Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pink view 0f saffron movement

Book Review

Religion, Caste and Politics in India by Christophe Jaffrelot (Primus Books, 802 pages, Rs 2,250)

If an A-list is drawn of the most exciting writers on contemporary Indian politics, Christophe Jaffrelot, in all likelihood, will not feature in it. At the same time, the importance of the Director of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, who also teaches South Asian history and politics at Sciences Po in Paris, cannot be brushed away. Apart from having written one of the very few comprehensive accounts of the BJP, Jaffrelot happens to be the prism through which a section of the French establishment sees India. He is France's most prominent India hand and, as such, his understanding of his specialist subject needs to be taken seriously. Jaffrelot is important because France is important.

Unfortunately, the expectation that Jaffrelot will introduce a distinctly French perspective into a discipline dominated (apart from Indians) by faculty members in American and, occasionally, British universities, is likely to be belied. In an India which he visits frequently and conducts field research, Jaffrelot hasn't been able to transcend the temptation of aligning himself with the dominant Left-liberal camp. The possible excitement of presenting alternative perspectives on live issues such as multiculturalism—a subject on which France has a unique perspective—has been blunted by his willingness to embrace conventional academic wisdom.

This voluminous collection of papers and articles written by him at various stages of his academic career is, nevertheless, not without its merits. For a start, Jaffrelot has resisted the temptation of re-editing his earlier offerings in the light of today's realities. If many of his conclusions fail to stand the test of time, Jaffrelot is generous enough to allow them to pass. Secondly, his articles are pretty exhaustively documented and footnoted with both primary and secondary sources. If nothing else, they allow the interested reader a reasonably comprehensive reading list for further perusal of the subject. Finally, Jaffrelot's range is impressive: from the historical origins of Hindu nationalism to the political complexities of parties such as the BJP, BSP and the various Lohia-ite formations. He also touches on areas such as Indian foreign policy—occupational hazards of academics who have to meet the test of 'relevance'—but these aren't his core competence.

Of the 35 essays in the collection, many of which suffer from lengthy repetitions, some themes stand out. In particular, I like his concept of "strategic syncretism" to explain why some Hindu social reformers, not least Raja Rammohan Roy and Swami Dayananda Saraswati, expediently dressed the Hindu faith in a monotheistic garb to make it fit Christian fashion. In another essay, where he draws on the recondite literature of European racial theories, Jaffrelot debunks the notion that either V.D. Savarkar or M.S. Golwalkar was driven by race nationalism. His exploration of the complexities in the relationship between the RSS and wings of the so-called Sangh Parivar leads him to the unfashionable conclusion that centralised control from Nagpur remains an elusive ideal. Never mind Golwalkar's pipedream of arriving at the stage "where the Sangh and the entire Hindu society will be completely identical", the realities of political power prevented a completely harmonious relationship between the RSS and the BJP during the NDA years.

As someone who has followed the BJP and the RSS, with varying degrees of proximity over time, I found Jaffrelot's essays on the origins of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the evolution of the BJP in Delhi quite revealing and well researched. Jaffrelot is at his strongest when he couples media reports with actual interviews with some of the players in the story. He is at his weakest when he relies excessively on media reports that, in many cases, tend to be ill-informed. Since Jaffrelot often has no access to 'insider' sources, he is often a prey to the temptation of treating media reports at face value without assessing their relative importance.

A party like the BJP which is half a political party and half a nebulously structured movement has many loudmouths and cranks whose views find place in some 'Hindu' publication or the other. Since Jaffrelot has little empathy for what the BJP stands for—in fact he is unreservedly hostile to it—he often fails to separate representative views from the cranky. To my mind, this is a big failing as is his inability to link the group dynamics of the saffron fraternity with wider shifts in society.

For example, it is curious to find that his essay on the debate over a presidential form of government makes only a passing mention of a crucial point: that the impetus for a thorough overhaul of the Constitution came from the Congress, particularly during the Emergency years. Jaffrelot says that "The Presidential system is not opposed to democracy"—being from France he can hardly say otherwise. He concedes that many of its proponents sought "the reform of the state." At the same time, he arrives at the conclusion "the form that the presidentialisation of the regime would take under the auspices of the BJP appears to be more threatening than it would under other parties, because of the BJP's ideological background and the way in which the RSS and its offshoots function." A few pages later, after conceding that democracy has sunk roots in India, he says that the BJP commitment to democracy is suspect because "the movement is still identified with the upper castes…Though the BJP is gradually promoting low caste cadres…it still does not contribute to the present-day (social) democratization of Indian (political) democracy."

This is hardly the conclusion of a detached academic studying a phenomenon. It is the language of the pamphleteer.

Footnote: The publisher should note that pages 132 to 144 are either missing or wrongly placed in a book priced at Rs 2,250!

---Swapan Dasgupta

Business Standard, November 1, 2010


Let’s stop pandering to bleeding hearts

By Swapan Dasgupta

If some media reports are to be believed, the Government has sent out a message to the three-member team of interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir to be more circumspect in their public pronouncements. Maybe this sage advice will have some impact. But, unfortunately, first impressions tend to be more enduring than others. The team whose composition invited scepticism and even ridicule may find that the spate of controversies it generated during its first trip to the Kashmir Valley has cost it the legitimacy it so desperately craved for.

With a Parliament session due immediately after the visit of President Barak Obama, it may become necessary for the UPA Government to discreetly wash its hands off the team—without, of course, admitting any such thing. On paper, the three interlocutors will remain occupied and it is entirely possible that three Ambassador cars, three peons and a generous travel Budget will also be kept aside for their use. Politically, however, the appointment of the three-member looks like becoming another still-born initiative. They may yet produce a report but few are likely to treat it seriously.

To blame Dileep Padgaonkar or, for that matter, Radha Kumar, for the mess is tempting. Both set themselves up as soft targets by (perhaps unwittingly) conveying the impression that their job was to solve a problem that has been festering for six decades. Padgaonkar didn't say anything original by alluding to a Pakistan dimension of any lasting solution. However, it was the tone of self-importance and the boast of "no red lines" that contributed to the furore. Likewise, Kumar's purported comment about amending the Constitution to accommodate azadi was seen to be politically presumptuous.

It speaks volumes for the Government's non-application of mind and its flawed judgment that a political initiative should have been outsourced to a group of well-meaning free thinkers. The people of Jammu and Kashmir can't be faulted for believing that the whole thing smacks of insincerity and amateurishness.

It would not have mattered if the clumsy garrulousness of the interlocutors had just been treating as an amusing aside and something to keep the talk show hosts of TV channels occupied. It could then have been seen with about as much seriousness as the contrived SPG 'displeasure' over Rahul Gandhi travelling in a second class bogey of a commuter train. Unfortunately, the indiscretions of the interlocutors conveyed one dispiriting message: that there was something fundamentally illegitimate about the present status of J&K and India's collective handling of it.

Beginning with Sonia Gandhi's appeal to recognise the "legitimate aspirations" of the stone throwers and culminating in Arundhati Roy's strident deification of secessionism, there are grounds for believing that Liberal India is being overwhelmed by a streak of capitulation.

Padgaonkar has apparently asked students in Srinagar to prepare a precise, time-driven roadmap for azadi which he hopes to discuss at his next visit. For India's sake I hope that he is restrained from negotiating the modalities of azadi with impressionable minds and giving them the impression that what has hitherto been a slogan is actually a realisable political project. Likewise, I am fearful of the Constitutional changes Kumar contemplates to accommodate azadi. The only one I can imagine is an amendment notifying the non-applicability of the Constitution to J&K. Willy-nilly, Kumar has conveyed the message that the "legitimate aspirations" of the state cannot be accommodated within the Constitution, as it exists today.

These are worrying signs that become even more worrisome if we explore the specifics of the "autonomy" that is at present enjoyed by J&K. The meaning of Article 370, according special status to J&K has a direct bearing on the distribution of power between the Centre and the state.

For the rest of India, there is a Central list, a State List and a Concurrent List that is tilted in favour of the Centre. For J&K, there is a Central list that covers defence, foreign affairs, currency and communications. After 1953, the Constitution also extended the jurisdiction of the Election Commission and the Supreme Court to the state.

That is it. All other powers are enjoyed by the state government. And, in the case of J&K, there is no Concurrent list. The Government of J&K has the right to make its own laws, subject to the ratification of the President.

What modifications to the Constitution are the interlocutors seeking? The withdrawal of the Supreme Court and EC? A separate currency for J&K? The complete withdrawal of Indian forces from the Line of Control? Should India share sovereignty of J&K with Pakistan, as Mehbooba Mufti's PDP has often argued?

Are these the Constitutional changes the interlocutors or, for that matter, the Congress president, think is desirable? Arundhati Roy is at least honest: she wants India's azadi from J&K and vice-versa. The others are being wilfully disingenuous: the azadi imagined by the Go-India-Go brigade can't be accommodated within the India as we know it.

The Government must play with a straight bat. After the visit of the all-party parliamentary delegation to J&K, it was agreed that the Government must clearly define what is not negotiable (the accession of J&K to the Indian Union) and what needs to be urgently addressed (overbearing policing and human rights violations). By attempting to pander to bleeding hearts whose stake in India is negotiable and seasonal, it has extended the crisis of liberalism into a crisis of the state.

Sunday Pioneer, October 31, 2010(END)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Remembering right

India is a country with a rich history and poor historians

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, a court in Normandy ordered the prosecution of the Mayor of the small French hamlet of Gonneville-sur-Mer for his refusal to take down a photograph of Marshal Philippe Petain, the head of the Vichy Government from 1940 to 1944. The photograph had, along with photographs of other presidents, hung on a wall in the Council chamber for the past 70 years. Earlier this year, however, a visitor claimed to be offended by it and reported the matter to the League against Racism and Anti-Semitism which in turn initiated proceedings.

The Court ruled against the Mayor. It accepted the prosecution plea that Petain was "the very embodiment" of a regime that, apart from collaborating with the occupation forces, was also xenophobic and virulently anti-Semitic. The judgment also coincided with new revelations that Petain personally had a hand in the laws that excluded Jews from French public life after 1940.

The Mayor and his Council didn't contest the ignominy associated with Petain and the Vichy regime. Petain, he argued, couldn't be written out of the pages of history: "The figure of Marshal Petain has its place in the Town Hall, as do memories of the most painful and most glorious moments in our history."

The Mayor may well have been echoing General Charles De Gaulle, the man whose uncompromising resistance to the Vichy regime and the German occupation allowed France to emerge with its honour intact after Liberation. In a speech during a visit to the town of Vichy on April 18, 1959, De Gaulle struck an emotional note: "…history is a continuous thread. We are one people and whatever ups and downs we may have suffered, whatever events we may have seen, we are the great nation of France…I say this in Vichy. The past is finished. Long live Vichy! Long live France! Long live the Republic!"

This scarcely-remembered speech (quoted by historian Henry Ruosso in his much-acclaimed The Vichy Syndrome) didn't however permeate into the innards of France. The awkward reality of a vast section of patriotic French people having endorsed Petain's truce with the Germans as a way out of further humiliation is undeniable. Contemporary accounts suggest that till the tide of war changed with the German defeat in Stalingrad, the average French person accepted Petain's National Revolution as a viable approach to restoring national honour. Certainly, Vichy stalwarts like Petain, Pierre Laval and Robert Brassilach—all three convicted of treason after Liberation—perceived themselves as fiercely patriotic.

The awkwardness of having adjusted to the short-lived German occupation and ending up on the wrong side of history has troubled a large section of France. This may explain why, till very recently, embarrassed silence greeted attempts to probe too deep into the Vichy experience. In his own way, the Mayor of Gonneville-sur-Mer has challenged this evasion.

There may be few apparent similarities between the French discomfiture with Petain and Germany's handling of its Nazi past. Ever since the second Auschwitz trials in 1977, Germany has unambiguously owned up to its responsibility for the Holocaust and other horrors. There have been German apologies to Israel, Poland, Russia, and countries where the swastika flew at some point during World War II. Indeed the earnestness with which Germany has atoned for its Nazi past once prompted Avi Primor, a former Isaeli ambassador to Germany, to once ask: "Where in the world has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalise its own shame?"

The willingness of Germany to confront its troubled past and yet not be overwhelmed by it took another leap this month when the German Historical Museum in Berlin opened its exhibition "Hitler and the Germans—Nation and Crime". The exhibition addresses the issue that, until the late-1960s, many Germans were unwilling to confront: that Hitler would have been nothing had he not received the enthusiastic support of the German people. The curators deliberately kept the exhibits prosaic. The idea was to show the extent to which both ordinary Germans and the elite accepted Hitler and deified him.

There is, of course, a real danger that in being obsessed with confronting the inheritance of the Third Reich the other facets of "German genius" may be overlooked—an argument made forcefully by the English writer Peter Watson. Watson's contention that Germany did itself incalculable harm by endorsing the Nazis—without Hitler, the 20th century may well have been Germany's century and not America's—is compelling and may serve to offset the impact of the guilt-tripping commentaries that have accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel's robust interventions on economic and social policy. Unlike France which is still squeamish about its Vichy past, Germany appears to have handled its history with incredible maturity.

The German experience has a bearing on India's uncertain clumsy experiments with the past. At the most basic level, India is happiest obfuscating many centuries of history under the mantra "5,000 years of culture and civilisation". 'Official' India is most troubled when something like the dispute in Ayodhya erupts and a High Court judgment resurrects an issue that has been frozen in denial—the destruction of shrines under the Delhi Sultanate and the Moghuls.

The troubling feature of India is the growing chasm between popular historical memory and the officially endorsed 'nation-building' history. In the popular perception, there was widespread medieval vandalism and India is dotted with physical evidence of a shrine that was either destroyed or whose denominational character was changed. Yet, since the early-1970s, historians whose works are deemed 'respectable' have wilfully glossed over themes that apparently run counter to an idyllic syncretic or composite culture. In schools and universities, narrative history has been junked in favour of a crude economism. It is somehow felt that 'nation building' will be better served by focussing on the economic intricacies of feudal societies rather than the bigoted excesses of Aurangzeb. Outright denial or obfuscation has become hallmarks of a country with a rich history and poor historians.

Unfortunately, the experiments with disingenuity haven't really worked. Academic historians constituted themselves into a cosy club during the Ayodhya agitation claiming that the whole Ram Janmabhoomi belief was an elaborate hoax and, most likely, a sinister colonial creation. No shrine, they insisted, had been destroyed to make way for a mosque in 1528. Far from neutralising the Ram bhakts, this negationism actually drove the devout into greater bouts of frenzy, culminating in the demolition of the 16th century shrine. Had the more pertinent question—Must India spend its energies overturning medieval wrongs?—been asked, it is entirely possible that society wouldn't have been so damagingly polarised. The battle to set back the clock of history was actually a crusade to right the wrongs of historians.

"Our history", the British Education Secretary Michael Gove said last month while unveiling an initiative to restore narrative history to the school curriculum, "has moments of pride and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past, we will not properly value the liberties of the present." It's an enlightened message that could just as well be relevant for India.

History is essentially a conversation between the past and the present, an engagement that doesn't follow a pre-determined script. However, this scintillating encounter will be hideously distorted if the past is bowdlerised to suit contemporary fashion. India is paying the price for trying to learn from a history built on questionable certitudes.

The Telegraph, October 29, 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

India Inc should look beyond BTech and MBA

By Swapan Dasgupta

The generous $50 million donation to the Harvard Business School by the Tatas has, quite naturally, attracted considerable attention in India. This includes uncharitable suggestions that India's high-profile multinational has got its priorities all mixed up and is suffering from a colonial hangover.

The debate over the ethical validity of corporates directing their philanthropic energies abroad, particularly when Indian education could do with booster shots, is likely to continue. The India versus Harvard tussle is, however, only one emotive aspect of the public interest in private endowments. Equally relevant is the question: what are the donations for? In addressing this issue, it is best to not lump all donations to overseas institutions under the same roof.

The Tata donation to a premier Business School has followed a path well-travelled. In India's prevailing value system, management education is the pinnacle of accomplishment, on par with an IIT degree. An MBA is regarded as a passport to career advancement and explains why business schools have mushroomed all over India. Indian society hasn't paused to ask the question British cartoonist Martin Rowson once posed to me in jest: "Why does a man selling envelopes in Swindon need a management degree?"

Rowson was guilty of caricature. Yet, there is a point to ponder: has India become obsessive about the MBA, at the cost of everything else?

This is why it may be instructive to look at the two other gifts to Harvard that were overshadowed by fat Tata cheque: Anand Mahindra's $10 million donation to the Harvard Humanities Centre and Narayana Murthy's $5 million to the Clay Sanskrit Library.

To the reigning philistines, these endowments were eccentric indulgences. Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru injected the promotion of "scientific temper" into the Directive Principles of the Constitution, Indian conventional wisdom has deemed the perusal of the humanities a colossal waste of time and an unaffordable luxury. For conspiratorial post-colonialists, the primacy of the liberal arts during the Raj was Macaulay's plot to create a nation of subordinate clerks. To economic planners concerned with a skilled workforce, classical studies or Indology was another diversion of resources. In the contrived science and technology versus humanities battle, the latter stood no chance.

The institutional devaluation of the humanities was reflected in the modified design of the examinations to the all-important civil services examinations. From the day multiple choice questions became the norm and the essay paper was junked, it became clear that lucidity and articulation—the ability to construct an elegant and internally consistent argument—were no longer regarded as worthwhile attributes.

The stress on applied skills was no doubt a shift away from an elitism that had earlier made the IAS and IFS a wing of the St Stephen's College alumni club. But, have we overdone the anti-elitism bit and, instead, bred a generation lacking lucidity in three languages?

The 'reform' of civil services recruitment was just the tip of the killer iceberg. Since S. Nurul Hasan decided to make education the laboratory for some inspired ideological engineering, the humanities were inexplicably merged into the 'social sciences'. Instead of being an argumentative conversation involving the past and present, "scientific history" resulted in students being force fed dollops of questionable certitudes. Literary criticism became jargon infested and infected with derision of 'dead, white males'. Classical studies were made lifeless by the official disdain for theology and religion. Indeed, had it not been for universities in Britain, Germany and the US, Indology as a discipline would have become extinct. The state of the Asiatic Society is living proof of the ease with which we destroyed institutions that others had so painstakingly built.

It is in the context of the relentless assault on the humanities that we can view Mahindra and Murthy's donations to Harvard as inspired choices. Murthy's gift will help complete and perhaps revive the monumental project sponsored by the philanthropist John Clay to publish the essential works of classical Sanskrit literature. Mahindra's endowment to his alma mater could inspire fellow industrialists to recognise a life beyond technology and business studies. Since India often takes its cue from 'phoren', the two donations may even prompt a larger realisation that a function of education is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Who knows, one of these days we may even be privileged to hear a HRD minister say that education isn't just about the "scientific temper".

Sunday Times of India, October 24, 2010

Deny Arundhati claim to fame

By Swapan Dasgupta

If the aim of those who organised the convention of secessionists in Delhi on October 21 was to court both notoriety and publicity, they can look back with satisfaction on a very successful venture. Middle India may have been absolutely appalled and horrified at the spectacle of pro-Pakistan Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani preaching his divisive message in the heart of the Capital, flanked by the intellectual cheer-leader of the anything-to-offend brigade, Arundhati Roy. However, the organisers weren't interested in winning over Indian opinion. Their objective was propagandist.

First, the convention on azadi organised by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners—which seems a Maoist front—was meant to signal a grand unity of those seeking the vivisection of the Indian Union. They included the Kasmiri secessionists, the rump of the Khalistani movement, the separatists from the North-eastern states and, of course, the Maoists who are trying to create the conditions which will allow the secessionists to succeed. The event was a gathering of political rogues and was meant to be that way.

Secondly, it came as no surprise to the organisers that a convention of this nature organised in Delhi attracted vocal opposition. I can fully sympathise with those Kashmiri Hindus who were agitated by the presence of someone who created the conditions for the horrible ethnic cleansing of Hindus from the Kashmir Valley in 1990. However, it is also a fact that the organisers were banking on spirited protests against Geelani to elevate a vicious message into a debate over free speech and democracy. The ease with which some TV channels fell into the trap was indicative of the larger gullibility of India's liberal establishment.

In a lucid intervention on the subject, Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley has argued that the freedom of speech is not absolute but also governed by other laws. The Indian Penal Code, for example, does not extend the principle of free speech to utterances calculated to provoke enmity between castes and religion and undermine the integrity of the state. In the past, the latter offence used to be called sedition but in the contemporary world that usage is rare but in essence the secessionists and their supporters seem to be guilty of that horrible offence—if prosecuted and convicted by a court of law.

Following Jaitley's intervention, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said that the authorities are examining the speeches to see they violated the law. In principle this is right. If Varun Gandhi can first be jailed and prosecuted for his alleged hate speech during the 2009 election campaign, there are grounds to press for charges against Geelani and Arundhati Roy. According to the report in Pioneer, the Booker Prize winner told the gathering: "India needs Azadi from Kashmir and Kashmir from India. It is a good debate that has started. We must deepen this conversation and am happy that young people are getting involved for this cause which is their future." It is a different matter that the "conversation" consisted mainly of treacherous elements shouting slogans, including "Azadi ka matlab kya? Lal ilaha il illah".

Actually, the speech of Arundhati Roy was more incendiary than Geelani who repeated the hoary line about "self-determination" and tripartite talks to hammer out a solution. In fact, Geelani stressed he wasn't against India but wanted a "free" Kashmir where—and he was at pains to spell this out— Islamic strictures against consuming alcohol would not apply to the minorities.

Whether the policemen who examine the transcripts of the convention will also feel that Arundhati crossed the Lakshman rekha between the acceptable and unacceptable is unknown. The irony is that a publicity-conscious pamphleteer would love to be prosecuted for sedition and, preferably, even arrested. The spectacle of a small, innocent-looking, soft-spoken woman who is a celebrity in the Noam Chomsky-loving classes in the West being led away by burly, pot-bellied policemen will make for wonderful TV and is calculated to whet the appetites of all who believe that India's democracy is counterfeit. It will have a global impact and may even bring forth a petition calling for her release signed by the who's who of the Manhattan establishment. Maybe President Obama will also chip in.

An Arundhati Roy charged with sedition for daring to question India's 'occupation' of Kashmir will be the best thing to have happened to a movement that never quite succeeded in putting the stone throwers on par with the Palestinian intifada. The attempts to transform the disturbances in Kashmir into an international human rights issue has failed mainly because India has too many better things to offer. The last thing we now need is to make Arundhati Roy into India's Liu Xiaobo and Geelani into the Taliban-loving Amnesty International's "prisoner of conscience."

Jaitley is right about the law and the Constitution but he is wrong about the political wisdom of prosecuting secessionists for non-violent offences. Geelani routinely makes speeches in Srinagar that are far more provocative than the one he made last Thursday in Delhi. The fact that he made it in Delhi doesn't worsen the offence. Both Srinagar and Delhi are, after all, in India.

Secessionism has to be countered both militarily and through arguments. An argumentative environment is India's best advertisement against intolerant Maoism and Islamism.

Sunday Pioneer, October 24, 2010




Friday, October 22, 2010

Semantics of tolerance

By Swapan Dasgupta

The disease known as 'groupthink' has a curious penchant for infecting the media. The colourful German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle who visited India for the first time this week got a taste of this herd mentality when he was harried by persistent questions on Chancellor Angela Merkel's assertion that multikulti, or multiculturalism, had "utterly failed" in Germany. The underlying assumption behind the queries was that Germany had turned its back on the enlightened co-existence of cultures and was somehow re-embracing the intolerant xenophobia of a troublesome past.

Westerwelle responded to these fears with admirable intellectual composure. He argued that multiculturalism meant different things to different people and that the concerns in Germany didn't imply a repudiation of an "open society" but the "free for all" society. Every society, he argued, had its own perception of what is acceptable and unacceptable. What Germany found galling was alternative paradigms of justice and human rights that devalued gender equality and religious co-existence. Westerwelle spoke in code but everyone knew what he was referring to.

It is difficult to judge the impact of Westerwelle's arguments on his interrogators. Judging from the fact that not a word of his attempt to contextualise Chancellor Merkel's utterances appeared in the local media, we may assume his replies were either very persuasive or a shade too complex. Either way, it is unlikely to make any impression on India's liberal, opinion-making industry that is convinced of a larger European drift to xenophobic politics. In the past week, I encountered a Delhi socialite with impeccable 'progressive' credentials who boasted that she had chosen to boycott all functions hosted by the French Embassy because of the burkha ban; and another editor from Chennai made the hurtful comment on Twitter that Merkel was re-discovering Germany's Nazi inheritance.

Indians, as we observed during the shenanigans surrounding the Commonwealth Games, are quick to hurl charges of racism and cultural insensitivity on others. Contrary to stereotype, the charge against perceived white supremacist thinking and cultural insensitivity isn't led by the pan-chewing, Hindi-speaking zealot taking a breather from the neighbourhood Bhagwati Jagran. The prickliest of Indians tend to be those who are English-speaking, cosmopolitan in outlook and professing faith in India's rich multiculturalism.

As India has grown in prosperity and emotional self-confidence, there has been a marked inclination to paint it as the epitome of authentic secularism, enlightened pluralism and the spirit of fraternity. Some of this gushing self-deification is warranted. Indians do tend to be naturally accommodating about coping with diversity in the public sphere and politics is all about forging alliances at the local, state and national levels. The fears articulated during the Ayodhya movement about an insidious "syndicated Hinduism" making society monochromatic have, in hindsight, proved to be spurious. India has remained delightfully rumbustious and chaotically argumentative as ever.

Does this imply that India can afford to look down with condescension at a Germany that can't cope with "guest workers" who refuse to either go home or imbibe robust German values?

For a start, the distinction Westerwelle drew between an "open society" and a "free for all society" is pertinent. Following the experiences with fascism and communist totalitarianism, Europe has emerged as a genuinely tolerant society, allowing an unregulated interplay of ideas. This may explain the absolute horror that greeted Ayatollah Khomeini's murderous fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh.

Likewise, there is also a deep abhorrence of any attempt to either denigrate or discriminate against citizens on the basis of race. This is not to suggest that race hate is absent in Europe but that there is a structured intolerance of any organised attempt to make racism respectable. The manner in which the leader of the British National Party, an elected Member of the European Parliament, had his invitation to the Queen's summer party at Buckingham Palace withdrawn was unquestionably contrived. However, it did indicate the Establishment's intense unease at rubbing shoulders with a man whose party espouses crude identity politics.

Unfortunately, the threat to an open society doesn't merely come from those who claim to speak for the majority. The recent rumblings in Western Europe have, unfortunately, been triggered by two factors. First, the increasing willingness of a minusculity to challenge a consensual value system, sometimes through terror; and, second, a well-meaning but oppressive political correctness that is often increasingly seen as appeasement of the unacceptable.

At the same time, and it is important to stress this, the reactions to these distortions have, by and large, been restrained. It is only where restraint has assumed the form of outright denial that the majoritarian fringe has grabbed some decisive political space as, for example, in Holland. The increasing willingness of mainstream politicians such as President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel to articulate the misgivings of a fearful, silent majority is actually a positive development. By admitting to a problem and, at the same time, shunning extremist and xenophobic ways of coping with it, their interventions have signalled to responsible sections of the minorities the importance of not offending host cultures.

Since India doesn't really have an immigrant problem—those who arrive from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka merge seamlessly into adjoining societies—many of Europe's multicultural troubles leave it unaffected. India has been less an open society than a self-regulated society which is hesitantly making the transition to a more ordered state. The Constitution has been a handy instrument of this shift towards modernity and, by and large, this approach has served the country well. The problems arise when, as in Europe, a substantial body of people (not least politicians) either try to rewrite the rules of the game or take undue advantage of a natural generosity towards minorities.

Without sneering at the Germans, taunting the French and outrightly decrying the Australians, India should imbibe the different experiences of multicultural hiccups with an open mind and humility. Each of these experiences could come to trouble us.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, October 22, 2010

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Media decides what’s news

By Swapan Dasgupta

In a made-in-media society, what is deemed to be 'national' and what is doomed to be 'parochial' is an editorial choice, shaped by personal-cum-political preferences and, at times, commercial considerations.

I cannot fault the media for celebrating the non-failure of the Commonwealth Games as a spectacular national achievement that should concern every Indian from Badarpur to Bhagalpur. "National news" in India tends to be woefully Delhi-centric and not least after the taxpayers had shelled out nearly Rs 1lakh crore (yes, I am informed that is likely to be the final bill) to uphold the pride of Delhi. And, naturally, Delhi's pride is the nation's pride since—as an editor wrote on Saturday—only Delhi has the credentials to host an international event of this magnitude: the rest of India, presumably, lacks the qualities of international greatness.

India's expensive route to greatness was naturally the Big News of the fortnight. The good and the bad news of the CWG from filthy bathrooms and Lalit Bhanot to the Indian women 4x400 metres relay team and two enforced public holidays overshadowed most of the past fortnight's other developments apart, predictably, from Test cricket. Even bizarre inclusion of Rahul Gandhi in Suresh Kalmadi's thank you list for deigning to watch some events as an ordinary spectator wasglossed over in embarrassing silence.

The preoccupation with the CWG as India's only news resulted in many casualties. They included the Ayodhya verdict, the campaign for the Bihar elections, the political drama in Karnataka and yet another spectacular electoral triumph of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Ayodhya was quietly relegated to the lower orders of the news hierarchy because India had "moved on", the euphemism for the angry realisation that the "rule of law" does not follow the voodoo scholarship of the History faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Where yesterday there was a media clamour to let the courts decide, there were now mutterings of disquiet about faith having hijacked law. Yet, the disquiet was too abstruse for easy public digestion. Nevertheless, there were flashes of anger becoming unmanageable. If some saffron-robed pontiff had dared suggest that the High Court verdict was akin to "panchayati" justice, he would have been hung, drawn, quartered and his intestines fed to the dogs while he watched. But since the opinion was proffered in eloquent, idiomatic English, it was viewed indulgently as a robust critique of a judgment, a part of the legitimate democratic discourse.

The fall of the BJP's southern bastion should also have made big news, if only to celebrate the end of an aberration. After all, until a few years ago, it was conventional wisdom of the editorial classes that Hindu nationalism was too tied up with Hindi nationalism to penetrate the Vindhyas. However, the clumsy Governor H.R. Bharadwaj muddied the waters of what should have been a one-sided outpouring of moral indignation. In the end, the collective editorial judgment was that Bengaluru was just too far away from Delhi.

Jammu and Kashmir could have filled in the void. After all, it is an obsessive concern of those who have carved out their professional reputations through a ruthless exploitation of angst. But two factors argued against the restoration of the "troubled Valley" to the headlines. First, it was felt to be bad form to highlight this unending hiccup at a time when there just too much international gaze on India. However, more important, I get the distinct impression that Middle India hasn't taken too kindly to the lachrymose celebration of the "legitimate grievances" of those who make it their business to rubbish India and everything it stands for. I may well be wrong, but the liberal deification of the Hurriyat Conference isn't appreciated beyond the editorial offices.

This left only one item of news that ended up being completely disregarded: Modi's spectacular sweep of the Gujarat civic body elections. Of India's numerous Chief Ministers, there have been only three who have gone from strength to strength, winning every electoral test: Sikkim's Pawan Kumar Chamling, Orissa's Naveen Patnaik and Gujarat's Narendra Modi. Sikkim is too small to feature on the radar of Delhi; Patnaik has drawing room acceptability but remains a reclusive enigma; and the mere mention of Modi's name is enough to send anchors and editors into delirious frenzy. Yet, had Modi suffered a setback, I have no doubt that every channel and most newspapers would have made an extra effort to highlight the people of Gujarat as another amorphous mass, along with India's sports men and women, who have done India proud. However, since the vote went along predictable lines, it was buried in the 'News in brief' section, along with the bus accident in Uttarakhand and the Delhi belly of the Australian and English swimmers.

Maybe the fault lies with Modi for refusing to be intimidated by those who want to keep the awful memories of sectarian conflict alive at all costs. Maybe Modi shouldn't win so many elections and should concede a victory to the Congress just to break the monotony. Yet, I don't think these will resolve the problems. Modi's problem is that he has been a success in his state both politically and as an administrator. He has retained the trust of the people of Gujarat without genuflecting at the altar of mediacracy: the class that has by sheer default become India's real electors, the Emperor with no clothes.

Sunday Pioneer, October 17, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Imagined histories

The Court watched a parade of the good, the bad and the ugly

By Swapan Dasgupta

When the history of the Ayodhya movement comes to be written, there will be the inevitable search for heroes and villains. The selection will be contentious: one man's hero is, after all, another man's villain. At this interim stage, when the Allahabad High Court verdict has opened a small window of opportunity for an amicable settlement that leaves no side completely dissatisfied, it would help to examine how the beauty parade of the good, the bad and the ugly has been viewed from the Bench.

An exploration of Justice Sudhir Agarwal's voluminous judgment is pertinent in the context of a determined bid by India's vocal Left-wing intelligentsia to rubbish the judgment as a departure from modernity, Constitutionalism and the rule of law. In a statement by 61 'intellectuals' led by historian Romila Thapar, that includes the cream of the Left-Liberal establishment and sundry art dealers, photographers and food critics, the judgment was attacked for dealing yet "another blow to India's secular fabric".

At the heart of the fury of the 'intellectuals' is the court's assault on the reputation of the clutch of 'eminent historians' who have dictated the 'secular' discourse on the Ayodhya dispute. The Court questioned the competence of various 'expert' witnesses and cast doubts on their intellectual integrity.

It was the Archaeological Survey of India report of court-monitored excavations in 2003 of the disputed site which set the cat among the pigeons. After exhaustive hearing s of "all possible angles in the matter so that there may not remain a grievance", the High Court accepted the ASI report which Dr R.C. Thakran of Delhi University, an expert witness for the Sunni Waqf Board, dubbed "an unprofessional document full of gross distortions, one-sided presentation of evidence, clear falsifications and motivated inferences."

Thakran's indignation was understandable. In its conclusion, the ASI submitted that "a massive structure with at least three structural phases and three successive attached with it" was located at the disputed 2.77 acres in Ayodhya. The scale of the buildings indicated that they were for "public" functions. "It was over the top of this construction during the early 16th century the disputed structure was constructed directly resting over it."

Without mincing words, the ASI report had brushed aside the so-called Historians Report to the Nation authored by Professors R.S. Sharma, M. Athar Ali, D.N. Jha and Suraj Bhan released in May 1991. This document was a plea to the Government of India "to include impartial historians in the process of forming judgment on historical facts." As an example of this "impartial" history, it was argued that "The full blown legend of the destruction of a temple at the site of Rama's birth and Sita ki Rasoi is as late as the 1850s. Since then what we get is merely the progressive reconstruction of imagined history based on faith."

Subsequently, as more research pointed otherwise, the goal post was quietly shifted. In her deposition as an expert for the Waqf Board, Aligarh historian Shireen Moosvi suggested that "The legend of Ayodhya being the birthplace of Rama is found from the 17th century, prior to which there is no legend about Rama's birthplace in medieval history." However, during cross-examination Moosvi was also admitted: "It is correct that in Sikh literature this is a tradition that Guru Nanak had visited Ayodhya, had darshan of Ram janmasthan and had bathed in the River Saryu."

A horrific misrepresentation was sought to be covered up without the slightest show of contrition.

A curious feature of the 1991 intervention which emerged from Suraj Bhan's cross-examination was the disinclination of the "imartial historians" to undertake any field work. In his deposition, Bhan stated: "I gave this report in May. I might have gone to Ayodhya in February-March…In my first deposition I may have stated that I had gone to the disputed site before June 1991 for the first time."

Nor was Bhan the only armchair archaeologist. Echoing Moosvi, the medieval historian who felt that "to ascertain whether it is temple or mosque, it was not necessary to see the disputed site", Professor D.Mandal, another expert witness for the Waqf Board, admitted he wrote his Ayodhya: Archaeology After Demolition without even visiting Ayodhya and with an eye to the presidential reference to the Supreme Court. Mandal also admitted that "Whatsoever little knowledge I have of Babur is only that Babur was (a) ruler of the 16th century. Except for this I do not have any knowledge of Babur." Justice Agarwal was sufficiently moved to say about Mandal that "The statements made by him in cross-examination shows the shallowness of his knowledge on the subject."

Shallowness and superficiality are themes that recur. Bhan confessed that the grandly titled Report to the Nation was written under "pressure" in six weeks and "without going through the record of the excavation by B.B. Lal".

The lapse would have put an undergraduate to shame but not the "impartial" historians. During her cross-examination, Suvira Jaiswal, another Waqf Board expert historian, confessed: "I have read nothing about Babri Mosque… Whatever knowledge I gained with respect to the disputed site was on the basis of newspapers or …from the report of historians." Sushil Shrivastava, a "historian" whose bizarre book on Ayodhya secured favourable media publicity and is still cited approvingly by CPI(M)'s Sitaram Yechuri, admitted he had "very little knowledge of history", didn't know Arabic, Persian, epigraphy or calligraphy and had got translations done by his father-in-law. Justice Agarwal was stunned by his "dishonesty".

Once the ASI excavations confirmed that the Babri Masjid wasn't built on virgin land, "impartial" history turned to imaginative history. It was suggested by Suraj Bhan that what lay beneath the mosque was an "Islamic structure of the Sultanate period." D.Mandal went one better suggesting that after the Gupta period "this archaeological site became desolate for a long time". The reason: floods. Supriya Verma contested the "Hindu" character of recovered artefacts from the Kushan, Shunga and Gupta periods—something even Bhan and Mandal had admitted to. These, she said, "could well have been part of palaces, Buddhist structure, Jain structure, Islamic structure." There were also suggestions, never proven or pressed, that the ASI had falsified and suppressed data.

The Court was not amused. Dismissing the unsubstantiated allegations "we find on the contrary, pre-determined attitude of the witness (Suraj Bhan) against ASI which he has admitted. Even before submission of ASI report and its having been seen by the witness, he formed (an) opinion and expressed his views…" Justice Agarwala was "surprised to see in the zeal of helping …the parties in whose favour they were appearing, these witnesses went ahead …and wrote a totally new story" of a mosque under a mosque.

The Judge was unaware of what constitutes "scientific" history in India. In her deposition as an expert in Ancient History, Suvira Jaiswal made an important clarification: "I am giving statement on oath regarding Babri Mosque without any probe and not on the basis of my knowledge; rather I am giving the statement on the basis of my opinion."

She was articulating the prevailing philosophy of history writing in contemporary India. The Courts recoiled in horror at the "dearth of logical thinking" and the underlying cronyism behind the public stands of India's "eminent" historians. Quoting a British Law Lord from an 1843 judgment, it suggested their expertise was "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"—harsh words that civil society needs to remember the next occasion the "impartial" historians strut on the public stage.

The Telegraph, October 15, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Our best game: Chip on my shoulder

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are different explanations as to why the Government of India spent Rs 70,000 crore or more to host the Commonwealth Games. To the cynical, it was an incentive package for the country's burgeoning, public sector-driven 'cash and carry' economy. To political animals, it was aimed at boosting the prospects of Sheila Dikshit, the Delhi Chief Minister who is now inclined to pitch for the Olympics. To parochial Delhiites, the flyovers, expanded metro and upgraded civic infrastructure were about adding value to the proverbial corner plot. And to the insouciant Suresh Kalmadi, the Games were all about himself. According to The Times (London), Kalmadi has gratuitously asked the organisers of the London Olympics to consider contracting his services—presumably with Lalit Bhanot of "different standards of hygiene" fame in tow.

Midway through the proceedings, it is also becoming apparent what the Games are not about. First, it is not about people's participation in an event paid for by taxpayers. The empty stands testify to the fact that the Games are about as people-unfriendly an extravaganza as officialdom and Doordarshan can manage. Secondly, the Games are not about showcasing India's abilities. The colossal displays of incompetence, venality and deceitful conduct have given a new meaning to Incredible India.

Thanks to a dynamic private sector which, mercifully, was relatively uninvolved in the bacchanalia of a decrepit Establishment, India hasn't been totally written off yet but its ego has been deflated. It will take much more than self-congratulatory myth-building to remove the perception that underneath the hype there is still too much of the Third World lingering in India.

Finally, there is one thing this CWG isn't about: the Commonwealth.

The complete detachment of an enterprise from its avowed purpose has never been more marked and more deliberate. The CWG may have had its origins in the British Empire Games of the 1930s but despite the changed circumstances there has always been a common endeavour: to nurture a sense of community through friendship.

The one crucial element missing from the gathering in Delhi is that feeling of fraternity. The CWG could well have been an impersonal package tour of Delhi where visitors arrive, do their number, are treated to a capsuled version of Indian culture, see the Taj Mahal, taste a curry, experience Delhi belly and fly away carrying a T-shirt and memento.

Actually, it's been worse. From the time New Zealander Mike Hooper, CEO of the Commonwealth Games Federation, got into a spat with Kalmadi and Bhanot, and was reviled for being a white man, the behaviour of the Indian hosts has been downright boorish and offensive. A contrived protocol standoff between Prince Charles and President Pratibha Patil unleashed a needless wave of apoplectic xenophobia; Bhanot decided that Australians, Scots and the English were racist fuss pots for demanding clean mattresses and spotless toilets; the governor-general of New Zealand (who is of Indian origin) was needlessly snubbed in Delhi on Thursday with an external affairs ministry boycott of his lunch because some low-life anchor in Auckland had tastelessly caricatured Dikshit`s name; delegations from Africa and the Caribbean were treated peremptorily because they didn't come into the Organising Committee's radar; and it took a formal protest by Uganda to secure an Indian apology for an accident caused by a malfunctioning security barrier.

Nor did civil society do any better. In our bid to show off our culture and achievements we forgot that the diversity of the Commonwealth needed showcasing too. Was there anything done in Delhi to demonstrate to the numerous countries that India too was interested in them? A golden moment to build bridges across the Anglosphere—after all, the Commonwealth is essentially an English-speaking Union—was squandered by an attitude bordering on insular arrogance.

The real irony is that the Commonwealth as we know it today was created at the behest of India. In 1947, it was both Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel who forcefully insisted that India should remain in the Commonwealth, as an independent republic and without being subservient to the Crown. To them, these connections forged by Empire were an asset. It was the parallel desire of the United Kingdom and the Dominions (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and, interestingly, South Africa) to accommodate India that led to the creation of the Commonwealth. The body may not count for much politically, but it has a formidable reach and is an important element in public diplomacy.

Kalmadi, it may be suggested in hindsight, isn't merely an individual; he personifies a mindset. As a supplicant of Kalmadi, official India approached the CWG with a puerile boastfulness that rapidly turned to cussedness once alarm bells started ringing. To many Indians, this cockiness equals national pride; to many outsiders it suggests that India doesn't merely have a chip on its shoulder, it has a chip on both its shoulders.

Sunday Times of India, October 10, 2010

Suppressing voices in China won’t help

By Swapan Dasgupta

What would have happened, it was asked on Twitter last Friday, if someone in the state-controlled media in China had made a tasteless remark similar to what the TV presenter in New Zealand made about Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit? Would the Ministry of External Affairs have summoned the Chinese Ambassador, issued a demarche and snubbed a visiting dignitary?

My own guess is that we would have quietly tut-tutted, stonewalled media inquiries and retreated into the depths of helplessness. When it comes to small fry such as New Zealand, India is willing to live up to the image of Sheru, the Commonwealth Games mascot: a friendly lion but a lion all the same. However, when it comes to China, the natural instinct of the MEA is to look for excuses to avoid baring its manicured fangs.

Of course, there are exceptions. Occasionally, we do get officials and ministers who don't confuse their respect for China's civilisation with abject deference to the ruling establishment of the People's Republic of China. Despite all the dire threats issued by Beijing, the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. And despite signalling that his authority stems from the first family, the Minister of Environment's unmistakable 'give it to China' approach to Arunachal Pradesh's development will not become official policy. India has its Sinophiles but it also has a political class that is not swayed by the dangerous logic of China's approach to the subcontinent.

Yet, because China policy is still unduly influenced by China experts who take their cue from Beijing, it is extremely unlikely that there will be any official Indian reaction to the Nobel committee's decision to award its Peace Prize to the jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.

This is understandable. India is disinclined to wear its commitment to democracy on its sleeve. Unlike the United States which has fetishized its double standards, New Delhi is inclined to respect sovereignty—although this has not prevented our diplomats from proffering gratuitous advice to Israel, the only worthwhile democracy in West Asia. India has its inconsistencies but at least we don't claim to be the custodian of all that is noble in the world.

It is unlikely that either Rashtrapati Bhavan or Race Course Road will be writing a personal message of congratulations to the Nobel Prize winner China continues to regard as a convicted "criminal". The 54-year-old human rights activist was sentenced in December 2009 to 11 years in prison for alleged "subversion". In the Chinese context, it meant that he had questioned the absence of democratic freedoms in China and c-authored "Charter 08", a blistering attack on the crimes of the Communist Party of China. Having attracted nearly 10,000 signatures (mainly of teachers and intellectuals), Charter 08 has come to symbolise the yearning for democracy in China.

However, the understandable wariness of official India to take an official position on an award that Chinese diplomats tried desperately to prevent need not be the last word on the subject. There is nothing to prevent Indian civil society from celebrating the Nobel Committee's recognition of the universality of basic democratic rights.

That the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu, coming two decades after the Dalai Lama had been similarly honoured, is calculated to infuriate Beijing isn't in any doubt. With characteristic Iron Curtain ham-handedness, the Chinese authorities have attempted to black out the news, quite forgetting that censorship doesn't work and, in fact, makes the forbidden item that much more delicious to everyone. Norway has been threatened with retaliation and, who knows, the US too will be threatened because of President Obama's call for Liu's release.

These are routine noises by a regime that, underneath its imperious arrogance, is fundamentally nervous about its own legitimacy. Some two decades ago, Deng Xiaoping had coined the characteristically cryptic phrase "Crossing the river by feeling for stones" to define China's cautious approach to political reforms that can invariably end the CPC's monopoly of power. There were many who felt that rapid economic growth and greater exposure to the capitalist world would ease Communist control. Indeed, it was widely believed that the 2008 Olympics would hasten the process of relaxation. But this has not happened.

In an interview to Daily Telegraph last year, Professor He Weifang, the lead signatory to Charter 08 assessed today's China, using Deng's metaphor: "The situation at the moment is that the river has deepened and the Party has got scared, so it has pulled back fearing that the waters will rise up and drown them. In the last two years this pulling back from the water has got worse."

Whether or not China retreats into the clutches of a nervous dictatorship has a profound bearing on the world. As it has risen to the status of the world's second largest economy, Beijing has become fiercely assertive in its conduct. With growing militarisation, colonisation of the world's mineral and energy resources in a manner reminiscent of Victorian imperialism, and aggression towards its neighbours (Japan got a taste of it last month), it is becoming increasingly apparent that China's unrestrained rise will lead to it wishing to redraw the rules of the game.

This is why it is important that enlightened voices are not suppressed in China. Taiwan has shown that democracy and the Chinese people are fully compatible.

Sunday Pioneer, October 10, 2010


Thursday, October 07, 2010

Mess Management

By Swapan Dasgupta

Mahatma Gandhi is, arguably, the one Indian whose name is likely to have an instant recall anywhere in the world, not least in the countries of the erstwhile British Empire now grouped as the Commonwealth. Yet, ask an average Briton, including the ones who have at least two A-level passes, to write the Mahatma's name and you are likely to be presented with the scrawl "Ghandi". Probe a little further and you may well be told that that the same "Ghandi" was the father of "Indira Ghandi" and the founder of India's most enduring political dynasty.

Given the prevailing mismatch between fact and perception, especially about matters concerning 'foreigners', we need not be unduly harsh on the hapless Suresh Kalmadi for expressing his gratitude to Princess Diana for being present at the grand opening of the Commonwealth Games on October 3. To this go-getting MP for Pune, more accustomed to "managing the environment" ( Dhirubhai Ambani's persuasive explanation for his success in business) than engaging in polite small talk at convivial dinners, knowing the hierarchical difference between the Duchess of Cornwall and the Princess of Wales is not Brash India's overriding priority. As they say in "the Poonjab", Naththa Singh and Prem Singh, one and the same thing.

At a time when India is wallowing in the glory a spectacular cultural extravaganza, many gold medals and an incredible Test victory over Australia, it may seem distinctly unpatriotic to flash the proverbial gutter inspector's report. Indians, as Ian Jack has helpfully reminded us in The Guardian, do tend to leave things till the very last minute. The preparations for the formal inauguration of New Delhi in 1931 were, for example, completed barely "five minutes before closing time." So why blame Sports Minister M.S. Gill for his prescient but nonchalant comparison of the CWG with a Punjabi wedding? If the CWG is, as we have repeatedly been told, all about "national pride", Delhi Chief Minister Shelia Dixit shouldn't be grudged for preening at her own ability to snatch a jugaadu "pass" from the jaws of failure.

The final cost of procuring what in my university days used to be called a 'gentleman's degree' may haunt Indian public finance for many years to come but that, the optimists will say, is a small price for the benefits of a possible real estate boom in Delhi and the creation of many more politically connected millionaires. India lives for the present and the "exemplary punishment" the Prime Minister has promised for those guilty of corruption is unlikely to be a priority of the future. Like the potholes in newly-built roads, the edible will be blended with the inedible, overlaced with pungent spices, and cooked into a khichdi which, at best, will contribute to a bout of Delhi-belly. In the immortal words of Lalit Bhanot, the physical instructor from Delhi University who chose to be the public face of Kalmadi-ism, "the Westerners have different standards; we have different standards; everyone has different standards…"

Bhanot was mercilessly pilloried for his reflections on hygienic standards so much so that he chose to abandon his high public profile. India, it would seem, was being disingenuous. Bhanot may not have the finesse of the Delhi Chief Minister or the disarming candidness of the Union Sports Minister but underneath his gauche bluster he did unwittingly capture the essence of the Indian state's penchant for desi standards, the euphemism for tackiness.

The CWG may well be a facet of the burgeoning 'cash and carry' industry but it has nominally been painted as a bid to showcase resurgent India to the non-US Anglosphere. Instead, we have succeeded in exposing the country's rough edges which no amount of invocation of 5,000 years of culture can iron out.

The imperious overkill that has defined the bandobast would have been national scandals in most evolved democracies. In India, some deft 'media management' has ensured that the focus on sloth and high-handedness has been kept to a bare minimum. It was not a fiercely independent Indian media that exposed the shameful conditions in the Games village: the initial protests were from foreign team managers and the revealing pictures were put on show by the BBC only a day after the domestic media gave the arrangements a hyperbolic thumbs-up.

It needed a pesky foreign media to ask a basic question on Day One of the Games: where are the spectators? The insouciant Kalmadi replied that there were mile-long queues of, presumably, invisible Indians waiting to get into the stadia. By the end of the exchange, wrote the reporter for The Times, Kalmadi "sounded like Monty Python's Black Knight who, on having his limbs hacked off, retorts: Just a flesh wound."

Few Games have been less spectator-friendly and more citizen-unfriendly than the Rs 70,000 crore orgy in Delhi. In the name of traffic management, arterial roads linking Lutyens' Delhi to the satellite towns have been closed for 15 days. On October 3, all markets and offices in the National Capital were forcibly shut down, making Delhi resemble a ghost town. In the name of security, a brusque constabulary has confiscated lipsticks, car and house keys, loose change, pens and even reading material from spectators, thereby making it clear that their very presence of humans constitutes a security hazard. The not-wanted message has been reinforced by cumbersome procedures for the purchase of tickets to events. To cap it all, the state-controlled Doordarshan—a creature that TV viewers have all but forgotten—has used its favoured position to dish out sub-standard coverage reminiscent of the bad old days of socialism.

There is a picture of India that is emerging from the CWG. It is an India defined by inefficiency, venality, non-accountability, shoddiness, brazenness, high-handedness and, above all, gullibility. It is a view that focuses on the biggest impediment to India realising its true potential: a bloated state that has lost its ability to cater to the public good.

Fortunately, there is another India.

Asian Age/ Deccan Herald, October 8, 2010



Saturday, October 02, 2010

Verdict leaves ‘secular intellectuals’ aghast

By Swapan Dasgupta

The suggestion that India has 'moved on' from the turbulent decade of conflict may have become the shorthand for lazy and facile thinking. Yet, there is more than a grain of truth in the deduction that India's priorities have changed significantly in the past 25 years. Last Thursday's High Court judgment on Ayodhya was followed keenly by the entire country. The authorities were apprehensive that the outcome could trigger disturbances and even rioting. But nothing untoward happened either on Thursday or after the Friday prayers. The sound and fury was confined to the tamasha in the TV studios. There were reports of simmering anger in the 'Muslim street' and a few inflammatory sermons from the pulpit but the disquiet, if any, was internalised.

The matter-of-fact way in which India digested the complex High Court judgment suggests three possibilities. Perhaps people just weren't interested—a plausible explanation in a country where the sense of history is feeble. Maybe, people had heeded the Home Minister's advice and were mulling over the verdict's implications—an implausible explanation in an easily excitable country. Finally, it is indeed possible that most of India thought the verdict—particularly the order for a three-way partition of the contentious 2.77 acres—was fair, just and based on the one thing that counts: robust common sense.

The suggestion that the High Court verdict has enjoyed a spectacular degree of popular acceptance runs counter to the indignation in "intellectual" circles. Not since the Supreme Court's Shah Bano verdict in 1986 was rubbished by clerics and some ministers of the Rajiv Gandhi Government has any court judgment been at the receiving end of so much abuse by so few.

Those who till 4 pm on September 28 were solemnly pontificating on the "majesty of the law" and the overriding importance of the Indian Constitution went completely berserk after it became that the Sunni Waqf Board petition had been rejected and that the court had favoured the Ram lalla deity with possession of its perceived janmasthan. The judgment was compared to a "panchayati" order and "majoritarian conceit" and painted as being so outrageous that it destroyed Muslim faith in the judicial process. Additionally, it was pilloried for having reduced Muslims to second class citizens.

It is understandable that those convinced of a favourable verdict were deeply disappointed. Ironically, the intemperate, inflammatory and indecorous language didn't come from the representatives of either the Sunni Waqf Board or the Muslim Personal Law Board. Apart from the MP from Hyderabad's Razakar party who was his usual provocative self, it was the cream of India's liberal chic that went berserk.

Some of the outburst was predictable. Those whom Arun Shourie dubbed the "eminent historians" were understandably agitated that the High Court judges had the effrontery to discount their 'no-temple-ever' assertions in favour of the evidence culled by the Archaeological Survey of India. Their spirited attempt to reclaim the mantle of sole spokesmen for India's past was understandable. If the courts discount their fatwas, it was only a matter of time before the stifled voices of other historians would make their departmental dominance more fragile.

Also following the script was the apoplectic fury of those who had hitherto been the respectable face of secularist modernity. Their apprehension was any possibility that the Hindu and Muslim leaderships would cut a deal above their heads and make redundant their franchise to speak on behalf of the minority. For two days and courtesy some TV channels, the secular modernists attempted to whip up Muslim opinion against the judgment and use the community's apparent displeasure to force the Government into using its proverbial "good offices" with the Supreme Court. The overall idea is to build up an intellectual climate so forceful that the Supreme Court would think it prudent to overturn the High Court judgment.

The provocative, self-preservation tactics of the thekedars of conflict—one 'secular' lady saidthat the Indian state no longer had a social contract with Muslims, an assertion that could well be construed as legitimising terrorism—would have certainly had a disorienting effect had it been backed by community pressure. Without mincing words, the professional secularists are trying to create a fresh communal schism by nurturing minority victimhood. It's a very dangerous game.

Fortunately, India is a country where nothing is really ever perceived in black and white; there are always enough shades of grey to muddy the search for total clarity. There is a constant search for compromise—what is colloquially called 'adjust'—to cope with life's difficulties. True, the quest for harmonious equilibrium does break down occasionally—as it did during the Ayodhya movement—but the desire for unflinching certitudes is usually short-lived.

By coupling the letter of the law with the spirit of reconciliation, the High Court has set the framework of a solution. It is important that Middle India is unflinching in its determination to herald a compromise that accommodates both the desire for a Ram temple and an undisputed mosque. For that it is important to not rise to the secularist provocation and keep faith in the good sense of an India that wants to be at peace with all its citizens. If both the Congress and the BJP can keep its nerve and maintain composure, India will soon be witnessing the end of the Ayodhya dispute.

Sunday Pioneer, October 3, 2010