Monday, December 23, 2013

The Future Language of India

First published on NewsYaps

In 1916, the Mahatma spoke in Banaras Hindu University on the question of English. He said:

“I am hoping that this University will see to it that the youths who come to it will receive their instruction through the medium of their vernaculars. Our languages are the reflection of ourselves, and if you tell me that our languages are too poor to express the best thoughts, then say that the sooner we are wiped out of existence the better for us. Is there a man who dreams that English can ever become the national language of India? Why this handicap on the nation? Just consider for one moment what an unequal race our lads have to run with every English lad.”

I am unaware of the reaction to Gandhi’s confident claim expressing incredulousness at any Indian ever wanting English to be the national language. But the reaction to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s much more modest proposal that MPs in Parliament speak in Indian languages was met with a rather solid wave of disapproval. One headline from a piece published in the Mint called Mulayam “notoriously regressive” and attacked him for keeping “his people impoverished and vote-banked” (when nouns are being verbed you know things have gotten serious). The Times of India called the proposal “absurd” and opined that it leaked of “political hypocrisy”. The Indian Express, in an editorial, characterised this proposal as a “march to the past” and connected this with the overall failure of the SP government in UP.

That Mulayam’s proposal is impractical and will hardly change a thing is something which is obvious. In fact, this is a minor demand as far as he is concerned; in earlier times, Netaji had even demanded the banning of English from the country overall, the success of which can be gauged by having a look at the language this very write-up uses.

That being said, the reaction to this is almost as silly as the proposal in the first place. What our Anglophone class doesn’t realise is that there are large segments of the country which do have grievances with the heaven-born status that the language enjoys and it is this sentiment that Mulayam seeks to channel.

English as a glass ceiling

In a TV debate about this matter, Madhukar Jaitley of the SP rubbished claims to this being a regressive move and claimed that what was wrong was that you needed to know English—a language spoke by less than 10% of the country—to get a white-collar job. This is a point that is tough to argue with. India, burdened with the worst of colonialism and a particularly elitist culture, genuflects to English as few countries do. English, in India, is effectively a glass ceiling. You might be the smartest person out there for the job, but if you’re “Hindi-medium” then, well, you might as well forget it.

This extreme position that English occupies is something that a lot of the people who are befuddled by Mulayam’s stance don’t get. Yes, “we should love all languages” as Derek O’Brien condescendingly reminds us, but that’s easier said than done when this particular language is one of the major things that stands between you and social advancement. This is a point that many people who extol the English-is-global-language point don’t get. To quote from Sandipan Deb’s piece in Mint:

“Whether we like it or not—and Mulayam can have long discussions with Germans or Russians or Arabs about it through English interpreters—English is our planet’s principle medium of both communication and commerce... The Chinese, for instance, recognize that and have been pouring in enormous resources to teach their children the language.”

This is true. English is the principal medium of communication globally and if you wanted to have an international conversation, you would have to use English. But what about if each of these countries wanted to have an intra-national conversation? Would an Egyptian speak to an Egyptian in English? And Germany already follows Mulayam’s advice of using its native language in its legislatures. If Sandipan really did want to copy what the Germans, Arabs and Chinese were doing, he’d pretty much be agreeing with Mulayam. The point is simple: let us not confuse a global lingua franca—a link language—with our internal languages of business and governance. As far as the latter is concerned, Mulayam, the Germans, the Arabs, the Russians, the Chinese and almost every nation on earth agrees that a native language should be used. As for English being used as a global lingua franca, no one really disagrees with that, or should not at the very least. But as anyone who has observed India would know, English has gone far beyond being just a utilitarian global lingua franca and occupies a position of power today in India. If English was actually just a lingua franca, it would be absent in linguistically uniform places such as Delhi or not find a place in Bombay where, since it is understood by so few people, it would do a horrible job of acting as a lingua franca.

So why is English still India’s lingua franca?

Talk of lingua franca though brings us to another issue: India’s diversity. Not only was Sandipan’s comparison to Germany wrong because it ended up supporting Mulayam’s point, but it was also wrong because India is wildly multilingual unlike Germany. Not only does India need a lingua franca to communicate with other countries, its regions also need one to talk to other regions of India.

Here the contention of the Hindiwallahs is that since Hindi is already spoken by such a vast number of Indians (~33% speak it as their native tongue as per the 2001 census) it is the natural choice as a national language. Unfortunately, learning a new language is not a simple first-past-the-post exercise. For the huge number of non-Hindi speakers, learning a new language has to confer commiserate economic and social benefits for them to take the time and effort to learn it. Hindi clearly did not offer that in 1947. Yet Hindi was sought to be imposed, by fiat almost, on non-Hindi speakers. Almost as a back lash, non-Hindi speakers stuck all the more to English. As Anna Durai, put it across rather eloquently: “Why should Hindi be our national language? Is it because the majority speak Hindi? Then why is the Peacock our national bird and not the crow despite the latter being the most numerous?”

What is odd is that even after 66 years of Hindi promotion by the Centre, it has been unable to create enough critical mass for Hindi. This can be explained maybe by the fact that the Hindi promoted by the Centre is hardly even spoken by the 33% who label themselves as “Hindi speakers”. Our census, when it comes to Hindi is a bit of a joke. In 1881, for example, the census recorded 98% of UPites to be ‘Hindustani’ speakers. By 1951 that number had dropped to 10% and by 1961 to 0.1%! The truth of the matter is that Hindi, even in the Hindi heartland is an urban language and the rural areas speak a variety of languages such as Avadhi, Braj or what have you. To further weaken the cause, the Hindi that the Centre promotes is itself far removed from the urban Hindi of, say, Delhi, Lucknow or Kanpur, being highly Sanskritised and far removed from common speech. It’s a bit like the British Government promoting Shakespearean English today. Thus you have the extremely odd sight of signs in government offices in Patna or Lucknow which advertise and promote Hindi. I know off no other major language in the world which needs to be advertised to its own native speakers.

Given these deficiencies, Hindi is far from established in its own heartland, thus it’s not surprise that it hasn’t been able to take over the country. The elites prefer to stick to English and it remains the language of aspiration.

The Future

So is this the way it’s going to be? Is the rise and rise of English a fait accompli? It’s hard to imagine the decline of a language seemingly as entrenched as English. But the same could maybe have been said about Latin in Europe and Sanskrit in India: both languages once were widespread and powerful but lie dead today.

Personally, I don’t think that English has too bright a future in India as a popular language. English is spoken by too thin a patina of the Indian population to ever be a true lingua franca except amongst the elite. In spite of the bungling and chauvinism by the Hindiwallahs, this lingua franca is still to be Hindi. Indeed, if we consider the spread of Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani over the past 400 years, it’s been nothing short of remarkable. What started out as the language of Delhi and a tiny sliver of Western Uttar Pradesh is now understood, at least at some basic level, from Peshawar in West to Calcutta in the East and from Srinagar in the North to Bangalore in South.  In the 19th century, this was initially driven by the adoption of Urdu by the North Indian elite and the British Raj. The real fillip, though, came when the Bombay film industry, located far away from the Hindi heartland in Maratha country, adopted the simple spoken form of Hindi-Urdu as their language. If today the arcane register propagated by the Indian government drives people away, the shine and glamour of Bollywood has made Hindi appealing to large sections of the Indian population. This engine has driven the penetration of Hindi into far off regions like Kerala and rural Bengal. In fact, on a visit to Bangladesh, I found that while most couldn’t speak Hindi all that well, years of Bollywood had ensured that they understood the language just fine.

Of course, official languages require more than the entertainment industry. But as a popular language, the way things stand, Mulayam can take heart from the fact that Hindi has a far greater chance of becoming India’s lingua franca than English does.

Campa Cola Shows the Inordinate Power of the Middle Class in India Today

First published on NewsYaps on 20 November 2013

So I’m sitting there, all of 8 years old, listening to the conversation of a gaggle of aunts and uncles at a cousin’s birthday party. The topic revolves around the perfidy of maid servants, always a popular topic at our family gatherings.

“And that’s it. She just left. Without any notice, no nothing. And after all that I’d done for her,” an aunt complained bitterly about a recent maid in much the same vein as one would about a bad break-up.

These people are like that only, baba. No matter how much you do for them, it’s not enough. They know they can just skip to a different job whenever they want. They know that and take advantage of this fact,” chimed in an uncle sympathetically

“So true. Arre, it’s only us, the middle class, which has these problems. The rich, of course, have their own lives. And the poor, they don’t care. It’s us who get our backs broken,” said another aunt, following this up with an appropriate sigh.

This middle class lament, that they’re the only class with goodness, filled to the brim with virtues such as honesty, hard-work and diligence is rather common. Apart from this, another recurring theme is a narrative of victimisation: society, as well as the government, is out to get us and it’s only us and our hard-work that keeps us afloat.

Of course, like most self-portraits, there are large inaccuracies in how the middle class sees itself.  The exaggeration starts with the name itself. The middle class (defined liberally as those with an income in excess of 3.4 lakh per annum) actually occupies the top 15% of the country in terms of income. Looking at it mathematically, “upper class” would be a far more accurate name for this class of white-collar workers.

The other untruth of course, is this narrative of victimisation. This might seem like an obvious point—after all which state can victimise its richest, most powerful citizens?  Yet this narrative exists.  This was most recently seen in the Campa Cola Compound episode. Milind Deora’s letter to Sonia Gandhi captures much of this victimisation complex. The letter starts off with describing the residents as “law abiding middle class families” and then goes on to the blame the “builder/Corporation nexus” for this whole issue.

Of course, rather than abiding by the law, the residents were well aware of the fact that they were purchasing illegal flats. In February 2013, the Supreme Court itself stated that, “Although the members of the housing societies knew that the construction had been raised in violation of the sanctioned plan and permission for occupation of the buildings had not been issued by the competent authority, a large number of them occupied the illegally constructed buildings.

Most crucially though, rather than victimising the residents, the state went out of its way to help. In spite of the obvious illegality of the compound, so strong was the political class’ support that it bordered on the surreal. The Shiv Sena threatened to hit the streets against the demolition squad of the Shiv Sena controlled BMC, the Congress MP from South Mumbai, Milind Deora threatened Congress CM Prithviraj Chavan if action was not taken to stop the demolition and, of course, the cherry on the cake, the Supreme Court, taking suo moto cognisance of media reports, stayed its own demolition order.

Victimisation? Hardly.

To further make the case, the state has been far harsher with slums in Bombay, demolishing them at will.  The names of Golibar, Sion Koliwada, Ramnagar, Ambedkar Nagar and Ambujwadi come to mind where the residents were just as guilty/innocent as those in Campa Cola. But, of course, they had no media backing and had to go.

Following Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of bias in news, the English media pushes the interests of the middle class in order to keep up its funding which comes mainly via advertisements. Since its readers and the people who consume the advertisements are middle class folks, speaking up for their interests becomes mandatory for the English media. This media, thus, acts as a massive middle class pressure group.

Campa Cola is just one example amongst many of this phenomenon. This is the same mechanism at work which raises such a huge din when LPG prices are raised. Approximately 20% of India uses LPG and they are usually the richest 20% of India. Yet, the government subsidises this upper class and every small increase in prices is met with a strong push back led again by the media.

An even more egregious instance of this is the case of the BRT in Delhi. Multiple surveys have shown that the BRT in Delhi is actually hugely popular with bus riders, an overwhelming majority of the city’s population. Yet, the ruckus created by the English media has made it appear as if the BRT is a failure when the only people who think so are the tiny number of people who own private cars (for whom the roads have become more congested). So strong is this pressure that at one time the Supreme Court even cancelled the BRT system and the Sheila Dixit government has been forced to go slow on expanding the project.

In recent years, there has been a popular narrative of the middle class disengaging from democracy because, or so they moan and complain, there is no space for them here. The system is castigated loudly for being populist and politicians berated for pandering to "vote banks" (as if politicians hankering after votes in a democracy is just the worst abomination ever). Of course, as Campa Cola has most recently shown, vote banks are not the only things which push the levers of power. Far from being the frail little things the middle class like to cast themselves as, using their megaphone, the English media, they wield enormous power and influence in India; far more than the little power vote banks wield, in fact, as the sharp contrast between the treatment meted out to Campa Cola and slums of Bombay show. And as this middle class grows in size, its political influence can only get larger—something Milind Deora and the Shiv Sena seem to have grasped in this episode. This increased clout should certainly lead to interesting changes in the way politics is conducted in our country.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Babur Ki Aulad: Medievalism and Section 377

Today, the honourable Supreme Court of the Republic of India criminalised (or rather, re-criminalised) homosexuality. You can read an NDTV report on the matter here.

The court hid behind the argument that only Parliament can make and amend laws, not the judiciary. Technically correct but hugely hypocritical given the spate of judicial activism that's been the norm for some time now.

The reaction from the chattering classes was immediate and it was sharp. Social media dropped like a ton of bricks on the judgement and rightly so. In this charge, one of the more common adjectives used to criticise this judgement was "medieval". Here are a few screen-grabs from Twitter:

While a lot of humanity has certainly gotten better since medieval times, the use of the adjective "medieval" is simply inaccurate here in this context. India has never criminalised or stigmatised homosexuality, and certainly did not in the medieval age.

This here is a passage from Babur's autobiography, the Babarnama:

In those leisurely days I discovered in myself a strange inclination, nay ! as the verse says, 'I maddened and afflicted myself for a boy in the camp-bazar, his very name, Baburi, fitting in. Up till then I had had no inclination for any-one, indeed of love and desire, either by hear-say or experience, I had not heard, I had not talked. At that time I composed Persian couplets, one or two at a time ; this is one of the them : 

May none be as I, humbled and wretched and love-sick;
No beloved as thou art to me, cruel and careless.

From time to time Baburi used to come to my presence but out of modesty and bashfulness, I could never look straight at him ; how then could I make conversation (ikhtildt) and recital (hikayat) ? In my joy and agitation I could not thank him (for coming); how was it possible for me to reproach him with going away? What power had I to command the duty of service to myself? One day, during that time of desire and' passion when I was going with companions along a lane and suddenly met him face to face, I got into such a state of confusion that I almost went right off. To look straight at him or to put words together was impossible. With a hundred torments and shames, I went on. A (Persian) couplet of Muhammad Salih's came into my mind:

I am abashed with shame when I see my friend ;
My companions look at me, I look the other way.

That couplet suited the case wonderfully well. In that frothing of desire and passion, and under that stress of youthful folly, used to wander, bare-head, bare-foot, through street and lane, hard and vineyard. I shewed civility neither to friend nor anger, took no care for myself or 'others.

Out of myself desire rushed me, unknowing
That this is so with the lover of a fairy-face.

Sometimes like the madmen, I used to wander alone over hill and plain; sometimes I betook myself to gardens and the suburbs, lane by lane. My wandering was not of my choice, I decided whether to go or stay.

Nor power to go was mine, nor power to stay ;
I was just what you made me, o thief of my heart.

As is quite clear, not only does Babur have romantic feelings for a person of the same sex, in the society of the time they are completely "normal". Babur has written of them openly in his autobiography. Not only that, 50 years later, his grandson, Akbar would have this translated from the original Turki to Persian by his courtier Rahim (him of the dohas) and even then no one found anything in the Baburnama that was illegal or would cause embarrassment.

This Indian attitude that we have towards homosexuality is a uniquely modern affliction. No use randomly slandering the blameless medieval age for it.

Note: The Baburnama translation used is by Annette Beveridge; first published: 1922

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Modi and the Sardar: Same Same but Different

First published on NewsYaps

Last week saw the resurrection of a rather old controversy: who owns the legacy of Vallabhbhai Patel? Invited by the Prime Minster to inaugurate a museum on Patel, Modi, with characteristic rudeness, used the platform to attack Nehru, bemoaning the fact that Patel wasn’t chosen as the first Prime Minster of a Free India. Singh, though, came back with a spirited reply, pointing out the fact that Patel, just like himself, was a Congressman and believed in secularism.

This is the latest outbreak of a long simmering controversy, the biggest expression of which (literally) is the Statueof Unity that Modi plans to build. A statue of Patel, the monument will be the tallest statue in the world and will cost a whopping Rs 2,500 crore. To put this in perspective, this is almost equal to the Rs 2,700 crore the entire state of Gujarat spent on education last year. Of course, in spite of this monumental wastage, unlike Mayawati’s rather more modest statues (2,987th tallest in the world) there has been no brouhaha over it amongst the urban middle class. Welcome to post-caste India, ladies and gentleman, where some statues are more #1 than others.

Of course, much of this is a manufactured controversy. While Singh was factually correct when he pointed out that Patel was a Congressman, his implication that his legacy only belonged to the current-day Congress was not.

The fact of the matter is the both the Congress and BJP are miles away from the pre-independence Congress built by Gandhi and Singh’s party has no monopoly over claiming this legacy. Firstly, the Congress has ignored almost every politician who isn’t a Nehru-Gandhi. Ironically, even Nehru stands forgotten by the current party, with Rajiv towering over his naana if we measure stature by counting things that each have named after them. Patel’s forgotten legacy was ripe for the picking.

Secondly, given Patel’s largely Right-wing bent, it is hardly unnatural that the BJP/RSS would look to his legacy as a source of inspiration. Given how the hard Right (the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha) were mostly absent during the freedom struggle, Patel is a best fit.

In this whole rush by some sections of the Congress and the media to delegitimise the current Right’s claim on Patel, what is often forgotten is that the pre-independence Congress party was largely a Right-of centre part. It was pro-capitalist (being controlled by the middle and upper classes) and religion was a huge and, indeed, integral part of its functioning. It was also, almost exclusively, a Hindu party (in membership, not necessarily in ideology), its programmes being almost completely devoid of Muslim participation, a natural consequence of which was that in 1946, it failed to win even a single Muslim seat across the sub-continent (in the central assembly, which later on went to become the Constituent Assembly).

Of course, the Congress did have a Left-wing but it was feeble and largely ineffective. Socialist like JP and Kripalani were so powerless within the party that they eventually left the Congress to form socialist parties of their own.

Post-1947, though, Nehru, using his enormous utility as a vote-catcher, tried to effect a significant turnaround. Economically, contrary to the generally held view, Nehru was fairly open to foreign capital; indeed, he was desperate for it. Relations with Britain remained strong—the USSR alliance is more a creation of Indira than her father. It was with respect to religion in politics though, that Nehru was able to launch a determined and, in retrospect, remarkable rear guard action. In speech after speech, Nehru insisted that India was not going to become a "Hindu Pakistan" and that religion had no space in the business of governance in India.

In this, Patel, the tallest leader of the Right-wing (which was, remember, still the strongest bloc within the party) was less than impressed. Till his death Patel clashed constantly with Nehru and often had his way, installing Rajendra Prasad as the first President (whose abiding contribution to our history will remain his opposition and delaying of the Hindu code bills which modernised Hindu personal law) and PD Tandon as the Congress President, defeating Nehru’s candidate Kripalani. Patel was also the person responsible for initiating the Somnath Temple project and if it wasn’t for his death and Nehru’s opposition, Independent India might have started its innings as a modern nation by spending its time and resources building places of worship. But, of course, what endears Patel most to the BJP might be his hard-line stance on Muslims, post-Partition. The Sardar made it very clear that he did not trust Muslims after their role in supporting the League. In a letter to Nehru, Patel bluntly wrote:
Muslim citizens in India have a responsibility to remove the doubts and misgivings entertained by a large section of the population about their loyalty [to India]

In another remarkably Orwellian incident (that occurred, ironically, the same year that 1984 was published), Patel’s Home Ministry wrote a letter to the secretaries of all other departments instructing them to produce a list of all Muslim employees whose “loyalty to the Dominion of India is suspected”. Once identified for committing this Thoughtcrime, the members of this list would be excluded from “holding key positions or handling confidential or secret work.”

Given these facets of Patel, it's very understandable that the RSS/BJP would look to cast him as their political predecessor.

That said, for all his warts, Patel was still very removed in degree, if not in orientation, from the current ideology of the RSS/BJP.  This gulf becomes the sharpest when one recalls that Patel actually did what no Indian government could do after him: he banned the RSS. He called the RSS a “clear threat to the existence of the Government and the State” and blamed them for vitiating the atmosphere which led to his mentor’s murder. “The followers of the Sangh have celebrated Gandhiji's assassination by distributing sweets, " Patel complained bitterly in a letter to SP Mukherjee.

Even more remarkable was Patel’s position on the Babri Masjid controversy that had just broken out in 1948. In a letter to PD Tandon (and a key mover in getting the then functional masjid converted into a temple), Patel warned Tandon that “there can be no question of resolving such disputes by force. In that case, the force of law and order will have to maintain peace at all costs.” He also made it clear that the solution would have to be a joint one and “such matters can only be resolved peacefully if we take the willing consent of the Muslim community with us." A rather far cry from the BJP chant of “Babar ki Aulad, Wapas Jao” and “Ek Dhakka aur Do” as it illegally tore the mosque down.

And, of course, in what would be called “minority appeasement” today, Patel in a speech in the Constituent Assembly said, “it is for us who happen to be in a majority to think about what the minorities feel and imagine how we would feel if we were treated in the manner in which they are treated." How very sickular.

Right and Left are relative terms, and their meaning depends much on time and context. In Pakistan, the PPP, a party which banned Ahmedis from calling themselves Muslim (I would use the term ‘Orwellian’ but what’s the use), is considered Leftist.  In the Indian context, it's instructive to see how much the definition of the Right has changed. Patel—a man who banned the RSS, called for consensus on the Babri Masjid issue and spoke about the plight of minorities in post-Partition India—was once the leader of the Right wing in India. Today, the leader of the Right-wing in India is an RSS swayamsevak, belonging to a party which literally demolished the Babri Masjid and thinks that minorities, far from being oppressed, are “baby-making factories” which are being mollycoddled by the state.

Possibly, the real lesson from this attempt by Modi to draw a descent from Patel is to contrast the two and see how drastically and fanatically to the Right, India has shifted in the 60-odd years since Independence.

Modernity, Patriarchy and Love Jehad

First published on NewsYaps

In 2005, a rather unusual book made it to the New York Times bestseller list. Written by investigative reporter Neil Strauss, the non-fiction book called TheGame: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists purported to, as the name suggests, describe the world of the “pick-up artist”. “Pick-up artists” are a self-defined community of men who train in the skills of finding, attracting, and seducing women. As described by Strauss, pick-up artists abide by a certain system, replete with its own methodology and even terminology with which they aim to seduce women. Pick-up artists feel that seducing a woman is as mechanical an activity as, say, learning how play the cover-drive which anyone, with hard-work, dedication and, of course, some skill can learn and be on their way to sleeping with hundreds of women. Pick-up artists keep score of the number of women they have slept with and often compete against each other on that number (a concept that Ranbir Kapoor and Axe seem to have adopted here).

As is obvious, this whole business is extremely demeaning to women. As the Guardian review of the book says, “a low opinion of the opposite sex is a prerequisite for sarging (the pick-up artist term for “seduction”).”

This belief in the stupidity of women, so that they can be manipulated like cattle by a puerile sequence of moves and techniques into loving and/or sleeping with you is basically what lies at the heart of the world of the pick-up artist. You might say that it's a stupid and sad way of thinking but like a lot of other things which are sad or stupid, it is unexpectedly popular.

Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), half a world away a very different type of people also have similar views when it comes to the ability of women to choose their partners: right-wing Hindu zealots.

There are many ways to look at the Love Jehad bogey that has been raised (one of the outcomes of which was the Muzzafarnagar riots) but at the core of the matter lies the fact that this campaign is run by people who reject the right and indeed even the capability of their own female relatives to make decisions about their own lives. This is a description of Love Jehad that  Chandra Mohan Sharma, joint general-secretary of the Meerut division of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) gives to TheHindu:

“First, good-looking Muslim men are identified. They are given neutral names like Sonu and Raju.” These boys, Mr. Sharma says, are then given jeans, t-shirts, mobiles, and bikes and taught to behave. “They stand in front of schools and colleges and woo young Hindu girls. The first few times, our girls snub them. But then, they fall for it. This jehad is about pyaar se phasaana (entrapment through love).”

If Sharma is to be believed, Muslim pick-up artists operate in Western UP looking to “sarge” Hindu women. Neil Strauss would be so proud.

You could dismiss Sharma as a crack-pot but you’d be making a mistake. As popular as The Game was (it was even made into a VH1 TV show), Sharma and his views are far more popular and indeed powerful: some of the most influential people in the land subscribe to it and even the State deferentially bows down to it.

Just like the world of the pick-up artist though, even in Sharma’s world, women are largely passive players, very much puppets in the hands of men. Much as they would like to resist, however, the lure of powerful attractions such as “jeans, t-shirts, mobiles, and bikes” that these “good-looking Muslim men” possess is just too much for the female spirit. Entrapment is a foregone conclusion.

This term, “love jehad” first arose in Kerala and was even investigated by the state high court before being dismissed for lack of evidence. It was then taken up with ridiculous sincerity in neighbouring BJP-ruled Karnataka with the Karnataka Government even announcing that it was a “serious issue” (this after problems such as poverty, malnutrition and sanitation had been solved and become “not-so-serious issues”). Predictably, much of the political pressure was applied by the Shri Ram Sena (the same organisation that was involved in the notorious attackon women in Mangalore pub) with the BJP government in the state playing loyal second fiddle. Of course, no real evidence was found with respect to this massive, organised “love jehad” but by then the term had entered into the vocabulary of the Hindu right-wing and would  be used to fan fires at Muzaffarnagar. Mr. Sharma, whose description of “Love Jehad” we just read, was at the “mahapanchayat” which acted as a direct catalyst to the Muzaffarnagar violence. What’s more, the VHP’s sister concern, the BJP, in 2007, had even released a CD which shows Hindus and Muslims eloping as one of the pressing problems this country faces.

Very often societies that are facing pressures to modernise and change, do so grudgingly. But as Partha Chatterjee shows in his fantastic essay, The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question very often this modernisation leads to only a superficial change in the patriarchal structures that define the community. On the contrary, very often, the changes are utilised to repackage patriarchy, the end result being that as far as the status of women goes, very little changes. Chatterjee uses the example of Bengali nationalism in the 19th century to prove his point. As modernity knocked on Bengal's doors, large-scale scale social changes took place: the bhadralok took to Western education, dress and even food. With this modernisation, the earlier practise of the social exclusion of women—purdaah— became   untenable. However, also untenable was their wholesale Westernisation (even as the bhadralok did his best to become more Catholic than the Pope in his attempt to Westernise). A middle ground was struck which ensured that women receive education and drop purdaah.  However, the education that men and women received was to be different. The Westernised curricula so sought after by the bhadralok was thought to be unneeded by the bhadramahila. Instead, a separate female curriculum was defined. This education sought to inculcate in women the virtues of "docililty, domesticity and "spirituality" and burden them with the sati-savitri complex of being an “Indian woman” even as their menfolk tried their best to become perfect brown baboos. This ensured that even as the new upper-class Bengali woman was freed from purdaah and indeed educated, the traditional patriarchal set-up of society remained undisturbed.

A striking current-day day example of this can be seen in modern Islamic TV evangelism as represented by Zakir Naik. Naik takes great care to dress in a suit and speak in English thus placing himself firmly within a “modern framework”—after all he is no uneducated Urdu-medium mullah from UP but a member of the English-speaking gentry from Bombay. This is important because his target audience is the educated, urban Muslim for whom modernity is important and a marker of respectability and power. Yet, his position on matters such as the wearing of the Burqa is anything but modern—he encourages it wholeheartedly. Indeed, just looking around, the number of educated Muslims who wear the Burqa has actually grown in urban India and across the subcontinent. This even as the number of educated women has risen, leading to greater economic freedom. Much like the Bengali bhadralok of the 19th century, the Muslim middle-class in India is also manoeuvring and position itself to ensure that when faced with new circumstances, old patriarchal systems remain undisturbed.

Of course, just like women’s education in 19th century Bengal and the Burqaisation of the Indian Muslim middle-class, “Love Jehad” and the recent outbreak of Hindu-Muslims romance fears is nothing but another instance of society reworking patriarchal control in order to adjust to modernity. In fast developing Western UP, as Hindu women, in larger numbers than ever, taste economic freedom, something as basic as their ability to choose a partner is questioned as the male members of the community reassert their power and privilege which seems threatened by too much independence. Thus, even as the woman earns economic independence or the right to move around freely, the patriarchal leash is still tightly wound around her, this time with the bogey of the well-trained “Love Jehadi”, well equipped with “jeans, t-shirts, mobiles, and bikes” ready to boggle her “simple mind” and sweep her off her feet, unless, of course, her menfolk are there to protect her with their bahu, beti bachao andolans and what not. How convenient.

Aap, Tum and Tu

Came across this great piece from regular suspect Johnson in the Economist on how formal pronouns for 'you' are dying out in Europe.

Is the process being mirrored in India? Hindi-Urdu has a three-tiered pronoun system--tu, tum, aap. Is that ending?

Most people have stopped using the verb inflection associated with "aap" preferring to simplify things by using the one for "tum" ("aap aa'oge" instead of "aap aa'i'e'ga"). When I first moved to Delhi, out of habit, I stuck with the "correct" system for some time but then increasingly found myself mixing stuff up. Guess, it won't be long before 'aap' dies out completely much as 'thou' did in English. Something that might lead to much pain for chacha Ghalib who once complained:

Teri mehfil mein aakar bade be-aabroo hue

Aap se tum aur tum se tu hue

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Four Types of India-Pakistan Web Comments

This is a Google ad which trumpets how awesome Google is. So awesome that it can even get past the greatest divider ever: Partition. It’s a rather heart-warming, lovely little ad and worth a watch if you have’t already seen it.

The basic concept of this ad—the bringing together of Indians and Pakistanis using the Internet—is actually true.

Freed from the ridiculousness of the nation-state and the tyrannies of incomprehensible scripts (someone had once said that the US and UK are two countries divided by the same language; it’s even more true for India and Pak) Indians and Pakis (it’s ok, we can use that term; we’re Brown too) in the past decade or so have been able to enjoy an unprecedented level of contact.

Where the ad gets it wrong though is that, usually, the contact isn’t this nice. Most India-Pak internet rendezvous, conducted under the benign anonymity of the internet, are rather ugly. There is gali-galauch and much ugliness when PORKI MUSLA DOGS meet SPINELESS HINDU COW WORSHIPPERS and do glorious battle.  Jinnah WHOTOREAPARTOURMOTHERLAND is bought in as is Gandhi THATEVILBANIYATWOFACEDDHOTIWALA. COWARDWHOLEFTHISRELIGION meets LOSERWHOCOULDN’TCOVERT. 1000YEARSOFGLORIOUSRULE! 1000 YEARS OF SLAVERY! WEAK VEGERTARIAN! BARBARIAN MEAT EATER!

Ah, what fun times. But no matter. You only get angry with people who you love. Or some such spaced-out shit. Plus who else can you abuse in Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi? What’s the point of having the same language/cultural tropes if you can’t nangofy the other person with it, eh?

In case you missed this, need a fresh dose or just feel like abusing the shit out of someone, this record’ll most prolly be playing at a YouTube comment box nearby. I have been a keen follower of the YouTube comment space for years now (one of my many varied intellectual interests) and while YouTube overall is a goldmine for Troll Watching, the Indo-Pak commentary on Bollywood/Coke Studio songs occupies a special space in my heart. After many years of pain staking research I have divided Indo-Pak commentators into 4 categories:

1. Out-and-Out Bigots: The easiest to spot, they go straight for the jugular. Prophets are summoned and insulted; god and goddesses targeted. These people are surprisingly well-informed about their opponents' religion, especially the embarrassing bits. A variety of sexual acts are also promised on the opponents female family members as a special bonus (this category is almost completely male).

Interesting at first, you quickly tire of them. Plus, it's really difficult to get past the all caps, the "you"s spelt with a 'u' and all those 'behenchods" spelt with only a "BC".

2. The Velvet Gloves: Much more subdued that the Out-and-Out Bigots but still not really open-minded. Usually don’t go in for direct religious slurs but play more on national stereotypes. Examples would include a small jibe at a recent terrorist attack or a little “ahem, cough cough, heard about that recent pogrom that took place. Hope all is well?”

These people could easily fool you into thinking that bear no malice but it’s always a joy when the realisation at last washes over you and you are in a position to appreciate the troll’s good work.

3. The Music Nerd: The confused-as-fuck guy who’s come to this page for the music. Frequently gets exasperated with all this religion and politics and would plead with the junta to “just forget all this Hindu-Muslim, this politics. It’s just a song, guys.” Heh. Bloody champoo.

4. The Candle-at-Wagah Wala: Eternal Kumbaya singer, this man is sad because we are One but just can’t get alone. Laments would include calls to our “common culture” and the “glorious 5,000 heritage of our common past.” “Come on guys, why do you have to fight, yaar? We are like brothers, no, Indian and Pakistani? Like brothers.”

Most Candle Wala comments come in unison since people gather up the courage to air their abnormal views only after seeing someone else do it first. Much like Karaoke singing, in fact.

“Completely like brothers, bhai,” another will chime in. “How does it a matter that we killed each other with nothing but our bare hands in the biggest killing spree ever just 60 years back? What matters is that we guessed it: brothers.”

Needless to say, this sort gets it royally from both sides for a bit and are then just ignored like the senile old fools that they are.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Case for the Lungi (and Against Pants)

A slightly edited version of this was first published on Helter Skelter Magazine

The baleful influence of colonialism on the psyche of the colonised is a topic much written upon. From Edward Said to Ashish Nandy to Gandhi, the way our minds have been colonised has been discussed, dissected and lamented. To use Pavan K Verma’s analogy, from his brilliant Becoming Indian, the Raj caused “an entire nation and its people became the object of an external curiosity, brown fish swimming around in a bowl held in white hands”. (P.S: By ‘Raj’ I mean British rule and not Shahrukh Khan’s NRI films which is a topic for another day)

In spite of this intense scrutiny, though, one area where the colonial project has wrought the greatest destruction has, by and large, escaped the notice of our intellectuals. I talk of the invasion of pants, ladies and gentlemen (but mostly gentlemen) and the concurrent death of the lungi.

Ah, yes the humble lungi. Think about when you last read that term in print. ‘Never’ would be the answer, I’m guessing; unless of course you’re reading this in Bangladesh in which case, never mind. Think about the last time you went to office and saw a colleague presenting this quarter’s financials in a beautiful bottle-green, checked lungi. I’ve worked in three organisation and all we wear are pants, pants and more pants. No lungi, ever. Not even on (so-called) casual Fridays.

Which is a shame.

It’s a shame ladies and gentlemen (but mostly gentlemen) because nothing epitomises ‘casual’ than a free-flowing lungi. For the uninitiated, the lungi is a simple garment: basically a sarong, it’s a tube of fabric wrapped around the waist. All you need to do is slip into it, gracefully like a mermaid, tie a knot around your waist and you’re good to go. That’s it. There are no cumbersome buttons, no belts to search frantically for in the mornings and, most important of all, nothing which can lop your man-parts off if you aren’t careful while zipping up. It’s really amazing how, when you have a whole waist to put your zipper (with jagged metal teeth, perfect for trapping and cutting flesh), trouser makers put them right where they could potentially end it all. I’m not Khomeini fan, but you know, this does rather reek of Great Satan behaviour.

Of course, safety and ease of wear is just the beginning when it comes to the lungi. The real joy begins once it’s been worn.  It is not for nothing that Floyd sang,
Did they get you to trade your lungis for pants?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
Putting on a lungi is well, like, stepping out onto a cushion of air as nymphs feed you grapes one-by-one and a harp plays itself magically in the background. It is comfort which is beautiful, surreal and well...airy. It’s just science is what it is. Pants are the equivalent of a prison cell for your boys. You’re putting them into a closed, dank, damp jail. For the entire day. But that’s not what boys like. Boys like to be free, to frolic and to gambol about. And the lungi let’s them do just that. The garment breaks the artificial barrier between nature and your boys. It airs you out, through and through and allows things to just be themselves. The lungi,  gentlemen, is freedom.

And you know what, we Indians knew this for thousands of years before pants made their insidious entry and took over our land. Indians might be divided by language, caste and religion but the lungi unites us all. From the green rice fields of Bengal to the golden wheat fields of the Punjab, it’s the lungi all the way. Biharis wear it to work the fields, while Malayalis pair it up with bright purple silk shirts to bling the shit out of that wedding. Much like the sari, the lungi is India.

But of course, nowadays we’re too good for it. Too good for comfort and airiness and being good to ourselves, content to trap our most beloved possession in polyester cages of our own making, stifling the very life out them. All we do with the lungi nowadays in make pointless songs about dancing in it, as if that’s of any help. The horror, the shame, the stupidity of it all makes me want to scream.

Take my advice, and throw out those sweat pants and those shorts. Come back from a long day at work and slip into your favourite cotton lungi and feel the difference as you sip on your adrak chai. Do it for your boys. Do it for the nation.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bhagat Singh's Last Petition

(First published on NewsYaps on Bhagat's Singh's birth anniversary)

Today is Comrade Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary, an apt day to point you to his last petition written to the governor of Punjab before he was executed.

Bhagat Singh’s trial had created a furore. So much so that the British Government had to promulgate an ordinance which dispensed with the need for a defence counsel, defence witnesses and even the presence of the accused during the trial. To quote that brave crusader, Shri Rahul Gandhi, on another ordinance, this rendered the trial to be “complete nonsense” and little more than a farce. It was recently described by the Supreme Court as “contrary to the fundamental doctrine of criminal jurisprudence" because there was no opportunity for the accused to even defend themselves.

In spite of this obvious injustice (the technical term for it is, I believe, a British sense of fair play), Singh refused to ask for any sort of clemency or concession. In fact, the tone of his final letter—this is after he had been sentenced to death—is a cocky mixture of defiance and sarcasm. He mocks the British Government by actually requesting to be shot dead as behoves a man who has been held guilty of waging war against the government. The last line in his petition reads:

“We request and hope that you will very kindly order the military department to send its detachment to perform our execution.

Notice the “kindly order”. I mean, wow. This man is on death row and he’s not above requesting for a kind order to shoot him dead.

The only time bitterness creeps in is when he’s discussing the activities of the Congress. Gandhi, who was in discussions with the British at the time (which would eventually lead to what would be called the Gandhi-Irwin Pact),  comes in for criticism for doing nothing to help “even the homeless, friendless and penniless of female workers who are alleged to be belonging to the vanguard and whom the leaders consider to be enemies of their utopian non-violent cult (ouch!)  which has already become a thing of the past” .

And, of course, let me highlight parts of the letter in which Bhagat Singh strives to point out the fact that his vision for India is that of a ”Socialist Republic” since it’s amazing and bewildering how comrade Bhagat Singh of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association has become a right-wing hero, of all things:

Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British Capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian. They may be carrying on their insidious exploitation through mixed or even on purely Indian bureaucratic apparatus. All these things make no difference...But that war shall be incessantly waged without taking into consideration the petty (illegible) and the meaningless ethical ideologies. It shall be waged ever with new vigour, greater audacity and unflinching determination till the Socialist Republic is established and the present social order is completely replaced by a new social order, based on social prosperity and thus every sort of exploitation is put an end to and the humanity is ushered into the era of genuine and permanent peace.

In case this is not strong enough, please also note that Bhagat Singh sent this telegram to the Third International while in prison:

On Lenin Day we send hearty greetings to all who are doing something for carrying forward the ideas of the great Lenin. We wish success to the great experiment Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the international working class movement. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to Imperialism.

Of course, the fact that there is an organisation called the Bhagat Singh KrantiSena which takes up solidly Leninist causes such as protesting against the shortening of the duration of the Amarnath yatra would have surely warmed the cockles of Singh’s heart were he alive. As will the fact that Narendra “Hindu Nationalist” Modi invokes his memory without having the faintest idea of what he died for.

This corruption of Bhagat Singh’s ideals does not stop at Socialism but extends even into his personal faith (or the lack of it). Singh was an avowed atheist and his pamphlet Why I am an Atheist, written a few months before he was murdered, is a crisp read which ends with a guarantee that he will remain a non-believer till the day he dies.

“One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, “When your last days come, you will begin to believe.” I said, “No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.”

By all accounts, he lived up to his promise. And ever since he seriously entered politics he had given up even the external vestiges of his original Sikh faith. He didn’t wear a turban or sport facial hair. Yet, so many stylised drawings of Singh today have him both wearing a dastaar as well with a beard. It’s like modern India is uncomfortable with the idea of an irreligious man, so it’s trying so hard to make Singh into something he was not; a rather unfortunate state of affairs. You might not agree with Bhagat Singh’s irreligiosity, his Socialism or any of his the other ideals that he died for, but given the extreme bravery and sacrifice that he displayed, the least you can do is to not distort his life.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

When Jinnah defended Bhagat Singh

While reading up on Bhagat Singh on his 106th birth anniversary, I came across an interesting article by AG Noorani on Jinnah's defence of Bhagat Singh and his opposition to the amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code empowering the court to proceed with the case even in the absence of the accused if he “has voluntarily rendered himself incapable of remaining before the court”. Jinnah was speaking in his capacity as a member of the Central Legislative Assembly, the closest thing British India had to a parliament.

In spite of obvious differences in their political ideology (Jinnah was a classic liberal who believed in constitutional methods; Singh was a communist who favoured armed struggle) Jinnah's speech was forceful and rousing. Drawing out the difference between a common criminal and someone like Singh, Jinnah said:

"Well, you know perfectly well that these men are determined to die. It is not a joke. I ask the honourable law member to realise that it is not everybody who can go on starving himself to death. Try it for a little while and you will see… The man who goes on hungerstrike has a soul. He is moved by that soul and he believes in the justice of his cause; he is not an ordinary criminal who is guilty of cold-blooded, sordid, wicked crime."

This speech was one of many which made sure that the Assembly rejected the government's proposed amendment. It was a illusory victory though. The government bypassed the Assembly altogether and introduced the amendment as an ordinance. Noorani writes:

"Having lost in the Assembly, the governor-general promulgated an ordinance, which was not subject to approval by the Assembly and expired after six months. It set up a tribunal to try the case. The entire trial was vitiated by flaws. A member of the tribunal, Justice Syed Agha Haider, was removed from the tribunal because, unlike the two European judges, he questioned the witnesses closely and repeatedly dissociated himself in writing from their orders.

The tribunal which pronounced death sentences on the accused was itself under a sentence of death. The judges lost their office after six months. The accused were largely unrepresented by counsel and there was no right of appeal. The high court bar association set up a committee to consider the validity of the ordinance. Its report on June 19, 1930, found it to be “invalid”."

The trail was described by the Supreme Court as “contrary to the fundamental doctrine of criminal jurisprudence" because there was no opportunity for the accused to even defend themselves.


Further Reading:

You can read Jinnah's speech in it's entirety here.

Even as Singh remains a minor political figure in his hometown of Lahore, a small but committed band of Pakistanis, fired by Singh's ideals, is bent on reviving his legacy by agitating to rename a chowk widely believed to mark the spot where Singh was executed.

An excellent web archive of all of Singh's work here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Journey Down Nehru-Gandhi Memory Lane

(First published on NewsYaps)

To say that the Gandhi’s are not popular on the Internet would be stating the obvious. Rahul Gandhi is probably the most ridiculed person on Twitter and every few days or so, the pappu tag starts trending as Modi supporters up the ante. His mother doesn’t get off too easily either.  I see material constantly popping up on my Facebook feed which purports to prove that Sonia Gandhi is not an Indian Citizen (or has became one illegally), that she lied about her Cambridge education (a line of attack that is also used on her son), she had KGB links, she has links to Quattrocchi and even posts which, in typical Indian fashion, make fun of the fact that she once held a job as a waitress—a    recent status by stand-up “comic” Rivaldo is: “Rupee crosses 64! Well that's what happens when an Economist takes orders from a Waitress!”

Of course, as the full page ads on Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary show, social media does not elect our rulers. Whether the twitterati like it or not, the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty is a curiously popular political force in the country.

Keeping all of this in mind, on a recent trip to Allahabad, I decided to pop into the Nehru-Gandhi's ancestral residence, Anand Bhawan, just to see where all of this began.


My adventure, though, started even before I arrived in the city. Air India uses an ancient ATR 42 propeller aircraft to cover the Delhi-Allahabad route. The plane was literally falling apart: a few of the overhead storage boxes didn’t shut and the seat I got didn’t have the pocket in front for storing books or phones or what have you. While I didn’t complain too much, another lady had a proper row over cockroaches on the flight, one of which, rather dramatically, scurried onto her food while she was eating. Shrug.

Allahabad airport is probably the smallest airport there is and just about as big as your average office. It achieves this by doing away with needless luxuries such as, er... conveyer belts. Charmingly, your luggage is brought to you by attendants on carts. An insipid sign in front of the only office proclaims, “Hindi hain hum, watan hain Hindostan Hamara” proudly declaring that the verse is by “Sir Mohammed Iqbal”. Indian transporters, it seems, have a particular fascination for this line—I’ve seen it painted on railway carriages as well.

The journey from the airport to the hotel was just as eventful, conducted as it was in an auto with an extremely odd mix of religion and sappy romance. The vehicle was plastered with golden 786’s, a large painting of the Buraq, the mythological flying horse of Islam as well as the word aashique bookended with a pair of large, pink bulbous hearts.

Allahabad is precisely the sort of place for which Indian English had to coin the word “mofussil”. Dusty, congested roads, crumbling buildings and a refreshing lack of drainage; yep, Allahabad fits the Hindi-heartland-small-town template to the hilt. In all of this dust, heat and general North Indian small town-ness, though, rise the magnificent Indo-Saracenic spires of Allahabad University. I’ve grown up in Calcutta and lived in Bombay, so when I say that this was the most amazing specimen of the architecture I’ve seen, you know it’s a big deal.  An extremely tall gothic tower next to a huge Islamicate dome flecked with the remains of blue glazed tiles, the grandeur of (the now decrepit) Allahabad University harks back to a past somewhat rosier past than the present for this city.

It was 1877 and Allahabad was sort of a boomtown. The British had just set up a new province, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (which corresponds to modern UP) and, with it, made Allahabad its capital.  To practise in this new capital, and its new high court, arrived Nandlal Nehru, elder brother of Motilal Nehru. Academically brilliant, Motilal also set up a roaring practise as a barrister in due course of time.  In 1900, to show off his new found wealth, Motilal bought a veritable mansion in the European quarter of the city and named it Anand Bhavan. Both his son and his granddaughter grew up in this house. In the next half century or so, this house remained the hub of Indian politics given that both Motilal and his son were major Congress politicians. Fittingly, given her role in cementing the role of dynasty in Indian politics, Indira Gandhi turned Anand Bhawan into a museum to the memory of the Nehru-Gandhi’s.


Anand Bhawan is an oasis of peace in an otherwise noisy city. Primly manicured lawns house the large blue and white mansion. The structure is surrounded by a verandah which once, no doubt, had khas curtains to cool the Nehrus in the oppressive North Indian summer. Two storeys high, Anand Bhavan is topped off with a large chhatri on the terrace—a perfect spot for lounging about during the evening, I would think.

The main house has had its rooms frozen in time, and apart from the opulence, there really isn’t much to see. Nehru might or might not have been an extraordinary man, but his bedroom is rather ordinary, populated as it is with a bed (!), books and other such mundanities of daily life. The museum also takes great care to mark out parts of the house where “Gandhiji spent his evenings”, the exact spot where Feroze and Indira got married or the platform on which Nehru’s ashes were kept. It’s a testament to the Indian capacity for hero-worship that this sort of material actually makes up a whole museum. Of course, there was more to come.

The outhouse is more of a conventional museum, mostly populated with photos. A particular gem was a display of “Jawaharlal Nehru in different moods” which shows the man, as promised, in different moods: seriously walking out to bat, laughing at a joke, serenely staring into the distance and so on. There’s also a genealogical chart of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has serious potential to embarrass. Did you, for example know that Rahul has a distant aunt who is called ‘Meenu’? Or an uncle called “Chunmun”? Or that a certain Nehru-Gandhi’s first name is “Lolita”?

The museum, like every other, also has its own souvenir shop where you can buy a range of metal key-chains embossed with the faces of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Because that’s what you need to be cool: an Indira Gandhi keychain.

The only thing that actually caught my attention in the souvenir shop was a reproduction of the wedding card of Indira’s and Feroze’s wedding. It started off with an invitation in both Hindi as well as Urdu and then, interestingly, went on to describe the Hindu wedding ceremonies in great detail. Nehru, it might be noted, was against the marriage of Indira to Feroze, a Parsi born in Bombay. Personally, his objection had nothing to do with Feroze’s religion but was more to do with the fact that Feroze was, not to put too fine a point on it, a loser. He did not have a university degree, was unemployed and had no source of steady income. That said, however, Nehru was aware of the political objections such an inter-religious match could generate, given his role as India’s leading politician. Indeed, when news leaked out of the impending marriage, the backlash was furious. Many years later, Indira recalled how it seemed that “the whole country was against it” at the time. To counter this, Nehru had to issue a public statement, clarifying his stand in favour of the marriage. And to strengthen his protégé’s hand, so did Gandhi, explicitly supporting the marriage. To further lessen the fallout, the ceremony was kept unambiguously Hindu although, at the time, British Indian law did not recognize a marriage between two people of different faiths (even today, it’s extremely difficult). The wedding card it seemed, acted as an advertisement, broadcasting the Hindu-ness of the wedding. As luck would have it, many years later, this would come in handy as Maneka Gandhi challenged her mother-in-law’s status as a Hindu in court in a dispute over Sanjay Gandhi’s property. Since she had married a Parsi, Maneka argued, Indira was not a Hindu anymore. As proof of her being a Hindu, Indira’s explicitly Vedic wedding was presented as clinching evidence.

Photo montages of Nehru which much like Filmfare would carry of your reigning superstar, key chains with faces of Indira and Rajiv and genealogical charts of the whole Family, Anand Bhavan isn’t in the slightest bit apologetic about praising, what is after all only a family, to the skies. In some ways, that’s not surprising; Indians are hardly subtle when it comes to hero-worship. But it did leave me with a vague sense of unease, even foreboding, as the museum reminds us of the rather solid position dynasty has in politics and just how much power it had—and still has—over  India.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In Opposition to the Death Penalty

(First published on NewYaps a day before the four accused were sentenced to death)

As I write this, the fast track court set up to try the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape Case has found the four adult defendants guilty of rape as well as murder. Their sentence is awaited on Friday.

As all this goes on, most of India is up in arms to procure the death sentence for the accused. From placards at India Gate to rabid comment sections on websites, Indians, or at least those who are bothered enough to comment on this incident, have overwhelmingly spoken out in favour of killing the accused in return for their brutal behaviour on the night of 16 December. In fact, for some, even death is not enough; descending into a medieval eye for an eye form of justice, they demand the accused be tortured in the same way as they did Nirbhaya. I’ve even seen Afghanistan (!) and their mode of brutal, atavistic Sharia justice being held up as a model for India to follow.

All of this is in a way predictable. Our entire response to the rape has been far from enlightened. Most of the sound and fury, in the first place, was fired up by the characterisation of Nirbhaya as the “daughter of the nation” (desh ki beti), neatly slotting her into an acceptable role for a woman (other roles being ‘mother’ and, maybe, ‘wife’).  Not only that but most of the people protesting the rape have no views on, say, the mass gang rape conducted by the Indian Army in Kunan Poshpora, Kashmir or the organised state wide campaign of sexual violence carried out in Gujarat in 2002. Even opposition to something as horrible as rape is tempered by nationalistic and political considerations, it seems. Given these limitations in the reaction, the fact that most of us have a medieval urge to seek retribution (as opposed to justice) by murdering the perpetrators outright is hardly surprising. In spite of this popular support that the death penalty seems to have, the fact of the matter remains that this mode of justice is not something that should exist in any country that calls itself civilised and both morality as well as utility demand that it be removed.

Since most calls for the death penalty are always predicated on the brutality of the crime, let me start off by stating the obvious: my opposition to the death penalty does not mean I do not oppose the crime itself. What happened on the night of 16 December was and is horrible and there needs to be punishment for the perpetrators as well as justice overall. That said, however, the death penalty is not the way to do it.

The moral opposition to the death penalty is largely based on the fact that killing—any killing—is wrong. The State has no right to take what it cannot confer. And to do this in an organised way, using its full might is nothing short of barbaric. The death penalty also encourages a very grisly form of eye-for-an-eye justice that we should have done away with centuries back. If you think it’s logical for death to act as a punishment in return for murder, do you also think the State should set up a rape squad in order to rape rapists or beat people who have been convicted for assault?

The biggest moral opposition to the death penalty, though, is that our systems are imperfect and, sooner or later, you are going to kill an innocent man.  In the US itself, as per Amnesty International, 130 people sentenced to death have been found innocent since 1973; this in a rich, industrialised nation. Now imagine the number of mistakes India’s dilapidated, overworked and overburdened judicial system would make. Of course, mistakes can be made with other systems of justice as well; being imprisoned for life for a crime you did not commit is extremely bad. Unlike imprisonment, however, death is a mistake that cannot be rectified and is thus an extremely costly, unforgiveable error to make.

Moving on from out and out retribution, though, some supporters have a more refined argument: they claim that their support is based on the fact that  the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent towards future crime. This, if true, would certainly be a strong point. After all, who wouldn’t want fewer violent rapes in India? Unfortunately, it’s a big ‘if’. This conjecture, that the death penalty acts as deterrent, has no basis whatsoever in fact. The available data paints a rather different picture: the death penalty does not deter people from violent crime; the likelihood of being caught and punished does. So, if anything, better policing, not harsher sentencing acts as an effective deterrent. To quote from Amnesty International: “...research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis. The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction. The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime.”.

From a 2009 study of criminologists in the US conducted by the National Research Council, over 88% believe that the death penalty was NOT a deterrent to murder. Even more compelling data is provided by comparing murder rates in US states with and without the death penalty

As can be clearly seen, murder rates are lower in states without the death penalty, effectively destroying the death-penalty-as-a-deterrent argument.

In fact, the perpetrators in the bus that night did try to kill the victim—a crime for which most certainly there is already the death penalty. As is obvious, the threat of this maximum punishment was not an effective enough deterrent to stop them from committing their horrible crimes.

Come Friday though, most of these arguments are going to not even figure as, in all probability, the accused will be sentenced to be murdered. It will be immoral and it will be ineffective but it will still be done. And on top of the ghastly crimes that were committed by these four on 16 December is going to be added one more, this time committed by the Government of India.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

[NEWS] Company Releases New Phone

Tech company, Apple has released a new phone, making it the 412th phone model released this year.

Some people have liked the new phone, while others haven't. Most people, though, couldn't be bothered enough to give a flying fuck.

The phone comes in  multiple colours and can be used to make voice calls amongst other functions.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why Nationalism is Nothing but a Modern Religion

(First published on NewsYaps)

On a recent train journey, I happened to meet a fellow-traveller who was currently serving in the army as an odd-jobs man (he wasn’t very clear about what he did, but he wasn’t a combatant). Amongst other things, we discussed his experience of being posted at Siachen. As expected, his stay there was less than comfortable. The2003 ceasefire meant that there was peace but the ridiculously inhospitable terrain meant just living there is an ordeal. Of course, Saichen is an odd battlefield where climatic conditions kill more people than actual fighting. And all this over land that is nothing but a desert.
This got me thinking. The fact that nationalism, both Indian and Pakistani, drives men to such incredible lengths for so little is amazing. That these soldiers are ready to lay down their lives for a piece of land that is economically (and in every other way) worthless, is remarkable. And what’s more incredible is the banal acceptance of it all in popular discourse. Common Indians and Pakistanis, as well as the leaders on both sides see nothing grossly distorted in this incident. Such is the power of nationalism.

The only other comparable phenomenon which can drive humans to such lengths, if you think about it, is religion. Of course, that statement is somewhat tautological given that nationalism is nothing but a latter-day religion.

Unlike what proponents of New Atheism  such as Dawkins would have you believe, religion has a core role to fulfil in society as well as the personal lives of people. Most importantly it helps to answer (or at least give the illusion of answering) questions which explain (clichéd as it may sound) the meaning of life, as well as provide a reasoning (often false) as to why luck and chance play such a big, and often detrimental, role in our lives. To quote from Anderson’s seminal work on nationalism, Imagined Communities:

“The extraordinary survival over thousands of years of Buddhism, Christianity or Islam in dozens of different social formations attests to their imaginative response to the overwhelming burden of human suffering—disease, mutilation, grief, age, death....At the same time, in different ways, religious thought also responds to the obscure imitations of immortality, generally by transforming fatality into continuity (karma, original sin etc).”

However, the Enlightenment and the onset of the Age of Reason delegitimised traditional religion across a number of geographies, especially Europe. The questions that religion sought to answer, though, still remained. Into this vacuum steps nationalism, which gives man’s mortality a continuity and purpose, this time not in service of a god, dharma or other such explicitly “religious” concepts, but “for the nation”.

At this stage, it would be good to define religion. This is how Emile Durkheim, founder of sociology, defines it:

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite people into one single moral community

Note that nowhere in this definition is there the presence of a god, which might seem counter-intuitive. God, though, is very much incidental to the concept of a religion and is just one of many “sacred” things that Durkheim talks about. While God is very much present in religions such as Christianity, it’s not so in, say, Buddhism, where concepts such as Dharma/Dhamma, amongst others, fulfil the role of the “sacred”.

One of the most common sacred objects in religions are totems or symbols. Think of the position of the cross in Christianity, the number 786 in South Asian Islam or the letter “Om”  in Hinduism. Correspondingly, nationalism also has its totems, the best example being the national flag. In the Indian context, so sacred was the flag that, till some years back, ordinary people such as you or I couldn’t even fly it, which parallels the sacredness of, say, Sanskrit, which couldn’t be used by the lower castes. Taking this analogy forward, the government acts as a sort of priestly class which would be trusted with the flag, just as Brahmins could be with Sanskrit or the Vedas.

The role of saints and prophets is played by national heroes. If you’ve ever been to Rajghat, Gandhi’s samaadhi, the air of religiosity is difficult to miss and the place is not unlike a shrine or a mazaar. The memory of these heroes is sacred to the point of sparking aggression. Just like the violence by Muslims over cartoon depictions of the Prophet, Shiv Sainiks have a penchant for embarking on destructive rampages whenever their national hero, Shivaji is so much a slighted. The official history of a country functions like the mythos of a religion, helping reinforce its heroes and carefully mark out its “enemies” as well as values. And just as in religious myth, the history of a country is very often “imagined” and often bears little relation with reality. Shivaji, to continue with the earlier example, is examined as an Indian patriot when he most certainly had no idea what a modern concept like patriotism meant. The fact that traders in Surat hated Shivaji for his raids into Gujarat and constantly petitioned Mughal Delhi for protection from him is naturally glossed over in any modern imagining of Shivaji as a pan-Indian hero. Similarly, Pakistan has named its missiles after Afghan king Mahmud of Ghazni, deliberately choosing to forget that the man made his fortune by mostly plundering what is current-day Pakistan. Similarly, William the Conqueror is largely depicted as an English hero, but the fact that he’s a “Conqueror” precisely because he conquered England is often glossed over.

The part of God, in nationalism, is played by the physical land itself which becomes charged with sacredness. Earlier states were rather cavalier about land—Russia, for example, sold Alaska to the US in 1867. Think whether any modern state would be able to sell its land outright now. On the contrary, there are cases where nations have sacrificed hugely in terms of men and money to maintain almost (economically) useless tracts of land. Think of the Falklands War or, of course, our original example, the Siachen Conflict.

Thus, religion more than satisfies Durkheim’s definition of possessing “sacred things”. Now for the “community” that the definition speaks of. Religions like Islam and Christianity have well-defined communities such as the Ummah , Christendom, the Catholic community etc. These communities think of themselves as supreme and medieval writers will talk of the “civilised world” and “Christendom” in the same breath and fire-breathing mullahs will often be found delivering “Ummah FTW!” khutbahs. Given the “natural” supremacy of this community, your identity as a member of the Ummah or Christendom is above all else. To take an Indian example, in his famous poem Jawaab-e-Shikwaa, Iqbal asks sarcastically: “Yun to sayyad bhi ho mirza bhi ho afghaan bhi ho/ tum sabhi kuch ho batao to musalman bhi ho?” (you are a Sayyid, Mirza, Afghan, you are everything but a Muslim), marking “Muslim” out to be the only “true” identity.

In the same vein, a person’s national identity is supposed to supersede all other. You are a Frenchman before all else and, as the burqa ban shows, France has a right to abrogate any other identity of yours. A couple of days back on CNN-IBN, Omar Abdullah cynically defended his government’s role in the Kishtwar riots by pointing out that two Muslims had died as opposed to one Hindu. Rajdeep Sardesai, peremptorily dismissed such logic by pointing out that, “at the end of the day, let us remember, 3 Indians have died.” Mirroring Iqbal’s couplet, which delegitimised “spurious” identities such as “Afghan” or “Mirza” and held up the one true identity, “Muslim”, Sardesai, in turn, pooh-poohed identities such as “Muslim” or “Hindu” and ascribed the one true identity of “Indian” to the victims of Kishtwar.

And just like “sacred objects” and “community”, nationalism mirrors traditional religion in having a common system of beliefs and practices which revolve around the sacred (thus completing the definition of being a religion). The Christmas veneration of Jesus/God, for example, parallels the adulation that the Constitution and Army receive on India’s Republic Day.

Of these, the most amazing is the ritual of sacrifice. To protect the sacred objects that lie at the centre of a nation, every nation must have a military which is willing to lay down its lives. Logically, laying down your life is absurd. There is nothing material that could compensate for your own life. Religions get around this problem by postulating that life on earth is but a small part of total existence and promise a comfortable “afterlife” in exchange for the petty inconvenience of martyrdom—a bargain if there ever was one. Nations do something similar. While they, obviously, do not assure an afterlife, they do guarantee eternity to anyone who lays down their life. Note this popular couplet by Jagdamba Prasad Mishra which promises eternal life to martyrs by enshrining their memory into the collective consciousness of the nation:

Shaheedon ke chitaaon par lagenge har baras mele,
 Watan par mar mitne walo ka bas yahi ab baaqi nishaan hoga

(Literally, “The corpses of martyrs will be the venue for fairs every year; for those who die for the nation, this will be their only legacy”)

Note also that words like “martyr” in English and shaheed in Hindi (both words literally mean “witness”) have been transplanted from Christianity and Islam, respectively, further showing how nationalism has directly borrowed the concept from religion.

And in this ability to generate willing martyrs to defend the community, lies a part of the answer to why both traditional religion as well as nationalism exist. This belief was directed towards one thing and had one aim: society and its maintenance. That is why religion has existed for thousands of years. If it was just a cognitive error or a useless illusion, it would have been eliminated by natural selection over evolutionary time. But the fact that it has existed for all of our recorded history shows  how strong it can be. And the fact that, when challenged with changing circumstances, it can evolve into “modern” forms like nationalism tells us that we're not getting rid of it anytime soon.