Saturday, April 14, 2007

Safeguarding the National Honour

N.R.Narayana Murthy, whom President Abdul Kalaam has suggested as his successor in the role of the President of the country , is in the dog house with a case registered him under the Insult to National Honour Act. That looks to be the end of any aspirations that Narayanamurthy might have had to be the next Prescient. Although the reaction of the Karnataka legislature looks like a matter of over kill, the Infosys Chief Mentor's reasoning is also illogical. I wonder what is there to feel embarrassed about listening to the National Anthem of another country that Narayanamurthy feels uneasy about protecting the foreign employees' sensibilities. Surely it is possible for foreigners to pay respect to India's National Anthem in several ways without their national affiliation or citizenship being threatened or compromised in any way. Besides, a lot of Indians work in foreign companies and are otherwise based overseas and when they are so located , they pay respect to the Nation Anthem and other requirements of protocol.

Besides what constitutes National Honor ought to be debated too. Is it all about dressing up the National Flag , singing the National Anthem with gusto and dealing with symbols like that ? Well symbols are important as they serve as a visible reminder of who we are as a nation , a people are and represent. But are they all ? Of what use is are shells and symbols by themselves ? Surely the greatest signature of National Honour is when the people of a country are united , there is peace , justice and equity and over all prosperity. I am not talking about some Utopian Ram Rajya but where the systems to ensure all this are in place and working.

But is that the case at all ? The recent report which revealed that one in two children in the country have been abused in the country at some point in their lives, whether sexually or otherwise is disturbing. Half or more of our country is wracked by terrorism and militancy of one kind or the other. Although the country's economy as measured by norms like GDP are rising, the inequities in the country are no where like being addressed. The reservation debate has stoked long buried fires all over again and casteism and feudalism is as entrenched as ever , especially in the hinterland of North India. Starvation deaths are so routine in the country that they no longer make news and the story of farmers' suicides is going the same way. Finally, even though sports and cricket are not every thing , even here the performance of our highly paid cricket stars was of course a national embarrassment

Is it not worth debating in our legislatures as to what is a greater dent to our national honor – that our farmers commit suicide because they are forever in debt , some of our citizens die of starvation because of the fact that they have no money , that our children are abused and exploited , that the nature of our society has become such that children have to be forced though legislation to look after and care for their aged parents ? Yet we are sitting and debating as to whether the National Anthem should be sung or played in instrumental version and crucifying the man who did a dumb job of trying to defend the indefensible in this particular area but over all might have done more for national pride and honor than a whole band of legislators. National Honour is important , but what really is National Honor ?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

To be Poor is Glorious........

Deng Xiao Ping is credited with the
quote “ To be Rich is Glorious”.Many in China made it their
guiding philosophy and became rich and in the process created wealth
that made others wealthy. But that was in China. In the other
communist citadel of India , more specifically in the sate of Kerala
, where they still practice the purist form of communism, staying
poor is the ideal and the cadres will go to any length to help you to
stay poor. Unlike elsewhere in the country, no
farmer here can use things like harvesting machines, unless they have
the comrades’ sanction. Each
farmer must apply
to the local office of the CPM’s Travancore
Karshaka Thozhilali Union (TKTU), part of Kerala State Karshaka
Thozhilali Union (KSKTU), the party’s farm worker union. The union
will then consider the applications on a case-to-case basis, send its
own inspection teams to the farms. The comrade-inspectors will
determine if enough of their union members are really not available
to manually do what farm machines could do a lot cheaper and much
more efficiently — at wages fixed by the union.

It seems that in Kerala much against
the established norm of common sense and governance,the comrades ,
instead of helping those who are poor to become rich , is actually
helping in the process of ensuring that those who by some stroke of
fortune are still rich, are reduced to state of penury at the
earliest possible opportunity. It would seem that it would take an
extreme case of eccentricity or an ideological position not found any
where in the democratic world to run a government where the ruling
party is consciously taking positions that run counter to common
sense and logic.

The comrades agenda is clear. All their
unionized members must be given employment and employment
opportunities must be created for them by hook or crook and as it
appears more by crook. In the absence of any increase in the number
of employment opportunities through industrialization or even
scientific reform of the agrarian system, the CPM cadres have
resorted to micro management in the typical Stalinist idiom by
deciding , who should grow what , how many crops are to be sown , to
what extent , how many laborers are to be employed and other such
details , directly interfering with the farmer's own right to plan
out what to grow and ho much.

One must admire the tenacity of the
communists though. While most of India is busy getting rich to trying
to b rich at least , the communists demonstrate a dogged perseverance
with their ideology that is in many ways worthy of commendation if
only it were not so archaic. Where else except among hard core
communists can you expect cadres to deny themselves a chance to get
rich(yes , there are corrupt cadres , but even with all their
corruption, they don't seem to possess the crores that their party
colleagues professing other ideologies or no ideology have).

Last week, I briefly watched a program
where the leader of a party which professes socialist lineage an
inspiration was being interviewed. The program was titled “
Socialist or Socialite” because of the proclivity of the leader in
question to be seen with glamorous Page 3 figures. Between the
Samajwads of North India and
the blue blooded socialists of the deep South , one does not know
where to look and what to choose. But poverty alleviation in a
planned process does not appear to be on the agenda of either kind of
socialist. And that to me is the real pity.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Exploring the Inheritance of Loss

Recently some one remarked to me that a lot of Indian writing in English is underwritten by a pain fro which there is no escape …… an accumulate collection of regrets that will never quite away though it can be some what treated through palliative care, almost like the morphine doses , increasingly measured out and administered to the terminally ill. Some books like “The Inheritance of Loss” almost spell it out in their very title. It is almost as if the writer himself or herself is on a pilgrimage and while she has left her origins, she is never quite sure of whether she will arrive at her destination and what that destination is after all.

As I watched Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” filmed so well by Mira Nair, it occurred to me again that a sense of alienation and loss is always the immigrant’ life long companion whether you have crossed the seven seas to settle in another country and acquired another passport or have merely moved a couple of hundred miles to another city and set up home amidst strangers who speak another language and to all intents and purposes belong to another country and planet.

Adults who have made these choices for themselves, rightly or wrongly feel the need to defend the choices that they have made and so will perhaps never publicly accept the life long effort and energy expended to conform and adjust and become some thing that is fundamentally foreign to their nature and character. Though they left their shores for a sense of economic or social or professional fulfillment , the process is one of gaining some thing to lose some thing else and often the heaviest inheritance that they pass on to their children is the inherence of loss.

In The Namesake, although the parents, Ashoke Ganguly, (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) have lost so much in terms of love, relationships and family ties, they take it in stride and some how cope. The contrasts between their own uneven lives and their parents fulsome one is presented plainly though with hardly any shades of grey. Tabu’s father in the movie dies at home having lived a full life and is loved by his entire family who mourn his passing and are by his side all through his long life. Her husband, in cold contrast suffers a heart attack while on an assignment in Ohio, lives alone in a cold unwelcoming apartment and when he feels unwell, he has to drag himself to his hospital to by attended, away from both his friends and family. As he lies dying, ho two yuppie children are partying in town. Eventually when a cold, impersonal voice devoid of any emotion informs her that her husband is dead and Tabu some how collects he children and rushes to the hospital to collect the body, it is pulled mechanically out of a numbered rack wrapped in a shroud and handed over to her like a FedEx parcel. The isolation and machination of existence could not be starker both for the dead as well as the living.

The Namesake really reiterates that our existence, in a way comprises of two life spans. One is the life that we actually live. The other is the life when we remain in the heart and mind of our off springs. There is a bond, a connection between the past, the present and the future that follows us like a shadow, no matter how far we travel along the road. Characters of each generation will set forth in their own journeys, and those journeys may be very different but if so, there will always be a loss to inherit and a double inheritance to pass on

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Uttar Pradesh Politics and The Bahu bali

One may perhaps be forgiven if on watching Omkara set in rural and coarse rural Uttar Pradesh, one is not reminded immediately of Shakespeare’s Othello even though the credit titles give explicit credit to the bard as the source of its inspiration. There may be a lot to be said about the coarse and the sexually explicit language of the film and the restrained but enchanting prose of Shakespeare. Besides, stories of love triangles, jealousy and revenge are not new either. But by setting his adaptation of Othello in the wild west of western Uttar Pradesh, Vishal Bharadwaj has captured for us the phenomenon of the Bahu bali in politics, a term much heard of in TV reportage but seldom seen or understood.

Now this is not the revered Bahu Bali of the Jains. The Bahu bali we are talking of, whose loose English translation would b a muscle man is a some what modern phenomenon in its present shape but with age old feudal roots. It would seem that in the rural heartlands of north India, bahu balis are the face of democracy in the sense that to win elections, you need to support and active involvement of bahu balis. They will do the booth capturing, block the way to ensure that inconvenient voters who might vote the other way are kept at away and then of course they will kill if their dictates are not observed.

Bhai Saab in Omkara represents the powerful, politician who needs and keeps Bahu balis . They are important and necessary accessories when you want to introduce fundamentally alien concepts in an ancient society steeped in caste, class and feudalism. The Leif motif of democracy is the equality of all humans which our cast driven feudal society does not accept in principle. So even though we in India has always been proud of its thriving democracy, which sees popular verdicts being delivered at various levels throughout the year from the village panchayats to urban municipalities to state legislatures and, finally, to parliament in New Delhi, we often ignore the window dressed democratic verdict that the Bahu bali delivers for his master.

Those who have been following the giant democratic exercise in Uttar Pradesh currently will have observed that out of the compulsion that some form of democracy is better than none , we choose to turn a blind eye to the nature of the churning which occurs in the political arena, throwing up elements whose influence in their constituencies depends more on the fear they generate than on the respect they earn. India has always been proud of its thriving democracy, which sees popular verdicts being delivered at various levels throughout the year from the village panchayats to urban municipalities to state legislatures and, finally, to parliament in New Delhi.

But during this process the country has chosen to turn a blind eye to the nature of the churning which occurs in the political arena, throwing up elements whose influence in their constituencies depends more on the fear they generate than on the respect they earn. the attitudes of our politicians remain steeped not only in patriarchal values but are liberally spiced with values of the dominant caste, class, region, language and religion and the hired muscle man serves to show every one their place in the social tier. Clearly , the dominant culture in many places of rural India is that of ruthlessly enforced patriarchy , the visible manifestation of which is the Bahu bali. Parliamentary democracy is a convenient cloak and garb to wear in the assembly rooms and meetings of the legislative assembly or parliament but once the session is over , that democratic cloak is taken off and put away even as the Neta hits the roads of his constituency , guarded by who else but his Bahu balis.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Shaheed Bhagat Sngh .... The Terrorist

Later this year the nation will celebrate the birth centenary of Sardar Bhagat Singh and as a curtain raise, the revolutionary hero is getting a great deal more attention that he would otherwise get. It is also a good time to study his ideology. But even though, I started off trying to read up about a man of who I had read about only in history books, I ended up admiring the man. I am learning to admire Bhagat Singh not necessarily for his ideological convictions which I do not agree with but for the sheer amount of content that hi short life of only 23 years produced. Bhagat Singh, born in 1907 was hanged on March 23rd, 1931 having avenged the lathi charge on his hero ands mentor, Lala Lajpat Rai who died shortly after the lathi charge.

Bollywood has of course done well to capture the influence his life had through Rang De Basanti as well as through at least 5 other biopics on his life. They might or might not have done him justice. But it is amazing as to how what we would think to be a callow youth developed strong convictions, lived by them and died for them. Bhagat singh was an atheist, considered to be one of the earliest Marxist in India and in line with hi thinking, he renamed the Hindustan Republican Party and called it the Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Party. Bhagat Finally, awaiting his own execution for the murder of Saunders, Bhagat Singh at the young age of 24 studied Marxism thoroughly and wrote a profound pamphlet “Why I am an Atheist. ” which is an ideological statement in itself.

The circumstances of his death and execution are worth recounting. Although, Bhagat Singh had assassinated Saunders, the Assistant Superintendent of Police at Lahore as a means of avenging Lala Lajpat Rai’s death, he was not arrested then. It was later, when he along with his co patriots threw a bomb in Delhi’s Central Legislative Assembly, that he was captured though escape could have been possible as he wanted to embrace martyrdom. Consequent to that, once sentenced to death, he made no further appeals to the higher courts or the Privy Council in the House of Lords.

There is some controversy about the role of Mahatma Gandhi in the attempts that were otherwise made to save him from the gallows. The Gandhi – Irwin talks were going on at the time and it was felt that a word from Gandhi could have made a difference. Other leaders like Motilal Nehru made public appeals , but it seems that Gandhiji kept away , ostensibly because he believed in non violence but according to some historians, because he perceived Bhagat Singh to be a threat like Netaji to his own stranglehold over the Nationalist movement.

As I said in the beginning, I set out to debate it out whether Bhagat Singh was an terrorist or a freedom fighter but like the actors in Aamir Khan’s Rang De Basanti who are happy go lucky folks whose lives are transformed as they read about the characters they play, I find myself challenged. When we all see and read about are Vikas Yadav , Anand Jon , Amardeep Singh Gill, and the many politically active Bahu Balis of Uttar Pradesh is it really possible that a man like Bhagat Singh achieved all that he did and left behind a lasting revolutionary legacy that lasts till this day and all that in a short span of 24 years? Well may be Bhagat singh was a terrorist and may be he wasn’t. But he surely lived a full life in the short span of time he was alive. And that by itself is no mean thing!

Revisiting 1857 -- Was it a war at all ?

When I first was introduced to Indian history, the events of 1857 were still described as the Sepoy Mutiny. For long years after India attained independence, history was taught thus. Mangal Pandey, Tantia Tope, the Rani of Jhansi were all applauded for their patriotism and bravery, but the central act of Mangal Pandey was still called the “Sepoy Mutiny”. It was not yet “The Rising” or the “First war of Independence” as it has come to be known now and whose one hundred and fiftieth anniversary we are now observing. Obsessed as we are rewriting and re interpreting history in every generation, I wonder what would have happened if we had continued to refer to the “Sepoy Mutiny” by its older and original name? Would the patriotism of its protagonists have dimmed? Incidentally if the events of 1857 constituted the first war of independence, which was the second? We do not find any reference to a second war of independence in any of our history books.

Why do we try to obliterate history instead of understanding it in its context? In military vocabulary he word mutiny connotes organized acts of insubordination and frowned upon and therefore the word mutiny was sought to be disassociated from what Mangal Pandey and his colleagues initiated. However, it might have been better to retain the word “mutiny” and examine the context in which such an act of disobedience was carried out and draw lessons from it. If the British understanding of history painted the Indian soldiers as all black, the Indian understanding of it has also stood history on its head by calling a series of regional skirmishes, which had little in common except to install a hedonist Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar at the head of a largely ceremonial throne by the grandiose title of “war”.

Strictly speaking, the events of 1857, if at all a war, was not so much a war for independence of any kind as an attempt by petty feudal lords, both Hindu and Muslim to put a dummy emperor on the Delhi throne to whom they would give token allegiance and shake off the British hegemony which was oppressive all right, but still provided some order of governance compared to the no holds barred exploitation of most Rajas and Nawabs. Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi was one of the important leaders of the uprising of 1857 against the British. The uprising, despite its nationalistic overtones, was in its essence, a fight of the Indian feudal classes of kings and princes, against the new incoming imperial power of the British.

The mass participation that characterized the freedom movement was to come in much later with Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. To take the case of Jhansi, the Raja of Jhansi had maintained a pro-British stance throughout his reign. Jhansi had been pro-British ever since his grandfather had signed a treaty with the British in 1817 granting Jhansi to his heirs and successors in perpetuity. Gangadhar Rao, Laxmibai’s husband made explicit reference to his loyalty and that of his predecessors in his will. The British had a policy of 'lapse' whereby when an Indian ruler died without an heir the principality would be annexed and come under direct British administration. Under Dalhousie adopted children were not considered as heirs. When, the Rani of Jhansi made the oft quoted statement “"Mera Jhansi nahin dengee", she was effectively underlining her feudal underpinning and ownership of the Jhansi state and its revenue.

Taking several such examples and putting them together , it becomes very clear that the first war of independence whose anniversary we are celebrating today was nothing more than a glorified property dispute of petty kings whose source of revenue and income was being annexed and it could even be argued that the post 1857 events were the ones that effectively brought the whole country under British administration , directly or through the British Resident and eventually laid the foundation for some form of unified governance. Sure the British were exploitative and imperialistic and all that ; but 50 years after independence , which Indian can stand up and say that our leaders today are any less exploitative. So, were the events of 1857 a war at all, or an attempt by a bunch of rich idlers to protect the family silver ?