Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Pulping of Wendy Doniger's Book

Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus An Alternative History (2009), is  an almost unbelievably obtuse work of 700+ pages. After a first read-skim in 2009, I summed it up thus: “A work equaled in its confusion, incomprehension and malice perhaps only by John Mills’ History and Katherine Mayo’s Mother India. “

I noted one passage in particular as exemplifying the author's overall attitude and approach; on page 294, explaining the beginnings of the story of the Mahabharata, she writes:

“Where Rama and his brothers have different mothers and different wives but share both a single human father and a single divine father, the five Pandavas have one mother (and one wife) and one human father but different divine fathers.

“In this disastrous levirate, two wives give birth to three sons (two of whom have, for great-grandparents, a female fish, two Brahmins, and five kshatriyas, while the third has a Kshatriya, a female fish, two Brahmins and four slaves. Are you still with me?)”

Doniger's writing ensures that the reader has no chance to be “with” her, and most could be forgiven for thinking the Mahabharata is a freak show. Nowhere in the book does she assay the enormous wisdom of the epic or tell of its central role in shaping India.

Can we imagine any respectable scholarly work dealing with the New Testament or the Koran in this manner?

That is not the only reason for complaint.

Doniger is a professor of Sanskrit untrained in history or theology; all her knowledge of Hinduism is a sort of accidental accretion upon a vulgar, highly sexualized sensibility.

That explains why her naive measure of Hinduism never departs from the standard of her own Judeo-Christian heritage.

On page 25 she explains earnestly, “There is no single founder or institution to enforce any single construction of the tradition, to rule on what is or is not a Hindu idea or to draw the line when someone finally goes too far and transgresses the unspoken boundaries of reinterpretation. Ideas about all the major issues – vegetarianism, nonviolence, even caste itself – are subjects of a debate, not a dogma. There is no Hindu canon. The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita), were not always so highly regarded by ‘all Hindus,’ certainly not before the Euro-Americans began to praise them.”

She thinks vegetarianism, nonviolence and caste are the "major issues" of Hinduism?! And even more nonsensical is the observation about the Gita. Similar absurdities litter almost every one of the 692 pages of the main text.

From the Hindu tendency to debate all things about their faith, Doniger deduces that “there is no such thing as Hinduism in the sense of a single unified religion…” The whole book is an extended argument of the well-worked colonial theme that Hinduism does not exist.

She seems oblivious to the fact that it is not a virtue in a religion to be "single" and "unified," for their inevitable corollaries are Inquisitions, fundamentalisms and wars. Hinduism is undefinable because it is focused on that most overweening of all realities, God.(See here for a series on Hinduism.)

Many other errors and falsifications are picayune. Chapter 21 takes us on a "fast gallop" over the "two centuries during which India was part of the British Empire."
Now which two centuries would that be?

Bengal fell to the British in 1757. Over the next 100 years British rule expanded slowly across the country; Punjab was taken in 1849. Then came the earthshaking events of 1857. After that their rule lasted 90 years. It would be accurate to say that bits and pieces of India were under British rule for a two-century period; overall, some 3/5ths of the country was part of it for half that time.

On page 574 she highlights the "Black Hole of Calcutta" as causing "dozens of deaths," and a few pages later, gives details, drastically lowering the number of British prisoners (146) that imperial propagandists had reported held in a dungeon under inhuman conditions, killing 123.

The story of the Black Hole was originally cooked up six months after the supposed atrocity by the head Calcutta honcho of the East India Company as he sailed back to Britain. His motive was to justify the aggression that brought Bengal under British rule, and it worked like a charm; no one in London thought of questioning how 146 Englishmen (and one woman) could possibly have fit in a cell 18 feet by 14.

It is a mystery why Doniger reprised the story in 2009 as if were true and falsified figures to make it seem believable.
But it does put the book in context and explain its dedication to British propagandist William Dalrymple, “inspiration and comrade in the good fight.”

I am sorry to see any book destroyed, but cannot join in the general censure of Penguin India. Its editors should have seen this coming a long way off and imposed a minimum of quality control.  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Has Ambekar "Beaten Gandhi Hollow"?

The dishonesties of newspaper columnists are usually petty and insignificant, but not so with Swaminathan Aiyar's assault on the Mahatma in the Times of India on 9 February; it is a very large attack on the truth.

Its first sentence claims that: "January 30, the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, drove home the growing irrelevance of the father of the nation."


Why, Trinamool cabinet ministers in Calcutta did not attend the official ceremonies on the occasion, and the Mayor of Mumbai forgot too. Also, a "newspaper poll some years ago," showed "two-thirds of all voters thought that Sonia Gandhi was related to Mahatma Gandhi."

This is very weak tea and Aiyar moves quickly to a new brew: he claims Bhimrao Ambedkar "has posthumously beaten the Mahatma hollow."

He does not explain how that contest was arranged. Perhaps the statement that Ambedkar is "the icon of all dalits" is a gesture in that direction. For some reason, Aiyar seems to disregard the millions of us non-dalits who also consider Babasaheb iconic; not to mention the hundreds of millions who consider both men heroes.
But all this is preliminary throat-clearing; Aiyar's main theme is Ambedkar's opposition to Gandhi's idea that India should be composed of self-ruling villages. He quotes Ambedkar's rejection of panchayat raj in the Bombay Legislative Council on the grounds that a “population which is hidebound by caste ... infected by ancient prejudices ... flouts equality of status and is dominated by notions of gradations in life" cannot "be expected to have the right notions even to discharge bare justice.”

That view "continues to ring true eight decades later," Aiyar declares. As evidence of village-level infamy he points to the "mass killing of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar; the regressive "khap panchayats" in Haryana and Punjab; the recent West Bengal khap panchayat that ordered gang rape of a woman with a Muslim lover; the 2012 arson in a Tamil Nadu village after a dalit boy eloped with a  Vanniyar girl; and, in the same state, the "several cases" of intimidation that kept dalits from occupying reserved panchayat seats.

That is still a very weak case against Panchayat Raj, and to shore it up Aiyar throws in a reference to World Bank "research" confirming that "the world over, central governments tend to be far more egalitarian and secular in outlook than villages." He adds: "What Ambedkar said of hidebound villages is a global truth."

As a student of the Bank's research output for over four decades, I find it a bit hard to believe that it produced that definitive hold-all finding. I could be wrong, but it sounds more like something out of an Oxfam brochure or, at a stretch, a Human Development Report from UNDP

If Aiyar had looked closer home he would have found that the actual Indian experience with Panchayati Raj has been overwhelmingly positive.

Things got off to a slow start because Ambedkar's fears were widely shared. Parliament took 40 years to enact constitutional provisions into law and enable a system of directly elected bodies with quotas for women and Scheduled Castes/Tribes; and in the early years funding was limited and progress slowed by a corrupt nexus of conservative bureaucrats and caste leaders threatened by democracy.

However, by the beginning of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012), there were some 250,000 elected village-level bodies, with 3.2 million elected members, over a third of them women.

By then, their functioning had finally won the confidence of the Planning Commission. It increased funding 471 percent to Rs.775 crores (approximately $168 million), noting that although achievements in the past had not been commensurate with expenditures, the Panchayat system had proved to be a laboratory “of multi-level pluralist democracy, facilitating the achievements of consensus on development issues at the lowest level of government."

Experience had shown that at “the local level, groups learn to co-exist, cooperate, negotiate and arrive at acceptable decisions and even marginalized groups can gain confidence and move on from token participation to higher forms of direct social action for the collective good."

The realization of the effectiveness of Panchayat Raj has not led to any rethinking of the main thrust of Indian economic development. It has continued in the 12th Five Year Plan (2013 -2018) towards industrialization, with tall talk of "corridors" for manufacturing across the length and breadth of the country.

This points to a basic disconnect at the highest levels of Indian policy-making, and it should make ordinary Indians extremely anxious, for it shows that our leaders still think of "development" purely in terms of GDP growth and not the welfare of the people. Consider the following facts:
  1. India is tooling itself to fit into a world economy that is in a state of terminal crisis. 
  2. It is making itself part of patterns of global production and exchange that are killing the life-sustaining systems of the planet.
  3. In the process, it is destroying the basis for Indian productivity, both by unbalancing the complex patterns of social and ecological interdependence in the countryside and by paving over rich farmland for luxury housing and shopping malls.
  4. The result is an ever more obscene gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else: the net worth of India's billionaires increased 12-fold in 15 years. As IMF chief Christine Lagarde noted recently, that money could have eliminated poverty in the country -- twice over.
  5. There is massive proof, made concrete in China, that rapid industrialization will cause a whole slew of new problems, including massive despoliation of air, land and water, and a huge new burden of environment-related illnesses, especially cancer.  
  6. The more we industrialize, the sharper we will feel international pressures through manipulated energy prices and rigged currency markets. 
Mahatma Gandhi's advice that India should seek to revive its villages as the means of advance was not some idealistic pipedream. He knew Indian ground realities better than any other politician of his generation or since; what he proposed would have brought growth where it mattered most, to the poor. 

As things stand, if India is to survive with its traditions intact, we have no alternative but village-based development. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Is Satya Nadella's Success a Slap at India?

Amidst the general Indian celebration of Satya Nadella’s ascent to the top of Microsoft R. Jagganathan, Chief Editor of First Post, has put out a classic piece of feel-bad journalism.

He thinks it is a “slap in the face” for India because Nadella succeeded not here but in another country.

He thinks if “Satya Nadella had remained in India, he would probably be working as a coder in Infosys or TCS. Earning a high salary no doubt, but an unlikely candidate for CEO.”

Between the headline and that final indictment comes a relentless flow of negative observations about Indians.

No Indian science Nobel laureate since independence is a citizen of the country. We “kill future heroes.” Only one per cent of applicants get into IITS and IIMs because “our system is designed to keep people out, not get them in.” It is because only “superlisters” get into those institutions that they “shine no matter what the quality of faculty or the curriculum.”

That exclusivity “comes from our caste system, where castes try and keep others out.” India “encourages talkers rather than doers.” That makes us "obstructionist rather than problem solvers. Our politics is about name-calling and running others down, not about doing something yourself.”

We do have "rare achievers" like Election Commissioner TN Seshan, CAG head Vinod Rai and Delhi Metro chief E Sreedharan, and we celebrate them "so highly” but call them “dictators.” That shows we “prefer autocratic rulers rather than democratic ones.”

“We are risk-avoiders rather than risk takers.” That is why “when our kids want to become artists or cricketers, we tell them to forget it and study for IIT-JEE or CAT, never mind your own passion.”

“We celebrate mediocrity … Our system kills initiative… Our successes are more the result of accident than real effort.”

Two things are obvious from this obtuse, self-hating flow of calumny.

The first is that it comes from a man who obviously has never personally achieved anything real -- he could not dismiss success so lightly if he had.

The second is that Jagannathan is deeply dishonest in ignoring what is undoubtedly the most corrupt, imitative and third-rate area of our national life, the “elite” mass media.

The criticisms he makes are meretricious. As I have pointed out in an earlier response to feel-bad journalism, India is hardly lacking in homegrown successes.

What we lack is a media establishment capable of seeing and celebrating the great positive elements in Indian society that have allowed us to maintain our independence, democracy and traditions through a period of stress and danger unprecedented in history.

Those qualities are not abstract. They are the daily realities of hundreds of millions of individual Indian lives, endurance, ceaseless effort, equanimity in the face of high risk, love of family and a clarifying sense of the sacred rooted in ancient history but perennially renewed.

When combined with professional skill and high intelligence, it makes for a Satya Nadella.

To see the lack of similar success for many with shared qualities in India as a slap in the face of an anonymous "system" is typical of our deracinated "elite" media. It is based on the stupid and dangerous presumption that our society can and should be an imitation of the United States.

I have split my life in almost equal halves between the two countries and know they are fundamentally different.

The United States is the most modern of social experiments, founded in a written constitution just past its 225th anniversary (2012). It has been a work in progress, evolving towards the ideals of human freedom and democratic governance until the Ismay-Churchill coup of 1946 empowered an unconstitutional "military-industrial" establishment. With Edward Snowden the fight to regain constitutional America has been joined, and it will unquestionably be won. 

India is a society that has evolved for many thousands of years, its castes rooted in tribes that unified under the philosophical recognition of a common sacred reality. It has seen many ups and downs over the millenniums, and  is now in a period of renaissance that Guru Nanak set in motion over five centuries ago. That upsurge won Indian political independence but has not yet returned our society to its ancient capacity for original thought and social adaptation.   

Although the Indian Constitution borrowed heavily from the American, the challenges we face are far more complex than in the United States. While seeking the same democratic life we must move the whole complex apparatus of our ancient society without permanent injury to the many groups unable at present to defend their own interests.

That is what makes India "inefficient" in Western eyes; it is what offends the murky interests behind Narendra Modi; it is the reality that the bought and sold analysts of our "elite" media do not see.

Unless we have inspired political leadership, the current situation will lead to violence, for there is a great deal of unscrupulous greed closing in on India. An example is the Essar Group (the Ruia brothers, whose initials, S and R make up their corporate name); its "BPO unit" in the United States is staffed predominantly with American servicemen who could at some point generate a Blackwater type private army. Some years ago, an Essar employee was caught with money for Naxalites, and before that, the corporation helped insert Vodafone into the Indian market using black money and avoiding taxes. Clearly, the brothers let very little stand in the way of making money.

If the so-called radicals and corporate mercenaries engage in an escalating conflict India could easily end up like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a variety of militias fighting endlessly for turf as corporations steal our resources and ruin our society.   

Jagannathan and his tribe will probably see that as a necessary step to "development."

Friday, February 7, 2014

Of Billy Budd, Ishrat Jahan and Democracy

Herman Melville’s unfinished novel, Billy Budd, tells of a young sailor kidnapped off an American ship, The Rights of Man, to serve on the HMS Bellipotent.

The year is 1797, two decades after the American Revolution put in place the world’s first democratic government.

The story is blatantly allegorical.

The Rights of Man is the title of Thomas Paine’s enormously influential book supporting the new American ideology; the name of the British ship, Bellipotent, is Latin for “Potent in War.”

Looking at his own ship sailing away, Billy shouts, “Good-bye to you old Rights of Man!”

On the warship, he has no rights.

Its Master at Arms, envious of Billy’s sunny innocence and instant popularity with the crew, accuses him of planning a mutiny. Billy, too tongue-tied to express his outrage, hits the man, causing a fall that kills him.

The Captain of the Bellipotent knows that Billy is innocent but sentences him to hang. The official Gazette report of these events justifies the punishment by presenting Billy as a villainous foreigner who stabbed and killed the Master at Arms as part of a planned mutiny.

More than a century after Melville wrote the novel (during the run up to the Spanish-American War that brought the Philippines under American rule), the HMS Bellipotent is once more entrapping, defaming and killing innocents.

The “War on Terror” has become the rationale for democratic governments to do inexcusable things to “suspects” who have done nothing and have no recourse in the face of false accusations and stealthy murder.

In the United States, the illegalities of the prison at Guantanamo and the “renditioning” of suspected terrorists to torture in other countries have disappeared into a penumbra of acceptance as dirty but necessary realities. Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance have woken a larger section of society to the misuse of elite power, but the head of the NSA can still get away with saying that journalists who question his agency are helping terrorists.

In India, the kidnapping and cold blooded murder of 19-year old Ishrat Jahan and the wrongful imprisonment of the accused in the Malegaon blast case have become national scandals, but remedial action has been inconsequential.

The CBI has now charge-sheeted four officers of the Intelligence Bureau in Ishrat’s staged “encounter” killing, but it seems prosecution will require the consent of the Law Ministry.

If the government does not allow prosecution, it will be justly accused of joining the conspiracy, not just for murder but also for inflicting grievous damage to Indian democracy.

Not only should the four IB officers be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, the Government must use the case to subject the inner workings of the Intelligence Bureau to stringent examination and reform.

Established in the colonial era as an instrument of oppression, the IB operates today without legal basis or a shred of accountability, either to Parliament or to the Executive branch.

The need to bring the agency within a democratic and accountable framework is urgent, for it is slated to have a vast new system of electronic surveillance.

I do not have to guess what such a system will do, for as a journalist writing on controversial matters, I am subject to close surveillance and continuing interference.

The most recent example was yesterday.

Both my phones stopped working shortly after I emailed their numbers to Kishore Mahbubani (who I had known as Singapore’s Ambassador at the United Nations), so that we could arrange to meet during his visit to the Festival of Ideas in Goa.

Every call I make brings on a fruity voice announcing “network congestion.” One phone occasionally flashes a sign that “Active call redirect has been activated.”

This is the least of the transgressions I have endured over the past year, but that story will be told in a book arguing that if we do not get the IB into an accountable framework it will mean the death of Indian democracy.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Britain's True Role in Operation Blue Star

As I predicted, the “investigation” into the disclosure that Britain clandestinely “advised India” on Operation Blue Star has turned up nothing believable; but it has clarified one thing.

Britain’s proxy media in India are entirely unjustified in reporting that “Mrs. Gandhi asked for British help” in the 1984 assault on terrorists holed up in the Golden Temple.

It turns out there was a request from an anonymous “Intelligence” entity in India; the British thought it had Mrs. G’s authorization. Considering that the evidence of a "request" could have been generated by a mole expressly to cover Britain's real role in the Punjab, there is very little in the revelations so far that we can take seriously.   

Why are our suborned "elite" media reporting this fake story as a scandal?

I think they are following a game plan aimed at manipulating the Sikh community.

The British have a long history of such manipulation.

It goes all the way back to 1849 when, after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, they defeated the leaderless Sikhs and took as a “gift” from his 12-year old son the priceless Kohinoor diamond. They took the boy too and debauched him with opium and sex in Britain to prevent his emergence as a leader. He died under mysterious circumstances while trying, as an adult, to return to India.

During and after the 1857 Indian war of independence, the British made out that the Sikhs had supported their savage repressions, when, as Amaresh Misra has pointed out, the great majority of the community were supportive of the national struggle. 

At Partition, the British inflicted heavy costs on all Indians, but they were especially vindictive towards the Sikhs: the new border cut the community in half and gave Pakistan some of its holiest places of pilgrimage.

More recently, the manipulation has involved the Khalistan movement and its aftermath.  

The violent upsurge of the Khalistan movement coincided with the appearance in Mumbai of one Mark Bullough, a member of the elite Scots Guards unit of the British Army. He had fought in the 1982 war in the Falklands and was obviously a career military man; but oddly, he came to India as the Director of Hong Kong-based investment bank, Jardine Fleming. His bank had its roots in Jardine Matheson, one of the most prominent opium traders of the 19th Century, and had a reputation for being neck-deep in British spooks. During Bullough’s time in Mumbai Punjab saw the worst violence, ostensibly funded by anonymous “rich Sikhs” in Britain, Canada and the United States. (As I have noted in an earlier post, Bullough's decade-long presence in Asia -- he moved from Mumbai to Hong Kong and Singapore -- coincides with a great deal other mayhem.)

In June 1984, the Indian Army ousted a band of heavily armed terrorists occupying the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar -- the Operation Blue Star for which the British claim to have provided advice. The operation created great outrage among the Sikhs, which the BBC fed with incendiary coverage; on one show, an activist called for the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The government of Margaret Thatcher dismissed a protest from the Indian government on the grounds of “Press freedom.”

A few weeks later, two Sikh members of Mrs. G’s security detail killed her as she was walking towards a BBC television crew set up for an interview on the occasion of a visit to Delhi by 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, one of Mrs. Gandhi's aides was suspected of arranging that delay, but the official inquiry exonerated him. The investigating judge noted the involvement of a foreign intelligence agency without explaining what that meant; whether he had more to say on that point is impossible to say, for a part of the report remains secret; it could be to the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). For what it’s worth, the BBC interviewer waiting for her on that fatal day was the actor Peter Ustinov, whose father had worked for MI-5 (the domestic service of SIS).

When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to Delhi for Mrs. G’s funeral, she held an extraordinary Press conference, at which a reporter asked about the incitement to murder on the BBC. 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.”

[It is necessary to note that the BBC has been from its founding an organ of State propaganda; some prominent BBC “journalists” have a reputation for being spies, a matter of concern to professionals on its staff; see this fascinating blog. The recently revealed scandal about rampant pedophiles among senior BBC staff -- one of them arranged to rape children in hospitals near his office -- can only be explained as impunity resulting from connections to the Intelligence community.]

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, killing all 329 people on board. One of the questions that has gone unanswered for three decades as Canadian prosecutors try to prove the heavily circumstantial case is why and how the amateur terrorists timed the explosion for that location. Whether it was a missile or a bomb that brought down the aircraft is an open question.

Against that background, the current controversy over a British role in Operation Blue Star appears to be an effort to manipulate the Sikh community a few weeks before a general election that will see a close contest in the Punjab.

It could also be that the effort to provide a new narrative for the events of 1984 is linked to the e-publication of my book 1001 Things Every Indian Should Know. The book tells the story outlined above about Bullough et al. Another recent development that points to MI 6 tying up loose ends is the murder of Mangla Prasad, the only living witness of the December 1995 British arms drop over Purulia, West Bengal. He disappeared early in January 2014 and his body was found on the 9th near Kiul Railway Station in Bihar; he had been strangled.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Thank You Very Much Indeed, BBC!

Someone at the BBC probably got tired of having to say "Thank you very much indeed" and decided to do something that really deserved that effusive expression.