Thursday, September 30, 2010

Not the time for bigotry

The verdict should end a troubled chapter

By Swapan Dasgupta

At its simplistic best, the most significant feature of the much-awaited Allahabad High Court verdict is that it has overturned the only other judgment of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute: a Faizabad district court verdict of 1886. At that time, confronted by litigation that arose from Hindu-Muslim tension over the issue, district judge FEA Chamier ruled in March 1886: "It is most unfortunate that a Masjid should have been built on land specially held sacred by the Hindus, but as that occurred 356 years ago, it is too late to remedy the grievance."

On Thursday afternoon, a majority decision of a the three-bench court disagreed with the fundamental premise of Chamier. It held that because the Babri structure was built after demolishing a pre-existing Hindu temple in 1528, it couldn't really be regarded as a legitimate mosque, at least theologically. As such, it had absolutely no hesitation in endorsing the belief among large numbers of Hindus in the Awadh region that the disputed site was indeed the rightful inheritance of Ram bhakts. The High Court said that, ideally, the 70 acres of so of disputed property should be split three ways but that the Ram lalla (child Ram) idol should be allowed to remain at the site of what was earlier the central dome of the Babri Masjid.

The unambiguous verdict of the High Court was, to say the least, unexpected. Till Wednesday evening, the so-called secular forces and the Muslim leadership were insisting that the verdict would establish the majesty of the Constitution and the highlight the non-negotiable nature of the rule of law.

After the verdict, their enthusiasm is distinctly less pronounced. It has been suggested that the verdict is a tacit legitimization of both the installation of the idols inside the Babri Masjid in December 1949 and its dramatic demolition 43 years later. If the Babri structure was a non-mosque since its construction in 1528, the crime of the kar sevaks was the desecration of a medieval monument and not a place of worship.

Undoubtedly, this interpretation of the dispute is going to be contested in the Supreme Court. That a section of the Muslim community is unhappy with the judgment is obvious. But far more significant than that is the fury with which the judgment has been greeted by the secular modernists. Apart from contesting everything that the "eminent historians" have been suggesting about Ram being born in Afghanistan or somewhere else and about the Babri structure having been built on vacant rock, the judges have attached greater weight to the Archaeological Survey of India report and to the weight of local tradition.

This approach is certain to send the secular establishment into a complete tizzy. Without exaggerating the importance of this minusculity, it can safely be said that this lobby will be desperate to have their reputations salvaged by the Supreme Court. Therefore, even if a section of the Muslim community decides that there is little point persisting with the dispute and to settle for an honourable way out, there will be a powerful secularist e4stablishment urging the minorities to fight to the last.

The fight would have been worth it if there was a real danger that the Ayodhya verdict will open the floodgates of uninhibited majoritarianism and perhaps, even a Hindu Rashtra. Such fears are grossly exaggerated. One of the features of the organised Hindu camp to the verdict is the conscious show of restraint. The Hindutvavadis may have been pleased as punch that their central arguments were upheld by the court, but they have been very careful to not show it. This is on account of the realisation that India is not in a mood for confrontational politics and that, unlike the 1990s, belligerence will be politically counter-productive. The RSS, for example, is elated that the whole Ayodhya episode has elevated it to the status of being Hindu India's most visible face. It would not like to compromise on that.

There are no doubt maximalists on both sides who seek total victory for themselves and a total defeat for their adversaries. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has many such elements in its leadership. Its demand, made only a few days before the verdict, that Hindus must have unhindered possession of all 70 acres of the disputed site and that no mosque should be located within the municipal limits of Ayodhya, suggest an astonishing degree of narrow mindedness which is dangerous for the country. If these bigoted elements start interpreting the verdict according to their convenience, it will be only a matter of time before the whole atmosphere of India is vitiated and the Hindus lose the moral advantage they have at present.

Persisting with the dispute and taking it to the Supreme Court may well be inevitable but there is considerable merit in treating the High Court judgment as a parallel plea for a compromise. The suggested partition of the 70 acres in three may seem a piece of legal innovation but its implications are more profound: a honourable settlement for both the Hindus and Muslims. If the local Hindus can retain possession of the garva griha—the epicentre of the dispute—there should be no objections to giving a share of the property to the Muslim community to either build a mosque or for any other purpose of its choosing. An open offer by the Hindu religious leadership to the Muslim community to bury the hatchet and come to an out-of-court settlement would be gesture of magnanimity, which is bound to be welcomed by a large section of the minorities.

It is important that quick steps are taken to allay all the misgivings of those who see themselves as the defeated side. There will be enough politicians and general busybodies who will suggest that the High Court verdict has menacing implications for all minorities—quite forgetting that the Places of Worship Act of 1991 make it impossible for an Ayodhya-type dispute to emerge in the future. There will be appeals to Muslim victimhood and the sinister suggestion that the community can never expect justice from a biased Hindu-dominated judiciary.

These are dangerous arguments but it is important to recognise that such whispers will resonate through the ghettos and will be fuelled by irresponsible websites. Minority egos are fragile and can easily be bruised. This makes it incumbent for Hindus to desist from triumphalism and instead show magnanimity and generosity. A unilateral Hindu offer to accommodate a mosque in the vicinity of the Ram temple will have a salutary effect. So far a section of the Hindu leadership has become captive to the proposed architecture of Prabhashankar Sompura, the man who designed the reconstructed Somnath temple in Gujarat, and whose son has designed the VHP version of the grand Ram temple. It would be better if some of the design is modified to factor in a larger sense of nationhood.

For the Hindus, the High Court verdict was a significant victory. Statesmanship demands that it shouldn't also be translated as a landmark Muslim defeat. The High Court verdict on Ayodhya should end a very troubled chapter of India's history and not initiate a new discord.

The Telegraph, October 1, 2010

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Talks, not courts, can solve Ayodhya tangle

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, the Supreme Court offered a generous lifeline to the litigants in the Ayodhya dispute to make a last ditch effort to secure a negotiated, out-of-court settlement. The offer, in my view, had precious little to do with the diversion of security from the Commonwealth Games or, for that matter, the Bihar election. If courts had to consult the Home Ministry before delivering sensitive judgments, the work of the courts would come to a complete standstill and contentious issue would remain pending permanently. The subtext of the order to stay the Allahabad High Court judgment till September 28 at least was the tacit acknowledgment that what was at stake wasn't just a property title suit and that a compromise solution was the ideal way forward.

It is tragic that the two sides of the divide have refused to admit the wisdom of the Supreme Court advice. As of now, both are unanimous that they want the judgment delivered and both have blamed the Congress for manipulating a delay. If this intransigence persists, the Supreme Court may be left with no alternative other than vacating the stay and allowing the Allahabad High Court judgment.

The stubbornness of the two sides arises from different compulsions. For the Sunni Waqf Board and the Babri Masjid Action Committee, the judgment is worth the gamble precisely because they have nothing to lose: the Babri structure was demolished 18 years ago and the site, although nominally acquired by the Centre, hosts a Ram temple, as it has done since 1949. The Muslim leadership is aware that since possession of the site gives the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas a distinct upper hand in any negotiations, it should await the judgment in the title suit. A victory in that matter won't lead to the removal of the Ram temple but it will establish a new benchmark for the future. More to the point, it will give moral legitimacy to the claim that the Hindu activists took over "inalienable" Waqf property illegaly. This in turn will allow the Muslim side to widen its political appeal and rope in Hindu liberals who, in any case, have an aesthetic abhorrence of the BJP, VHP and the sadhu samaj.

If the Muslim intransigence is centred on a calculated gamble, Hindu obstinacy is based on adventurist bravado. There are definite indications that the RSS leadership which exercises control over the VHP doesn't believe that the Allahabad High Court will rule against it under any circumstances. Whether this conviction is based on the inputs provided by over-zealous lawyers or something more profound is unknown. But it is a fact that the RSS and VHP have discounted the possibility of adverse judgments. Alternatively, they may even believe—and at least one BJP leader was indiscreet enough to admit this "off the record" to a media gathering—that political victory lies in legal defeat.

The assumption that an adverse verdict in the title suit will also suit the Hindu cause is based on the belief that it will trigger a wave of Hindu outrage which, in turn, will influence both politics and the ruling of the Supreme Court after the matter goes for appeal. This faith in the power of Hindu outrage may well explain why the gathering of Hindu religious figures decided last Friday to up the ante and advocate a maximalist position. The meeting apparently decided that the proposed Ram temple would cover the entire 70 acres acquired by the Centre and that "there could be no place for another mosque in Ayodhya, even outside the disputed place." Predictably, such posturing doesn't leave even any space for negotiations with the other side.

The problem with the VHP and the religious figures who endorsed such a position on the eve of a delicate judicial verdict is that they interact exclusively with the committed. This leads to imagining that their little ghettos constitute the whole world, a phenomenon common to political and religious extremists. The VHP appears to have overlooked the fact that while the Ram temple issue is possibly dear to huge numbers of Hindus, the consequences of faith are very complex. Without necessarily endorsing the facile and self-serving India-has-moved-on theory of pop sociologists, it is nevertheless true that any renewed Ram temple agitation won't have the same impact it did in the 1990s. If there is Hindu outrage it will be expressed with greater dignity than rioting. More to the point, it may result in widespread questioning of the claim of the likes of Ashok Singhal and Praveen Togadia to mirror Hindu sentiments.

At the colossal risk of being proved utterly wrong, it seems to me that both sides in the Ayodhya dispute have made a Himalayan blunder by shunning the Supreme Court's offer of last-minute salvage. True, no negotiations can yield results in just five days. Yet what was achievable was the recognition that neither side can achieve total victory or inflict total defeat. If the Home Minister's cautionary statement last week was any accurate indication, the High Court may throw up an ambiguous verdict—victory for one side in the title suit and for the other side in the archaeological scrutiny—which could throw up a fresh set of intractable issues. India could do with a settlement where there are no obvious losers, something beyond the scope of law.

Sunday Pioneer, September 26, 2010

Ayodhya is religious, not political now

By Swapan Dasgupta

A minor footnote to the recent public discussions on the Ayodhya controversy may be an eye opener for those who argue that India has "moved on".

A TV presenter with 'liberal' sympathies wrote on Twitter: "Whether or not Lord Ram is the rightful owner or a divine encroacher is…unlikely to be settled in a hurry." It was a harmless tweet marked by an impish turn of phrase. Unfortunately, a section of the twitterati didn't read "divine encroacher" so indulgently. They were outraged. Rather than risk an ugly controversy, the writer wisely decided to delete the tweet and 'move on'.

That Indians are disinclined to lace their earnestness with self-deprecating humour is well known. Also quite marked is their ability to take offence too easily, particularly on matters of faith and history. It does not require a Pope Benedict XVI to tell Indians, as he told Britons last week, to restore the "legitimate role of religion in the public square." Organised religion has never departed from India mohullas, so much so that 'secularism' has had to be expediently re-defined to suit Indian tastes.

What, therefore, underpins the proclamation that contemporary India has 'moved on' and broken decisively with its own past? There may be a justified reason for believing that the frenzied mobilisation witnessed during L.K. Advani's rath yatra and the fateful December 6, 1992 kar seva won't recur today. To link this wariness to a growing indifference to 'public' religion and a rising tide of secularisation (in the Western sense) is, however, facile.

Except to a clutch of sadhus who are still fighting the good fight, the Ayodhya movement wasn't merely about reclaiming Ram's desecrated inheritance. The largest-ever mobilisation of Hindus as Hindus was a robust assertion of political identity and an argument against being taken for granted politically. Ram was merely the symbol of the explosion, not its rationale.

As with many unstructured mass movements, not everything about the Ayodhya turmoil was enduring. The demolition didn't trigger either a revolution or a regime change; it merely heralded the end of Congress dominance and a change of government from 1998 to 2004. It nurtured Hindu pride but couldn't insulate this new nationalism from the challenge of caste assertion. And on the negative side, Hindu aggression fuelled Muslim angst which subsequently fed into the global churning in the ummah.

Yet, there is one legacy of Ayodhya that has withstood political ups and downs and India's transition from insularity to globalisation: Hindus have ceased to be defensive about their faith and ritual practices. Indeed, they revel in these with astonishing cockiness.

The phenomenon needs some explanation. Sustained exposure to foreign rule and Western 'enlightenment' had shaken the cultural self-confidence of the Hindu educated classes. The impression that their faith and ritual practices were somehow 'backward' and deficient in the index of modernity took hold of the enslaved Hindu imagination. Mahatma Gandhi, always a proud Hindu, contested the degradation by challenging modernity itself. However, being excessively practical, Hindu society found Gandhi's anti-modernity to be utopian and quietly brushed it aside.

In rejecting Gandhi's crankiness, Jawaharlal Nehru swung to the other extreme. A product of Western cosmopolitanism, he reinforced the elite discomfiture with popular Hinduism. In the Nehruvian ideal, being a good Hindu meant being a 'secularised' Hindu. It meant upholding abstruse, metaphysical traditions and spurning Bhagwati Jagrans as the Hinduism of clerks and Class IV employees.

This social snobbery was a factor behind the elite incomprehension of the Ayodhya movement. And it is a similar revulsion which makes them posit the apparent absurdity of a Ram Janmabhoomi to the cool, tech-savvy cosmopolitanism of the New India.

The irony is that this New India is more religiously and assertively Hindu than ever before. Judging by the sharp increase in middle class pilgrimages, the exaggerated sindoor of the new bride, the frequency of car pujas in temples and the holy wallpaper in the laptops of the young and successful, the sharp rise in national self-confidence has come in the wake of a spectacular revival of the Sanatan Dharma.

India has 'moved on'. In the 1990s, Ayodhya was a political issue; today its importance is religious. The implications are ominous.

Sunday Times of India, September 26, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Abetment to azadi

By Swapan Dasgupta

There were many eye-openers for the parliamentary delegation that visited Jammu and Kashmir earlier this week. One encounter that shook many MPs was with a 'civil society' body known to be close to the All Party Hurriyat Conference.

The delegation comprised, among others, two extremely articulate individuals: a doctor who had earlier practised in Britain and a lady who teaches English at a local college. The dup made a spirited and eloquent presentation of the terrible plight of Kashmiris under "Indian occupation" and why Kashmiris would spurn all "packages" and never reconcile to being a part of the Indian Union. While leaving, the doctor taunted the MPs: "We hope to see you again in six months, when you come to sign the first India-Kashmir Accord."

Ever since the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian Union in 1948 there has always been a significant separatist current in society, some favouring integration with Pakistan and others espousing an independent Kashmir. At particular moments in the state's history, separatism has also seemed the dominant tendency in the Kashmir Valley. In 1989-90, in the aftermath of the Rubaiyya Sayeed kidnapping, the assassination of the older Mirwaiz and the ethnic cleansing of Pandits from the Valley, it almost seemed that the azadi euphoria would prevail over Indian nationhood.

Two decades later, history seems to be repeating itself, but with one significant difference. Rarely, if ever, before has the politics of separatism entered the mainstream political discourse of India. It is not merely that the cry of azadi defines the streets and by-lanes of Kashmir, drowning out other voices. What is truly amazing is the legitimacy that has been conferred on separatism by the media and the liberal establishment.

Even in the worst days of 1989-90 when India was governed by a ramshackle coalition were the separatists given such a sympathetic hearing by a community of opinion-makers close to the government. It has become drearily routine for advocates of separatism to be given prominent play in the media, often at the cost of the representatives of political parties in Kashmir. It has become fashionable for angst-ridden intellectuals from the Valley to highlight a perceived distinction between Kashmiris and India and to even proclaim that just because they carry Indian passports doesn't make them Indians.

The perception that Kashmiri separatism is winning and India is on the verge of being turfed out of the Valley isn't on account of a groundswell of support for azadi in the West. If anything, both the separatists and their backers in Pakistan have been struck by the fact that, unlike Gaza, this intifada has been relegated to the fringes of Western concern. Yesterday's radicals like Tariq Ali have attributed this indifference to Islamophobia and the economic lure of India. On its part, India has also interpreted it as the international community's growing exasperation with anything with a Pakistan link.

In the mid-1990s, a former Foreign Secretary of India used to say that that the Hurriyat was being kept alive by the US Embassy in Delhi. Today, no one makes any such claims and, post- David Miliband, every visiting dignitary is careful to avoid the K-word while engaging with India.

The paradox is that despite an absence of outside pressure, a section of the Indian political establishment appears to be losing its nerve and discovering the virtues of the separatists. Sonia Gandhi's brief intervention at the all-party conference on Jammu and Kashmir called for recognition of the "legitimate grievances" of the Kashmiri youth. It was an ambiguous statement that need not be over-interpreted. But it was the encouragement to Sitaram Yechuri and a clutch of MPs to call on Syed Ali Shah Geelani during the visit of the parliamentary delegation that needs dissection.

In theory, there is nothing per se objectionable about engaging with every section of Kashmiri society, including secessionists. Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, for example, has long been seen as a desirable moderate. He is nominally in favour of azadi but given the right circumstances, his azadi may not be incompatible with the Constitution, particularly if the world community states its firm opposition to changing geography. Geelani seems beyond the pale today but his background suggests that he too may be willing to redefine his priorities if azadi is seen to be a pipedream.

It is ultimately a test of nerves and endurance. The separatists got a big window of opportunity earlier this year thanks to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's mishandling of the initial protests. To this was added the image problem of the Abdullah dynasty. A civil unrest against an elected government was twinned with the rising tide of Islamism and a pre-existing desire for Kashmiri distinctiveness. The results were explosive.

That a purely military response to the crisis is unwise is understood. Going by the classic anti-insurgency doctrines, the security forces can at best demonstrate that the Indian state cannot be defeated militarily and that separatists should explore other realisable alternatives. It would be fair to suggest that the resolve of the security forces in the Kashmir Valley hasn't eroded—although there is an urgent need to fine tune its crowd control methods. What has waned, however, is the endurance level of the political dispensation in Delhi.

The division in the Cabinet over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is one example of the confusion that persists in Delhi. The other is the contradictory positions over the future of the Chief Minister—an issue where political wisdom and ground realities have been ignored in favour of Rahul Gandhi's flight of whimsy. Equally troubling is the belief that it is possible to engage fruitfully with the separatists from a position of equivalence. The net result is a situation where the separatists have convinced a large chunk of the Valley that azadi is imminent.

No wonder Geelani was crowing as an obsequious Yechuri and company paid obeisance to him in the full gaze of the cameras. It seemed a dress rehearsal for the actual capitulation ceremony.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, September 24, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pick wisely among Ayodhya’s choices

By Swapan Dasgupta

Anticipating the possible fallout of developments involving an issue as deeply contentious as the long-standing dispute in Ayodhya is hazardous. Yet, whatever the Allahabad High Court decides on Friday afternoon, there are at least two certitudes.

First, as indicated by the Cabinet resolution of September 16, the authorities will encourage seeing the verdict in its "proper perspective", as "part of a judicial process". In other words, an appeal to the Supreme Court by the losing side is more or less obligatory. Returning the mandir-masjid dispute to the judicial slow cooker will ensure that any resolution (if this is at all possible) of this delicate problem will be put off till another day. For the moment, the pujas of Ram lalla won't be disturbed.

Secondly, despite the understandable fear of civil strife in the aftermath of the verdict, it is unlikely that either the Commonwealth Games or Bihar elections will be marred by riots. There may well be some localised disturbances but nothing remotely on the scale of the post-demolition troubles in 1992-93. Any rise in the emotional temperature has to be preceded by religious and political mobilisation. As of now, and for a variety of reasons, there are no indications that India is in a mood to revert to sectarian conflict in a big way. This equanimity may well be temporary but as of now it is real.

That the verdict is likely to be greeted with anodyne observations about the "majesty of the law", the "triumph of Constitutionalism" and so on is not to suggest that it will be a non-event. The verdict will inevitably trigger a ferment whose impact will take some time to be felt.

The Congress, which has bitter memories of being derailed by Ayodhya in the 1990s, is understandably nervous about another round of Hindu-Muslim polarisation. General Secretary Digvijay Singh's endorsement of a negotiated settlement—an approach identified with the now-reviled P.V. Narasimha Rao and, subsequently, the NDA Government—would indicate that the Congress is loath to confront a situation where one side nurtures a grievance while the other side gloats triumphantly.

If the Congress is uneasy about the turn of events after September 24, the BJP is on the edge. It has reposed hope in a judicial endorsement of its claim that the Babri Masjid was built on the site of a pre-existing Hindu temple. This would not only establish the moral legitimacy of the movement it so successfully led, but would offset any possible adverse ruling on the title suit. Whatever the judicial pronouncement on the issue of 'adverse possession', if the archaeological and historical evidence are found to be weighed in favour of the Hindu claimants, it would make it extremely difficult to consider shifting the makeshift Ram temple from the 'garba griha' of the erstwhile Babri Masjid.

Politically, a judicial victory would allow the BJP to make the strategic shift it has been attempting since 1998: easing out its image as an exclusivist Hindu party. There is recognition in the BJP that the Ram temple movement has lost its cutting edge in the age of coalitions and economic growth, and is best left to the sadhus and the VHP. A judicial victory in the Ayodhya dispute will enable the BJP to move on, honourably.

A Hindu win on Friday will, paradoxically, facilitate the evolution of the BJP as a conventional, right-of-centre party. In time, if it responds to the emerging India, it could well emerge as the party of aspirations, an alternative to the Congress' politics of entitlements. If Ayodhya is out of the way, the "New BJP" that L.K. Advani once alluded to in 1998 could take shape in the years ahead, with the RSS assuming the role of a stakeholder, not sole proprietor.

However, if the bush telegraph is any indication, the BJP should also be prepared for an adverse verdict on Friday. True, the RSS chief has asserted that in the event of a judicial setback the Sangh Parivar will appeal to the Supreme Court and not deviate from the Constitutional path. However, since the disappointment is certain to be profound, the TV channels may witness angry outbursts by BJP functionaries ranging from the ridiculous to the inflammatory. The party hasn't prepared the political script to handle adversity.

For the BJP the immediate challenge isn't likely to be Muslim triumphalism. In the event of an unfavourable verdict, it is certain to face assaults from two very different quarters. The first will emanate from secularists who will view the judgment as confirmation that BJP is a reckless and abnormal party that must be severely punished for wilfully transgressing the law. There may even be calls for a ban on saffron outfits.

The second assault will certainly be from hardliners who will charge the BJP with betrayal of Hindu interests. This may strike a chord among the recklessly committed and put pressure on the party to revert to Hindu identity politics. The BJP 'modernisers' will resist this regression but they are likely to find the going tough in the face of an emotional upheaval among those who function within ghettos. If the BJP succumbs, it will guarantee itself a place in the fringes.

Today's India seems disinclined to return to the age of sectarian confrontation. The Hindu middle classes that backed the Ram temple movement now have different priorities linked to economic growth. They will be loath to take needless risks in the quest for a Holy Grail.

There are two circumstances in which the mood could change. First, any attempt (now or subsequently) to change the denominational character of the disputed site is certain to invite fierce political resistance. Secondly, if the interregnum between the High Court and Supreme Court judgments trigger Muslim belligerence centred on either triumphalism or victimhood, it could provoke a countervailing response and re-energise Hindu atavism. The BJP could well profit but at an unacceptably high social cost.

This week, Ayodhya will again throw up many future possibilities. India will have to choose wisely.

Indian Express, September 21, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Secular modernists prove greater threat

By Swapan Dasgupta

The appeal by the Union Cabinet to all Indians to exercise restraint and keep the peace after the Allahabad High Court delivers its long-overdue verdict in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute was a necessary pre-emptive measure. Such an appeal may well be pro forma but it does send out a signal to the country to take the verdict in its stride.

It is equally reassuring that the two main parties to the dispute have actually pre-empted this call for calm. The RSS chief has indicated that his parivar, which includes the VHP and the wild Bajrang Dal, will be guided by strict Constitutionalism and the various Muslim bodies have advised members of the community to refrain from either celebrations or assertions of victimhood. It is possible that the extremist fringe in both communities will not be moved by the calls of the leadership and emulate the stone pelting delinquents in the Kashmir Valley, but as long as the unruliness remains localised and without wider community support, it should be possible for any purposeful administration to control the hotheads.

On the face of it, there are only two sides of the dispute: those who want to construct a grand temple on the site they believe is the exact birthplace of the epic hero Ram, and those who want to restore the place to its pre-1949 status of a mosque. As far as the judicial process is concerned this binary divide is valid. However, in a wider social and political sense, the dispute has also been cluttered by the interventions of what Pope Benedict XVI described last week as the very distasteful "aggressive forms of secularism".

Of course, what the Pope had in mind in the context of Europe was a variety of macho atheism that does not exist in a meaningful way in India. The "aggressive forms of secularism" in India has come packaged in the guise of rootless modernity.

Found mainly in the rarefied enclaves of the English language media, history and sociology departments of universities and internationally-connected NGOs, rootless modernism proceeds on the premise of inherent cultural and intellectual superiority. Though this section occasionally falls back on quotations from Mahatma Gandhi, the Upanishads and the rhythmic excitement of Sufi music and Baul songs—all items of favourable currency in trendy, avant garde circles—their intellectualism is aimed at establishing a separation from both the "great unwashed" and the nouveau.

Wilfully giving offence to the mass of believers or simply mocking them is the signature tune of aesthetic superiority. Since organised Islam tends to be extra prickly in viewing both blasphemy and disrespect—witness the harassment of Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen and the Danish cartoonist—the impetuous modernists have concentrated their ire on popular Hinduism.

Some of this derision, particularly when directed at charlatan godmen and cruel practices that discriminate against women and 'lower' castes, is richly deserved. The problem lies not in the criticism or even denunciations but in the tone of the assault.

Public memory being short, not too many people may recall the seminal contribution of India's modernist elite to vitiating the atmosphere and triggering a vicious and often unpalatable Hindu backlash. It began with the disingenuous denial and justification of vandalism by medieval Muslim rulers—a process that led to the dishonest rewriting of Indian history. It continued along this path with political interventions that were not merely insensitive but positively inflammatory.

The Ram devotees were asked to produce a birth certificate testifying that the figure they venerated actually existed; the dispute over the religious antiquity of the disputed site was sought to be settled by a show of hands in the Indian History Congress; a Left ideologue argued that Ram was chosen over Krishna and Shiva for 'liberation' because he was upper caste; another Left activist was reported as saying that the disputed site should be converted into a non-denominational, public urinal; and a cultural organisation linked to the CPI(M) organised an exhibition highlighting some obscure belief that Sita was actually Ram's sister.

To believe that these were maverick voices comparable to some of the hurtful ballads popularised by some itinerant Bhojpuri singers who appeared in local VHP programmes is to create a false equivalence. The 'underground' cassettes and histories sold in the narrow lanes of Hindu temple towns such as Ayodhya were truly fringe: their creators never figured in mainstream discourse and never got invited to the interminable seminars on the subject.

The secular modernists were different. They tried to steer the debate into another direction by a campaign of mockery and derision which included posters saying "sharam se kahon hum Hindu hain". To my mind, their smug condescension and haughtiness were significant factors in triggering Hindu anger in the late-1980s and early-1990s and, indeed, preventing a negotiated settlement. The Ayodhya explosion had a strong anti-elitist bias which stemmed from the fury of the outlanders.

The Government has appealed to Hindus and Muslims to show restraint and keep larger national interests in mind. But it is not the religious-minded who necessarily provoke each other. A big threat to calm could come from the 'cool'secular-modernists (not least in the media) who believe that they have a monopoly right to give offence.

Sunday Pioneer, September 19, 2010


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Twenty years too late

A turning point in Indian history when history refused to turn

By Swapan Dasgupta

In January 1993, barely a month after the Babri structure built by one of Babur's commanders in 1528 was demolished, Girilal Jain, a former editor of Times of India, made a spirited intervention in the pages of the RSS-run weekly, Organiser. In view of the Allahabad High Court's scheduled judgment on September 24 on the title suit of the disputed site that has been pending for over 50 years, it is instructive to revisit that debate

"The structure as it stood", Jain wrote, "represented an impasse between what Babur represented and what Ram represents. …In fact, in my opinion, no structure symbolised the Indian political order in its ambivalence, ambiguity, indecision and lack of purpose, as this structure. The removal of the structure has ended the impasse and marks a new beginning."

Jain wasn't alone in viewing the events of December 6, 1992, in Ayodhya as the Indian equivalent of, say, the storming of the Bastille. Both the votaries of Hindutva and the beleaguered defenders of the Nehruvian order were united in viewing the demolition as a point of rupture. For the former, the change would herald a Hindu reawkening; for the secularists, it threatened to destroy India's pluralism and transform the country into a de-facto confessional state.

Both sides of the confrontation, it would now seem, were guilty of hype. India wasn't transformed into a Hindu Pakistan and the Constitutional edifice established in 1950 remained strong and intact. To borrow AJP Taylor's description of the 1848 revolution in Europe, the Babri demolition was a turning point in Indian history when history refused to turn.

This is not to suggest that the temple movement, an event that L.K. Advani prophesied in 1990 would become the "greatest mass movement" in history, was a passing show, creating the proverbial ripples on the surface. The series of events beginning with the opening of the locks in 1986, the Ram shila pujas and Advani's rath yatra, right down to the abstruse dispute over 2.77 acres of land and the final demolition made a profound impression on public opinion. Apart from the spate of Hindu-Muslim riots, the churning over Ayodhya contributed immeasurably to the end of Congress dominance, the BJP's emergence as the principal non-Congress party, the creation of a nebulous Hindu vote-bank and a strengthening of Muslim religious identities.

But the movement didn't turn India upside down. Like the furore over the Mandal Commission report, the Ayodhya movement resulted in political turbulence and even a substantial measure of regroupment. But its consequences weren't revolutionary. As the six years of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance indicated, the upheaval triggered a change of government five years after the demolition; it didn't lead to a regime change.

With the benefit of hindsight it would seem that the contemporary misreading arose from the premise that the Ayodhya movement was overwhelmingly an explosion of faith and sublimated Hinduness. The implication was that a new religiosity had penetrated the popular psyche and begun influencing secular life.

That veneration of the epic hero of the Ramayan and the desire to commemorate the spot where local belief suggested he was born played a role in motivating religious Hindus to back the movement is undeniable. It is difficult to envisage any other post-Independence movement when so many Hindu religious figures across the land, ranging from the heads of important mutts to neo-literate purohits of village shrines, came together for a common purpose. This heady emotionalism was unquestionably the main factor behind the mobilisation of rural India (and particularly women).

However, what sustained the movement and gave it an extra-religious dimension, was the support it received from the Hindu middle classes. It was this middle class groundswell in both the cities and the small towns that led many contemporary observers to suggest that the Ram temple had become the metaphor for a more far-reaching transformation.

In retrospect, it would seem that the middle class endorsement of a movement that appeared to liberal India as being retrograde and antediluvian was located in a specific context. By the late-1980s, the pillars on which the Nehruvian order was constructed had developed deep cracks. Particularly evident was the bankruptcy of the socialistic approach based on the licence-permit raj. By the time Indira Gandhi fell to the assassins' bullets, the public sector-led, state regulated economy was yielding diminishing returns, unable to cope with rising expectations for a better life. Rajiv Gandhi emerged as a ray of hope but his record was soured by his Shah Bano retreat and the stench of corruption from the Bofors deal. To urban India, the system had run out of steam. The physical mortgaging of India's gold reserves in 1990 epitomised the bankruptcy of an economic system.

The Ayodhya agitation encapsulated protest, millenarianism and modernity under one roof. It didn't usher Hindu National Socialism as its aesthetic detractors were convinced it would (leading to some facile comparisons of inept boy scouts in khaki shorts with Hitler's stormtroopers). But it drove a stake through the heart of an incapacitated socialism.

In the past two decades—Advani has helpfully reminded us that the High Court verdict will coincide with the 20th anniversary of his rath yatra—India has changed far more than politicians are willing to acknowledge. The sense of Hindu dejection and defeat that was so marked in the early-1980s—a consequence of India's overall underperformance—has given way to a cockiness that comes from a sudden rise in economic prosperity. Whereas in 1990, historical memories of temple destruction rankled, today's mood is governed by the belief that the future belongs to India. The optimism may be based on a bubble but it is nevertheless real.

The High Court verdict isn't going to be the last word in the Ayodhya saga. The disappointed parties are bound to appeal to the Supreme Court and the political class as a whole feels that the dispute should be put into a judicial slow cooker for another decade. There is a functioning makeshift Ram temple that has existed at the site since the 'mysterious' appearance of the idol in 1949, and it is inconceivable that this state of affairs will change in the foreseeable future, whatever the Court decides later this month. As long as the denominational status quo in the Ayodhya site is maintained, India is unlikely to experience another bout of civil unrest and sectarian conflict.

Yet, there are two sides to the dispute. If the Hindu middle classes that nurtured and sustained the Ayodhya agitation are focussed on worldly matters, a section of the Muslim community has also been infected by a globalised mood of victimhood which in turn has bred a nothing-to-lose assertiveness. In the event the Court rules in favour of the Sunni Waqf Board and overturns the 1940 Privy Council judgment in the Shahidganj Gurdwara case, it is entirely possible that a radical section of the Muslim community may feel that a further reference to the Supreme Court is just a ploy to deny it overdue justice. Whether this frustration will trigger a wave of radicalisation is not known, but the danger is real and could in turn lead to a countervailing response.

As always, the Ayodhya bomb carries with it many deadly delayed fuses. It has been that way for the past 482 years, ever since a conquering Moghul general rode roughshod over the feelings of the vanquished.

The Telegraph, September 17, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Malai of power tempts BJP

By Swapan Dasgupta

If politics is the art of the possible (and the immediate) few will find fault with the BJP decision to resume its troubled cohabitation with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. Since the Assembly election had produced a horribly inconclusive verdict, the alternative to post-election alliances of expediency was President's Rule, the euphemism for Congress control of the state government. Even if the Congress and Babulal Marandi's JVM were to attempt a coalition government, it would have had to rope in either the JMM or the BJP. Since a BJP-Congress coalition isn't a feasible idea in today's context, the participation of the JMM was a must for any elected government in Ranchi. Immediately after the election, the JMM insisted that Shibu Soren must be Chief Minister. Now, with 'Guruji' more or less bowing out, his son Hemant Soren has preferred the Deputy Chief Minister's post to a long spell in the wilderness.

Yet, the issue is not as matter of fact as may appear. After Shibu Soren's inexplicable decision to vote with the UPA in the cut motion during the Budget session earlier this year, the BJP took the high moral ground and brought down the five-month-old government in Jharkhand. It tried to leverage Shibu's 'betrayal' to secure the Chief Ministership for itself. But that didn't wash with the JMM and the BJP was left with no alternative but to be an unwilling victim of its 'principled' posturing.

What has changed in the intervening months of President's Rule? First, there were definite indicators that that the Congress was waiting for the conclusion of the Bihar Assembly election to dissolve the Jharkhand Assembly and order fresh elections. Second, if the political buzz is indicative of public opinion, it seemed likely that another election in, say, early-2011 would lead to a decisive victory for the Congress-JVM in case the alliance persisted. Even if the Congress and Marandi fought separately, the wisdom in Ranchi was that the BJP would be main casualty and Marandi the main beneficiary.

The feverish behind-the-scenes activity which led to two of BJP's shadowy power brokers persuading Hemant Soren to settle for the Number 2 slot was less an offshoot of arithmetical pragmatism and more a consequence of fear of an electoral debacle. The numbers game in Jharkhand was always inimical to any lofty governance-centred approach, much as L.K. Advani would have wished. But the present arrangement was governed by extreme cynicism and a desire to make hay in the setting sun.

This may be unfair to Arjun Munda whose ability to negotiate very sticky wickets is legion. Once the BJP made up its mind to participate in a coalition with the JMM, there was no question that Munda was the man for the job. Apart from having the support of 16 of the 18 BJP legislators, Munda is well versed in the art of keeping all MLAs (including members of parties inimical to the BJP) happy and rewarded. No one else had the requisite skills to put off the day of reckoning for as long as possible.

The present arrangement may well endure for much longer than the jinxed tenure of Shibu Soren. But the circumstances in which the coalition was re-forged and the underlying rationale behind putting off another election poses enormous problems for the BJP.

After the previous Assembly, the BJP should have logically asked itself the question: what was responsible for the party's diminishing popularity in a state that it once regarded as its stronghold? Why, it should have asked, were the 2009 Lok Sabha results not replicated in an Assembly election held just a few months later? Unfortunately these questions were never asked as the party gloated in the consolation prize of ministerships under Shibu Soren. Even now these questions are not being asked.

In a sense these awkward questions never seem to be asked. The BJP never conducted a post-mortem of why it fared so pathetically in Uttar Pradesh in 2006. Its post-mortem of the 2009 national defeat was a spurious exercise and aimed at ensuring that real control of the party passed from politicians to pracharaks. There was no real inquiry as to how and why the party 'sold' itself to the Congress in Haryana.

There is little point taunting the BJP for not being a 'party with a difference'. The pillars of the pre-1998 distinctiveness were jettisoned once the party, like the Congress, accepted the realities of ongoing coalitions. But while the Congress-isation of the ideological space was inevitable (unless the party was reconciled to being in opposition permanently), what was not inevitable was the Congress-isation of the space reserved for political integrity.

To a very large extent, the crisis of the BJP today is a crisis of integrity. The BJP, particularly in the states, has become deeply contaminated by 'leaders' who are neither driven by ideology nor managerial efficiency. In Karnataka, the Chief Minister is being undermined by a profit-making cabal; in Uttarakhand, an inept Chief Minister is at the mercy of political venality; and in Punjab, BJP ministers have alienated their social constituencies by embracing the most disagreeable features of Congress culture. The BJP in Jharkhand mirrors this trend—a reason why there are no expectations from it.

There is little point in saying that the Congress is synonymous with corruption. As the Commonwealth Games fiasco has suggested, the BJP is not loath to ask for its share of the malai.

Sunday Pioneer, September 12, 2010

His hour of infamy

Book Review

Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the ravaging of India during World War II by Madhusree Mukherjee (Tranquebar, 352 pages, Rs 495)

It is an interesting footnote that the death of Winston Churchill in January 1965 was solemnly commemorated throughout the lands that had till recently been part of the British Empire. In Calcutta, a city that enjoyed a strange love-hate relationship with the British Raj, The Statesman covered his state funeral in London with a meticulous sensitivity that would have baffled Britons, not least the deceased. The bumptious Principal of my school even had a portrait of Churchill put up at a discreet corner near the library.

This posthumous adulation of a man who had waged a determined campaign in the 1930s to prevent limited self-government for India and had once described Mahatma Gandhi as a "half-naked fakir" may seem inexplicable. Yet, it is important to remember that the nationalist mythology of an impoverished mass of Indians rising to boot out arrogant, exploitative colonials in a frenzy of anti-imperialism is a recent creation. The reality was an India that saw British rule in different shades of grey. The enlightened Indian quest for political freedom stemmed only nominally from hate; the seeds of national assertion were contained in the conviction that British rule had become 'un-British'.

Madhusree Mukherjee's readable account of the idiosyncratic approach of Prime Minister Churchill towards India starts on the premise that the 190 years between the Battle of Plassey and the transfer of power was a story of exploitation and resistance. The organised pauperisation of Bengal, she asserts, reached its climax during World War II when a man-made famine led to the deaths of anything between three and five million people in Bengal. This, she argues with passion, was Churchill's secret Holocaust, driven by the same crazy notions of racial superiority that drove Hitler.

As a work of popular history, Mukherjee's narrative is gripping. Eschewing academic jargon, she weaves an enthralling story that incorporates the British Cabinet papers of the period released in 2006, the private papers of the then Secretary of State for India Leo Amery and the War Office records.

Mukherjee's argument is compelling. The unchecked export and the frenzied government procurement of rice, both facets of the war effort, added to the food deficit in Bengal created by the fall of Burma and drove prices sharply upwards. The shortfall could have been made up by imports of wheat from Australia and North America. Unfortunately for Bengal, all attempts to prevent a humanitarian disaster was stymied by the pig-headedness of Churchill who combined his distaste for Gandhi and the "beastly Indians" with a firm determination to utilise all available shipping to keep the Home Front happy. The British Government fudged statistics to maintain high buffer stocks of food at home, thereby denying relief to the starving Bengali peasant. The results were predictably horrifying.

The portrait of Churchill that Mukherjee paints is sharply at odds with the image of the doughty bulldog who inspired an island nation to do the impossible. The Churchill who rants and raves to anyone who dares suggest that India deserved self-government is a man who has lost the ability to engage rationally. India was Churchill's blind spot and on this issue he refused to grow out of a mindset acquired during the campaigns in Afghanistan and the Boer War. To this Empire romantic, any disengagement from India was simply non-negotiable.

The paradox is that Churchill, who saw Britain's Indian Empire as the pinnacle of a golden age, was equally ready to sully the imperial achievement by letting millions of its people die from starvation. This schizoid approach arose from his visceral hatred of all the seditious trouble-makers: Gandhi, the Congress, the Hindus and the Bengalis. To Churchill, they, along with the Germans and the Japanese, were also the enemy.

There is another intriguing feature of India's unhappy experience with the Churchill Government. Why did the bitter after-effects of famine not translate into blind fury against the Raj? Was it because the extent of Churchill's perfidy was unknown? Was it because famished people didn't have the physical strength to rebel? Had Gandhi dialled a wrong number in 1942 and muddied the waters? Or was it because the Raj had some inner vitality to overcome a monumental tragedy that, interestingly, never became a pan-Indian issue?

Mukherjee's nationalist narrative doesn't provide the answers but they suggest awkward possibilities.

Swapan Dasgupta

Outlook, September 20, 2010

Inhumanity, a trait Churchill shared with Mao

By Swapan Dasgupta

History, it is said, is written by victors. Occasionally, it is also rewritten by historians. Last month, the publication of two books has fuelled a revisionist reassessment of two towering figures of the 20th century, men who contributed immeasurably towards shaping the contemporary world: Winston Churchill and Mao Zedong.

Churchill's role in standing up to the tyranny of fascism and heralding the defeat of Adolf Hitler is the stuff of legends. A mesmerising speaker who bolstered the determination of a beleaguered island, Churchill remains an inspirational figure throughout the English-speaking world. He is seen as the personification of bulldog resolve, courage, wit, erudition and style—everything that once signified loftiness and 'character'.

Mao, on the other hand, stood for things entirely different. If Churchill's leadership was unquestionably patrician, Mao was said to have been blessed by the common touch. He didn't merely extricate China from the bondages of feudal oppression and foreign exploitation; he established new parameters of politics. Before Mao's triumph in 1949, the peasantry was the object of politics—the proverbial 'sack of potatoes' as Karl Marx described it. Mao Zedong Thought made it the subject of history, the instrument of radical change in the Third World.

Churchill left no tangible political legacy, not even within his own Conservative Party. Mao, on the other hand, inspired generations of political activists throughout the world, but particularly in Asia. "China's Chairman is our Chairman" screamed the wall graffiti in post-Naxalbari Bengal of the 1970s. And even today, the foremost internal security challenge to the Indian state comes from the CPI (Maoist)—an insurrection that is said to be driven by the passionate desire to empower the wretched of the earth.

Madhuree Mukerjee's Churchill's Secret War is the tale of a less wholesome Churchill. It is the richly documented story of the war hero who was so blinded by his hatred of Mahatma Gandhi, Congress, Indians, Hindus and Bengalis that he facilitated a man-made famine in 1943 and contributed to anything between three and five million starvation deaths in Bengal.

What comes through Mukerjee's study is Churchill's astonishing lack of humanity. Driven by the goal of "total victory", the British Prime Minister's priority lay in ensuring that the Home Front was well looked after. He ensured that the quality of bread for British civilians was maintained and that there was a comfortable food buffer, even if this meant the diversion of merchant shipping to the Atlantic and the denial of much-needed food imports to India.

It could be argued that Churchill made an uncaring but strategic choice to put Britain before India, a land whose "beastly" people had turned "seditious". Mao, however, wasn't confronted with similar conflicting imperatives when he launched his Great Leap Forward in 1958 to catapult China into the league of industrialised nations. As Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine reveals, the Chairman became a demented megalomaniac who laughed his way through the deaths of more than 45 million Chinese.

In coping with what is probably the worst man-made famine in history, Mao's callousness was unbelievable. "When there is not enough to eat", he told those who dared protest, "people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill." He told cadres not to worry about deaths, "There should be celebration rallies when people die." His prescription for protests was simple: "We must kill… we say it's good to kill."

In blending ghoulishness with eccentricity, Mao seemed to have acquired the characteristics of both Caligula and Idi Amin. He launched a campaign to eliminate sparrows from the countryside because they ate grain; like the Idea cellphone ad, he mooted replacing names of people with numbers; and he proposed the establishment of an Earth Control Committee to "make a uniform plan for the Earth", an enterprise that may have been inspired by Dr No and Goldfinger.

Mao was nuts and China has rightly turned its back on his legacy. In India, however, those who once informed us that Mao's China ensured food for all and an empowered peasantry are now telling us that Maoists are idealists who have the interests of the poor at heart!

Sunday Times of India, September 12, 2010

Friday, September 10, 2010

Disquiet in Congress (September 10, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a fleeting moment during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's interaction with the media last Monday when I imagined he was going to use a dreaded c-word in the context of relations with a neighbouring country. However, before the word left his lips he checked himself and fell back on a safer usage: 'competition'.

I did not get to hear the PM say 'conflict' to describe a sticky situation with our eastern neighbour. What I did get to experience in the conference room of Race Course Road, however, was the precision and calculation that moulded each of Singh's pronouncements. Unlike Rajiv Gandhi who was prone to be casual in his usage or Atal Behari Vajpayee who could never resist a poetic double entendre, Singh chooses his words with utmost care, cutting out all flab. His verbal missteps are rare.

This clinical approach to public pronouncements—rare in a political world where hyperbole rules the roost—may be a factor behind Singh's incredible political longevity. The PM has often appeared non-threatening because he has carefully shunned the extra adjective. For a man so accomplished, he doesn't mind being regarded as a paper tiger.

The Congress Party is no doubt aware of the PM's unique attributes. Despite his image as a political lightweight who counts for little in electoral politics, the party has stuck by him for more than six years. There have been numerous frontal and sniper attacks—some orchestrated others spontaneous—on individual ministers but so far the PM has been left out of the line of fire. The reason is obvious: Singh was Sonia Gandhi's nominee for the top job and as long as he enjoys her patronage, the Congress will treat him as a holy cow.

Over the past few months this arrangement has been disturbed by what appears to be an orchestrated onslaught by leaders claiming to speak on behalf of the Congress against senior Cabinet ministers in the UPA Government. Whatever may have prompted Digvijay Singh, Janardhan Dwivedi and Keshava Rao to openly express their anger with P.Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, the impression has gained ground that the regime has become dysfunctional. There is a suggestion that the 'civil war' has been occasioned by the heir presumptive's apparent coming of age politically.

By suggesting that the "Congress is not an ordinary political party; it is a mass movement", the PM attempted to locate the divergence in a historical context. This explanation may not have too many takers, considering the legacy of the post-1969 Congress, but it does suggest that the PM is sufficiently worried by the impression of 'drift' that he felt the need to counter it.

A flat denial that there is no dissonance between the UPA Government and the Congress was only to be expected. However, the mere fact that this was accompanied by the broad hint of a Cabinet reshuffle before the next session of Parliament and a categorical assertion that retirement wasn't on his mind suggested that conflict resolution could include a few decisive steps.

At the risk of over-interpretation, a number of stray indicators are worth considering. First, at his media interaction, the PM was at pains to clarify that he was second to none in his determination to confront the Maoist threat, having first alerted the country to its damaging potential as far back as 2006. He supplemented this commitment with the observation that Home Minister Chidambaram was doing "an exceedingly good job"—a testimonial that is sharply at odds with the perceptions of some leading Congress functionaries who regard him as "arrogant" and insensitive.

Secondly, replying to questions centred on the pro-active posturing of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Singh was appeared to tread the middle path. But read with his categorical assertion that the only way to bridge the gap between the two Indias was through industrialisation, and his determination to not revert to the licence-permit raj, there was an implied admission that Jairam Ramesh may have gone a bit too far.

A veiled rebuke of Ramesh is by itself not very significant politically. Singh, after all, also admitted that the Ministry of Defence led by the venerable A.K. Antony was also dragging its feet on much-needed arms purchases. But there is a difference between Ramesh's crusade and Antony's prevarication. Ramesh had used the Sonia-led National Advisory Committee and the grandstanding of Rahul Gandhi in Orissa's Kalahandi district to give additional political weight to his spate of non-clearances. In linking Ramesh's generous over-use of the environmental veto to the re-emergence of another licence-permit regime, Singh was more than expressing his displeasure: he was implicitly questioning the wisdom of the NAC's thinking.

The PM is disinclined to make casual comments. What he said last Monday may not have been scripted but they had been carefully thought through. In both his defence of Chidambaram (not merely the individual but also his management of the Home Ministry) and his indictment of environmental over-zealousness, Singh had a direct political message to his party. He seemed to be suggesting that every individual claiming privileged access to 10 Janpath doesn't have a monopoly of correctness in a broad church party.

This appears to be an audacious contradiction of the assumptions on which the Congress has hitherto proceeded. Whether Singh was gently testing the waters or indicating that he can also be his own man is a matter of conjecture. Conventional wisdom would suggest that he was signalling to the Gandhis that their hounds had to be tamed—a very diluted version of his threat to resign in 2008 in case the Indo-US nuclear deal was sacrificed at the altar of expediency. The PM probably feels that after six years in office and an election victory he deserves some respect and more functional autonomy. The Cabinet reshuffle should indicate whether or not he has got his way.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, September 10, 2010

Monday, September 06, 2010

Left alone in a crumbling Coffee House


Left Politics in Bengal: Time Travels among Bhadralok Marxists by Monobina Gupta (Orient BlackSwan, 272 pages, Rs 195)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Engagement with Left politics may well be compared to college romances: a few passionate years of intense involvement, followed by a steady process of detachment and finally, a bitter separation, as both sides realise they have evolved very differently. Western literature is replete with writings in the God that failed genre, some crudely propagandist and others reeking of pain and regret over many wasted years. The theme of 'betrayal' resonates constantly from both sides and, ironically, adds to the romance of a movement that combines lofty idealism with callous disregard of human feelings.

Monobina Gupta's study of Left politics isn't another journalistic account of the impulses that made for the building of the CPI(M)'s Red Fort in West Bengal. It is a semi-autobiographical account of her own involvement with the CPI(M) and the realisation that what she had endorsed was an intellectually deficient, power hungry and uncaring party. Based on her own experiences, and those of many of her Comrades, she tries to capture the degeneration and decline of Bengali Communism. It is a compelling, well-written narrative that goes some way in explaining West Bengal's growing distaste for the CPI(M).

What comes through is a familiar horror story centred on a party that tries to own its cadres body and soul, suppress all traces of individualism and deny Comrades the luxury of intellectual and emotional independence. Like a medieval church, the party is brutally intolerant of dissent and heresy. It not only discards the contrarian but accompanies the rejection with vilification.

Gupta's book is rich in detailing the emotional turbulence of the renegades and revisionists, including their search for an alternative Left space. The chapter on Lalgarh is particularly instructive for its insights into the way the Maoists replicate the CPI(M) wariness of movements from below.

The book is, however, somewhat sketchy in detailing the political intimidation mounted by the party and the state to maintain control. This is understandable. What attracted many people (including, I suspect, Gupta) is the headiness of belonging to a machine that was personified the 'vanguard'. In the writings of Lenin and the political practice of Stalin, there was always a divergence between the party and the masses. The party was always the army of the enlightened, a status that always appealed to a Bengali bhadralok that flaunted its own superiority in a philistine-dominated world. The masses, on the other hand, were either voting fodder or a romantic abstraction.

Gupta delves into Marxist theology to explain why the seeds of degeneration were in-built. Unfortunately, she doesn't locate the CPI(M) and its politics within the context of a bhadralok society that is itself in a state of decay. On the contrary, there is an unmistakable deification of the economic stagnation that is the hallmark of contemporary West Bengal after 30 years of Left rule. Like others in the Left, Gupta looks back a bit too self-indulgently at the world of coffee house politics, subtitled films and street protests—the symbols Bengal's wasted years.

Tehelka magazine, 7(36), September 11, 2010

Friday, September 03, 2010

Angels and Demons

The Vedanta order was not an isolated act of vindictiveness

By Swapan Dasgupta

The camera does not lie, but what it captures is determined by human preferences. This simple truth was more than evident when the TV cameras positioned at the venue of Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi's "victory" rally in Lanjigarh in Orissa's Kalahandi district last week focussed almost exclusively on the dais. Had the camerapersons directed their cameras at the crowd, as they did during Mamata Banerjee's public meeting in Lalgarh, they may have detected an intriguing feature of this much-hyped rally: the rows of empty chairs.

When it comes to the Congress Party's heir-apparent, bad news is, however, not news. In the dominant narrative of the 'environmental' war being waged in Orissa, it was always a straight fight between an endangered exotic India and the forces of exploitative capitalism, with little scope for ambiguity. The helpless 8,000-strong Dongria Kondhi tribe had been spared the destruction of their age-old way of life and the devastation of their sacred Niyamgiri hills by the son of the man who had first made Kalahandi the symbol of unacceptable poverty, and that was that. Gandhi was the sipahi of the angels and Vedanta personified the demons.

Yet, the empty chairs symbolised an alternative narrative of a backward state that doesn't want to be excluded from the relentless march of economic development. The London-based Vedanta may not be the exemplar of what goes by the name of corporate social responsibility but the $5.4 billion aluminium plant in Lanjigarh providing employment to some 10,000 people is Kalahandi's only reminder of 21st century India. Close the factory down and the district reverts to what it always was: a forgotten outpost of eastern India subsisting on agriculture, a few government jobs and oodles of welfare handouts.

This yearning for a better life may explain why Bhakta Charan Das, the Congress MP for Kalahandi and a driving force behind the present anti-Vedanta stir, was singing a very different tune when the issue hadn't been so politicised. Speaking in the Lok Sabha in November 1996, Das said: "The Government of India and the Orissa government should take keen interest to set up at least a large aluminium plant because we have got a heavy deposit of bauxite in Niyamgiri and Sijimalli of the Kalahandi district. If there is an aluminium plant, then a minimum of 40,000 people can sustain out of the different kinds of earnings from that."

Not that the world view of Bianca Jagger and Survival International is without takers. Without its aluminium plant, the district could, at a pinch, become a venue for eco-tourism and medicinal plants—there is a local belief that the Niyamgiri hills once contained Mount Gandhamadhana that Hanuman uprooted to source a medicinal plant for the dying Lakshman—which may help preserve the stereotype of otherwise happy tribals doggedly resisting the pulls of cruel modernity. Why, even the Gandhis may choose such an exotic, unspoilt venue for a quiet, environmentally sound short-break.

There is a compelling case for denying Vedanta the rights to mine bauxite from even a tiny corner of the Niyamgiri hills. Although the proposal was to confine the extraction of bauxite to just a small part of the 250 sq. km range, leaving the sacred sites intact—a sensitivity that never affected Jawaharlal Nehru when he proceeded with his frenzied construction of the 'temples of modern India'—it is common knowledge that the regulatory framework in India is so lax and prone to corrupt practices that the desecration of the entire Niyamgiri range would have been surreptitiously undertaken. In time, Kalahandi may even have turned into another Bellary where the iron ore from authorised mines is generously supplemented by the produce from illegal shafts. Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's commitment to an aesthetically pleasing and green Orissa is not in doubt—he is the author of a book on India's medicinal plants—but even he wouldn't have been able to control the outpouring of greed and the debasement of the political system that accompanies mining in India.

However, it is one thing to be wary of the potential havoc that bauxite mining could create in the Niyamgiri hills and quite a separate matter to ride roughshod over the due process of law. In August 2008, the Supreme Court cleared the Vedanta project including the proposal of the Orissa Mining Corporation to set up a dedicated bauxite mine for the company in an area covering some 5 sq. km of the hills. The Court approval followed reports by expert groups set up by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and was based on a scrutiny of laws that were in place at the time of the order.

In justifying his Ministry's firm no to any mining activity in the Niyamgiri hills, Union Minister Jairam Ramesh said there "was no emotion, no politics in this decision. I have taken a decision in a purely legal approach." He told the Financial Times that Vedanta's violation of the law were "too egregious to be glossed over." His conclusion was based on the findings of a committee headed by National Advisory Council member N.C. Saxena whose terms of reference were set on June 29 and then enlarged 20 days later—the same shifting of goal posts has, incidentally, also accompanied Saxena's inquiry into the proposed POSCO steel plant in coastal Orissa.

Apart from the propriety of a member of a political body attached to the Congress President reviewing a decision endorsed by the Supreme Court, there is a larger issue at stake. Among other things, Saxena was asked to assess Vedanta's compliance with the Forest Rights Act. This is intriguing since the Supreme Court didn't consider the Forest Rights Act for the simple reason that such a law didn't exist in August 2008; it was enacted subsequently. In other words, Vedanta has been indicted on the strength of a law applied retrospectively. Whether this corresponds to law or justice will be examined by the apex court when the matter is again referred to it. But on the face of it, the impression that the Government is undertaking a political witch-hunt is unmistakable. By this logic, many of India's industrial projects will not stand the test of retrospective scrutiny.

In the pre-liberalisation age, the Centre used the license-permit regime to discriminate against state governments that were run by non-Congress parties. The Left Front Government in West Bengal had to wage a sustained political struggle to secure permission for the Haldia Petrochemicals project and the Bakreshwar thermal plant. The end of socialist controls has allowed a semblance of federalism to return to our polity but this is now endangered by the misuse of environmental controls as a political veto. The Vedanta order wasn't an isolated act of vindictiveness; it was preceded by a peremptory order (based on the preliminary findings of another committee headed by Saxena) stopping the land acquisition for the proposed Rs 51,000 crore POSCO steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa. In both cases, the Centre acted unilaterally, in total violation of all federal principles, using the environment and rights of tribals as moral shield to justify political subversion and blackmail.

The Orissa Chief Minister is temperamentally non-confrontational and may be too much of a gentleman to replicate the Congress' skulduggery. But unless he reacts in a political decisive way to the Centre's declaration of war on Orissa, he may find the ground slipping under his feet. There is a vindictive Delhi Sultanate in place and the states of India must confront it.

The Telegraph, September 3, 2010