Monday, March 2, 2015

Nationalism - I

Many nationalist leaders in India thought that promoting nationalistic sentiments like in the Nation-states of Europe were essential to pull India into the contemporary world. They began to equate expression of skepticism about nationalism as compromising with western imperialism. But that did not stop some influential figures in the movement from expressing doubts about nationalism as they began realising that colonialism's record of violence was because of decay of their moral values brought about by their nationalistic sentiments.

Jiddu Krishnamurti said, 'Obviously what causes war is the desire for power, position, prestige, money; also the disease called nationalism, the worship of a flag; and the disease of organized religion, the worship of a dogma.'A leading figure in the national movement who had reservations about the European model of nationalism was Rabindranath Tagore. He was a patriot but not a nationalist as shown by his decision to return his knighthood after the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre.To most Indians the two concepts are the same. In Notes on Nationalism, George Orwell writes:
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By "patriotism" I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
Tagore was a widely travelled man having visited US, UK, Japan, China, etc and thus had an understanding of many cultures. From his observations he arrived at a nuanced understand of India's place in the world. He was not happy about the xenophobic and inward looking tendencies in some parts of the Indian national movement. An example of such militant nationalism was Tilak's statement that 'love of nation is one's fist duty' or that India was 'God's chosen nation'. He felt that both India and the West could learn from each other and that 'it is our vanity which makes us think that it is a battle between contending rights'.

Many people may be surprised that Tagore, who was anti-imperialist throughout his life and whose songs and poems inspired many during the Indian national movement, was negative about nationalism. Gandhi differed in some aspects from Tagore in this respect, but his version of nationalism was more inclusive than what is popular today. Both recognised a link between morality and politics which was fading away from the conventional idea of nationalism. Gandhi's views were modified by debates with Tagore who made no bones about his view that nationalism results in 'inhuman cruelty' that 'struts with barefaced pride'.

Initially Tagore was more open to the idea of nationalism as defined by the west and like many Indians of the time felt that Indian society had degenerated. But slowly he began to be disillusioned and began to discover 'how easily those who accepted the highest truths of civilisation disowned them with impunity whenever questions of national self-interest were involved'. Ashis Nandy quotes Tagore in his essay The Illegitimacy of Nationalism:
There came a time when perforce I had to snatch myself away from mere appreciation of literature ... I began to appreciate that perhaps in no other modern state was there such a hopeless dearth of the most elementary needs of existence. And yet it was this country whose resources had fed for so long the wealth  and magnificence of the British people.While I was lost in the contemplation of the world of civilization. I could never have remotely imagined that the great ideals of humanity wold end in such  ruthless travesty. But today a glaring example of it stares me in the face in the utter and contemptuous indifference of a so-called civilised race to the well-being of scores of Indian people.
The brutality that even  unwilling imperialists feel compelled to commit because of their feeling of being trapped in their cloak of authority is shown in George Orwell's essay, Shooting an Elephant. Tagore concluded that such callousness was due to nationalistic feelings of the colonialists because of which only self-interest rules which gradually made him disenchanted with the western idea of nationalism. Thus the only person who has written two national anthems (for India and Bangladesh, the latter being the only Muslim nation in the world to have a national anthem written by a non-Muslim) came to regard nationalism as a bhougaliik apadevata or a geographical demon. In Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats, Sarvepalli Gopal writes:
Living in a world 'wild with the delirium of hatred', Tagore felt that the chief lesson to be learnt was how to be rid of 'arrogant nationalism'. As it had developed in the West, a nation was 'an organized gregariousness of gluttony', with selfishness a necessity and therefore a virtue.  He loved India and was eager to see her free; but he did not wish her to develop as a nation on the European model, and said there was no word for nation in his language.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Doing the unfashionable - defending Nehru - II

One reason why Nehru's stock has gone down in recent years is the increasing strength of the Hindu Right. One thing Nehru and his cabinet colleagues were clear about was that whatever India might be it won't be a Hindu Pakistan. Nehru fought all his life to make sure that the RSS dream of a Hindu Rashtra did not materialise which is why they can't stand him. So for example, an RSS functionary in Kerala said that Godse should have targeted Nehru instead of Gandhi. Or that Modi will rarely if ever utter his name. He says, 'Don't Divide History and Legacy on Ideologies'. The barb is aimed at the Congress but the irony seems to be lost on him.And how can I not like what the Hindu Right dislikes?

Nehru had a big role to play along with Ambedkar in bringing the 'Hindu Code Bill' which was stalled by more conservative-minded politicos. However, after winning the first general elections in 1952, Nehru revived the reforms which were passed into law after a lengthy bitter debate in Parliament. Among other things, it gave divorce and property rights to women.Later, he called it his most significant achievement. During a speech in parliament he said (as quoted in Makers of Modern India ):
Sita and Savitri are mentioned as ideals of womanhood for the women. I do not seem to remember men being reminded of Ramchandra and Satyavan, to behave like them. It is only the women who have to behave like Sita and Savitri, the men may behave as they like. No example is put before them. I do not know if Indian men are supposed to be perfect, incapable of any further effort or improvement, but it is bad that this can be so. It cannot remain so...You cannot have a democracy, of course, if you cut off a large chunk of humanity, fifty percent or thereabouts of the people and put them in a separate class apart in regard to social privileges and the like.
This is not calculated to be a hit among the orthodox sections of a hierarchical culture where the Devi paradox still prevails - the more a culture deifies women, the less rights women actually have in that culture. As I heard one economist say, 'Women's lib in Kerala extends from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Once the women are back home from work, the old patriarchy prevails.'

Where Nehru failed was in not extending the rights to Muslim women. He was in favour of a uniform civil code but felt that the time was not yet right to change the Muslim civil code because the wounds after partition were just healing and he didn't want to reopen them. I feel that there is never a right time for this - all religions will protest whenever their civil codes are touched. Perhaps it was easier to do in Nehru's time than it is now. But that is the advantage of hindsight and of being nowhere near the hot seat.

Dazed by shopping malls and mobile phones, one is likely to forget that none of this would have come about if the challenges after independence (none of which have a perfect solution) had not been handled carefully and in a humane manner. (Admittedly, many leaders were involved in this effort; India was very lucky to have several leaders at the time of independence who didn't get carried away by the passion, anger and xenophobia of the time.). As is usually the case, the last person on the scene who provides the goodies takes all the credit. But as Newton said, 'We see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants'.

The challenges after independence were mind-boggling - religious rioting post partition whose psychological scars required sensitive handling, a constitution had to be written, institutions had to be set up and the relationships between them defined (Here is a discussion about Nehru's role in institution building), a fledgling democracy had to be nurtured in a situation where democracy was in Ambedkar's words just a 'top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic', free speech had to be protected... In Imperialist, Nationalists, Democrats, Sarvepalli Gopal says:
Nehru had also, as part of this democratizing, to build up the whole complex of parliamentary institutions. He took seriously his duties as leader of the Lok Sabha and of the Congress party in parliament, sat regularly through the question-hour and all important discussions, treated the presiding officers of the two houses with extreme deference, sustained the excitement of debate with a skillful use of irony and repartee, and developed parliamentary activity as an important sector in the public life of India.
[SNIP]
Outside parliament, Nehru also saw to it that no hindrance was placed in the way of a free press and an independent judiciary. On the one occasion when he slipped by publicly criticizing a judge who was conducting a commission of inquiry, he quickly sent an apology.
In Sujit's school magazine, I  saw a comment by a French philosopher, Professor Raymond Aron saying in 1961 that it was 'ingratitude' on the part of Indians to deny Nehru's role in making India a 'secular democratic republic'. He said that 'compared to the then newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa, freed from the yoke of colonial over lordship, converting themselves in a hurry into miscellaneous autocracies, based on race, religion and hate, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, more than anyone else, led India as  a potentially mature democracy, in the space of less than a decade.'

I have never come across an instance where he tried to muzzle criticism which is a far cry from today's politicians.This is exemplified by his advise to the cartoonist Shankar, 'Don't spare me , Shankar.' I have heard that he was viciously criticised in Parliament for the China debacle and other issues and he sat through the discussions without creating a ruckus. When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, a common reaction was, 'How could Nehru's daughter have done this?' I heard that in one speech, the jurist Fali Nariman said that he was born in a tolerant India but will die in an intolerant one. I am much younger than him but I think the prophecy is true for me also.

There is often talk to the effect that it would have been better if Patel had been PM instead of Nehru. (In this video, Rajmohan Gandhi discusses the controversy.) Maybe Patel would have been a better PM but I think it is  delusional to think that one person will make everything change for the  better in a short span of time.People will always find reasons to crib and would have been as satisfied/dissatisfied as they are now. As says Prof. André Béteille in Anti-Utopia:
One of Max Weber's  most fundamental ideas by which sociology has been enriched everywhere is that the consequences of human action are rarely the same as the intentions of the actors, and that sometimes the two are diametrically opposite.
Perhaps the main mistake that Nehru made was to ignore Machiavelli's advice that a leader should be feared rather than loved.I am willing to accept such a mistake. Icon-bashing is a popular passtime mainly due to ideology and ignorance of history and Nehru has been one of the causalities.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Doing the unfashionable - defending Nehru - I

In spite of their differences, Nehru and Rajaji had great regard for each other. Rajaji was among the first to be awarded the Bharat Ratna.  When Nehru passed away, Rajaji wrote the following obituary in Swarajya:
 Eleven years younger than me, eleven times more important to the nation, eleven hundred times more beloved of the nation, Sri Nehru has suddenly departed from our midst and I remain alive to hear the sad news from Delhi and bear the shock....
The old guardroom is completely empty now... I have been fighting Sri Nehru all these ten years over what I consider faults in public policies. But I knew all along that he alone could get them corrected. No one else would dare to do it and he is gone, leaving me weaker than before in my fight. But fighting apart, a beloved friend is gone, the most civilised person among us  all . Not many among  us are civilised yet. 
God save our country. 
Over the last few years Nehru has been denigrated rather unfairly in my opinion with his critics concentrating on his faults and ignoring his contributions. The more I read about Nehru the more I find that his views on various issues were more complex than partisans and critics would have you believe. It is not easy to shoehorn him into a pre-conceived box of your convenience.

About his much criticised economic policy, most Indian industrialists and economists were in favour of it despite their protestations to the contrary now. There is an extensive discussion about this in India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha . The economic plan had its roots in the Bombay Plan whose signatories included J.R.D.Tata, Ghanshyam Das Birla and Kasturbhai Lalbhai. Among other things it called for state monopoly in heavy industries  as being advantageous in the initial years after Independence. It should be remembered that at the time of independence, many were against capitalism because of its association with colonialism which they had just fought against.

In this article, Sam Harris says, '...throughout the 1950's--a decade for which American conservatives pretend to feel a harrowing sense of nostalgia--the marginal tax rate for the wealthy was over 90 percent. In fact, prior to the 1980's it never dipped below 70 percent.' So the zeitgiest at that time was different from what it is now. It is wrong to take a historical personality out of the context of his time and judge him by the stands of today. In India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha    writes:
In 1980 Mrs Gandhi returned to power. The next year, the head of the Tata Group of Companies gave a long interview to a leading newspaper. J.R.D. Tata said here that 'the performance of the Indian Economy from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties reflected the soundness of the mixed economy as originally conceived.'Industrial production grew at a handsome 8 percent a year.  Then, in late 1960s, the opportunity arose to open up the economy to competition. Had this been done, thought Tata, 'employment would have grown more quickly in all sectors; production would have increased considerably and shortages removed; and government revenues too would have materially increased, which in turn could have been utilized for developmental programmes.' What actually happened, however, was that the government embarked on 'the nationalization of major industries on an expropriatory basis'. 
In this discussion Ramachandra Guha says that Nehru has been visited by the reverse of the Biblical curse. In the Bible it is written that the sins of the forefather will be visited on future generations. In Nehru's case, the sins of the future generations have visited upon the forefather.Of course he made mistakes, otherwise he wouldn't be human. I am not an expert on the relevant issues but even if I was I would hesitate to say emphatically that doing this or that differently would have changed history for the better. In Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats, there is a quote about the historian  Sarvepalli Gopal's views:
"The achievements of a country or society cannot be epitomised in single persons." The study of the past was "not a game of personalities but an analysis of the interaction of economic forces, social relations and thrusting as well as hegemonic ideas. In the evolution of these trends and patterns, representative and symbolic individuals may emerge, and a study of their leadership may cast some light on the whole."

Friday, January 30, 2015

UAE cricket team

In the cricket world cup, I will be following the fortunes of the UAE team keenly. Why? Because one of my cousins, Krishnachandran (he is my mother's sister's son) will be playing for it. It was his brother's wedding that I had attended a couple of years ago.

I had never thought that a relative of mine would be playing in the world cup. And this is not any relative. His whole family is close to us. Imagine playing on those big grounds in Australia against the top  players in the world! This is the first time I will be watching him play.

Don't be surprised if there are big celebrations in my house if UAE wins the world cup!

Announcement in Malayalam Manorama Newspaper about Kitchu's (his pet name) selection







Friday, January 23, 2015

The need for an opposition in a democracy

In this splendid talk, the sociologist Prof. André Béteille says that encouragement of dissent and opposition is the essential distinguishing feature of a democracy.  Dissent  and opposition are part of any society but in a democracy, they don't go underground but are acknowledged and encouraged. He says that in a democracy, one must learn to  live with a certain amount of disorder and learn to deal with them through discussion, debate and dialogue. It is better to allow free expression of dissent rather than be overtaken by a sudden explosion. In his book Anti-Utopia, he writes:
There is no way in which change can come about without the displacement of some norms and values by others. Nor do all conflicts over norms and values end by tearing apart the fabric of society; indeed, the suppression of such conflict may as easily lead to that outcome. It is important to acknowledge their presence and even their necessity, and to create and sustain institutions to negotiate them. This cannot be done by wishing present conflicts out of existence, or hoping for a future in which no conflicts will arise.
In 1957 Congress won the general election by a big margin and it also had power in all the states except Kerala. C. Rajagopalachari (popularly known as Rajaji)  was worried about the implications of the lack of  a strong opposition for the heath of Indian democracy. He thought that India needed a strong two-party system but he was initially reluctant to start a party because he  felt that he  was too old, had been a Congressman for long and was personally too close to Nehru.

He set out his views in an article (which  is given in Makers of Modern India where he said that without a strong opposition 'the semblance of democracy may survive but real parliamentary democracy will not be there' and 'government will inevitably become totalitarian'. He wrote:
In a democracy based on universal suffrage, government of the majority without an effective opposition is like driving a donkey on whose back you put the whole load in  one bundle. The two-party system steadies movement by putting a fairly equal load into each pannier. In the human body also, two eyes and two ears aid a person to place the objects seen and heard. A single-party democracy soon loses its sense of proportion. It sees, but cannot place things in perspective or apprehend all sides of a question. 
Before the 1957 general elections, Jayaprakash Narayan, who had been campaigning for opposition parties, clarified his position in a letter to Nehru (quoted in Makers of Modern India).  He said that this was not because of any dislike of the Congress but because of certain principles:
According to parliamentary democracy theory it is not necessary for the opposition to be better than the ruling party. Equally bad parties in opposition are a check on one another and keep the democratic machine on track...[A]s a socialist my sympathies are all with the British Labour Party, but I concede that when Labour is in power the Conservatives perform a valuable democratic function without which the Labour government might become a menace to the people...between the two evils of absoluteness of power and a little increase in the strength of certain undesirable parties, the former was the greater evil...
If the fears of totalitarianism can be there with Nehru at the helm, it cannot be lesser under anyone else. The last time such a big majority for one side happened before the last general election was when Rajiv Gandhi came to power with an even bigger majority. At that time I was too young to know that this could be a problem. It is unlikely that evil lies solely in one group and virtue is the exclusive preserve of the other.  The salutary message from that time is that even with that kind of brute majority, it took only about thrree years for Rajiv Gandhi to feel the heat. People always seem to reach for the sun like Icarus and fall back to earth.

Ashis Nandy gives the reson for continuous opposition: 'Yesterday's dissent is often today's establishment and, unless resisted, becomes tomorrow's terror.' And if continuous opposition increases undesirable elements to the extent that democracy is hollowed out, we have to conclude that Ambedkar was right: '...if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile.'

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ambedkar's warnings

The main reason for my reading Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha was that there were many people in the book I knew nothing about - Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Jyotirao Phule, Tarabhai Shinde, Hamid Dalwai, Syed Ahmed Khan and Verrier Elwin. Many people in the book raised issues that are relevant for current times and I will write about some of them in the next few posts. (You can watch a discussion about the book here.)

Ambedkar is the only person who figures in two sections in the book. The first set of writings by him are on caste where his undelivered speech 'The  Annihilation of Caste' is well worth reading as also his criticism of Gandhi. The second selection of his thoughts are about the Constitution. In his final speech to the Constituent Assembly, he issues three warnings:
If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions". There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O'Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.
In a country like India, where there is a significant level of poverty and illiteracy, leaders who give something to those people will inevitably acquire demi-god status among them. It is more surprising to see educated people treat their favorites as beyond criticism. These leaders seem to have a mindset similar to that of Ferdinand Marcos as described in this talk by Ashis Nandy. Marcos told a friend of his at a party:
You know, everybody thinks I am a despot but  actually I am a democrat in my heart. But these Phillippinos, they are totally ungovernable and undemocratic in the spirit, so I have to guide them like a strict schoolmaster towards a strict democratic Philippines and that  is held against me.
Ambedkar's third warning had to do with equity:
The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. 
For discussions about various forms of inequality, the different meanings of equality, the distinction between rights and policies, and the relationship between distributive justice and institutional well-being, you can check Anti-Utopia: Essential Writings of Andre Beteille.

14/01/2015 - One link added.



Thursday, January 8, 2015

Suresh and I - II

The clonus and stiffness that I have as a result of my stroke is often mistaken for anger especially by people who are not familiar with my reactions. For eg., if Jaya and the nurse are busy talking to some people, I have to make some noise in order to attract their attention in case of some emergency like urine.For this, I have to make some effort which will set off the clonus - my hands and legs will become stiff. To a casual observer, it will look as if I am having a fit. When the nurse notices me and I indicate that I want to pass urine, she will ask, 'Why are you getting angry for that?'

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins talks about the problem of communicating over long distances. For example, it will take about 4 min. for radio waves to travel between earth and Mars. In such a case, conversation in alternating sentences between people on the two planets  would be difficult and often a message would not be timely. A similar difficulty arises when I try to converse with eye blinks. And if Jaya is not present, then the problem is increased because of misinterpretations.

I now generally keep quiet and just listen to what everyone else is talking about. And if the conversation doesn't interest me,  I drift away. For eg., I was recently re-reading A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (which I had written about a couple of years back).  I had just read a problem in the book when I had a visitor. After the  introductions, I listened to to him for a while and then drifted away since the conversation didn't interest me  and started thinking about the problem which was as follows:
In the correctly solved additions below, each of the five letters represents a different digit, EA being a two-digit number. What is the value of B +D if 
 A    C
+B   +D
__   ___
C    EA 
Suddenly I heard the visitor say, 'He is listening so intently to what I am saying!' I had no idea what he had been talking  about!

Perhaps it is because there are always books near me (which apparently is not a common sight) that people seem to think I know everything.  (At what point in human history were there too many (English) books to be able to read them all in one lifetime?) This becomes embarrassing because I am generally dazed and confused about how to make sense of the mess in the world, like Raj Kapoor in this song. The problem is increased because of  my mode of communication which forces me to give a yes/no answer and most questions cannot be answered in this way. And I am reluctant to say 'I know' about anything because I will know only some aspects of it.

For eg., I was once asked, 'Do you know about Tiruvalluvar?' I don't want to sound Clintonesque but it depends on what is meant by 'know'. If it meant whether I had a general idea of who Tiruvalluvar was, the answer would be 'yes' but if it meant whether I knew his Tirukkurals, about his contribution to Tamil literature etc. the answer would be 'no'. I will wait for some clarification but if after some silence, I am forced to blink (I can't stare unblinkingly forever) after some time, the person may conclude that I know quite a bit about Tiruvalluvar. How many such instances of my non-existent knowledge there are is anybody's guess.

This illusion of knowledge that I seem to have acquired made one physiotherapist say, 'I am trying to be like you!' If he meant the mythical Suresh that I keep hearing about, I will second his opinion. He sounds a cool guy, the Superman to my Clark Kent. As Borges said:  “The original is not faithful to the translation.”