Monday, February 24, 2014

Linguism: Nehru, Patel, Rajaji were ignored, Feroze Gandhi's words have gone waste

Andhra Pradesh was born after Potti Sriramulu sacrificed his life in 1952. A fulfilment achieved at such high cost is now abandoned to be replaced by two different entities. Linguism's fatal attraction to Andhra thus continues, pulling it from one emotional precipice to another, pitting its people against themselves and holding up progress at multiple levels. This is a game of politicians, by politicians, for politicians. The people are just pawns; they stand to gain nothing while losing much.

The issue is not Telangana or Hyderabad's capital status. The issue is our country's fall from democracy to disorder. The Government added its own disgraceful contribution by disregarding procedural rules, showing undue haste in bulldozing things through and, astonishingly, contriving a 'technical hitch' that blocked television coverage. A "House adjourned" card appeared on TV screens when the House had not in fact adjourned. This must be the first time when Parliament officially broadcast an official lie.

Our founding fathers had foreseen this. Mahatma Gandhi was an ardent advocate of linguistic reorganisation, arguing that language was the basis of identity. But his closest colleagues had strongly disagreed. Jawaharlal Nehru warned: "Linguistic provinces are the limbs of the whole body of India. If each limb functions as it likes, there is bound to be chaos." Sardar Patel bluntly said that linguistic division "constitutes a grave danger to national integration and consolidation." Rajaji sounded the alarm without hesitation: "India may be compelled to go through a period of political anarchy and face the risk of fascism, which is Nature's way out of disaster and misrule." Prophetic words.

B.R. Ambedkar as usual had his own perspective on the subject. In a 1955 treatise called Thoughts on Linguistic States, he cited a passage from a US author on the American Commonwealth: “A few years ago the American Protestant Episcopal Church was occupied at its annual conference with the issue of revising its liturgy. It was thought desirable to introduce among the short-sentence prayers a prayer for the whole people. An eminent New England Divine proposed the words, 'O Lord, bless our Nation.' Accepted one afternoon on the spur of the moment, the sentence was brought up the next day for reconsideration. So many objections were raised to the word 'Nation' as imposing too definite a recognition of national unity. The word was dropped and instead there were adopted the words 'O Lord, bless these United States.'” Ambedkar then added: “India is not even mentally or morally fit to call itself the United States of India. The Union of India is far, far away from the United States of India. But the consolidation of the North and the balkanisation of the South is not the way to reach it.” (That last reference was to the creation of gigantic states in the North where UP alone had a population of 6.32 crore and Bihar 3.85 crore.The largest state in the South was Madras with just 3 crore people).

Ironically relevant today are the words of Feroze Gandhi whose eminence as a parliamentarian is forgotten in the dynastification of the family he fathered. The man who exposed the first big scam in independent India (the LIC Mundhra Scam) also piloted the bill that removed unnecessary restrictions on the reporting of parliamentary proceedings. Said Feroze: “For the success of our parliamentary form of Government and democracy, and so that the will of the people shall prevail, it is necessary that our people should know what transpires in this House. This is not your House, or my House, it is the House of the people... These people have the right to know what their chosen representatives say and do. The extent to which democracy has succeeded can be judged by the extent to which we have successfully compelled the Government to function in the full limelight of publicity.” Say that to the technical-hitch experts of Lok Sabha TV, to the MLAs who went topless in the UP Assembly, those who slapped the Marshall in Kashmir Assembly.

O Lord, bless these Hopefully-To-Be-United States of India.

Monday, February 17, 2014

People who shame the country become heroes at home. What's this democracy worth?

Everyone was shocked by the criminalities in Parliament last week, but was anyone surprised? And does anyone believe that this is the last time such scenes of shame will be seen in the House? Our politics turned criminal when criminals turned politicians many moons ago. All parties were guilty in this. All parties conspired to protect criminal MPs. They even tried to subvert the Supreme Court ruling that people in jail or police custody should be disqualified from contesting elections. When you sow the wind, what can you reap but the whirlwind?

Amorality flourished because the guilty were never punished. Eleven MPs were caught on camera in 2005 accepting bribes for asking questions in Parliament. They came from BJP, the Congress, the Lalu Party and the Mayawati Party. In 2007 a BJP MP was arrested while using family passports to smuggle a woman and a boy to Canada. In this case at least an arrest took place because the crime was detected at the airport. Otherwise guilty MPs get away with a suspension or a warning. In last week's case of criminal rioting in the well of the House, 16 MPs were suspended. For five days. Big deal.

If the latest mayhem proves anything, it is that the rights and wrongs of the Telangana issue are no longer relevant. It is electoral politicking alone that matters. It was so from the time in 2009 when an imprudent Chidambaram injudiciously announced that the Government was ready to start the process of forming a Telangana state. This was a bid to gain votes for the Congress at least in the Telangana region, having lost the rest of Andhra by antagonising the Rajasekhara Reddy Congress as well as the Telugu Desam. In the event, the Congress antagonised its own leaders in the state. Telangana partisans, too, were getting disillusioned because of the lack of any traction on Chidambaram's promise. With the Chief Minister and several Congress MPs and MLAs choosing to oppose their own party and with Telangana leaders feeling let down, the Congress faced the prospect of becoming a zero-seat party in Andhra Pradesh. Hence the desperate hurry with which the bill was sought to be introduced in Parliament. Hence, also, the desperate tactics adopted by "united Andhra" protagonists to block the bill.

The irony is that there was ample warning about the protagonists planning drastic action on the bill-presentation day. Intelligence agencies had actually predicted violence in the House. All that the authorities did was to provide the Watch and Ward with blankets and fire extinguishers to meet exigencies. Government floor managers arranged to send "physically strong" Congress MPs to the well of the House to tackle riotous Andhra MPs. Even ministers were involved in the fighting that followed. In the end, as a tribute to this culture of criminalised democracy, victory belonged to the pepperman and the knifeman; the nation condemned them but they became heroes in their constituencies. Isn't that what matters to the votes-at-any-price political class?

Indian democracy was critically wounded when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency dictatorship in 1975. Some subsequent developments gave rise to hopes of a miraculous recovery. But these quickly evaporated; it became clear that the very DNA of political culture had changed during the Indira years. Thus the acceptance of the dynasty idea in many parties. What we have now is the body of democracy, with the soul missing. The vile and the vicious become "elected representatives of the people", betraying the people who elect them and defaming the country that sustains them. Our Parliament has become a national shame.

Note that the BJP squarely blames the Congress for all that happened. The Congress blames the BJP. No one calls for the stern steps which alone are relevant at this point. Members who go to the well of the House must be suspended for the rest of the session. Those who use "self-defence" devices like pepper spray must be disqualified from contesting elections. And please stop VIP privileges to MPs in airports and airplanes even if Dishonourable Members spray the cabin with teargas.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Other countries do something about racism; our indifference grievously harms India

The question is not whether India is racist; the question is to what extent India is racist. Biases of a racial kind have always been a feature of our public life. Sometimes they were brushed aside as clowning, like Sardarji jokes; North Indian derision for "Madrassis" was dismissed by southerners as another instance of the northerners' ignorance. Sometimes it went out of control, like Shiv Sena's violence against South Indians first and now against Biharis. But the most injurious manifestation of Indian racism is against fellow citizens from north-east and against Africans. This will grievously harm India, by encouraging secessionist thoughts in north-eastern India and by making India a hated name in economically burgeoning Africa.

It's all very well to say that there is racism in all countries. But most other countries do something about it. The fight against Apartheid in South Africa is now part of the history of political heroism. In America the northern half went to war against the southern half over the issue of slavery. Subsequently "Negroes" themselves elevated the struggle to an art form, with the "Black is Beautiful" movement on one side and, on the other, with a national hero like Cassius Clay leaving discrimination-promoting Christianity to become Mohammed Ali.

The problem with racism in India is that the system does nothing to counter it. In fact it promotes it for foolish electoral gains and by sheer incompetence. Partition left the north-eastern states separated from India except for an umbilical chord-like corridor. The physical isolation demanded special attention, but governments from Jawaharlal Nehru's days failed to understand the implications of geography. Migration from West Bengal and Bangladesh, allowed by the authorities for vote-bank politics, turned the locals in Tripura into a minority; Assamese-speakers in Assam who were, naturally, the overwhelming majority in their state became simply the largest group. Small wonder that there are 26 active armed groups in the north-east. In five states armed separatist movements are active.

Never showing any interest in addressing the region's problems, the Centre merely doled out money, accounting for a quarter to more than half of the GDP of each state. This turned the local governments into clients of the Centre and prevented any meaningful economic progress. Result: Thousands of local people, English-educated and modernistic and capable, went to other parts of India looking for employment. In Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab and above all in Delhi, they became easy prey to racist Indians.

The beating to death of Nido was in broad daylight. The shopkeepers who teased him and then attacked him were identified. But the police took no action for days. Then came the twist that there was no conclusive proof that Nido died of the beating. Time for another movie: "No one killed Nido". This was typical of Delhi and Delhi police. In 2005 Delhi University announced a dress code for women students from the north-east avowedly to help them avoid sexual harassment. When BRICS nations held a summit in Delhi last year, the police harassed Assamese, Manipuris, Mizos, Meghalayans et al in buses, roads and houses until they produced documents to prove their citizenship status; they were mistaken for Tibetan refugees.

Delhi is a cruel place. As novelist Rana Dasgupta says in his acclaimed new biography of the city, Capital: A Portrait of 21st Century Delhi, if there is an earthquake in Delhi or if the water supply stops, people will not help but slaughter one another. A writer's resort to picturesqueness? Not if we see things in the perspective of recurring attacks on innocents, of negative stereotyping of non-Hindi speakers, of the way successive governments have competed to make north-easterners feel alienated from "mainland India".

Unlike earlier atrocities, the killing of Nido has shocked the whole nation, "mainlanders" included. But the politicians merely make predictable noises about action. Perhaps they should note that Nido was from Himachal Pradesh, a state that China claims. A sensible India would do everything possible to make Himachal Pradeshis feel happy and proud about being Indian. Targetting them is tantamount to helping China's aggressive designs. Which is stupid.

Monday, February 3, 2014

China beats us in the corruption game, but a new crackdown is on. What's it about?

Chinese media is full of reports about action being taken against corrupt officials. If it's any consolation, their punishment of the guilty and our non-punishment have the same effect: Corruption goes merrily on. New President Xi Jinping appears to be more serious about fighting corruption than his predecessors were. He is no crusader in the Arvind Kejriwal mould. Also, given the size of the country and the deep roots of corruption, his chances of success are as unpromising as Kejriwal's.

Historical circumstances gave a certain inevitability to the spread of corruption in China, as in India. In both countries, the generation that won independence looked upon corruption as something that was not good. That prudence vanished when Deng Hsiaoping opened the gates of market liberalisation with the slogan, "To be rich is glorious" -- and when Indira Gandhi's Emergency suspension of constitutional rights broke the moral foundations of governance, made worse by her proclamation that corruption was a universal phenomenon. It has been a free-for-all in both countries ever since.

That corruption is massive enough to eat up the soul of China's economic progress is not disputed. Every dirty trick we are familiar with in India is routine practice in China -- on a larger scale, if we can imagine such a thing. Teachers take bribe for giving admission to schools, doctors for performing surgery, judges for favouring litigants, journalists for writing stories. According to a Central Bank report, some 18,000 corrupt officials have fled China with US$ 120 billion with them. Among them was a railway official who stole $ 2.8 billion and scooted.

Headline-grabbing cases had surfaced even before Xi. Look at the stars who were punished for corruption in 2008: Former head of China's nuclear power agency, former Chairman of the state-owned oil company, former mayor of the industrial city of Shenzen, head of Beijing's capital airport (who was executed). But Xi has put under house arrest preparatory to more severe action a party official who was often considered mightier than the President -- Politburo member Zho Yongkang former boss of the country's powerful security setup. Action against a leader as formidable as Zho could lead to what China-watchers describe as a "political earthquake". Evidently Xi Jinping feels secure enough to face earthquakes. Within a year of becoming President, he has already concentrated in himself more power than any of his predecessors. There have been other Presidents who were simultaneously party general secretary and chief of the all-important Central Military Commission. But Xi is also head of a powerful newly created National Security Council and another committee in charge of economic planning and implementation. And don't forget, purges and punishments of party officials in China are often an extension of internal power struggles. Clearly Xi reigns supreme.

It is to China's credit, however, that in the midst of power struggles and corruption, it ensured that its economic and military growth was higher and faster than any other country's. This was achieved at a price -- environmental destruction, pollution, social unrest -- that democracies will find difficult to pay. Perhaps the leadership has recognised that the time has come to pay attention to problems it had ignored all these years.

This is where President Xi's campaign seems to have dimensions beyond just corruption. The way China progressed, provincial party leaders acquired muscle power strong enough to defy the centre. The case of the party boss of Chungqing, Bo Xilai, showed the centre's resoluteness in destroying such challenges. He was considered powerful enough for top leadership. But last October he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Such tough political action as well as badly needed changes in economic policies can be undertaken by the central leadership only if it buttresses its position with measures that invite public approbation. President Xi's affability and the popularity of his singer wife have made him a kind of people's President. The campaign against corruption will give that popularity a solid base. If he succeeds in at least preventing the further growth of corruption, he could well achieve a place in history.