Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Making Of "Terra Australis Magnus" - The Why And The How

I explained the symbolism of my painting "Terra Australis Magnus" (Great Southern Land) in another post. Here, I'm going to explain how the idea came about, and how I went about creating it.

I'm a member of a Facebook group called "Change the Aussie Flag", which is a group of people trying to come up with alternative designs to replace the current Australian flag. A lot of Australians feel strongly about the need to remove the British Union Jack from their national flag. (In fact, the original name of the group was "*JACK OFF*get the UNION JACK off Our Flag.")

I contributed the following design that I called "Timeless Red Earth". I created it using SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), which I find to be a very pleasurable tool to use. It's amazing what wonderfully appealing visual designs can be created using just a text editor and some math-based graphical elements.

"Timeless Red Earth" - my proposal for a new Australian flag

Compare this to the current flag (below). I replaced the Union Jack with an Aboriginal motif because I felt any Australian flag should acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land. (See my pre-emptive note on "cultural appropriation" here.) I didn't think the Federation Star under the Union Jack was necessary. I retained the Southern Cross constellation on the right but changed the style of the stars to make it appear a bit more modern (I thought the conventional look was dated).

I also changed the aspect ratio (length/width) from the current 2:1 to the Golden Ratio  (approximately 1.618).

Overall, I thought this design was less cluttered than the current one, and also provided the right degree of antisymmetric tension and balance.


The current Australian flag

I was inspired to use a brownish red background because I was strongly impressed by the cover of a Lonely Planet book on Australia that I had bought in India before I migrated in 1998.

Red sand dunes - This wouldn't have been my impression of Australia before I moved to the country. I had a more conventionally stereotyped view involving the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Since I hadn't associated Australia with red earth before, this cover struck me as pretty unusual. Then I saw this red earth for myself when I visited Uluru and Alice Springs (the "Red Centre") in 2007, and it made a strong impression.

One of the oft-heard sentiments on the "Change the Aussie Flag" group was to use authentically Australian themes and motifs, so a background corresponding to the colour of Australia's red earth seemed more appropriate than the European/American blue. It was, quite literally, of this earth.

In November, I got into painting when I was inspired by a friend's wall art. I blogged about it too. That was a pleasant experience, and I thought I should do more painting.

I guess I'm not a conventional artist, though. I do a fair bit of cartooning, and although I had done some oil painting in my youth (ages 17-20), those were all of fighter planes and tanks. "Real" art bores me. I'm drawn to off-beat themes and prefer designs with some mathematical or geometric basis. That was when I remembered my flag design, and decided to render it on canvas. Since it was going to be a painting and not a flag design, it didn't have to restrict itself to simple lines and shapes.

One aspect that troubled me about Timeless Red Earth was that stars should rightly have a blue or black background. I wasn't entirely happy about drawing stars against a background of red earth.

SVG made it very easy to see what it would be like to have half the canvas in blue.

Slightly better in some ways, but dark colours like red and blue should never touch

It's a vexillological principle that there has to be a light colour or a "metal" (silver/white or gold/yellow) between two dark colours (e.g., red and blue). Something like this.

It still looks too much like a flag. A painting can afford to be more elaborate.

That's when I thought I could use an S-curve rather than a straight line.


The figure would still be radially symmetrical, and yet the design would be a little more elaborate.

What light colour could I use between red and blue? Obviously something with white and yellow in it. It would have to follow the path of the S-curve.

The Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights) immediately occurred to me.

The Aurora Australis - I would like to see this for myself some day

With this, my design was conceptually complete. I "just" had to transfer it from my head on to canvas.

Now to buy some canvas. I'm sold on the idea of the Golden Ratio, and I prefer to use that as the aspect ratio for most of my work. I went down to the local art shop to look for a suitable canvas.

These were the sizes they had.

They had arranged the canvas sizes in increasing order of area (and price), which made sense. But it made my job of calculating their aspect ratios difficult.


I took a photo of this chart, then went back home to put them into a spreadsheet and calculate their aspect ratios. This is what I found.

Only one of the standard canvas sizes came anywhere close to the Golden Ratio of 1.618. This was a fairly large canvas of length 48" and width 30".

[When I went back to the art shop armed with this information and asked for the 48-by-30 canvas, the lady in charge told me they didn't have it. I was about to turn away disappointed when she added, "They don't even make that size!" I at once told her that it was listed on her price chart, and she demanded that I show her. When I pointed it out, she exclaimed, "Oh, you mean 30-by-48!"]

Before I committed to painting on such a large and expensive canvas, I thought I should test out specific elements on smaller canvases. That way, I could learn from my mistakes and do better on the main canvas. I bought two 14" x 14" canvases for the Aboriginal Sun and Southern Cross, and a rectangular one of 18" x 14" for the Aurora Australis, as sacrificial trials.

And that turned out to be a very good decision, because I did make a few mistakes.

I first printed out a greyscale version of the Southern Cross on A3 paper...

Fun fact: Since the stars are created out of the "negative space" between four quadrants of a circle of radius 'r', the area of each such star is (4 - π) r2, since it's the area of a square (4r2, which is (2r)2) minus the area of a circle (πr2).

... and a greyscale version of the Aboriginal Sun on A2 paper. I got these done at Officeworks, since A2 is not a supported size in regular printers.



Then I made some stencils from them, using plastic sheets and a "cutting compass" (a pair of compasses with a blade instead of a pencil). (A big thank-you to the kind lady at Officeworks who gave me some leftover laminating sheets that I could use.)

Measure twice...


...and cut once.

I had to create two sets of stencils for the Aboriginal Sun.

The first set was for the large rings. The outer and inner rings had to be traced out using two separate pieces of plastic. I had to "MacGyver" a handle for the inner one to hold it in place and lift it conveniently.

The second set was for the circles. This is the stencil after it had been used, as one can tell.

Sure enough, I made mistakes. This is how the Southern Cross turned out.

It's not obvious here, but I had to do a lot of manual repair work after using the stencil.

The Aboriginal Sun turned out to be quite messy, mainly because I didn't know how to use a stencil.

It may not look bad overall, but I was hoping for more precisely drawn circles. And the background looks more like wood than like sand dunes.

Finally, the Aurora Australis ended up looking like a straight line.

If the width of the canvas isn't large compared to the width of the Aurora, the S-curve begins to look like a straight line. The red sand dunes are still not great, but I'm learning.


When creating the Aurora Australis, I also had the idea to use grey strokes on the upper side of the Aurora to symbolise gum (eucalyptus) trees, since these are also an Australian icon.

I learnt a lot from these mistakes, just as I had hoped.

Specifically, the stencils weren't giving me the sharp outlines I was hoping for. I didn't realise why at the time. I thought I needed stencils that would stick to the canvas enough to prevent paint from seeping under them. The only material I could think of that would stick to canvas, yet peel off easily, was Blu Tack. So I MacGyvered my own stencil using Blu Tack, by first building up a thicker star shape, then moulding the Blu Tack in strips around this.

From left to right: a star cut out using the cutting compass; a thick star shape built by sticking 6 such stars together with super-glue; Blu Tack moulded around this more solid star, forming a stencil that would stick to the canvas.

Armed with confidence from these learnings, I then began work on the big canvas. I used a "drop sheet" from Bunnings hardware store to protect my floorboards from stray paint.

The S-curve was drawn freehand, which accounts for its less-than-mathematical precision. I didn't mind because the Aurora was going to be jagged and irregular anyway.


While the pure black background of the Southern Cross in my trial canvas didn't look bad, I still wanted a bit of blue, so I added it in. However, much of this got obscured by the Aurora.

The background is now complete!

Using my Blu Tack stencil, I got better results than during my trial.

The stars now have sharper edges than before.

The Aurora now retains its S shape, and the trial also taught me some techniques to improve its appearance.

Major learning: create the Aurora using two passes. In the first pass, use green along the middle line of the Aurora and spread it uniformly to both sides (up and down). In the second pass, use yellow and white on the bottom edge of the Aurora and spread it upwards.

For the circles of the Aboriginal Sun, I gave up on using a stencil and thought I would need sponge brushes of a circular cross-section. I had seen these at the art shop, so I went back there to ask about them. It was a good thing I did, because the owner told me I was using the stencils all wrong. I should not have used regular brushes with stencils. There are special stiff-bristled brushes called "stencil brushes". They're supposed to be used dry, with a minimum of paint, and applied in repeated vertical jabs onto the stencil rather than in horizontal strokes on the canvas. She also advised me to place a thick towel or other cloth under the canvas to hold the sheet in place so it didn't move (sag) under all that jabbing. So I bought a couple of stencil brushes, and these worked out magnificently for the circles, with just a little bit of manual repair necessary afterwards.

The Aboriginal Sun was the most pleasing of all, compared to its counterpart during the trial.

The use of stencil brushes made the outlines of the circles much sharper. It was almost like the entire image had been printed on top of the background.

And that's the final picture!



To give you an idea of the actual size of the canvas...

You can see my earlier painting "Locutus" in the background. Check out the story here.

To close the circle, I created a new flag design based on this painting.

The Aurora Australis is now a green-and-gold sash through the middle of the flag

I would now like to thank...

My warm colours, ...

... my cool colours, ...


... and the indispensable black and white, ...

... my brushes (the two at the top with stiff bristles are the stencil brushes), ...

... and other instruments. I have previously mentioned the cutting compass, stencil sheets and Blu Tack.

And that is the story (the why and the how) behind the creation of Terra Australis Magnus. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

"Terra Australis Magnus" (Great Southern Land) - The Symbolism Behind My Latest Painting

[A note on "cultural appropriation":

Before I begin, I should point out that I have used an Australian Aboriginal motif in my painting, and I'm sure I'll hear the term "cultural appropriation" sooner or later. I feel I should nip this one in the bud.

Of late, I have been reading a lot about this notion of "cultural appropriation". Children are no longer able to dress like people of another culture for a fancy dress party or for Halloween. It's supposed to be disrespectful to the other culture.

I also read a post by an Indian woman called "White people need to stop saying namaste". Wow!

I'm an ethnic Indian just like the author of the above piece, but I have a markedly different view on this. I have a clear benchmark on when offence should be taken -- when it is intended. If someone says "namaste" to me in a mocking tone, I know that offence is being intended, and I will take offence. If someone says "namaste" to me in the sincere belief that they are being respectful, then I will take it in that spirit and return the greeting graciously. The mere use of the word "namaste" by a non-Indian does not make it wrong, or a form of "cultural appropriation". One needs to consider the intent behind the use of a cultural element. The author of that piece needs to fix her own attitude.

I think this entire concept of "cultural appropriation" is a sign of left/liberalism gone crazy. It seems to be part of a trend of manufactured outrage we're seeing a bit too much of. I also think it's precisely this excessive political correctness that leads to backlashes like the election of Trump, so let's all be warned not to push our luck.

I have used an Aboriginal motif with the intention of acknowledging the importance of the first peoples of Australia, not with the desire to mock or to caricature Aboriginal culture. My intent is therefore respectful. Perhaps the similarity of my work to the genuine article is only superficial, and neglects some core element of Aboriginal art. Well, culture is not a static construct, and so art should rightfully build on prior art, and innovate further.

So I reject in advance the notion that I have "appropriated" elements of another culture, because I reject any definition of "cultural appropriation" that does not include a consideration of intent.]

Over the Christmas break (which is summer in Australia), I painted the following picture.

"Terra Australis Magnus" (Great Southern Land) - click to expand

I'd like to explain what I intended to convey through this painting.

I have tried to put together symbols of Australia using the principle of antisymmetry, with opposites coming together in a complementary way.

The canvas itself has the dimensions 48" x 30", yielding an aspect ratio of 1.6, which is close to the Golden Ratio.

I have divided the canvas into two - not horizontally or vertically or even with a straight-line diagonal, but with an S-curve that passes through the centre of the canvas, dividing it into two equal halves. At a high level, the entire picture is radially symmetrical about the centre.

What lies along the S-curve is the Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights), which on its upper edge merges into a line of blue gum trees, part of Australia's native flora. (The jagged curve is not meant to represent the ASX!) The colours of the Aurora are Australia's sporting colours of "green and gold".

Aurora Australis - The Southern Lights; eucalyptus or gum trees

On either side of the S-curve are my pairs of opposites.

This is the top left corner, what I call "Sol Australis".


And this is the bottom right, which is of course the Southern Cross constellation (Crucis Australis).



These are the pairs of opposites that these two elements are meant to represent:

- Day versus night
- Land versus sky (the colour of the land represents Australia's "Red Centre" with its famous dunes)
- Sun versus stars
- Tradition versus modernity (the Aboriginal style of painting represents tradition; the use of stylised stars rather than conventional 5- or 7-pointed stars represents modernity)
- Native religions versus Christianity (the cross)
- Circle versus (rough) rhombus
- Convex shapes versus concave shapes (the stars are created out of the "negative" space between circular quadrants)
- Radial versus Cartesian coordinates (the elements of the sun radiate out from a central point; the stars in the Southern Cross are laid out along a horizontal and a vertical axis)
- Many versus a few (63 circles; 5 stars)

In addition, the sun ("Sol Australis") also symbolises successive waves of immigration. The dot in the centre represents the Aboriginal people. The ring of dots immediately surrounding it represents the First Fleet. The third ring represents the predominantly European migration of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The fourth ring represents New Australians (post-1970 immigrants). The outermost ring represents future immigrants.

The whole then goes to make up Australia - the Great Southern Land.

Why did I create this? And how? This blog post provides a detailed explanation.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

"Why Were Gandhi And Nehru Not Sent To The Andamans Like Savarkar? Were They British Stooges?"

Right-wing ideology never fails to amaze me. It robs even educated people of the ability to see obvious facts or apply simple logic to situations. One of my friends with right-wing sympathies asked me the following question:

Why were Gandhi and Nehru never sent to the Andaman[s]? No answers from liberals yet... British stooges?

I found this question absurd, because the historical facts have been so clearly explained to generations of Indian students in their textbooks, yet this person could not see the answer that was staring him in the face.

Nehru with Gandhi - hated by the Hindu right-wing even more than by the British, but does that make them stooges?

I'm sure there are many more like him who have bought into right-wing propaganda, so I decided to take his question at face value and answer it seriously.

"Very simple answer - Gandhi and Nehru were lawyers who understood how the British system worked. All said and done, the British Empire operated on the basis of codified law. It was not arbitrary.

If you proclaimed that you wanted revolution and intended to bring down the government, then the punishment would be severe, e.g., 50 years in the Andamans, which is what Savarkar initially got (before he became a stooge and was released early).

If you killed someone or committed an act of terrorism, then it would attract the death penalty. That's what happened to Chandrasekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh.

That's why Gandhi, Nehru, and other lawyers trained in British law (even Jinnah) were very careful not to provoke the British beyond a point. They created a lot of nuisance and clogged the system, preventing it from functioning, but always in a way that violated only minor laws. That's also why they didn't talk about revolution, but only "passive resistance", "civil disobedience" and "non-cooperation".

Even the famous Dandi March for which Gandhi went to jail was technically only a minor violation. He broke the Salt Law, which hardly called for exile to the Andamans under British Law.

The London-trained lawyer used a strategy of causing maximum possible disruption to the British Empire in India, through violations that were less serious under the law than violent revolution, and therefore did not attract severe penalties

Subhas Chandra Bose also largely operated within the law and only committed minor transgressions. He chose to escape from India when he was just under house arrest (he had not been sent to the Andamans or even to a jail within mainland India)."

I had to end it with a personal admonition.

"You see, it is all quite simple if you leave your right-wing conspiracy theories behind. You have also studied history, but your right-wing ideology prevents you from seeing these obvious facts or using simple logic."

Thursday, 21 December 2017

The Two Cultures (With Apologies To CP Snow)

Synopsis: Many conflicts between cultures, such as the never-ending battle between liberals and conservatives in every society, or the problem of assimilation of immigrants in Western countries, are symptomatic of the fundamental difference in outlook between two kinds of societies - those based on the notion of individual rights, and those based on the idea of community honour.

In 1959, the famous British scientist and novelist CP Snow delivered a lecture titled "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution". It dealt with the dichotomy of contemporary British intellectuals into two distinct camps, i.e., The Sciences and The Humanities. I remember liking a particularly wicked piece of Snow's wit in the transcript of that lecture, where he talked about "literary intellectuals (who had taken to calling themselves intellectuals when no one was looking)".

This blog post of mine has nothing to do with the two cultures of the Sciences and the Humanities. The only connection it has to Snow's lecture is superficial, because it borrows the title he used.

My post deals with the prevailing cultures of the world today, which I believe fall into one of two camps. In my view, a culture is either based on the notion of individual rights, or on the notion of community honour. [As a quick self-check, ask yourself what you think about people standing up (or not standing up) for the national anthem, and you'll know which culture you belong to.]

Psychologist Steven Pinker classified humanity's notion of morality itself into five distinct strands - fairness, harm, community, authority and purity. He quotes a study that claims that "liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five." [I don't agree with the latter part of this assertion, by the way. From what I have seen, conservatives are the mirror-image of the liberals in that they place a higher ("lopsided"?) weight on community, authority and purity, while playing down fairness and harm.]

We had a glimpse of this schism during the Charlie Hebdo controversy. We had people who held that the freedom of expression trumped any hurt feelings that anyone else may suffer. And there were other people who were outraged that the honour of their prophet was being impugned. That was the classic non-meeting of minds between a rights-based society and an honour-based one. There is no compromise possible.

Rights-based societies do place some restrictions on individual rights, but only where the rights of other individuals may be violated. For example, restrictions on free speech typically apply only to hate speech that may credibly incite someone to violence. Hurt sentiments by themselves are not seen as a reasonable justification to muzzle the freedom of expression.

I hadn't always seen the world in terms of these two cultures. But in early 2013, in response to a shocking event that had taken place the previous month, I felt a strong compulsion to create an image, which took the form of an acrylic painting. This was my reaction to seeing a certain stereotyped image in the media. At the time, I still hadn't understood that the compulsion I felt was a symptom of the clash of two cultures, one that I subscribed to in my own mind, and one that many in the world outside seemed to subscribe to.

The shocking event that I'm referring to was the brutal rape of a young woman in India's capital, New Delhi. (She died of her horrific injuries shortly after.) Here is my painting, which I call "The Stigma of Rape":

The Stigma of Rape (and where it belongs) - A viewpoint that I felt had to be expressed in order to counter a regressive idea that I kept encountering

You see, this was the kind of image that invariably accompanied stories of rape in the media:

Does this portrayal outrage you as much as it did me?

What's wrong with all these pictures used in the media?

They portray a woman feeling shame. For a crime she did not commit, but on the contrary, was committed against her!

Would the media show a (male) victim of a violent assault or a robbery looking ashamed? Or would the victim be more likely to wear an indignant, aggrieved expression?

My immediate response was to create the painting that placed the stigma of rape on the rapist, where it belonged. The victims of rape in my painting had no reason to hide their faces in shame. The only one hiding his face in shame was the rapist. (You can read more about my thoughts here.)

Which is as things should be. But aren't.

It has taken me much longer to understand why this is so, and it has come about after many bruising arguments on social media. These arguments intensified in the wake of the electoral victory in India of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a right-wing Hindu party with many sympathisers even among the educated elite. The advent of the BJP has ushered in a culture war in India, complete with historical revisionism and an aggressive questioning of values that had hitherto been taken for granted.

Some common themes have repeatedly surfaced in these debates. These are:

1. The distinctness of Indian values compared with those of the West (with the implication that Indian values are superior).

2. The specific identification of the notion of individual rights as being corrosive to society; a sense of community, and community values, are held to be superior.

3. Feminism has come under frequent attack as a corrupter of values. Often derided as "Western feminism", it is generally caricatured and trivialised ("bra-burning, cigarette-smoking, wild women"), and held responsible for misleading Indian women and obscuring the true source of their "power", which of course lies in the performance of their traditional roles.

4. Assertions of minority identity are angrily condemned as divisive and anti-national. The only acceptable identity is a pan-national one, which implicitly subsumes minority identities into that of the majority.

What surprised me during these debates were not so much the points of disagreement (which I was fully prepared for), but the points of seeming agreement.

When something like a case of rape was discussed, for example, all parties agreed that what had occurred was wrong. However, when solutions and preventive measures were discussed, a major dichotomy tended to arise.

People like me were in favour of education to sensitise boys early on to the notion of consent, to sensitise law enforcement to women's issues, and to improve women's safety overall without constraining their freedoms.

However, many others resorted to victim-blaming arguments, and favoured measures that would further constrain the freedoms of women. Prescriptions on dress codes, curfews, a ban on women carrying mobile phones, rules against intermixing of genders, etc., were rife. Such people also exhibited an inability to make a distinction between situations of rape or molestation on the one hand, and situations of consensual non-marital sex on the other. They tended to consider both situations equally immoral and stemming from similar causes, e.g., the "excessive" freedoms granted to women.

The specific issue of rape illuminated for me the stark difference between the two cultures of the world.

For one culture, rape is a violation of a person's rights. The perpetrator and victim are clearly identified, and redressal is equally clear - punishment of the perpetrator, and support for the victim.

For the other, rape is a violation of honour - the honour of a woman, her family and her community. (For this culture, the rape of a man is perhaps too dishonourable to even be acknowledged as a possibility.) The identities of the perpetrator and victim are much fuzzier. If the victim is perceived to be the woman's community rather than herself as an individual, then she herself may be seen as a perpetrator! ("She has brought dishonour to the family!") Honour killings are a natural corollary of this kind of thinking.

Furthermore, since people of this culture do not place any value on the notion of individual consent, their notions of honour relate purely to whether a woman has had sex outside of marriage or not. Marital rape as a concept does not exist for this culture. Rape and consensual sex outside of marriage are both considered equally dishonourable. And again, since individual rights are not given any importance, "dishonourable" behaviour is not seen as an individual choice. Dishonour to communities is a bigger issue, and since much of a community's honour relates to the "chastity" of its women, these cultures are also patriarchal. Women then have to be guarded as property and provided as few rights as possible.

This is a breathtaking difference in worldview, but it explains why people belonging to both cultures could superficially agree that rape is a crime, and may demand redressal for that crime, yet their actual prescriptions to prevent or redress it could be very different. The most dramatic illustration of this occurred in Pakistan in 2017.

A boy raped a girl in a certain village, and the case was brought before the village's council of elders. The facts of the case were not in doubt. The crime was established, and the boy admitted his guilt.

Now, here is what you or I might expect the council to decide as a redressal of that crime:

Crime and redressal - what you or I may expect (Click to expand)


However, the council of elders belonged to an honour-based society. They saw redressal in very different terms, and their decision was consequently very different.

Crime and redressal in an honour-based society (Click to expand)


To you and me, this shocking verdict would end up creating a second victim rather than redressing any crime. Yet it made perfect sense to that village council, and we can understand their thinking too, if we remember their cultural background. An honour-based society does not recognise individual rights. It only recognises honour, especially family or community honour. In the council's view, the rape was a case of one family offending another family's honour. The girl who was raped was incidental within this larger social transgression. To restore its honour, the offended family had the right to retaliate in kind and "even the score".

This is a fairly dramatic case, but it illustrates my point perfectly about there being two cultures in this world. From a historical perspective, it's the older cultures of the "East" that still tend to be honour-based today. The newer cultures of the "West" tend to be rights-based. The West used to be an honour-based society too, until the Enlightenment elevated reason to the foremost position of authority.

The Western Enlightenment was the point at which humanity diverged into two cultures, two modes of thinking. The separation of church and state, the notions of religious tolerance, of constitutional government, individual liberty, respect for the spirit of enquiry, and in general, the principles of secular-liberal humanism were developed during the Enlightenment. The rest of the world has more or less followed the lead of the West in form, but hasn't always adopted these ideas in spirit.

To be precise, what complicates the picture in the "East" is the fact that many of its societies have been colonies of the "West" at some stage and have inherited its legal systems, but the populace at large has not internalised the mindset that gave rise to them. Hence these imported legal systems are an uneasy fit with the value systems of their native societies.

The specific case of India

India is best described as a hybrid civilisation. Its earliest culture, its Hindu one, itself seems to have arisen as a result of the admixture of two groups of people - the Aryans and the Dravidians, each with a distinct set of deities that merged to form the composite Hindu pantheon. A second cultural layer was added with the invasion of the Muslims, who settled and assimilated, however uneasily, into Indian society. A third layer came with colonisation, when the British imposed a system of government, an administrative framework, a model of jurisprudence, an educated class schooled in a Western way of thinking, and a link language to the wider world. Today's India displays all three layers of its hybrid civilisation, and the turbulence of the country's politics stems in part from the friction between these tectonic plates.

While there has been constant friction between the Hindu and Muslim elements of Indian society, there is a second and more fundamental conflict between the Westernised mindset on the one hand, and both of these Eastern cultures on the other. Interestingly, this latter conflict is not being actively fostered from outside by Western powers. It is entirely an internal one, since the Westernised element in India is self-sustaining.

India is an interesting case of a traditionally honour-based society that happens to have a constitution inspired by a rights-based one. The jostling between the two worlds makes for interesting headlines from time to time, if nothing else. India is quick to ban books and movies that may offend people, even though the constitution guarantees the freedom of expression. Indian governments, which have to answer to a fickle electorate, do not have the courage of conviction to defend constitutionally granted rights in the face of "hurt sentiments". They take the populist route of avoiding controversy. This often makes things worse, since communities then begin to compete at being thin-skinned in order to get the best deals in terms of immunity from offence. It's therefore clear that India's constitution, respected as it may be, does not have strong roots in the country's cultural soil. Yet, as I will argue later, the opposition to the ideals of the constitution, while widespread, is too disunited and riven by internecine strife to pose it any real threat.

In an earlier blog post, I described the three layers of the Indian justice system:

Formal jurisprudence based on the values of a rights-based society are an uneasy fit with the values of an honour-based society

The Indian Constitution represents the thinking of a rights-based society, and it towers over the rest of the Indian polity like a behemoth that is virtually impossible to dislodge. While it is often flouted, it does have teeth because of an assertive judiciary, particularly an activist Supreme Court. The values of a rights-based society, as enunciated in the Indian Constitution, are imposed on Indian society with a heavy hand in case after case. These are periodic reminders of the values that the state stands for, and there is no doubt at all as to who is in charge of asserting those values. It is the Supreme Court, which, unlike the executive and legislature, is an unelected body with the luxury of not having to answer to a society that subscribes to honour-based values. More than a few "traditional values" have been ruled unconstitutional and prevented from being practised. (However, since judicial positions have to be filled from the ranks of Indian society, elements of native modes of thinking sometimes surface in the pronouncements of Supreme Court judges, such as this, this and this.)

Paradoxically, a significant segment of traditional Indian society chafes under these liberal ideas, because they act as a check on the systemic injustices that pass for a traditional social order. Whether the Western-inspired constitution is out of step with traditional Indian values, or a regressive Indian society is out of step with the enlightened constitution, is of course a matter for debate, and one's viewpoint depends entirely on the culture one belongs to. [Remember the self-test with the national anthem.]

When the head of the Hindu nationalist organisation, the RSS, calls for the Indian constitution to be rewritten to be in line with "Indian values", this lack of alignment is precisely what he is talking about. The Indian constitution is a document drafted by a generation of Indians influenced by Western thinking, particularly the Enlightenment. It envisages a secular-liberal democracy with protection for individual rights as in any Western country. It even calls for the inculcation of the scientific temper, spirit of enquiry and humanism!

Obviously, this kind of thinking is not native to most Eastern cultures, which are based on the notion of community honour. The interests of the individual are subservient to the perceived interests of the "community", be it the family, the caste, the religion, the linguistic group, or the state itself. What the RSS wants from a revised constitution is a much reduced emphasis on individual rights and increased powers to organisations representing the "community" at various levels, to police and control individuals so that they behave in a culturally acceptable manner.

With the political ascendency of a Hindu right-wing party that has unabashedly expressed its antipathy to "Western values", the clash between the values of the native Indian honour-based society and its formal justice system that is based on the notion of a rights-based society is now out in the open.

The next few years will reveal how this battle will go.

My friend Seshadri Kumar predicts the triumph of the honour-based society through the formal establishment of a theocratic Hindu state. I am not that sure. I see insecurity where others may see an aggressive assertion of identity, and consequently, I don't believe the reaction from the conservatives is based on enduring strength. I believe that enough people have experienced the benefits of a rights-based society, and would not be that willing to give them up. It will be a real battle, and the RSS will not have an easy time imposing its vision on all of Indian society, especially not when it will create stark winners and losers. There are enough powerful groups among the potential losers here (Dalits and women being two of them), and it is my prediction that they will not give up without a fight. Contrary to Seshadri Kumar's gloomy prediction, I do not think India will simply roll over and become another Iran.

The reason I think so is that even what is referred to as "traditional Indian society" is not a monolith but a composite entity with more than one set of fault lines, and these run in mutually orthogonal directions. Identities are therefore not cast in stone but may change fluidly depending on the needs of the moment. For example, Tamil Nadu has seen caste-based polarisation with EV Ramaswamy's self-respect movement in the 1950s, an assertion of linguistic identity with the anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s, and an uprising fuelled by cultural pride (in support of the tradition of jallikattu) in 2017. Each of these has been a genuine expression of identity, yet they have divided and consolidated sections of society along different lines. It will be a major ask to mobilise all sections of Indian society to set aside their differences in opposition to the constitution. Good luck to any such endeavour!

In addition, the RSS has an idealised view of Indian society in which upper-caste, North Indian, heterosexual Hindu males will be dominant. That view automatically disenfranchises the majority of India's population, and many of these groups have now understood this very well. Far from gaining widespread support, the RSS is likely to encounter widespread resistance to a cultural coup.

In this recently escalated war of The Two Cultures, the honour-based society, however popular it may be among certain sections, will not be able to prevail against the rights-based society that has given many a taste of what they stand to lose if it disappears. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he famously said, "Democracy is a Western word. We don't want it. Ours will be an Islamic Republic." However, even that Islamic Republic has had to hold regular elections to satisfy its people that their government is legitimate.

Some ideas cannot be unlearned. The Age of Enlightenment cannot be overcome by the Dark Ages.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

A Layered Framework To Understand Religion-Based Terror

I was shocked to hear the news of a Hindu man in Rajasthan who hacked a Muslim man to death and set him alight, all the while having the deed and his aggrieved justifications recorded on camera. It was difficult to watch, but also too fascinating to ignore from a psychological angle. The reasoning the man gave was outlandish. He accused his victim of conducting a "love jihad" (a peculiarly patriarchal term of outrage applied to instances of Hindu women marrying Muslim men and converting to Islam). He said he had committed the murder "for the sake of our Hindu faith".

Viewer discretion advised, even though the gory parts are blurred out

The justification that he did it for the faith was the most striking to me.

I have heard this kind of argument before, especially the oft-repeated scaremongering propaganda that "Muslims will outnumber Hindus in India in a generation". I had demolished this latter canard quite simply and comprehensively, using nothing more than a spreadsheet and census data of the last four decades. However, variants of this inexplicable majoritarian insecurity keep surfacing and never seem to die.

I had to create a joker meme to express my incredulity at the skewed priorities I was seeing

When I posted about this latest outrage and called it "Hindu terror", a couple of my Hindu friends protested. The gist of their protest was that Hindu scripture and Hindu spiritual leaders have never called for the killing of people of other faiths, and therefore any reasons claimed by the murderer were to be treated as entirely personal. It was not to be called "Hindu" terror in spite of his claim that he did it out of a desire to defend the Hindu faith; it was just a murder carried out for personal reasons.

They had a point in that Islamist killers often point to some verse or the other in the Quran to justify their acts, but there is probably no verse in any Hindu religious text that calls for violence against Muslims or people of any other faith.

But their argument didn't completely convince me either.

I am not a believing Hindu. I consider religion to be nothing more than ideology, which is a set of ideas that possesses a person's mind, and which need not make any sense to a rationalist, or even be internally consistent. Ideology can come from a variety of sources. Looking for motive purely in scripture or in a narrow school of doctrine is naive, because the links from a person's ideology to religious scripture are not always straightforward. It's important to examine the murderous ideology and see where it is derived from.

I was gratified at one level to see that even my Hindu friends did not condone the murder itself. They were just extremely uncomfortable with my associating the murder with Hinduism, even though the murderer had explicitly made that link himself! So was I really justified in calling this an act of "Hindu terror"?

This post is my systematic attempt to deconstruct the elements of religion-based ideologies with a view to understanding their role in instigating acts of terror.

Let's first establish and agree that a negative ideology can instigate a person into committing acts of violence against others.


A positive ideology, on the other hand, can make a person more amenable to peaceful coexistence with others.

When looking at the role of religion in creating either a positive or negative ideology in the mind of a person, it's important to recognise at least three paths from scripture to the mind.


The simplistic view is that a person is directly influenced by what is written in scripture. Of course, since everything is subjective and amenable to interpretation, even a person reading a scriptural text all by themselves, without external influences, is still subject to the interpretation offered by their own mind.

In practice, scripture is almost always interpreted for believers by intermediaries such as clerics and accepted spiritual leaders.


Therefore, the clergy has a crucial role to play in interpreting scripture and creating an ideology in a believer's mind. We have seen for ourselves the practical difference between a positive ideology and a negative ideology in countless cases.

At this juncture, a number of Hindus may interject to argue that this is true only of the Abrahamic religions, since Abrahamic texts are known to be exclusivist and intolerant of other faiths, often exhorting their believers to engage in acts of violence against unbelievers. Hindu scriptures do not call for such violence against unbelievers, and therefore there is no question of Hindu scripture being used to provide a credible basis for such violence.

While this is a valid argument, we are talking about ideology as a general phenomenon, and its roots need not be scripture alone but other social or political entities that are associated with the religion in some way.



While the scriptures themselves may not exhort believers into any kind of action, there could be self-styled defenders of the faith who create a sense of imperative action through a specialised ideology that claims to have its roots in scripture, but which in reality is a distinct ideology in itself. What matters is the perceived legitimacy of the new ideology in terms of its basis in religion. If the ideology is more and more widely perceived to be related to the religion, then the difference between the ideology and the religion becomes more and more academic.

With the two Abrahamic religions, ideology is directly related to scripture, with interpretation playing a key role in the formation of the ultimate ideology that influences a believer's mind.

This is what the ideological model of Islam looks like:


(Click to expand)

There is a scriptural basis for intolerance in Islam, and there is simultaneously scriptural basis for tolerance. It is a genuine contradiction, and the contradiction is resolved one way or the other depending on interpretation. Thus, the term "jihad" could be interpreted either literally as violence against unbelievers, or as an internal spiritual struggle. Believers in each ideology claim to be the correct interpreters of their scripture, and consider the other group to be misled.

The model is more interesting in the case of Christianity, since scripture itself is divided into two texts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is very similar to the Quran in the vehemence of its language and degree of intolerance for various groups of people and acts. The New Testament, the chronicle of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, is much less violent. Interestingly, the New Testament asserts itself to be in complete alignment with the doctrine of the Old.


(Click to expand)

Extreme punishment for minor transgressions, of the kind encountered in the Quran, is also found in the Old Testament, but no modern interpretation of Christianity gives this any credence, even though there is no formal repudiation of these verses either. There are, however, other examples of intolerance, such as the injunctions against homosexuality, which continue to divide believing Christians. Hence Christianity too exhibits a striking dichotomy in ideology in spite of basic scriptural unity.

Hinduism is perhaps the most interesting model of the three.

(Click to expand)

Hindu scripture is remarkably diverse, with many different texts considered to be sacred and authoritative. The illustration above deliberately draws upon a spectrum of scriptural texts. Traditionally, the variety of opinions in the scriptures has been interpreted in two broad ways. Socially, a rigid hierarchy and pervasively observed rules have controlled diversity in often oppressive ways. Philosophically, there has been a degree of mutual respect and tolerance for other viewpoints (sampradayas). There have been debates between competing schools of thought, but violence as witnessed in Europe between Catholics and Protestant, for example, has been historically rare.

Sometimes, there have been creative reinterpretations of the faith itself, when placed under pressure from materially more powerful external viewpoints (e.g., the 19th century reinvention of Hinduism by Swami Vivekananda and Dayananda Saraswati on account of pressure from British sociologists as well as missionaries).

With Hinduism though, modern interpretations have added a layer of complexity to the traditional ones, in the form of new ideologies. Marxism, Feminism and Liberal Humanism are a group of ideologies that challenge the traditional orthodox Hindu social order as being fundamentally unfair. Concurrently, perhaps as a reaction to reform, the ideology of Hindu Nationalism (or Hindutva) has arisen to defend the old order from perceived attack.

There are thus two distinct Hindu ideologies. One of these successfully combines the native Hindu tradition of philosophical tolerance with the modern sensibility of egalitarianism. The other, equally successfully, combines the negative elements of social orthodoxy and majoritarian insecurity. The latter is increasingly seen in Indian society and mirrors the rise of the BJP in Indian politics. It is this ideology that is responsible for instigating violence against religious minorities.

It is clear from these models that at a general level, acts of terror are driven by ideology. Ideology may have its roots in religious scripture and interpretations thereof, but it could also be influenced by socio-political organisations and movements that only bear a tenuous relationship to religion. Regardless, if these socio-political organisations and movements are widely acknowledged to be legitimate spokespeople for the religion, then any acts of terror instigated by their ideology must be laid at the door of the religion.

Much as my Hindu friends might protest the term "Hindu terror", it is an inescapable conclusion that the terror ideology of the Hindutva organisations is related to Hinduism to the extent that they are considered legitimate representatives of Hinduism. Hindu terror is therefore regrettably real.