Posted by: Vikram | August 26, 2015

Indian states and the global economy

After independence, India embarked on a centralized, state-driven program of industrial development, with economic decision making power resting with government officials and policy makers in Delhi. However, after 1990 this pattern changed, and economic growth both accelerated and grew more diffuse in its spread. States found themselves with considerable room to develop their infrastructure, policies and drive economic development. Considerable literature exists on how different states and regions have fared economically, and the social and political implications of these changes. But today, we will be focused on how Indian states have interacted with the global economy, and participated in foreign trade.

India is still a minor player in world trade, although it has seen rapid growth in this area in the last decade and a half. In 1990, India’s share of exports in the world was only 0.5%, and this increased to 1.2% in 2009. In contrast, China’s share grew from 1.8% to 9.6% in the same time period. However, we will focus on exports from various states, since they do present a varied picture, and also reveal the relative strength and sophistication of industry and business across states.

Apart from trade in goods and services, the other major point of interface between Indians and global capital is via the export of labor and remittances. India has been a leading recipient of remittances for a number of years, with remittances reaching $ 70 billion in 2013-14. Like exports, remittances show a varied picture across states, revealing the differences in how well different states are connected with international recruiting networks.

We start with a state wise breakdown of total merchandise exports, seen in Table 1. Clearly, two states on the Indian West Coast, Maharashtra and Gujarat account for nearly 50% of exports from India. Together with the South Indian states, they produce about 75% of India’s merchandise exports. Despite more of India’s population residing in its Northern and Eastern states (65%), most of the economic dynamism is shown by states in the West and the South (35%).

In fact, over the last two decades the East’s share in exports has declined from 15% to 6.6%. We see clearly in such statistics, the roots of labour migration within India from East and North to the West and South.

By looking further at sectoral compositions of the exports, we can assess the relative strengths amongst the leading exporting states. We look at state export rankings for general manufactured wares, information technology goods, pharmaceuticals, transport equipment and petroleum products. Table 2 summarizes these rankings giving values of exports in each category from leading states in billions of dollars.


Same source as Table 1

We see that Gujarat has used its geographical location to good effect and developed a major petroleum processing and petrochemicals manufacturing industry. In addition, the state has well developed textile and pharmaceutical industries. Maharashtra features in nearly all sectors as a leading state indicating its diversified industrial portfolio. In the IT goods sector, Maharashtra is the top state with the South Indian states following it. This might be surprising given that cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad are perceived to be the bigger IT centres in India.

We now move to exports of services, which actually account for a large share (56%) of India’s exports than merchandise. Observing Table 3, we see that this is because most of the IT earnings for the South Indian cities come through IT service, not product exports. Haryana and UP also make an appearance because of the IT companies in Gurgaon and Noida. And even here, Maharashtra ranks second with Mumbai and Pune being leading software services centres.

Next up are remittances. Table 4 lists the leading states by remittances received. As many might have guessed, Kerala leads in this category, getting more than $13 billion dollars in remittances. In fact, remittances constitute about 35% of Kerala’s GDP, indicating a high dependence on such earnings. This blog had earlier referred to Dubai and other Middle Eastern cities as the ‘metro’ of Kerala. Interestingly, remittances also constitute a significant portion of the GDPs of Goa (19%) and Punjab (13%).

Observing Punjabi cinema, one notices that a large number of Punjabi movies and songs feature a protagonist with rural Punjabi roots moving abroad to economic centres in the West. Such cinema appears to be grounded in the actual movement of Punjabi labour to markets in the West. Comparing with Haryana, however we see a clear difference, Haryana’s economic growth has been driven by establishing industry for domestic and international consumption, leveraging its proximity to Delhi. Punjab on the other hand has relied on its diasporic networks to export labour abroad.

Clearly Maharashtra, Gujarat and Kerala, all on the west coast of India are the states most tied to the global economy. Particularly in the case of Maharashtra and Gujarat, their established lead in industrialization and international contacts should help create a lasting period of economic growth.


It is perhaps no coincidence that the leading male actor of contemporary Hindi cinema makes it a point to refer to himself as the only ‘Badshah’ out there. The memory of the Mughal dynasty is strong in the core regions of that long gone empire, and that region is also a cultural stronghold of contemporary Hindi cinema. So as Bollywood has started showing signs of a decline in its patronage, it might look to lessons from the last days of that dynasty.

But first, a small detour into Mughal history and some structural reasons for its rapid decline after 1707. Two reasons stand out for the erosion of Mughal authority after Aurangzeb’s death. One was Aurangzeb’s inability to accommodate emergent elites. By the time his reign of nearly 60 years was coming to a end, he had made the rising Sikhs, who could have been a great asset to the Mughal Empire in its vulnerable North West (a fact well recognized by the British); its sworn enemies. He had militarily engaged the Marathas in a protracted conflict. The Marathas had previously been reliable soldiers of the empire; and the long Mughal-Maratha war gave them the motivation and experience for the future conflict over the subcontinent. Aurangzeb failed to realize that the emergence of new elites who would seek out more political and cultural autonomy was an inevitable consequence of the stability that the empire provided, and not necessarily a threat to its survival.

The second reason was the competitive Mughal system of succession and its undoing by the ripe old age till which the emperor ruled. Mughal succession was not by primogeniture, princes were to develop the skills and networks to compete with each other for the throne. Living to be 92, by the time Aurangzeb was ready to be replaced, there were four generations of the Mughal dynasty with claims to the throne.  A dynastic competition between three or four princes became a melee of four generations of male Mughals. A necessary consequence was the weakening of the network each contender could build and the resources available to them. Unsurprisingly, even the prince that ultimately emerged victorious had a greatly diminished authority and capacity to mobilize resources. Thus the collapse of the Mughal empire was ensured by the emergence of alternate sources of political authority, and a greatly fractured centre.

The Hindi film industry seems to show similar signs. It is unable to accommodate new talent and new sources of cultural production. The Hindi film industry and its North Indian elites still live in a world where they are the sole ‘center’ and every other form of cultural production is ‘regional’ or marginal. With increasing consciousness and available surplus for cultural production, it is inevitable that the Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Bhojpuri and other film industries will join the Southern industries as major culture producers. Bollywood elites have to realize that they cannot expect the Hindi film to be dominant in regions where Hindi is not the main language. Unfortunately, recent episodes indicate that they do not shy from using their financial and cultural clout to subjugate competition from local movie makers.1

The other limitation in accomodating new talent comes from the increasing sell-by date of the existing Bollywood badshahs. Various techniques are extending the ‘youth’ of the existing leaders, and the number of potential dynastic heirs from the incestuous clans of Bollywood is rising quickly. The youth of metro India is increasingly attracted to foreign cultural products and norms of cultural consumption. Thus, the generation of pretenders to the Bollywood throne have to deal with intense competition in the metro India and Bharat markets from each other, and face diminished acceptability in the metro India market.

How could Bollywood survive and thrive ? Undoubtedly it needs to localize, its leading lights have to increasingly engage with the smaller but growing markets across India. The industry also has to transition to a far more egalitarian process to recruit new talent rather than become a factory of star-kids seeking their parents positions.

1: “YRF distributors in Assam have forcibly replaced an Assamese film — titled ‘Raag’ — with their latest release, ‘Gunday’.”


Historic shares of various entities in global GDP (Data – Angus Maddison, Figure – M Tracy Hunter)

Angus Maddison told us that the various lands comprising today’s India collectively formed the largest economy in the world from AD 1 to AD 1500. They were then eclipsed temporarily by the Qing empire that contained today’s China and some neighboring areas. But the more significant eroder of India’s share in the world economy was Europe, which through industrialization was able to make its people much more productive in economic terms. Also, through colonization Europe was able to obtain the natural resources needed for its industrialization, and a captive market for its own surplus goods. In other words, Europeans were able to internally generate large surpluses and extract the surplus produced in the other regions of the world for higher levels of consumption and investment.

The European model was followed in North America, and the two together constitute today’s West, which accounts for nearly half the world’s economic output. Many centuries of living in an industrialized economy has allowed the West to develop the sophisticated legal and political instruments needed to manage such an economy. The West has also created educational institutions that ensure its labor has the right skills to service such an economy. In fact, so large is the gap in institutional development between the West and the rest, that it is able to attract large numbers of skilled workers from places like India and Africa to further accelerate its own economic growth.

In recent years, India’s economy has shown some growth and India has increased its share in global economic output. Some are predicting that India could keep growing economically and regain a share of the world economy at least commensurate with its population. For most of history, India had 20-30% of the world’s population, and a slightly larger share (25-30%) in its economy. Today it has about 18 % of the world’s population, and 6.4% of its economic output. Here are the reasons why this share wont change significantly in the coming years:

Shrinking productive resources:

The high share India had historically in the world’s economy and population was mainly due to the plentiful availability of fertile land and a large network of rivers. These allowed India to be more than self-sufficient in food, develop a large internal market, and then leverage its natural advantages and economies of scale to become a net exporter of textiles, iron-works and spices to the rest of the world. However, these resources are now shrinking. Most importantly, climate change has added a huge dimension of uncertainty to India’s future water supply and agricultural productivity. In addition, industrialization is eating into India’s most important and valuable natural resource: arable land.


Percentage of districts experiencing drought in India. Since 1991, at least 15% of districts have faced a drought every year. (From Annual Report 2012-2013: NCAP, Delhi)

Lack of skilled labor: 

Despite some success in producing very highly skilled professionals in the engineering and sciences domain, the general quality of labor in India is low. Educational standards are poor, with Indian children regularly finishing near the bottom of the charts in international tests. The reasons for these poor standards are deep rooted: poor childhood nutrition and sanitation impacting the physical and mental growth of children, and a lack of teachers being the most important ones. The number one complaint of Indian business is not India’s bureaucracy or excessive rules, it is simply the lack of people who can get the job done.

Lack of energy resources:

On an absolute level, India’s energy resources are mediocre. But on the more pertinent scale of resources per capita, they are very low. India’s oil reserves on a per capita level are among the smallest in the world, and its coal reserves, although larger are of a low quality and quite polluting. Space for solar farms is limited, plus solar insolation is concentrated in the summer months, with the monsoon clouds and winter fog playing spoilsport in other months. Hydel resources will also be constrained due to the increasingly uncertain monsoons.

Under governance:

Many middle class Indian bemoan this fact, and will perhaps point to it as the major problem in India’s economic expansion (it isnt), but India’s poor state capacity and governance is a major structural problem and not simply one of the wrong people being in charge. India has ten times less judges than it needs and its police force in woefully undermanned and underfunded.

the US federal government has a ratio of 889 employees per 1,00,000; India’s Union government has just 295. State and local government employees in the US account for another 6,314 per 100,000; in sharp contrast, Uttar Pradesh has 352; Bihar, 472; Orissa, 1,007; Chhattisgarh, 1,067; Maharashtra, 1,223; Punjab, 1,383; Gujarat, 1,694. Given the magnitude of delays that mar the judicial process, it is not surprising to find this institution is probably the worst off in terms of human assets. India has about 1.2 judges per 1,00,000 population. The US has nearly 11 judges per 1,00,000 population; Sweden: 13; China: 17; and, at the top of the scale, Belgium: 23; Germany: 25; and Slovenia: 39!

Rule of law in India exists only on paper for the most part, and lack of low enforcement and poor quality of regulation is a major contributor to the lack of investor enthusiasm for the country.

None of these structural problems will be resolved in the coming future, in fact most Indian politicians rarely talk about them. But a country does not need to be super-rich to be happy, if its widespread ethno-religious tensions are mitigated and state capacity is improved, Indians can be a happy people, with our varied and vibrant cultures, and strong family traditions.

Posted by: Vikram | October 27, 2014

Disillusionments with India’s Dalit and Left activists

         Hinduism is a deeply hierarchical, oppressive religion. – Nivedita Menon (Professor at JNU)

   The Earth, bearing upon her many different peoples, speaking many languages, following different dharmas as suit their particular regions. Pour upon us a thousand-fold streams of bountiful treasures to enrich us, like a constant cow that never faileth. – Atharva Veda

For as long as I remember being politically conscious, I have identified with what I would call India’s activist left on all social issues, and many economic ones. I was led to them through my explorations of the writings of contemporary scholars of India, many of whom belong to this activist left. In fact, this blog was originally setup to discuss and understand many of their writings. Indeed, many of India’s grass root activists identify with leftist politics and they continue various struggles against tremendous odds. Needless to say, many of them are close to these scholar-cum-activists and their partnerships form a rich network of resistance against aribtrary policies and decisions of an increasingly undemocratic society.

I had a simple way of thinking about religions and social problems. I thought all religions had ‘good’ and ‘bad’ points, and that modern reform would simply correct the bad points and override religion in those matters. This seemed to be clear when one talked about Hinduism, the ‘good’ was the tolerance and openness, the bad was the notorious caste system, with the bad being comprehensively overridden by the Indian Constitution. I thought of the other religions in a similar way. Growing up in India, Islam was another religion one was exposed to. In Islam, the good (according to me) was the clear definition of God and his message, the bad was the intolerance to other religions and ideas of God.

Since I thought I knew Hinduism pretty well, I set out to fill the gaps in my knowledge about Islam, and understand why exactly it was the way it was. My readings revealed something that startled me. There actually were actually significant arguments to be made in favor of Islam being a tolerant religion. So there was no ‘bad’ , one just had to look at things from a different perspective. Similarly, what I thought of as being ‘good’, was actually much more complex, with a large number of interpretations of what Islam means and how God is to be thought about coming from various Muslim traditions.

While this meant I understood Islam better, it indicated to me that perhaps I did not understand Hinduism all that well. What if, from a different viewpoint, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ could be inverted from the way I thought about them ? Just like it had happened with Islam. And of course, this did turn out to be the case. There are Hindu texts that clearly try and establish the superiority of one sect, or one school of thought over all others. There were Hindu kings who were not at all tolerant. And on the other side, there are Hindu texts, stories and movements that emphasize equality of all humans before God.

What animates the Hindu right wing troll is the obsessive quest to define that irredeemable ‘wrong’ in Islam, and other religions, that in his/her mind renders Hinduism superior. This is done for various reasons, but most of all for vengeance, vengeance for a fake, rubbish narrative created by European colonialists that belongs to the dustbin of history. But sadly, the same desire for vengeance seems to manifest in the writings of many activists. The project of Constitutional equality, a national vision for the establishment of which many so called ‘savarnas’ (among other Indians) laid down their lives is turned into a hate fest. Where the goal is to show that ‘Hinduism’ is unequivocally a degrading, decadent philosophy, irredeemably flawed due to a hierarchical social order. The inconvenient facts about how Jatt Sikhs treat Dalit Sikhs, hierarchies among Muslims across India and Buddhists in Ladakh and Tibet are brushed aside as side-effects of Hindu ancestry or proximity.

     Inequality is the soul and philosophy of Hinduism. – United Dalit Students Forum (JNU)

Almost every statement of a general nature made by anyone about Indian castes may be contradicted. – D.D. Kosambi

The same academy that has deconstructed the colonial mythology of timeless Hindu-Muslim rivalry and the same activism that courageously challenges the demonisation of Islam as intolerant, accept the colonial narrative of a “deeply hierarchical, oppressive” ‘Hinduism’ almost without question. Its as if humiliating those who call themselves Hindu will make Indian society equal. No wonder then, that the right wing is ascendant today. Between an unjust humiliation and a fake pride, people will usually choose the latter.

Posted by: Vikram | October 26, 2014

The Indian Elite and Sports Leagues in urban India

When the creation of the Indian inter-city cricket league, the IPL was announced, it came as no surprise that a few of these teams were ‘owned’ by Bollywood celebrities. Cricket is a national passion in India, and marriage with Bollywood was sufficient, if not necessary for the success of the new league. No doubt, the promise of riches played its part, but popular and personal appeal must have been substantial factors, given that time given to promoting the IPL would have necessarily detracted from their film-making schedules.

In this context, the participation of Bollywood and other Indian celebrities in the Indian Super League must be contrasted to their apathy to the Hockey India League. In terms of national history and popularity, hockey certainly outstrips football by a large margin. There are local exceptions, notably: Kolkata, Goa and some North Eastern states. But the point remains, hockey has a notable history in India, and some of the games greatest players, Dhyan Chand, Dhanraj Pillay, Leslie Claudius, Balbir Singh among others have played for India. By contrast, soccer has no such history in India. The national men’s team was among the best in Asia in the 1950s and 60s, but there is not much of a notable history beyond that.

The question then is, why is the Indian elite so invested in the Indian Super League ? Why did it completely ignore the Indian hockey leagues despite clear evidence of them being more popular than any soccer programming1 ? One might find an answer in the culture of metro India which is increasingly disconnected from the India-Bharat of smaller towns and cities, and the Bharat of villages. The Ranbir Kapoors, Abhishek Bachchans and Virat Kohlis of the world have grown up in a metro Indian middle class which is intimately connected with global capital and entertainment, of which European soccer has emerged as one of the major poles. In fact, the English Premier League is one of the biggest exports of England and a major source of European influence in contemporary East and South East Asia. Also, the World Cup of football has emerged as one of the biggest and most important global events in the last twenty years.

Not surprisingly, emotional and consequently financial investment in a European soccer team is a characteristic of the metro Indian. Thus the enthusiastic participation of Indian celebrities in the Indian Super League is not surprising, even though the risk in financial investment is considerably larger than the hockey league. But it reveals an unsettling feature of our globalized metro society. It comes across as nothing but a deeply exploitative economic and social arrangement, where an elite that rules in the name of the national mass only uses it for profit, but is far more invested in the culture of a limited ‘global’ order.

1: The number of viewers for the World Series Hockey (pre cursor to the Hockey India League) was far higher than even the EPL telecasts in India. See here:

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:


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.


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 ?

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