Archive for the 'India' Category

Nero’s Guests by P. Sainath

Nero´s Guests is a story about India’s agrarian crisis and the growing inequality seen through the work of the Rural Affairs Editor of Hindu newspaper, P Sainath:

On the media’s need for whipping boys

Nandini Sundar on her blog:

I am sick to death of TV panel discussions which ask whether human rights activists are soft on the Maoists, romanticise the Maoists and so on. Why doesn’t someone ask if our honourable politicians and security experts are soft on police torture and extra judicial killings?

Television is not interested in a serious discussion – all they want are whipping boys. The sight of Arnab Goswami mocking Prof. Haragopal for giving an “academic analysis” was especially nauseating, compounded by his showing off about “Emily Durkheim” (sic!). Why bother to have a panel at all, if only hysterical calls for the army to be sent in to wipe out the Maoists count as ‘analysis’, and every other viewpoint is seen as biased?

The media’s vocabulary is also very limited. I remember a particular excruciating interview with Binayak Sen where he said he “decried” violence and the anchor repeatedly asked him if he “condemned” it. As far as I know, the two words mean roughly the same thing. Nowadays, even before the media asks me, I start shouting “I condemn, I condemn.” I wake up in my sleep shouting “I condemn.” I am scared to use other words to describe complex emotions, because the media is unable to understand anything else. More:

India bans captive dolphin shows: dolphins should be seen as ‘non-human persons’

From Treehugger:

Dolphins have long been one of our favorite ocean-going animal counterparts, blurring the line that separates human intelligence and emotion from the wildness of nature. Sadly, though, this attraction has resulted in dolphins around the world being exploited for our entertainment, subjected to a life in captivity.

But now, in a bold move to protect the well-being of dolphins, India has moved to ban dolphin shows — a push that helps elevate their status from creatures of mere curiosity to one that borders more closely to that of personhood.

Late last week, India’s Minstry of the Environment and Forests released a statement banning “any person / persons, organizations, government agencies, private or public enterprises that involves import, capture of cetacean species to establish for commercial entertainment, private or public exhibition and interaction purposes whatsoever.” More:

Lesson from an unsettled boundary

Manoj Joshi on the back story to the India-China standoff: In The Hindu:

In 1950, the Survey of India issued a map of India showing the political divisions of the new republic. While the border with Pakistan was defined as it is now, including the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir area, the borders with China were depicted differently. In the east, the McMahon Line was shown as the border, except in its eastern extremity, the Tirap subdivision, where the border was shown as “undefined.” In the Central sector of what is now Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and the eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir, including Aksai Chin, the boundary was depicted merely by a colour wash and denoted as “boundary undefined.”

In March 1954, the Union Cabinet met and decided to unilaterally define the border of India with China. The colour wash was replaced by a hard line, and the Survey of India issued a new map, which depicts the borders as we know them today. All the old maps were withdrawn and the depiction of Indian boundaries in the old way became illegal. Indeed, if you seek out the White Paper on Indian States of 1948 and 1950 in the Parliament library, you will find that the maps have been removed because they too showed the border as being “undefined” in the Central and Western sectors.

What was the government up to? Did it seriously think it could get away with such a sleight of hand? Or was there a design that will become apparent when the papers of the period are declassified? Not surprisingly, the other party, the People’s Republic of China, was not amused and, in any case, there are enough copies of the old documents and maps across the world today to bring out the uncomfortable truth that the boundaries of India in these regions were unilaterally defined by the Government of India, rather than through negotiation and discussions with China. More:

Porn OK, please

Anup Kutty in The Times of India:

Like most men from my generation, I did not learn about sex from my parents or teachers. It was my neighbourhood video rental man who was responsible. I believe he is no more. God bless his soul.

All those years ago, when he was alive, my friends and I would troop into his parlour every week. After some pointless nudge-nudge-winkwink we would be rewarded with a videotape that contained the secrets of adulthood. My first porn movie was a ’70s classic featuring the mature Kay Parker who, with her chipped tooth and ample breasts, seduced teenage boys. Like most first times, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. I threw up during the money shot and swore never to watch porn again.

It took me just a couple of days to be back at the video rental store. By then a whole new world had opened up along with fresh facial hair and a change of voice. My new teachers — the brunette Racquel Darrian, the oriental Asia Carrera and the blonde Jill Kelly — taught me that a woman’s genitalia looked nothing like a cow with horns and that it was capable of far more than just “receiving the spermatozoa discharged from the male organ”. With cable TV came the secret 11.30pm slots for “double X” flicks. If one was in a mood for local flavour there was always Surya TV’s late night Malayalam and Tamil porn. My schooling was now complete. More:

What’s porn got to do with it?

Sunetra Choudhury in DNA:

It’s an encounter I’ll never forget. I was going around Khajuraho a few years ago and there, among the teeming French tourists and the tour guides who keep trying to push you towards the `sex’ temples, were these two middle-class, middle-India couples. Unlike us, who’d made our way all the way from Delhi, these two couples looked like they weren’t from very far. The reason I say that, is because as soon as we entered the temple complex, the two men instantly sat down on the lawns as if the famed sculptures were like a boring history lecture and they’d much rather soak in the sun.

But it’s not them, but the reactions of the women accompanying them, that became an eye-opener for me. While the depictions at the temple made our jaws drop, made us giggle at times like school girls and sometimes even embarrassed to look, these two women went about their exploration in a calm, inquisitive way. More:

Should India ban Internet porn?

The PIL in the court


Modi, the man and the message

Harish Khare in The Hindu:

During a recent three-week stay in the United States, I was often asked to explain the Indian media’s current obsession with Narendra Modi. The only reasonably cogent answer to give was the convergence between the corporate ownership of the electronic media and Mr. Modi’s corporate bank-rollers. The Gujarat Chief Minister’s induction in the Bharatiya Janata Party central set-up has been celebrated as if he has already been invited by the Rashtrapati to form the next government at the Centre.

Like most Indian political leaders, Mr. Modi is a non-biodegradable entity. He will not disappear. Machinations by the BJP central leadership may delay his storming the party headquarters, but he is not going to be talked out of his national ambitions. It is only the voters who can knock the stuffing out of him and his outsized pretensions.

Mr. Modi promises to do things differently and better than what is being done in New Delhi or even in the other BJP ruled States. Not only is he contemptuous of the Manmohan Singh style of consensus approach to resolving contentious issues, he is also derisive of his own party and its leadership. He believes the BJP has become too flabby as an organisation and that most of its impresarios are compromised and tired.More:

Typists wanted

Erica Westly at The Smart Set:

After days of planning, I was finally sitting on the metal stool next to the sidewalk typist’s desk. Two typewriters covered the entire surface of the desk — one for English and one for Kannada, the local Indian language — sitting back to back. A thick white rag strategically placed beneath the typewriters enabled the typist to switch between them with a quick spin of his hands. He typed expertly but not particularly fast. A few inches in front of us, pedestrians of all ages, wearing a mix of traditional and Western clothes, urgently squeezed past each other while to our right, a steady stream of young men and women filtered in to use the two Xerox machines that supplemented the typist’s business. If I had been standing among them, I’m sure I would have found it crowded and stressful, but as I took in the scene from my stool, with the afternoon sun warming my face and the typewriter gently clacking in the background, I was completely relaxed. It was one of the only times during my four-month stay in India last year that I felt like I belonged.

The document I had brought in to be typed was a page from a booklet published by the India Coffee Board. It featured a colorful story about a young saint named Baba Budan who supposedly introduced coffee to India in the 17th century after discovering the “dark, sweet liquid” on a pilgrimage to Mecca. According to the story, the only way Budan could bring coffee beans back to India was to smuggle them under his shirt, which he did with “the holiest of motives.” I wish I could say that I came upon the story naturally, but the selection was actually the result of a calculated effort. I was desperate for the typist’s approval and didn’t want to risk offending him. At first, I considered bringing in a local news story. I carefully sifted through the English-language newspapers that came to my apartment every day, trying to find an article that had some sort of personal significance to me but didn’t mention politics or other controversial topics. More:

“In (my) two decades of reporting on Kashmir, I have never witnessed such rage here”

Muzamil Jaleel in The Indian Express:

Unlike previous protests, it isn’t just anger, but more than that. Kashmir isn’t unused to killings but the hanging of Afzal Guru, its secretive nature and the clampdown in its wake, seem to have changed the discourse on the ground.

Unlike in the last three summer agitations, the mainstream political parties aren’t seen as independent entities that disregard the overwhelming public sentiment to stay in power. Now they are being looked upon as merely an extension of New Delhi. This is the primary reason why both the ruling National Conference and its main opposition, the People’s Democratic Party, are competing to disassociate themselves from Afzal’s hanging.

Though there is a strong belief in Kashmir that Afzal didn’t get a fair trial, the reasons why he has become a “martyr” don’t have entirely to do with him. Kashmir’s pent up sentiment against the perpetual status quo needed a trigger to explode, and the hanging has provided that. The J&K government knew this, and that is why it had locked down the entire Valley even before news of the hanging broke on Saturday morning. More:

A perfect day for democracy: Arundhati Roy

In a top secret operation Saturday morning, the 2001 Parliament attack case convict Mohammed Afzal Guru was hanged and buried inside the Tihar jail complex. Read here

In The Hindu, Arundhati Roy on the hanging of Afzal Guru:

What are the facts?

On the 13th of December 2001 five armed men drove through the gates of the Parliament House in a white Ambassador fitted out with an Improvised Explosive Device. When they were challenged they jumped out of the car and opened fire. They killed eight security personnel and a gardener. In the gun battle that followed, all five attackers were killed. In one of the many versions of confessions he made in police custody, Afzal Guru identified the men as Mohammed, Rana, Raja, Hamza and Haider. That’s all we know about them even today. L.K. Advani, the then Home Minister, said they ‘looked like Pakistanis.’ (He should know what Pakistanis look like right? Being a Sindhi himself.) Based only on Afzal’s confession (which the Supreme Court subsequently set aside citing ‘lapses’ and ‘violations of procedural safeguards’) the Government of India recalled its Ambassador from Pakistan and mobilised half a million soldiers to the Pakistan border. There was talk of nuclear war. Foreign embassies issued Travel Advisories and evacuated their staff from Delhi. The standoff lasted for months and cost India thousands of crores.

 On the 14th of December 2001 the Delhi Police Special Cell claimed it had cracked the case. On the 15th of December it arrested the ‘master mind’ Professor S.A.R Geelani in Delhi and Showkat Guru and Afzal Guru in a fruit market in Srinagar. Subsequently they arrested Afsan Guru, Showkat’s wife. The media enthusiastically disseminated the Special Cell’s version. These were some of the headlines: ‘DU Lecturer was Terror Plan Hub’, ‘Varsity Don Guided Fidayeen’, ‘Don Lectured on Terror in Free Time.’ Zee TV broadcast a ‘docudrama’ called December 13th , a recreation that claimed to be the ‘Truth Based on the Police Charge Sheet.’ (If the police version is the truth, then why have courts?) Then Prime Minister Vajpayee and L.K. Advani publicly appreciated the film. The Supreme Court refused to stay the screening saying that the media would not influence judges. The film was broadcast only a few days before the fast track court sentenced Afzal, Showkat and Geelani to death. Subsequently the High Court acquitted the ‘mastermind’, Professor S.A.R Geelani, and Afsan Guru. The Supreme Court upheld the acquittal. But in its 5th August 2005 judgment it gave Mohammed Afzal three life sentences and a double death sentence. More:

Vengeance isn’t justice: Editorial in The Hindu:

Eight years ago, the Supreme Court condemned Muhammad Afzal Guru to be hanged for his role in the 2001 attack on Parliament House, saying, astonishingly, that “the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender.” Guru was walked to the gallows Saturday morning at the end of the macabre rite governments enact from time to time to propitiate that most angry of gods, a vengeful public. Through this grim, secret ceremony, however, India has been gravely diminished. More

Liberal space shrinks, Bhat spectre looms

Sankarshan Thakur in The Telegraph:

Naeem Akhtar daren’t go on television today.

As spokesperson for Kashmir’s main Opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Akhtar is a familiar face and voice on the Valley’s tricky socio-political discourse. His last intervention was last week’s polite pooh-poohing of the fatwa of the girl-band Praagaash as frivolous and defamatory.

But this morning he begged off live cameras, intensely distressed by the causes and consequences of Afzal Guru’s hanging, unable, yet, to get a measure of its future portents. “I don’t want to be part of this discourse,” he told The Telegraph on phone from Srinagar. “I am wondering if there is even place for me in this discourse, what has happened is a huge setback to voices of reason in Kashmir, it has dramatically narrowed the liberal space.” More:

The man who would rule India

Ramachandra Guha in The Hindu:

A journalist who recently interviewed Narendra Modi reported their conversation as follows: “Gujarat, he told me, merely has a seafront. It has no raw materials — no iron ore for steel, no coal for power and no diamond mines. Yet it has made huge strides in these fields. Imagine, he added, if we had the natural resources of an Assam, a Jharkhand and a West Bengal: I would have changed the face of India.”(see The Telegraph, January 18, 2013).

This conversation (and that claim) underlines much of what Narendra Modi has sought to do these past five years — remake himself as a man who gets things done, a man who gets the economy moving. With Mr. Modi in power in New Delhi, says or suggests Mr. Modi, India will be placed smoothly on the 8 per cent to 10 per cent growth trajectory, bureaucrats will clear files overnight, there will be no administrative and political corruption, poverty levels will sink rapidly towards zero and — lest we forget — trains and aeroplanes shall run on time. These claims are taken at face value by his admirers, who include sundry CEOs, owner-capitalists, western ambassadors and —lest we forget — columnists in the pink papers, the white papers, and (above all) cyber-space.

Mr. Modi’s detractors — who too are very numerous, and very vocal — seek to puncture these claims in two different ways. The unreconstructed Nehruvians and Congress apologists (not always the same thing) say he will forever be marked by the pogrom against Muslims in 2002, which were enabled and orchestrated by the State government. Even if his personal culpability remains unproven, the fact that as the head of the administration he bears ultimate responsibility for the pogrom, and the further fact that he has shown no remorse whatsoever, marks Mr. Modi out as unfit to lead the country.

The secularist case against Mr. Modi always had one flaw — namely, that what happened in Gujarat in 2002 was preceded in all fundamental respects by what happened in Delhi in 1984. Successive Congress governments have done nothing to bring justice to the survivors, while retaining in powerful positions (as Cabinet Ministers even) Congress MPs manifestly involved in those riots. More:

The Nandy bully

S. Anand in Outlook:

Ashis Nandy is a reason-buster. That is his e-mail id, his raison d’etre. And when he makes totally unreasonable comments, his friends expect us to stand and applaud. His acolytes—who have predictably and unimaginatively started an online petition to save his right to free speech and have created a blog dedicated to him—tell us that the political psychologist (a term he uses to describe himself) likes to “illuminate through anecdote, aphorism and irony”. But apparently Dalits, adivasis and OBCs—he lumps together 70 per cent of the population—and those of us non-Dalits whose work requires us to actually know something about caste, cannot understand such nuances.

 At the outset, let me state that I am not for Nandy’s arrest—though an absolute right to free speech should make us defend the Thackerays and Akbaruddin Owaisi as well—under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, for that would trivialise the realities of caste violence. Like my friends Chandra Bhan Prasad and Kancha Ilaiah have said with such grace and maturity, let us forgive Nandy and not drag him to court.

 But first let us look at what exactly Nandy said in Jaipur. Here is a faithful, unedited transcript based on a YouTube video via ABP News. My comments figure in parenthesis, and these are necessary, for what transpired on stage was a performance with gestures, pauses and interruptions adding to the overall effect.

Nandy: How should I put it? Almost a vulgar statement on my part. [Raises his voice and speaks slowly, with deliberate emphasis on each word.] It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs, and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes. And as long as this is the case, [the] Indian Republic will survive… [some interruption, with moderator Urvashi Butalia saying “Alright” as if sensing the tension and wanting to move on; TV journalist Ashutosh is raising his hand in protest, but Nandy soldiers on]. Also, I’ll give an example. One of the states with the least amount of corruption is the state of West Bengal, that is when the CPI(M) was there. And I want to propose to you, draw your attention to the fact that in the last hundred years [pause] nobody from the opp… [opposition? oppressed?], nobody from the OBCs, the Backward Classes, and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes have come anywhere near power in West Bengal. It is an absolutely clean state. [Point made, Nandy wants to pass the mike.] More:

The truth about Mahatma Gandhi: by Patrick French

In The Telegraph:

This week, the National Archives here in New Delhi released a set of letters between Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and a close friend from his South African days, Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish architect. Cue a set of ludicrous “Gay Gandhi” headlines across the world, wondering whether the fact the Mahatma signed some letters “Sinly yours” might be a clue (seemingly unaware that “sinly” was once a common contraction of “sincerely”).

The origin of this rumour was a mischievous book review two years ago written by the historian Andrew Roberts, which speculated about the relationship between the men. On the basis of the written evidence, it seems unlikely that their friendship in the years leading up to the First World War was physical.

Gandhi is one of the best-documented figures of the pre-electronic age. He has innumerable biographies. If he managed to be gay without anyone noticing until now, it was a remarkable feat. The official record of his sayings and writings runs to more than 90 volumes, and reveals that his last words before being assassinated in 1948 were not an invocation to God, as is commonly reported, but the more prosaic: “It irks me if I am late for prayers even by a minute.” More:

A bridge in Mumbai

A half-built bridge symbolises the urgency and the frustrations of improving India’s infrastructure. In The Economist year-end edition:

In 1988, when V.S. Naipaul arrived in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, and drove south from its airport, he could tell something unusual was happening because the traffic was so bad. It turned out that a festival of Dalits, the former untouchables, had led to crowds that blocked the roads. The Nobel-prizewinning writer complained of “fumes and heat and din” in his taxi to the Taj Hotel. The chaos was novel enough to form the opening passage of his book, “A Million Mutinies Now”.

Today greater Mumbai’s population has almost doubled to 18m, and transport bedlam has become as integral to its psyche as the stockmarket, films and slums. Millions endure commutes that would qualify them for post-traumatic-stress counselling in rich countries. Rush-hour trains get so crushed that a phone or pair of glasses carried in a breast pocket will smash under the pressure of bodies. Every year perhaps 500 people perish after falling off trains in the city and 6,000 die on the tracks. If, like Mr Naipaul, you can afford a taxi, it will reek of sweat and honk and buck for inches of advantage against bigger cars, which under a Darwinian highway code have bullying rights. After monsoon storms the sewers overflow and the roads flood. On nights like this endless lines of vehicles crawl in the dark and you can hear the slop lapping on your car’s underbelly, like waves on a dinghy’s hull.

But if you divert from Mr Naipaul’s route, by a creek at a place called Mahim, and turn west, you can take a different trip. Time leaps forward. India becomes China, or even Singapore. More:

Why cheap domestic help is no longer in abundant supply in India

In The Economist:

A glut of unskilled workers has long provided cheap labour. India’s latest employment survey in 2009-10 estimated that 2.7% of working Indians, or 10.4m people, worked in homes as maids, cooks, gardeners, and the like. The business is mostly unregulated, and the true figure is probably far higher. The International Labour Organisation says domestic workers account for 3.5-12% of the working population in developing countries, against less than 1% in rich countries.

Yet the culture may be changing. In Chennai, a commercial city in southern India, Bangalore, the country’s IT hub, and Goa, a coastal tourism hotspot, families also say it has become harder over the past five years to find live-in staff. Demand is rising as more women go out to work and fewer live in claustrophobic joint families where in-laws act as nannies. Yet supply is falling: 18% of urban women in the informal sector took up jobs as domestic workers in 2009-10, down from 27% five years earlier, according to a 2011 study led by a Harvard academic.

Economic liberalisation in the past two decades has created a wider range of low-skilled urban jobs. Malls need shop assistants. Offices need errand boys. In rural areas a job-creation scheme for poor households is keeping potential migrants at home. More:

Island city: Mumbai then and now

Twenty years after the riots, Mumbai’s landscape is unrecognizable. Enclaves of exclusion challenge the city’s idea of itself as a progressive, cosmopolitan metropolisNaresh Fernandes in Mint Lounge:

One recent evening, a barber named Shaikh Mansoor took time off from cutting hair in his tiny shop in Bharat Nagar, on the edge of Mumbai’s Bandra East neighbourhood, to point to the precise spot where three of his neighbours had been shot dead by policemen from the local chowki 20 years ago.

Mansoor was 14 on the morning of 7 December 1992, when chaos swept through his swampy slum. Located on a spit protruding into the mouth of the Mithi river, the Muslim-dominated settlement had only one road running through it—and that road had been blocked when a group of about 50 young men torched a BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) bus to protest against the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya the previous afternoon.

As the vehicle went up in flames, policemen shot at the protesters with pistols, muskets and sten guns. A little while later, hundreds of people surrounded the police outpost at the edge of the slum, hurling stones and tube lights that left holes in the corrugated asbestos roof. The four policemen on duty attempted to fight their way out, killing three men and wounding 54. “The guns sounded like thunder,” Mansoor recalls. The clashes in Bharat Nagar were only one flame in an inferno of violence that was already consuming vast portions of Mumbai. Over the next two months, approximately 900 people would be killed in two phases of riots across the city. More:

Giving new life to vultures to restore a human ritual of death

Gardiner Harris from Mumbai in NYT:

Fifteen years after vultures disappeared from Mumbai’s skies, the Parsi community here intends to build two aviaries at one of its most sacred sites so that the giant scavengers can once again devour human corpses.

Construction is scheduled to begin as soon as April, said Dinshaw Rus Mehta, chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. If all goes as planned, he said, vultures may again consume the Parsi dead by January 2014.

“Without the vultures, more and more Parsis are choosing to be cremated,” Mr. Mehta said. “I have to bring back the vultures so the system is working again, especially during the monsoon.”

The plan is the result of six years of negotiations between Parsi leaders and the Indian government to revive a centuries-old practice that seeks to protect the ancient elements — air, earth, fire and water — from being polluted by either burial or cremation. And along the way, both sides hope the effort will contribute to the revival of two species of vulture that are nearing extinction. The government would provide the initial population of birds.

The cost of building the aviaries and maintaining the vultures is estimated at $5 million spread over 15 years, much less expensive than it would have been without the ready supply of food.

“Most vulture aviaries have to spend huge sums to buy meat, but for us that’s free because the vultures will be feeding on human bodies — on us,” Mr. Mehta said. More:

Delhi girl Shreya Singhal, 21, challenges law used for Facebook arrests

A young law student, Shreya Singhal, has filed a petition in the Supreme Court to review the law under which two young women were arrested recently in Maharashtra for their Facebook posts.

In Hindustan Times:

Voicing concern over recent incidents of people being arrested for posting alleged offensive messages on websites, the Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear a PIL seeking amendment to the Information Technology Act. A bench headed by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir said that it was considering to take suo motu cognisance of recent incidents and wondered why nobody had so far challenged the particular provision of the IT Act.

Taking the case on urgent basis, the bench agreed to hear the PIL filed by a Delhi student Shreya Singhal later today.

Shreya has contended in her plea that “the phraseology of Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards, that it is susceptible to wanton abuse and hence falls foul of Article 14, 19 (1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution.” More:

In Mint, a profile of Shreya Singhal:

Shreya Singhal, the 21-year-old Delhi girl who filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court calling section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act unconstitutional, has only been back in her home country for a few months.

Singhal, an only child who studied at Vasant Valley school, has spent the last three years studying astrophysics at Bristol University in the UK. Singhal’s back home in her gap year during which she’s also applying to law school. Her return coincided with several high-profile arrests this autumn under the controversial section, which criminalizes “causing annoyance or inconvenience” online. When cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested in Mumbai on 9 September, Singhal was shocked.

“I’m obsessed with reading the news,” she said in a telephone conversation. “So initially this case about the cartoonist caught my notice, but I thought it was a one-off.” More:


The quiet grip of caste

Jean Drèze in Hindustan Times [Jean Drèze is visiting professor, Department of Economics, Allahabad University]:

Some time ago I visited a Dalit hamlet in Rewa district. It was hemmed in on all sides by the fields of upper-caste farmers, who refused to allow any approach road to reach the hamlet. There were short roads inside the hamlet, but they stopped abruptly at the edge of it. The hamlet felt like an island, surrounded by hostile territory. I wondered whether any other country still cultivated such absurd and monstrous practices as the caste system.

The next day I read an interesting article on this subject, written by my esteemed colleague André Béteille (The Hindu, February 21, 2012). The article began by pointing out that the hold of caste in social life is subsiding in many ways. For instance, the association between caste and occupation is becoming less rigid (as Chandra Bhan Prasad puts it more succinctly, “pizza delivery is caste neutral”). Similarly, the rules of purity and pollution are a little more relaxed today than they used to be. Following on this, Béteille argues that “organised politics” is the reason why “in spite of all this, caste is maintaining its hold over the public consciousness”. I submit, however, that there are simpler reasons for the survival of caste consciousness.

The real issue, actually, is not so much caste consciousness as the role of caste as an instrument of power. But the two are linked. To convey the point, some of us collected information on the share of the upper castes in positions of power and influence (POPIs) in Allahabad — the press club, the university faculty, the bar association, and the commanding posts in trade unions, NGOs, media houses, among other public institutions. The sample covers more than a thousand POPIs, spread over 25 public institutions. The share of the upper castes in this sample turns out to be over 75%, compared with around 20% in the population of Uttar Pradesh as a whole. Brahmins and Kayasthas alone have cornered about half of the POPIs — more than four times their share in the population. These are approximate figures, partly based on guessing castes from surnames, but the pattern is clear: upper castes continue to have overwhelming control over public institutions. More:

Through his wine glass, darkly

Image: The Indian Express

Shekhar Gupta on Bal Thackeray in The Indian Express:

Was Balasaheb Thackeray a mass leader or a mafioso? The truth is, you will find his followers and detractors only describe him in extremes. But both will agree on one thing, that he was truly an original.

I learnt how much of an original he was when, in a ‘National Interest’ article more than a decade ago, I described him and his party as mafiosi. My phone rang late that Saturday evening as I sat with my family at dinner in Baan Thai restaurant (shut down in 2005) in the basement of New Delhi’s Oberoi. It was a call from Balasaheb in Mumbai. I went out looking for better signal and braced myself for a diatribe.

But the voice at the other end was dripping charm. “Of all the people who abuse me, Shekharji, you write most delightfully”, said Balasaheb.

“Thank you, Balasaheb”, I said, relieved. “So what are you doing for me for abusing you so delightfully?”

He offered me dinner the following Thursday at Matoshree, suggested I bring along my wife and asked if we were vegetarian or teetotallers. And when he was told we were neither, he warmed up again.

“Aap Gupta ho kar bhi yeh sab kuchch kartey hain?” he asked.

“Jab aap Thackeray ho kar itna kuchch kar sakte hain…”, I said. More:

He has had the last laugh

Namita Bhandare on Bal Thackeray in Hindustan Times:

The life-size effigies strung up on lamp-posts were terrifying – at least to a child. In the late sixties/early seventies, they symbolised the South Indians who the Shiv Sena was determined to drive out of Bombay, as the city was then called. It was a sight designed to intimidate.

Forty-odd years later, intimidation remains the party’s chief weapon. Over the years, the ‘enemy’ has changed, from South Indians to Muslims to Biharis, but the tactics remain the same.

With the ashes of their party supremo, Bal Thackeray yet to be immersed in the Godavari, it was business as usual: strike against those who oppose the party, even if that opposition comes from a 21-year-old girl. Shaheen Dhada’s Facebook post questioning why the city had shut down to mark the death of a politician prompted Bhushan Sankhe, the Palghar head of the Shiv Sena, to file a complaint on the absurd charge of ‘hurting religious sentiment’. The police, responding with rare alacrity, arrested Dhada as well as a friend who had ‘liked’ her post.

The arrest was the one sour, though not out-of-place, moment in an otherwise grand send-off to a man who had dominated the city’s politics for over four decades. Few could explain the presence of 20 lakh people, including film stars and industrialists with obsequious tributes, who turned up to bid farewell at Shivaji Park. Few could explain the contradiction of how a man whose politics was founded on fear could have summoned such crowds in death. More:


India’s shocking pre-diabetic numbers

Kavita Devgan in Mint:

Not yet diabetic, but rapidly getting there. Yes, there is a condition like that, and in India, hand-in-glove with diabetes, it is reaching epidemic proportions.

“The statistics are staggering,” says Chennai-based diabetologist V. Mohan of Dr Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre (DMDSC).

The results of the ICMR-INDIAB (Indian Council of Medical Research—India Diabetes) study released in 2011 for adults aged 20 and above showed that an average of 11% had pre-diabetes in India. The prevalence of pre-diabetes in urban areas was found to be higher (13.2%) than in rural areas (8.5%), says Dr Mohan. “We pegged that in 2011 in India there were 62.4 million people with diabetes and 77.2 million people with pre-diabetes,” says Dr Mohan, who also heads the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation and was the national coordinator for the study.

“What I find scary is that the disease is progressing at an even faster pace than anticipated earlier,” Dr Mohan says. “According to the (International Diabetes Federation’s) Diabetes Atlas of 2009, there were 50.8 million people with diabetes in India and in 2011, in just two years, this figure has gone up by around 12 million (to 62.4 million). We are obviously going to overshoot, exponentially, the earlier projections for the year 2030, by millions.” more

The ghosts of Mrs Gandhi

Amitav Ghosh on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. He wrote this moving essay in 1995:

At that time, I was living in a part of New Delhi called Defence Colony – a neighborhood of large, labyrinthine houses, with little self-contained warrens of servants’ rooms tucked away on roof-tops and above garages. When I lived there, those rooms had come to house a floating population of the young and straitened journalists, copywriters, minor executives, and university people like myself. We battened upon this wealthy enclave like mites in a honeycomb, spreading from rooftop to rooftop. Our ramshackle lives curtailed from our landlords of chiffon-draped washing lines and thickets of TV serials.

 I was twenty-eight. The city I considered home was Calcutta, but New Delhi was where I had spent all my adult life except for a few years in England and Egypt. I had returned to India two years before, upon completing a doctorate at Oxford, and recently found a teaching job at Delhi University. But it was in the privacy of my baking rooftop hutch that my real life was lived. I was writing my first novel, in the classic fashion, perched in garret.

 On the morning of October 31, the day of Mrs. Gandhi’s death, I caught a bus to Delhi University, as usual, at about half past nine. From where I lived, it took an hour and half; a long commute, but not an exceptional one for New Delhi. The assassination had occurred shortly before, just a few miles away, but I had no knowledge of this when I boarded the bus. Nor did I notice anything untoward at any point during the ninety-minute journey. But the news, traveling by word of mouth, raced my bus to the university.

 When I walked into the grounds, I saw not the usual boisterous, Frisbee-throwing crowd of students but a small group of people standing intently around transistor radio. A young man detached himself from one of the huddles and approached me, his mouth twisted into light tipped, knowing smile that seems always to accompany the gambit “Have you heard…?” More


The future of nuclear energy in India

Amitav Ghosh on his blog:

On December 3, 2011 I wrote, in a post on this site: ‘I met M.V. Ramana in 1998 when I was writing Countdown, my essay on the nuclear situation in the Indian subcontinent. He was one of the most knowledgeable of the many experts I sought out (he has a PhD in physics from Boston University and has devoted many years to nuclear issues)… Ramana is associated with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Science and Global Security program at Princeton University; he is also a member of the Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament. His forthcoming book “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India” is sure to be the definitive study of the subject: I can’t wait to read it.’

Ramana has since sent me the book (or rather the manuscript, which is soon to be published by Penguin India). I have just finished reading it and it is indeed the definitive work I had thought it would be.

Ramana has been working on nuclear issues for a long time and The Power of Promise is the summation of decades of research. This is not to say that it is a daunting tome, either literally or metaphorically: at a mere 241 manuscript pages (not including notes and appendices) it is actually surprisingly concise.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about the book is that it is not primarily about nuclear weapons. Its subject, as the subtitle states, is nuclear energy and the claims that are being made for it, in India and elsewhere – that it can feasibly meet the world’s expanding energy needs and that it is a relatively safe and economical alternative to fossil fuels. More:

And here’s the link to part 2.

These powerful victims

Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express:

India’s political elites present a dismal spectacle. Like elites in denial, they pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird, to borrow Thomas Paine’s immortal words. They fret at the symptoms, but do not address the causes; they blame the messenger but do not go after the culprits; they worry about being declared guilty without a fair hearing, without introspection on why their credibility is so low. It is an elite now so estranged from reality, that it simply does not recognise how the world has changed. It is not a world that can be managed by old rules. India is on an astonishing cusp; the tragedy is that politicians, for the most part, are not running with the winds of change. But they still complain about the dust that is blinding them.

Delhi’s corridors of power are now echo chambers of whining. Arvind Kejriwal is running a lynch mob, the CAG is taking over the country, environmental NGOs have stopped all development, the RTI is vexatious and so forth. It is as if a vast conspiracy of non-political actors has hamstrung a virtuous political class. But the truth is the opposite: it serves the interest of this political class to present itself as victim, now that it has no authority to do business as usual.

Arvind Kejriwal’s methods should cause disquiet. He does give the impression of a closed circle of certitude: guilt is pronounced with unbreachable confidence. Sometimes the lines between political accountability and an inquisition are blurred, and often the attacks seem too personalised. But whatever the infirmities of the movement, we should not be blindsided by the fact that this mode of seeking accountability is an inevitable consequence of the decimation of institutions. You have to feel for Salman Khurshid. In a functioning democracy he should not have been subject to a public inquisition. Khurshid is a victim. But he is not a victim of Kejriwal; he is a victim of his own government’s decimation of institutions. It is very difficult to trust any institution at the moment. More:

Sex in the city: What Durga Pujo does to Kolkata’s hormones

Rajyasree Sen in First Post:

A screen grab from the Wild Stone ad

Remember the Wild Stone deodorant ad? A Bengali bou dressed in a shaada saree-lal paar (a white saree with a red border), forehead emblazoned with red shindoor bumps into a male stranger in her house. The drums pulsate in the background, there are glimpses of the Durga idol or protima, and the lady with flexible morality immediately makes the beast with two backs with the fragrant stranger she’s bumped into.

Cut to Parineeta. Where Saif – playing a landed gentry gent – decides that there can be no better time than the Durga pujo to take his friendship with the very Bengali Parineeta, played by Vidya Balan – up a notch. Once again we are made to see love blossom while Durga Pujo celebrations are in full swing with Sanjay Dutt doing the dhunuchi naach while Saif and Vidya make eyes at each other. Leading to the very Bengali-dressed Vidya Balan make love, not war to the strangely rhythmic beat of the pujor dhol at a wedding afterwards.

Blasphemy, slander, how can these film-types depict such carnal behavior while we Bengalis are praying to the mother?

But are they really that far from the truth? Is Bengal’s pujo really second only to Gujarat’s Dandiya Raas and Garba Nights in whipping up those hormones? More:

When Air India was efficient, profitable and growing fast

A Tata Airlines route map from 1939. Image:

Samanth Subramanian in India Ink / NYT:

Tata Air Mail made a profit of 60,000 rupees its first year. By 1937, that profit had risen to 600,000 rupees. Auxiliary routes were developed, but its main one continued to retrace the 1932 trial run by Mr. Tata and Nevill Vintcent, skipping from Karachi through Ahmedabad and Bombay to Madras. A handsomely illustrated 1935 timetable (mentioning, as an aside, that “Tata Air Mail ‘Planes are lubricated with Mobiloil”) reveals that a letter from Karachi to Madras would leave on Monday between 6 and 6:30 a.m., pass through Ahmedabad four hours later and Bombay around lunchtime, spend the night in Hyderabad, and arrive at the Madras airport at 9:55 a.m. on Tuesday.

In 1938, just after Mr. Tata changed the name of his company to Tata Airlines, he began to run regularly into a fickle and obstinate government, a process of attrition that wearied and exasperated him for the next 15 years. During World War II, the government commandeered all his aircraft. When he offered to manufacture the De Havilland Mosquito in India, he was first encouraged and then instructed to make gliders instead. Not long thereafter, the government cancelled the contract because, ironically, it didn’t have airplanes to tow the gliders – the very airplanes that Mr. Tata had offered to make in the first place. More:

Understanding the obligations of ruling India

Harish Khare pays a tribute to Brajesh Mishra,  India’s first National Security Advisor and principal secretary to the former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in The Hindu:

The year was 2002. Two days after bloody riots erupted in Gujarat, I got a call late in the evening from an Ahmedabad-based officer of the Indian Police Service. The policeman simply said: “Sir, I am embarrassed to make this call. I am told that a local BJP legislator in Mehsana district is planning to undertake a massacre of Muslims tonight. And I am ashamed that there is no one here who will listen.” The police officer gave me the name of the village and taluka where the BJP “leader” had invited the village for a feast before the mob could be worked up to march on to a nearby village with a large concentration of Muslims.

Overwhelmed by the enormity of the imminent crime, I rang up my friend Brajesh Mishra. Fortuitously, Mishra picked up his mobile. I simply narrated to him what I had been told from Ahmedabad. He heard me out, noting down the sketchy details, and said: “Let me see.” Next morning I got another call from the police officer, who was obviously relieved and said: “Sir, I do not know what you did or to whom you talked; within two hours, an army posse reached the spot, rowdies were made to stay put, and their bloody plans sabotaged. Over 100 lives were saved. Thank you.”

A few days later, when I went over to the Prime Minister’s Office to have my weekly tea with Mishra, I thanked him profusely. With becoming dignity and gravitas he observed: “Those of us who have the good fortune to work in this office for the Prime Minister of India can never become indifferent to the obligation of social harmony.” More:

Once Walmart comes to India…

Ian Jack in The Guardian:

Certain habits in Indian life once gave an illusion of permanence. On hot afternoons 30 years ago, for example, you could lie on your bed under a slow-turning fan and hear noises from the street that had been the same for at least a century. The lonely wife in Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata heard them in the film’s celebrated opening sequence as she flitted about her Victorian mansion in 1870′s Calcutta like a trapped butterfly, and in 1982 you could hear them still: some rhythmic chanting, the hollow patter of a little drum. And if, like Charulata, you went to the window and looked down, there in the dusty lane you would see a gang of coolies shouting something like a work-song as they pushed a wooden-wheeled cart with a heavy load, or a street entertainer drumming up business with his tabla. The most common sounds, however, were the singsong calls of peddlers selling fish or vegetables, or milky sweets and ancient biscuits from a portable glass case. Some salesmen rode bicycles; that transport apart, these were scenes that looked as if they had existed for centuries and would never be expunged by modernity.

Their extinction is coming – not immediately and not everywhere, but probably inexorably in the middle-class districts of the big Indian cities, now India’s governing coalition has said it will open up the retail market to foreign supermarket chains. The coalition put the plan on hold last year after some of its smaller parties, notably West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, branded it as against the interests of “the common man”. The postponement suggested a weak and muddled government. Economic growth was faltering, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, looked particularly ineffectual, and the administration’s reputation suffered the lash of critics at home and abroad (not least in the USA). Last week it decided to face down opponents and show its free-market muscles by reviving planned reforms that will allow familiar European and American names – Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour — to build stores in cities of more than a million people, providing the local state government agrees. More

Singh doubles down on reform

Ashok Malik in Yale Global:

Why does India need FDI in retail – and just how damaging will it be to existing small and medium retail?

In 2008, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, ICRIER, published a paper titled, “Impact of Organised Retailing on the Unorganised Sector.” The findings were included in a 2010 discussion paper on the topic and influenced the government. This discussion paper, in turn, defined the contours of the new FDI policy for retail.

“Given the relatively weak financial state of unorganised retailers, and the physical space constraints on their expansion prospects,” the ICRIER document noted, “this sector alone will not be able to meet the growing demand for retail. Hence, organised retail which now constitutes a small four per cent of total retail sector is likely to grow at a much faster pace of 45-50 per cent per annum … This represents a positive sum game in which both unorganised and organised retail not only coexist but also grow substantially in size.” The rate of closure of small retail stores “on account of competition from organised retail” was found to be 1.7 percent per annum. More:

India’s reforms 2012: A risky strategy, born of panic

Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu:

I asked a senior member of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet what had changed between November 2011 and September 2012. There is still no consensus on FDI in retail, yet a decision has been taken to go full steam ahead. “What has changed is the value of the rupee,” the Minister replied. Every rupee that the dollar gains adds Rs 8,000 crore to India’s annualised oil import bill. “Of course, Manmohan admitted to us that not even one dollar may flow into retail or airlines right now”, he said. But this decision to open the sector and raise diesel prices has to be taken in order to stop the rupee from going into free fall.

Signalling is not an unknown tactic, both in economics and in war. Signals can radiate strength and resolve, but they can also connote weakness. How will those whose ‘animal spirits’ are being propitiated look at the petard the UPA has just pinned upon the door of small retail across India? Dr. Singh must not be fooled by the applause he has garnered from editorialists, TV anchors and corporate leaders for being “tough” and “decisive”. These perfumed words may wash the stain of the Washington Post’s ink on his hands — a recent article in the American paper about his indecisiveness seems to have particularly stung the PMO — but they are self-serving and deceptive. From their vantage point in the White House or on Wall Street, the champions of American finance and enterprise see an Indian Prime Minister who is not tough but vulnerable: a man who believes the only way he can revive the economy and save the rupee is by doing what it takes to pull in foreign institutional investors and even hot money. More:

India’s accidental dairy king

Manu Joseph on Verghese Kurien in NYT:

When Verghese Kurien demanded an autopsy on a dead fly, it was to protect the honor of his milk. Did the fly drown in the milk, or was it dead before it landed there? Was the fly planted by his foes?

It was the 1950s, and Mr. Kurien, a young engineer who had returned to India from Michigan State University, was the improbable chief of a cooperative society of impoverished dairy farmers in the western state of Gujarat. Under his leadership, their milk production had increased dramatically, and with success came bitter enemies — and the discovery of the fly in the milk that the society supplied to a vital wholesale buyer. Mr. Kurien’s ludicrous demand for a postmortem to determine whether the fly had indeed drowned in the milk, according to him, made the scandal vanish.

It was among the many tricks he was to play in the decades to come as he turned India from a milk-deficient nation into the world’s leading milk producer, transformed a cooperative society of dairy farmers in a small pastoral town into the country’s largest food brand, rescued millions of dairy farmers from crushing poverty and gradually became one of the few beloved public figures in India. He died on Sunday, at the age of 90, following an illness. The man who described himself as an employee of farmers lay in state on Wednesday inside a coffin in a large auditorium in Anand, the small town where he had spent most of his life. Thousands came to pay their respects. More: