Monday, October 31, 2011

Who Killed Mrs. Gandhi?

It is amazing how unexamined Indira Gandhi’s death remains 27 years after her assassination. Almost everything I have read on the matter skips critically important detail; in fact, the accounts are so unvarying in the details they do provide the authors could well have been working from a shared template. To help the generation now coming of age to understand what happened, I present a non-template version below.

In June 1984, the Indian Army ousted a band of heavily armed terrorists occupying the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. The operation damaged the holiest of Sikh shrines, deeply offending the community and setting in motion a decade of troubles in the Punjab, bringing to its knees India’s most prosperous state.

With support supposedly from the Sikh communities in Britain, Canada and the United States a terrorist movement emerged almost immediately after the assault on the Golden temple. Pakistan’s ISI was also rumoured to be helping the terrorists. The most vociferous centre of external support was in London, where a Sikh activist called for the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi on a BBC broadcast. India lodged a formal diplomatic protest but the British government said it could not interfere with the freedom of the Press.

 On 31 October the same year, two Sikh members of the Prime Minister’s security detail assassinated her. They were standing guard at a gate she had to pass through to get to a BBC television crew set up for an interview. The occasion for the interview was the visit to Delhi of Princess Anne, with whom the Prime Minister was to dine that evening. The interview was delayed a half-hour at the last minute, just the time needed for one of the two assassins to begin his shift at the spot where the killing occurred. Initially, suspicion fell on one of Mrs. Gandhi's aides for making the change, but the official inquiry exonerated him. The investigating judge noted the involvement of a foreign intelligence agency without explaining what that meant. As a part of the report remains secret we cannot say definitely if there was mention of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). For what it is worth, the BBC interviewer waiting for Mrs. G on that fatal day was the actor Peter Ustinov who was not entirely unconnected with British Intelligence; at the minimum, he had a family connection: his father was a British spy.

 When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in Delhi for Mrs. Gandhi’s funeral, Indian reporters asked her about Britain’s earlier refusal to take action against the man who had openly called for the assassination. She responded: “Whether or not what he [the Sikh on the BBC] said actually amounted to a possible crime was a matter for the director of public prosecutions and the police, not for a politician. But I believe they looked at it, looked very carefully at what was said, and came to the conclusion that they could not in fact prosecute. You know there are sometimes very difficult cases. But whether they decide to prosecute or not is a matter for them. But they did not and that must have been because there was in their view not a sufficient case to prosecute.”

A reporter asked if there was not a case “for tightening up or altering the law” on “incitement to violence.” She replied, “Incitement to violence – I think the law is fairly clear. Sometimes it is not easy to get the precise evidence but we will have a look at it if need be. … But we must recognize again what is an apparent paradox, that if you are a free country then you are free to say what you think within the law, but a free society offers many more opportunities for doing the wrong thing than of course a tyranny. But then of course, who would wish to live under tyranny? And there are occasions when you do have a difficult question to ask. Do you resort to the methods of a tyrannical society in order to preserve freedom? You can see the paradox. Now I believe that we have got just about the right answer in Britain. But we are very well aware of the difficulties of violence and of the difficulties of getting evidence sufficient to enable our police and those who are responsible for indicting these people to bring cases to court.”

For the record, the BBC has never been an exercise in independent journalism; it was, from its founding, an organ of State propaganda and the World Service continues to be funded from the Foreign Office budget. Some prominent BBC "journalists" are clearly spies; see

A month after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination and anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, a set of multiple safety-system failures at Union Carbide’s chemical plant at Bhopal caused the “world’s worst industrial accident.” There was every indication that it was sabotage, but the new Rajiv Gandhi government sagely decided not to publicize that angle for fingers could have pointed to a Sikh employee; clearly, whoever sabotaged the plant wanted to set off another assault on the community.

A few months later, in June 1985, another atrocity was blamed on “Sikh terrorists,” the blowing up of Air India Flight 182 over British waters as it made its way from Montreal to Delhi. All 329 people on board died. Canadian prosecutors are still trying to prove the heavily circumstantial case.

In the light of these facts, it would be well to keep in mind that although Mrs. Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards shot her, those who plotted and arranged for her death were most probably British. To understand why the British would want her dead we have to look at Britain's role as the Cold War "manager" of South Asia -- and that must be a story for another day.

Dump Katju from Press Council

Judge Markandey Katju, the new chairman of the Press Council of India, a governmental watchdog body mandated to oversee print media, wants to expand his purview to broadcasters and get a new set of teeth.

Speaking to Karan Thapar, anchor of The Devil's Advocate on CNN-IBN, he put on display a set of arrogant opinions founded in such a blunt understanding of Indian realities (not to mention the principle of Press freedom), that it should set off alarm bells and lead to his immediate dismissal. 

This is not to deny that there are serious problems with broadcast media but  he is the wrong person to lead an effort to address them.

A lightly edited transcript of the interview follows. I have highlighted in red some of his more ill considered views:

Karan Thapar: Are you disappointed by the media?

Justice Markandey Katju: Very disappointed.
Karan Thapar: And therefore, do you have a low opinion of the media?
Justice Markandey Katju: I have a poor opinion about the media.
Karan Thapar: And you really mean this?
Justice Markandey Katju: I mean this. They should be working for the interest of the people. They are not working for the interest of the people. And sometime they are positively working in an anti-people manner.. ....

Karan Thapar [referring to a speech Katju made to newspaper editors]: you said, ‘One of the basic tasks of the media is to provide truthful and objective information, that will enable people to form rational opinions.’ Is that not happening altogether, or is it not happening sufficiently and effectively.
Justice Markandey Katju: See you must first understand the historical context in which we are living. India is passing through a transitional period in our history -transition from feudal, agricultural society to modern industrial society. This is a very painful and agonising period in history. When Europe was going through this period the media played a great role, it was of great help in transforming the European society from feudalism to a modern society.

Karan Thapar: Is that not happening in India?
Justice Markandey Katju: No, just the reverse. In Europe, great writers like Rousseau, Thomas Paine and Diderot. Diderot said, ‘Men will be free then the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’.
Karan Thapar: Compared to them, what is the role the Indian media is playing during this transition India is going through?

Justice Markandey Katju: Indian media is, very often, playing an anti-people role. Let me give you that in three respects. Number one, it often diverts the attention of the people from the real problems which are basically economic. 80 per cent of the people are living in horrible poverty, unemployment, facing price rise, healthcare etc. You divert attention from those problems and instead you project filmstars and fashion parades and cricket as if they are the problems of the people.
Karan Thapar: So the media uses fashion, film stars and cricket almost as an opium?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes. Cricket is an opium of the masses. The Roman emperors used to say ‘if you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses’. In India, send them to cricket if you cannot give them bread. Many channels, day and night, are showing cricket as if that is the problem of the country.
Karan Thapar: You said there were three respects in which the media is being anti-people, to use your phrase. You’ve given me one, what are the other two?
Justice Markandey Katju: Second is, very often the media divides the people. You see, this is a country of great diversity because it is a country broadly of immigrants. We must, therefore, respect each other and we must remain united. Take for example, whenever a bomb blast takes place, in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, within a few hours almost every channels starts showing that an e-mail has come or a SMS has come that Indian Mujahideen have claimed responsibility or Jaish-e-Mohammad or Harkat-ul-Jihad, some Muslim name. You see e-mail or SMS any mischievous person can send, but by showing it on the TV channels and next day in print, you are in a subtle way conveying the message that all Muslims are terrorists and bomb throwers and you are demonising the Muslims. And, 99 per cent people of all communities, whether Hindu, Muslim, are good people.
Karan Thapar: Is this an instance of the media being careless or the media deliberately not using its guard and not using its intelligence to double check? Which is it?
Justice Markandey Katju: I think it is even worse. I think it is deliberate action of the media to divide the people on religious lines and that is totally against the national interest.
Karan Thapar: You are saying the media is deliberately diving people?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, because what else is this? When you are demonising the Muslim community within a few hours of a bomb blast showing that SMS has come, e-mail has come from some Muslim organisation, what does it imply?
Karan Thapar: You said you had three examples of the media being anti-people. You’ve given me two, what’s the third?
Justice Markandey Katju: Third is, as I said India is passing in a transitional period from feudal society to modern society. So the media must promote scientific ideas to help the country move forward, like the European media did in the period of transition in Europe. Here the media promotes superstition, astrology and so on. You know, 80 to 90 per cent of the people in the country are mentally very backward, steep in casteism, communalism, superstition and so on. Should the media uplift them and bring them up to a higher mental level and make them part of enlightened India or should the media go down to that level and continue and perpetuate their backwardness? The media through many TV channels show astrology which is pure humbug. Astrology is total superstition that if you wear this colour shirt today it will be very good for you, what is all this?

Karan Thapar: You began by saying that you had a very low opinion of the media, that you were deeply disappointed by the media. I get the impression that, in fact, you don’t think very much of the media at all.
Justice Markandey Katju: There are some very respected media people I can tell. For example, Mr P Sainath, I have very high respect for him. He has written many articles showing the farmer suicides. In fact in The Hindu, that quarter million farmers have committed suicide.

Karan Thapar: You’re talking about the front page article in Saturday’s Hindu?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes.
Karan Thapar: But apart from naming a few individuals, of the media as a whole you don’t think very much of them?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, the general rut is very low and I have a poor opinion of most media people. Frankly, I don’t think they have much knowledge of economic theory or political science or literature or philosophy. I don’t think they have studied all this.
Karan Thapar: So the media, in effect, is not just living up to its expectations, you would say it is letting down India?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, absolutely because the media is very important in this transition period. As I said, the media deals with ideas. It’s not an ordinary business dealing with commodities, it deals with ideas. Therefore, people need modern and scientific ideas.
Karan Thapar: And that’s not happening?
Justice Markandey Katju: The reverse is happening.
Karan Thapar: The media is making India more superstitious, more casteist, more communal; you really mean that?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, absolutely. You see the TV channels, so many of them showing astrology ‘yeh raashi hai, wo raashi hai’, what is all this?
Karan Thapar: Alright. I’ve understood and heard your attitude and opinion of the media, let me now put to you one of the common complaints made of the media by ordinary people and ask to what extent as the Chairman of the Press Council you agree with those complaints and to what extent you disagree. People often say that the media is not always accurate, worse they say the media distorts facts; it twists people’s opinions and quotations. Do you hold that view as well?
Justice Markandey Katju: Absolutely, if you’ve heard of the scandal of paid news in the year 2009 elections, you know what happened. You know earlier the journalist would go to the candidates in elections and ask for money, ‘You give me Rs 10,000 and I will publish news in your favour’. Then it appears that the proprietors got a wise idea that why should these working journalists make money why should we not make money. Then they came forward saying ‘you give me one crore and a package will be given to you, front page headline news will be in your favour’. And an astounding thing happened in 2009 elections. Candidate A in the front page of the newspapers says he’s winning by a large number of votes, by a large majority; and the lower part of the front page paid for by the rival candidate says that candidate A is losing his security deposit. So you see on the same page he’s winning by a thumping majority and he’s also losing his security.
Karan Thapar: So what you’re saying to me, whether we are talking about paid news, whether we are talking about your claim that the media distorts and twists facts ; you’re saying the media can’t be relied upon when they claim something to be true – it may not be true, it may just be false?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes absolutely because if you are paid to write something you are not writing something which you factually observed. You are being paid to write whatever you are told to write.
Karan Thapar: Now a second criticism made by ordinary people of the media is that it frequently damages the reputation of innocent people by either misrepresenting them or, worse, by suggesting or claiming or proclaiming that they are guilty without reason and without evidence. Again, is that a view you agree with?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes and may I give you an example? In one TV channel, which is a reputed TV channel so I will not name it, on two consecutive days the photograph of a high court judge, where I had been Chief Justice, had been shown next to the photograph of a notorious criminal. The allegation against the high court judge was that he had illegally grabbed some land. I made personal enquiries and I found it was totally false. He had brought land in a rural area, in the open market at the market price, I have all the documents, and this man was weeping when I went there. He said he was going to resign, I said, ‘Please don’t resign. I will try to do something’. Just see this, you condemn a corrupt judge, I am with you, but why should you condemn an honest judge when he is totally upright?
Karan Thapar: So you’re saying the error in this instance was the publication of an honest judge’s picture alongside that of a criminal and the suggestion that the two are similar?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, just see how demoralising it is for a judge who is honest. You condemn a corrupt judge, I am fully with you, I have done it myself. Why should you condemn an upright judge?
Karan Thapar: And you’re saying that often the media, through carelessness or maybe deliberately damages the reputation of innocent people?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes. You want to sensationalise something you want to capture without proper investigation. You must do proper investigation and research before you publish all this.
Karan Thapar: So the media does no research, no investigation?
Justice Markandey Katju: Well sometimes it may be doing but sometimes it doesn’t. in this case evidently they had not done.
Karan Thapar: Let’s focus a little on news television. There is a lot of concern about the quality of debates on television channels. Are you an admirer of those debates or are you a critic?
Justice Markandey Katju: See very often I find those debates totally frivolous. First of all there is no discipline. If there are four people on the panel, all speaking at the same time, is this the way disciplined people should behave? When you speak, I will never interrupt you. But why should you interrupt me when I am speaking?
Karan Thapar: You think anchors are always interrupting rudely?
Justice Markandey Katju: Not anchors, the panellist, the four persons. One person is speaking, the other simultaneously starts speaking, whom are you to hear?
Karan Thapar: People often say that the big problem with debates on television is that they only generate heat, they don’t shed light, yet their job is to shed light.
Justice Markandey Katju: That’s quite often correct. You should shed light in this age, you should educate people, you should express rational opinions. It’s not a shouting contest.
Karan Thapar: So all this criticism that the ordinary people have for the media, whether it’s to do with accuracy, whether it’s to do with damaging reputation, whether it’s to do with the quality of debates, do you as Chairman of the Press Council agree with all of them?
Justice Markandey Katju: Not all of them. As I told you there are some very upright media people. I named Mr P Sainath and there are many other names.
Karan Thapar: But the generality of the media you believe is falling?
Justice Markandey Katju: The majority, I’m sorry to say, are of a very poor intellectual level, media people, I doubt whether they have any idea of economic theory or political science, philosophy, literature, I have grave doubts whether they are well read in all this, which they should be.
Karan Thapar: More often than not, media people are of a very ordinary level.
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, that’s right.
Karan Thapar: Justice Katju, let’s talk about steps that you believe are necessary to improve news television. Primarily you believe news television and the electronic media as a whole must be brought under the ambit of the Press Council. Why do you think the media’s attempt at self regulation by the News Broadcasters’ Association headed by Justice Verma is not good enough?

Justice Markandey Katju: I don’t see any effect of that move. The media has to be educated They must be told that you are living in a poor country where you have to address the problems of the poor people. What do you show? Lady gaga has come. Yesterday I saw it on TV, read it in papers. Is this the problem of the country? Kareena Kapoor has seen her Madam Tussauds statue and she says she loves it. This is what is on TV and in the headlines.
Karan Thapar: So you’re saying that the News Brodcasters’ Association’s attempt to self regulate under Justice Verma simply isn’t working?

Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, it is not working at all. One of the reasons is there must be some fear in the media.
Karan Thapar: Absence of a stick means the media gets away with it?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, absolutely. As I said in many interviews, stick will be used only in some extreme situations.
Karan Thapar: But the need for the stick is there?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, the fear must be there. Bin bhay hot na preet, Swami Tulsidas has said in Ramcharitmanas.
Karan Thapar: So in other words, there must always be a sanction the media fears. Otherwise the media will not fulfil its role and act, in your eyes, properly?
Justice Markandey Katju: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: Now, so far what steps have you taken or what steps do you propose to take to bring news television or the electronic media as a whole under the ambit of the Press Council?
Justice Markandey Katju: Well, I have written to the Prime Minister that electronic media should be brought under the Press Council. It should be called the media council and also should be given more teeth. Those teeth will be used in an extreme situation. I met Mrs Ambika Soni, the minister of Information and Broadcasting, to whom I gave the letter addressed to the Prime Minister and I have received a reply from the Prime Minister that they are considering it. On Friday, I met Mrs Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the Opposition, and I gave her the copy of the letter and I said unless there is consensus between both the national parties, the bill will not go through.
Karan Thapar: What response did you get from Mrs Swaraj?
Justice Markandey Katju: She said in this case, probably there will be a consensus.
Karan Thapar: Now, you said that you’ve received a response from the Prime Minister. What did he indicate in his response? Is he open to your idea?
Justice Markandey Katju: No, he just wrote that we are considering it. I got a written letter, I haven’t met him. I have sought an appointment with him.
Karan Thapar: But the Prime Minister has said that he’s considering it?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, he’s considering it and Mrs Sushma Swaraj, in fact, when I met her yesterday, I told her that look, this was your suggestion in Parliament. She said, ‘Yes it was my suggestion that electronic media should be brought under Press Council.’
Karan Thapar: So the position is as follows: the Prime Minister is considering your suggestion, which suggests, that perhaps he’s open to the idea.
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Mrs Swaraj has in a sense endorsed it, which suggests that the BJP supports it. Have I summed it up correctly?
Justice Markandey Katju: Yes, that’s right.
Karan Thapar: Now you’ve also asked for greater teeth for the Press Council. You think it needs to be able to bite more effectively. I know you are going to use it only in extreme situations, but what sort of additional powers do you want?
Justice Markandey Katju: I want powers to stop government advertisements, I want powers to suspend the license of that media for a certain period if it behaves in a very obnoxious manner. I want powers to impose fines, all this in extreme situations. Normally, if a media commits a mistake, I’ll call them, I’ll discuss with them that this is not proper and 80 per cent people can be reformed by persuasion.
Karan Thapar: But this is to be used if the media proves to be, to use your phrase, ‘incorrigible’?
Justice Markandey Katju: That’s right.
Karan Thapar: Now in fact your exact phrase was if the media proves to be incorrigible, harsh measures may be required, some people think that’s a threat to the Freedom of Press.
Justice Markandey Katju: Listen, everybody is accountable in a democracy. No freedom is absolute. Every freedom is subject to reasonable restrictions. I’m accountable, you are accountable. We are accountable to the people.
Karan Thapar: And the media must be accountable as well?
Justice Markandey Katju: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: And that means the media must accept and respect restrictions?
Justice Markandey Katju: That’s right.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Romila Thapar on the Ramayana

The Hindu carried last Friday (Op-ed page, 28 October), a lengthy interview of historian Romila Thapar. It focused on the decision of the Academic Council of Delhi University to drop from the BA syllabus, the controversial essay on the Ramayana by the poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan.

In introducing the interview, the paper noted that the Academic Council decision came three years after "the Hindutva student body, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) vandalized DU's History Department to protest against the teaching of this essay."

As I noted in an earlier post, the essay is a very insubstantial treatment of a topic rich in historical significance but the academic combatants of the so-called "secular Left" have risen in its defence as a matter of politics, not scholarship.

That was, in fact, Thapar's first point. She noted that the ABVP activists had arranged for television cameras to be on hand, and that their primary objection to the essay was that it "hurt the sentiments of the Hindu community." That was "hardly an academic demand. And quite clearly, the way in which the activity was organised, it was an act of political opposition to the History department and to this particular essay."

Delhi University had initially appointed a four-member group of academics to look into the matter, and three of them had found in favour of retaining the essay, while the fourth said it was too nuanced and complex for undergraduate students. The University had then, in the face of a law suit, referred the matter to the Academic Council, which had voted 90:10 against retaining the essay.

Faulting that decision, Thapar returned to her primary point: "whether courses and syllabi can be changed by groups beating up faculty and vandalising departments." She thought that was "a very fundamental question which academia has to face and answer and take a position on."
Casting scorn on the ABVP activists who she doubted had even read the work they opposed, Thapar then made a highly questionable argument. She said definitively that the Valmiki Ramayana was coincidental with the Buddhist and Jain Jataka versions, and that it preceded the Tamil Kamban version by a millennium.

That is going far out on a very shaky limb, for there is no scholarly agreement on dating Valmiki's authorship. The work itself says Valmiki was a contemporary of Rama, placing him in the Treta Yuga. Scholars who have studied the descriptions of the positions of stars in the Ramayana have suggested that it was written 7000 years BCE (before the current era). That would place it at about the time when the many tribes of India were jelling into the interdependent castes of new kingdoms supported by the spread of agricultural civilization.

In noting the variations of the Jataka versions from Valmiki's story -- Ravana as a respected figure, Rama and Sita as brother and sister, and other oddities -- neither Ramanujan in his essay nor Thapar in The Hindu interview, pointed to the obvious explanation, that the variants were Buddhist/Jain efforts to co-opt/subvert a much loved Hindu tradition.

Thapar is disdainful of the argument that the Ramanujan essay is too difficult for Delhi University instructors to explain to undergraduate students. She has surely not considered that any adequate explanation will have to explore the matter of inter-religious propaganda wars in a wider context. If academic freedom requires retention of the essay in the syllabus, should Delhi University require the study also of The Satanic Verses and The Da Vinci Code? Should it diversify its faculty and course offerings to reflect the views that were ignored until students turned to hooliganism?

Understanding History: 1. Colonial Constructs

What passes for “history” today is an intellectual construct of the colonial era that originated in the effort by Europeans to explain their sudden global dominance.

It appeared to them that they were innately superior in many ways, one being a unique sense of the past. Beginning with the German theorist Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), it became a fashion to assert that only Europeans had a sense of history. Herder saw societies in China, India and the Americas as experiencing change but not possessed of the capacity to perceive it as cumulative development; their past was thus not history in the European sense.

Europeans acknowledged Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 to 425 BC) as the “Father of History” for his chatty account of how Greece and Persia became enemies. (It began, he says, with the reciprocal kidnappings of nubile princesses.) A younger contemporary, Thucydides (460 to 400 BC), departed from tradition by not mentioning the Olympian gods as active participants in human affairs (the Peloponnesian War), and got credit for being the first to separate history from religion.

The “historiography” that Europeans developed from those roots involved a “science of history” dealing with the use of evidentiary sources, and a “philosophy of history” exploring its nature and aims. The European mainstream moved towards the belief that the “real past” was unknowable because knowledge of it was inescapably limited: at best, an individual historian could make an honest assessment of the evidence available, and leave overall truths about the past to emerge over time.

In the 1930s the widely influential Oxford Professor R. G. Collingwood put history at a yet farther remove from reality with the argument, in The Idea of History, that the dead past and the living present were separate in Nature, and were brought together only in the human imagination. At one point in his disquisition, he wrote, “The historian cannot have certain knowledge of what the past was in its actuality and completeness … The past in its actuality and completeness is nothing to him; and as it has finished happening, it is nothing in itself; so his ignorance of it is no loss.”

 A subset of thinkers, most prominently Karl Marx (1818-1883), conceived an even narrower frame for history, rooting it in the process by which a society generated wealth: those who controlled “the means of production” viewed the past in the perspective of their own “class interests.” Marx saw societies developing along a predictable line. The “primitive communism” of hunter-gatherer tribal society gave way with the coming of agriculture to the dominance of those who controlled the use of land (feudalism); when the wealth generated from land reached a certain tipping point “bourgeois capitalism” emerged, followed by the imperialism of those who used capital to control all other means of production. Violent revolution would then destroy capitalism (and the entire class of capitalists), usher in “socialism,” followed by the equitable heaven of advanced communism.

Thus, while mainstream European historians groped around in the past like blind men examining an elephant, each declaring his or her own perception, and every successive generation of scholars generated revisionist views reflecting their different personal and social perspectives, Marxists developed a firmly deterministic sense of the historical process. In reality, both Marxist and mainstream European historians tended to be obedient not to their declared principles but to the prevailing power structure of their societies; they differed mainly in hiding/declaring their role as ideological instruments.

While Europe was evolving its peculiar historiographies, its intellectual elite developed a smug sense of superiority towards India that reflected the prejudices of Christian missionaries and the gossip of traders. John Locke (1632-1704) was typical, dismissing India’s rich philosophical tradition (ironically, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding), with a passing reference to “the poor Indian philosopher” who believed the world was held up by an elephant, and when asked what supported the elephant, said it was a turtle which stood on something he knew not what.

The East India Company compounded European ignorance of India by publishing a six-volume History of British India by James Mill (1773-1836), a London journalist who wrote his opus without ever visiting the country or knowing any of its languages.

Mill trashed Indian history as a “monstrous and absurd” concoction of legends and myths. In fact, said he, Indian society “presented a very uniform appearance during the long interval from the visit of the Greeks [under Alexander] to that of the English.” Their “annals … from that era till the period of the Mohomedan conquests, are a blank.” Believing that the “meritorious researches of the modern Europeans,” were responsible for what we know about the Indian past, Mill declared:

“We cannot describe the lives of their kings, or the circumstances and results of a train of battles. But we can show how they lived together as members of the community, and of families; how they were arranged in society; what arts they practiced, what tenets they believed, what manners they displayed; under what species of government they existed; and what character, as human beings, they possessed.”

He endorsed the view that the “sudden, violent, and unprepared revolutions incident to barbarians,” were “so much guided by caprice, and terminate so often in cruelty, that they disgust us by the uniformity of their appearance, and it is rather fortunate for letters that they are buried in silence and oblivion.” In that respect, there was “perhaps but little to regret in the total absence of Hindu records.” Mill’s ignorant views came to be standard throughout Europe.

 Even observers with a high regard for India saw it as having no history. The German philosopher Hegel declared in his History of Philosophy how surprising it was that “a land so rich in intellectual products, and those of the profoundest order of thought, has no History.” India, he said, “has not only ancient books relating to religion, and splendid poetical productions, but also ancient codes; the existence of which latter kind of literature has been mentioned as a condition necessary to the origination of History – and yet History itself is not found.”

Marx explained that lack of history in terms of what he called the “Asiatic mode of production.” Toiling away in the library of the British Museum, never having set foot anywhere in Asia, he pontificated on the “unchangeableness of Asiatic societies” brought on by the “simplicity” of the village economy. Except for the tithe paid to the larger structure of the state, villages consumed what they produced, and were not involved in the exchange of commodities; they remained “untouched by the storm-clouds of the political sky.” Indian society, Marx declared, “has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history is but the history of successive intruders on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society.”

D. D. Kosambi (1907-1966), the avowedly Marxist Indian historian has pointed out how wrong that assessment was: “the greatest periods of Indian history, the Mauryan, the Satavahana Gupta, owed nothing to intruders” yet marked “the formation and spread of the basic village society or the development of new trade centres.” He also questioned Marx’s explanation that a lack of historical sense arose from the “Asiatic mode of production,” noting China’s “great annals, court and family records, inscriptions, coins,” and archeological excavations that provided a chronology “virtually undisputed from 841 BCE down.”

Most Marxist historians have not let such facts get in the way of the Master’s theory, and India became in their view the archetype of the “timeless East.”

To be continued

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dim Outlook

Outlook magazine has just celebrated its 16th anniversary with an issue devoted to “Generation Awesome;” it tells how “India’s young are driving the change in politics, business, sport, music, news – and beyond.”

I hate to rain on a birthday party, but the issue seems a last-minute effort, with a disparate guest-list babbling rather incoherently about their presumed areas of expertise.

The piece that caught my eye as particularly requiring comment was “Past Forward” by novelist Amish Tripathi (The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas). Headlined “Mom, Give Me Shakti!”(an Indianization, he tells us, of "the Force be with You"), it was written in response to a request from Outlook for a “message to youth."

Tripathi's “message” is a dump on older Indians who complain that youngsters are losing touch with the country’s ancient culture. He sees the complainers as the real problem. They fall into two categories, he says, “India-glorifiers” and the “India-rejecters,” both equally close-minded, and thus fundamentally unlike Indians in their days of ancient greatness. The greatness of ancient India was, “at the core, all about confident open-mindedness.”

As evidence of such open-mindedness, he points to all kinds of things, ranging from Vedic Sanskrit (very different from the classical language we know today), to the “art of making idli ... probably learnt from Indonesia.” The point is a bit fuzzy, but in the interests of moving on, let us pretend it makes sense.

As evidence that the young today have regained “the syncretic strength” of their ancient forbears Tripathi makes another set of confused observations. He includes feedback from readers of his novels: “a Muslim youth conveyed to me he is a proud Muslim but he is inspired by the concept of Har Har Mahadev; a Hindu youngster wrote in to appreciate the fact that I keep saying inshah’Allah despite being a devout Hindu.”

In the past, India’s “open-minded and accepting society” enjoyed “mind-numbing” success. One sign of that success: “Despite not having massive gold mines, India has amongst the largest gold hordes (sic) in the world. Some historians believe this is the legacy of centuries of surpluses from gold-bullion-driven trade.” Tripathi thinks it is only in the last 300 years that Indians forgot “the true essence” of their ancient culture, and as a consequence, “lost their mojo.”

That was not because of British rule but “because we forgot who we were. We forgot our core culture. We forgot our confident open-mindedness. … The self-assured mixture of religions for centuries gave way to insecure exclusivist thoughts. Scientific temper declined … Unlike Japan, we did not capitalize on the great industrial advancements of the Western world. And then began our decline.” Mercifully, the analysis of that failure is not extensive, but it is enough to make clear Tripathi is almost wholly ignorant about the Indian past.

In that, of course, he is not alone. In my experience, most Indians have only the foggiest notion of history. (As a test, ask the next few people you meet when Indian nationalists first declared the aim of "purna swaraj.") As this state of postcolonial confusion has been off the radar of our politicians and intelligentsia, I will devote the next few posts to perceptions of history, Western and Indian.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Ramayana as History

Criticism of the move to drop A. K Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana from the BA History syllabus at Delhi University has been entirely predictable.

Those who wear their “secular” label on their foreheads, saw the decision to drop the essay as a response to pressure from the Hindutva brigade. Some Press reports said the Hindutvadis considered the essay “blashphemous.”

“Cultural fascism” said some. “Talibanizing history” said others. "A matter of academic freedom" said milder folk. The truly fatuous decried the attempt to negate the Ramayana as "a continuing, many-sided conversation between cultures and religions."

It was as if the country had hit a time warp and woken up in the 1980s with its poisonous "Left-Secular" v "Right-Hindutva" confrontation.

I think we should all take a breather and re-examine what the essay contributes to our understanding of the past.

Ramanujan’s essay is nothing more than a testament to the enduring popularity of the epic in many lands and the irrepressible creativity of those who have retold its story. It says nothing about the Ramayana's significance in Indian history or its impact on Indian society. Written for a foreign audience, the essay emphasizes what we might call the folkloric, the quaint and the bizarre.

An essay on the Ramayana of value to Indian students of history would examine its enormous role in inspiring and shaping Indian society.

For millennia, the Prince of Ayodhya has been a role model for Indians. More, it is a critically important marker in the evolution of our society.

The story of Rama brought into the daily life of India the philosophical wisdom of the Upanishads.

The Ramayana records and justifies the emergence of the unitary State, not the Leviathan of enforced national security as in Hobbesian Europe, but acclaimed in the person of the virtuous and beloved king.

Rama is not an all-powerful dictator to whom people bend in awe but a popular ruler solicitous of his people's opinion in all things. He even rejects Sita because of murmurs among the citizens of Ayodhya that her pregnancy soon after returning from Ravana’s clutches implied a violation that made her unfit to be queen. In that, as in his self-doubt and anguish at critical points of the story, Rama is everyman. As king, he is a democrat.

 In the devotion to his father, love for Sita, loyalty to Laxman, and generosity towards Kaikei, he is the archetype of the good family man. He goes to war not to extend his kingdom or for profit but to regain his wife. In his misfortunes he is graceful, in victory he is modest. Rama is the God-king next door, neighbourly, considerate and kind.

In short, Rama is accessible to all Indians regardless of status or caste, a point the Ramayana underlines in many ways. Perhaps most striking is the legend of Valmiki the author of the Ramayana, the low born brigand whose devotion to Rama makes him India's First Poet-Sage. Repeatedly, the narrative underlines Rama's openness to all people. The gods applaud when the prince sits comfortably with the low caste forest-dweller Guha. A poor woman offers fruit to him after biting into it to make sure it is sweet; Lakshman protests but Rama silences him; she acts out of love. That unforced love of the ruler is the basis for Ramrajya – Rama’s virtuous rule – the widely held ideal of the Indian state for thousands of years.

Another point an essay written for Indian students might explore is the significance of Rama's insistence on going into exile to make good his father's old pledge. It makes clear the critical importance the Ramayana places on the integrity of the king, the ultimate guarantor of the safety and security of the state.

It might also be useful to get the young thinking about how India's rise from foreign domination by mobilizing the best of its tradition, and its success in maintaining democratic rule in the face of staggering odds, owe a great deal to values we can trace back to the Ramayana.

In the face of all this, I am all for dropping Ramanujan’s essay purely on the basis that it is a tawdry, insubstantial treatment of a great subject.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ye Olde British Cultural History

The following came my way with no indication of authorship. To whoever wrote it, thank you for a great bit of cultural history. All of it might not be true, but it is amusing.

There is an old Hotel/Pub in Marble Arch, London that used to have a gallows adjacent to it. When prisoners were on their way to be hanged their horse-drawn prison cart would stop outside the pub and the guard would ask the prisoner if he wanted ''ONE LAST DRINK''.

If he had a drink it was "ONE FOR THE ROAD." If he declined, he was "ON THE WAGON."

Urine was a saleable item in Britain, for it was used to tan animal skins. Poor families used to all pee in a pot for sale to the nearest tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were "PISS POOR." Even worse off were those who did not "HAVE A POT TO PISS IN."

The popularity of June weddings dates back to the time when the British used to bathe once a year. That annual wash was usually at the end of May. In June everyone smelled pretty good, and bride and groom could get pleasantly intimate. Just to be on the safe side, though, brides carried a bouquet of flowers to dampen the body odour.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water. All the adult males went into the tub next in order of their age (or status), then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the warning, "DON'T THROW THE BABY OUT WITH THE BATHWATER!"
Houses in the old days had low thatched roofs piled high with straw. The straw captured the sun's warmth, so enterprising dogs and cats would go to sleep in it. When it rained and the straw became slippery animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying "IT'S RAINING CATS AND DOGS."
Bugs and mice and other critters dropped from the roof inside the house too, and that was a particular problem in the bedroom. The need to keep them off the bed led to the invention of the four-poster canopy bed.

The floors inside the homes of the wealthy were made of slate that would get slippery when wet. In winter it was customary to spread straw (thresh) on floor to help keep from slipping. To keep the straw from sliding out of the room a piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way: the THRESH-HOLD.

Most people could not afford to eat meat. A man who could afford to do so "BROUGHT HOME THE BACON." When friends gathered around such a prosperous man, they were given bits of pork and they would sit around "CHEWING THE FAT."

Bread was divided according to status. The lowliest got the burnt bottom of the loaf, those of middling status got the middle, and the toffs got the ''UPPER CRUST''

The belief that tomatoes are poisonous arose because the wealthy ate off pewter plates, from which food with high acid content leached lead. Eating tomatoes off pewter could cause lead poisoning and death.

Dying was also a tricky business in Ye Olde Britain. Corpses were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days to ensure that they were not merely drunk or unconscious. Family and friends would gather around and eat and drink and make merry as they waited for a definitive outcome. Hence the custom of ''HOLDING A WAKE.'' To make sure that the dead were really gone for good people were buried with a string tied to a finger, allowing the corpse, if it came alive, to ring a bell by the graveside.

It wasn't only in the boxing ring that you could be "SAVED BY THE BELL."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Prashant Bhushan Assault

The shameful assault on Prashant Bhushan by thugs from the Sri Ram Sene has been condemned around the country, but our political class should be aware that it too stands heavily indicted in the criminal incident.

The anger that drove the attack on Bhushan must be seen as an indication of our political failure, not only in containing and defusing it, but in the inability to forge an ironclad national consensus on Kashmir.

What Bhushan said about Kashmir -- that India should dismantle all its defensive measures and submit to a plebiscite -- cannot be looked upon merely as an issue of free speech. That is so because Kashmir is not an issue merely of territory or "self-determination."

The British destroyed millions of Indian lives to split the country on communal lines, and deliberately created the dispute over Kashmir to keep South Asia permanently at war. Our defence of Kashmir is not just of territory but of the idea of India. To declare otherwise is not just to ignore the tremendous sacrifice of Indian blood and treasure to protect and preserve that idea, it is to open up the country yet again to brutal foreign manipulation and control.

For make no mistake about it. When British proxies like Bhushan and Arundhati Roy speak so blithely about India giving up Kashmir, they are opening up the rest of the country to new rounds of communal warfare that will certainly destroy our democratic system and our way of life.

We can condemn the Sri Ram Sene for its tactics but we must acknowledge the legitimacy of its anger. It is time the rest of us felt it too.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

NYT Blog: Why no Indian Steve Jobs?

The New York Times blog on India has an item asking, “Where’s India’s Steve Jobs?” The writer, an Indian journalist by the name of Samanth Subramaniam who seems to cater mainly to foreign magazines, admitted it was perhaps a “hollow, even narcissistic, question" because "Brazil hasn’t produced a Steve Jobs; neither has China, the Philippines, Zambia, Australia or any one of dozens of countries around the world.”  But he proceeded to address it anyway.

In doing so he did not hazard a personal opinion on the matter but noted several from a supposed expert, a business consultant on “knowledge societies,” who blamed India’s failure to produce a Steve Jobs on the inadequacy of our educational system, the years of “flirtation” with socialism, and the incapacity of the Indian economy to support success on so grand a scale.

The piece is a textbook example of feel-bad journalism.

First, consider the false presumption that Indian entrepreneurs have failed to innovate spectacularly.

As Raghunath Mashelkar pointed out in his excellent book Reinventing India (Sahayadri Prakashan, Pune, 2011, 403 pages Rs.499., there have been many cases of huge success.

There is Narayana Murthy’s Infosys, founded in his small apartment with Rs10,000 in capital, growing to a valuation of Rs. 60,000 Crores and vaulting into the front ranks of the global Information Technology industry.

There is Mumbai’s Dabbawala tiffin delivery system, a daily miracle of business organization without parallel anywhere in the world.

There is Dr. Kurien’s “white revolution” that helped make India the world’s top milk producer and Dirubhai Ambani’s soap company that emerged from a Mumbai chawl to become India’s largest business conglomerate.

There are the anonymous scientists of C-DAC who developed an indigenous supercomputing capacity in three years after Cold War politics denied India access to the Cray XMP-1205 in the 1980s.

There is the Indian Space Research Organization, overcoming the same Cold War restraints to design and build domestic capacity from scratch, making India one of the leading nations in the field.

As Mashelkar's book noted, innovation has also thrived outside the organized sector and without government support. When the National Innovation Foundation set up three years ago under his chairmanship organized an annual competition, it received over a thousand submissions the first year and 16,000 the second year. The winners included illiterate and semi-literate people. An illiterate farmer won with a disease resistant pea he had developed, another with a cardamom variety that now accounts for 80 per cent of the crop in Kerala; a high-school dropout got an award for building a complex robot.

 The problem in India is not that we lack success stories but that we do not celebrate them and do not see ourselves as winners. Despite awards ceremonies to recognize excellence and the occasional programme on successful people, our mass media focus consistenly on the negative. Even in reporting the grand and glamorous success of the Indian film industry, the largest in the world, they emphasize the negative. Their label, Bollywood, focuses on the monkey-see-monkey-do aspect of Indian films, ignoring their homegrown verve and grace. Can you imagine the Japanese media labelling their film industry Jollywood? Or the Chinese describing their’s as Chollywood?

The other side of the mass media projection of India as a semi-comic failure is a consistent promotion and celebration of the meretricious foreign. Our major television channels are slavishly imitative of Western trends, with much of the programming lifted from British sources. People are so used to this that few are aware of how bizarre it is, or indeed, how subversive. HBO India is running a month-long programme of James Bond movies sponsored by Tata Manza, with daily email updates on “Bond Girls” delivered to your computer.

The “HB007” promo promises to trace the “evolution” of the “licensed to kill” operative over the years. I am pretty sure it won’t include any reference to the real-life license to kill that Britain exercised in India, targeting not oversize “Bond villains” but Indian freedom fighters, with vast collateral damage. The death toll, if we include the punitive “man-made” famine of 1943 in Bengal and the engineered Partition “riots,” runs into the millions.

As Mashelkar says, the problem “is not the Indian mind but the Indian mindset.”

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Activist Manifesto for Rio+20

Environmental activists going to the "Rio+20" Conference in Brazil next June  should use it for two things primarily: to springboard civil society action aimed at bringing about global change, and to reject the governmental agenda.

The reason for rejecting governmental proposals is simple: for four decades official action has been ineffective.

The world today is far more polluted than it was in 1972 when the UN convened the first world conference on the environment. Numerous new problems have surfaced, ranging from the accelerating extinction of species to global warming, and there is a grim pall over every environmental prospect we can see or imagine.

The basic problem with the governmental approach is that it is inadequate. Improved environmental standards and controls cannot "green" the world economy as it tries to cater to six billion poor people hoping to become "developed" and live like the rich. The belief that new technologies can make much difference in this scenario is little more than fervent corporate faith.

Governmental action has been constrained by the fear of damaging the wealth-creating capacity of the existing economic system. Big corporations, which fear radical change because they inevitably reduce profits, have been the primary promoters of caution.

So what can environmental activists do at Rio+20 to change this situation?

They should adopt their own plan of action and begin implementing it with or without the support of governments. (Governmental support is a certainty once power brokers see that they will be cut out of the action if they do not participate.)

The Plan of Action should consist of the following steps:

1. Network: Activists should create a global electronic network arranged in an easily accessible hierarchy (local, national, regional, global), to facilitate sharing of information, interactive discussion, and concerted action.

2. Organize: Activists should work with entrepreneurs and leaders of small business to establish community-level organizations for cooperative action. (This will be good for business, so gaining entrepreneurial support should not be difficult.) As these units develop and proliferate they should become the basic units of the global network.

3. Survey & Monitor: Using the network to share the best available expertise (including that of the UN Environment Programme), activists should begin a global environmental survey based on community-level feedback. It should put in place a permanent environmental monitoring system capable of providing real time status reports for consideration by governments at the national, regional and global levels

4. Analyze: Analysis of the data collected by the Survey should indicate the need for remedial and preventive actions, their scope and cost. In contrast to existing analyses, those generated by activist networks can be expected to pull no punches in identifying what needs to change, and where.

5. Educate & Mobilize: The community level organizations and their networks should be engaged in educating and mobilizing popular support for environmental action.

 Energetic implementation of these steps should create a global apparatus for effective action from the local to global levels. It should also create the general public awareness and support for continuing action.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Largest Bank Heist in History

There are several levels at which we can understand the “debt crisis.”

As currently reported by the mass media, it is a crisis of the 17-nation Eurozone centered on the inability of the government of Greece to service a national debt of nearly half a trillion dollars.

If we step back a bit, the crisis grows larger. Because banks in most developed countries hold varying amounts of foreign sovereign debt, the entire global financial system is at risk of collapse. That would throw the world economy into a deep recession, causing a vicious downward spiral of layoffs, manufacturing cutbacks, and falling trade.

China would also be seriously affected. Its “workshop of the world” path to booming growth has landed it in a position where a financial collapse in major Western countries will implode its huge manufacturing economy. That would set off a global deflation of commodity prices, bringing misery to many developing countries dependent on their export for much of their income.

If we step back even further from this looming global crisis and look at the fundamental nature of the problem, we can understand it as one of corruption and abuse of power by a small financial elite.

Borrowing has been an essential part of the growth of the global economy over the last four hundred years, but it was always an ancillary factor. What has happened in the last two decades is that those who lend money have got into the driver’s seat, and flooded the world with credit as an easy means of increasing their own income. With greed getting the better of common sense, they then recklessly packaged this debt, much of it to people and institutions without the capacity to repay, into “investments.”

The banking system in developed countries through which this financial elite operates, bought those “investments” on a massive scale, spreading the bad debt to the portfolios of a whole range of investors, including pension funds, universities and insurance companies. In 2008, when these follies first came to a head, governments used taxpayer money to prevent a disastrous and far-reaching collapse. In effect, the financiers got away with the largest bank heist in history, leaving ordinary people to pay for their theft.

 As governments resorted to austerity measures to cope with the unsustainable burdens of debts imposed on their own populations without consultation, there has been rising popular anger. Some sections of the media have resurrected Marxist terminology in presenting this anger in terms of “class war.” However, it is far from that; public anger is directed not at the business community or at the rich generally, but at a very small and powerful set of financial operators.  

Understood in those terms, the current situation offers an opportunity for a creative response beyond the “haircuts” imposed on banks and legal action against those seen to have acted irresponsibly. Social activists, small and medium businesses and credit unions should network to create a new community-based financial infrastructure. That would not only insulate the larger economy from the current crisis, it would be a decisive check on the power of a financial elite that has long outlived its utility.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What Are They Advertising?

What exactly is Z Cafe advertising in a commercial that explicitly promotes drug use?

What does Tata Dokomo think it is selling when it shows a car rocking rhymically in the dark?

There's an element in Indian advertising that is not selling anything but subversion of our social values.

Take that company selling sunglasses and wallets with the pitch line "Why the world moved to ... ". It seems to be selling the idea that women are sluts.

The basic concept of advertising is that products are associated with images/values appealing to the target audience. What kind of market research are these ads based on?

Did the agency that produced the Tata Aria ad showing a middle-aged Englishman declaring to his wife that he is a Secret Agent, really expect that it would have any impact with an Indian audience?

Indian commercials are unlike those in any other major country in their use of models who are nothing like the target audience. One recent commercial showed a band of White skinned surfers running to the sea. Another showed a chocolate man vowing White girls by using Axe perfume.

Is this because agencies are using European commercials to save money, or do they think Indians will look up to White skinned role models? Or, in the case of skin-lightening creams (all marketed by foreign corporations), that Indians want to become White?

Perhaps it's just dim-witted admen. What else can explain the Axe slug line "Who's the man?" in commercials showing a guy lavishing perfume on himself.