Saturday, August 29, 2009

Echoes of Gokhale

We have talked about the Partition. Now let us talk about Independence. Gopal Krishna Gokhale is not a name you hear too often in the Indian public sphere. And why should you? After all, he was not as exciting as the fiery Bal Gangadhar Tilak or Bhagat Singh. Nor was he the implacable force MK Gandhi became after the Round Table Conference in 1930-1931. He did not even ask for purna swaraj, settling instead for dominion status within the British Empire. How can this man be a hero for the new, resurgent India, brimming with confidence after their rise from the economic doldrums experienced under a socialist Congress? All too often, it happens that the quietest voices impart the greatest wisdom.

I don't know too much about Gokhale - there was never time in class after the hagiography of Gandhi that we
were fed. A quick search on Google will also confirm that there exist very few books indeed on Gokhale written with academic rigour as compared to Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi, Tilak, or Bhagat Singh. However, recent happenings have made me go back to what little I know of Gokhale's message and reappraise his work. The banning of books, the latest being Jaswant Singh's Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence, in Gujarat is not a new phenomenon in India. There are a multitude of reasons for this, none of which I find convincing. There was Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses that caused a furore, and there was MF Hussain's nude Saraswati. Understanding Islam through Hadis by Ram Swarup, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India; The Epic of Shivaji by James Laine, Islam - A Concept of Political World Invasion by RV Bhasin, Lajja by Taslima Nasreen, Nine Hours to Rama by Stanley Wolpert, and The Polyester Pince by Hamish McDonald are but a few of the books banned by some states in India or nationally. Admittedly, some of these works may make us cringe at their arguments or implications, but that is not reason enough to ban them. Some deal with sensitive issues like religion while others like Wolpert's Nine Hours to Rama merely point out the lapses in Gandhi's security on that fateful day in 1948.

In a truly free society, ideas should not be suppressed regardless of their content. Indian politicians have argued that Western standards of liberal discourse to not apply to highly emotive issues such as religion. That is quite disingenuous, particularly in India. With official literacy figures at barely 62%, it is unlikely that the average Indian would have cultivated a habit of reading some fairly sophisticated literature or history. The issue can be highly emotive only if educated people choose to make it so. Thus, the onus for riots and disturbances is shifted upon the intelligentsia of a group, be they Muslims, Rajputs, Marxists, brahmins, women, or homosexuals. If that is the case, why is it that the aggrieved leadership respond to the challenge with a another book arguing just the opposite, or easier, a scathing review? After all, if books like Jaswant's and Rushdie's are read by people of a certain economic and social class, they would be best addressed in their own medium?

The fact of the matter is that the supposedly afflicted intelligentsia is playing a different game. Since it is easy to rile the unlettered
masses into action (Jim Hacker has a wonderful quote in Yes Prime Minister: Ordinary people are stupid), politicians publicise an interpretation of a book that is extremely skewed and champion against it, thereby ensuring the continued support of the particular vote bank that is now aggravated. In the case of Jaswant Singh vs. the BJP (at least the Advani-led faction, if the media is to be believed), that is exactly what happened. Jaswant Singh's (JS) book portrayed Sardar Patel in a less than flattering light just before the Assembly elections in Gujarat. Narendra Modi, whether he cared about JS' argument or not, knew that the opposition would use the 'slanderous' accusations levelled at Patel against him in their election campaign if he did not act on it. The people of Gujarat would see this as Modi failing to protect their honour. Their icon had been attacked, that too by an outsider (JS is a Rajput from Rajasthan). Indians seem to be high-strung divas when it comes to their icons, be they religious, political, or from the world of entertainment and sports. They cannot seem to realise that their heroes most definitely made mistakes as all humans are prone to do once in a while. The average Indian, it seems, cannot bear to see his demi-gods with warts and all. Perhaps a tad politically incorrect, but maybe the British were right when they called their Indian subjects effeminate.

The last sentence of the previous paragraph is, I confess, highly unfair. The cause for this sort of reaction is largely due to the high illiteracy in India. When the British left, literacy hovered around 12%. Today, it has risen 50 percentage points after 62 years of independence. To put things into perspective, Sri Lanka has attained 92% literacy despite a civil war and China is at 91% despite the Big Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Without being equipped by the proper intellectuals tools for life in a democracy, such ignorance of civil liberties and due process is bound to persist. Even educated people seem to harbour illogical reactions. Consider the following case: in a TV reality show presently running, the participant is strapped to a polygraph machine and asked various questions. In a recent episode, a woman was asked if she would ever consider being unfaithful to her husband. As polygraph machines measure stress and not veracity, the needle jumped and the crowd howled and clapped. The reaction, judging by letters to newspapers nationwide, was a plea to ban the show as it was obscene and violated the honour of the woman. Now please note that the participant had willingly signed up (it is difficult to get on the show) knowing full well that the questions would hardly be about her favourite colour. Further, given the viewer ratings, there was a significantly large group of people who enjoyed the show and did not think it to be a problem. This sort of black-and-white thinking (by those who wished to ban the show) is the result of a deficient education. So not only is literacy important, the ability to think critically is equally important. Again, this is not to say that ome things may be in poor taste and the great dumbing down of life (by pandering to the lowest common denominator) throws up such incidents. But this is no reason to ban things - subjectong taste to censorship is an express route
to Orwellian Hell!

There is, of course, the diminishing marginal utility of good education. Of what use is a good education if there is no outlet for it? Corruption and nepotism counters the positive effects of a good education. A quick look at the people in power and the contenders for power leave one thoroughly disillusioned - in what dark and twisted world can Mohammad Shahabuddin and Shibu Soren (to name just two) be Members of Parliament? Convicted murderers running the county...can we truly claim to not be a failed state? We are just a little bit ahead of civil war-ravaged Africa. In this situation many people turn inwards, looking at values and concepts rather than practicality - it is their way of dulling the evereyday reality. Others leave the country for greener pastures - why should they waste their lives being unappreciated and working for a near-hopeless cause? The few who remain withdraw from civic life. They are usually urban, upper-middle class voters with good jobs who stop voting and are resigned to bribing their way through everything. One can blame the genetically apatehtic but I personally find it difficult to blame a learned apathy that took 60 years in the making. How else does one react to a murder case dragging on for 21 years (Sayed Modi, eight-time national badminton champion, was gunned down in 1988. The Courts finally declared a verdict last week)? What options do we have when the judiciary is 124 years and over THIRTY MILLION cases backlogged?

And so we come back to Gokhale. More than a freedom activist, he was a social reformer. He warned Gandhi that Indians were not ready for independence because democracy (Gokhale did not even consider other forms of government) required an educated and civic-minded public. Democracy has an inherent danger of being corrupted and devolving to populism or majoritarianism. This is the flaw in the system, and the only thing that can rectify it is a liberal education. Unless children are exposed unreservedly to Aristotle, al Farabi, Maimonides, Spinoza, Hobbes, Mill, Voltaire, and Burke right alongside Bhaskaracharya, Adishankaracharya, and Vivekananada, unless they read from the Torah as well as the Gita, unless they can talk about Valmiki, Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Dostoevsky, and Rushdie in the same breath, they are not ready for life in a democracy. Obviously this is an ideal but it nonetheless points in the right direction. The politicisation of education in India has been a great disservice to the nation. Romila Thapar, Mushirul Hasan, Irfan Habib, Asghar Ali Engineer, Gyanendra Pandey, and others with their own brand of 'secular' axes to grind have crippled the Humanities in India. They have included sub-alterns, peasants, Muslims, women, communists, and Dalits in their national narratives - they have included everything except any sense of reality or even partial truth. Gokhale was right in 1915 - India was not ready for independence. By 1947, India may have been ready for independence but certainly not for democracy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

India First! - A Non-Anthropomorphic View

India is a FILTHY country. However one looks at it, there is no escape. There may be plenty of excuses, but that seems to be all there is plenty of in India...and people, all 1.2 billion of them. In 1994, there was a pneumonic plague epidemic in Surat, India that resulted in 52 deaths and in a large internal migration of about 300,000 residents, who fled fearing quarantine. A combination of heavy monsoon rains and clogged sewers led to massive flooding which resulted in unhygienic conditions and a number of uncleared animal carcasses. It is believed that this situation precipitated the epidemic. In 2005, Bombay was hit by floods, precipitated by heavy monsoon rains but caused by clogged sewers. Later inquiries revealed that the sewers had not been completely cleaned for fifty years! The city was not spared the same fate in 2006, nor in 2007. The Times of India reported (June 30, 2007), "Everything goes down the drain, except water!"

For all the new-found pride Indians seem to have in their nation since the liberalisation in 1991, somehow the act of translating that into action seems to have hit a roadblock. To this day, most Indians feel no hesitation in dropping trash on the street or spitting paan, marking their uncouthness with the characteristic red stain forever. Admittedly, an enormous percentage of the population lives below the poverty line (by Government of India - GoI - standards of Rs. 10/- a day, 30%. Although the World bank defines poverty as an income of less than $1.00 a day which is about Rs. 48/-, by factoring in purchasing power parity, it works out to about the same as Rs. 10/-.) and homeless. This segment of the population contributes the most to the filth as they have little or no access to sanitation and clean water. But how does that excuse the techie babu in the back seat of his newly acquired-on-credit Mahindra Scorpio sliding the window down to eject his refuse or some college student flinging a banana peel out of the bus window as it negotiates its way through the traffic?

The issue is not only a question of the aesthetics of a city's streets. The complete ignorance of even the concept of cleanliness is the root of many of India's problems. Standards of hygiene in manufacturing are virtually non-existent or not enforced. Incense sticks are dried on the footpaths right next to open sewer lines...the same incense that will then be given to the big corporations that outsourced them to the unorganised labour sector to save on costs. These sticks will then be sold in the market to millions of devotees who will offer them to their chosen deity. For all the hoopla one goes through regarding religious rituals (appropriate clothing, removing footwear, switching off electronics, showering before visiting the temple, etc.), muck from the sewer is burned in the sanctum sanctorum. Flowers offered at the temple are bought from vendors who are dirty themselves and sell their wares amidst the puddles of stagnant water found around the temple. In the monsoons, there will also be a generous helping of mud and even animal dung. This is the perverse logic of life in India.

Let the reader not think that the problem is a purely personal one. The Indian Government does a fair share of damage too. Anyone used to the sanitary conditions of the First World better beware when eating in India. Roadside stalls may offer some of the tastiest bites available in the country but the hidden costs are steep. The ingredients could be stale, the way they were stored could be cause for an upset stomach, the pollution from the vehicles can settle on the food, and there could be rodents, cockroaches, flies, and ants in and around the stalls. Even the strong anti-microbial properties of corriander, fenugreek, and other spices used in Indian cuisine cannot fully neutralise the germs in the food. Even global brand names like Coca Cola and Pepsi have a fairly high level of pesticide residue in their softdrinks in India and the areas near their plants seem to end up with lower watertables and unusually high concentrations of cadmium. This is because India has no proper food safety laws or standards enforced by an agency like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or the British Food Standards Agency (FSA). So although Coca Cola would have been in violation of health standards in Europe, the UK, or the US, Indian standards were low enough that their products were legal in India. In Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka (6th most prosperous state in the union), there were no food inspectors for over six months right in the middle of the bird flu scare. The reason given was that the laboratories (which could test only 20 samples a month!) were being upgraded. In Bangalore, there are over 25,000 registered outlets that sell food and there are only THREE food inspectors (a fourth is available only for VVIP duty) to ensure that the 25,000-odd food outlets in the city serve hygienic and safe food fit for human consumption. This means that each inspector has to keep tabs on over 8,330 joints.

Recently, it was found that 72% of paint sold in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka contained unacceptably high levels of lead. When Chinese toys were found to contain lead and cadmium (neuro- and nephrotoxins) in March this year, they were promptly banned in the US, UK, and Europe. India banned toy imports from China but relaxed the ban almost immediately. The ban had been imposed after dangerous levels of toxins were found in the toys, exposing the 130 million children in India to risks including liver damage and disruption of mental health.

Health and hygiene are not a first world luxury but a necessity. Amending the food safety laws and practices and industrial standards on environmental effects, although initially requiring investments of manpower and money, will save money in the long run as health costs come down and real estate prices appreciate due to cleaner surroundings. Recently, when the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited India, one of the main discussion points was the environment. There was opposition to India caving in to American demands on climate control because, critics nonsensically claimed, it would impinge on India's defence. I fail to see the connection. For all his foibles, Manmohan Singh played his cards beautifully. India was concerned about the environment, he said, but at India's pace. It was not fair that the West raped the planet for the past two centuries and now did not allow the Third World to climb the same development ladder. Short of the West donating environmentally friendly technology to India and other nations, India should not handicap its industries. However, it must be realised that cleaner air, water, and land are in our interest as well as the planet's. Malaria, filariasis, kala-azar and cholera rates in India are rising over the past fifteen years. Take this quote from the Economist (December 11, 2008):

"To know why 1,000 Indian children die of diarrhoeal sickness every day, take a wary stroll along the Ganges in Varanasi. As it enters the city, Hinduism’s sacred river contains 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 millilitres, 120 times more than is considered safe for bathing. Four miles downstream, with inputs from 24 gushing sewers and 60,000 pilgrim-bathers, the concentration is 3,000 times over the safety limit. In places, the Ganges becomes black and septic. Corpses, of semi-cremated adults or enshrouded babies, drift slowly by."

The Yamuna, according to Newsweek, has 10,000 times higher amount of fecal bacteria than is safe for bathing despite a 15-year
programme to build 17 sewage plants. According to a Times of India article, around 50% of Bangalore's children - that is about 1.3 million - suffer from asthma, while in Calcutta, 45% of the population had reduced lung function. In frustration, the Centre for Science and Enviroment stated in 2000 that India’s pollution control laws are not even worth the piece of paper on which they have been promulgated. In Europe, air pollution (PM10) is less than 40 µg/m³ (annual avaerage) and they plan to halve that by January 2010. In contrast, Delhi had PM10 levels of 150, Calcutta 128, and Kanpur and Lucknow 109 (2004 statistics). A study from 2006 can be found HERE.

As I said at the outset, India is a filthy place, both in terms of civic sense as well as governmental regulations on food, medicine, industry, and the environment. By promoting this agendum, it can create jobs in new sectors, reduce healthcare costs, and allow us to live in a cleaner country and consume healthier products. We don't all have to become followers of Edward Abbey but a little care won't hurt. Mera Bharat may be mahaan, but is mera Bharaat also saaf-sutra?

Two additional site for environmental statistics in India:

A Rudderless Party

I usually refrain from commenting on currently active stories because calm reflection yields more positive results than hot-blooded rants. However, in the case of Jaswant Singh (JS) vs. Sangh Parivar, it is of utmost importance that I speak immediately. On the surface, the halla-gulla seems to be yet another intra-Parivar squabble, perhaps the RSS asserting its power over the BJP. Politically it may be so, with some deft manoeuvring by some BJP member(s) who held a grudge against JS. The questions raised in this scuffle, however, are of paramount importance and the answers we find will set the course India takes in the future.

The gist of the matter is that JS wrote a book, Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence, that was more sympathetic to Muhammad Ali Jinnah than Indian historiography has been willing to allow. Jinnah, for most Indians, was the villan of the partition. He demanded a separate state to be carved out of the British Raj for Muslims against the wishes of Gandhi and Nehru, and he was responsible for the carnage that followed (in which over a million people died). History is never so clear, and this is what JS' book reminded us. In a more sympathetic portrayal of Jinnah, the blame shifts somewhat to Nehru and Sardar Patel as well as Jinnah.

The critical question this biography raises is how did the man they called the Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity in 1916 end up as the Qaid-e-Azam of Pakistan in 1947? The answer: he was pushed by the Congress's repeated inability to accept that Muslims feared domination by Hindus and wanted "space" in "a re-assuring system." The British divide-and-conquer policy added fuel to the fire, particularly with the introduction of reservations in 1909 and communal electorates through the Government of India Act in 1935. Language riots favouring Urdu over Hindi despite the 1900 declaration by Raj authorities that both languages will be given equal status further hardened the position of prominent Muslim intellectuals such as Muhammad Iqbal (author of Sare Jahan se Accha) and Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (friction between Hindi and Urdu had existed decades before the language riots and even the formation of the Muslim League). The 1937 elections shattered the aspirations of the Muslim League, and Congress concomitantly refused to share power with an organisation that sided with the British and opposed its policies (of communal electorates). This difference in vision led to Iqbal's idea of a separate Muslim state (1930) being adopted as the policy of the League at the Lahore sitting in 1940. For JS, Nehru and Mountbatten share equal responsibility. He argues that while Gandhi, Rajagopalachari and Azad understood the Muslim fear of Congress majoritarianism, Nehru could not.Had the Congress accepted a decentralised, federal India, then a united India "was clearly ours to attain". But "this was an anathema to Nehru's centralising approach and policies."

Although JS is right in that Jinnah was not the archvillain of the Partition, he was not as angelic and innocent as one may gather from the book. Jinnah was nothing if not the archopportunist. Power hungry, Jinnah used the Congress and then the League to rise to a position of prominence that his money and connections alone could not do in revolutionary India. JS does not, however, give Jinnah any agency - throughout the book, Jinnah is acted upon by either Muslim intellectuals, the Congress, the British, or the League. Jinnah needs to be 'un-demonised' but I am not sure this is best achieved by inducting him into the Hall of Angels. besides, that would be biased history of another kind. In any case, it is time Indians recognised that the founders of the nation were also ordinary mortals, better than some but prone to making errors nevertheless (Guilty Men Of India's Partition, by Ram Manohar Lohia, is an excellent place to start reading on the Partition. A more common view can be found in The Tragic Story of Partition, by HV Seshadri).

JS opens up, inadvertently or not, the question of federalism. Would an American model, in which states have power in most areas but relinquish foreign affairs, defence, and a few key sectors to the centre (to put it simply), have served India better? What if Pakistan had been an autonomous part of an akhand Bharat along with Bangladesh and perhaps parts of Hyderabad? This is a counterfactual, not quite in the purview of academics. However, it does not mean that we should not consider it. However, the pitfalls must be clear - there is no evidence to cite in favour of federalism in India because it has never been tried. Furthermore, given the vast differences in language, culture, worship, and cuisine, the dangers of separatism must be considered before advocating a federal system. Especially now, what would stop Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat and haryana from seceding to avoid having to pick up the slack from Bihar, West Bengal, and other non-performing states? India has had problems with Punjab already as well as Tamil Nadu and the problem in the North East has still not abated. An argument against federalism, however, is that stronger states tend towards centralisation. Take the American case again - as America changed from a backwater of the British Empire to the superpower it is today, Washington became stronger and stronger. The sharpest difference can be seen in pre- and post- Civil War (1861-1865) under Lincoln, the New Deal (1933-1945) under Roosevelt, and the Cold war (1945-1991). The Executive Branch became so powerful that in 1973, the US Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (did not become an Act and is hence not a law of the land even though all Presidents since have followed its guidelines - its constitutionality has been challenged but since it has not gone to the Supreme Court, there has been no decision) to restrict the President.

Whether JS can sell his book and argument or not, the key issue here is freedom of expression and the value of an open debate. Other issues JS' book has raised like history and federalism take a back seat to this. India claims to be a democratic country and I will, for now, give her the benefit of the doubt. JS' expulsion from the BJP for his personal views he expressed in publication is nothing other than the Talibanisation of Parivar politics. The appropriate response to a book is a review, or better yet, another book. The book has been banned in Gujarat (held by the BJP in the May 2009 elections), a move supported by the Congress Party as well. Worse, it had been barely two or three days since the book came out that the Parivar machinery went into gear to expel JS. It is unclear how many people actually read the book and contemplated on the argument before taking such an extreme measure as expulsion. JS is - was - a senior member of the BJP having held the position of Foreign Minister and Defence Minister in the 1998 - 2004 BJP government. Moreover, given the history of the relations between Jinnah and the Parivar - remember LK Advani's trip to Lahore in 2004 - the anti-intellectual psoition the BJP-led NDA coalition has taken is apparent.

I am not one to believe in the universality of ideas. That is not to say that no idea is universal, but the chances are fairly high that the context may render a noble idea in Europe meaningless in South Asia. In our intellectual clumsiness or for purposes of propaganda, we use words from one context, history and evolution in another entirely alien enviroment (Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincialising Europe does an admirable job of explaining this point further). A quick illustration of the multiple valences of 'progress,' for example, comes in the form on a couple of anecdotes - in one, Ramanujan, the famous mathematician, is caught by GH Hardy consulting a horoscope, and in the other, Nobel laureate CV Raman excuses himself from his laboratory so that he could get home early and shower before a solar eclipse arrives at his location. Two unquestionably brilliant men of modernity still clinging to ancient extra-rational (I use the suffix extra- because ir- has a pejorative connotation) practices: is this progress or regress in the far reaches of the Raj?

The idea in danger here is open debate. I believe the concept holds the same meaning in its Western incarnation as it does in its Eastern trajectory - there is ample evidence of philosophical and theological debates occurring in India for at least the past three millennia. Similarly in the West, open debate has meant publications and counter-publications, speeches and counter-speeches, and the free exercise of the scientific process (hypothesis-thesis-synthesis). As such, even if one vehemently objects to JS' interpretation of history, it must be done in open discussion. Unpalatable, unfavourable or unpopular ideas cannot be quashed by using the state machinery but must be rejected, appropriated, or allowed to modify our own views only through a process of exchange and consultation. Otherwise, there is no difference between the banning of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and this. Intolerance towards free expression has been more visible of late. Besides the JS case and the Satanic Verses, there was also MF Hussain's painting of a nude Saraswati and the reaction in India to the Danish cartoons that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban. No doubt, one may find some of these more distasteful than others but the principle is still the same - should we use the powers of the State to suppress ideas we don't like? If the answer is in the positive, the next question becomes, who is the 'we'? And, what do 'we' do when 'we' are not in power and 'not-we' decides to supress an idea tha 'we' like but 'not-we' don't?

Clearly, in a democracy, self-restraint is necessary. The best means of opposition to an idea is economic - boycott MF Hussain's exhibition, don't read the Satanic Verses, refuse to buy JS' book but don't ban them. Ideas become more dangerous when suppressed than when dismissed after due consideration. A glaring example is the Congress Party itself - putting on blinders and creating (and believing) its own myths, it did not see the rise of a viable opposition in the form of the BJP because more and more people were become tired of secularism, Congress-style. If the BJP does not accept occasional challenges to Party orthodoxy, it will very soon morph into the RSS (because much of the official Party position when not in power is remarkably similar to that of the RSS). It will lose its distinct flavour as a party of free thinkers who refuse to abase themselves in the cults of Mao, Marx, and the Gandhi dynasty. More importantly, as a major national party and the only viable opposition, the BJP's actions will set a precedent and serve as an example or an excuse for future generations of not only BJP leaders but also other politicians and officials. Once it is established that the truth is what is politically correct and exigent for the national meta-narrative, people in all walks of life in India will follow the set example. Objectivity, query, and discussion would have lost their use, and any action that takes away the intrinsic property of an idea breeds instability and chaos.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lotus Blooming...

The Indian media has, over the past twenty years or so, obsessed over the rise of the Right in India in the form of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP and its feeder groups (like the Shiv Sena, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bajrang Dal, etc.) have been labelled as Rightists, fascists, communal and anti-secular by Macaulayite academicians, journalists, and activists of various stripes. In a country with three broad political coalitions, nine national parties, and at least forty-eight parties at the state level (a scarier list is HERE), one thing that unites them all is an anti-National Democratic Alliance (coalition led by the BJP) position. These accusations are, at best, misrepresentations or an indication of a complete ignorance of the English language. In truth, they reveal an entirely make-believe world critics of the BJP live in, a world entirely divorced from reality where facts are twisted beyond all recognition. What makes this dangerous is that many of the inhabitants of this make-believe world are in positions of great power and responsibility in the Indian state structure and civic society.

To clarify terms, an exercise of definitions is required here. Labels laden with venom such as secular, communal, and fascist need to be deconstructed (to borrow a word from the JNU Critical Theory crowd) and seen if they apply to the Indian context and if so, how. After all, many of these words were invented elsewhere and transplanted to the Indian context. Indeed, the entire medium of communication is foreign to Indian soil. In the true sense of many of the terms bandied about, the BJP is innocent of the charges. Yet in the battle for public opinion, the BJP has only managed to preach to the choir. Let us look at the so-called Right coalition in Indian politics today.

The political dimension of organisations based on 'hindutva,' or Hindu-ness, is at least eighty years old, its roots beginning with the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (ABHM, henceforth HMS for Hindu Mahasabha) in 1915. Created by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Keshava Baliram Hegdewar (who founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - RSS - in 1925), its main purpose was to oppose the secularist tendencies of the Indian National Congress (INC, henceforth Congress) and serve as a counterweight to the Muslim League. Both Savarkar and Hegdekar were strongly influenced by the ideas coming out of the Hindu Revival Movement that had begun in the late 18th century. People like Raja Rammohan Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Swami Vivekananda and Aurobindo Ghose, who spoke out against centuries of cultural malpractices and attempted to modernise Hinduism served as an inspiration and a foundation upon which a political organisation espousing the interests of the neglected and mistreated majority could be based. Under MK Gandhi's hypnotic spell, an underfed, illiterate nation ignored its own interests (with much support from the British Government) and decided to embrace minority groups in the soon-to-be-independent India.

The first altercation, the Marriage Bill, intended to outlaw primitive marriage customs that had accumulated over the centuries ran into major opposition in Parliament. Eventually, it became the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, exempting Christians and Muslims from its provisions but holding Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs to be quasi-Hindus and hence subject to this Act (Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi covers this well). The resolution of the Shah Bano divorce case in 1986 was another major event that further poisoned communal relations. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi amended the Indian Constitution to allow the inheritance of a Muslim woman from her deceased husband revert to the family, leaving Muslim women since destitute and entirely at the mercy of their in-laws (More information HERE, Supreme Court DECISION, women's position HERE). This was a blow not only against other communities (by setting the precedent that even the Constitution can be amended to further narrow sectional interests) but also against women’s rights. The most controversial provision of the Act was that it gave a Muslim woman the right to maintenance for the period of iddat (about three months) after the divorce, and shifted the onus of maintaining her to her relatives or the Wakf Board. The Act was seen as discriminatory as it denied divorced Muslim women the right to basic maintenance which women of other faiths had recourse to under secular law.

In 2004, there was an attempt by the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh to classify Muslims as backward people. This would entitle them to at least 5% reservation of seats and appointments in the state. Thankfully, this was defeated in the Supreme Court. Many such incidents created a fertile base for the rise of parties and groups like the BJP, RSS, HMS, and the Shiv Sena. Frustrated with what they termed the Congress policy of pseudo-secularism, more people began to take the warnings of the erstwhile Swatantra Party and Jan Sangh seriously. The BJP was the most electable successor of the Sangh Parivar with a fairly decent pedigree of politicians inherited from the Jan Sangh and other like-minded parties in the Lok Sabha. From a meagre three seats the Jan Sangh won in the 1952 elections, the BJP and its allies amassed 303 seats in the 1998 parliamentary elections. The media shrieked that a New Right had risen, not withstanding the century-old roots of the Parivar.


Secularism is the view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education. Espoused vociferously by people like Voltaire and Condorcet during the French Revolution, its origins in the modern sense of the word are clearly European. Voltaire would have probably taken secularism a step further and dismissed religion altogether. However, at its core, secularism implies that there will be no preference given to any religion over another in the public sphere. In independent India, the poster boy for secularism was Nehru. Although the word secular was inserted into the Preamble to the Indian Constitution by the 42nd Amendment Act of 1976 during Indira Gandhi's Emergency, Nehru had neither the time nor patience for religious superstitions. In fact, he described the Rourkela Steel Plant as a temple of modern India. While Nehru may personally have been secular, it is evident that he did not grasp the full meaning of the term and its applicability to India. Not only did he compromise the promised secularism for political expediency, but he also misunderstood the nature of the people he ruled over. Ancient India was religious yet secular - it did not interfere in the religious practices of Zoroastrians, Jews (even the State of Israel recognised this in 1992), or even Christians and Muslims. The state did not differentiate between its citizens based on religious belief, yet the ruler was strongly guided by religious principles, Samrat Ashoka for example. This experience cannot be transposed to the West because unlike Hinduism, Christianity and Islam believe in, strongly emphasise in fact, conversion. Hinduism does not share the bitterness and hatred amongst its different schools that Protestants and Catholics or Shi'i and Sunnis have shown. Consequently, there was never a need to separate religion and state in India under Hindu rule. Indians think secularism means inclusion. This is because we have no precise word for it in any Indian language. The word actually means distance from religion, but in no Indian language can distance from dharma be a good thing. The word does not exist because the concept is alien to us. Hindi uses बिन्संप्रदायिक (binsampradayik), which means non-sectarian, and that is why secularism cannot be tranposed onto the Indian context.

The converse, however, that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the hodgepodge Third Front are not secular is very true. Remember that secularism means that there shall be no preference for one religion over another - the Marriage Act, the Shah Bano case, the banning of the Satanic Verses, and the HAJ SUBSIDY (In 2007 the Haj subsidy paid by the Indian government was Rs. 595 crores, and for 2008 it was Rs. 700 crores. Since 1994 the round trip cost to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia has been fixed at Rs. 12,000 per pilgrim, and the government has footed the rest of the bill. In 2007 this difference came to Rs. 47,454 per passenger) are but a few examples of the many ways in which the Congress and the Third Front have been anti-secular. They are the ones who have violated the Constitution and the supposed wishes of Gandhi and Nehru, not the BJP.

There is the additional point that Hinduism is not, in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic sense, a religion. The Supreme Court agreed with this assessment in lieu of the fact that Hindus could be monists, monotheists, henotheists, polytheists, or even atheists and still be considered Hindu. In a system in which there are no commandments or laws but suggestions, there were six schools of thought as late as the 1300s (only three survive now), and it was relatively easy to switch from one to another, the Western category 'religion' fails to encompass the richness of the phenomenon.

In all fairness, it must also be conceded that many of the lower strata of Parivar supporters see the BJP as a platform from which to target Muslims. Rather than return to the secular hindutva of Ancient India that they espouse, the Muslim community has been targeted, Ayodhya and Godhra being two extreme examples. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, anti-Islamic feelings are not restricted to India. With the rise of Wahhabist Islam, more and more parts of the world are beginning to reject the veneer of a peaceful religion that moderate and liberal Muslims try to project. Islam came to India in 712 with the conquest of Sindh by Mohammad-ibn-Quasim (it may have come earlier through traders, but there is no strong evidence for this). By 1192, after the Second Battle of Tarrain, Islam established a firm grip in the subcontinent with the capture of Delhi. With the exception of a few rulers like Akbar, the Muslim sultans proceeded to loot and pillage India, desecrating the temples of the 'infidels.' Muhammad Ghori, Mahmud Ghaznavi, and Aurangzeb hold the dubious distinction of being the most destructive of all invaders, eclipsing even Nadir Shah. Centuries of subjugation and mistreatment, to put it mildly, has finally come back to haunt the modern generation of Muslims. Regrettable though it may be, the sins of the father will be visited upon the sons. Such is human nature - there is a strong demand for a pound of flesh or the complete retreat of Islam into the private sphere (which is antithetical to the Islamic understanding of the universe).

Recent violence against Christians was instigated by churches in India funded by evangelical American mega-churches publishing and distributing pamphlets that have called Shiva lustful, Ganesha an illegitimate child, and Vishnu a eunuch. Although violence and vigilantism cannot, in principle, be condoned, there was clear provocation from missionaries. The attacks on Christian establishments were not a manifestation of Hindu intolerance. Similar incidents happened during the Raj as well but these were fiercely opposed by public debates and speeches by Vishnubawa Brahmachari, Muttukumara Kavirajar, Arumuga Navalar, Nakkirar, Centinatha Aiyar, Nirveli Civa Shankara Panditar, Dayananda Saraswati, and others. The uneducated masses, in some cases, resorted to violence. (Kenneth Jones' edited volume, Religious Controversy in British India covers Hindu reaction to Christian proselytsing quite well.)


The Sangh Parivar has been labelled India's New Right, the Hindu Right. Although there is nothing pejorative in the word 'Right' itself, the twentieth century has seen too many right-wing movements clamp down viciously on basic freedoms. Hitler, Franco, Pinochet, Rhee, and Diem are but a few examples (interestingly, these are also Western sagas). As a result, most political parties identify themselves as Conservative rather than Right, for example the Tories in the UK, the CDU in Germany, or the UMP in France. Political Hinduism, on the other hand, is very much an entity of the Left. Chanakya, the archangel of Realism, wrote in his Arthashastra that even prostitutes should be provided free education and board (and subsequently licensed and taxed!). Dharamshalas were built along roads for travellers to rest and eat, usually free of charge. The ruler was expected to give to his people generously and often in the form of services and alms. In most if not all definitions of 'Left,' using Western Europe as the yardstick, Ram Rajya falls clearly in the Leftist camp. Its exponents are keenly aware of this and are active in volunteer work across India at different levels and fields. During the Chinese invasion of India in 1962, RSS volunteers were sent to the front to perform secondary duties to free up more soldiers for fighting (for which the RSS was invited to march in the Republic Day Parade in 1963 and the ban on them that had been in place since Gandhi's assassination repealed). During riots, earthquakes, and other emergencies, HMS and RSS volunteers work tirelessly in the effected areas to bring relief. For the BJP to be seen as Right-leaning, one must indeed be quite far on the Left.


In the strict definition of the word, which seems irrelevant to journalists and academics alike, communalism is the identification of a group based on religion and then positing that the group's other socio-economic or political interests must naturally coincide. The primary identity of the group though, is religious. The BJP, in asking for a uniform civil code, is quite the opposite of this. In effect, they are saying that all Indians, regardless of religion should be treated equally under one law. It is the Congress and the Third Front that wish to give preferential treatment through separate jurisdictions and reservations to Muslims and Dalits. In this, they are the ones positing that the most important facet of the identity of these people is religious and therefore other interests coincide, making them communities that need representation. Like the British before them (most famously, the Government of India Act of 1935), the UPA and the Third Front create communities that further divide the Indian population. The HMS and the RSS had, since the 1920s, opposed such carving up of India into many little Indias.

Critics have accused the 'Hindu Right' as trying to impose a tyranny of the majority upon minorities in India while they themselves support proportional representation, weighted quotas in jobs and education, and personal law. This is a thorny issue inherent in the democratic structure. Although it allows for a tyranny of the majority, if the solution is to imbue the minorities with special privileges and powers, it would then be called minorityism, where the minorities can hold the majority at ransom. There is no way out of this dilemma except to stress tolerance and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

It is also worth noting that communalism is not bad in and of itself. In the Ottoman Empire, Maronites, Jews, Orthodox, and other non-Muslim communities were divided into their own separate millets. Although politically inferior to the Sultan’s Muslim subjects, this system provided for a secure political status and much internal autonomy to each group. This system exists today in Iran and Pakistan. Although this arrangement may be criticised for not bringing equality to everyone, it has proven to sometimes be the lesser of two evils - after the forced secularisation of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French after the Crimean War, violence.
against minorities increased and even genocide of the Armenians was conducted in 1915. Under the forced secularisation of Ataturk in Turkey, anti-Greek violence drove the Greeks out of Istanbul in the 1950s and the Assyrians and Chaldaeic Christians were chased out of south-eastern Turkey in the 1960s. Despite centuries of living under the millet system, Christians were a third of the Ottoman Empire in 1900; by 2000, after less than a century of secular rule, they are less than 1% of the Turkish population.

There is one final accolade left to be distributed, and this one goes to the Congress, Third Front, the media, and the JNU professors who have followed a Nehruvian/Marxist formula in lashing out at the BJP and its allies. The accolade is Macaulayism. It was Thomas Babington Macaulay who said that the purpose of British education in India was to create a people Indian in colour but British in every other respect. Macaulayites are those who have internalised the ideology of, as Rudyard Kipling put it, the White Man's Burden are are intent on liberating the "half devil and half child" natives from their superstitions and nonsensical customs. They are a class of self-hating Hindus (Nehru had written to his father to allow him to transfer from Cambridge to Oxford as Cambridge was beginning to have 'too many Indians') and Indians who knew all the bad things that had happened in their culture but none of the positive contributions. They are Indians in blood and colour but anti-Indian in intellectual and emotional orientation. Their self-alienation has wreaked havoc in India's social and political spheres.

Finally, there remains the accusation that the Sangh Parivar is particularly anti-Muslim. This is a difficult issue the Parivar can perhaps NOT be exonerated from entirely. It is not that Hindu organisations make Muslims the focus of their ire for the sake of creating a convenient Other. Militant Hindus have targeted Christians as well for certain actions. The real opposition is to intolerance. Islam has, irrespective of its scriptural stance, been intolerant around the world these past two centuries. Christianity has been less so but the surge of evangelical ministries may make Christianity equally unwelcome to the Parivar. Hindu rulers welcomed other religious communities that have thrived in India since their arrival. Buddha and the Jain teerthankaras were able to preach beliefs opposed to the orthodoxy freely their entire lives without fear of persecution. Jews and their monotheistic G-d have been left alone, the only place in the world they have never been persecuted. Then why the ire against Islam (and Christianity to a lesser extent)? One answer could be that proselytising religions are in essence intolerant - they seek to convert, by force if possible. Centuries of bad behaviour - desecration and destruction of temples and monuments (eg. Bamiyan), extra taxation, wars - have left some Hindus a little short on patience. India came into Hindu hands for the first time in almost a millennium when it became independent in 1947. This time, the Hindu 'Right' did not want to surrender so easily.