable theories and politically expedient choices. Gove has offended the powerful teacher's unions by suggesting shorter holidays, longer school hours and tougher evaluation standards. He has called for a renewed emphasis on teaching grammar and encouraged the establishment of independent schools that put a premium on academic excellence. It would also be fair to say that Gove's stress on raising standards has enjoyed the backing of parents with school-going children.
However, what has raised the hackles of the 'progressives' who have dominated the education establishment for very long is his proposal for a fundamental change in the teaching of history - an issue that remains a favourite with ideologically-driven politicians.
The changes proposed by Gove fall into two broad categories . First, he has sought the return of the traditional narrative history within a chronological framework. Therefore, rather than present history as a 'fun' exercise replete with fancy dress shows and allusions to popular characters from comics and Disney films, Gove has sought to reinject history teaching with the cultivation of lucidity, analysis and logically consistent thinking . Secondly, and this is important in the context of a Britain that is changing a bit too rapidly for anyone's comfort, he has suggested that curriculum include a substantial chunk of British history.
The patchy syllabus of the past where familiarity with Tudor England was blended with an awareness of Germany's Nazi experience has been attacked and sought to be replaced with a more thorough and chronologically flowing awareness of the British experience.
Predictably, Gove has been attacked for encouraging insularity and putting the UK at the centre of the world. There is merit in that charge. But when you consider that in the next few decades Britain will have a generation which lacks the moorings of the British oak, he is right to emphasize the importance of the national over the cosmopolitan.
When people make a choice to live in Britain, leaving the 'old country' behind, they also accept the obligations of citizenship. And these obligations are better appreciated by imbibing the essence of the entire British experience. If multiculturalism becomes a celebration of the ethnic menagerie, the next 50 years will see Britain undergoing a personality change. That, to me at least, would be undesirable.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Chandigarh Club: The Reshaping of Modern India


By Swapan Dasgupta

My introduction to Chandigarh, that fabled city of Le Corbusier’s indulgences and Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernist dream, happened in rather unusual circumstances one summer night some 26 years ago.

Stepping off the air-conditioned bus from Delhi I hailed a cycle-rickshaw to take me to the hotel where I had a booking. The rickshaw-wallah pedalled his way past long and deserted roads—the Punjab militancy was at its height—and delivered me to a modern building with a long driveway. “This is not the hotel”, I remarked to the man in my somewhat imperfect Hindi. “It is a guest house, Sir” he retorted. “But I want to go to the hotel”, I protested. “No sahib, you should stay at this guest house.”

I was somewhat aghast at the man’s presumptuousness and repeated my instruction to take me to the hotel. The rickshaw-wallah became a little Bolshie. “I have been instructed to bring all passengers to this guest house. It belongs to a senior police officer”, he added by way of enlightenment.

The raised voices brought a gentleman from the guest house to the gate, and he attempted to grab my suitcase. “We have all the comforts of a hotel”, he assured me in a voice that had a discernible menacing undertone. “But I want to go to the hotel”, I kept on protesting. Then, when the whole thing threatened to get out of hand, I produced my trump card. “Listen, I am a press reporter.”

The pronouncement had a magical effect. “You must not take offence”, the man from the guest house assured me, “the rickshaw-wallah was just trying to help. He will, of course, take you to the hotel you want to go to.” And that was that.

Whenever I think of Chandigarh, I cannot but recall my somewhat harrowing initiation into this showpiece city. When India’s first Prime Minister chose Le Corbusier, a man with a reputation for architectural wackiness whose plans for a new Paris is said to have “defied all existing social, cultural, economic, political, historical, architectural, anthropological, even ecclesiastical norms” to build a new capital for Punjab, he was of course being unilateral. It was not for the imperious Nehru to actually explain why this particular Frenchman whose earlier works had left people underwhelmed was chosen. Those were the days when there was no Comptroller and Auditor General to ask if there had been a semblance of a competitive tender. Nehru had chosen and in these matters only he knew best.  

Historians have subsequently tried to detect a method in Nehru’s unilateralism. To Sunil Khilnani in The Idea of India, “The design of Chandigarh expressed one aspect of Nehru’s idea of a modern India: the sense that India must free itself of both the contradictory modernity of the Raj and nostalgia for its imperial past. It had to move forward by one decisive act that broke both with its ancient and its more recent history…Chandigarh boldly divested itself of history, rejecting both colonial imagery and nationalist sentimentalism or ornament…It refused to concede anything to its location.”

The virtues of aesthetic deracination were driven home by Nehru in an astonishing speech at the inauguration of the High Court in Chandigarh: “I am very happy that the people of Punjab did not make the mistake of putting some old city as their new capital. It is not merely a question of buildings. If you had chosen an old city as the capital, Punjab would have become a mentally stagnant, backward state. It may have made some progress, with great effort, but it could not have taken a grand step forward.”

Sir Edwin Lutyens, the man who designed the new imperial capital of the Raj, believed he was there to “express modern India in stone”; Nehru planned Chandigarh to extricate India from itself.

This audacious exercise in rootless modernity acquires a measure of relevance in the light of contemporary happenings. Over the past few years, the grapevine in Lutyens’ Delhi has been abuzz with suggestions of a ‘Chandigarh Club’ that wields considerable influence over the feeble power centre in Race Course Road. The nomenclature of the group the Prime Minister feels most comfortable with may be bound in a degree of geographical inexactitude. But what is undeniable is that a sharp distinction has been made between, say, Jharkhand MP Subodh Kant Sahay who was sacked from the Council of Ministers for the allotment of a coal block to his brother, and Pawan Kumar Bansal who continues as Railways Minister in the Cabinet despite damaging evidence to link him with a nephew who was caught receiving an instalment of Rs 90 lakh from a member of the Railway Board. The difference, it is said, is the difference between Ranchi and Chandigarh.

Nor is Bansal the only beneficiary of the Le Corbusier link. There is considerable bewilderment over Manmohan Singh’s decision to stand firmly with his Law Minister Ashwini Kumar despite irrefutable evidence of the minister’s act of grave impropriety and his brazen subversion of a Supreme Court order. The issue, as has been repeatedly pointed out by a galaxy of luminaries, is not whether Kumar merely undertook to give the CBI a linguistic polish or whether he made ‘minor’ changes that didn’t affect the substance of the investigation into the irregular allotment of coal blocks. In other countries, ministers have had to pay a heavy price for minor transgressions. John Profumo was drummed out in disgrace from both the Cabinet and public, not because he had an extra-marital affair, but because he lied to Parliament. By that logic, Kumar’s political career ought to come to an inglorious end because, as Law Minister, he violated the trust reposed by the judiciary on the executive.

Instead, the Prime Minister has stood by Kumar, even—reportedly—going to the extent of linking his own future with that of his Law Minister. The defence of a loyalist is touching and may even prompt those with a long memory to compare Singh’s apparent resoluteness to Nehru’s reluctance to part with V.K. Krishna Menon after the 1962 debacle in the Sino-Indian conflict. At the same time, however, the wicked people are questioning the bonds between the Prime Minister and his Law Minister. And the conclusion points in only one direction: Chandigarh.

In 50 years, Chandigarh has come a long way. The citadel of cosmopolitan modernity bound in concrete has indeed become a symbol of a historical rupture. But the rupture, unfortunately, is not with India but from a Nehru who sought to disentangle India from its history, its aesthetics and even its geography. India, it would seem, has remarkable adhesive qualities: it sticks to men, to politics, to institutions and even to those who otherwise shun all suggestions of disrepute. There is a dharma that moulds the Indian mentality and which govern critical choices between right and wrong, between continuity and change. Paradoxically, what has made this dharma enduring is its astonishing flexibility: the right to exercise discretion, the separation of the private from the public, the primacy of connections over principles, and the subordination of the nation to the clan.

In all innocence, Nehru believed that recreating the urban space would reshape the modern India. Chandigarh has proved him wrong. The dreamland of Le Corbusier has been effortlessly subsumed by the replication of the age of the decrepit Later Moghuls amid the energy of globalisation. The Chandigarh Club is shorthand for the new India: brazen and unscrupulous.

Just as I discovered to my unease in the summer of 1987. 

The Telegraph, May 10, 2013

Monday, May 6, 2013

Delhi University's four-year itch


By Swapan Dasgupta

Many years ago, one of India’s most distinguished historians who, alas, has now been lost to the Indian system, narrated his experience of a Central university in India. Having joined the faculty after a long stint in the UK, he was somewhat bewildered when some of his colleagues objected to his presence at a departmental meeting: “He can’t be here; he doesn’t even have an MA.”

The dissenter may have been unaware of the Oxbridge tradition where a good BA degree was sufficient to allow a student to read for a doctorate. Alternatively, he was being plain bloody-minded and using nativism to express his distaste for a Oxford-educated interloper. My suspicion that it was probably the latter was confirmed some years later by one of India’s foremost authorities on political thought—a gentleman with an Oxford and Harvard pedigree.

Like my historian friend, he too had returned to India after a long absence and joined one of India’s most generously endowed universities. His tenure, tragically, proved to be tragically short. He resigned following disagreements over an unstated departmental policy of positive discrimination in favour of the university’s alumni in faculty appointments.

Last week, in an intervention that could be interpreted as an attack on the restrictive practices that have made many universities breeding grounds of cronysism, the junior minister of the grandly-named Human Resource Development Ministry Shashi Tharoor proclaimed his support for the four-year degree course Delhi University is set to introduce from July. Tharoor’s logic was simple: the American 12 + 4 pattern has become the norm. “Indian students with 10+2+3 were made to do an extra year in the US. It was frustrating for many.”

Indeed it was. But the logic of Tharoor’s argument is intriguing. It suggests that the primary purpose of Delhi University is to prepare students to adjust seamlessly into the US campuses. Indian higher education, it would seem, exists to facilitate the inevitable Atlantic crossing.

If the main intention behind adding an extra year to undergraduate courses was to facilitate India’s globalisation, it can be said to involve a grudging acceptance of a new world order. Certainly there is ample scope to make the undergraduate curriculum more rigorous and exacting, and better prepare the minority of students who choose to pursue post-graduate studies in US. The changes may even reek of pragmatism: Indian universities reinventing themselves as variants of Rau’s Study Circle, the well-known crammer for the civil services examinations. 

And why not? For many decades, under the pretence of modernity and post-colonialism, the definition of a university has witnessed dramatic changes. The notion of institutions of learning pursuing knowledge for its own sake has long been discarded. Equally, inculcating “the code of a gentleman and sportsman”—General Smuts’ evocative description of an ideal Rhodes scholar in Oxford—no longer counts as a priority. Instead, India has enthusiastically embraced the virtues of ‘really useful knowledge’, a euphemism for skills appropriate for the white-collar job market.

Yet, there is a fundamental mismatch between preparing students for a US Graduate School, an approach that demands building sound scholastic foundations, and supplying the market with mid-level functionaries. In addition, there are social objectives that the Indian university has to be mindful of. This involves making the curriculum less intimidating to those who were disadvantaged by indifferent schooling. In short, there is a mismatch between what Tharoor hopes and what the human and infrastructural deficiencies will allow the university to achieve. The conflict between quality education and mass education is inescapable. It can be better handled by improving our schools, not by transferring the problem to higher education.

In trying to blend the functions of high school and polytechnic with that of a traditional university, Delhi University may end up falling between two stools. Whereas the fa├žade of the new four-year degree may correspond to the US pattern, the software could well be vastly inferior and, possibly, virus infested.  

The alternative—short of the best and brightest fleeing India at the earliest—lies in nurturing private sector universities that are not constrained by the dumbing down process; institutions where they can discard gobbledegook courses on “integrating mind, body and heart” and concentrate on knowledge, creativity and innovation. 

Sunday Times of India, May 5, 2013

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Journalists and the economics of truth


By Swapan Dasgupta

The collapse of the Saradha Group, said to be a ‘Ponzi’ scheme, has created political ripples in West Bengal. Accusations have been levelled against MPs and other functionaries of the Trinamool Congress for both patronising and providing political cover to a flamboyant entrepreneur who ended up either short-changing or cheating many thousands of people of modest means their limited life savings. The West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, unaccustomed to handling charges of financial impropriety, has reacted in the only way she knows: by levelling shrill and sometimes outlandish charges against her political opponents, particularly the CPI(M) and Congress. She has also raised hackles by suggesting that “what is lost is lost.”

That the Chief Minister and the TMC would bear the brunt of the outrage over the Saradha collapse was only to be expected. The so-called “suicide note” that Saradha’s founder chairman Sudipta Sen sent to the CBI before his arrest in a Kashmir resort make it quite clear that he indulged some people close to the TMC because it provided him a measure of protection. He also said that that he paid a whopping Rs 40 crores to two Marwari businessmen and the office-bearer of a prominent football club for the sole purpose of “managing the SEBI” officers in Mumbai. These businessmen claimed proximity to a Congress politician who has risen to a very high Constitutional post. In addition, he paid consultancy fees of approximately Rs one crore and took care of the hotel bills of the wife of a senior Cabinet minister because he was told that “if this…family slightly stand by me then I will be (sic) great clout in India.”

Since a man who is charged with grave offences may well level grave charges against prominent individuals to deflect attention and, indeed, politicise a straight-forward financial scam, it may well be improper to repeat the names of prominent people whose palms Sen claims to have generously greased. In any event, most of these names are now in the public domain and their identities are no longer a well-guarded secret or a subject of speculation. However, since the moral credentials of a man who presents himself as a sincere entrepreneur who was ignorant of SEBI guidelines on accepting deposits from the public and who in turn was both blackmailed and duped by others more unscrupulous than him, hasn’t yet been fully established, it is best to view the contents of his “suicide note” with a large measure of caution.

Yet, while the political aspects of Sen’s defence of his misconduct have got full play in the media, there is another facet of his protestations of innocence that have been glossed over. In the concluding part of his 18-page dying declaration, Sen wrote: “My over all business fall down is due to the media entry, extortion from the above named persons and blackmailed by my own staffs and executives.”

Since the CBI, it has now emerged in the course of the Coalgate controversy that threatens to destroy the Mammohan Singh Government, is accustomed to consulting the executive to check the grammar of its depositions, it may not be too hard for them to have Sen’s “last statement” translated into English.

In a nutshell, Sen’s accusation is startling. Once people got wind of the fact that what the Saradha bosses and their agents were doing all over eastern India, they started viewing him as the proverbial milch cow. Leading this pack of predators were not politicians, but people who ostensibly claimed to be from the media. Thus, in order to save himself from attacks in the media, Sen decided to invest in the very people who were either conducting so-called investigative journalism or threatening to expose him. He bought Channel 10, a Bengali news channel, for some Rs 30 crore and engaged his erstwhile tormentors to provide him content for Rs 60 lakhs each month. The erstwhile tormentors gave him “assurance that (on) execution of this agreement they will protect my business from the government i.e. State Government and also Central Government and I will be able to get a smooth passage…” Blessed with this assurance, Sen sunk in Rs 50 crore into the channel and started three dailies.

Ironically, Sen’s entry into the media resulted in all the media hyenas rushing to his door with the same threats and blandishments. The estranged wife of a former Congress minister at the Centre used her political clout to pay Rs 25 crore to establish a channel for the North-east. Another Rs 28 crore was paid to the former minister himself for 50 per cent share of another channel beamed at the North-east. A Congress MLA from Assam sold him a printing press and a newspaper for Rs 6 crore. And one enterprising freelancer extracted Rs 50 lakh and more from Saradha to set up an English channel.

What emerges from these revelations is a very disturbing phenomenon: instead of being a watchdog against evil and wrong-doing, as it claims to be, a large section of the media has become a part of the problem itself. Just as Bollywood became criminalised from the proceeds of the Mumbai underworld, a large part of the media has become a cover for criminal enterprise. From chit fund scamsters to real estate sharks, the media has become a tool for buying influence. To me, that is the most disturbing lesson from the Saradha scandal. 

Deccan Chronicle, May 3, 2013