In the last post, we were introduced to the town of Malerkotla, the only Muslim majority town in Punjab. We saw how the town has developed and sustained a tradition of harmony between religious groups, despite the grave provocations during the politically unstable times of the 1700s, colonial manipulations, partition violence and communal tensions in independent India. How does the town maintain these traditions even in times of tensions ? Anna Bigelow presents an analysis of Malerkotla’s inclusive religious institutions and active preservation of historical memories of peace in her paper, “Punjab’s Muslims: The History and Significance of Malerkotla“. Dr. Bigelow presents a much more comprehensive study of Malerkotla in her book “Sharing the sacred: Practising Pluralism in Muslim North India.

Like it was during the colonial Raj, Malerkotla has been a Muslim majority town since independence as well, with around two thirds of its population identifying as Muslims in each census since 1951. With the sole exception of Chand Ram in 1954, the MLA from Malerkotla has always been Muslim, but the Muslim’s here have not pledged their allegiance to a single party consistently, and indeed, the city’s residents say they have voted for politicians from all religious backgrounds. With a rich history of community building, and being part of a democratic society, Malerkotla abounds in civil society groups and institutions and these maintain a secular culture,

Data shows that the leadership of many groups is inter-religious. For example, several of the largest occupational and professional groups, such as the Bar Association have multi-religious leadership. Such integration fosters open communication, reduces competition and tension, and helps create a sound basis for inter-religious interaction. Without both inter-religious and intra-religious organizations, sacred sites, educational institutions, and public events, the fabric of
the community would become unevenly balanced allowing certain groups to dominate to the exclusion of others.

Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus do have organizations catering to their specific religions but secular groups like the Sahit Sangam (Literary Society), Heritage Society, various Youth and Sport Clubs, the Tagore Fine Art Club and the Malerkotla Adventure Club provide ample opportunities for inter communal interaction.

Not only are secular groups abundant, but even the religious groups actively promote harmony in the town,

The Jama’at-i Islami leader in Malerkotla during my research was Maulana Abdul Rauf who passed away in 2003.  Maulana Rauf made enormous efforts to work in cooperation with local authorities. For the establishment of a new mosque in a village with few Muslims, he sought donations, labor, materials, and other supports from the entire community. At the ceremonies inaugurating these projects he invited Sikhs and Hindus, as well as Muslims, and used the opportunity to foster greater understanding of Islam in relation to other traditions. In Malerkotla during times of stress, Maulana Rauf and other Jama’at-i Islami leaders were active participants in Peace Committees and other bridge building efforts. Indeed, Maulana Rauf professed respect and admiration for the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader. As both the Jama’at-i Islami and the RSS were widely regarded as Muslim and Hindu radical organizations respectively, it is significant that in Malerkotla they were not oppositional groups and even worked together in some endeavors.

Further, the Shia Muslim community, although small in number is an active participant in Malerkotla’s plural culture.

In Malerkotla, though the Shi’a were few in number, during the first ten days of the month of Muharram in 2001 they were suddenly ubiquitous. As Malerkotla is the only place in Indian Punjab housing an active imambara, Shi’a from all over the state come here to celebrate Muharram. …. There are also a number of public processions, culminating on the tenth with a slow march through the center of town while chanting dirges for the martyrs and the performance of ma’tam, self-flagellation as a sign of mourning. Although the primary participants in the procession are Shi’a, groups of Hindus participate as well, especially young children for whom carrying a taziyya is regarded as an especial blessing. Hindus also often take vows before the taziyas that are permanently installed in the various imambaras in town. …. Sikhs, Hindus and Sunnis all perform the service of providing beverages and food to the processors, acknowledging the devotion necessary to sustain the long day of walking from one end of town to the other while chanting dirges and performing matam.

Thus, leaders and common folk from both sects of Islam play a part in maintaining communal harmony not only between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also between Shias and Sunnis.

Hindus are the second largest religious group in Malerkotla, and they belong primarily to the trading communities and Dalits. The smaller, but still substantial Jain community is also oriented towards trade. Religious harmony is also manifested in major Hindu festivals.

The largest non-Muslim religious festival in Malerkotla is Dussehra, the tenth day after the navaratri that is holy to Lord Rama. For the nights leading up to Dussehra, plays of the Ram story, called Ramlila, are put on at venues throughout town. On the day itself the entire town, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, all turn out at the Dera where a gigantic effigy of Ravana, the villain of the Ramayana, is burnt. This event is very significant as it, perhaps more than any other brings, together the entire community. Muslim groups sponsor booths at the Dera distributing free cold water to those in attendance. In 2001 the person staffing one booth said that while he did not himself believe in Rama and the events being celebrated, he enjoyed the spectacle and the opportunity to serve the community. Although the appeal of Dussehra for Muslims, and likely for most participants, is less religious than spectacular, the parade and celebration are enjoyed by everyone in town.

The dargah of Haider Shaikh, the dera of Baba Atma Ram, both serve as shrines which are frequented by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, and ensure that people from all three communities constantly remain in contact and build relationships.

In times of trouble, such relationships help ensure that moments of division become moments of solidarity,

In 2000, the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, triggering several incidents of anti-Muslim actions such as the throwing of pig meat into a mosque and burning of the Qur’an. In Malerkotla both the Buddhas’ destruction and these anti-Muslim assaults were deplored. …. the entire community – Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu – held a general strike for a day. Thus a potentially
divisive incident was transformed into an act of symbolic solidarity against a variety of injustices. Other such moments, too numerous to recount, indicate an overall propensity towards conciliation rather than animosity among Malerkotla’s residents. Furthermore, these events demonstrate the amount of labor and effort that community leaders and members put into maintaining the level of peace and integration that Malerkotla has come to enjoy.

Thus Malerkotla and its people have built institutions and cultural practices that bank on the secular, democratic national project (popular elections, secular associations and groups), shared aspects of religion (festivals, shrines) and, above all, the town’s own memory of harmony to ensure a peaceful and prosperous today.

In India, the state of Punjab is usually associated with the Sikhs, who form the numerical majority there. There is also a significant Hindu minority in Punjab. It is less well known that Punjab houses a small but significant minority of Punjabi Muslims, who in fact compromise the majority of the population in the historical town of Malerkotla. In her paper, “Punjab’s Muslims: The History and Significance of Malerkotla“, Anna Bigelow of North Carolina State University points out that Malerkotla’s significance is not simply the presence of Punjabi Muslims, but also the real tradition of harmony, which as Bigelow points out is actively maintained through inclusive institutions and practices, and is

not merely a modern extension of the past reality. … Indeed, the term most frequently employed to characterize the communal atmosphere is bhaichara, meaning communal brotherhood. … Malerkotla is no utopia and the present peace is the product of active efforts on the part of the local authorities and residents to make the unique history of the town a symbolically significant resource for community building and pluralism in the present.

Bigelow begins with an overview of Malerkotla’s early history. The settlement of Maler was founded in 1454, with the territory being granted to the Sufi saint Haider Shaikh by the Delhi Sultanate, who is the progenitor of Malerkotla’s ruling family. Bigelow mentions,

the Shaikh is described as a very pious man of much celebrity in his time. … He settled on the bank of a small river to engage in religious devotions. According to numerous sources, in 1451 Bahlol Lodhi encountered the saint on his way to conquer Delhi at which point he established the Lodhi dynasty. Bahlol Lodhi asked the saint for the blessing that he would be victorius in the war. After conquering Delhi, the Sultan returned and in 1454 married his daughter Taj Murassa Begum to Shaikh Sakhruddin, and gave her a number of villages in the region as a marriage portion.

The state grew further during Mughal rule, acquiring the appendage Kotla after its rulers acquired the permission to build a fort from Delhi. As the Mughal Empire declined, Malerkotla sought increasing independence from Delhi.

One of the most significant events of those times, especially for Sikhs, is the ‘ha da narah’ or ‘cry for justice’. Bigelow recounts this important memory in detail,

After the Guru [Gobind Singh] and his family broke through the siege at Anandpur [1705], his mother and his two younger sons, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh were separated from the Guru. They were betrayed, captured, and taken to Sirhind where their fate hung in the balance. Refusing to convert to Islam, the sahibzadas were condemned to be bricked alive into a wall. Of all the assembled allies of Wazir Khan, the Mughal governor of Sirhind, Sher Muhammad Khan was the only one who spoke up in the child’s defense. He declared that their quarrel was with the father not the sons, and that their lives should be preserved. He went so far as to declare the death sentence un-Islamic, violating the acceptable rules of combat.

Other versions of this historical event also mention that the governor offered a large part of his treasury to have the children cremated with the appropriate rites. Needless to say, this historical memory contributes hugely to the feeling of ‘bhaichara’ between the Muslims of Malerkotla and their non-Hindu co-citizens.

With the decline of the Mughals, new players such as Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Marathas, the British and the Sikh Empire emerged on the political scene. After dallying and fighting with all of these forces, the Nawab of Malerkotla finally threw his lot in with the British,

Finally, in 1809 the British and the Maharaja signed a treaty which placed the Cis-Sutlej region in which Malerkotla is located under British protection. From 1809 onwards Malerkotla supported the British and assisted in a number of key campaigns – against Kabul, in the Gurkha wars, and also during the 1857 Rebellion.

Although, the rulers of Malerkotla remained loyal to the British until the end of the colonial Raj, the region started being affected by the various nationalist movements sweeping through India in the early and middle 1900s. By the 1930s, religious tensions were rising in Malerkotla, pitting Hindus and Sikhs against Muslims. Bigelow mentions,

Identity politics were the order of the day as the combined effects of nineteenth century reformist movements, British enumerative authoritarianism, and the communally based factions within the Independence Movement, particularly the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, took root. Especially since the consolidation of British authority in the nineteenth century, imperial policies distributed social and political opportunities based upon religious and ethnic identities. Simultaneously, and partially as a response to these efforts, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim organizations developed that defined and disseminated revivalist tendencies.

Despite these troublesome winds, Malerkotla remained relatively calm in the years leading up to independence. It was one of the few regions in North India that remained peaceful during the partition. Bigelow mentions,

According to all the people and records I consulted, Malerkotla was peaceful during partition. The refugee situation strained local resources to the limit, but the violence that shattered Patiala, Nabha and Jind never occured withing Malerkotla’s borders. Some residents attribute the peace at partition to the brave leadership of the Nawab and the vigilance of the kingdom’s army.

This is truly exceptional, given that Punjab, with its highly militarized peasantry experienced exceptional levels of violence, and was ethnically cleansed.

Post independence, the rulers of Malerkotla joined PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union) as a constituent state of India. With the introduction of democratic politics, the Nawab and his family entered electoral politics and have been elected as member(s) of the Punjab Legislative Assembly on many occasions. Since independence, Malerkotla has urbanized and industrialized with extensive land and agricultural reform. The formerly non-elite Kamboj caste, which makes up 40% of the constituency’s population have been the principle economic and political beneficiaries of the post-independence abolition of zamindari, and state promoted industrialization. Their growth has mainly been at the expense of the formerly dominant Pathan caste to which the Nawabs belonged. Yet, the communal harmony of the town has been maintained, even during the stressful times following the Babri Masjid demolition and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban.

In the next post, we will see how Malerkotla continues to maintain its communal harmony by employing its shared and inclusive institutions and historical memory of peace. See Part 2.

What is the real path to a democratic and just society ? The question is a complex one. However, there is a simple way to think about this. A democratic and just society satisfies two conditions:

1) The most marginalized sections of the society are able to organize and voice their concerns.

2) The institutions of governance up to the highest level are compelled to not only hear this voice but act on it.

In history, point two has typically followed point one, but not before much upheaval and bloodshed. In the Republic of India, we were able to get to two before one, at least in theory. Our institutions of governance and representation are formally democratic. However, a host of factors keep the marginalized of India silenced. I attempt to list a few of these factors here:

Literacy:

Historically, illiteracy and denial of access to scriptures has been the main tool of India’s high castes to keep the mass population marginalized. The same attitude persisted after independence, with mass literacy being opposed by the dominant groups in various ways. Quite obviously, there is little chance of marginalized groups developing an effective voice without literacy.

In recent years, there has been a shift in educational policy, with the Right to Education Act being a truly inclusive step. However, the quality of education remains poor, with a shortage of teachers and a curriculum and testing regime driven by elite interests.

Language:

India’s language of power is English, it is the language in which decisions are deliberated and taken. Talking to power is difficult without being able to write well in this language. Needless to say, the most marginalized groups are the ones most deprived of English language proficiency.

Entrenched institutions of caste and patriarchy:

These are the principal agents of enforcing silence. The widespread belief in certain groups (mainly upper castes and male) that they are superior to others and that any protest or assertion from the others is a threat to them is the fundamental basis of oppression. Typically, such a belief is created and perpetuated to continue the economic and social dominance of the elite groups.

On the issue of gender, our society lionizes the ‘silently sacrificing’ Indian woman. Silence and patience are held up as the greatest virtues for the ideal Indian woman, and they are thus excluded from every decision making process.

Control of media by vested interests:

This is perhaps the subtlest of ways in which large groups of society are systematically silenced by an institution. But it has been shown that big media is structurally dependent on big business and the government for its survival, and will resist reporting against dominant ideologies and state narratives, even if free on paper. Where these ideologies and narratives clash with the interests of the marginalized, the media will side with the dominant groups, compelled by its dependence on them.

In India, both the news and entertainment media are also affected by an appallingly low presence of marginalized groups, especially Dalits. This is absolutely critical, you would not see anywhere near the coverage of India’s rape and sexual/physical abuse crisis had Indian women not entered the media (especially the English electronic media) in large numbers.

Centralized political structure:

Indian democracy’s representative structure fails to create a meaningful space for smaller ethnic groups. Communities like the Mizos, Manipuris and Nagas have just a single representative in the Lok Sabha. Communities like the Munda and Santhal are also barely visible in the Parliament. The flaw here is in the Rajya Sabha, which performs effectively no representative function and is simply a political tool in the hands of parties to hand out patronage. The so called Council of States should be reformed so that it actually becomes a channel for the voices of these marginalized states and their people rather than just a rubber stamp or retirement club.

Draconian Laws:

Despite claiming to be a democracy, India retains a number of repressive laws. Prominent among these are Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which silences sane voices in the conflict-ridden regions of the country. The government also does not allow FM radio to broadcast news, a law against the spirit of free speech. Finally, the Constitutional provisions restricting free speech in the name of public decency and order (which were originally not in the Constitution, but added due to the volatile post-partition atmosphere) and some colonial vestiges like the sedition law continue to silence and intimidate the marginalized and everyone who stands with them.

Geographical Barriers:

This is especially true for populations in deeply forested central and North East India. These areas are ‘unreached’ and populations there are simply unable to get their voices out. This is an aspect technology can help with immensely. See an example from Chattisgarh, which overcomes both geographical and language barriers: CGNet Swara.

There are other factors that I have probably missed. The enforced silencing of the population is the greatest problem social justice has faced, anywhere in the world. It is time for everyone to break these barriers. A ‘developed’ and prosperous society will be a natural corollary.

Posted by: Vikram | January 24, 2014

AAP and the third democratic upsurge

This blog has emphasized the historical truth that Indian democracy is a grand social experiment, the implantation of a democratic government in an undemocratic society. Three days before Republic Day is perhaps a good time to remind us of Dr. Ambedkar’s prescient words,

On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?

The Constitution makers were well aware of these contradictions and believed that a combination of universal suffrage and legally guaranteed liberty would gradually democratize Indian society. Indeed, this has happened, but perhaps it has not happened in the way they imagined and to the extent that they had hoped. Along with the gradual spread of democratic expectations, there have been major ‘democratic upsurges’ which have decisively transformed Indian politics in a few years, but large populations still remain voiceless.

The first democratic upsurge occurred in the 70s with the emergency and collapse of Congress rule. Politically, this had the consequence of a non-Congress coalition ruling India for the first time since independence. Socially, it led to the transfer of political power from the upper caste Hindus who had dominated the Congress since its inception to the intermediate peasant castes, today called the OBCs or the Other Backward Castes. The second democratic upsurge, which began in the late 80s, brought the Dalits into the political mainstream as an independent force. By 2007, the Dalit controlled BSP ruled India’s largest state. However, the economic and social transformation of the second democratic upsurge is far from complete, with the Dalits continuing to face marginalization and violence, mainly from the OBCs.

It now appears that by the early 2010s, metro India’s neo-middle class was ready to enter politics with its own voice. During the India Against Corruption agitation, Ashis Nandy noted that middle class India was now a mass and wanted to play a bigger role in the country’s politics through its media clout. The key intervention of the AAP has been to combine this new middle class clout with the numbers and anger of Delhi’s working class to produce a transparent, non-sectarian urban political coalition.

However, it is important to emphasize that the AAP as it exists currently cannot call itself the third democratic upsurge. On observing India’s social structure and past democratic upsurges, it is clear that the groups most urgently needing a political voice are the marginalized adivasis in Central India, and the variegated populations at the peripheries of the Indian federation, who are living under quasi military-rule. The arrogant and short sighted policies of the GoI, and the emergence of violent extremists as the major political force representing these populations has created an unprecedented crisis in Indian democracy.

Producing the third democratic upsurge will clearly be a formidable task. The peripheral location, and secessionist tendencies of these groups means that the mainstream has come to see these issues as one of national integrity. There are some positive signs however, for example, the formation of the North East Regional Parties Front, and the 39 MPs from there speaking with unison on certain issues. Sooner or later, one hopes, the violence will subside opening up the space for saner voices.

Can AAP play a part in this opening up ? This is a tantalizing possibility, but one that is not very likely. One simply cant see AAP succeeding in India’s peripheries, where issues regarding identity are quite nuanced, and whose politics is quite unfamiliar to the ‘mainlander’ dominated AAP. However, AAP might be able to make an impact in India’s tribal belt. Perhaps the AAP can take an aim at the seats reserved for the STs in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the Maoists have had little impact, and a plethora of NGOs have found space to work with tribal populations. Indeed, a party with MPs only from the metros and tribal areas seems strange. But we must not forget that, the non-sectarian coalition between Delhi’s middle classes and working classes was almost unimaginable a few months ago, yet it now rules Delhi.

In the ideal scenario, one hopes that the emergence of an independent, non-violent political force in some tribal areas will push the Maoists to the political margins in states like Chhattisgarh, and create the space for these communities to have a stronger voice in Indian democracy’s shouting well.

Posted by: Vikram | November 9, 2013

The puzzle of arrested development in India

I recently heard the webcast of a talk by Abhimanyu Singh, an IAS officer who later joined UNESCO to work on literacy and is currently the director of UNSECO-Beijing. Comparisons between India and China are frequent, but Singh clearly and powerfully brought out how comprehensively China had outdone India when it came to literacy, especially female literacy. China’s adult female literacy rate is a whopping 40 % more than India’s. No surprise then, that Chinese women are far more likely to be part of the productive workforce than Indian women. Another powerful statistic, the most illiterate province in China is Tibet with 32 % illiteracy and a population of about 3 million. There are five Indian states still below this mark (including Andhra from the ‘developed’ South), with a combined population of about 300 million people !

The great thing about his talk was not only did he present data, but he gave a detailed historical overview as to why he thought China had done so well and India lagged behind. Perhaps, as he was speaking to an audience of educators, he focused on the legal and political regime in China that enabled it to prioritize mass education, and the differences in the legal regime in India. For example, in China childhood and adult education became compulsory and mandatory soon after the PRC gained power. In contrast, in India universal childhood education was only included in the non-binding Directive Principles of State Policy, and only in 2010 did education become a Constitutional right.

I am curious about why there was no societal and electoral pressure on the Indian state to prioritize education and other social goods after independence. Singh mentioned a book ‘The Child and the State in India‘ by Myron Weiner, which inquired into the question of arrested development in India. A review of the book summarizes its conclusion in the following way,

India’s educational expenditure as a proportion of gross national product is not exceptionally low: … It is not the capacity to do more that is lacking, in Weiner’s view, but the will. He locates the principal explanation for poor performance in primary education in the belief systems of the state bureaucracy—”a set of beliefs that are widely shared by educators, social activists, trade unionists, academic researchers, and, more broadly, by members of the Indian middle class”.

An astonishing constellation of forces is seemingly arrayed against compulsory education, …. these include the small businessmen who employ child workers, Gandhian supporters of cottage industry, upper caste groups fearing competition for jobs and the disappearance of a menial class, and often parents themselves, whether in exigent need or believing in their right to their children’s labor. On the education side, opponents of compulsion include teachers (who benefit from large student enrollment but low attendance), state education department officials (for reasons Weiner does not make wholly clear), and Illich-style enthusiasts for “deschooling.” Indeed, Weiner claims to find no significant forces for compulsory education.

In short, the reviewer says, “Mass schooling is subversive of the social order.” But why was there no desire to subvert the social order ? This assertion contrasts greatly to the politics of the freedom struggle and the mood of India on the eve of independence as described by British historian Yasmin Khan,

It is difficult to exaggerate the turmoil that India was experiencing at the close of the Second World War and the sense of entitlement and hope that had fired the imagination of the people. … The newest aspect of 1946 was the fusion of so many different movements, some urban, some rural, some violent, and some law-abiding, many of which were explicitly directed against British rule while others, led by rebels, targeted exploitative Indian landlords, loan sharks, autocratic princes and existing social dynamics more broadly. The one thing in common was a feeling of resistance to the status quo.

So where did all this revolutionary energy go ? Khan mentions that the Congress’s four-anna membership regime allowed all and sundry to join the party and perhaps dilute its subversive potential. But the debates of the Constituent Assembly, the Constitution itself, the passing of the Hindu Code Bills and the abolition of zamindari indicate that the post-independence Indian polity was not conservative. Did the partition horrors exhaust people so thoroughly that they no longer had the energy to push on and continue subverting the social order ? Or did the highly fractionalized caste nature of inequality diffuse these energies and just result in very modest gains overall ?

Posted by: Vikram | September 12, 2013

Jinnah’s lesson for India

Few words are abhorred more by the Indian mainstream than this statement by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, delivered during his presidential address to the Muslim League in 1940,

It is extremely difficult to appreciate why our Hindu friends fail to understand the real nature of Islam and Hinduism. They are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders, and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality, and this misconception of one Indian nation has troubles and will lead India to destruction if we fail to revise our notions in time. The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, litterateurs. They neither intermarry nor interdine together and, indeed, they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspect on life and of life are different. It is quite clear that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, different heroes, and different episodes.

Although exaggerated, any dispassionate analyst will clearly see the kernel of truth in this statement. However what is eminently contestable is Jinnah’s conclusion,

To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built for the government of such a state.

Jinnah was wrong about this in 1940, and he remains wrong about it in 2013. Modern India, with all its communal problems and right-wing fanatics has not come anywhere close to final destruction. Indeed, the greatest security threat identified by the Indian Prime Minister is the Maoist rebellion, a secular, class-based struggle, not Hindu-Muslim conflict.

But we must recognize that this statement was not the basis of Jinnah’s politics with the Muslim League. The path towards Pakistan was not started on the idea of irreconcilable cultural differences between any two sets of people. Jinnah faced the issue of a Muslim minority in a Hindu majority country, and an active, extremist Hindu right wing. The Congress party, which claimed to speak for all Indians, had managed to keep this extremist section on the fringes. The stalwarts of the Indian Independence movement, Nehru, Patel, Tagore, were either dismissive of this extremist section or mildly indulgent of it. Ambedkar, scathing as he was on Hindu orthodoxy, was unsympathetic to Jinnah’s cause. Only Gandhi remained steadfast in his vision of Hindu-Muslim unity. But politics for the Mahatma was based in moral and ethical example, not the technical Constitutional arrangements sought by Jinnah.

So Jinnah did not utter those words out of a belief in everlasting Hindu-Muslim conflict. He had a political objective and was employing cultural items to bolster his case before his constituents. It was a strategy that would backfire disastrously in the years to come, but that is a separate matter.

Had the leaders of independent India not agreed to linguistic states, one would not have been surprised to see similar statements contrasting Tamils with other Indians. Such sentiments also come up in the Kashmir and North-Eastern debates, where cultural, and even physiological differences are used to buttress what really are political disputes. On account of its tremendous diversity, and its highly centralized government, the Indian Union will continue to face such issues. Today, ‘national’ parties gather less than 50 % of the votes at the polls. The Delhi-Bombay-Bangalore crowd laments this ‘regionalism’ and equates it with ‘corruption’ and ‘misgovernance’. However, whatever one’s feelings towards Jinnah, we can take lessons from his role during the final stages of the freedom struggle. India’s success depends on due recognition of federal issues and flexibility in handling them; democracy does not end with one-person, one-vote.

Posted by: Vikram | September 2, 2013

Why Mumbai should not be its own state

Over at his blog, Dr. Ajay Shah has speculated that being part of Maharashtra is one of the reasons for Mumbai’s decline. Some claim, that had Mumbai been a full fledged state like Delhi is, it would have been better governed. The example of Delhi is indeed tempting. Notwithstanding the grave problems of crime and sexual violence, Delhi’s infrastructure, its roads and the metro system are admirable. Also, the independent and influential nature of Delhi’s universities is nowhere to be seen in the universities of Mumbai. However, despite these pluses, one can argue that decoupling a state from its metro city can be fatal to its cultural life and also hinder overall development.

Contrary to what many of the Bombay-Delhi-Bangalore folks assume, the capital of an Indian state is not simply an administrative outpost of the ‘centre’. Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru have pivotal roles in creating modern cultures from pre-existing linguistic and relgious identities. Can one imagine an ‘EU governed’ Paris ? London as an ‘European Union territory’ ? It seems that India’s urban elite are acutely aware of how Paris makes France French, but refuse to acknowledge what Mumbai means to Maharashtrians. Creating a modern culture from the living traditions of the subcontinent requires the intersection of cultural and financial capital. And that intersection can only occur if these cities are tied to their states as their capitals.

Not only is such reasoning limited if one considers the cultural connection between a state and its capital, it is also flawed from the developmental point of view. For example, 70 % of the revenue of the state of Andhra Pradesh comes from the city of Hyderabad. The numbers will be similar for Mumbai and Maharashtra, Bengaluru and Karnataka and so on. Every state in India that has a major metro as its capital has a Human Development Index (HDI) above the national average. Or put in another way, every major state with no major metro area in it has a very low HDI. The biggest cities in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are less than half the size of even the smallest metro city. Some might point to Kerala, a state with no major metros but with relatively high living standards. However, Kerala is intimately tied with the middle Eastern metros like Dubai and Abu Dhabi via its massive Gulf diaspora. In 2003, this diaspora’s contribution to Kerala included,

remittances [which] were 1.74 times the revenue receipts of the state, 7 times of the transfers to the state from the Central Government and 1.8 times the annual expenditure of the Kerala Government and were 15 to 18 times the size of foreign exchange earned from the export of cashew and marine products.

Of course, the low HDI of the BIMARU states is a very complex issue. But the lack of a major metropolis tied intimately to the state could be one of the reasons for the enduring economic problems of those states.

Mumbai has more than twice the per capita income of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. But Hanoi is a far cleaner city with poverty almost absent. Obviously governance plays a big part in Mumbai’s pathetic state. But the roots of this governance failure might lie in the distance between the elites of Mumbai from the masses of Maharashtra’s hinterland. Bollywood is now mainly a vehicle of middle class jingoism and corporate advertising. Hardly any literature is produced by the elites that can bind them to the masses. They prefer to write for the Booker and Pulitzer. To attain the greatness that Mumbai surely deserves, it is Mumbai’s elites who have to end their secession from the real India, not get Mumbai to secede from Maharashtra.

Auto-driver’s daughter tops national CA exam“, “Hawker’s son clears IIT-JEE“, “Bidi labourer’s daughter clears UPSC exam“. April-May is the exam result season in India, and one invariably finds news headlines about such fantastic individual accomplishments. Indeed, clearing such demanding exams is a major accomplishment, and to do so with all the odds stacked against oneself is nothing short of remarkable. However, the response of the India’s middle classes and elites to such news deserves some scrutiny. It is one thing to be inspired by such achievements, but quite another to hold these rare events as triumphs of ‘merit’, as opposed to something else (aka reservations).

First, even if the triumph of ‘merit’ claim had any statistical backing (it doesnt, as we will see in a bit), being asked to clear extremely competitive exams to simply achieve a decent middle-class existence is not exactly fair. The workers that entered the middle class on the back of the automotive and other manufacturing industries in the US, and the factory workers moving out of poverty in modern China did not have to clear any competitive exams. These hyper-competitive exams are really the gateway to the elite and upper middle class worlds, sometimes the poor can get in through sheer grit and brilliance, but it is mostly a gateway to which only the middle classes have access.

To see this, we need to see where the vast majority of the people who clear these exams come from. 56 % of the successful IIT candidates came from the CBSE board, whereas only 5% of the total student body is enrolled in that board. Indeed, the CBSE board schools have traditionally been reserved for employees of the Central Government, although now they are the board of choice for the general middle class. Based on anecdotal observations, if we consider the set of students enrolled having a parent employed in a Government service (which cannot be more than 10% of the population), the vast majority of the successful candidates of the IIT, CA and UPSC exams will have such a background. So yes, the one odd poor student clears the exam, but the 99 other clearers are from the middle classes with educated parents.

So why does the middle class celebrate the achievements of these marginalized students ? After all, for most of the year,  it shows nothing but disdain for their ‘vernacular’ and ‘regional’ culture, and seeks to sequester itself from them by building gated communities and barricading public spaces for its own use. The answer is perhaps related to the mythologies of hard work and perseverance that middle classes around the world construct around themselves. Be it America, Brazil or India, the not quite elite and definitely not poor sections of society seek to create a discourse that legitimizes their own position of relative privilege in the society. By pointing out the ‘merit’ in the achievements of these marginalized students, the middle class is pointing to its own ‘merit’ and pointing to the ‘non-merit’ness of the reserved candidates, and the remaining poor.

More broadly, this celebration of merit is also a subtle endorsement of the status quo, notwithstanding how clearly unfair it is to the marginalized. The middle class is telling the marginalized, “Look its possible to move up the ladder, you just need to work hard enough.” Perhaps, it is time for the marginalized to tell the privileged sections, “If only the contractors who employ us to build your houses, paid us the salaries that we are due, factory owners compensated us fairly for the limbs we loose making your appliances and toys, doctors and teachers provide us with the essential services that both you and we paid taxes for, there would be fewer poor to ‘celebrate’ the achievements of.”

Posted by: Vikram | April 7, 2013

More on the flailing Indian state

The capacity of the Indian state to carry out its functions has been discussed earlier on this blog. Lant Pritchett in his paper “Is India a flailing state ?” points out ,

My impression from three years of living in India was that it was striking of how much of the intellectual discussion around policy and priorities looked entirely conventional, with the usual left-right splits about what the government “should” do, argued out, particularly among in the English language media I was exposed to, as if the government of India could do roughly whatever it was proposed they should do.

Clearly India suffers from severely deficient parameters on health, law enforcement and education. The state’s failures to provide basic healthcare are reflected in the low life expectancy, the daily reports of rapes and crimes point to the ineffective rule of law, and survey after survey reminds us of the appalling learning levels among Indian school children. What is striking is the fact that at the very top of India’s administrative and political pyramid, there has been a great consensus on improving health and education. Project after project has been brainstormed, thought out and funded handsomely to improve these basic indicators, with very little to show for. Why is this so ?

Beyond Corruption

The classic middle class response to this question, goes something like this. Money is allocated by the government, but ‘corrupt’ officials siphon off almost everything and it makes no impact. This conveniently made claim (buttressed by daily reports of egregious corruption in an unimaginably vast country) lays the blame at the moral failure of the political and administrative class. However, it cannot stand up to deeper scrutiny. Many other developing countries have as much or even much more corruption than India, but they do far better than India on these basic indicators. For example, Iraq, a country that has been the unfortunate victim of a dictator, then a long period of turmoil, and now a weak government and a continuing civil war, has a higher life expectancy than India. We clearly have to look for answers beyond corruption.

A Question of Capacity

The key point Lant Pritchett makes, and one we should pay careful attention to is that in India’s current situation, understanding what the government can do, is atleast as important as thinking about what the government should do. In his paper, Pritchett studies the behavior of government agents at the base level of the state, and concludes that their indiscipline and indifference to their duties is to blame. But the issue might be even more fundamental. It appears that the Indian state simply does not have enough personnel to perform the tasks of a basic modern nation state. The shortfall in personnel is not a matter of operating at half or even quarter of the required workforce in India, in certain areas the Indian state doesnt even have a tenth of the workers it needs to have to perform fundamental functions. Consider these facts:

  1.  “India has 1,622.8 government servants for every 100,000 residents. In stark contrast, the U.S. has 7,681. The Central government, with 3.1 million employees, thus has 257 serving every 100,000 population, against the U.S. federal government’s 840.” – Praveen Swami in The Hindu.
  2. India had 9546 judges for a population of around a billion in the 90’s, at the same time, the US (which has a similar legal system) but a quarter of India’s population, had 28049 judges, more than three times as many. In other words, India has less than one-tenth the number of judges required to efficiently run the justice system. – John Armour & Priya Lele, – Law, Finance and Politics: The Case of India
  3. “On the basis of police per capita, India is the second lowest among 50 countries ranked using data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime from 2010. Police forces around the world are commonly measured as the number of police per 100,000 people, and India has 129. Only Uganda fares worse.” – The New York Times The world average is close to 350, and it is possible that India’s figure include the CRPF, which does not do any direct policing. Anecdotally, any Indian in the US will tell you that they see cop cars patrolling the street far more frequently than in India.

Set aside even the efficiency and morality of each public servant, the Indian state simply has nowhere near the number of personnel needed to perform its functions.

Show Me The Money

How did we end up in this scenario, and what needs to be done to rectify this ? Lets perform a simple calculation. Suppose we want to increase the number of judges in India, so that we have the same number of judges per capita as the US. How much more would the expenditure be ? Assume that each judge gets paid Rs. 50,000 as salary every month, thats Rs. 600000 a year, and that there are 10,000 judges, all getting the same salary. This is a total current expenditure of Rs. 600 cr a year. If we were to increase the number of judges by a factor of 10, the expenditure would be Rs. 6000 cr a year, i.e. we would have to arrange for Rs. 5400 cr more per year.

It is difficult for me to see how this money can be arranged without economic growth. In fact, I would speculate that one of the main reasons the Indian state is so understaffed is that the historically low rates of economic growth have constrained recruitment. Unfortunately, fast economic growth comes with its own challenges in a country with a weak rule of law and historical inequalities like India. The very policies that encourage faster economic expansion, translate into exploitation and abuse at the ground level due to the weak rule of law. A catch-22 seems to arise here, we need economic growth to be able to enforce the rule of law, but in the short term at least, that very same economic growth can make a mockery of the rule of law.

Posted by: Vikram | March 13, 2013

Who is Chikni Chameli ?

“Sab ko to parsaad baate, main maangu to mujhko daate” – Lyric from a recent Hindi song (Agent Vinod)

The new millennium has seen the establishment of a new device in Indian cinema, the ‘item girl’. It is interesting to speculate on the specific origins of the ‘item girl’ terminology. One possible source is the fact that young Indian men often call an attractive woman an ‘item’, reducing her personhood to a commodity in the most literal sense. It could also be an English translation of the ‘maal’ (thing) terminology used by Indian men in a similar context. Bollywood has featured attractive women and provocative female characters before, but the last decade has seen the ‘item girl’ and ‘item song’ becoming an attraction in themselves.

The typical ‘item girl’ in millennial Indian cinema has no past and no future. She has no relationships, no desires apart from gyrating for the pleasure of a few drunk men. Typically none of these drunk men who lust after her have any chance of ‘getting her’, only the hero is macho enough, but he is often not interested, most certainly not for the long term. After all, he has the cultured, coy and docile ‘typical Indian girl’ at home that he can order around and father respectable children with. Indeed, the ‘item girl’ phenomenon is a symptom of a severe moral crisis in Bollywood when it comes to dealing with women. Movie makers know that their consumers want to see sex and skin, but the lead actress cant be the one displaying this sexuality (atleast not outside the bonds of marriage), so in comes the slutty ‘item girl’ to the rescue.

So where do ‘Chikni Chameli’, ‘Sheila’ and ‘Munni’ come from ? They look too well nourished to come from our omnipresent slums. They most definitely do not come from our saas-bahu loving ‘middle class localities’. Actually, they come from much closer. Bollywood’s item girls are the produce of the dirty, patriarchal mind of the modern urban Indian male. The last two decades of liberalization have imparted Indian men with an ambiguous sense of sexual morality. Indian tradition ever only imposed constraints on Indian men’s sexuality in a weak sense. The ‘worst’ punishment for sexual transgressions for upper caste Hindu males was a hastily arranged marriage. For women, it was and still is death. What happened in the last 20 years ? Male sexuality has been almost completely released from even these weak bondages, young Indian men are no longer scared of their fathers and older relatives. There is a revolt against old expectations, but little reflection among men about their new expectations (see Jaa Chudail (Scram Witch) from execrable Delhi Belly below).

Jaa Chudail is one of a long line of Hindi songs that reflect the entrenched misogyny in the minds of Indian men, especially young, urban males. Mainstream Indian cinema of the last twenty years is a classic example of how a medium that could have ostensibly challenged sexual conventions (and indeed has, in the past done so) can be completely co-opted by the oppressive instincts of society. To be sure there are some brave exceptions, but it remains to be seen if they can shake up the current norm.

The impact of this new highly sexualized imagery of non-heroine women in Bollywood has been devastating for women and men of the working classes. In addition, the social legitimization of drinking has lead to widespread alcoholism among the underclass men, greatly increasing the dangers for the women who live with and around them. And limited job prospects, delayed age of marriage, lack of self-confidence and the underclass women’s inability to participate in romantic and sexual relationships due to severe social reprecussions, is leading to immense economic and sexual frustration.

It is critical to note the differing attitudes towards the sexuality of the lead actor’s wife, sister and Chikni Chameli. The lead actress seems more liberated, but stays within the boundaries of patriarchy, the sister’s sexuality is a threat and vulnerability to be guarded from opportunists, while Chikni Chameli is out there, a non-person, waiting to be taken advantage of. So ‘Chikni Chameli’ can be viewed as a construction of the elite Indian male mind, a construction that reflects its own sexual depravity and contempt of women, and projects it onto the mass medium to exploit and enhance the same tendencies in the minds of the masses.

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