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Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts

Monday, April 26, 2021

Kumbh vs Corona (The Telegraph)

Mukul Kesavan   

The government’s willingness to hold the Kumbh Mela in the middle of the worst health emergency in a hundred years and its unwillingness to curtail it despite a tsunami of second wave Covid infections raise an interesting question. Is Narendra Modi a rational actor on his own terms? Rational, here, doesn’t mean ‘secular’ or ‘progressive’. The question is simply this: if we allow for Modi’s majoritarianism, are his policy choices based on good information and best practice? Do they try to maximize the greatest good of the greatest number, once the welfare of minorities is subtracted?

The Kumbh Mela raises this question starkly because by the end of 2020, when the akharas began to lobby for an off-year Kumbh, its potential as a superspreader event was obvious. But Modi’s Central government and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s government in Uttarakhand chose to facilitate an unrestricted gathering of hundreds of thousands of people, risking a public health catastrophe that could endanger the lives of Hindus all over the country, because the virus, in its morbidly Nehruvian way, refuses to discriminate between Hindus and Muslims.

Why did the prime minister choose to do this? Modi is widely seen as a modernizer. Modi’s major policy initiatives, whether you agree with them or not — demonetization, the goods and services tax, the farm bills, digitization — invoke rational goals. But justifying the Kumbh Mela in terms of rational public health policy is impossible. Uttarakhand’s chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, didn’t try. He declared that the “flow and blessings of Ma Ganga will ensure coronavirus doesn’t spread”. Modi waited for days to pass and for lakhs of people to gather and bathe and then, after a week of spiking Covid infections, he prayerfully petitioned Avdheshanand Giri of the Juna Akhara, and asked that the mela be scaled down on account of the pandemic.

Why would the prime minister of India place himself in this supplicant position? The obvious answer is the right one: Modi thinks it is reasonable in a broadly Hindu country to defer to the core beliefs of Hindus. Hostile critics might call it pandering, but Modi’s position on the Kumbh Mela is consistent with, say, his position on the Ram Mandir. If millions of Hindus believe that Ram was born in Ayodhya, this belief is a fact. Reality must reshape itself to correspond to this juggernaut belief.

In the early months of his prime ministership, Modi addressed a conference of doctors in Mumbai and invoked the surgical genius of ancient India where an elephant’s head was grafted on to a human body to produce Ganesha. He could have invoked Sushruta, a historically-documented visionary, who pioneered plastic surgery, but he chose to inspire a gathering of trained doctors by citing a flagrantly impossible bit of folklore. He did this because it is important for majoritarians to teach civil society groups, especially groups of professionals, that modernity and science must defer to bedrock civilizational beliefs, that these beliefs can, indeed must, be respectably aired in scientific gatherings. In the 2019 session of the Indian Science Congress, a paper cited the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra as proof of stem cell research in ancient India.

So when akhara astrologers read their charts and declared that the alignment of the stars mandated that the Kumbh Mela be held in the eleventh year of the usual twelve-year cycle, Modi acquiesced, despite the pandemic. Given his political beliefs, he had no choice. How could this elemental gathering of Hindus and holy men be thwarted by second-order public health considerations? What sort of Hindu rashtra would pause a civilizational rite of purification for fear of an invisible speck?

Secularists, being cynics, see Modi as a modern authoritarian who uses religion instrumentally. They are wrong. They are confusing Modi with V.D. Savarkar. Savarkar was an atheist intellectual who tricked out an ethnic nationalism in Hindu motley. Modi, closer to the ground than Savarkar was, defers to sadhus in saffron motley because he senses in them a Hindu authenticity that he, a professional politician, lacks. This is not to argue that the sadhus and sadhvis in the BJP and outside it are a threat to Modi’s pre-eminence. It is to suggest that Modi believes that Hindu consolidation in India needs a vanguard of monks.

The reason Adityanath is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is that a renouncing monk in saffron can normalize majoritarianism and introduce it into public conversation in a way that no trousered bigot can. If you look at the way the BJP has used Adityanath as a majoritarian mascot and provocateur in assembly elections in states as remote from UP as Kerala, it is apparent that his function is to say the hitherto unsayable. It is a function that various sadhvis and sants have consistently performed in the BJP, from praising Godse to contrasting Ramzade and H******de.

Liberals in South Asia tend to be parochially focused on the politics of their own nations; majoritarian politicians have a more cosmopolitan awareness of like-minded communalists in their neighbourhood. The explicitly anti-Muslim 969, a monk-led organization in Myanmar, routinely networks with the Bodu Bala Sena, the self-styled ‘Army of Buddhist Power’ in Sri Lanka. The Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief in Myanmar, popularly known as Ma-Ba-Tha (the abbreviation of its Burmese name), began in 2013 as a campaign to pass what were collectively known as the Race and Religion Protection Laws. In a little over two years, these laws were approved by the legislature and signed into law by the president. Myanmar’s success in purging a Muslim minority and the role of its Buddhist clergy in this ‘cleansing’ have not gone unnoticed this side of the border.

Hinduism lacks an organized clergy; it has nothing equivalent to the Buddhist sangha. But men and women dressed in the colour of renunciation have always had a certain cachet, never more so than now. Unlike deracinated liberals, Modi sees the power and political potential of this saffron cadre and, as the elevation of Adityanath illustrates, he has moved to co-opt it. Five years ago, a journalist suggested to me that if Modi ever failed he would be replaced by someone further to the right of him, more bearded, and more visibly Hindu than him. He had Baba Ramdev in mind and while he was mistaken in that particular, Adityanath’s career suggests that he was right about the general direction of travel.

But Adityanath shouldn’t get his hopes up. If Modi is to be replaced in office, he intends to be replaced by a world-renouncing avatar of himself. During the general elections in 2019, Modi was pictured meditating in a cave in Kedarnath, swathed in saffron. If there was a criticism to be made of the art direction, it was that his hair and beard were too smartly trimmed for the Himalayan ascetic look. That has been remedied now. The prime minister has grown his hair and beard out and were he to rig himself out in saffron again, his fleecy magnificence would make UP’s chief minister seem shorn in comparison.

I can see that happening as the prime minister decides, in the face of a tanking economy and a surging virus, to get back to Hindu basics. Not in Baba Ramdev’s outré breechclout style, of course; the prime minister is too couture-conscious for that. I imagine he will take a leaf out of Sadhguru’s dress code: the Oriental Sage (in orange) look. I can see the group photograph now: Narendra Modi, stern in saffron in the middle, flanked by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru on his left and Baba Ramdev and Yogi Adityanath on his right. The caption writes itself: Swami & Friends.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Friday, April 23, 2021

Thought experiments (The Telegraph)

Shiv Visvanathan 

The idea of India was once evoked quite often. People felt India as a nation, a civilization, and a democracy had a message for the world. The Nehruvian idea of democracy seemed effervescent and alive. Today, a few decades later, we have to confess that the idea of India is nostalgia, reduced to a lifeless flicker by the Bharatiya Janata Party regime. One cannot even say, ‘India is dead. Long live India’, with confidence in traditional norms because the idea of India has run dry.

The literal combination of autocracy, mediocrity and incompetence that the BJP brought to the table has devastated us. Narendra Modi behaves like a Vladimir Putin or a Donald Trump without realizing that they too have destroyed the institutions that sustained their societies. The globalization of autocratic mediocrity is a style that India, Turkey, the United States of America, Brazil and Russia share.

Years ago, Winston Churchill defined Soviet Russia as an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Looking at India today, we have to admit we are a cliché wrapped in the repetition of endless promises. Behind post-normal, post-truth, it is clear that India as a modern imagination has run out. Nothing that Amit Shah or Modi will do is going to help. We need new concepts, new forms of thinking, and an exorcism of old ideas. The expert in blinders must be exiled till we review the basic models of our existence.

The first sign of crisis, the need for a paradigm change, is the desiccation of language. Our key concepts are deadwood. Words like development, democracy, security make little sense as they turn more ironic or paradoxical and eat into the very institutions that we valued. Our regime uses language to beat up people, forcing many dissenters to confront the fact that the only way to be genuinely Indian is to be anti-national. The idea of India as a civilization and as a vibrant civil society eludes the current regime. Worse, our Opposition and the regime enact a Punch and Judy charade where there is no real debate or options. Freebies have replaced ideas and ideologies have lost any semblance of intelligence.

The senility of concepts and their genocidal cost are obvious. Today, it is not a cost-benefit analysis of policy that we need, but an understanding of suffering as imposed by each of these concepts. Development, instead of being inclusive, has marginalized, eliminated and displaced millions of people. The dividing line between refugee and citizen has been blurred. One needs a mourning wall for the languages, species, crafts and human beings that the regime has driven to extinction. Yet it is indifferent to the situation. Its illiteracy or indifference to the suffering of migrants in the informal economy or the travails of protesting farmers is scandalous. Nation-building has become a vacuous exercise as we increasingly rely on political fixers and corporate brokers propped up by the media.

The death of keywords is accompanied by the end of trust in institutions. The policy documents we produce, the political games we play, show that this regime is committed to the death of institutions. It has desiccated civil society, emptied the university, emasculated the courts, made party and trade union look banal. The elite seems to play along with this charade. Nobody is publicly articulating this loss. We are playing rhetorical games when institutions have to be seen as acts of trusteeship. We salute a Gandhi on a postcard, welcome him with a tourist’s delight, but Gandhi in a post-truth society has no place in what we call the post-normal. The Covid era emptied out what majoritarianism neglected to destroy.

The sad thing is that we have no great narratives or narrators to capture this period. We substitute policy for storytelling with devastating consequences. There is an absence of ethics in every act of assessment.

A few decades ago, Ian Hacking, the Canadian historian of science, said that the real task facing contemporary governance was the maintenance and management of memory. The information revolution as an act of abstraction wiped out memory as an embodied narrative. You can store information in a machine, but memory in a human being has to be performatively alive. This regime specializes in the erasure of memory through its truncated, vindictive sense of history, its linear sense of development and community. It has erased memory and caring as imaginations. Otherwise India would not have been autistic about the Covid migration or the farmers’ protest. This is a regime that fetishizes the cow but is presiding over the death of agriculture. Our nation watches indifferently as it sees the living myth of democracy, from Bollywood to agriculture, dying out.

The standard institutions like the trade union or the current university, the hypocrisy of a separation of powers, or the emptiness of ideas following sustainability and wellness will not do; they will not survive the Covid crisis and its vectors of indifference. One has to ask which institutions will survive the complexity of the time. A friend pointed out that the satsang and the langar survive crises gloriously. So do the guru-shishya idea of excellence. Modern institutions have been tattered. For example, the university as a giant tutorial college makes little sense. The university had to be two-generational, for students of 18-25 and the adults returning to the university after 45-50. We need a blend of values. We cannot allow corporations to appropriate ecology. Land, sea, livelihood are too sacrosanct for their rapacity. We need to create new experiments to sustain nature. Civil society should create a sense of the seed, of the river, as a mythic imagination. We need new myths because modernity has not been productive with myths. Myths capture a political and empirical truth. India must relearn to be a civilization, abandoning the idiot uniform of the nation.

John Maynard Keynes, like a modern Moses, once declared that in the long run we are all dead. A quotable quote, which was elusively obvious. One does not know how to respond. Does one think of the short run? Does one seek closure or wait for the millennium? How does one respond to the violence of our system, which is so pervasive that it has become a creative force? Today, violence is so fratricidal that the marginal, the nomad, the displaced, the migrant, the minority are all refugees. We have become genocidal in our impulses against our own people. We see violence as conspicuous consumption, replay it like a primordial ritual. We have ritualized violence. Before election time, the regime carries out a spate of violence against the minorities. The violence we face is not merely physical. It is abstract. It seeks the rational elimination of populations where riots became a form of exterminism. We idealize violence as an expression and banalize its consequences.

India has to find an answer to endemic violence, which cannot be answered by a mere change of regime. The rules of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act represent the logic of the system. Neither theology nor social science even wants to answer the question. We have a regime that looks for a form of sustainable violence to prolong itself. One has no answer to that. Few even want to raise the question. India may not be as crass as the Chinese imprisoning a million Uighur people. But we are not far behind. Our China envy is making us as brutal. We seem to be dying or being brutalized in the short run also. It is not the poverty line and its descriptions we need to be obsessed with. Rather, one needs to be concerned with what was once felicitously described as the Plimsoll line of citizenship. Citizenship is an empty, almost liminally precarious, term. Most Indians have not been regularized into citizens. Most marginals, migrants, workers in the informal economy and people in subsistence economies live below the wellness and welfare of citizenship. The violence that the State subjects them to is virtually left unexplored.

It is clear that standard tropes will not work as institutions have decayed and categories are inept. We need a ritual of rethinking, which encompasses civilization and civil society, a ritual where the current states of India also become a metaphor for a global problem. One needs a sense of thought experiments, an exploration of alternatives, a Hari Katha of dissenting imaginations where democracy reinvents itself as a plurality of life worlds and lifestyles. The university has to be home to some of them only to recognize it is no longer the origin of many ideas. Yet one needs its pedagogic power of gossip and diffusion.

The ensuing debate has to be brought alive as gossip, dream, drama, myth and debate. Democracy has to discover its hearing aids, its sense of a political sensorium, and its idea of vernacular. India might have to show the world that rethinking civilization and democracy has to be an inclusive and experimental exercise. Otherwise, there will be no relief from the mediocrity of politics as cliché.

The author is an academic associated with Compost Heap, a network pursuing alternative imaginations.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Great minds think differently, If Subhash Chandra Bose was India’s first prime minister (The Telegraph)

Priyam Marik  

“If culture, civilisation, administration, and economic prosperity were possible before British rule, they will also be possible after British rule,” declared Subhas Chandra Bose in his two-part book, The Indian Struggle: 1920-1942. There is no doubt that Bose’s contributions were significant to emancipating India from British imperialism. Could this fierce nationalist, who is being appropriated for political mileage nowadays, have been even more instrumental to Indian history had he served as India’s first prime minister?

On October 21, 1943, Bose announced the formation of the provisional government of Azad Hind in Japanese-occupied Singapore, anointing himself as head of state, minister for war and foreign affairs, and prime minister. The adoption of the third title by Bose has led many of his admirers to argue that Bose, and not Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first prime minister India ever had. It was Nehru who undertook the first prime ministership of an independent India. But what if he hadn’t?

In The Indian Struggle, Bose writes of how independent India would have “a strong Central Government... [how] [t]he state will... unify the whole nation and all methods of propaganda... will have to be utilised...” In a speech delivered in Singapore in 1943, Bose had made his administrative aspirations even clearer by asserting that India would require an “iron dictator” who could rule for at least two decades.

Unlike the democratic idealism of Nehru, who had an unflinching faith in constitutional process, Bose, as a benevolent dictator, may have concentrated most of the power in his hands through a mixture of “Fascism and Communism”, with the aim of making India economically self-sufficient, before bedding in the democratic foundations that had been the opening gambit of the Nehruvian quasi-federal model.

In The Indian Struggle, Bose imagines a new party for independent India — the Samyavadi-Sangha — which would dominate the political landscape like a colossus, functioning as a “well-organised, disciplined all-India party... the chief instrument for maintaining national unity.” Bose’s Sangha would provide “perfect equality” in terms of political and economic rights, endorse no State religion, thereby allowing “complete religious and cultural freedom”, and strive to eradicate poverty and unemployment by means of “industrialisation and scientific agriculture through state aid”. The Sangha’s tentative manifesto reflects many of the primary features of what is now understood to be Nehruvian socialism and secularism. This raises the obvious question — with similar ideals but different tools, would the Congress have survived in the India of the Sangha? Would Bose have pivoted to free and fair elections by dissolving or disempowering the Sangha, or would he have let the Sangha retain its political leverage while simultaneously allowing other political actors to rise to prominence?

India under Bose may not have seen the kind of social suppression that dictatorships are usually associated with. The Indian Struggle confirms Bose’s faith in a secular State where minorities do not become second-class citizens. Bose’s India may also have industrialized faster than it did under Nehru, achieving Bose’s target of a rapid rise in the standard of living and an ‘increase in consumption by leaps and bounds’. However, Bose’s obsession with socialism and concentration of power may have set the wrong precedents for independent India. The image of Bose as omnipotent and omnipresent would have legitimized more authoritarian personalities with less noble intentions to succeed him. When the democratic mechanisms installed by Nehru could not prevent an Emergency proclamation by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, or foresee the rise of political strongmen like Narendra Modi, it is likely that Bose’s benevolent dictatorship would have spawned powerful leaders governing an increasingly weak country.

History tells us that a single individual does not usually preside over both revolution and reconstruction with the same success. While Bose certainly had the competence and the conviction to prove an exception to this humbling rule, given the precarious circumstances at the time of Indian independence and his own modus operandi, few would have bet in his favour.

Nehru, for all his shortcomings, offered a utopian yet enduring idea of India, one that in its syncretic and democratic roots remains imperfect yet imperative to what India is today. Bose, for all his qualities, would have offered a compelling but chaotic idea of India, one which in its conflict between short-term necessities and long-term ideals would have fundamentally altered what India is today.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Schools with different aims (The Telegraph)

Aditya Pratap Singh Rathore  

March brought a surprise for some 650 Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas across the country. A proposal has been floated to convert some JNVs into Sainik Schools in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Considering this proposal, ‘establishing a new school’ can now also mean restructuring a pre-existing one. There is a high possibility that more JNVs may be converted into Sainik Schools as the Union budget of 2021 mentioned that the government aims to establish 100 new Sainik Schools.

This proposal has been met with opposition on grounds such as a fee hike and the exclusion of students from rural areas. However, apart from these well-placed concerns, there is a bigger reason that warrants our attention in this matter. The ignorance of the government in appreciating the fundamental difference in the objectives and purposes behind establishing these two different types of schools can lead to a major setback for students from rural India.

The idea of Sainik Schools was conceptualized in the 1960s. The vision statement of the Sainik Schools Society unambiguously says that they shall act as feeder institutions to the National Defence Academy and other military academies. Individual aspirations of students are thus expected to be in line with this vision. Unsurprisingly, the Sainik Schools Society, responsible for the management of Sainik Schools, works under the supervision of the ministry of defence.

JNVs are managed by the Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti. It functions through an executive committee chaired by the minister for education. JNVs came into existence almost three decades after the first Sainik School started. These residential schools were conceptualized with different objectives in mind. While Sainik Schools were meant to create a pool of eligible candidates to join the armed forces, JNVs were supposed to provide quality education to students from rural areas irrespective of the career they aspired to. Accordingly, the fee in JNVs has been kept low to make them affordable for the targeted group. Over the years, an impressive number of students from JNVs have joined IITs and other prestigious educational institutions. They are now proudly serving in the private as well as the public sector. They are entrepreneurs and professionals who are aiding the growth of the nation. They are bureaucrats and armed forces officers contributing to the governance and defence of the country. JNVs continue to provide many students an opportunity to dream big.

The difference in the conceptualization of these schools is not limited to the difference in the expected career outcomes. Sainik Schools have traditionally admitted only boys since female candidates are not considered for recruitment at the NDA or other military academies recruiting cadets after Class XII (except for Armed Forces Medical College and Army College of Nursing). JNVs on the other hand are co-educational institutions by design since their inception. JNVs have been instrumental in promoting co-education and educational parity.

While Sainik Schools were created specifically to meet a functional requirement of the nation, JNVs were designed to meet the aspirations of the nation. It is important that the government keeps this diversity of purpose in mind before going ahead with the proposed conversion of JNVs into Sainik Schools. A Sainik School cannot serve the objectives of a JNV. Even if a Sainik School is better funded than a JNV, it cannot provide a similar environment to the students.

At present there is only one JNV in every district with a few exceptions. In my opinion, we need many more JNVs than we presently have. After all, a strong nation requires a large, talented and well-educated workforce. We must continue to enable our students from rural India to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs or whatever they wish to become, and be a part of this workforce.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Open secret: electoral bonds (The Telegraph)

Hemant Soren


Transparency is not one of the better-known virtues of political parties. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, however, unsettled this notion recently by disclosing the source of the donation to its party through electoral bonds in its 2019-20 contribution report to the Election Commission. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party introduced electoral bonds for the purpose of contributions to political parties in the name of transparency in 2017, the system protects the identity of the donors and receivers. That electoral bonds were brought in through the Finance Act, 2017 was in itself controversial; besides, the earlier limit on a single company’s donation to a political party was also removed. The government’s argument — overriding the Opposition’s objections — was that electoral bonds would ensure that payment was made through banks and would thus eliminate the evil of unaccounted for money. But activists point out that the anonymity prevents voters from knowing who is contributing to which party and how much, thus violating their right to know. Although the Supreme Court dismissed a plea by the Association for Democratic Reforms seeking to stop the sale of electoral bonds before the ongoing assembly elections, it reportedly asked earlier whether there were controls on the end use of the money. It can be misused — to foment violence for example.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has been the greatest beneficiary of contributions through electoral bonds, but that is neither here nor there. The central issue is the problematic use to which the opacity of electoral bonds can be put. The JMM has broken through this by declaring the source of the contribution it has received; it is a simple enough matter if political parties wish to do it. To follow the BJP-led government’s initial argument further: since this money is accounted for, its source and amount are the easiest to declare. Why be opaque while paying lip-service to transparency? A comment by the secretary of the JMM is pertinent in this context. According to him, parties such as the BJP may not be disclosing details of donors, but the JMM has nothing to hide. Perhaps other parties would feel compelled to demonstrate to voters that they have nothing to hide either.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Time travelling (The Telegraph)

Samantak Das 

We exist in time and occupy space and, for the most part, are usually fairly certain of the where and the when of our existence. There may be occasions when we are disorientated and unable to determine with certainty our where- and when-abouts, but these are relatively uncommon events in most lives, and our sense of self is typically quite solidly grounded in both space and time. Of course, neither time nor space is wholly objective, even if science tells us that they are, for how we perceive time and how we relate to space determine how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us. It was Aristotle (384-322 BCE) who, perhaps for the first time, noted how our perception of time was dependent on change and movement. In Book Four, Chapter 11 of his Physics, he writes of how “we apprehend time only when we have marked motion, marking it by ‘before’ and ‘after’; and it is only when we have perceived ‘before’ and ‘after’ in motion that we say that time has elapsed”. Such motion or change may be external — the movement of a body through space — or internal — the perception of change and movement within our minds. “But neither does time exist without change; for when the state of our own minds does not change at all, or we have not noticed its changing, we do not realize that time has elapsed, any more than those who are fabled to sleep among the heroes in Sardinia do when they are awakened; for they connect the earlier ‘now’ with the later and make them one, cutting out the interval because of their failure to notice it. So, just as, if the ‘now’ were not different but one and the same, there would not have been time, so too when its difference escapes our notice the interval does not seem to be time... the non-realization of the existence of time happens to us when we do not distinguish any change... when we perceive and distinguish [such change] we say time has elapsed... It is evident, then, that time is neither movement nor independent of movement.”

Virtually everyone I have spoken to during the last year has reported mild to severe distortions in their sense of space and time. For some, this has taken the form of being unable to reconstruct a sequence of events, mixing up the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of a particular incident or series of incidents; others have spoken of how they confused the ‘here and now’ with the ‘there and then’; and yet others have recounted how their body clocks have been thrown out of kilter by the strangely hallucinatory nature of life during the ongoing pandemic. For some of them, time seems to have speeded up, and months have collapsed into mere days (“ seems only yesterday that the first lockdown was imposed”), while, for others, time has slowed down so much that each day seems to last forever. This apparently paradoxical response to the passage of time is the subject of a research project conducted by the experimental psychologist, Ruth S. Ogden, of Liverpool John Moores University on The passage of time during the UK Covid-19 lockdown, whose findings are interesting, to say the least. According to Ogden, her “results showed that there was widespread distortion of time during lockdown, with more than 80% of people reporting that time felt like it was passing differently. But lockdown did not distort time in the same way for everyone. Instead, time sped up during lockdown for 40% of people and slowed down for the remaining 40%”. Why this should be so doesn’t seem to be very clear. Ogden suggests that age and “the negative emotions associated with isolation, boredom, sadness and stress may have contributed to a slowing of time” although she warns that “the effect of emotion on [our perception of] time is complex”.

One can only surmise how radically different the perception of time must be for a laid-off migrant worker having to somehow return to her or his home hundreds, maybe even thousands, of kilometres away from the place where she or he worked, and that of the house-bound white-collar worker whose job may not be in jeopardy but whose daily rhythms have been rudely disrupted as a result of the pandemic. About six months ago, when I called up a friend in a Birbhum village, he had told me of how several migrant workers of his acquaintance, who had returned home with great difficulty had become “lifeless” and “unwilling to look for work”, or even go out to collect the free rations being distributed to families by the state government. “They no longer believe there is a future,” my friend told me — a comment one has heard repeatedly from a varied assortment of individuals, ranging from students, to neighbours, to well-established friends holding down steady jobs. Hundreds of thousands of young people, whose final school board examinations have been put on hold, with not even tentative rescheduled dates announced, have now joined this chorus.

Our perception of time is shaped not only by past events, but also by the reasonable assumptions we make about what is likely to happen in the (more-or-less near) future. About two months back, most of us (myself included) were looking forward to a return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy; now, with the second wave in full flow, that possibility seems to have been snatched away from us. On the one hand, the exponential increase of coronavirus cases is like a speeded-up film where time is ever-accelerating and, on the other, the way in which things remain the same (lockdowns, travel restrictions, closed schools and colleges, the list goes on) seems to have brought time to a standstill. Our vaunted ability to predict and/or control the future seems to have disappeared completely, and all we can do is helplessly observe a time that is both breathtakingly fast and heartbreakingly slow at one and the same moment. The paradox that is Covid-time offers neither hope nor consolation, only a bleak, terrifying future.

The author is professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, and has been working as a volunteer for a rural development NGO for the last 30 years

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Rite of passage (The Telegraph)

Arghya Sengupta 

We are living through a time when the founding ideals of the Indian republic are changing seismically. The cult of the leader overpowering the party at Central and state levels means that India today is a presidential system masquerading as a parliamentary democracy. The unashamed invocation of majoritarian prejudices and minority appeasement means India’s much-vaunted secularism is irrelevant in electoral politics. The profusion of love jihad laws across the country to widespread popular acclaim demonstrates how deeply vindictive society is.

It is precisely to contain such changes that Constitutions are written. The founding fathers of the Constitution of India created a comprehensive document to account for and tackle a diversity of possible transgressions. The Constitution unequivocally set India on the path of liberal democracy secured through a parliamentary form of government, a federal structure, fundamental rights for every individual and a secular polity that treats all faiths equally. From the inauguration of the Constitution itself, many celebratory accounts of it have been written. These have both created and, in turn, fed off a lofty international image of India as the shining jewel of the global South, a colony that made it as a liberal democracy. While such accounts, with more than a kernel of truth, may have burnished India’s self-esteem as a new nation on the global stage, over time they have masked a fundamental reality — by and large, the Constitution does not matter in daily life or politics in India.

This is not to say that the Constitution is not a powerful symbolic presence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi regularly extols the foresight of B.R. Ambedkar in hard-coding reservation for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in the Constitution; Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee excoriates the prime minister for shredding the secular fabric of the Constitution; a popular song in the lead-up to the Bengal elections ends with a rousing invocation of the Preamble to the Constitution; several lawyers and judges invoke the Constitution regularly in courts of law and in the media. Despite such seeming pervasiveness, the Constitution appears to be singularly failing at its core task of circumscribing the limits of acceptable politics.

Often a simple explanation has been offered for this — that the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological mentors in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have systematically denuded the Constitution because they had no part in drafting it. Historians of the RSS and political psychologists may be able to test the soundness of this claim. But there is a more uncomfortable truth that we have steadfastly refused to confront — that the Constitution itself has never seeped into the body politic in a way its drafters envisaged. This vulnerability dates back to the very making of the Constitution itself.

While many views have been expressed about the Constituent Assembly, two facts are relatively undisputed — first, the Assembly wasn’t an elected body and, consequently, operated in a different plane from mass politics; second, while most major political leaders were part of the Assembly (with the prominent exception of M.K. Gandhi), their dominant interests lay in the actual securing of freedom and then, after freedom was achieved, in governing the country. The task of drafting the Constitution was left primarily to Ambedkar and the Drafting Committee, a group dominated by lawyers who believed in establishing a liberal democratic order based on an enlightened European modernity. This is why Shankarrao Deo, Gandhian and member of the Constituent Assembly, wistfully remarked that its merits notwithstanding, “the Constitution can hardly be called the ‘child’ of the Indian Revolution.”

Although the Constitution contained a lot of promising material to build a modern India, it often appeared abstruse, unable to speak directly to the people. To resolve disputes it chose law and litigation over customary practices and mediation, guaranteed freedoms without recommending concomitant obligations, established a top-down governance structure firmly rejecting local self-government. These were conscious choices aligned with the modernizing mission of the drafters. But they were a continuation of choices that India’s colonial masters had made in the last two centuries, ignoring practices and forms of governance of older provenance. Many of these practices were retrograde and unsuited for incorporation in a democratic nation-state. But a refusal to seriously consider them while drafting the Constitution meant that the process would inevitably someday be seen as inauthentic.

The Constitution we gave to ourselves in 1950, distant as it may have been to reality, could have plausibly settled over time. In fact, it still might, as a lot of academic work seems to suggest. But today, 70 years on, the constitutional vision and the political reality of India have frontally collided. Such collisions are not surprising; in fact, it is precisely when these collisions occur that the Constitution as the highest normative expression of sovereignty is expected to get to work and overcome all challenges. But unlike several occasions in the past when the Constitution and its guardians have risen to the challenge of upholding the law in the face of overweening governments, this time it appears that the governments and a majority of the people are on one side and the Constitution on the other. This is a reactionary moment for inchoate political ideas, which have always simmered in the constitutional subterranean, to emerge into the mainstream.

Neither will this collision resolve itself quickly nor will its resolution lie in the realm of the law and the courts as the Constitution envisages. The fault lines are so numerous and deep that any resolution lies in the realm of ideas alone. These ideas are an augury of India’s approaching second constitutional moment — one that is truer to a people dismissive of checks and balances, god-fearing and religious, placing community and family over the individual, yet able to take such a reality and devise a constitutional order that works for all. There is some distance to travel before we reach such a moment but we are definitely headed there. Currently, though, we are at a phase in our constitutional life when we are desperate to shake off our Westminster detritus, yet unable to replace it with anything either original or empowering. Instead we have a perpetual state of polarization that promises to take India back in time, rejecting wholesale the modernizing vision of the founding fathers.

This is a rite of passage. It is our reactions to these developments that are critical — we can choose to hark back to the avowedly liberal ideals of the original constitutional founding and champion a resurrection. That would be easy to do but would equally be a misjudgment. A challenge to the Constitution cannot be answered by invoking the Constitution itself — that won’t get very far. Alternatively, we can choose a different starting point — the messy and incoherent amalgam of practices that together constitute political life in India. This amalgam has, over the centuries, been shaped by Manu and Ambedkar, Macaulay and Gandhi, Akbar and Krishnadevaraya, Nehru and Modi. This pastiche is our reality — the second coming of the Constitution needs to reflect it honestly, rising above it when it needs to.

The author is Research Director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Saturday, April 17, 2021

New formula (The Telegraph)

Asim Ali   

Over the last few years, a lot of media commentary has diagnosed the main political battle raging across India to be one between a secular and a Hindu majoritarian idea of India. In reality, that contestation has long been over. The hegemony of Hindutva in the political and cultural domain is clear from the fact that no recent electoral opponent of the Bharatiya Janata Party — from the Congress to the Aam Aadmi Party to the Trinamul Congress — has dared to launch a frontal attack on the ideas of Hindu nationalism. The political and ideological battle set to define India over the next decade seems to be a different one — one between a federal and a unitarian idea of India. The Bengal election might well be seen in retrospect as its most powerful curtain raiser.

In the midst of the Bengal elections, Mamata Banerjee wrote a strongly-worded letter to 15 Opposition parties, calling for a “united and effective struggle against the BJP’s attacks on democracy and the Constitution”. The letter listed evidence of the BJP’s designs to establish a “one party authoritarian rule in India”. This included the recent move of downgrading the powers of Delhi’s state government, the misuse of investigative agencies against Opposition politicians, and the withholding of funds towards non-BJP governments. Absent in the letter was any mention of communalism, secularism or Hindu nationalism.

The omission is curious because the BJP’s assault on federalism is deeply linked to the ‘one-nation’ ideology of Hindu nationalism. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has long been an opponent of federalism since the days when M.S. Golwalkar opposed the linguistic reorganization of states, claiming that it would hurt national unity. However, Opposition parties (with the exception of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Kashmir-based parties) are loath to make the federal autonomy argument in terms of opposition to Hindutva lest it gives fuel to the communal polarization strategy of the BJP.

Even on the campaign trail, while Mamata Banerjee has been defensive on the issue of Hindu majoritarianism, loudly proclaiming her Hindu identity to blunt the BJP’s attacks, she has been belligerent on the state-Centre divide. In fact, she has sought to make the defence of ‘Bengali identity’ and ‘Bengali pride’ in the face of an authoritarian Centre the fulcrum of her campaign. This strategy has been replicated in the other poll-bound states as well. In Assam, the Congress and the AJP-Raijor Dal regional front have framed the election in terms of protection of ‘Assamese identity’ threatened by a BJP that imposed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on Assam. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK has portrayed the AIADMK as a supplicant of the ‘Hindi-Hindu’ BJP, focusing on Tamil nationalism to drive its support. While regional identities have been skilfully used in recent years by Opposition parties to neutralize the BJP’s appeal — in Delhi, Jharkhand and Bihar — these elections still represent a qualitative change, where the state-Centre tussle has progressed to the forefront of electoral competition. This renewed salience of the state-Centre divide in Indian politics, perhaps at its strongest since the early 1970s, is only likely to intensify in the years to come — for two reasons.

First, the increasingly naked authoritarianism of the BJP. When the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, it combined its strategy of repression with the co-option of regional elites. The role of regional parties such as the BJD, TRS and YSRCP in the construction of the authoritarian structure in India is often under-appreciated. The BJD, TRS and YSRCP supported the government on all contentious bills, including the RTI (amendment) bill, the triple talaq bill, the UAPA amendment bill, the Jammu and Kashmir reorganisation bill, and (with the exception of the TRS) the citizenship amendment bill. In exchange for their support in Parliament, the BJP has maintained a cordial relationship with these parties.

However, as the next prized frontier of the BJP’s electoral machine shifts to Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, it won’t be surprising if the hardball tactics of investigative agencies and an over-intrusive governor are unleashed in these states. It must be remembered that the National Democratic Alliance is now just nine short of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, and victory in Bengal might inch them closer still. The ruthlessness with which the BJP clipped the powers of the state government in Delhi, in contravention of an express Supreme Court judgment, provides enough evidence that neither constitutional propriety nor past instances of support (the AAP had supported the J&K reorganization bill) would be enough to deter the BJP.

India’s federal power structure was greatly strengthened in the 1990s, not out of conviction of the two main national parties — the Congress and the BJP — but as a result of a grudging accommodation of new political realities. No government at the Centre could function without alliances with regional parties that gave the latter enormous leverage with the Centre. The situation has now been completely reversed, with regional parties having few negotiating cards to play against the most powerful Central government since the time of Indira Gandhi. In proportion to its growing power, the centralization drive of the BJP has accelerated in virtually every domain — finance, law and order, education, health and agriculture.

Second, state parties and leaders have been left with little ammunition to build their political support and, therefore, might find in regional pride an increasingly attractive mobilizing mechanism. The increased financial devolution since the 1990s ensured that many chief ministers had the funds to carve out political constituencies based on welfare spending. This financial room, already constricted by the fiscal centralization brought by the GST, has all but disappeared with the fiscal crisis brought on by the pandemic. Matters have been made worse by the aggressive centralization of welfare schemes under the Modi regime with voters more likely to attribute credit to Modi for welfare schemes implemented by state governments. If the leaders of the government of Maharashtra are taking regular pot-shots at the Centre, most recently over the ‘favouring’ of vaccine distribution towards BJP-ruled states, it’s also because they are struggling to implement a positive welfare agenda.

It might be recalled here that one of the main reasons fuelling the anti-Congress, anti-Centre politics among regional parties in the 1970s was not just the authoritarian intervention of Indira Gandhi in non-Congress states but also her use of discretionary funds of welfare programs to favour Congress-ruled states. “The distributive politics (of welfare) under Indira Gandhi was intended to cause the opposition parties who formed state governments to fail both to meet popular expectations and repeat electoral victories,” wrote Chanchal Sharma and Wilfried Swenden in their book, Understanding Contemporary Indian Federalism.  

It wouldn’t be surprising if leaders like Naveen Patnaik, K. Chandrashekar Rao and Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy become less certain of their welfare-based political constituencies and become even more strident in their emphasis on Odia, Telangana and Andhra pride in the next round of state elections. Conversely, the BJP might double down on its welfare centralization and authoritarian tactics to make up for its weak organization in these states, as it has already done in others.

 The long-term threat for the BJP is if most of these state parties come together in an umbrella coalition to face the Modi government in 2024, as Mamata Banerjee called for in her letter. One of the reasons the BJP could command a substantial Lok Sabha majority with a 38 per cent vote share was the fragmentation of the national Opposition, which was at about the same level as 2014, even if there was relatively more Opposition unity in some states such as Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. This possibility of an anti-BJP umbrella coalition will depend on two factors. One, the performance of the BJP in these state elections, as any electoral weakness shown by the BJP will precipitate more calls for Opposition unity. And, two, the ability and willingness of the Congress to form a nucleus of a broad anti-BJP front. The growing enthusiasm of the Congress to cede space to regional parties, showcased both in its grand alliances in Bengal and Assam, is an interesting pointer in this regard.

Whether such a broad anti-coalition materializes or not, what is clear is that the most potent resistance to the BJP’s authoritarianism is made not in terms of secularism or even civil liberties, but in terms of regional pride. This will likely be the metaphor grounding the next major battle over the ‘idea of India’.

The author is a political columnist and research associate with the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Friday, April 16, 2021

Open secret (The Telegraph)

T.C.A. Raghavan 

In so adversarial a relationship, there is no sphere of activity left untouched by the impact of India-Pakistan frictions. The recent U-turn by the government of Pakistan on the import of sugar and cotton yarn from India is the obvious example. Trade contestations, however, go back to the founding moments of both countries. Much like the issue of river waters, Kashmir and other territorial issues represented by accession disputes and divergent ideological moorings, trade, too, has been a minefield.

In the late 1940s, amidst the powerful dramas of the Kashmir war, the Partition massacres and disputes over water sharing, numerous tensions over bilateral trade were also seething just below the surface. These erupted into the open in September 1949 when the United Kingdom sharply devalued the pound. Many of its major trading partners and former colonies, including India, followed suit immediately. Curiously, or so it appeared to many in India, Pakistan did not. A major distortion in the exchange rate followed. Raw jute from East Pakistan imported by jute mills in India became much more expensive. Pakistan’s gamble was that it could get additional profits from higher jute prices that India would have to pay. Things did not work out in quite this way, and exports to India fell precipitously along with trade turnover as a whole, with potentially disastrous results for Pakistan’s — especially East Pakistan’s — economy.

However, a quite unrelated factor intervened, almost providentially, to Pakistan’s advantage. The Korean war broke out in June 1950. Jute was suddenly in huge demand, and Pakistan was able to diversify its markets and also make huge profits. The gamble to not devalue had, in effect, paid off because of an unrelated geopolitical event. Perhaps the first but by no means the only time that luck, rather than the right judgment call, had worked in Pakistan’s favour.  

Within Pakistan, the handling of the devaluation crisis was viewed with satisfaction: cheaper imports marked the beginning of Pakistan’s industrialization process. Moreover, it showed Pakistan exercising its economic sovereignty in not following India into devaluation. But most of all, it demonstrated that trade would never be absent in India-Pakistan contestations.  

For the next half century, trade remained subject to all the vagaries of the India-Pakistan ecosystem restricted by quotas, lists and controls. In Pakistan, limiting trade with India was seen as an essential aspect of cementing its economic sovereignty. The 1965 and 1971 wars led to a nine-year-long trade suspension. The emergence of Bangladesh meant that economic complementarities between India and Pakistan reduced; by the late 1970s, the two economies had drifted apart. There were efforts to expand trade volumes, but the odds were against any substantive increase.

What changed in the 1990s was the new mantra of globalization and the growth spurt the Indian economy began on. As the 50th anniversary of the emergence of sovereign India and Pakistan approached, economic engagement seemed to offer a platform that could help reduce, if not resolve, the enduring political divides. This was certainly the sentiment that was prevalent in India and, to a great extent, there was substantial support for this across party lines. Soon after joining the World Trade Organization, India extended ‘most favoured nation’ treatment to Pakistan — a routine step in international trade at the time, but a significant moment in the evolution of India’s Pakistan policy.

In Pakistan, feelings were more mixed. Some saw the emergent potential of India with its economy opening up. Yet, resistance was fierce, with concerns that larger imports from India would damage Pakistan’s industry and agriculture. Others felt that forward movement on trade unaccompanied by substantial progress on ‘resolving Kashmir’ was a betrayal of Pakistan’s founding principles. Finally, there was a revanchist and ideological position that objected to considering India a ‘most favoured’ nation quite irrespective of the international context in which this technical term was used.

This three-toned alloy of resistance has remained in place for the past quarter-century. It endured in spite of the emergence of the South Asian Free Trade Area agreement, which Pakistan chose not to fully accept. The reluctance to bite the bullet of MFN notwithstanding, trade between India and Pakistan did increase substantially in the first two decades of this century, although it remained far below potential. About eight to nine years ago, there appeared a brief moment when it seemed that Pakistan would finally agree to fully normalize trade with India by treating it the same as other trading partners. This was through the euphemism of ‘non-discriminatory market access’ — MFN treatment without using the ‘most favoured’ word!

Meanwhile, two new grounds of resistance to normalizing trade with India had appeared. The first of these was the growing trade imbalance — Indian exports to Pakistan were six or seven times larger than its imports. For most Pakistanis, this was unfair and reflected market access issues and barriers that their exports faced in India. In this view, in spite of the strong optics that made up the unilateral grant of MFN by India to Pakistan, the fact remained that Indian exports to Pakistan were growing much faster than Indian imports.  

The second objection was a more general one, and greatly influenced by the strength of the then prevalent globalization discourse. Pakistan’s market and its geopolitical location offering access to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia was, in this view, the prize that India sought. In the late 2000s, there was also a real push from the United States of America for the liberalization of India-Pakistan trade and opening up a South Asian market for Afghanistan using Pakistan as transit. The joke at one stage was that the US government had more people working on India-Pakistan trade than the governments of India and Pakistan had, put together. The view gained ground in Pakistan that the ‘wily Indians’ with a western concert to back them were extracting something very valuable, the importance of which ‘simple Pakistan’ was unable to gauge. Highly inflated estimates of the potential of India-Pakistan trade if restrictions were removed added to these concerns. Therefore, for Pakistan to ‘give’ on trade without getting something in return was seen as naïve, and the question became a larger one of the concessions that Pakistan must seek. These new perceptions entered and strengthened the old alloy of resistance further.

In the recent U-turn with regard to the import of sugar and cotton yarn from India, it is possible to see the imprint of these old debates. Nevertheless, the situation has changed a great deal. Pakistan banned all trade with India post August 2019 as a response to the legislative changes in Jammu and Kashmir. India, after the Pulwama terrorist attack, had withdrawn the 1996 MFN treatment given to Pakistan. Yet, there are differences from the trade stoppage of the 1960s and 1970s. Formal channels of trade are now supplemented by others. In spite of the ban, trade through third countries continues and even grows. This ‘open secret’ reveals much of India-Pakistan relations. What it also suggests is that the current setback notwithstanding, with incremental improvement in political atmospherics, the trade agenda will resurface again in some time.

The author is a former high commissioner to Pakistan and is currently Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


The past is present (The Telegraph)

Chandrima S. Bhattacharya   

A dear friend claims that she once had two unfailing landmarks on Fern Road, between Ballygunge Terrace and Kasba bridge: one turn past an istiriwala and the next past a brown-and-white cow.

They worked splendidly, till one day, mysteriously, the landmarks disappeared, never to return again. Maybe, in this city of disappearing landmarks, this was not so mysterious after all. Better known and, one would imagine, less mobile landmarks such as the Parama statue at the Science City crossing or the cannon at the centre of New Market had just disappeared one day. Not to mention entire heritage buildings. They have a habit of disappearing without a trace from the city.

In such circumstances, I am proud to report that I have a personal landmark that has stood by me for years. It does not stand, really. It flies. It is a red flag bearing the CPI(M) symbol.

When I saw it first, more than a decade ago, it was stuck into a shed at the corner of a lane that leads to an apartment block in south Calcutta where my uncle lives. This is one of the new residential areas that have come up off the E.M. Bypass, towards Santoshpur. The neighbourhood has not been planned much and the construction seems haphazard. Moreover, the buildings look very much like each other. They are generally three- or four-storeyed apartment blocks built along one side of a canal in what can be called the contemporary Calcutta style for three- or four-storeyed apartment blocks.

Because the buildings look so similar, it is easy to miss the right turn to arrive at the right one. So I used to look out for the red flag with the sickle, the hammer and the star. I am no supporter of the CPI(M), nor was ever. But its flag became the tool for me to negotiate my way to my uncle’s house. I was told the shed from which it was flying was a CPI(M) party office once.

In 2011, Bengal changed hands. With a new party in power, I wondered what would happen to the flag in that corner. To my surprise, it remained, though no one seemed to be around to protect it. The shed looked lonely, the flag looked forlorn, but it was there, and I reached my uncle’s house without any problem. Since more buildings were coming up every day, the locality was becoming more confusing and the flag was becoming more important for me. I would stress more about missing the right turn, and be relieved on finding the flag again, a little more faded every time, but stoutly there.

Then one day, three or four years ago, after the Trinamul Congress had won its second term, I was overjoyed to see a bright new red flag having replaced the old, worn-out one. By that time the flag had become less a party symbol for me and more like an old acquaintance who, you were afraid, would not be there the next time. It was also that ever-fixed mark in a city where architecture is anarchic and ugly and aggressive, swallowing up every bit of free land or water that is available — and is inevitably a reflection of the changing politics. It was reassuring to see an innocuous bit of red not only not removed, but replenished when much else in the city was being coloured white and blue.

The shed, however, was brought down later and, at the initiative of local residents, a Shiva temple was built in its place. I was astounded to see that the red flag was still there, flying now from the temple wall, almost shining like a beacon and showing me the way. I do not know who is tolerating whom more: the Marxist flag or the Hindu temple. But tolerance it is.

Now that Bengal is voting again, one wonders what is going to happen to the state. I hope the flag stays on, because the past, whatever it was, should not be undone.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Something is rotten in the schools (The Telegraph)


Devi Kar  

My work email inbox often looks like a marketplace where I am exhorted to buy goods or services — supposedly for the betterment of my school. One look at the kind of mail that I receive will convince you of the rot that is setting in in our schools today. I have selected two emails to demonstrate this.

“Dear Sir/Madam,

Amid Covid-19 we are giving a Flat [sic] 50% discount with a nominal sponsorship of 30k+GST for the above benefits. Please do let me know if you are interested in this.”

This is part of an offer made by a “global, educational magazine” after announcing that our school had been placed among “The 10 Best International Schools in India, 2021”. The seven “benefits” that were listed all boiled down to publicity for the school in India and abroad. “We hope you will allow us to serve your organisation and maximise visibility on a global platform,” continued the representative of the said magazine in her email to me. You may well wonder what is so ‘rotten’ about this offer.

The explanation is simple. Our school has just introduced its international programmes. To be precise, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education programme was introduced last year, and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in 2018. One wonders how on earth we can be adjudged ‘One of the 10 Best International Schools in India!’ Far from feeling elated, I felt insulted that those offering the wonderful “benefits” perceive school authorities to be dim-witted, conceited or corrupt, or all three combined.

Another common business strategy is for organizations to hold glittering ceremonies where awards are presented in various categories to institutions and individuals. The event is customarily held in a five-star hotel and to entice people to fill up the nomination forms, the names of those who would grace the occasion are cited in advance. They are usually VVIPs from the ministry of education, with a ‘celebrity’ thrown in for good measure. I quote from an email: “This side [sic] Madhu [name changed]. We had this conversation the other day [false]. Kindly fill up the form free of charge. Last day today.” Invariably, the “last day” is generously extended and a reminder is sent daily — for weeks on end.

It is abundantly clear that the hunger for publicity of certain schools — upcoming or otherwise — is being cannily exploited by the business world. The truth is that this rot has been setting in for a while. Schools have been steadily corporatized and are now almost entirely market-driven. Many believe, however, that there is nothing wrong in regarding a school as a business and education as a product to be bought and sold.

Nonetheless, it upsets many to see schools being marketed like five-star hotels or brands of detergent. The reputation of an educational institution is built over the years as a result of the way it has been run, the way it has attended to the holistic development of every student and the sincerity with which it has carried out its pastoral duties. The well-rounded alumni of such schools contribute in turn to the reputation of their alma mater through their achievements.

No matter how much a school projects itself through paid publicity, it is an established truth that no institution can buy a solid reputation: it has to be backed by genuine credentials. Here I hasten to say that some ‘reputed’ institutions run on momentum and the magic of the ‘old school tie’. Only insiders know how rotten some of these institutions have become in many ways, besides the abandonment of ethics, which have taken a back seat anyway in a commercialized world. The brand continues to yield returns and the ‘old school tie’ undeniably is handy when it comes to building careers and doing business.

The second email from my inbox indicating the rot reads: “Sir/Madam, do you know that we can reduce cheating in exams by 95%? The options offered are live proctoring, auto proctoring, recorded proctoring. It is extremely difficult to cheat in an online proctored exam due to the advancements in online proctoring software.”

It is indeed a sorry state of affairs that we need artificial intelligence to detect cheating. Academic dishonesty is widespread among students and is, shamefully, aided and abetted by adults. A lack of educational understanding in the way students should be assessed has encouraged plagiarism, which has become an all-pervasive practice. I have a strong feeling that this, too, has stemmed from the same origin: the commodification of education. Our consumer society is steeped in materialism; all that parents and schools are interested in is getting their children to obtain dazzling board examination results, never mind the means.

The irony is that when students reproduce answers that have been prepared by others or turn in ‘cut and paste’ jobs, they are rewarded with excellent marks. The concept of plagiarism is non-existent in our learning system. So, when it comes to tests and exams, ‘invigilation’ becomes a heavy-duty job for teachers while sophisticated technology provides efficient policing. Rampant cheating would not happen if we overhauled the assessment system. The need of the hour is to shed cynicism and make a concerted effort to inculcate values in our students. Condemning children is unfair and futile while policing does not touch the root of the problem. Plagiarists and cheats, it is hoped, will eventually find reason to regret their lack of knowledge while schools will realize that ostentatious publicity will not get them far. The money spent can be much better utilized in improving the school itself.

In the ongoing elections, those candidates who have relied only on self-projection and publicity instead of serving the people are unlikely to win. Let us hope that politicians who hoodwink people are taught a lesson. But the rot in politics is too deeply entrenched; we must focus instead on stopping the rot in our schools.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Saturday, April 10, 2021

Shadow lengthens (The Telegraph)

Ramachandra Guha  

I have been reading a new book on the Gujarat riots of 2002 titled Undercover: My Journey Into the Darkness of Hindutva. It is written by Ashish Khetan, who did some excellent reporting on the aftermath of the riots, particularly on the process by which the perpetrators went unpunished.

Undercover is an important resource for scholars seeking to understand a bloody pogrom that occurred two decades ago. However, it also speaks directly to the present, since the regime that ruled in that state then is now in power at the Centre. “In Modi’s Gujarat,” writes Khetan, “if a bureaucrat or a police officer wanted to rise up the ranks, he had to implicate himself fully in the system’s deceit.” With Narendra Modi as prime minister and Amit Shah as home minister, this has become true of the Central government as well. And not just of bureaucrats and police officers either. Before 2014, official economic statistics issued by the Government of India were admired the world over for their reliability. Now, scholars don’t trust them anymore. In every sector, whether economics or health or education or electoral funding, deceit and dissembling, rather than truth and transparency, characterize the behaviour of this government.

Another consequence of the Gujarat Model being adopted countrywide has been the shrinkage of space for debate and dissent. To quote Khetan again: “Tools honed and deployed over twelve years in Gujarat are now being used on a national scale to subvert, harass and demonise dissent, with critics of Modi characterised, and often jailed, as opponents of and threats to the nation.”

To suppress peaceful dissent, the Modi-Shah regime has resorted to the arbitrary and excessive use of State power. The police and the intelligence agencies have been set to work to arrest individuals without notice, haul them off to jail, and — once they are safely behind bars — to begin assembling ‘evidence’ against them. Last year, the Delhi Police used the pretext of the February riots to come down with a savage hand on student leaders and feminist activists who had nothing to do with the riots, while refusing even to file FIRs against top BJP leaders who had openly called for violence. Of the police’s partisan handling of the riot cases, Julio Ribeiro wrote: “The patent injustice of Delhi Police’s approach is what riles the conscience of this old policeman.”

The malign intent of the State is manifest in, among other things, the proclivity of the police to make arrests on weekends, when courts are closed and lawyers not at hand. It is also manifest in the regular recourse to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an extraordinary harsh piece of legislation whose offence provisions are (as one legal analyst writes) “criminally overbroad, excessively vague, and nothing short of a legislative carte blanche to state-sponsored violations of fundamental rights.”

The partisanship of the police, at the Centre and in the states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, is demonstrated by the differential treatment of citizens according to their political affiliation. A climate activist tweeting in support of non-violent farmers is sent to jail for sedition; a politician calling for dissenters to be shot keeps his cabinet post. In town after town, the police indulgently look on as rowdy young men go from locality to locality, demanding that citizens donate money for a cause that is not their own. Vigilantism in support of the BJP is encouraged by the State even as peaceful expression by independent voices is met with imprisonment.

Senior police officers taking orders from politicians in power is, of course, an old phenomenon in India. And it occurs in states not ruled by the BJP too, as the case of Maharashtra most recently shows. However, what is especially disturbing in the Modi-Shah regime is the communalization of the police force. Again, this is not entirely new — as far back as the 1980s, the police in several states of northern India were seen to be softer on trouble-makers from the majority community than on trouble-makers from the minority community.

Now this majoritarian bias seems to have become more naked and explicit. In an article in The Indian Express, Vibhuti Narain Rai, a retired police officer whose integrity matches that of Julio Ribeiro, writes of a recent series of attacks by Hindutva mobs on Muslim homes in Madhya Pradesh. A video of these attacks caught an “unusual visual of a police inspector, his head hung in shame with two Hindutva zealots carrying saffron flags and a trident”. The inspector was embarrassed and ashamed, writes Rai, because “he and his colleagues were forced to watch hooligans plundering houses, beating hapless men and women and flaunting flags — all before the ashen faces of a large contingent of policemen.”

The visual shocked Rai, who, like Ribeiro, always wore his own khaki uniform with honour, seeking to prevent violence before it occurred regardless of the consequences to his own professional future. Tragically, there are ever fewer officers of such courage and calibre in service anymore. And so, as Rai sadly writes, “a new unwritten Madhya Pradesh Police manual has emerged, where the police are not supposed to resist the lawbreakers. Rather, it facilitates the thugs by making sufferers leave their houses to take refuge.”

In his book, Ashish Khetan writes of Gujarat under Modi that “[n]o government institution, no organ of the state was untouched by communal bias. The Gujarat police fabricated evidence...” The communalism of State agencies at the Central level has intensified since May 2014; and so have bribery and coercion in politics. Money and control of the State apparatus have always had a role in Indian politics; but never, before 2014, such a defining and determining role. The Election Commission’s scheduling of polls in different states is alleged to be influenced by the campaigning preferences of the ruling party. The misuse of the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate to harass political opponents was not unknown in Congress times, but the BJP has taken it to a different level altogether. The tiny Union territory of Puducherry was only the latest in a series of states and UTs where Opposition governments were made to fall by the threat of State power and the deep pockets of the BJP working in combination. And as this column was being drafted, the family of a leading Opposition politician in Tamil Nadu was raided, while in Assam a BJP minister threatened a political rival that the National Investigation Agency would be let loose on him. That both states are now witnessing assembly elections is not at all a coincidence.

In their quest for total power in Gujarat, Modi and Shah had three sets of allies: a committed civil service and police force, a pliant and propagandist media, and a submissive judiciary. (Of the courts of Gujarat, Khetan writes of how he experienced at first hand “the nadir of our criminal justice system, a subversion of what justice means and should mean to ordinary citizens”.) In their quest for total power in India, Modi and Shah have taken recourse to the same methods. They have had slightly less success, so far, for three reasons: first, several major states are not ruled by the BJP; second, although the major Hindi newspapers and most English and Hindi TV channels cravenly follow the party line, a few English newspapers and websites are still independent; third, although the courts have been timid and weak (especially on such matters as granting bail), there is the occasional judge standing up for individual rights and freedom of expression.

However, the overall direction of what Modi and Shah want, and where India is currently headed, is clear. To quote Ashish Khetan one last time: “Majoritarian rule untrammelled by law; the veneer of democracy minus the substance of constitutionalism... the constant undermining of minorities, particularly Muslims; the impunity for Hindu right-wing rioters as opposed to the harsh treatment, including unjustified arrests and imprisonment, meted out to those deemed to be on the opposing ideological side; the persecution of activists and human rights organisations; the misuse and abuse of institutional and judicial processes to target political opponents and dissidents—the systematic manner in which Modi exploits the power of the state to crush any opposition, the sheer scale of state persecution... is without precedent in India.”

A society in which one fears rather than trusts the police, where one cannot always expect judges to act fearlessly and without favour, where one’s innocence or guilt can be determined by what religion you belong to or which political party you vote for or fund — such are the consequences of the ‘Gujarat Model’ going national. We are, in institutional terms, farther away from the ideals of the Constitution than at any time since the Emergency of 1975-77 and, in social and moral terms, farther away than any time since the adoption of the Constitution on January 26, 1950 itself.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Friday, April 9, 2021

Poles apart (The Telegraph)

Prabhat Patnaik 

The Indian government’s rescue and recovery package against the pandemic has been among the most niggardly in the world, amounting, shorn of ‘window-dressing’, to no more than 1 per cent of the gross domestic product. Other third world countries have done better, but not much better. By contrast, advanced countries have unrolled generous rescue packages. The United States of America, even under Donald Trump, released a package of $2 trillion, roughly 10 per cent of its GDP; the Joe Biden administration has announced a further $1.9 trillion, of which about $1 trillion constitutes transfers to the people. Altogether, the US would be spending 20 per cent of its GDP on such packages (although not in a single year). The European Union, too, has had substantial rescue packages during the pandemic.

These packages have meant significant fiscal deficits. The International Monetary Fund encouraged enhanced government expenditures during the pandemic and, hence, implicitly larger fiscal deficits, not just in the advanced countries but even in the third world. This has given rise to a belief that it has abandoned its usual insistence on ‘austerity’ in these special times. Oddly, however, according to an Oxfam study, recent IMF loans to third world countries have almost invariably enjoined ‘austerity’ upon the borrowers. Oxfam found that of the 91 loan agreements signed by the IMF with 81 third world countries after March 2020, as many as 76 encouraged or required ‘austerity’ measures. These included cuts in public expenditure, including public healthcare expenditure and pension payments. They imposed wage-freezes or wage-cuts that would reduce the incomes of doctors, nurses and other workers in public healthcare facilities as well as cuts in unemployment benefits and sick pay. 

Such measures have been standard IMF prescription for decades. Their incorporation into loan agreements even during the pandemic suggests that the IMF not only discriminates between rich and poor countries but also that when it comes to the latter, its pious pronouncements signify nothing.

It is not just the discrimination during the pandemic that is worrying; what is of concern is what happens afterwards. The world capitalist economies have, for long, been saddled with massive unemployment (which was only aggravated by the pandemic), although this fact is camouflaged by reduced worker participation rates because of the ‘discouraged worker effect’. Now, even after the pandemic abates, the advanced countries are unlikely to go back to a regime of fiscal rectitude such as that demanded by finance capital and articulated by the IMF. In fact, Biden’s rescue package has elements that are non-transitory and will endure even after the pandemic. We may be witnessing, in short, a revival of State intervention in demand management in the advanced countries under the cover of the pandemic.

This is excellent news, for otherwise workers suffer through mass unemployment just to satisfy the caprices of finance that is opposed to such State intervention. (Joan Robinson, the renowned economist, had called the view that fiscal deficits should be eschewed or restricted in all circumstances the “humbug of finance”). The problem arises when we have governments stimulating economic activity in the advanced countries while governments in the third world are forced to adopt ‘austerity’.

A growing developed world and a languishing third world, one may think, cannot possibly co-exist as the former is bound to pull up the latter. But Trump has already introduced protectionism in the US (which had started in a small way even under Barack Obama) and other advanced countries are likely to emulate the US. This means that the relocation of activities from the ‘North’ to the ‘South’, exemplified by the shift of manufacturing to China and of services to India, that had characterized neoliberal globalization till recently, could well be coming to an end. A boom in the advanced countries then will not pull up any third world country via this route and income compression imposed on the local population through anti-inflationary policies in the third world would ensure that prices of primary commodities supplied by it do not rise too much and have only limited growth-enhancing effects.

Such a global divide, if it occurs, would break from what we have been witnessing under neoliberalism in two important ways. One, the distress of workers in the advanced countries would be somewhat ameliorated. This is necessary for the system since their restiveness constitutes a threat to it that can no longer be contained by resorting to a diversionary, neo-fascist discourse against the ‘Other’. Two, the big corporates of the third world would shift their activities even more to the global plane away from stagnant local economies without feeling constrained by such stagnation. 

This would mean an end to the recently-achieved de-segmentation of the world economy. During colonial rule, metropolitan capitalism had brought about a segmentation of the world economy: labour from the ‘south’ was not allowed to migrate freely to the ‘north’ (it still is not), and capital from the ‘north, although allowed to migrate freely to the ‘south’, never actually did so, except to areas like mines and plantations that refurbished the colonial pattern of international division of labour; and capital from the ‘south’, hemmed in by racial discrimination and a hostile colonial environment, faced protectionist barriers in the ‘north’. The ‘north’ and the ‘south’, therefore, got segmented.

The ‘north’ developed high-productivity manufacturing; its labour market, made relatively tight by massive migration to the ‘new world’, allowed a rise in workers’ wages. The ‘south’, stuck with producing primary commodities, had its workers earning subsistence wages, placed amidst vast labour reserves created by the destruction of craft production through the ‘drain of surplus’ and through competition from imports.

Neoliberal globalization effected some de-segmentation, as capital from the ‘north’ at long last located plants in the ‘south’ to take advantage of the latter’s low wages for producing for a global market. But, if there is protectionism in the ‘north’ against non-traditional exports from the ‘south’, and if the latter experiences stagnation and, hence, stagnant markets, then we shall see a re-segmentation of the world economy, with the working people of the ‘south’ consigned to acute distress.

Even in the heyday of neoliberal globalization, as the Indian case testifies, there was an increase in the poverty ratio despite extraordinary growth. It does not follow, however, that the cessation of growth would mean a reduction in poverty. The poverty-engendering factors under neoliberalism, namely the undermining of petty production, especially peasant agriculture, will continue to operate even as the growth-rate collapses, which will only aggravate poverty and unemployment further. The three new farm bills in India, introduced in the midst of acute distress, make this clear. 

The IMF’s discriminatory behaviour thus portends great distress for the working people of the ‘south’, not just during the pandemic, but even afterwards. Two counteracting forces may be adduced against the scenario sketched above. One, finance would move ‘south’ en masse if the ‘north’ resorts to any fiscal stimulation of demand; but this, if it happens (and there are limits to the extent to which finance will flow ‘south’), will only mean that the entire world economy would remain submerged in crisis. The other is world-wide protests against the IMF’s discriminatory behaviour. If these do not succeed, then the ‘south’ will have little option except to delink from a globalization that promotes a re-segmentation of the world.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Thursday, April 8, 2021

Vision for the future (The Telegraph)

G.N. Devy  

Some three decades ago, I decided to start working with adivasis and nomadic people. My workplace was Tejgadh, a village in eastern Gujarat. It is situated at the foot of a rocky hill and is skirted by the wide bed of the seasonally flooding Orsang river. The hill has hidden in it ancient caves with rock paintings from a period between 12,000 to 15,000 years before our time. The paintings in the caves should remind one of Mahasweta Devi’s classic, Pterodactyl, invoking a mythical bird and the agony of contemporary adivasi life.

It was here that I decided to create the Adivasi Academy. I chanced upon Mahasweta Devi a few years later, and she accepted my invitation to visit the Adivasi Academy. After having a dip in the stream of the Orsang river and visiting the caves with the rock paintings — like the ones she had visualized in Pterodactyl — the first thing she said to me was that she would like to breathe her last at Tejgadh. In my long years of work with her, she would often repeat this desire. A decade and a half later she passed away in her son’s house in Calcutta. In order to respect her wish, I brought her ashes to Tejgadh and created a modest memorial, made of interwoven arches positioned on a red-brick pedestal with an inscription which reads, “Every dream has the right to live” (picture). In physical height, this memorial may be the shortest among memorials one has seen. In a sharp contrast — about 70 kilometres south as the crow flies — is the Statue of Unity installed to remember Sardar Patel.

A few weeks ago, I had called young activists from many parts of India to meet at the Adivasi Academy. The purpose was to understand the situation in every state, going beyond reports one receives through the media. When all of us were seated around the Mahasweta memorial, I asked them to read the inscription and enquired what their unfulfilled dreams were. Those who came from Uttarakhand mentioned the melting glaciers, the fragile environment, its continuous degradation, the outward migration of the jobless hill people and the devastated social fabric. The friends from Nagaland complained about the lack of understanding among mainland Indians of the complex Naga history and society and about an increasing alienation. A friend from Meghalaya angrily added that unceasing mining has destroyed the legendary beauty of the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills alike. Kashmiri friends spoke with voices heavy with emotion about the complete disruption of normal liberties. Adivasi friends from the central states spoke about the plunder of their forests and rivers by big companies and the pauperization of folks going to cities in hordes in search of employment. Friends from Uttar Pradesh brought in the question of a deep social discord and the lack of opportunities. The Punjabi friends had a lot to say about the woes of farmers. Those from Maharashtra mentioned how the progressive ideas of Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar had all been forgotten. The Tamil Nadu folks added that Periyar’s dream of an equal society has been entirely put in cold storage and big money and towering celluloid images have been dominating public life. The Karnataka friends highlighted nepotism, casteism and the decline of the egalitarian thoughts of Basavanna and Akkama. A Dalit leader from Gujarat said that he would like to collect small bits of brass and copper from every Dalit in India, mint a large coin out of them with Dr Ambedkar’s imprint and gift it to the president of India for laying at the foundation of the new Parliament building. Women present there spoke with great anxiety about how terrified they feel while expressing themselves in thought, emotion or costume. What Muslims and Christians said was not much different in tenor.

Our discussion continued for several hours. My simple question had resulted in unpacking a wide array of historical deceptions and injustices, a longing for creating a society with at least minimum decency and a sense of justice. The seemingly artless words of the inscription had opened up so many wounds. The yearning of my friends in that discussion made it difficult for me to have normal sleep that night. During it, I dreamt, and I am not sure if they were dreams, delusions or debates in my mind. I saw things not so easily to be seen in real life in our time: newly constructed shelters, all clean and with good toilets and drinking water for migrant labourers; ministers and government officials mourning for the dead among the agitating farmers, and farmers celebrating the repeal of the Acts; home ministry officials telling migrants in Assam that no certificate proving their religion is required for asylum and citizenship. In one part of the dream sequence, I saw lynch mobs asking for forgiveness from all the men and women they had ever lynched, and the police accepting FIRs from victims as per the law book. The courtrooms in my dream had entrances adorned with the words, “Justice shall be given equally to all”.

In another part of my long dream, I noticed religious fanatics of all shades drowning some books in the Arabian Sea. On asking them what those books contained, they said in many languages, “Oh, these were our books of hate words”. I also saw other books that probably were hospital registers, which showed no deaths of children for want of food or medicine. The National Crime Records Bureau records showed no new incidents of farmers’ suicide or the molestation and rape of women. I also saw a large gathering of mediapersons, but none of them looked scared and intimidated. Strange dream, indeed! I could see in it images, posters, statues and just empty shadows of martyrs who died for India’s freedom — scientists, thinkers, saints, artists, industrialists, sportspersons and mass leaders who made India a free and modern nation.

When I opened my eyes, I tried hard to recall if one of the statues I had seen was actually of Rabindranath. Or was it someone else trying to look like him? I concluded that it indeed was Gurudev, for the words inscribed on the pedestal were, “Where the mind is without fear...” These words would sound so hollow if said by any deliberately made-up look-alike. And I said, almost spontaneously, “Khela hobe”.

I am sure Mahasweta would have understood my dream. Her deep Bangla compassion for all lives and celebration of freedom, echoed by many Indians in an adivasi village in Gandhi’s Gujarat, are what the idea of India is all about. It has the right to live.


The author is a literary scholar and cultural activist;

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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