Sunday, 13 April 2014

From Yashodhara to Jashodaben - The Unsung Victims Of Patriarchy's Noble Heroes

The uncertainty over the marital status of Indian prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was finally cleared when the candidate declared in his nomination papers that he was indeed married, and to one Jashodaben (The Gujarati variant of the common Indian name Yashoda). The lady is a retired schoolteacher on a modest pension, who has lived alone or with her brothers ever since her non-starter of a marriage to Modi.

Details of the marriage are murky, but the broad outlines of it seem to be that Narendra Modi and Jashodaben had an arranged marriage when they were both very young (whether it was a child marriage is in dispute). The marriage was not consummated, and Narendra Modi left his young wife to become a "pracharak" (evangelist) for the Hindu Nationalist RSS, since that organisation insists on celibacy for all its pracharaks. He apparently lived in solitary simplicity for many years while he served his organisations (the RSS and its political arm, the BJP), until he finally entered the limelight in 2001 with his elevation to the position of Chief Minister for Gujarat. But even in the 13 years since then, when he was no longer an RSS pracharak and hence no longer under the requirement of celibacy, he did not acknowledge his wife and instead continued to project the public image of a bachelor.

Today, a number of questions are being asked about this behaviour.

To the traditionalist Hindu BJP supporter, such questions are outrageous. The phenomenon of householders renouncing their worldly ties and taking up "sannyasa" (the way of life of the renunciate) is a common one in Hindu culture. It is glorified as a spiritually meritorious act. To such a follower, Narendra Modi's act of walking away from his marriage and his young wife in order to serve his nation was an act of sacrifice that is highly praiseworthy.

Indeed, the person Modi is often compared to in this regard is Prince Siddhartha, one of the most famous renunciates in the history of the subcontinent, who later became the Buddha. One night, while his young wife Yashodhara and baby son Rahula slept, the prince stole away from the palace, and embarked upon his long spiritual quest, which ultimately led him to enlightenment and gave the world a new religion.

In these days of feminist-inspired thought, a few brave voices have dared to ask if the Buddha was a great soul, or a really lousy husband and father. (Similar questions are asked of the behaviour of Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana).

By all accounts, just as Yashodhara before her, Jashodaben is a model Indian wife, bearing her lot with patience and continuing to pray and fast for her husband's success and happiness, and this is again something that the traditionalists point to with approval and pride. But is it indeed something praiseworthy, or is it a kind of cultural Stockholm Syndrome where the victim does not even imagine herself to be the victim, and even fiercely defends her oppressor?

Indian society is entering a new age, and fresh winds are blowing in alien ideas, ideas that suggest that men and women are equal human beings with equal rights, that marriage is a commitment for both parties, that one party to a marriage cannot unilaterally decide to end it without some form of compensation to the other, and so on. These ideas may infuriate the traditionalist, but they are here to stay.

After the horrific Delhi rape of December 2012, and the continuing cases of rape and molestation all over the country, popular attention has focused strongly on the treatment of women and the root causes of it. Patriarchal attitudes are increasingly acknowledged to be the real cause of women's poor status. This is a culture that makes a show of treating women as goddesses or as mother figures, but balks at treating them as equal human beings. 

Indian governments at both the central and state levels are increasingly expected by a young and idealistic nation to exercise modern, progressive value frameworks to make decisions concerning women rather than the feudal and patriarchal ones of traditional Indian society. In this situation, a potential prime ministerial candidate who has exhibited the classic patriarchal lack of concern for his duty towards his wife is cause for worry. How will his government prove responsive to the concerns of women when the person who should be waving to the crowds at his side remains consigned to the shadows?

One thing is clear - Modi will find in the days ahead that the 2002 riots are not the only uncomfortable topic that he will be questioned on.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

India's Watershed Election - Why It's Still Not A Now-Or-Never Moment

In heated political discussions with friends, one point that has been repeatedly made by supporters of Narendra Modi is that India faces a now-or-never moment with the 2014 general elections. If Modi is elected with a clear mandate, he will clear the cobwebs of corruption and inefficiency that plague the economy and restore the country's earlier trajectory of high growth. If the Congress party is re-elected (a remote possibility), or if the next government comes to an effective standstill due to an unwieldy coalition, then India would have missed a historic chance to improve its economy and will thenceforth be condemned to remain a poor nation, perhaps for all time.

I don't buy this doomsday argument. I don't believe that this is a bet-the-house kind of election at all. Yes, it is a moment in India's history that could mark a turning point in its fortunes, but there could be others in case this moment is missed.

Some of my friends have pointed out examples of great historical characters who have changed the course of history, implying that Narendra Modi is one such rare giant in a field of pygmies. If India fails to elect him, their argument goes, it will be stuck with pygmies who will fail to restore the country to greatness. However, what's often forgotten is that even great historical characters are products of a society that is ripe for their ideas, because the same ideas have fizzled out when another leader espoused them in an earlier age when society was not ready.

No leader achieves anything alone. They have to motivate and inspire followers, and in order to attract a critical mass of followers, it is imperative that their message, however revolutionary, resonate with a significant number of people. In other words, society has to be ready for change in order for a great historical character to be able to work their magic.

India has been ripe for change for a few years now. That's really why the Congress is finished. Corruption, inefficiency, all of these have played a part, but now the operative force is the electorate's desire for change. Rahul Gandhi simply doesn't represent change! He's just more of the same. His father Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 was described by political pundits as representing both continuity and change. Rahul does not have that cachet.

Whether one likes it or not (and the BJP and AAP supporters will both resent the comparison), both Modi and Kejriwal are expressions of the Indian people's desire for change. Electoral arithmetic will tell who succeeds in this election, but the winds of change are durable and not dependent on a single person, because they spring from the aspirations of Indian society.

That's why I'm sanguine about India's progress. It is going to happen because people want change and society will throw up a leader who will bring about change. It may be Modi, or it may be someone else. The actual person doesn't matter. Even if today's top leaders are nowhere on the scene, change will still occur. New leaders will be found, and things will change. Even if the parliament that emerges after this election is hung, and the government collapses in a couple of years, there will be another chance and another leader. And another. And another. Because people's aspirations are not going to be set aside just because one particular political configuration did not deliver.

My personal preference, as I described in my article for McKinsey, is for a federal polity where the states are autonomous and compete with one another for investment and labour, and where it is less important who the prime minister is. I think decentralisation will willy-nilly come about because it is the only way to resolve the logjam of coalition politics at the centre.

In any case, India will be unrecognisable in 15 years. The change will have been brought about by the people. Even if Modi is PM for 3 terms, this progress would not be due to him, but due to the forces already marshalled and waiting for the moment.

In the early sixties, the question "After Nehru, who?" used to be despairingly posed by people even when Jawaharlal Nehru was still alive. He would respond jocularly, yet entirely seriously, "After Nehru, you!"

So let it be in 2014. The leader is only the vehicle. The true agent for change is the populace. 

A National Geographic picture of an Indian crowd which I cropped into a silhouette of Narendra Modi using The GIMP.

Friday, 21 March 2014

A Socially-Engineered Loss Of National Confidence

A recent article by Jeff Smith in The Diplomat ("Andaman and Nicobar Islands: India’s Strategic Outpost") underscored to me yet again that India's strength and strategic potential are underestimated by its own leaders and strategic thinkers. Foreign analysts like Smith who look at India with unbiased eyes (and with none of the baggage that Indians carry) see a much more powerful country than Indians themselves do, and are frankly surprised that India hasn't done more to exploit its potential. Smith says about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI):

With such premier real estate, Western observers might expect the ANI to be a cornerstone in India’s maritime strategy; a firewall against threats to the east and a power-projection platform serving India’s interests in the Pacific. And yet, by all accounts the ANC is only modestly equipped militarily.

Where Indian voices are heard arguing for boldness, they often tend to swing to the other extreme, of bravado and over-reach.

Others in the military establishment see the ANC as a “trump card” against China, ideally positioned to interdict Chinese oil supplies from the Gulf and Africa in any potential Sino-Indian confrontation. Some 80 percent of China’s oil imports currently pass through the Strait of Malacca. Retired Rear Admiral Raja Menon argues: “Today they are merely SLOCS [Sea Lines of Communication]; tomorrow they will be the Chinese Jugular…. [$10 billion] spent on strengthening the Indian Navy’s SLOC interdiction capability would have given us a stranglehold on the Chinese routes into the Indian Ocean.”

To quote Darryl Kerrigan from The Castle, "tell 'em they're dreamin'". A "stranglehold on Chinese routes" is probably a pipe-dream, but a credible threat to Chinese shipping in the Indian Ocean can definitely elicit more accommodation from China in its territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh, for example. A more measured assessment of what lies within India's reach is lacking.

It takes a foreigner to see with both clarity and realism what Indians cannot. India has lost the ability to think boldly and strategically, yet realistically. I think 600 years of foreign conquest and domination have turned Indian planners and thinkers into timid, risk-averse souls who only think of defence and survival, and who occasionally compensate with grandiose plans full of bravado without the wherewithal to carry them out.

I have commented before on the carrot-and-stick lessons that Mughal and British rule must have taught Indian rulers. Those who opposed the foreign conqueror were mercilessly hounded and crushed (e.g., Hemu, Rana Pratap, Tipu Sultan, the Rani of Jhansi, Kittur Chennamma). Those who cooperated with the foreign conqueror were rewarded and allowed to flourish (e.g., Rana Man Singh of Amer and Maharaja Sayyaji Rao Gaekwad III of Baroda). I believe it was a form of social engineering that taught successive generations of Indians to be servile and never to raise their head or their voice against authority.

From time to time, a worm will turn, but this rebellion is often impulsive and driven by momentary bravado, rather than by longstanding confidence, and such attempts at "lashing out" are ultimately unsuccessful. India's greatest heroes are tragic ones. Indians see greater romance in tragedy than in success. Undefeated kings like Raja Kumbha and Maharaja Ranjit Singh are not feted as much as tragic losers Prithviraj Chauhan, the aforementioned Rani of Jhansi and sepoy Mangal Pandey. The Indian chararacter is to either live with dishonour, or die with honour. Living with honour doesn't seem to have as much appeal.

The recent publication of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report on the Indo-China war makes pretty much the same scathing critique of the Indian leadership in 1962 and earlier. They lacked the imagination and confidence to settle the border question with China in an amicable fashion when China approached India as one newly liberated country to another. And they thought, without justification, that they could take on the superior Chinese military. They paid the price, and the 1962 war probably reinforced the lessons of history in the Indian psyche, that Indians were an inferior race of people who could never hope to prevail militarily against "real" powers, and would have to negotiate in obsequious fashion to survive. Even against a smaller adversary like Pakistan, India has shown a level of restraint that is surprising. It may be fair to say that with almost any other country in India's position, a hostile and India-baiting Pakistan would have quickly ceased to exist.

Thus it continues to the present day. A quiet confidence and a realistic assessment of one's strength, as well as a multi-decade plan to become a Great Power, seem beyond the ken of today's leaders and thinkers. A recent strategic defence publication from an Indian think tank is typically reactive and assumes that India is always in the position of responding to situations outside its control ("The Long View From Delhi" ). It doesn't seem to strike the authors that India can do things to change its security environment and doesn't have to fearfully wait and watch to see what the US and China do.

What a decline from the time of the Cholas! That was when Indian naval power was projected as far afield as Cambodia, and vassal states like the Khmer were protected from their enemies by an Indian naval task force of several hundred ships. In relative terms, the India of today appears in sorry shape.

It is said that confidence is the sweet spot between despair and arrogance. It's high time Indian thinkers and planners found that sweet spot.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

McKinsey Essay Competition On "Reimagining India" - My Entry

In December last year, the consulting company McKinsey and Co announced an essay contest around the theme "Reimagining India". Winners would be selected in each of three subjects:

1. What is the best metric for measuring India’s progress?
2. What are the biggest challenges facing Indian companies as they seek success in the global marketplace?
3. How can “innovation capitalism” drive India’s technological and economic development?

I discussed this with my friend Seshadri Kumar, and we both chose to compete. He was interested in the third topic. I chose to compete in the first, and my essay is reproduced below. To my disappointment, I didn't win the prize. The prize in that category (the best metric for measuring India's progress) went to Dr Richard Oliver. You can get his essay here. However, on comparing my essay with Dr Oliver's, I have to admit that his essay was easier to read, made its point early on in the piece, and provided both an exciting challenge ("Global Share of Brains", or GSB) and a positive vision for India's future (world leadership through the highest GSB). My essay was more focused on an immediate task (creating a more federal polity) but perhaps did not spell out the benefits of this more tangibly. Seshadri Kumar pointed out that I made my argument only at the very end of the essay, and that it wasn't enough to state it in just the title. His feedback came too late. I had already submitted the essay, and probably that was one of the reasons why I didn't win.

[Seshadri Kumar didn't win in his category either, although his essay was extremely good. He has put it up on his blog, and you can compare it to the winner in that category.]

In any case, my essay is reproduced here for your reading pleasure (?):

The Federal Republic of India - A Virtue and a Necessity

The subtle nature of the Indian state

In a way redolent of the six blind men of Hindostan who attempted in vain to describe an elephant, great minds throughout history have grappled with the challenge of describing Hindostan (India) itself.

India's apparent contradictions have mystified the most astute of foreign observers. It does not exhibit the readily defined national characteristics they expect to see.

"India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the Equator." - Winston Churchill

"India is a functioning anarchy." - John Kenneth Galbraith

"India is not a real country. Instead it is thirty-two separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line." - Lee Kuan Yew

Indian thinkers do a lot better at piercing the veil, because what they know of India is what they have felt in their bones.

"India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads. [...] She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive." - Jawaharlal Nehru

"India has historically been a strong society with a weak state." - Gurcharan Das, CEO and author

The reference to ideas, culture and society in the latter quotes rather than to the outward trappings of a nation-state holds the key to understanding India. This is the understanding that is denied to foreigners -- the felt presence of an underlying civilisational unity that is not imposed from the outside or from above in any tangible form. The conventional metrics used to evaluate other countries are therefore less applicable in India's case.

Playing to India's strengths

India is a vast agglomeration of people divided by language, religion, caste and class. In political terms, the country can potentially fracture along any or all of these fault-lines. That it has not is a testament to a fundamental governing wisdom that has played to India's inherent strengths instead of going against its grain.

The creation of linguistic states and the avoidance of a single official "national language" have eased the stresses along India's linguistic fault-line. India's founding fathers also consciously refrained from anointing a state religion, leaving citizens free to practise any religion of their choice (including none at all), thus giving them all an equal sense of belonging to the neutral secular state. Caste has posed a harder challenge, because caste divisions are inherently hierarchical, and an approach of separate development would have been apartheid. A combination of affirmative action, universal suffrage, urbanisation and the growing influence of the English language have slowly chipped away at the caste inequalities in Indian society. Finally, the class divide was sought to be tackled, initially by socialistic central planning, and lately through trickle-down market mechanisms.

Save for central planning and caste-based affirmative action, none of these changes in Indian society has been imposed from above. India's non-autocratic governance framework has been a facilitator, nudging the country into an administratively looser, yet more secure union where people are increasingly comfortable with the contract they have with their society.

Keeping a billion diverse people together without significant strife is an unparalleled achievement. Autonomy is the secret behind India's peaceful progress.

"Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years." - Simone Signoret, French actor

The measure of the nation

The outcome metrics by which India should be evaluated as a country are the same as for any other - GDP, the Gini coefficient, sex ratios, literacy, mortality, etc.

Most experts would therefore emphasise policy metrics that measure how well the government is performing in bringing about those outcomes. Liberalisation of investment and labour laws, soundness of fiscal and monetary policy, decisions on public/private partnership, etc., are common areas for discussion.

The need for liberalisation and more rational policies is beyond debate. This essay is arguing for something much more fundamental, given the importance of autonomy to India's progress. The argument is that the degree and pace of reforms should be decided independently in the various state capitals in accordance with the needs of the local population, and not in a one-size-fits-all style in the national capital.

The first step towards enabling decisions in tune with local requirements is to ensure that the states themselves are not unwieldy units but optimally reflective of local demographics. Going by the demands that have been publicly expressed, India probably needs about 50 states of manageable size. (Maparticle)

However, smaller states will not automatically mean more autonomy as long as the central government makes most policy. True autonomy will require policy independence in many more areas than are available to states today. Taxation, investment and labour laws are three such areas that need to be devolved to the states.

People must hold their state governments accountable for improving their living standards. Implicit in this model is that states must compete for investment, for skilled labour, for tourism, etc., and they must have the policy tools with which to compete. This federal model will bring about greater efficiency and greater transparency in the way public and private funds are used.

There are encouraging signs that India will willy-nilly move in this direction. Hung parliaments and coalition governments have been a feature of the political landscape since 1989. The so-called national parties have proportionately less sway than ever before, and regional parties have gained disproportionate power as kingmakers. It is likely that these parties will demand new states or more autonomy for their existing ones.

Hindostan is not an elephant after all. It is 50 different animals that demand individualised treatment. The overarching metric for India's progress is therefore its degree of federalism.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Much Misunderstood Ms Wendy Doniger

It seems appropriate to begin this post with an episode from a Hindu epic. :-)

When Hanuman leaped (or flew -- I can never tell from the kind of adventures he had along the way) across the ocean to Lanka in search of Sita, one of the obstacles he faced was the demoness Simhika, who tried to drag him down by grabbing his shadow. Now, any elementary school student who understands the phenomenon of shadows will know that it is impossible for someone to be grabbed by their shadow. Yet, that's what the story says.

To my mind, the image of a person being grabbed by their shadow is a metaphor for something we see all the time in the world. It stands for the way people become defensive when their group identity is challenged in some way, because group identity is a shadowy and entirely fictitious construct. We choose to identify with one group or another, and often with more than one, depending on context. (For example, when I read an article on Western soldiers in Afghanistan and the article quotes a jihadist's extreme statements, I immediately identify with the Western soldiers, but in the same article, when one of these soldiers is quoted saying something derogatory about non-Western cultures, I identify just as readily with the "ragheads".) Group identity is often unconsciously adopted, and when we think of our racial appearance, for example, it may seem that we have no choice in the matter, but it is always a choice. And so it is amusing that a shadow that we voluntarily cast has the ability to drag us down when it is pulled.

A great many Hindus seem to have had their shadows pulled in recent times, and the demoness (!) who has accomplished this is Wendy Doniger, the foremost Western expert on Hinduism. (To be fair to her, she has probably studied more about Hinduism than the average Hindu.)

There are three main criticisms that people make about Wendy Doniger's writings on Hinduism:

1. Her scholarship is suspect; her knowledge of Sanskrit is imperfect
2. Her interpretations of Hindu symbols and myths is overly sexualised
3. She seems to be on a covert mission to denigrate Hinduism even while posing as one of its scholars

Indeed, it was the last of these criticisms that rang true with me. I admit I have not read a complete book or article written by Ms Doniger, but from the snippets that I read here and there, it seemed to me that a telltale element was missing from her writing that one would expect to find in scholars who have devoted their lives to studying a subject - affection.

Affection, however incongruous, is what we find in scientists who study horror-inspiring creatures such as spiders, scorpions, crocodiles, snakes, sharks and the like. A commonly used term that indicates to me that a person is being an apologist for a generally unpopular subject is the word "misunderstood". Thus, sharks are "beautiful but misunderstood creatures", Islam is "a misunderstood religion", etc. That's how scholars of unpopular subjects defend their own. No scholar worth their salt would attack their own subject, no matter how loathsome it may be in the popular imagination.

And so, the lack of evident affection for Hinduism in the writings of Wendy Doniger (and to an even greater extent, many of her students like Jeffrey Kripal, Paul Courtwright and Sarah Caldwell) seemed to call into question their bona fides as scholars, and strongly suggested that there might in fact be a Western academic conspiracy against India and against Hinduism, as Rajiv Malhotra has often alleged.

"[...] as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest."
"What?" asked the thief, almost gaping.
"You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It’s bad theology."
- "The Blue Cross" from "The Innocence of Father Brown" by GK Chesterton

Not displaying affection for one's subject is bad scholarship, and Doniger lately seems to have woken up to it. In a recent interview, she positively gushes with (affected?) affection for Hinduism, and the interviewer plays along. He refers to parts of her latest book "On Hinduism", and quotes her statement that "during times of great loss or even great happiness, she found herself thinking in Hindu categories" and that she found the god Shiva to be "specific, beautiful, violent, charming and terrifying." She then goes on to respond at length, and the barely-concealed effort at outreach deserves to be quoted in full:

I was attracted to Hinduism because I found meaning in the stories, [meaning] which I felt was not limited to someone who was actually a worshipping, believing Hindu. The stories had a wisdom and a sad reality to them in some ways. When you look at the world around you, when you read the headlines in the papers, or walk through any city or any landscape, it seemed to me that it was not a world that was well covered by the ideas of the religions I had been raised in, the world of Christianity and Judaism and America, and it seemed to me that Shiva was the kind of god who could have made the world we live in, that the extremes of passion and power and beauty, and the terrible things that human beings do to one another all over the world and that happen in natural catastrophes, earthquakes and floods and things like that, that's Shiva! That's what it must be like, that's what the deity in charge of everything must be like. The Hindu concept of what Shiva is like, with his beautiful dance and his terrible dance and his beauty and his power and his ruthlessness, just made sense to me.
The Hindu ideas of why there is suffering, why there is evil in this world, what meaning it has, what kind of a pattern there may be that is meaningful despite the apparently random occurrences of tragic events, tragedies and personal tragedies, that was really what made sense of what was happening to me. And I've always felt that the Hindu ideas about karma are very realistic, are very useful in thinking about the consequences of the things you do, and the possible ways in which you could have gotten into the fixes you find yourself in - karma explains those things better than anything I know.
And I also love the ashramas, the idea of the stages of life. [...] The last essay in the book is the essay on the forest-dweller stage, about how I feel about what is supposed to go on in the forest-dweller stage, it's exactly what's happening to me now, and how nice it is, what a lovely stage of life it is. When you're still doing things, but things don't matter the way they mattered when you were in the thick of it, when you were growing up and trying to figure out who you were and what you wanted to accomplish in life, and all of that, it's a great pleasure, really, to be done with that, and still, not to be in sanyaas, which I could never do. I'm temperamentally not fitted for sanyaas, but vanaprastha, yes. So even that made more sense to me than the Western paradigms.
I resonate with the Hindu aesthetic. I just love Hindu temples much better than I ever loved the most beautiful cathedrals in France [...] never moved me the way that the Meenakshi temples or the Khajuraho temples do, or Kailasnath or Ellora, those seem to be really, really holy places and beautiful places, and I really love Indian music, particularly the Sharod (I pronounce it in the Bengali mode because I learnt to play it when I was living in Calcutta). I love the way there are no frets on a Sarod. Your hand just slides up and down, I think that's the way music should be rather than a piano, where every note is separate. I just think the sarod is a better way to construct a musical instrument. [...] Indian literature of course, Indian food, the way women dress in India, the saris, the colours of the saris, and you know, I was raised just to wear black, a little brown maybe, maybe a little tasteful grey, and I always hated that. I always wanted to wear purple and orange at the same time, and everyone would say, "Oh, are you going to a circus?" or something like that. So, in addition to the ideas that Hinduism is based on and the image of the particular god Shiva, I just love the way that Hinduism is painted in its own arts and in the way it's sung and the way it's painted and carved and sculpted and written about, so it's meant a great deal to me, these years of living with Hinduism.
Quite an elaborate exercise in PR, it seemed to me, but probably a little late in the day. What she's obviously trying to do here is rebut the third accusation above, i.e., that she is not a well-wisher of Hinduism.

The other part of her interview where she tacitly acknowledges the first accusation, i.e., about her lack of strong scholarship in Sanskrit, is also probably a deliberate repositioning of herself. She admits that she was never interested in the things she was supposed to be interested in - Panini (the Sanskrit grammarian) or Kaavya (the Sanskrit literary style). She also says she was never into philosophy, which she uses to explain her lack of interest in Nyaaya and Vedanta. It appears that she wants to position herself as a "pop" scholar, one who studies myth and stories rather than serious texts. There's nothing wrong with that, and it is in this (earlier) part of the interview that Doniger seems most genuine.

She says that when she reads stories, her ears are sensitised to listen to voices that are "underrepresented, overlooked, suppressed -- women, animals, "lower" castes". She refers to her own identity and background as a "woman, Jewish at a time of anti-Semitism, growing up during the civil rights movement, [with a] mother who was very left-wing at the time of McCarthyism, sensitised to the issues of the underdog and the suppression of human rights [...]".

"[...] the voice that was still there despite the overlay of the almost-always brahmin scribe who wrote the story down. You could hear lower-caste voices, and you could hear women's voices. It wasn't hard to find, mixed in with the dominant culture which was caste-oriented and misogynist."

As an infracaninophile myself, I can identify with that. (There, that's an example of group identity at work!)

If that is indeed the lens through which Doniger has studied and interpreted Hindu texts (i.e., by siding with the marginalised elements of Hindu society), then I have sympathy for her view. It would also explain her seeming lack of affection for the Hindu establishment and its value systems. Traditionalist defences of Hinduism against heterodox viewpoints like hers are then just defending a certain social order that we of today would have a difficult time justifying in our own society - the crude and overt caste-based discrimination at every stage and walk of life, the relegation of women to chattel status, and the lack of concern for animal rights. It is the kind of society that needs to remain in the distant past. However, when a foreigner to our culture holds up an uncomfortable mirror to the evils of our past, she pulls our collective shadow and drags us down. It speaks eloquently of the power of group identity. We would rather close ranks in defence of an indefensible society than accept that it was in many ways unspeakably evil.

And closely related to this is the issue of sexualisation, which is the second argument made against her. It may be the case that Doniger and her ilk have sexualised their subject to an excessive and unwarranted extent. However, this could be adequately explained by commercial drivers ("sex sells") rather than a nefarious plot of civilisational dimensions. And besides, modern Hindu society has also been "desexualised" to an equally unnatural degree. The versions of Hindu epics that have been served to us through Amar Chitra Katha comics and TV serials have been significantly bowdlerised of their sexual content. And the blame for this seems to lie in over six hundred years of domination by sexually repressed foreign cultures, namely the Muslims and the Victorians. We have lost innocence and gained a sense of guilt by association with these Abrahamic religions. The Kamasutra and the explicit carvings of Khajuraho embarrass us now. We would rather have the aseptic Taj Mahal presented as a symbol of India than the sensuous stone carvings of Hindu temples. So while the Hindu outrage at Doniger's prurience is partly justified, it seems that we do protest too much.

I'm actually not able to take sides very strongly in this debate, except to say that the one thing we must preserve is the freedom to express ideas and to debate them strongly, without censorship, either of the governmental kind (the ban) or of the civil kind (the libel suit). Without the conflict of ideas, human society cannot progress.

And finally, no god or demon should be able to pull us down by grabbing at our shadows. Our identities need to be a lot more secure than that.

Monday, 3 February 2014

On Hindus Being 'Marginalised In Our Own Country'

A friend (SK) posted a link to a news item about a section of Muslims protesting against the introduction of a set of coins commemorating the silver jubilee of a Hindu temple because they carried the image of a Hindu deity.

SK had no hesitation in calling this reaction "nonsense" and pointing out that this sort of thing was responsible for the backlash from Hindus and the resurgence of the Hindu right wing. He also pointed to the seeming "hypersensitivity of Muslims to any expression of Hinduism and Hindu sentiment in India, and how the Indian government routinely genuflects to deny Hindus even minimal expression of their religion". He went on the describe the feelings of the "average Hindu, who, for decades, under the aegis of the [Congress] party, has felt marginalised and unable to express [their] religious feelings openly in the only large Hindu-majority country in the world" and who would like to practise their religion "without having the heavy hand of the government clamp down on them to silence them because they might inadvertently "hurt" someone who is not a Hindu".

I largely agree with SK. I think a section of the Muslim community's "leaders" is routinely tweaking Indian society (read Hindus) to see how much they can get away with. The correct response is to tell them to get stuffed, but the Congress is incapable of such firmness. In actuality, I'm sure most Muslims wouldn't care about what's embossed on coins. This is plain communal mischief on the part of the Muslim "leaders", and the Congress falls for it. I keep referring to these people as "leaders" (in quotes) because they don't represent anyone but themselves. They do not uplift their followers in the least. Together with the government (Congress-led for most of our history), these people have acquired the power to dictate to their own community (whether they like it or not) as well as to the rest of society.

Being an atheist also helps me see the silliness of every religion, and I have no patience for people whose "religious sentiments are hurt". They really need to grow up. I oppose the ban on the books of Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen, the movie Vishwaroopam, and also on the works of MF Hussain, however objectionable these may be to one section of people or another. The government really needs to grow a spine and tell  people to get used to living in a democracy where the freedom of speech is protected.

I have often mentioned that I condemn the pseudo-secularism of the Congress and would welcome true, neutral secularism where nobody gets special treatment. Unfortunately, in recent times, the target of right-wing Hindu parties like the BJP has shifted from "pseudo-secularism" to "secularism" itself! When secularism itself has become a bad word, it means we have lurched from a centrist position to the right. We have moved from the poisonous communal pandering of the Congress to an equally dangerous mood of backlash.

A friend of SK's (DP) also commented on this, agreeing on the coin issue, but taking issue with SK's statement that Hindus feel marginalised in their own country.

I agree with much of what you have written about the coin issue. And I won't go into the linkage to Congress, or the excesses of the Hindutva brigade. But I have a problem with the complaint that Hindus are not allowed "even minimal expression" of their religion or that Hindus have become marginalised in this Hindu majority country. This is an often-repeated argument that I find disingenuous.

Ganesh Puja, Durga Puja, Navratri are celebrated with full enthu[siasm], very publicly (and with much digging of roads to create pandals) all over the country. Holi and Diwali are celebrated with gusto (neither Muslims nor govt oppose this, but some "pseudo-modern" Hindus do complain about the noise and the colour). Various pujas and kirtans are held publicly.

I have worked in 3 companies now, and in each one of them, from privately held to publicly listed, Ayudh Pooja is conducted on Dasehra, new labs and facilities are inaugurated with breaking of coconuts, new construction is started with a bhoomi puja (and after ensuring absence of rahukaalam), sweets are distributed on Diwali day, etc. Government and private functions are routinely inaugurated by [a ceremonial] lighting of the lamp.

British or American heads attending Diwali party is like our PM attending iftaar: it is a gesture towards minorities. Incidentally, when did you hear about Obama throwing a lavish Christmas party? In fact America shies away from overt Christian expression - Merry Christmas has now given way to Happy Holidays, and there was some debate about whether the British govt should put up Christmas trees in govt offices (same has been debated in US also).

While Indian PM may not attend Diwali parties, he does wish the country Happy Diwali.

Also, the Indian govt spends enough effort to provide safety and organizational support to yatras in Amarnath, Vaishno Devi, Sabarimala, etc.

In summary, I would like to know from the "complaining" Hindutvavadis (or Hindus) what exactly it is that they want to do which they are prevented from doing, either by govt policies or by social restriction.

I added my two bits to DK's points:

I have been a rationalist since my late teens and have never since defined myself as Hindu, so this is my perspective.

When working in Bombay in the 80s, I saw Ayudha Puja being celebrated in my employer's office as well as in several client offices. They would apply sandalwood paste to the monitors and place flowers on keyboards, and these would remain for days until they dried up and fell off. The strange thing is that many of the same offices required you to remove your footwear before entering the computer room because of the fear of dust! But apart from muttering to my friends, there was nothing I could do. There was no way I could have stopped the practice.

Similarly, I have seen in bank branches (more in Tamil Nadu than in Bombay) that there are these huge pictures of Hindu deities as you enter the branch (usually Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswathi). I have always thought it inappropriate for public sector banks in a secular state to display images of deities, but do you think I, or anyone else, could have done anything to have them taken down?

These are examples of how Hindus are 'marginalised in our own country'. I can only marvel at the effectiveness of right-wing propaganda.

Othering Our Fellows

Two seemingly unrelated articles appeared in the last couple of days. One was "An Open Letter from Dylan Farrow". Dylan was a stepdaughter of Woody Allen's, and she has gone public for the first time as an adult to describe her childhood trauma at being sexually abused by her erstwhile stepfather. The other was an article by Sameera, an Indian Muslim girl ("Outsiders in Our Own Country"), chronicling some of the daily snubs, putdowns and rejections that Muslim youth seem to face in India.

Surprisingly, the similarities between the two articles lie in the comments section.

Dylan Farrow begins and ends her article with the question, "What's your favourite Woody Allen movie?" Obviously, since the body of the article deals with her abuse at his hands, her device of asking this question twice serves to frame the change in opinion that the reader is expected to undergo as a result of her revelations. However, in the comments section, several men (they were all men) responded by saying things like, "Since you asked, my favourite Woody Allen movies are ..."

Now, these people could innocently claim that they were merely responding to a question that was posed by the author. But that wasn't really what Dylan was trying to get across, was it? By pointedly ignoring the main thrust of the article, these men were showing how little they cared about what had happened to her. What they were exhibiting, with a snarky attempt at humour, was their total lack of empathy for a fellow human being.

There were a few comments after Sameera's article too. They pointed out factual inaccuracies in the article (such as the fact that Eid is a public holiday in India, and that Muslims in fact have more public holidays than Hindus do), reframed some perceived snubs (such as saying that the reluctance of landlords to allow Muslim renters was not because of religion but because of dietary preferences (vegetarianism)) and shared their own experiences (i.e., the slights they had themselves received on account of caste or language, thereby playing down her charge of religious discrimination).

I saw pretty much the same phenomenon at work in both these sets of comments. Both the articles were about personal hurt, and in addition, Sameera's article was also a cry for reassurance. Yet neither article received empathy from a section of their readers or any comment from them that validated the author's feelings.

Sameera (and the friends whose experiences she related) are asking for reassurance that they are not universally viewed as being different, and that there are people out there who will not question their Indianness or their love for their country.

If someone had to respond, a nice way to do so would be to say something like this, 

I understand, beta [Hindi for "son" but a term acquiring particular affection when addressed to a girl], it can be very traumatic when people don't treat you as a human being but as a person belonging to a certain group, and then apply their own prejudices and stereotypes about that group to you. But that says more about them than about you. I believe the majority of people are not like that, but we don't tend to notice because such behaviour is nothing remarkable or extraordinary. We only notice the few who behave in a way that hurts and offends us. I want to let you know that you and your friends seem to be fine young people who are, and will continue to be, good and productive citizens of this country. Don't let the words and actions of a few bigoted people affect you too much. Best wishes, so-and-so.

I could feel the hurt in the article and wanted to respond as above (perhaps I still will), but clearly not everyone was touched. Some were more interested in refuting specific points than in offering comfort to some very obviously decent college kids who were talking about their bad experiences. Mind you, the young people in this article are not the stereotypical Muslims who are viewed with suspicion in many societies (men with long beards, women in burqas, students of madrassas, etc.) They are young, educated, English-speaking kids, very much in the mainstream. But by continuing to see the author and her friends not as kids like their own but as Muslims, and by responding to them as Hindus, these readers 'othered' some of their own fellows.

After all, the article did not say, "We are Muslims, and Hindus are treating us badly". It said, "We are Indians, yet people insist on seeing us as Muslims". To read the entire article and still respond as a Hindu responding to a Muslim is to be remarkably tone-deaf. If this article were a comprehension test, these commenters would score a zero.

These reader comments are straws in the wind. To me, they represent a society that lacks the ability to empathise, that is quick to 'other' people on the basis of differences that they themselves do not emphasise. If the Dylan Farrow comments reveal a streak of misogyny and an anti-feminist backlash among a section of men, the Sameera comments reveal an India that is increasingly polarised along religious lines. Neither bodes well for the future.