Friday, April 15, 2011

Heh. Literally!

This is, literally, one of the coolest concepts for a blog I have come across. “Literally” is an English language grammar blog tracking abuse of the word “literally”. Sadly, it hasn’t been updated in a year and a half but even so, what an idea, sir ji.

Here's the blog: Literally

Johnson, over at the Economist, has a nice little post up on this which explains why you shouldn't get all that angry the next time a friend exclaims, "it was literally raining cats and dogs" or some such thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Hunger Fast: A Few Thoughts and Some History

As Hazare and the exhilaration over his fast-unto-death slowly becomes entangled in the giant, sticky web that is the Indian political system—the Congress has already rejected demands to videograph the proceedings of the Joint Committee—it’s worthwhile to recall a hunger strike which occurred more than 50 years ago. Potti Sreeramulu was a Telegu-speaking Congressman who had worked with Gandhi in before independence. In 1952, Potti started a fast-unto-death for the creation of an Andhra State and for Madras city to be made the state’s capital. Potti's fast-unto-death, though, was a bit more comprehensive than Hazare’s—not only did he fast but, after 82 days, he died as well. His death was followed by massive violence in the Andhra region, led by the Communists who, till recently, were challenging the very right of the newly independent Indian state to exist (shades of this can still be seen in the Telengana movement, by the way). Unnerved by this violence, Nehru, who till recently was very reluctant to allow the formation of linguistic states, gave in and allowed the creation of an Andhra state. Potti’s other demand, that Madras be included in Andhra Pradesh, though, was rejected.

Ramachandra Guha nicely summarises this fascinating episode in this article.

Couple of interesting points though.

Firstly, as Five Rupees points out, is the sheer novelty of hunger strikes being used a political weapon—literally, nowhere in the world would you see this happening. The closest equivalents I can think of are the self-immolations that have occurred during the Vietnam War. Fasting as penance to achieve a goal is common enough in the Hindu religion (and other Dharmic religions) so it’s an easy trope to understand for most, if not all, Indians. Additionally, and crucially, Gandhi, since 1919 or so, brilliantly used the idiom of religion in politics with awesome effect. It was he who introduced the tool of a fast as a political tool, which is why probably India is the only country in the world where people would fast to enact a law or create a new province. In other countries, they’d work through the system—fight elections, convince dictators—or uses standard coercive methods like strikes or even outright violence. So colossally did Gandhi stride the Indian political landscape during his lifetime that till today anything ostensibly mirroring what he did or stood for carries a lot of political capital. Hazare is of course aware of this and like almost every other player on the Indian political landscape (even, ironically, Modi), tries to appropriate Gandhi’s legacy for himself: I saw a TV interview of Hazare over the weekend and a bronze bust of Gandhi was placed strategically in the background, almost in Munnabhai fashion.

Of course, sometimes the difference between a hunger fast and coercive methods such as riots isn’t set in black and white. Going back to Potti, the actual fast did little to change the Government of India’s stance towards the matter. 12 days before Potti’s death (and six weeks into the fast) Nehru wrote to Rajagopalachari: "Some kind of fast is going on for the Andhra Province and I get frantic telegrams. I am totally unmoved by this and I propose to ignore it completely". On Potti's death, however, the Andhra region simply erupted into a frenzy of violence. Within a few days of this chaos, miraculously, Nehru had changed his mind and had accepted the creation of an Andhra state in principal. In this case, at least, the Government responded, as Time puts it, “perhaps as much to the violence as to Sriramulu's nonviolence”.

Even Gandhi’s most famous hunger strike, which culminated in the signing of the Poona Pact, it could be argued, was a success only because Ambedkar feared a devastating backlash against the Dalits if and when the Mahatma died. The Poona Pact was only agreed to by Ambedkar when Gandhi was critically ill.

In Hazare’s case however, chances of violence were slim which would make it very interesting if, eventually, Hazare has his way and the actual law that he wants is ratified by Parliament.

Update: Forgot to mention Irom Sharmila's case (which is appropriately ironic because so has everyone else, I guess). Her fast, unbacked by threats of violence or the vocal English-language media, has been rather ineffective. This, when, arguably, her cause is far more urgent.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Man Sick of Corruption Forced to Bribe Doctor to Get Treatment

EAST CHAMPARAN, BIHAR: Social activist, Ravi Kumar of East Champaran, Bihar was forced to bribe the local government doctor in order to receive treatment after he was taken violently ill as a result of a 4-day hunger strike against corruption.

Sources tell the Times of Bullshit that Kumar, 43, had embarked on the fast in order to do his bounden duty towards his nation and eradicate the one scourge that was holding it back--corruption. Consequently, he chose the village square as his spot and began his fast-unto-death in full view of everyone, which, as his brother helpfully informed us, was so that "everybody could see he was not cheating".

Things went well for the first three days as Kumar embarked on his crusade against graft. His health seemed fine as well although by the end of the third day he was getting increasingly insistent on the point that people address him as Mahatma or at least Bapu. Having called him Pappu all throughout his life, the village people found this a bit difficult to stomach. However, by mid day on the fourth day an amicable compromise had been struck and it was decided that the honorific ji, as in Kumarji, would be added to his name.

However, only a couple of hours later disaster struck as debilitating stomach cramps hit Kumariji. This was followed by him throwing up blood. Alarmed, his supporters rushed him to the nearest government dispensary which was some way away in the next village. There, he had to pay 4 times the normal amount of Rs 20 to get treated by a doctor who attended to Kumarji while also simultaneously using his little finger to try and dig out ear boogers with considerable vigour. In the dispensary, Kumarji refused to comment on his next anti-corruption move.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Hunger Fasts and Sluggish Democracy

Hazare’s fast, it must be said, has generated some very lively debate about the pros and cons of extra-constitutional methods that politics in our country often takes. Quite a few people argue that the system is broken beyond repair and the only solution would be one that comes from outside the system itself. Some on the other hand raise questions about the direction this movement is taking, and justifiably so. This sort of direct action, while purportedly peaceful, often has some pretty ugly fall-outs which we’ve seen ever since Gandhi pioneered this form of politics in our country (and I hope to write more on the history of extra-constitutional methods in later posts).

A common complaint from the anti-Hazare camp though is that this method of process undermines representative democracy by giving powers to a person on the ludicrous basis of the his or her capacity to live on, or eventually die, without food. Here’s how Pratap Bhanu Mehta starts of his editorial in the Indian Express:

“Sometimes a sense of unbridled virtue can also subvert democracy. The agitation by civil society activists over the Jan Lokpal Bill is a reminder of this uncomfortable truth. There is a great deal of justified consternation over corruption. The obduracy of the political leadership is testing the patience of citizens. But the movement behind the Jan Lokpal Bill is crossing the lines of reasonableness. It is premised on an institutional imagination that is at best na├»ve; at worst subversive of representative democracy.”

Prima facie, the point is a cogent one. But the point assumes one given condition: that India is a representative democracy.

What is a representative democracy? Simply put, it’s one in which elected representatives represent the people, because direct democracy, i.e. actually involving the people directly in government is not feasible. It is,therefore, assumed that these elected represtatives will act as the voice of the people. Well and good, so far.

However, in India, our elected representatives cannot act as the voice of the people who voted them to power because of a nifty little provision called the Anti-Defection Law which effectively forces a representative to vote as per his party high command’s wishes.

So, for example, if we have a constituency which has a number of factories of X industry and at the moment Parliament is debating a bill which would slap heavy taxes on that industry, logically the constituency’s MP should do everything in his power to defeat the bill and naturally vote against it. That would be representative democracy in action. The MP acts as the voice of his constituency. But in India that is not how it happens. If it so happens that his party wants the bill to be passed, this MP, elected to represent his constituency, will have to actually stab his constituency in the back or risk disqualification.

In such a case one wonders how much sense it would actually make to call India a representative democracy. Maybe we'd need to invent a new term?


A related post: A Very Costly Bill

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I’m usually not the nimblest of people when it comes to keeping up with slang but there is one word, apparently originating from Black rap, that I really like: diss. The word is rather usefull in a number of situations and, conveniently, conveys a shade of meaning that is a bit different from its mother word, disrespectful. Its rise, incidently, has been precipitous. I don’t remember it even existing, at least in an Indian context, five or so years back; today everyone’s using it. In fact it even made it to the Guardian today, in an article by Pankaj Mishra no less:

“….even dissing their murderous Hindu nationalism as opportunistic, a mere “talking point”

Good stuff.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

English? #Fail

For all our chest-beating about how important English has been to our economic rise, a recent survey ranks India 29th out off 44 countries in fluency of speaking English. To put that in perspective, China, a country against whom our trump card is supposed to be our knowledge of English, ranks just a place below us at 30.In fact, the Chinese people of Taiwan beat us by ranking four places ahead of us.

The Johnson blog at the Economist blames the elitism inherent in India’s approach towards English:

“Finally, one surprising result is that China and India are next to each other (29th and 30th of 44) in the rankings, despite India’s reputation as more Anglophone. Mr Hult says that the Chinese have made a broad push for English (they're "practically obsessed with it”). But efforts like this take time to marinade through entire economies, and so may have avoided notice by outsiders. India, by contrast, has long had well-known Anglophone elites, but this is a narrow slice of the population in a country considerably poorer and less educated than China. English has helped India out-compete China in services, while China has excelled in manufacturing. But if China keeps up the push for English, the subcontinental neighbour's advantage may not last.”

If language/linguistics interests you, the blog is highly recommended, by the way.

And since Gandhi’s methods and thoughts seem to be the flavour of the season—so influential has been Hazare’s fast that even Pappu Yadav, the Bihar strongman and convicted murderer, has gone on a bhook hartal against corruption—here’s an excerpt from a speech given by the Mahatma in 1916:

“I am hoping that this University (he was speaking at the Benares Hindu University) will see to it that the youths who come to it will receive their instruction through the medium of their vernaculars. Our languages the reflection of ourselves, and if you tell me that our languages are too poor to express the best thought, 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 equal race our lads have to run with every English lad.

I had the privilege of a close conversation with some Poona professors. They assured me that every Indian youth, because he reached his knowledge through the English language, lost at least six precious years of life. Multiply that by the numbers of students turned out by our schools and colleges, and find out for yourselves how many thousand years have been lost to the nation.”