Saturday, January 31, 2015

History as Karma

During the colonial era Europeans considered themselves unique in having a sense of history. All the rest of us, including the Chinese with their exact millennial court records, were deemed to have a sense of passing Time but not of history.

That assessment had two elements. One was a sense of racial superiority born of easy dominance over all other regions.

The other lay in the European belief that history was a fluid intellectual construct amenable to countless Orwellian revisions: those who control the present control the past; those who control the past control the future.

In that perspective the Indian view of the past as an unalterable karmic progression seemed “fatalistic,” and it led the British to imagine that by creating their own narrative of Indian history they could control the country’s future.

The first effort at such rewriting, paid for and published by the East India Company, was by James Mill (1773-1836), a London journalist who wrote a six-volume history of India 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. He thought Indian society “presented a very uniform appearance during the long interval from the visit of the Greeks [under Alexander] to that of the English,” and that their “annals … from that era until the period of the Mohomedan conquests, are a blank.”

Since that early 19th Century work, there has been a huge outpouring of British writing reinforcing those themes, almost all of it racist, much of it intellectually disreputable in terms of motive, and some blatantly dishonest.

An author who bundles all those elements is John Keay, whose books can be found in most bookshops and libraries in India. The following is my review of one of his books (done for the Amazon web site).

Propaganda as History

“Two hundred years ago India was seen as a place with little history and less culture,” says a blurb on the back cover of John Keay’s “India Discovered,” originally published in 1984. The book credits the British for transforming India into a country now “revered for a notable prehistory, a magnificent classical age and a cultural tradition unique in both character and continuity.”

Keay makes his case with a massive amount of distortion.

For instance: “It is hard to appreciate now that as late as the end of the eighteenth Century nothing whatsoever was known of Indian history prior to the Mohammedan invasions.”

That is utter nonsense. India has never lost sight of its literary tradition dating back many thousands of years to the ordering of the Vedas. That tradition includes the philosophy of the Upanishads, the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the teachings of the Buddha. All of them constitute an understanding of the past that is incontrovertibly “history,” and much of it has remained common knowledge down to the village level.

The Buddhist tradition in particular is specifically historical, yet Keay asserts that the British were responsible for the “realization” that the Buddha was “not a god but a historical figure.” A Buddhist scholar is likely to laugh out loud at that.

Another laugh-out-loud assertion is that Warren Hastings promoted the study of Sanskrit because he “loved the people of India and respected them to a degree no other British ruler has ever equaled.”

If Hasting loved Indians, Hitler loved Jews.

Edmund Burke’s blistering indictment in the British parliament when it moved to impeach Hastings for a variety of high crimes and corruptions made clear just how much the former East India Company honcho in Calcutta cared for Indians.

Of the tortures the Company’s tax collectors used in Bengal under Hastings, Burke said, “Virgins whose fathers kept them from the sight of the sun were dragged into the public Court [and there] vainly invoking its justice, while their shrieks were mingled with the cries and groans of an indignant people, those virgins were cruelly violated. …. The wives of the people of the country only differed in this; that they lost their honour in the bottom of the most cruel dungeons … they were dragged out naked and exposed to the public view, and scourged before all the people … they put the nipples of the women in the sharp edges of split bamboos and tore them from their bodies.”

Hastings assembled the first group of “Orientalists” to study Sanskrit for only one reason: to comprehend the financial records of temples so he could tax their vast hidden wealth. In a few years his taxes drained the resources that had always before supported a great variety of social services, from village school teachers and vaids (doctors) to maintenance of roads, upkeep of water works and famine relief.

The East India Company’s fierce exactions destroyed not only that system but the entire agricultural economy of Bengal and pushed it into the first of the great “man-made famines” the British brought to India. In the first decade of its rule some 7 million people starved to death, fully a third of the population of what had been the richest province of the Mughal Empire. By the time colonial rule ended in 1947, the death toll from British “man-made famines” would be estimated at several hundred million.

Keay also engages in a great number of subtler distortions that are hardly unimportant.

For instance, in referring to Hastings as the “first Governor General of India” and adding parenthetically that “Clive had been Governor of Bengal only,” he creates the impression that British rule was far more extensive than it was. In fact, it remained virtually unchanged under Clive and Hastings; the main difference was that the latter had the title of “Governor General of India.”

Under both, the East India Company continued to collect taxes on behalf of the Mughal Emperor in Bengal and to extort revenues in lieu of debt repayment from the indigent Nawab of Arcot in Madras.

Over the next century the Company would continue to collect taxes in the name of the Mughal as it slowly added to its territories. The British Crown would assert sovereignty only after the national uprising of 1857. After that, it would rule some 3/5ths of undivided India for just 90 years, a third of that in steady retreat before the strengthening nationalist movement under Mahatma Gandhi.

Given that reality, how do we explain the undeniable zeal that fired so many Englishmen, most of them with other day jobs, to search out the Indian past?

The explanation is rich in karmic ironies.

Warren Hastings initiated the work of the “Orientalists” to get more taxes. They brought to light not only a great mass of public wealth but the riches of the Indian past. That had the effect of reconnecting modernizing Indians to their national roots: Gandhi, for instance, first read the Gita in London, in Edwin Arnold’s English translation.

What sustained the zeal for discovery into the 19th Century?

It was the theory of an Indo-Aryan language family proposed by William Jones, the most brilliant of the first Orientalists. It was misinterpreted to mean there was an actual flesh and blood “Aryan race,” a possibility the British seized on eagerly because they could be the “original Aryans” and thus legitimate rulers of India. Thereafter, everything they did to uncover Indian history was driven by the hope of finding concrete evidence of that link.

Meanwhile, the karmic current of the “Aryan race” gained enormous energy in Germany and France, where it was seen as justifying White supremacist racism. Hitler epitomized that view, and his reach for Aryan supremacy precipitated World War II.

As if to underline this whole string of karmic ironies, the armies that devastated Britain’s capacity to hold on to India marched under the ancient Indian symbol of good luck, the Swastika.

Keay’s flat self-serving presentation of the British Indian relationship is typical of almost everything that has been written on the matter since colonial times. It reflects at one level a basic incomprehension of the multi-layered subtleties that have been in play, and at another, a determined refusal to see India for what it is.

What can break that pattern as accelerating changes in international relations force once powerful countries to turn in small corners will be a pressing issue in the years ahead.

************ end of review ************

The British seem to have learned nothing about karmic consequences from their experience of ruling India. They are undoubtedly behind such initiatives as the EPIC Channel and the attempt by the Hindu Mahasabha to glorify Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. They will inevitably spur Indians to a reawakening of their spiritual and political history that would have taken much longer otherwise.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Je Suis … Raif Badawi and 2000 Nigerians

In contrast to the worldwide outrage at the murder of cartoonists and journalists in Paris, there has been hardly any public reaction to news that Saudi Arabia is savagely beating a blogger, Raif Badawi, for “insulting Islam.”

The Saudis plan to inflict a sentence of 1000 lashes in weekly installments of 50. Badawi is also to spend 10 years in prison, where his lawyer must stay 15 year for daring to defend him.

The news that Boko Haram has just murdered some 2000 people and driven 30,000 from their homes -- ostensibly in its continuing campaign for Shariah law -- has also met with little international anger.

This double standard is infuriating.

Saudi Arabia should be subjected to the same bitter condemnation as the terrorists in Paris and its government should be censured by all organizations, national and international, that stand for civilized values. Journalists especially must be vocal in defending their own.

In the case of Boko Haram, there has been no shortage of outrage at its previous crimes, but the mass media continue to report its Islamic pretensions as if they were serious; they are only camouflage for its main business, trafficking drugs.

Saudi Arabia and Boko Haram presenting themselves as proponents of "Islam" is as bizarre as the claim of the butchers of Paris to be avenging the Prophet.

All of them deserve a noisily rude raspberry.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Indo-American Imperative

When President Obama meets with Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi in a few days they must look beyond the nuts and bolts of technological and security cooperation to bring into focus an Indo-American responsibility to act coherently on a broad set of critically important global issues.

Only such action can fulfill the enormous democratic and spiritual potential of the densely interconnected global society being shaped by the Internet and the Worldwide Web. Perhaps as importantly, it is the only way the world can avoid disastrous violence as the guardians of Europe's neocolonial interests try to preserve their criminal prerogatives.

As I described in an earlier post on Human Development in the Information Age, we are witnessing a momentous redefinition of the concept of capital that can close the gap everywhere between rich and poor; but just because it is possible does not mean that it is inevitable or that it will be easily achieved.

Innovative action will be necessary to deal with areas of current crisis such as global crime and climate change; and new institutions must be built to realize the full potential of global connectivity, which has, in effect, pulled the rug out from under elite capacity to monopolize wealth creation and override the interests of social majorities.

Action should focus on three immediate initiatives, followed by longer term institution-building. The three immediate steps should aim to:

Revamp Drug Laws: Drug trafficking is a $500 billion global industry that funds terrorism and undermines democracies. Existing international drug laws seek to ban drugs but they actually promote trafficking because prohibition gives a huge financial incentive for organized crime to get involved. That creates armies of violent drug pushers and a massive flow of black money into the coffers of money laundering elites.

India and the United States should support the effort of Latin American States to radically redesign the international legal regime on “illicit drugs.” At the scheduled 2016 special session of the UN General Assembly on drugs they should move to junk the existing laws and put in place new ones treating drug use as a public health problem.

Legalizing drugs does not mean allowing corporations to replace criminals. The new legal regime should provide for all drugs in demand to be provided at cost through the medical system, making it impossible for anyone to profit from supplying them. There is no danger of rampant growth in drug use; in fact, it is safe to project that without pushers there will be a continuing reduction.

Ban Shell Corporations: An Indo-American initiative should seek to put in place a global ban on corporations that do not reveal their true owners. Such corporations are key to money laundering and many other forms of organized crime, including the trafficking of women and children for sex, piracy at sea and dumping of European toxic waste off the coasts of Africa. A ban on shell corporations should go hand in hand with existing initiatives to eliminate all money laundering “tax havens,” including the biggest of them, Britain and Switzerland.

Reform the United Nations: The United Nations System still functions much as if it did when it was founded 70 years ago. It adopts hundreds of resolutions every year phrased in arcane diplomatic jargon addressed mainly to governments. No one knows what actually happens to the resolutions, for there is no systematic feedback on their implementation.

The organization should move to hook its decision-making into the networked world of the 21st century. Resolutions should be crisply action-oriented and go out to all relevant communications, expert and organizational networks worldwide. Feedback from networks should be analyzed and acted upon in a fluid interactive process.

For this to work in the area of peace and security, it is imperative that the composition of the Security Council be changed to reflect contemporary political realities. American support for the strategy I have proposed for such a reconstitution of the Council could build an effective global security apparatus.

In the context of the action proposed in the preceding paragraphs that would result in a significant reduction in global tensions and conflict, including terrorism, bringing within reach the long declared UN goal of general and complete disarmament.

Longer Term Measures

Global connectivity is causing an epochal paradigm shift in economics. It is drawing to a close four centuries when the joint-stock corporation empowered small groups to raise massive amounts of capital and shape the course of free markets. As Adam Smith warned in The Wealth of Nations, corporations always represent narrow interests and deform the operation of free markets with fraud and waste.

Crowd funding directed by broad social involvement represents the new paradigm; it can power transformational change in areas as diverse as education, energy use and environmental protection. To make this work new institutions will be necessary, especially:

The Institutionalized Lottery: Just as the stock market was the essential funding mechanism for the corporate world, crowd funding will require a new institution: the national lottery described in my earlier post. Making the switch from one system to the other can be done gradually and without major disruptions if governments cooperate in building the coherently networked world described below.

The Community Corporation: To ensure that economic, social and environmental issues are coherently addressed, computer networks must be coordinated. As there is no existing system to do that, we will have to invent one.

I propose that the basic building block of the new system be a public institution, the Community Corporation (CC) in which all individuals in the locality would be members. Each CC would have a web site and all of them would be networked in circles that ascend in existing administrative hierarchies set by governments, rising from Town and City to District, Province, State and National levels.

Internationally, the networks would also follow the order of existing hierarchies of sub-regional and regional cooperation, and hook into the UN System globally.

The system could be rolled out with great rapidity once the basic CC module website is agreed upon and developed. The roll out and operation of individual CC web sites could be left to local entrepreneurs.

The overall CC Network (CCN) would provide a strong democratic frame driven by locally directed entrepreneurship and innovation. Undemocratic countries would not be able to benefit from the system and oligarchies would wither on the vine.

Triangular Cooperation: To promote the process of change described above, India and the United States should systematize their existing initiatives to jointly support development in Africa. Such “triangular cooperation” involving all developed and developing countries should become the framework for all international development cooperation in every region of the global South.

In conclusion, I must emphasize that unless some global vision of progress guides international action intensifying power struggles will make a general war unavoidable. India and the United States must cooperate not only to set a unifying vision before the world, they must join in bringing it to life.