Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Problem With India's Social Sciences - History

Kandhariya Mahadev Temple at Khajuraho - Little Known Wonder Within India (Rohit Pathania (c))
I am writing this post because I found people I respect immensely being offended by s video that I had shared wherein Jawaharlal Nehru University and its social sciences department, among others, was being joked about. If anyone was offended by the video, I apologize; the intentions were not to hurt anyone. It was shared in good humour. However, that has made me wonder why I have problems with India's social sciences and the way it is studied and taught in India. It has nothing to do with teachers that I necessarily encountered; rather, my problems are related to what I never got to encounter, know and interact with. Let me quote some examples on the same from the history lessons that I can recall immediately to assert my case. It is not an exhaustive list but only a small sample, and I encourage readers to go further on their own.

The subject of history has grave necessity for any civilization country. There is no undermining the importance of history in building national character. However, national character cannot be built if one is going to obsess with World Wars in school with a sanitized version of India's role in both of them. Let us not forget that it was Indian soldiers on both occasions that turned the tide for the British forces and their allies. It is a known fact now that the British held on to the India, Sri Lanka and South East Asian colonies for so long only because it was firm in its conviction of the Indian forces being by its side. The minute the tide turned, as evidenced in the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the Royal Indian Naval Mutiny of 1946, the colonial masters decided to pack up and leave. In the midst of all this however, the narrative of a peaceful struggle has been superimposed on people, particularly in schools, to believe that certain players and parties were responsible for 1947. By that logic, we should also look at the Partition as a responsibility of the same set of actors. It cannot go both ways for the same set of people. What it clearly demonstrates is that history is shown in monochromatic shades, and the attempt is to create a narrative in the minds of children that there were other people who did nothing at all.

Step back further, and we see there is hagiography about the Mughal rule in India. It is either one way or the other, depending on who you talk to. Good things did happen, but so did bad things. Sanitization of the role played by particular rulers, especially Babar and Aurangzeb, is so deep that academia does not want to believe alternative versions, even if shown the evidence. When faced with logic in fact, these stories fall apart, as was seen in the Babri Masjid judgment of Allahabad High Court. It is divine retribution in a sense that we have oral traditions in India outliving and contradicting the vice-like grip of these eagles of academia, who deserve nothing less than contempt for misrepresenting facts. Half truths are worse than lies, and that is exactly what has happened. Sticking to the same period, we see that we are told people like Ghazni invaded India several times; however, no one ever tells why they went back. Neither is the truth of Muhammad Bin Qasim's invasion, thankfully preserved in Sindh folklore Chachnamah, in public limelight.

School children and most college students are told that Buddhism died in India due to fascist Hindu rulers. Fascinating is the terminology that describes certain kind of people then and now. In any case, nobody points outs the truth on this moot question as well. Hinduism had already started to revive, thanks to the efforts of such intellectual giants as Adi Sankaracarya, Utpaladeva, Ramanuja and Abhinavagupta among others. Violence was not their weapon; rather they were the real Argumentative Indians. They believed in the art of Sastrartha or dialogue, and converted several people back. Beyond that, the Muslim invaders played a major role in killing off Buddhism in India. The word Buut or statue actually is a corruption of Buddha, and was first used by Arabs to  describe Buddhists in Sindh, who were exterminated en masse like cockroaches. Chachnamah and Tibetan texts among others prove that. However, we are told by eminent historians that Hindu kings burnt down universities. And this is entirely absent at school levels. Saying this will bring the wrath of the influential group of historians in India who control what you say and write, being absolutely intolerant towards alternative opinions.The sidelining of B B Lal, archaeologist part excellence, is a prime example of that.

Anotherstep back further, and look at the way Asoka is glorified in Indian history lessons. Despite Upinder Singh's work, no effort has been made to change the narrative. The funny thing is that the evidences that are cited to prove Asoka as a great ruler can be in turn used to reverse the narrative. In fact, Asoka was no better than a fanatic nanny statist ruler, who was responsible for the persecution of Jains in India till his own brother was beheaded, mistaken for a Jain. Regret was not the reason he stopped violence in fact after the Battle of Kalinga, for he even threatens his subjects with violence if they do not heed to Buddhist conduct. Only because Sanjeev Sanyal has busted this bubble can we really now know what charades have been played to date. What is worrisome is that we still have established academics like Nayanjot Lahiri glorifying Asoka all over again along the same tested narrative. This eulogy tends to also deliberately plays down Chanakya and his role in the Mauryan empire.

Now why is it important, one may ask. The fact is that children memorize stuff for answering questions in important exams, and these memories will remember forever. National character can be created or destroyed using history. However, in India's case, we are repeatedly given a narrative that can only make us wonder as to why we study what is instinctively wrong. A lot of revision is needed, but any attempt to it shall be subverted in a massive way. Showing Buddha's teachings over a period of time to be any different from Samkhya philosophy, especially in his lifetime, is just plain lying. Also, such basic facts as Buddha calling himself an avatara of Rama is actually shown the other way round in history lessons. With fundamental flaws of this kind, one can only wonder as to what kind of historical lesson can people really learn. I was appalled to see a Mewari not being proud of being one just because one Rana Pratap's loss has been overblown to tar the entire Mewari Rajputana clan, which had such great victors as Rana Kumbha and Bappa Rawal. A Tamilian never realizes that Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas patronized Tamizh and Sanskrit equally, and a North Indian has no idea of the might of the Cholas in South and South East Asia. A national narrative can not exclude such mighty figures as Abbakka Devi, Rudramadevi and Tarabai, in front of whose toweing personalities all feminist talk pales. I can go on and on, but suffice to say that the time has come to demand an expunge and cleansing of our history books. The recreation of a national narrative that makes us proud of our own selves is essential, but it cannot happen under the current textbook regime and with the vultures of culture who stifle free speech of others so that dissent can just not happen.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Mother, Where's My Country - A Much Needed Intervention


The tyranny of distance is an easy excuse that editors based out of metropolitan cities cite when asked why they neglect the North Eastern states. Fact of the matter is that they are not willing to learn and understand a region that has a rich history, a rich cultural heritage and a complex socio-political structure. With its rich human resource base, the North East contributes to a significant chunk of the service sector work force in the rest of mainland India; however, within the North-East, they fail to secure economic opportunities unless it is a government job for which they bribe through their noses or join an insurgent group that is an extortion gang in reality. This is a layer of a complex problem with many more layers in a state that is recognized either by its atheletes like M C Mary Kom, The Devendro brother-sister duo, or only by that state at the corner with an exotic dance and a terrible insurgency form.
When one picks up the book "Mother, Where's My Country?" written by Anubha Bhonsle, there are several questions that comes to one's mind. The choice of Manipur as a subject matter will be questioned by many who will see this book as another attempt to fantasize about the insurgency issues of Manipur and its schizophrenic relation with Nagaland. However, it is befitting that Anubha Bhonsle, who still works with CNN-IBN, has written on this book, as it points out to the very least the outright dumbness of the mainstream electronic media of India in reporting on the North-East, as if there is a black hole there in which everything gets sucked in, never to come out. The book is many years of field notes, as one can judge from the narrative of the book. Much of what is written in the book particularly points out to the absolutely ghastly and shoddy work that India's news channels otherwise do on the North-East, and how so much work that Anubha has written has not been brought out even in the print medium. It is sad to see that she was working at the same time with Rajdeep Sardesai, whose attitude towards the other parts of the country was visible in his stint as the head of the channel through his questionable obsession with Narendra Modi and the 2002 riots of Gujarat for twelve years, especially when so many moments of absolute chaos hit Manipur during that period, which could have gotten much, much worse. Here is an insurgency where thousands more have died than the riots in Gujarat put together, and it has taken so long for people to be told just why the issue of identity, rampant corruption, lack of will to govern and the excesses of Indian paramilitary forces and insurgent groups has lulled an otherwise vibrant people into a weird storm of silence. Two incidents that strike you in the book, and which the author dwells on in detail are striking - the amnesia of the Indian government towards a bravery award winner killed in crossfire, and the heartbreaking life struggle of Irom Sharmila Chanu, who does not have an exit strategy anymore. The problems of Manipur, like any other conflict state, have no heroes - there are only villains waiting to extract their moment under the sun. A game of dice turned Russian roulette is what Manipur's daily life was reduced to in many senses. A historic Naga Peace Accord's shadow looms large over Manipur that does not want to compromise any more, if only to salvage something of a wounded pride. There are layers and layers of issues in a matriarchal society that complicate the matter further. Moreover, repeated governments in the state and the Center seems blissfully unaware of what to do, and hold on to a tenuous peace like a vaunted prize.
Anubha Bhonsle's book is a timely intervention in the almost dead discourse on Manipur, and while not necessarily reflective of the entire North East, does give a headstart on common issues plaguing all the states in the region. It is a pity that reportage has to come through a book rather than on television for greater impact and wider reach. Crisp editing of the book ensures that one does not feel weighed down at any moment while getting a hang on the facts. It would have been interesting had the author also delved deeper in to the history of the state, because much of history does repeat itself in ways we cannot imagine. I personally recommend this book for those trying to familiarize themselves with the state's problems through a primer. There is much more to be known about Manipur, least of which are its problems. Most people forget that the traditional sankirtanas of Manipur are on the UNESCO World List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and include both the dance and music. The Loktak lake wetlands, man-made entirely, can put to pale the beautiful scenery of Siem Reap in Cambodia. However, all this beauty is meaningless if meaningful lasting peace cannot be found. Please read this book instead of self-glorifying rubbish written by some 'eminent journalists' recently. This is solid reportage at its best.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Last Kashmiri Pandit

It was dark, and it was getting colder with each passing moment. Must light the kangri now, thought Tejmohan, as he struggled to find it under the clouded skies, which indicated that it might just snow tonight. The matchsticks! he recalled, as he pulled them out of his pocket, and struck one which briefly revealed the secrecy of the kangri’s location. Tejmohan quickly scrambled towards it, and in a few moments, managed to light the remaining coal in it, while felt secure - cold, but secure under the part of the roof that was still intact.

The snow had begun to fall, and he winds picked up speed. The chill was getting into his bones; the pheran proved no good tonight. His blankets were kept in the prayer room, which was at the other end of the house. But it would prove to be dangerous, as parts of the house were already broken, and he might fall through. What then? Who would help him in the entire village of ghosts and lost souls?

The winds were howling and screaming loudly; sometimes, the howling can sound identical to the screams of witches. And they were the only sounds left to be heard that night, other than the animals and the winds and perhaps rain and snow. But no humans were left in there. Tejmohan was old, and hobbled a bit. No, he thought; I should crawl across, so that I do not fall down, and began to crawl along the floor, his hands being his eyes for the moment in the darkness that had pretty much engulfed his life for good.

As he moved about, Tejmohan recalled the day, when everyone was packing up. Pandit Arjun Wakhloo, his son, his daughter in law and his grandsons had been shot dead last night. This was not the first time that something of this nature had not occurred in Kashmir; but it will not be the last, thought a worried people, as they scrambled to gather whatever was of value to them, so that they could leave. Tejmohan had tried hard to convince them not to leave.

“They are our brothers; these people were foreigners. Our brothers will save us.”

“Where were they last night uncle, when your son was shot?”
”Abbas was also among the gunmen. I recognized him by the colour of his eyes! He did not even flinch once when he pumped bullets into Arjun’s body. Was he not a friend of Arjun’s son?”

Tejmohan was left alone with a few families, while almost everyone else ran away to Jammu in a refugee camp! What could be more humiliating, thought Tejmohan, as he crawled along, than living in a refugee camp? But nobody was listening to him then; nobody was left behind to listen to him now.

Tejmohan’s hands detected a hole in the floor, and he quietly thanked Shiva, while he slife sidewats, and began to move towards the puja room. It was no less than a miracle that the puja room was the only room left unharmed in the house that day. He shivered as he recalled how a bunch of terrorists came along, and threw grenades (did they call them that?) all over, on every Pandit house in the village. Broken glass flew, screams pierced the air, as the terrorists and their supporters screamed in absolute delirium.
Ae zaalimon, ae buzdilon, Kashmir hamara chhod do!” (O torturers, O infidels, leave our Kashmir alone!)

Kashmir mein agar rehna hai, toh Allahu-Akbar kehna hai!”(If you have to live in Kashmir, you have to say Allah-u-Akbar (hint at being Muslim.))

In the meantime, a few sirens, and a few bullets sprayed everywhere, and after a few hours, everything went quiet.

Tejmohan had walked out that day. It was perhaps the last time he would do so, to see if anyone was left alive. His worst fears were confirmed; no Pandit was left alive. He was the only one left.

Finally, he reached the room. He remembered that he had to perform his daily evening puja. A Pandit, cannot leave his duties, come what may. Shiva is everywhere, he remembered, and as a Hindu he could not give up on his remembrance of that very Being that sustained him. Thanks to some old Muslim friends in other villages, who left him things he needed every few weeks. He did not come out in front of them, but would be reassured when they would tell him about the trout they brought for Hayrath or when the apples had been harvested from the orchards that once belonged to his brother, but were now owned by some person from Srinagar, or when good quality ghee would be left behind for his pujas.

He started reciting the Ganesha stuti, as he lit the lamps, whose lights created a ghostly aura in the darkness of that night. He began singing Shiva bhajans; the only thing that gave him solace from tonight’s chill, as he felt the chill rise in his body, and realized it crawling slowly towards his heart. He began to lose his senses, as he heard choruses of Pandit voices singing Bel Tay Madal with him in the background. Maybe he was dreaming; maybe he was hallucinating. He began remembering that Hayrath in Sriangar where he saw Muslim friends of his swim across the Jhelum towards the Ganpatyar banks to retrieve the pots and the soaked walnuts in them; and the fragrance of the smoked trouts started to overwhelm his senses. He heard loudly how the Hayrath Salaams were being drowned by the slogans from those mosques asking them, the original inhabitants of the Valley, to leave. He remembered that day when he had prayed at Nund Reshi’s grave, blurring out against the bloodshed he witnessed every day.

And yet, the vakhs of Laleswari rang loud in the skies, overpowering every other word that he thought of. She called for Shiva, and Shiva it seems was coming towards him in His full brilliance, blinding him out altogether.

Slowly, Pandit Tejmohan Sapru kept the lamp down, and covered himself in the blankets, and laid down to rest as a proud Kashmiri Pandit that fateful night, when the last Kashmiri Pandit of the village passed away in sleep, to give company to the spirits of the Bhattas that roam in the Valley, seeking vengeance in blood for what happened to them.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Garbage Wars in Delhi - Time to Reimagine Urban Governance in India

Rivers of Garbage Swamping Every Corner of Delhi (Courtesy: Dailymail UK)
In the midst of the usual political mud-slinging that India's jestful democracy entails, we have seen a major problem burst out on the national capital's Swaraj scene. No, it is not Mr Arvind Kejriwal launching another odd-even scheme; rather is the alacrity with which a court battle is being fought in Delhi to determine just who is responsible for the garbage wars round III in Delhi (it happened twice last year for those who remain blissfully unaware). A distraught Delhi watches on, stunned into silence by a horde of sanitation workers who are hell-bent into pushing Delhi administration and Municipal Corporations towards a permanent resolution of their problems through their trashy behavior (refer the garbage toss into Delhi's Tourism Minister's house and outside the Deputy Chief Minister's residence). Even Central Government Ministers have not been spared. Meanwhile, all poltiical parties are either busy with photo-ops or finger pointing in some way or the other.

The challenge is not unique to Delhi's political corridors. We have seen the garbage problem spiral out of mess in Bengaluru a few years back, where the whole city was swamped by a sea of its own waste. Thiruvanthapuram saw protests involving very tense stand-offs, leading to litter being strewn everywhere in the city. Even as we speak, a horror of a site called Deonar has a mountain of garbage that is burning, choking the whole of Mumbai due to its location within the city's geography and the merciless climatic conditions, and is even visible from outer space.

What is common to this and all other such examples (a list that could circumference the earth is possible from India) is the absence of basic urban governance structures in India. The problem is in fact a symbol of a larger neglect of urban India that we have witnessed since Independence. Now many may take offence to my claim and say that life in cities is much better, rural areas have far many problems and bring up a list of objections. Truth of the matter is that urban India is perhaps even more of a harrowing lifestyle experience than rural India for a large section of India's population. By 2030, McKinsey India has estimated that 500 million Indians will live in cities and towns of India. This is a conservative estimate at best, and with burgeoning population and the development of city economies, it would be higher. All romanticism for rural areas is frankly misplaced - world history was always about city based civilizations, not village based civilizations. Let me give you some statistics to create a perspective of the urgency behind my assertion:

1. At least half of Bengaluru's slums do not have any electricity connections; this means that at least 7 lakh people or 140,000 families in Bengaluru alone (assuming a family count of five) do not have electricity. contrast this with a 100,000 villages across the nation.

2. Malnutrition in urban India is perhaps even more acute than rural India. 3.5% of Greater Mumbai's slum children under six die every year because of poor nutrition and increased risk of infections against a national mortality rate of 3.7% as per 2016's National Family Health Survey.

3. Number of people who die of road accidents in India is the highest in the world - over 100,000 a year. An overwhelming number of them are in cities. Five people die everyday due to road accidents in Delhi - that is a sobering number, considering it translates into 1825 die every year for certain in Delhi alone.

Now, the solution set that we have are known to everyone. To be fair, it is nobody's case that no city in the world has gotten the formula right. However, the cities and city-states that do work have a strong local government that can manage its own finances pretty well. They collect taxes and charge fees for all essential services in order to not just pay salaries of employees, but also allocate budgets for meaningful urban improvement and development projects. These city governments have a flexible master development plan that is reviewed on a five year basis, has an excellent public transportation system that works on a for-profit basis, and has housing needs of people catered to directly by the city government among other things. Of course, the functionality of all cities go back to one basic thing - finances of the city, i.e. their budget.

What can be done in Indian cities? One of the crucial things that can be done by governments in India is to give more powers to cities. It is nobody's case that decentralizing governance and making it participatory as per the 73rd Amendment of the Consitution of India is crucial. But to not do the same within cities is exactly the problem. a Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM - silly acronym to say the least) or Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the Smart Cities Mission is no different from providing a fig leaf to a naked person unless the basic problem of making city budgets balanced is not done. A major issue in this regards is to get people to pay for essential services like garbage collection, which can help finance the management woes to quite an extent. Cities like Ludhiana in India have in the past issued bonds to borrow from the market, but such efforts shall continue to remain flop shows because local governments continually fail to balance their budgets - heck, in many cities they do not even know how much money is spent to begin with.

Another layer to the problem is the multitude of governance layers. In certain cities like Delhi and Pondicherry, the multitude of layers of governance has translated into the national passtime of bassing the buck as even understanding the basic structure of responsibility can take years. Contrast this with the El Dorado of our politicians, Shanghai and Singapore - a single government controls everything. Unless one agency is given all the authority to control urban issues for a city, the gashes will fester on without any degree of success to heal them. One added problem is the inability to penalize people for violating urban management rules or provide effective deterrents. The municipal authorities of India cannot fine anyone for not segregating waste as states explicitly within the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules of India. Mosquito control fines are a joke in India, and people can be easily intimidated into not practicing their authority. Unless this kind of authority and strong deterrence is provided to an agency and held culpable, the problems shall continue to persist. It was only recently that municipal authorities were given the power to issue such basic licenses as food safety inspection and fire safety, but the path to traverse is much longer.

If Mr Arvind Kejriwal is a smart politician that he and his supporters claim he is, he could perhaps take a pause in form, stop his spit and run politics for a change and reflect on what he can really do. If need be, the Municipal Corporations of Delhi could be altogether scrapped with the help of the Constitution. Alternatively, the Central government should revoke the Constitutional amendment that gave Delhi and Pondicherry Chief Ministers and legislative assemblies and re-empower the municipal corporations. In any case, time has come to reimagine the paradigm of urban governance in India. The sooner we do it, the better we can get at it.

The Economic Slowdown Needs Immediate Address

The Buck Stops With the Duo (Courtesy: Bloombergquint) The fracas in Maharashtra notwithstanding, things are at a critical juncture ...