Monday, June 30, 2014

Why this haste for policies that can wait? Like Hindi. Who is pushing agendas that divide the people?

The Prime Minister complains that he did not get a honeymoon period of even a hundred hours. True. But why? For so careful and calculating a political leader, he allowed too many crisis points to develop in his very first days in office. Like the unconscionable railway rates hike before a finger was lifted to improve safety standards or food hygiene on board. The intensity of public protests rattled the mighty Government; it put off plans to increase gas and kerosene prices. More disturbing than this onslaught on aam aadmis' pockets are the communal crimes that surface in isolated areas. The impression has spread that some agenda is at work, perhaps without government backing but without government disapproval either. The haste with which disruptionist policies are being pushed suggests that the forces behind the agendas are too dogmatic to care about the consequences.

The sudden announcement enforcing Hindi in all dealings by and with the Union Government is a case in point. This must be clearly separated from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to use Hindi at his international meetings. That is a welcome move. If the Japanese and the Russians and the Chinese and the Cubans and the Brazilians speak in their language at summit meetings, there is no reason why the Indians should not. Let Modi speak in Hindi to Xi Jinping because Xi will speak in Mandarin; both are fluent enough in English but both will find their native languages easier for the free flow of thought.

But it is a very different matter when an Indian with roots in Hindi is put above an Indian with roots in another language. That is discrimination pure and simple. Institutionalised discrimination is precisely what the Home Ministry has turned into policy by instructing officials to use only Hindi in social media, address Ministers only in Hindi and write notings in files only in Hindi. Obviously this will give native Hindi-speakers a huge advantage over others. A senior government secretary with good working knowledge of Hindi will be overtaken by a junior colleague whose upbringing has been in Hindi. Employment and promotion opportunities will go up for Hindi people and down for others.To put it simply, the Government move on Hindi is divisive.

India is the world's only multilingual democracy where language divides people instead of uniting them. This is the result of a parochial mindset incapable of understanding the benefits of multilinguism and multiculturalism. Otherwise the political class would have seen how wisely other countries deal with the problem. Switzerland with a population of just 7 million (Bangalore has more than 10 million) gives official status to German, Italian, French and Romansh, all enjoying constitutionally guaranteed equality of status. No chauvinist in one language region attempts oneupmanship over others. Indeed, Switzerland sustains a credible national identity because of its unifying multilingual policy. In Canada English dominance gave way in the 1960s to accommodate the rights of 20 percent Canadians whose mother tongue was French. Today the two-language culture is inspiring more and more Canadians to take to French as a second window to the world.

Asia holds the best lessons for the language zealots of India. Little Singapore has four official languages, Tamil and English receiving as much attention as Chinese and Malay. Big China has a dozen different languages (they are called dialects, but are mutually unintelligible). They are unified, however, by a common script. Mandarin, the official language, has been getting standardised into Putonghua to benefit all regions. Vietnam had a unifying roman script introduced by 17th century missionaries. Nationalist social reformers of the 19th century popularised the diacritic-filled "foreign" script, ensuring one language in effect for all the people.

It is Indonesia's example that stands out. This sprawling chain of islands has 706 "living" languages of which 347 are active and flourishing, compared to our 22 scheduled ones. Java being the most populous island, the Javanese language was the dominant one with its own Arabic script. It was easy, even natural, for the early freedom fighters to adopt Javanese as the official language of the Republic of Indonesia. But they took a conscious decision not to do so. In order to ensure that all citizens had equal opportunities in the new country, they developed a standardised Bahasa Indonesia based on Malay. What's more, they abandoned Javanese script and adopted roman instead. Language was effectively used to weld Indonesia's scattered islands into a nation.

We boast of our civilisation, but we do not act in civilised ways.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Iraq is not just a Sunni-Shia clash; It's a challenge fundamentalist Wahabism is posing to the world

The dimensions of the Iraq crisis began hitting us only when Indian workers were kidnapped and Indian nurses stranded. There is also an awareness now about possible economic disaster if oil prices go crazy. These are grave issues and we must exert every nerve tackling them. But the big danger Iraq poses is ideological. A militant religious force is on a conquering spree and India will be among its prime targets.

Other versions of this religious force were frightening enough. Al-Qaida, conceived by one of the world's richest men, Osama bin Laden, was stridently ideological. Calling on Muslim countries to shed all foreign influences, it proclaimed the goal of creating a worldwide Islamic caliphate based on a rigorous version of the Shariat law. Al-Qaida's call for a global jihad was taken up by other organisations that came in its wake, most noticeably the Taliban. In and around Afghanistan Taliban unleashed barbaric practices. Today even Pakistan has turned against it despite their early collaboration. Following the recent suicide attack on Karachi airport, Pakistan's air force has been bombing the country's frontier regions where Taliban fighters are entrenched.

The sudden eruption of fighting in Iraq is the latest extension of the global-jihad ideology. Because it is Iraq, it is easy to say that the war is yet another showdown between Sunnis and Shias; Iraq is the only Muslim country where the rival factions are almost equal in numbers, Shias having an edge of one or two percentage points over Sunnis. Saddam Husain, the President whom America hanged, was a Sunni. Nouri al-Maliki, present Prime Minister America enthroned, is a Shia. Ironically, the US came up last week with the suggestion that al-Maliki must make way for a Sunni for the sake of peace. The Prime Minister promptly rejected the idea.

It was a woolly-headed idea anyway. Just as America never understood Vietnam despite many years of war, it has not understood Iraq despite the vainglorious Bush War. Those who learn nothing from their mistakes are condemned to repeat them. There is indeed a bloody Sunni-Shia rivalry for dominance in Iraq. Why was this not contained like the bloody Catholic-Protestant rivalry for dominance in Northern Ireland? Both Irish factions received support from influential Western powers; neither was seen in adversarial colours. In West Asia, the US and its allies isolated Iran as an adversary and embraced Saudi Arabia as an ally. That was an error of judgment.

Saudi Arabia's ruling elite has been globally promoting a fanatic ideology, Wahabism, which rejects even non-Wahabi Muslims as un-Islamic. It's like Pentecostal Christians rejecting traditional Churches as un-Christian. (Perhaps both can learn from Hinduism's uniqueness; Hindus can reject all their gods and still remain Hindus). Shia Iran condemns Sunni Wahabism as a threat to Islamic civilisation. But Shias have their own strains of rigidity. Their central belief is that the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, will come to establish a global Islamic caliphate. The way to hasten the Mahdi's coming is to annihilate Israel, the Little Satan. (The Great Satan is the US).

Iran's vehement opposition to Israel is the main reason for the US to see it in inimical terms. But Iran does not have an evangelical programme spread around the world to convert people to its ideology. That is Saudi Arabia's area of attention. Western condonation has enabled an ideological and far-reaching Wahabi campaign to gain speed, spread fundamentalism in Muslim as well as other countries and elevate jihadism as a religious duty. The campaign is visibly successful in previously tolerant Islamic countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and in various parts of India. The US has not yet got the message. So the radicalisation of Islam proceeds unchallenged to the detriment of others including non-fundamentalist Muslims.

India too sees Saudi Arabia as an honoured ally. This is as it should be. But it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that radical Islamist evangelism is strong in India. This is new in a tradition that saw Islamic scholars, artists and musicians contributing immensely to the cultural growth of India, and continue to do so. The extremists ignore this rich past and focus on narrow partisan issues. Partition itself is held against India. The demolition of Babri Masjid provoked the spirit of revenge among many fundamentalists abroad. They must have been incensed by the BJP coming to power in India, especially under a Prime Minister whom they hold guilty for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Wahabi victory in Iraq may well fire them into renewed action.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Congress may bravely claim the Pandava legacy, but Pandavas had no private High Command

Meanwhile, what's happening in the Congress-ruled states? In the gush of the Narendra Modi cultural revolution, we tend to forget that some states are still under governments with the High Command mindset. Mallikarjun Kharge scored a debating point with his valiant reminder that the Pandavas got the better of the numerically formidable Kauravas. In defence, Narendra Modi could only quote Duryodhana which further emphasised Kharge's point. However, Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre moral codes reigned supreme; there was never any question of a High Command answerable to no one. Today even servile Congressmen know that it was the High Command culture that made the general public disgusted with the Congress. The party may indeed live to fight another day. But the idea that a family has the right to rule a billion Indians has come a cropper. The High Command is a dead horse.

Politeness demands that we should not flog a dead horse. But management gurus have a different take on the subject. They say, and not entirely in jest, that there are at least 21 strategies that can be considered when a horse is dead. Three or four will suffice to give us a feel of the strategies proposed. For example: Appoint a committee to study the horse; Go on a world tour to see how others ride dead horses; Start a training course to improve riding skills; Get high quality whips for flogging.

Flogging the rider who flogged the horse to death would be the most logical thing to do. The BJP is counting on the Congress not to consider this as an option despite disgruntled voices here and there. It knows one more thing about the Congress -- that this is a party that will learn nothing from experience. This explains the BJP's slogan: Achche din aanewale hain. The Congress believes that achche din never left it since it remains in power in a few pockets as a hangover of previous elections.

What a dreadful picture those pockets present. In Maharashtra which goes to the polls in four months, the Congress is in a mess. Prithviraj Chavan has proved that it is not enough for a chief minister to be clean; he also has to be strong and calculating and daring. Minister Rane has openly rebelled and stopped attending cabinet meetings. As for Sharad Pawar's NCP, a partner in Government, the good days are over primarily because of nephew Ajit Pawar's arrogance and publicly expressed contempt for ordinary people. Similarly, Raj Thackeray's hooliganism has lost its bite, leaving the original Shiv Sena the only claimant for parochial loyalties. Its alliance with the BJP will be the most likely beneficiary in the coming Assembly elections.

Haryana's Congress Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda lost all credibility after the Robert Vadra land scandals hit the headlines. The Congress got only one out of ten seats in this election compared to nine last time. He too is being openly attacked from within, the leader of the rebellion being Kumari Selja, famous for her closeness to Sonia Gandhi.

In the South Karnataka and Kerala have been the Congress's bastions. Chasing scandals that led to his imprisonment, B. S. Yeddyurappa gifted Karnataka to the Congress. Lacking the will to govern, the Congress is in the process of gifting the state back to the BJP. Tainted leaders have deprived the party of the credibility it could have won. Besides, a Congress minister campaigned to defeat a Congress parliamentary candidate. The tragedy is that there is no third choice for the good people of Karnataka.

The same tragedy faces the good people of Kerala. The current Congress Government triggered more scandals than any Congress Government in the past -- which is saying a lot. Voters would have easily handed power back to the traditional alternative, the CPI-M and its allies. But the CPI-M has run into an unprecedented wave of public revulsion. With a history of leaders who were darlings of the people, the party is led today by a person who is perhaps the most disliked political figure in the state - disliked for his haughtiness, his strong-arm policies, his foul language. The Congress, with all its warts, is safe with a CPI-M that digs its own grave.

Is little Kerala going to be the mighty Congress's only refuge by default? The answer will depend on (a) whether Modi will fulfil popular expectations and (b) whether communal incidents will be nipped in the bud or allowed to spread through a conspiracy of inaction. Wait. Watch. Hope.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Caste reflects the genius of India, said Gandhi. Beware of Gandhi, said Ambedkar. Who wins?

Gracious words in print and speech marked Jawaharlal Nehru's 50th death anniversary recently. Narendra Modi himself, a day after taking oath as Prime Minister, twittered his respects on the departed leader's punya tithi. It's good to be mindful of history, respect the past and generally be civilised. But reality floats above sentiment. And the reality is that historical interest in Jawaharlal Nehru has all but vanished while that in Mohandas Gandhi and Bhimrao Ambedkar is rising spectacularly.

It's like a reversal of the story of India. The global appeal of Nehru's glamour was a phenomenon from the 1940s up until the early 1960s. At that time Gandhi appeared to the world either as a "half-naked fakir" or as a dreamer who wanted India to shun industry and remain a congregation of villages. Ambedkar did not count outside the Constituent Assembly. How things changed in a few years. Today books are coming out one after another on Gandhi and Ambedkar while authors seem to have forgotten Nehru. In terms of popular as well as academic interest, we'll have to say that Nehru is dead. We cannot say that about Gandhi and Ambedkar. They are not only alive but kicking.

As irony would have it, the two icons were ideological enemies. Each detested the social-political philosophy of the other. When few dared to take a public stand against Gandhi, Ambedkar fought him relentlessly. It is no surprise therefore that two new books on Ambedkar are as much on Gandhi as on Ambedkar. Narendra Jadhav's Ambedkar: Awakening of India's Social Conscience is a collection of Ambedkar's speeches and writings. Annihilation of Caste, described as "the annotated critical edition", presents a speech Ambedkar was to deliver at a Hindu reformist organisation's meeting in Lahore in 1936 but did not because the group considered portions of it "unbearable". Ambedkar later published it on his own. Now it is republished not only with annotations but also with a fiery introduction by Arundhati Roy.

The Lahore group was not alone in finding Ambedkar's thoughts unbearable. Many still bristle at his statements like, "inequality is the soul of Hinduism". When Gandhi talked primarily about winning freedom from the British, Ambedkar put social reform on the agenda. He condemned Gandhi's stated belief that caste represented the genius of India and was a natural order of society. His 1945 book What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables left nothing to the imagination. "Beware of Gandhi", said a chapter heading. Ambedkar's scholarly approach gave a cutting edge to his arguments. Pointing out that political revolutions by Chandragupta Maurya, Shivaji, and Guru Nanak were all preceded by social revolution, he said: "The emancipation of the mind and the soul is a necessary preliminary for the political expansion of the people".

Narendra Jadhav claims that his book is an "intellectual biography" of Ambedkar, repeating the claim and the phrase several times in his preface. Actually it is neither intellectual nor a biography. Its usefulness is that it presents in one handy volume a compendium of Ambedkar's ideas. More organised and polished is Annihilation because (a) the annotations are provided by S. Anand, co-author of an earlier graphic biography of Ambedkar, and (b) Arundhati Roy's rigorously researched introduction is 125 pages long with her notes and bibliography taking another 38.

No one will grudge Arundhati taking more space than Ambedkar. Her juxtapositions, examples and arguments are as sparkling as her language. And provocative. She goes as far as to question the bonafides of Gandhi's politics in South Africa. If Ambedkar said that "to the untouchables Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors", Arundhati says: "For a writer to have to use terms like Untouchable, Schedule Caste, Backward Class, Other Backward Classes to describe fellow human beings is like living in a chamber of horrors".

The fact remains that six decades after independence the chamber of horrors has expanded under the impetus of adult franchise. On the one hand, there are politicians and parties that have built entire careers -- and fortunes -- on the basis of caste. On the other, rape has caught on as the preferred way for castes and khap panchayats to show off their power. Add to it the Sangh Parivar's tactical shift from Brahminism to OBC inclusiveness, an electoral necessity. Ambedkar who was vilified as a 'false god' by presumed BJP intellectuals is now held up as an idol. For all that, casteism marches on, brutal, unstoppable. Could it be that while Ambedkar lives, his cause is dead?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Men die, ideas don't. Now is a good time to look at reality through the eyes of great men

To amend the poet slightly: The words of great men all remind us that we can make our land sublime. Ideas expressed and counsel given by some great thinkers sound extraordinarily apt at this moment of change in our country. The opportunity that knocks at the doors of the new leaders is unprecedented. Yet, the political class remains in their retrograde mindset, winners manoeuvring for positions and losers refusing to face the facts that made them unwanted. We the people need a moment of respite and what better way to ensure it than by letting the words of great men waft over us.

Francis Bacon (died 1626) reminded us: "Men in great places are thrice servants: Servants of the sovereign or state, servants of fame, and servants of business: so they have no freedom, neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times. It is a strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others, and lose power over a man's self".

Henry Fielding (d. 1754) wrote An Essay on Nothing, arguing that there was nothing falser than the old proverb that Shakespeare translated as Nothing comes from nothing. (Which Julie Andrews later immortalised in The Sound of Music. Interestingly Indian philosophy celebrates fullness rather than nothingness with the unique Purnamadah Purnamidam opening lines of the Isha Upanishad: That is full, this is full. From that fullness, this fullness removed or added, fullness remains).

Fielding postulates that in fact Nothing proceeds from everything and that the wise man must regard Nothing with awe and admiration "for then we won't be cheated. The virtuous, wise and learned may then be unconcerned at all the changes of ministries and government; since they may be well satisfied that ministers of the state are rogues themselves, and have inferior knavish tools, to bribe and reward, true virtue, wisdom, learning, wit and integrity will most certainly bring their possessors - Nothing".

T. N. Madan, (b. 1933) internationally honoured sociologist, delivered a lecture in Boston in 1987. Choosing the theme, The Prospects of Secularism in India, he said: "I submit that in the prevailing circumstances secularism in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis of state action impracticable, and as a blueprint for foreseable future impotent. It is impossible as a credo of life because the great majority of the people of South Asia are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious faith. It is impracticable as a basis for state action either because Buddhism and Islam have been declared state or state-protected religions or because strands of religious neutrality or equidistance is difficult to maintain since religious minorities do not share the majority's view of what this entails for the state. And it is impotent as a blueprint for future because, by its very nature, it is incapable of countering religious fundamentalism and fanaticism."

Jayaprakash Narayan, the eternal socialist, do-gooder and dreamer, did not share Mahatma Gandhi's interest in mixing politics with the traditions of religion. He was closer to Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime promoter of secularism, in this respect. However, he visited an RSS training camp in Patna in 1977. Speaking there, JP referred to Hinduism's catholicity, how "those who put faith in Vedas and even those who decry them are [accepted as] Hindus. In fact the word Hindu is not an ancient one and is not found in any of the ancient books. It was other people who spoke 's' as 'h' and 'Sind' as 'Hind' who called us Hindu. In fact it had nothing to do with any religion and had only a geographical connotation."

Finally some sobering words from one of the greatest philosophers and controversialists of the 20th century, C.E.M. Joad (d.1953). Arguing that fascism bases itself on the idealist concept of the state according to which "the being of the state is a moral being", Joad quotes Wagner, the Bavarian Minister of the Interior, as saying: "What Hitler decides is right and will remain eternally right. Whatever is useful to the German people is right; whatever is harmful is wrong". Joad concludes: "Not only is the state not bound by the morality of which it is itself the source in its relations with its own citizens; it is exempt from moral obligations in its dealings with other states".

In short, idealism is harmful, secularism is impossible, Nothing is Everything, and those who get power lose their liberty. Strange world, strange humans.