Tuesday, 10 November 2015

What Bihar means

The Harvest of Hubris: Kachhe din jaane waale hain

“Bahati Hawa sa thha woh, Gujarat se aaya thha woh, kaala dhan laane wala thha wo, kahan gaya use doondho. Humko desh ki fikr sataati hai, woh bus videsh ke daure lagaate hain, humko badhti mahangai satata, wo bas mann ki baat sunata. Har waqt apni selfie khinchta thha woh, Dawood ko laane wala thha woh, kahan gaya use dhoondo…” 

- Nitish Kumar,  parodying in an election speech a song from the film  Three Idiots

It must have been a sullen birthday for Advani Ji on Sunday. And it will be a dull Deepawali for the Sangh Parivaar, their thunder stolen by the unlettered gwaalaas of Bihar, the former’s greedily anxious patronage of the cow notwithstanding. 

I first came to live in Delhi when I was 16. I was born (in Arrah) and raised in Bihar. It is the part of the earth I still feel closest to. From childhood we were raised on the adage Arrah jeela (zila) ghar baa toh kauun baat ke darr baa? (If Arrah is your home, what can you possibly be afraid of?)

After spending some time traveling in Bihar some weeks before the polls, including a 45-minute meeting with a very self-assured, but watchful Nitish Kumar, I became quite sure that Modiji will meet his match soon. Before the last phase of the polls in November I told a number of people that the Mahagathbandhan would win by a two-thirds majority. Only Laloo himself was crazy enough to make such a prediction. Many went sleepless for a few nights, thinking of Chanakya’s prediction of 155 seats for the NDA. And on the morning of the counting the bluff masters and omniscienti in the national media began counting the NDA’s chickens long before they had hatched. In the event, it was Laloo’s 190 seats for the MGB which came closest to the final result, especially if you take into account the 12 seats that went to candidates other than those of the NDA and the MGB, in which case Laloo's prediction was uncannily spot on! Something for our national pundits and know-all metropolitan journalists to ponder. A thoroughly well-deserved drubbing for the NDA.

It is backward Bihar that has saved India again. Consider the opposite verdict as a counterfactual: Had Modi-Shah’s NDA won 178 seats out of 243, we could have reasonably expected the Indian Constitution to be imperilled by the ruthlessly ambitious communal hate-mongers, their eyes set firmly on winning a similar majority in UP in 2017 and seizing control of the Rajya Sabha - all that stands between them and the rape of the Constitution. Instead Modi-Shah and the RSS find their Ratha-Yatra blocked yet again by the nearly forgotten Laloo Prasad Yadav, back from long political wilderness to haunt the Parivaar’s dreams like a bad penny. His RJD finds itself the single biggest party in the assembly with 80 seats. In the last assembly the party had just 23. It explains in some measure why the BJP-led NDA, which had tasted success in 172 of the 243 assembly constituencies in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, was struck down to a paltry 53.

What does this widely unexpected turn of events mean?

The DNA of the NDA

One thing it clearly means is just how much more politically astute is the unlettered, largely rural, Bihari janta than the educated classes of metropolitan India. Love and hate are passions which any honest human heart can divine. It does not take education. On the contrary, as we often find, it may hinder a clear view of the truth. Bihar has demonstrated this abundantly. If political sagacity lies in recognising the perfidy of a power that seeks to divide a people for political gain, Bihar has it in greater measure than any other part of India. (The Bihar polls also featured over 2000 third gender voters. Wonder how that will compare with an election in the US or the UK!)

While it is true that Nitish’s governance and developmental achievements over the last decade weighed significantly in the voters’ minds, caste, community, and the urgent need for communal harmony and decency in public life have played the decisive role in this election. Campaigning for the RJD candidate at an election rally at Keoti earlier this month, Nitish Kumar said: “Prem aur sadbhav banaye rakhiye. Tarah tarah ke log jhagda lagane ki koshish karenge, ek kanphukwa (rumour-monger) ghoom raha hai. Sama mein jahar gholne ki koshish karenge, haddi phek denge, murti tod denge, mara suar phek denge dharmik sthalon ke paas. Inke uksane se sachet rahiyega.” ("Maintain harmony and peace. People will try to create trouble of every kind. A rumour monger has been doing the rounds. Attempts will be made to poison the atmosphere by throwing bones, breaking idols, leaving dead pigs near religious places. Remain alert, do not get provoked.")

Bihar is perhaps unique in that it has hardly had a communal riot during the last 25 years. The RSS plan of “uniting” Hindus (against all others) across the country has bitten the dust in Bihar, perhaps setting the tone for the rest of the country. Their view that reservations ought to be purely along economic lines betrays a typically modern lack of understanding of the socio-economic complexity of jaati-vyavastha. This is not to endorse the idea of caste in the slightest. It is only to remember the occupational historical correlate of jaati for most Indians and to underscore what should be the bleeding obvious: as the Patel agitation in Gujarat showed, the demand for reservations in education and jobs is only going to get more bitter as the crisis of unemployment (which, a vast amount of data suggests, is impossible to address within the economic framework of the reigning development model) gets worse over the next few decades. This will put paid to any attempt at “Hindu” unity. RSS Hindutva idealism has read the ground completely wrong, leading to electorally costly repeated blurts from the pulpits of Nagpur by sarsanchaalak Mohan Bhagwat. To address the jobs question within the Hindutva ideology is likely to prove utterly difficult, if not impossible, especially since folks like those in the Swadeshi Jaagaran Manch have been totally sidelined by the Modi Manch (of three). When you couple this with the unfettered corporate investment agenda of Modi’s, the writing is on the wall for the present rulers of India. India refuses to shine like this, a lesson they should have learned from the 2004 debacle. Given the depth and range of interests at play, they are unlikely to learn it this time either.

Bihar is also, at a deeper level, a vote against hatred in public life. What we have witnessed over the last six weeks was easily the most vicious of all electoral campaigns in the history of Independent India. Desperate to win at all costs, the NDA went hell for broke in its attempt to communalise and polarise the electorate, divide, for instance, Dalits and Yadavs from Muslims, and Yadavs among themselves. Even Modiji outdid himself when it came to lowering the standards of public speech, especially for a serving Prime Minister. Early in the campaign he found “some problem with Nitish Kumar’s DNA”, a remark which alone may have cost him more than a few seats. At a recent rally in Buxar, keen to divide the opposition’s votes, he did not pause to think before accusing the grand coalition of plotting to reduce quotas for SCs, STs and OBCs in order to benefit “a particular community”. Rabble-rousers like Giriraj Kishore went to the extent of saying “Lalu says that (you should) throw meat in a Durga temple”. Lead campaigner and BJP President Amit Shah said that if Nitish’s coalition won, firecrackers would go off in Pakistan. (There were actually many more in India!) And so on. 

The venom and poison that has been unleashed during the last year should make anyone wonder if this is a civilised society any more. The hate brigade reintroduced a vicious form of beef politics in recent months, leading to the lynching of an innocent man last month, the Prime Minister maintaining a typically cowardly silence. It is not for love of the cow, but for love of the power that the pretence of protecting it is seen to give that the beleaguered animal has found such enthusiastic patrons in recent months. Nobody should miss the point that the surge in beef politics during the last couple of months was scarcely coincidental. It was prime-timed for the Bihar elections. (This happened despite Nitish repeatedly drawing attention to the fact that cow slaughter had been banned in Bihar since 1955). You will see the hype come down sharply now. The attempt was to divide the large Yadav vote in the process. In the event, the divisive tactic proved counter-productive, one more instance of the alertness of the ordinary voter in the state. One finds it hard to imagine if a region like Haryana or Western UP would have responded with the same sagacity.  

The MGB’s victory in Bihar restores the idea of India to its pristine dignity, an idea wounded and imperilled seriously over the last 18 months by a hate-inspired leadership hypocritically more keen to see a Mahabharata than an Akhand Bhaarat.

Fortunately, every seductive slogan of Modiji’s - beginning with the ridiculous DNA slur - was turned around by his Bihari opponents into a jumlaawaar which fractured the NDA strategy. He was outwitted fair and square.

Bihar backward?

It is time people stopped considering Bihar “backward”. Without making any apologies for the rampant corruption (as much a feature of other places), it is important to keep in view the fact that Bihar has been systematically denied its due share of Central funds over the past 25 years, affecting its performance more than any other state perhaps (the dues going into hundreds of thousands of crores, Modiji offering a small fraction of it, as if from his own private kitty), because it has always faced a hostile government in Delhi in these recent decades.

There is also something else to consider. During our meeting with him Nitish Kumar expressed the view that provincial elections in no other part of the country inspire as much wide national interest as a Bihar election. Why is this so?

Bihar has always led the curve in Indian politics, all the way since Gandhiji’s Champaran Satyagraha in 1916, through the JP movement and the revolt against the Emergency in the mid-1970s, to the Mandal agitation and Laloo’s stopping of Advani’s Rath-Yatra in the early 1990s. For anyone who knows the socio-political ground in Bihar (and retains a deep distrust of the political intelligence of metropolitan media savants), it would have come as a huge surprise had Modi-Shah pulled off an upset against the Laloo-Nitish combine, especially after Modiji chose to commit (yet another) folly. Kisne hidaayat dee thhi Modiji ko Laloo se moonhh lagne ki, auur wo bhi Bihar mein? The NDA brains trust also preferred to have Amit Shah give more than 60 speeches while blocking local point-men like Shatrughan Sinha, committing the same blunder they did in Delhi, of preventing the state unit of the BJP to take charge. Somehow, Modiji (and Shah himself of course) believes that the people of India also voted for Amit Shah in 2014. Trying to save themselves from the Delhi blunder of announcing pre-emptively a candidate the state unit of the party had not endorsed, they went for the opposite gamble of not announcing a candidate at all this time. (This is typical of a power-drunk leader without any Plan B, presuming that everyone will kow-tow to him anywhere in the country once he is triumphant). I remember Nitish Kumar saying to us in September “Modiji Bihar ka additional charge lenge kya?”

I have lived in four countries on three continents. Within India I have lived in four different states and travelled to virtually all, except a few in the North-East. I have not come across people with a sharper political intelligence anywhere else. This is the reason for the wide national interest that a Bihar election provokes. There are objective reasons why Bihar - apart from its large population (one out of thirteen Indians is a Bihari) - is of enormous political significance for India, a trend likely to grow in the future.

Biharis and Baaharis

Regionalism played a far greater role in this election than communalism. Parties like the Shiv Sena and the MIM came from outside the state to participate. It was widely noticed that top NDA leaders from out of the state had come to campaign. Amit Shah camped all October in Bihar and addressed over 60 rallies. Modiji himself spoke at more than 30, his party losing in most of the places where he spoke. 

The obvious question this campaign strategy provoked was why local leaders were not given the lead roles in the campaign. The opposition made full use of this lapse, especially since the NDA failed to announce a CM candidate, Modiji himself at the forefront of the campaign. It naturally prompted Nitish to ask voters to choose between a Bihari and a Baahari. Wouldn’t Modiji himself have done the same had Sonia Gandhi aggressively fronted a Congress campaign in Gujarat when he was CM?

Moreover, taking its cue from the Lok Sabha polls, Modi’s campaign was mechanically pitched for urban (and urbanising) India. But almost nine out of ten Biharis live in villages. It was natural for the large rural vote to go against Modi, especially as he mocked at the scale of labour migration from Bihar, forgetting what a major contribution is made my millions of migrant Bihari labour both to the country and to their own households. Our elites and middle classes would find it difficult to believe that even Rahul Gandhi's words about "suit-boot ki sarkaar" had greater traction in so many parts, resulting in 27 seats for the Congress, when it had just 4 last time.

What can we expect now?

First of all, we can expect a lot of national entertainment, now that Laloo is back before the media cameras. He has already promised some fun when he said that he will go with a laal-ten (lantern) to Modiji’s constituency Benares to look for his achievements! From there he threatens an agitation to challenge the regime in Delhi. As the Parivaar knows now, if there is one man in India who is serious about destroying communalism, it is Laloo. He is not a man to be trifled with!

The story is told that after blocking Advani’s Rath-Yatra in the 1990s, when he was Chief Minister of Bihar, Laloo Yadav was giving a speech somewhere in UP, in either Kanpur or Lucknow. Heckled by Bajrangis, he turned the mike off and sat down. When things had quietened, he stood up again, turned the mike on and said into it “Ee Ram Chandra Ji kauno BJP ka card-holder hain ka? Humko cheente hain? (Do you recognise me?) Hum bail (bull) ko seengh pakad ke chadhte hain!”

The political lesson of Bihar is that the man who knows his cow wins. The man who pretends to love it loses in the end. 

Will the Mahagathbandhan hang together, or perhaps dissipate into the sort of factional fights which have been the undoing of coalition governments in the past? The risks are not low, given that the coalition here is between two former rivals, even enemies. Yet, both sides know very well what is at stake. They came together in a moment of national peril, to not only defend Bihar against a perceived outsider, but to kill the deadly virus of communalism before it got worse. The virus is far from gone. And the two leaders know that they must hang together for it to remain at bay. 
For his part, Nitish needs to reflect carefully on the future economy of the state. The country is living through an unacknowledged impasse of development. 'Development' can mean many things. It is for him and his supporters to define afresh what it should mean for Bihar, what would bring the greatest benefit to people long deprived and exploited. 

“Bihar mein bahaar ho!” is a much better direction to go in than “Bihar mein bazaar ho!”, for “bazaar” no longer refers to actual bazaars, like our traditional haats and mandis, but to the “share bazaar”. The latter is the sort of development which will keep most Biharis in a state of deprivation, while narrow elite interests in the cities are promoted. In the long run, such a model of development, unleashing enormously destructive ecological forces in the wake of growing inequalities, especially between cities and the countryside, will bring ruin even to the wealthy in the cities. Sabka swaarth, sabka vinaash.

The election results show that people in Bihar know where to place the blame when it comes to fundamental macroeconomic issues like inflation, especially the price of essentials like daalInstead of following the arhar Modi model of promoting big business, Nitish could pay due attention to basic services, agriculture and small, sustainable industry to generate livelihoods, deepen his already substantial commitment to renewable energy and pioneer for all of India an entirely new form of ecological development, something which could lay the foundations of a future state of what may be called Praakritik Swaraaj. Such attention to rural Bihar would also allay Laloo’s well-known suspicion of development, helping to keep the coalition together.

Bihar is only 12% urbanised. Instead of succumbing to the dominant view that this is a sign of “backwardness”, it may be wise of Nitish to see this as perhaps one of Bihar’s great long-term ecological assets. A whole new style of development can be pioneered in Bihar which may not be so easy to pursue for highly urbanised states like Tamil Nadu, Gujarat or Maharashtra. This would also require appropriate infrastructural investments (in basic amenities and training) from the government in small (tier 3 and 4) towns, addressing the need for employment amongst educated, mentally urbanised youth, keeping them from metropolitan frustration, while also easing the pressure in the cities. 

Above all, the big lesson of this election is that leaders must avoid the hubris that strong mandates bring. They must read these mandates well. This is the era of extreme verdicts in Indian electoral politics. Speaking solely from the perspective of the country, it would be a lot better if the verdicts were more slender: it would give stronger incentives to the ruling coalitions to behave themselves and stick closely to the tasks within the mandate. If NDA had 75 fewer seats in Parliament they would not have chanced their arm so freely, spouting, encouraging and permitting the scale of communal rubbish that has been served over the past year to seek to make narrow electoral gains.

On the other hand, a mandate like 178 out of 243 can be turned to great effect under astute leadership. Nitish is known for his sober qualities. He will need every bit of this sobriety to stay humble, grounded, and focused. The people of Bihar have waited long. They are bubbling with enormous potential and hopes; they will require at least this from him.

As for Modiji and his vanquished crew, there is just over a year left for the UP elections. After massive defeats in Delhi and Bihar, the RSS may ask for Amit Shah’s head, as against allowing him to take charge in UP too. (Rajnath may be their preferred choice.) If they do so, it will inaugurate a blood feud within the Parivaar. At any rate, if they continue in the same communal vein, forgetting the substance of their real mandate, they will deservedly lose again, given people’s rising impatience on issues that matter. (Beef-eating is hardly one of them.) 

If that happens, the unlikely may come about and Modi may not last the full term in Parliament. Not so long ago, I was the only crazy forecasting such an outcome. Even now, there would be few takers for this view.

For now, let us savour the fact that you can’t fool many people in this country all the time. Those out to destroy dharma will themselves perish in the dust.

Satyameva Jayate!

Sunday, 30 August 2015

An Ode to Cowards

You send your unmanned drones to murder babies in Afghanistan.
You rape and impregnate little girls in the name of bringing them
       closer to Allah.    
You murder Mohsin and Pansare, Dabholkar and Kalburgi,
       besmirching the noble name of Ancient India.

All of you should be awarded a desert island on Mars to debauch
      yourselves in toto, murder each other to mutually assured 
      extinction, and make the red planet redder.

Only then will our beloved Earth bring forth the love to bless its 
         soil and its innocent children.
Only then shall there be Christmas on Earth.
Only then shall Jannat appear.
Only then shall the reign of Shaashvat commence.

Of one thing I am sure.
Your kind is the same, though they go by different names.
Our kind are all different, yet one.
You will lose.
And we will win!
Even if we do not live to tell the tale.
And you live to perdition and eternal damnation, cursed with
        infinite regret.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Four Environmental Photo-Essays

I share with you four marvellous environmental photo-essays. The first is my co-author Ashish Kothari's work on Ladakh. 


The second is a moving portrait of the fauna of Kanha National Park. 

The third is actually a set of 30 best images for the 'Environmental Photographer of the Year'. 


And the last is a shocking set of aerial images showing the industrial devastation of the earth from the air.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

How to render democracy harmless

How to render democracy harmless

Let public and private merge for effective stategraft

“Many of India's billionaires have made money by their proximity to govt.”
- Raghuram Rajan, Governor, RBI. He was Chief Economist of IMF in July 2010, when he made the remark in an interview to ToI.  

Raghuram Rajan spoke, in the same interview, of the “privatization, by stealth, of the State in India.” Privatization is the ruling mantra of the age of corporate totalitarianism that was inaugurated by American and global business elites with the uninhibited backing of powerful governments the world over after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. This takes a hundred forms - from the poaching of lucrative public assets by wealthy corporations when governments are fiscally stretched (often) to the ever growing frequency of use of the “revolving door”, whereby nobody finds conflict of interest objectionable as the public officials of last week become corporate bosses this week, or vice versa, a practice well-learned in this country from our imperial masters two oceans away.

A blatant instance of the phenomenon is illustrated by this image from 8 years ago. It shows Ratan Tata flying a US fighter jet at an air show in Bangalore in 2007:

I wrote about this image 8 years back. The best I can do here is to simply quote what I wrote then:

"Picture this. At an air-show in Los Angeles one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the world, British Aerospace, invites Mr. Bill Gates of Microsoft to have a go at flying one of the latest models of their Hawk fighter aircraft. Would the American media respond by flashing front-page images of a beaming Bill Gates waving to supporters as he was entering the cockpit of the Hawk, following them up with adulatory reports describing the elevated feelings felt by the unexpected new pilot as he conquered the sound barrier? Or would the event not generate a national scandal that a private businessman accepted the invitation to fly a military aircraft, which ordinarily can only be tested by pilots on public duty?

"More than likely the latter possibility would transpire. However, what happened in Bangalore last month was another story, as the Indian national media fell to new depths of celebrity “journalism”…

“…A private fantasy was gratified. Mr. Tata’s dream of flying a fighter jet came true.”

If you have 10 minutes, it may be worthwhile going through the 2000-word piece I wrote then:




If you wish to grasp the depth of our national illusions and ambitions today, please take a while to watch this video in full, which NDTV chose to show as one of its “Classics” in its silver jubilee year, 2014: 

The video not only shows  Ratan Tata in a jacket with the US flag emblazoned on its upper arm, it also shows him performing flying stunts at the Bangalore Air Show in 2007. For good measure, NDTV’s Vishnu Shome is also shown a good time by the US defence contractor firm, Lockheed Martin, eager to grow the potentially vast Indian market. He learns from the American test pilot that the aircraft he is flying has just arrived from combat duties in Iraq. He returns from the fighter jet ride with (in his own words) “a silly smile on his face.” Finally, much closer to reality, the video shows two accidents, one of a helicopter, the other of an aircraft, both manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, at the same air show. One of the pilots was killed during the show.

Public-private-partnerships under Indian corporate nationalism

What is going on here? Neither Ratan Tata nor Vishnu Shome nor any of the scores of media cameramen at the air show show any sign that they understand a distinction vital to the health of a democracy, or even a republic. The time-honoured distinction between the public and the private realm, so sacred to the making and maintenance of democracies across the world for many a century (and perhaps even more to the making of republics since the days of Greece and Rome), has blurred into invisibility. How can the promise of “transparency” or “accountability”, two of the abiding demands made on contemporary democracies, ever be fulfilled if private tyranny dovetails into State power so seamlessly? (I deal with the issue at greater length in the 2007 piece I wrote: 
https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/as-india-goes-global-the-public-goes-private-by-aseem-shrivastava/ or
http://www.countercurrents.org/shrivastava300307.htm ) 

The problem is far more widespread and deep-seated than is commonly understood in public life in India. In this century, the “cloud elites” of global finance and the extractive elites in league with mining mafias have taken control of the State in more countries than one can think of. The Untidy State of America has pioneered the trail and conflict of interest has ceased to matter even in the high offices of the Western world, as the bailouts after the Great Crash of 2008 showed. Countries like India have followed the West blindly without pausing to ponder the consequences of such a collapse of the public into the private. 

Additionally, India has a further legacy issue to live with. In general, the Indian State is a soft version of its Western counterparts. The centre of gravity of Western societies is squarely within the domain of the State. If the State collapses, society gets wiped out in a matter of days. Such has never been the case in India, and is not the case even today. Mrs. Thatcher, who believed that “there is no such thing as society”, could not have won even a panchayat election in India with such a nihilist slogan, whose vacuousness would be transparent even to those below the age of voting in India.

Communitarian identity, involving the biradiri (which could be seen variously as caste, region, language or religion, depending on time and place), is central to Indian social and political life to this day. Elections at all levels are conducted under this basic parameter. One reason for the corruption in offices high and low is that everyone’s first loyalty is to their communities and not to the ‘public’ that office-holders in government claim to represent, no matter that oaths are taken when they are inaugurated. Politicians of divergent ideologies are quite unashamed to sponge off public offices for the good of their communities, as they see them, the tax-payer be damned. In many cases, as we have seen in places as different as Bihar or Haryana, politicians are unafraid to admit this before the camera. 

These conditions in India are really a world apart from the situation in Western countries, where individual citizenship came of age many decades ago, and communities of the sort we are talking about eroded (for better and for worse) even farther back in history. 

So, in addition to the trend towards the privatisation of large areas of State activity going on in the West since the days of Thatcher and Reagan (the Second Gulf War saw the powerful re-emergence of private mercenary security companies and fighting units, essentially outsourcing and privatising warfare itself), the Indian polity has the additional issue of a long-standing conflation between the public and the private sphere of existence. In this,  Ratan Tata is closer in mentality to the rickshaw-wallah who spits on the street, than to Bill Gates. In India, unlike in the West of yester-years  public space is not sacrosanct. 

It is this colossally profound conflation and confusion between the private and the public realms that accounts for a thousand failures of Indian public life today. To list just a few here: the coal and spectrum scams of recent years, the way “public-private-partnerships” have created new avenues of graft, the manner in which SEZs were created by UPA-I to exempt corporate economic activity from the Indian Constitution, the manner in which governments have been acting as land brokers for private firms (ab)using the “public interest” clause in the Land Acquisition Act, the casualness with which companies are tasked with ‘self-monitoring’ in the critical areas of environmental regulation (like pollution of air or water) and labour standards. One could go on endlessly.

These are just a handful of the scams that have mushroomed in the last generation as a result of ever-growing intimacy between the State - which has mutated from being a ‘traffic-cop’ to being a ‘player’ in its own right - and India Inc. What we have today is what Ashish Kothari and I describe in our book Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India as an unabashed ‘corporate nationalism’, whose ideology of choice for masking its truth is ‘development’. Developmentality involves the “cultivated failures of cognition” we analyse in the Conclusion of our book as part and parcel of the systematic smoke and mirrors national self-deception needed to mask the enormity of the graft under way in this age of gluttonous power. ‘Development’ is by far our longest living national lie. It is our word for elite denial.

The consequences of the lack of understanding and acknowledgement of the roots of graft in Indian public life will continue to grow at alarming rates in years to come, as the ever-growing mafioso blood-trail in the recent Vyapam scam shows. The fact that social scientists show scant recognition of the location and depth of the ailment is only a sign that even the world of knowledge and the academy has been corrupted by the blinding global and national fog that has settled like a suffocating canopy over our times. 

At an event the other evening at the India International Centre, I brought up the point about Ratan Tata and the fighter jet before a large audience that had just heard a leading figure from the national commentariat trace India’s “aborted transitions” to successful modernity to the conflation of the public and the private realms. There was a hasty nod in response, but no attempt was made to see the invisible social thread that ties Ratan Tata and the rickshaw-wallah into the same spider’s web of living confusion.

This is not an India that anyone can be free, happy or safe in, no matter that ‘prosperity’ has mounted so visibly (and understandably!) in certain quarters. One can only expect rapidly growing business for security outfits and psychiatrists under the conditions of structural anxiety that have come to prevail. This is certainly not the India that the men and women who sacrificed so much so that we, their progeny, could be free, had dreamed of.

Yesterday, there was a mail from Flipkart in my inbox. It wished its customers “Appy Independence Day.” When happiness is no longer possible, or even believable in principle, the best item on the available menu is mobile ‘appiness’. Wah Bhai, India. Aaj Gandhiji zinda hote toh kitne prasann hote! 80 crore logon ke paas mobile phone ho gaye hain, desh duniya ke top investment destinations mein shaamil ho gaya hai, aur Amreeki gola-baarood banaane waali companies ko dher saaraa business de raha hai... 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Independence and Partition - II: Kashmir ka Khat

I had to attend an ecology conference in Ladakh in July. My co-author Ashish Kothari, as well as the environmental group he helped to start, Kalpavriksh, was involved in organising it. It was part of a set of regular meetings that have been happening in different parts of the country that go under the name of Vikalp Sangam. The first one was held in October 2014 in Timbaktu, in Andhra. The second was in Madurai in February 2015. The third one was organised in Leh, Ladakh in July. The idea in these Sangams is to share experiences and exchange ideas on practically viable alternatives to the predatory development model that is ripping through the country's ecology and cultures like a remorseless, self-destructive juggernaut.

I arranged with some friends from Bangalore and Mumbai to meet in Srinagar and take the road route from there to Leh, a distance of 400-odd kilometres, via Zojila and Kargil, to be covered over two days. While I had traveled to Ladakh in 1986, I had flown, and so missed much of the stunning landscapes along the way. This time, armed with a brand new Sony camera gifted to me by my kind brother (the second camera he has gifted me over the years!), I was really excited about traveling to Leh by road.

I spent a day and a night beforehand, by myself, renting a room on a houseboat on Nigeen Lake. It was lovely. I heard from one of the boatmen the story of how the British gradually and subtly inserted themselves into Kashmir. It appears that in the 19th century, there was a British Resident stationed in the Maharaja's kingdom. They were forbidden from acquiring land in Kashmir. On one occasion a British merchant came upon a houseboat with a shop built atop it. He took a fancy to it and asked the owner if he could buy it from him for a price. The owner refused, but promised to build and sell him a new houseboat. This, legend goes, was the first piece of property the scheming Brits bought in Kashmir, without breaking their agreement with the Maharajah about acquiring land! Today a houseboat can cost up to Rs. 2-3 crores.

Enterprising young boys make humble livelihoods on Dal lake.

My friends from Bangalore and Mumbai arrived the next day. One of our colleagues was a friend of Jyoti Singh, daughter of Karan Singh, from the ex-Royalty of Kashmir. Jyoti so very kindly hosted us in her utterly beautiful and hospitable Almond Villa, at the base of Shankaracharya Hill, overlooking the famous Dal Lake. She embarrassed us with the sheer prodigality of her hospitality, serving some truly delectable food, other than the splendour of the rooms we stayed in.

We had a good look at the fabulous mosques of Srinagar one day, seeing some exquisite places.

We were to set off for Leh by jeeps on July 17. However, luck (or rather weather driven by climate change) was not on our side. Ladakh had unpredicted rains because of repeated cloudbursts and two attempts at approaching Zojila from Srinagar were thwarted by mudslides and flooding near Sonmarg. We were obviously disappointed.

On each occasion, we were violently stopped by heavy cordons of CRPF jawaans and J&K Police. They banged the vehicles with their batons and screamed at the drivers of the jeeps for daring to go towards Sonmarg. There were mostly young Kashmiri men among them. When we got off the vehicles to explain the purpose of our visit to Leh, they straightened up, especially when they realised that Jyoti Singh was traveling with us. They showed us pictures of the flooding ahead on the highway explaining, this time gently, why we could not go. The same armed men who were throwing their weight about a minute ago were behaving like obedient schoolboys. Their behaviour was schizophrenic. I was reminded of the TV advertising in Srinagar one evening when I saw ads of mental health counselling. There are many commercials like this. The other ad you see frequently is of cures for infertility among women. It appears the whole valley is sick from the ongoing conflict with Indian security forces. The place is the nearest thing to Palestine I have seen in my life. There are up to 800,000 armed men in uniform in the Kashmir Valley. Armoured vehicles with 'Sadbhavna' written in front of them have gunmen at the ready.

I had visited Kashmir in 1974, with my parents and my brother. I had just begun playing serious golf (briefly contemplated turning professional when I was about 18). I do not remember seeing a single army jawaan on that trip to Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam. This time, 41 years on, was different. Very different.

There is a construction boom across the Kashmir Valley, very reminiscent of what happens in Palestine. On the other hand the old homes and shops are crumbling. I was puzzled as to what is going on. How come so many new homes and mosques are coming up in such a context? Who is financing them? I was informed by more than one person that land and real estate markets have been very active across the Valley. People are selling off land, forest, and any other assets in order to raise capital to build fancy new homes. Banks are also giving attractively priced loans for home construction and ownership. A lot of mosque construction, it turns out, is being financed by money coming from the Middle East. The new mosques are being built on the Central Asian design, without the big bulbs and minarets familiar from the Sub-Continent.

Next to every mosque is the inevitable CRPF or BSF camp with security forces on the alert. Every few hundred yards on the road to Pahalgam are armed commandos and jawaans, ready to address any exigency that is never too far under the surface. Security arrangements were particularly tight (you had to go through security layers, almost as bad as at Srinagar airport) when we were in the Pahalgam area, since the annual Amarnath yatra was going on. In the Valley, there is hardly a home which has not lost a family member to death or disappearance. At the airport I saw a number of books documenting such tragedies.

This boy grinned from ear to ear when I teased him that he resembled Shahrukh Khan!

As the film Haider (which was shot partly in the basement of Jyoti's lovely house) tried to show, the one thing most palpable across the Valley is suspicion. You can virtually cut it with the proverbial knife. 

A man somewhat older than me I met in Pahalgam's Lavender Park asked me where I was from. I said "Hindustan", which has, revealingly, a better chance of inviting friendship than an answer like "Delhi". He said "Ab toh jenaab hamaara Hindustan se koi waasta nahi hai. Hindustan-Pakistan ab hamaare peechhe hain. Hame toh aage dekhna hai." When I asked him to elaborate, he said "aap ko Hindustan ki kaun si fauj Hindustan mein nahi mil rahi hai? BSF, CRPF, ITBP...yahaan aa jaiyye Kashmir ki ghaati mein, mil jaayegi. Aathon faujein yahaan maujood hain." 
Yet, daily life goes on amidst these stiff odds. Big billboards advertise higher education - such as medicine or engineering - in Bangladesh, not in India or Pakistan!

People speak openly against the Indian government, against all Indian political parties and the National Conference, and against Narendra Modi. Our driver Mehraaj Bhai told me that PDP would have won with a far handsomer margin had Mufti not allied with Modi's BJP. Srinagar's leading newspaper Kashmir Rising is openly critical of Indian policies in Kashmir.

We saw something surprising in Srinagar one day: a liquor store busily conducting its trade among the youth of the city, at the base of the Shankaracharya Hill. As soon as the Ramzan rozas finished there was quite a crowd at the liquor store, loud music blaring from cars on the boulevard by the Dal.

At the airport I saw a large number of new books documenting the atrocities and excesses of security forces in the Kashmir Valley. The alienation seems to have got so encrusted that things appear to have passed the point of no return. No maturity or sagacity has been shown by leaders. Gone are the days when one could expect an Indian Prime Minister to quote the great Kashmiri poet Mahjoor and say to militants "agar aap samvidhaan ke daayre mein nahi baat karma chaahte hain toh chaliye hum insaaniyat ke daayre mein baat kar lein." Vajpayee is still the most respected Indian leader in Kashmir.

The last picture I took in Kashmir was of our departure lounge at Srinagar airport. It resembles an army sports arena!

The picture tells us much about why the Kashmir Valley is in the shape it is in, why the BJP could not muster a single seat there. The picture also reveals the immense value of some of the peace and healing initiatives being undertaken in the Valley by citizens. Jyoti Singh organises every year in the last week of August the Annual Dara Shikoh Festival for the Arts, in which a range of Kashmiri artists get a chance to show and discuss their work. 

Jyoti's goal is to  address local youth and help revive faith in the great syncretic traditions of Kashmir, ways of community life and philosophical and religious thought and practice, not to forget poetry, that have sustained the people of this beautiful land over the centuries.

Kashmir refuses to be treated as a trifling yo-yo in the predatory politics between India and Pakistan. And in this defence of dignity lies its hope for the future.

Independence and Partition - I: Azaadi aur Garam Hawa

After watching Masaan for a second time last weekend, I realised, while discussing the film with a friend, that one of the big gaps in my cultural upbringing is the fact that I somehow missed seeing M.S.Sathyu's Garam Hawa, perhaps because I was too young when it was released (1974) and later, I was away from India for nearly two decades. A story in last weekend's edition of Hindustan Times informed me that the film was available on Youtube. So I promptly decided to to see it, and now realise why so many regard it to be one of the great films of Indian cinema.

Appropriately, I finished watching it yesterday, August 14, just in between the anniversary of Pakistan's and India's Independence Day celebrations (in fact, the two days are actually the same when you consult the Indian Independence Act of 1947: Karachi's The Dawn had a fine piece the other day on the theme: http://www.dawn.com/news/1199235)

The film is altogether too chilling, too real for our bubbled lives of 2015. It begins with a scene whereby Salim Mirza (the immortal Balraj Sahni) has just bid goodbye to his elder sister, who has caught the one-way train to Pakistan. On the way to his factory, he remarks to the taanga-waallah:

"कैसे हरे-भरे दरख़्त कट रहे हैं इस हवा में!" 

("Such leafy, green trees are being felled by this wind these days!")

And the taanga-waallah responds with workmanlike gusto:

"बड़ी गर्म हवा है मियाँ, बड़ी गर्म!" 

("It is a very hot wind, very hot!")

Every moment of the next two hours, the viewer is kept on the edge of the seat, as one tragic scene after another unfolds with premonitory perfection.

What a film! The movie breaks your heart​ again and again, and yet again​, but ends on a note of redemptive hope, howsoever meagre.​ It should be watched compulsorily, especially by our young people in schools and colleges: 


This 2014 interview ​that Teesta Setalvad (who says she has seen the film 27 or 28 times!) does with MS Sathyu and Shama Zaidi, ​the film-maker/scriptwriter​,​ on the making and re-release of Garam Hawa (as Garm Hava) is worth watching too: 


The cruel absurdity of Partition was understood even by the man invited to draw the line between the two birth-marked Sub-Continental twins. Cyril Radcliffe "never forgave himself. He was summoned to Delhi in 1947 — he was neither an administrator nor a cartographer, but only a lawyer, who had never set foot in India before — with the specific assignment of partitioning Punjab and Bengal on religious lines. He arrived on July 8 that year, and having done his job, left India the very day it attained Independence, burning all his papers and without collecting his fee, 40,000 rupees — so appalled he was by the killings." Over a million people were killed and at least 12 million were rendered homeless to serve the political ambitions of our wicked leaders. Gandhiji was virtually alone in his mourning.

There are farmers, both on the Indo-Pak and on the Indo-Bangladesh borders, whose home falls in one country and their fields in another. There are neighbours' adjoining courtyards through which the Radcliffe Line runs!:

Before we are Hindus and Muslims, we are human beings, equal in the eyes of the one and only Creator. Not only was this borne out once when a Hindu bigot had to unknowingly accept a Muslim man's blood for his bleeding child in hospital, there is also evidence aplenty in our traditions of art, literature, and music. Yesterday's edition of The Hindu had a splendid piece which reports the influence that the great Ustad Amir Khan has had on a very large number of musicians in succeeding generations, including on the likes of Vidushi Kishori Amonkar, and Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar:


If Indian and Pakistani leaders in 2015 have any courage left in their hearts whatsoever, they will never allow 1947 to repeat itself. Partition is the massive, unacknowledged gaping wound in our history. Even before it had begun to heal, more pogroms were launched, more wars fought. The pathology has only grown. The denial has become cancerous now. It shall prove truly fatal, unless the facts and passions are faced through mutual acknowledgement of very inconvenient truths. We urgently need memorials, museums, histories, films, literature, art, and, above all, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, howsoever belated that may be. 

One reason to study and acknowledge history collectively, in the public sphere, is to prevent it from repeating itself farcically, once communities have grown accustomed to the gravity of the original tragedy and have all but forgotten its spiritual, emotional, and physical impact when the bloodstains had not dried up.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Five reflections on Independence Day

For the next week or so, I will be posting a series of five short articles, each of which asks a specific question in relation to India's independence. In sum, the articles ask one fundamental question which constitutes the compass for all the others: Is India really free?

The five articles are titled:

1. How to make every Indian fly
2. How to render democracy harmless
3. How to destroy an ancient culture
4. How to outgrow agriculture
5. How to conquer nature

The first of these is posted here for your considered reading.

How to make every Indian fly

The imperatives and dilemmas of aspirational India

“Impoverished India can become free, but it will be hard for any India made rich through immorality to regain its freedom.” 

- Mahatma Gandhi, Hind Swaraj (1909)

Aspirational India is enjoying a stunning boom under the leadership of a spectacular new government which has effectively promised sabka swaarth, sabka vikaas. 

However, stunning booms come with their own baggage of vexatious problems. My mother’s driver Ashok has run into one such this week. As a consequence, the smile has been wiped off the face of a man who normally lives up to his name, which refers to the one without sorrow. 

Ashok has two sons and two daughters and lives the aspirational “medium” class lifestyle in Ayanagar, on the border between Delhi and Haryana, very close to Gurgaon. Their family has two motorcycles (eldest son - now married and working at Spencer’s as a security guard - hopes to make the down payment on a sub-compact car in the foreseeable future), two bicycles, a TV set, four mobile phones, a fridge, and a boom-box (though as Ashish Kothari and I reported in Churning the Earth, they are not able to feed the kids daal at every meal for reasons not far to seek).

So what has stolen Ashok’s peaceful smile? His cute little daughter decided to get a cute little dog for a pet last year. Some months back, this beautiful creature was attacked by a neighbourhood stray, who tore into its flesh. The little one survived - though it had not been administered anti-rabies injections. 

Last week, the pet dog decided, in turn, to bite Ashok’s daughter. When Ashok tried to restrain it, it bit Ashok too. This is the story I heard when I saw Ashok bleeding from one hand and asked him for an explanation. He asked me for Rs.3000. “What for?” “The mad dog has to be put to sleep. That is how much it costs at the local hospital.” 

Amidst sadness in the family, the dog was laid to rest. The next step was for Ashok and his daughter to get shots. Five each. At Safdarjung the injections are free, but it could take up to a whole day to get to the head of the queue. Ashok asks for another few thousand from me - so that he can go to a private clinic and get the job done without having to stand in a day-long queue. (He won’t get leave from work to stand for five full days in queues to get the shots at a saarvajanik aspataal). 

As I write these lines, Ashok still has to get through three more shots. The smile is still missing.

I have noticed that in recent years, the smile is less often in evidence, for though the aspirational consumption of the family has shot up measurably, each one of the seven (including a daughter-in-law) members of the family is falling sick more often, often suffering from respiratory ailments in what is, with each passing day, less a world city, and more a corrosive cancer of a giant, crumbling metropolis - once you look past the boulevards of the diplomatic areas of the city.

There are many other medical issues which affect the family’s sense of well-being on a relentless basis, not to mention the nutritional deprivation resulting from expensive, and much more chemicalized, food.

If Ashok gets even with his family’s medical bills, there are other “aspirational” dilemmas staring him in the face. His elder daughter is jobless and unmarried at 23. In his gothra, he says, they are already very late. Another two years, and the daughter would be seen an “ineligible”. An aspirational imperative his daughter has laid down is that (even though the family is from Bihar) she is unwilling to marry a Bihari. Is it because she (self-)reflexively agrees with our PM that there is a “DNA issue” with Biharis? Or is it because this is in fact the essential meaning of developmental modernity, as the brilliant new film Masaan brings out with such force, that each one aims at marrying above their station in a collectively unwinnable scramble for upward social mobility?

Ashok sighs as he tells me that the daughter’s marriage (obviously to a man at least as educated as her - she has done college) would cost them at least 6-8 lacs within their gothra. Maybe, he feels, he should try his luck outside the community, here in Delhi itself. Maybe that will work out cheaper. He does not know the real answer. But his expression tells me he feels he has little reason to be optimistic on this score either. Dowry and weddings, like everything else, have become much more expensive.

A Bangalore detour

Some years back I took an Air Deccan flight from Delhi to Bangalore. On the way to Bangalore, I read (the now defunct Air Deccan’s CEO) Captain C.D.Gopinath’s editorial in the in-flight magazine in which he expressed his wish of enabling every Indian to fly. I assumed that he was being metaphorical. I discovered soon that he was being quite literal! (If you have some minutes, you can see one interview with him here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUxkFnLqeGo)

My ecological mind very quickly did numbers in the head to label the Gopinath vision for India as ‘unsustainable’. Giving a talk at IIM-Bangalore I told students that they need not be environmental experts to see the absurdity of the view, by no means an exceptional one at an institution like theirs. Our task, I proposed, was to honestly reflect upon the rung on the ladder of consumption we found ourselves on and to step down a few, while at once evolving approaches and policies to bring those near the bottom of the ladder up a few. Needless to say, I did not make myself too popular with the students!

When I returned to Delhi Ashok picked me up from the airport. Uncannily, for the first time in years he asked me what it was like to fly in an aeroplane. I had sometimes thought to myself that this man had never been inside one, even as he had ferried people in our family hundreds of times to airports over the years. I answered his query with a counter-question. How did he imagine life above the clouds? He gave me a most dreamy description, complete with an account not only of the spas and saunas he had seen (from the outside) in five-star hotels, but even more vividly of the round earth as seen from the window of the aircraft. Hearing his account, I felt that for such dream-ing to survive, the corresponding dreams should not be fulfilled.

Interestingly, Ashok did not express any desire to ride in an aeroplane himself. It struck me that people like Gopinath, who want to make such people travel in planes, are far more adolescent in their views. The same cannot be said for Ashok’s children, whose desires and hopes are closer to those of the students at IIM-Bangalore and those divined for them by business leaders like Gopinath. 

The realisation has not begun to sink into this significantly large, young, and vocal minority in the country that there is what philosophers call a ‘fallacy of composition’ in their thinking when they advocate universal jet-travel (and by implication, holidays in Singapore or Paris), for every Indian cannot fly, and ride BMWs to airports, without bringing all traffic to a standstill and turning our cities into lethal gas chambers. Furthermore, there is the cultural flip side of aspiration that Ashok’s experience with their pet dog reveals. Here, so-called ‘modernity’, with its ceaseless marketing media blitz, is wreaking havoc on the lives and several sane traditions of human communities across the Sub-Continent, all in the name of putting an end to social backwardness, caste and the like, while promoting ridiculous forms of consumption. In the process, human freedom itself is being bartered away for a few dirty pennies.

No less a figure than the Father of the Nation himself has forewarned in writing, and many more times than once, that freedom is easier to ensure with a degree of poverty than with imitative consumption and an ‘excess’ of wealth. It will probably be a painful while before the nation catches up with the wisdom of its father.