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Shame, Mamata!

I generally desist from commenting on the antics of the West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee or her party members because I have always felt that lesser said about them the better. After all, their actions speak unambiguously for them and they do not stand in need of unsolicited assistance from commentators like me. The ongoing drama (involving the impending dismissal of railways minister Dinesh Trivedi) however has forced me to put my opinion of the lady on record through this blog, if only to vent my utter disgust and frustration with the state of affairs that she has created. Like Dinesh Trivedi, I too feel that somewhere there is a ‘patriot’ hidden deep inside me that yearns to speak out in protest at the open molestation of Indian Democracy and all that it is supposed to stand for.

Sitting in the Secretariat in Calcutta, Ms Banerjee is attempting to single-handedly derail the Union Railway Budget by insisting on the dismissal of the minister responsible for it (who unfortunately belongs to her own party). The ostensible reason for this is her concern for the ‘aam aadmi’ who cannot bear the fare hikes proposed by the minister, and for whom her heart bleeds no end. Quite conveniently however, the same duplicitous heart does not bleed for the aam aadmi in her own state when it comes to hiking the electricity tariff of the state-run power company for whose financial health she is directly responsible. The ministry of railways has long become a regional fiefdom, to be used (or abused) by successive alliance partners to further the cause of their home state. Ms Banerjee had been running it for three years with complete economic abandon, promising to build on railway land and with railway funds projects as fanciful as hospitals, management schools, sports academies, eco parks and even an odd museum in honour of Rabindranath Tagore, and all this without raising passenger fares for the sake of the aam aadmi. Quite obviously, as Mr. Trivedi pointed out, the railways subsided into ‘ICU’, to extricate it from which it became necessary to increase fares for the first time in almost a decade. Railways being an enterprise of the State, the cost of running it has to be borne by the ‘aam aadmi’ whether by way of direct fares or by government subsidies and budgetary support which in turn comes from the various taxes and duties paid to the exchequer by the common man himself. Mr Trivedi had the sense to charge the regular users of the service directly instead of making a poor villager, who seldom boards a train, pay more for every cake of soap or packet of salt. While this is common economic sense to most, the same cannot be said for Mr Trivedi’s populist boss who seems to lack sense in general, whether common or economic.

Ms Banerjee considers the railways portfolio as part of her extended cabinet, which is why she has already nominated one of her trusted flunkeys, Mukul Roy, as Mr. Trivedi’s successor. The latter however has shown great heroism by refusing to step down unless asked to do so formally either by the Prime Minister or his party boss. His prospects in the party and the ministry are obviously over, and he understands that well, but as a parting blow he would like to humiliate Ms Banerjee into dismissing him for presenting the most sensible railway budget in recent times. Whether Ms Banerjee is emotionally capable of humiliation is another matter, but Trivedi needs to be lauded for his sheer steadfastness in the face of shameless politicking by members of his party, including its Chief Whip who is using every sound bite possible to settle scores with Trivedi in a most revolting and vengeful fashion. It remains to be seen what role the Prime Minister will play in all this drama. My guess is that he will play the one he knows best – that of the silent spectator.

My final observation is on Ms Banerjee’s choice of replacement. The departure of Dinesh Trivedi will drastically bring down the mean literacy level of the Trinamul Congress, for he was an outlier to begin with. Being an alumnus of St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta and UT Austin, how he landed up in a party like the TMC is a mystery to me. His prospective successor, however, does not have to justify his existence in the party, for as his official Rajya Sabha profile indicates, he is not even a graduate (having cleared only Part I of his B.Sc course). Such is the farce of Indian democracy that we now stare at the possibility of an organization of 1.4 million people being headed by a man who would be deemed unfit were he to apply for the post of a petty ticketing clerk!

In situations like these, when a mockery is being made of people’s aspirations by selfish, insular politicians, one cannot help but be cynical. Someone recently remarked that politicians like Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee represent a breed of ‘popular dictators’ who are a dangerous combination of propagandist, demagogue and megalomaniac all rolled into one – a kind of Himmler, Goebbels and Hitler in the body of one person. I could not help but agree though I wondered what could be at the root of this problem. I do not think that it is necessarily a lack of wisdom on the part of voters that is responsible for the rise of such people to seats of power. Rather it is a poverty of choice which forces people to gamble between two known devils in the hope that one of them will turn out to be less harmful than the other. Also at fault is the parliamentary system of democracy we practice and which ensures that regional satraps can hold national interests to ransom at whim. Given these constraints, we have been trudging along a path of compromise – a middle path which essentially leads nowhere. In spite of all the romance associated with its size and longevity, the greatest tragedy of India’s democracy is that it has had to settle for mediocrity.

When tomorrow Mamata Banerjee succeeds in replacing Dinesh Trivedi with a half-educated stooge of her choosing and getting him to roll back the fare hike, it shall be just another instance of retrogressive mediocrity winning over progressive and visionary leadership, just another step on that much-trodden middle path.

I had always thought that the most gruesome images ever captured by the lens of a camera were those depicting the plight of Jews and other prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps, copies of which abound in books, blogs and other literature related to the Holocaust. Whenever I have looked at these images, like most others I have cringed with horror and disgust, but always with a sense of assurance deep within that such abominable things had happened far away from home, and nothing comparable had ever taken place here in India. This misplaced sense of complacency was broken when I came across this collection of photographs. They were taken by the famous American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine during what is now known as the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946 – a romantic name given to what was essentially a Hindu-Muslim riot of unprecedented scale that followed the call for ‘Direct Action’ by the Muslim League on the 16th of August, 1946. Incidentally, the last Independence Day was also the 65th anniversary of these riots.

One might say that my surprise at these pictures is unwarranted and betrays my ignorance of India’s communal past, since such riots have been common in India, the worst of them having occurred during the Partition of 1947. To such a charge my only defence is that while being reasonably aware of India’s communal history (including the events captured in Bourke-White’s pictures), I had failed to grasp the sheer savagery of these killings which took place not in a distant place but so close to where I have grown up – in the very heart of my home state, until I chanced upon these photographs. That Bengalis, the stereotypically peaceful and most complacent of people, could be swept up in a mass frenzy to the extent that they could delude themselves into committing a bloodbath of such horrifying proportions as revealed by these pictures was something I had not realized before. Some of the photographs are really graphic and makes one wonder how the photographer could stand steady in the midst of such ghastly scenes and capture them on camera. Bourke-White’s courage seems to be otherworldly to me, and she deserves respect for committing those scenes to posterity.

Sir Francis Tuker, the then Chief of the Eastern Command of the British Indian Army, described the riots in these words: “It was unbridled savagery with homicidal maniacs let loose to kill and kill and to maim and burn. The underworld of Calcutta was taking charge of the city.” (Tuker’s vivid account of the events of 16th to 20th August can be found here.) If Bourke-White’s photographs seem gut-wrenching, then Tuker’s words are not to be left behind in their description of bestiality and read like something out of a Leon Uris holocaust novel. Narrating a scene in Bag-Bazaar Street – a very busy thoroughfare known for its famous rasgullas –   he writes: “On closer inspection of the bodies in this area we found that many were horribly mutilated and in one particular place a man had been tied by his ankles to a tramway electric junction box, his hands were bound behind his back and a hole had been made in his forehead so that he bled to death through the brain. He was such a ghastly sight that it was a wonder that the soldiers who were ordered to cut him down and cover him with a nearby sack, were not ill on the spot.”

A passer-by walking down Bag-Bazar Street in the present day is likely to be unaware of the dark history of the place, but many of the old buildings that line the street have stood standing there while the bloodbath had unfolded in front of them. But since they cannot tell their story, the passer-by shall never know. In fact, there is no monument in the whole of Calcutta that will remind him of the thousands who died on the streets in the summer of 1946. After all, it is only natural for a nation which has long suffered at the hands of foreign rulers to build, upon gaining freedom, monuments only to those who have died at the hands of foreign enemies and not those who are butchered by their own friends and neighbours. The new powers that be ensure that a vain and largely artificial sense of nationalism is made to cover up for the shame of a deep-rooted internal disunity, and generations of school children grow up with profound indignation over the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre and, at the same time, complete ignorance of something as ignominious as the Great Calcutta Killing. Through concerted efforts, public consciousness is filled with hatred for the enemy without, while the greater enemy that lurks within is conveniently forgotten. As a consequence of this collective hushing-up and shying-away from realities, the nation fails to develop the maturity to deal with deeper social problems. The policies, institutions and efforts that are necessary to mend broken bridges between communities are never put in place. People live their lives under the delusion that they are citizens of one great nation that brings together diverse communities, when the reality is that there are even today as many nations in India as there are communities.  The “Indian Union” is actually a union of illusions.

How else do we explain the ease with which, four and a half decades after independence, a minor political outfit running short of ideas for nation-building can turn to the business of nation-breaking over a hypothetical temple, and in so doing not only rekindle that old blood-lust, but also gain national acceptance through that exercise? (I refer obviously to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise to prominence with the Ayodhya Ram Temple affair, a shameful episode in independent India’s communal history.) What is even more unfortunate is that the very people who masterminded these events are today nurturing ambitions for prime-ministerial office. Mr Advani, the veteran of Ayodhya, is once again embarking on another of his national rabble-rousing missions, and Narendra Modi is on a self-righteous fast claiming to be a messiah of communal harmony. Our collective memory is so short-lived that their ambitions might just bear fruit, and then there shall be very little we can do to prevent history from repeating itself.

Be that as it may, the intent of writing this article was not to dwell on the murky political situation of the day and I have digressed from the main theme. I have recounted a historical event; but unless it has some connection to the present and to the future, documenting history is a meaningless exercise. Its only value lies in being able to record the causal relationships between human actions and their consequences so that every generation can decide for itself which actions to repeat and which to avoid. Edward Gibbon described history as “little more than the register of crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind” and Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs represent a typical and fairly recent page from that register. In fact, as our experience shows, the context has not changed much from 1946 to 1992 to 2002, and even in the present day, the causal relationship between unbridled demagoguery and human suffering is being repeatedly evidenced not just in India, but the world over. The ‘register of follies’ is being written in every day and each page tries to remind us how easy it can be for ordinary men and women to forget eons of civilization behind them and, under the slightest provocation, become beasts for a day.

If after repeated reminders we do not learn, then there is very little to be said of human intelligence and lesser still about the future of the intelligent race.

Storm in a Teacup

Photo courtesy ibnlive.com

Of late, quite a few people I know have asked me for my opinion on the Anna Hazare affair and I have been averting comment. What with all the rumpus and brouhaha generated by the so-called ‘movement’, I found myself irritated with and disinterested in the entire affair. Now that the episode is well behind us, I feel it is possible for me to reflect dispassionately on the past events and lay down my thoughts on some of the issues surrounding it. I have been surfing the internet for opinion pieces on the issue and most of the ones I came across tended to veer towards extremes – either thoroughly dismissing Anna Hazare as a passing irritant, a blackmailer of democracy, a misguided old buffoon who had no sense of the times (like Arundhati Roy’s diatribe against Hazare, reeking obviously of communistic drivel and conspiracy theories)  or else eulogizing him as a modern-day Gandhi and his movement as the harbinger of great changes to come. One cannot expect today’s media to be objective on any issue and it is no surprise then that the more I think about it, I realize that the reality lies somewhere in between the extremes. A rare opinion piece that I found was this, and I feel it puts the issue in somewhat proper perspective. I wish more opinion pieces were written in this vein.

The first question to which I applied my mind was that of the the size or magnitude of this ‘movement’. It is being hailed by many as a mass revolution of the kind not seen since the days of the freedom struggle. All I can say to such commentators is that a basic appreciation of scale and proportion of events is manifestly beyond their grasp. In this age of social networking, when the concept of ‘motion’ is defined by the number of likes on one’s status message or the number of times it has been ‘retweeted’, it is very easy to call an event a mass movement. Even in terms of the awareness that it generated, I suspect much of it was confined to the watchers of 24×7 news channels and Facebook addicts- essentially the urban young and middle-aged. The few who actually ‘moved’ in this movement were the ones who turned up at the Ramlila Maidan, the epicentre of all activity. But even the crowds that assembled there are not a measure of the scale of the movement, for Ramlila Maidan is no far-off Dandi which takes an arduous march to reach, but a centrally located, well-connected public square in the heart of the country’s capital city. I can atleast vouch for the fact that in downtown Jamshedpur, in the corruption-ridden state of Jharkhand, the response to Anna’s call was really muted and I think it must have been the same in any city outside the NCR.

But inspite of all this, it must be conceded that Team Anna are good strategists. They chose their timing (August 15) and location well, and were able to capture the attention of urban India in the shortest time-span and with the least amount of effort. Add to this the government’s stupendous ignorance of elementary statecraft which led it to arrest Anna Hazare and jail him even before he had said the word ‘go’, and you have actually created in a flash a modern-day Gandhi and a crusader against an immoral and highhanded authority. No wonder that even those who were not sure until the last moment if ‘they really were Anna’ were converted as soon as they heard the news of the arrests, if not in the cause of the Lokpal but at least to uphold their own civil liberties.

The next question is that of democracy and whether the tactics employed by Team Anna amounted to a subversion of democracy as some, particularly politicians, have pointed out. I do not see how that can be true. Involvement of non-parliamentarians in the drafting of legislation is an ordinary affair and most bills brought by the government are drafted by experts or bureaucrats who are not parliamentarians. Members of the public, whether in form of NGOs or pressure groups are perfectly justified in seeking representation on a drafting panel, particularly when the envisaged bill is of burning interest to the nation, and it is finally up to the parliament to accept the bill in that form, modify it or reject it altogether. However, the modus operandi adopted by such pressure groups and the government’s reaction to them sets the tone of as well as precedent for future political discourse. In Anna’s case, it was fast-until-death (and pass-the-bill-by-nightfall-or-I-die) which, howsoever justified it may seem to those who are reminded of the fight against the British Raj, is essentially a strong-arming tactic representing complete abdication of reason and appeal to popular sentiment. Unlike the Raj, Today’s government is of our own making and this kind of opportunistic and bulldozing behaviour to bring it to its knees does not really set Anna and his team apart from the very politicians they want to crucify.

Now to the deeper issues in tackling corruption and whether the Jan Lok Pal, if and when it materializes, will achieve anything significant in that direction. From what I understand, the Lok Pal will be another punitive institution to add to the host of such institutions already existing – like the ED, CBI, CAG, CVC, law courts etc. No matter what shape the legislature gives to the Lok Pal, it will be practically impossible for a body comprising of 10-12 persons to attack corruption at the grassroots – which is where it resides and hurts most. As far as the Rajas and Kanimozhis are concerned, the ordinary people are not concerned with their fate, and they are best left at the mercy of investigative journalists and their own fair-weather colleagues. Indian bureaucracy consists of an estimated 3.5 crore government employees spread all over the country and beyond, and it is no laughing matter trying to bring them under the ambit of anything. Investigative and punitive bodies can at best scrape the surface when it comes to dealing with corruption in this behemoth of an organization, and that too only in the rare cases where the wrongdoer has been foolish enough to leave his tracks uncovered.

For any real change to take place, systemic interventions aimed at changing the behaviour and culture of the bureaucracy need to be introduced. (For an example of what I mean by systemic change, take a look at Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu’s policy paper on decriminalizing the act of bribegiving. Drawing from game theory, he suggests that such a simple intervention can reduce the incidence of corruption in the country significantly.) Policy makers could also take cues from the corporate world in this regard, which has evolved several elegant mechanisms to align the organization’s desire for performance with employees’ fundamental greed for money and advancement. Volumes can be written on such mechanisms, but the moot point here is that the approach to eradicating corruption has to be systemic and not superficial, and the whole idea of Lok Pal belongs in the latter category. Viewed as a first step, it is perhaps desirable, and indeed Anna Hazare’s agitation shall be successful if it serves as a warm-up for more serious discussions to follow in its wake.

Finally I would like to reflect on the person of Anna Hazare in the capacity of a leader and reformer that he is being made out to be. Parallels with Gandhi are being drawn and bandied around effortlessly. (Business schools are in fact already hailing the campaign as a fit case study on leadership.) I cannot say if he is made of the stuff that great, transformational leaders are made of. In fact, I doubt if he considers himself anything more than a Gandhian and an activist, and in the recent episode it was only too evident that he was being used as a mere façade, a figurehead of sorts for the movement while the masterminding was being done by others under his brand name. Leadership I feel is more about long-term vision and bringing about fundamental changes and taking people along (Gandhi went from village to village educating people about the ills of a subservient existence) rather than sitting in one spot and strategizing for the next hour or planning the next move.

Be that as it may, the very fact that so many people flocked to the Ramlila Ground when he announced his fast betrays the deep-rooted angst in people against the rotten system that they are forced to be a part of. They were not looking for a Gandhi at all and they would have rallied around anybody who was willing to go on a fast against corruption. It also betrays a poverty of good leadership of the inspirational kind in our country today, for given the dearth of choice, people can not afford to discriminate. In fact this movement was as much about identifying with a leader as it was about fighting for a cause and it would do our nation a whole lot of good if the politicians of the day are able to read the writing on the wall and rise to the occasion.

Of Gandhi’s arrival in Indian politics, Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India:

And then he came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes; like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds. He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition…Political freedom took new shape and acquired a new content.

In our anxious wait for that badly-needed ‘whirlwind’, we seem to have been swept off our feet by a storm in a teacup.

On 11th September 2001, the world witnessed perhaps the most horrifying act of aggression­ since possibly the events of the Second World War. Osama Bin Laden, the man behind the act is now dead and his corpse is being tossed around unceremoniously by the foaming waters of the North Arabian Sea, like flotsam from a wrecked vessel – never to be discovered and never to be washed ashore. Considering the magnitude of the crimes he masterminded and the number of innocent lives that fell prey to the acts of the organization that he led, it is but fitting that not only was he finally hunted down after years of untiring effort, but also that he died at the hands of soldiers of the very nation whose people had suffered untold sadness and misery at his hands. The biter has been bitten, the Americans have avenged themselves and a sense of justice seems to pervade the world.

Justice, however, is one thing that seems to be missing from this latest episode in the ‘War on Terror’. My greatest regret at this entire affair is that Bin Laden could not be (or was not) captured alive and put to trial for his crimes. Increasingly, reports seem to point to the possibility that he was unarmed at the time of his death and that the American forces were in a position to capture him alive, that there was very little opposition from those inside the compound where Bin Laden lay hiding and yet he was shot dead. If these reports are to be believed, then ‘Operation Geronimo’ amounts to what Noam Chomsky calls a political assassination, committing which the Americans have failed to live by the example they set before the world 66 years ago at the Justizpalast in Nurnberg. Opening the trial of the Nazi war criminals, the American prosecutor Robert H. Jackson had remarked: That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power ever has paid to Reason. Even as the specifics of the covert operation to kill Bin Laden remain unclear to the general public, it is to be hoped the American forces had enough cause to put him to death and dispose of his body so hastily, and that Power did not overcome Reason when they came face to face with the man who had come to symbolize Evil in today’s world the same way as Hitler had done half a century ago.

For what could have been more fulfilling than the sight of a defeated Osama Bin Laden sitting in a prisoners’ box and being judged by the same procedures of law that are applied to a bag-snatcher or a sneak-thief? A courtroom is a great leveller, and a trial would have cut him (and the cause he espoused) down to size instead of dignifying his crimes by killing him ‘in action’ and thereby giving him what his sympathisers are calling a martyr’s death. More importantly, it would have proved to him, and his followers who are still at large, that the world in spite of their best efforts still believes in the concept of civilization and the rule of law, and that the way it would mete out justice to them differs significantly from their own perverted breed of justice that they mete out to those who disagree with them.

Be that as it may, Osama Bin Laden is dead and we must turn to reflecting on what his death implies for the world now. Regardless of whether his supporters are able to build a memorial to his death, Bin Laden was and will remain the most powerful and enduring symbol of organized terrorism and what it can achieve. The fact that he was eventually killed might deter those who fear death as a consequence of their crimes, but in the business of terrorism, such people are in a minority. Bin Laden took terrorism to a whole new dramatic level and the sheer derring-do of the events of 9/11 will continue to inspire many terrorists for a long time to come.

I find it difficult to conceive of a time in the future when terrorism will cease to exist. As long as there is a great imbalance of social development and political power in the world, organized violence will continue to exist in some form or the other. Today we choose to call it Islamic Terrorism, but it is fundamentally not different from what was once described as the Crusades a few hundred years ago or ‘The Holocaust’ more recently. ‘Terrorism’ and the ‘War on Terror’ will continue with increased vigour in the foreseeable future, more so because the two share a symbiotic relationship, and there is no force strong enough to restrain them. In fact, the resources that catalyse them are ever increasing – social disparity, hegemony of one nation over the other, and our technological capability to destroy and kill – while the restraining forces – voices of sanity and moderation – are increasingly on the decline.

The world today is organized around artificial constructs like religion, nation and race – constructs that we have chosen to make a part of our identity and from which spring all the emotions that are at the root of our unhappiness. Bertrand Russell[1] wrote that “if in the modern world communities are unhappy, it is because they choose to be so…because they have ignorances, habits, beliefs and passions, which are dearer to them than happiness or even life.” That these words are as relevant now as they were at the close of the Second World War is a sure sign that we have failed to acquire wisdom at the same pace as we have acquired knowledge. We stand today as the most intelligent and cannibalistic species on Earth.

The images of the collapsing twin towers will remain with us as terrible reminders of the horrors that man is capable of inflicting upon his own species, very much like the images of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the black and white video footage of the bodies that tumbled out when the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Dachau were opened. But even in the midst of all this misery, if we are to make our lives worthwhile  in the present, we must live in the hope of a different world in the future. We must live in the hope that men will learn to value life more than they are fascinated with death.

Above all, we must live in the hope of a day when generations to come shall treat those images with utter incredulity and not look at them with the sense of painful acceptance that we, our parents, and their parents, have been accustomed to.

 


[1] Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday by Bertrand Russell

I could never have imagined that a seemingly innocuous comment on Facebook relating to the late lamented Sathya Sai Baba would stir up a hornet’s nest of criticism from some of my close friends and lead me to revive my long-dormant blog, if only to put my own standing in perspective. I am not too sanguine (and neither hopeful) about the rebirth of the Baba for the third time, but I will give him full credit for reviving my blog from the dead. (Well, to be honest, the Baba deserves only partial credit for this, the other part due to my current position as a summer intern in the HR department of a multi-national corporation – the italicized words representing the perfect ingredients for idleness.)

What had happened was this: I had shared a link to a blog post by the journalist C.P. Surendran in which he recalls an encounter with the Sathya Sai Baba when, as a child he went to visit him with his mother. The article is most interesting, particularly the part where the Baba insists that the lady express a wish which he would fulfill, but is caught on the wrong foot when all she asks for is a ripe and succulent jackfruit, which the Baba, in spite of all his sagacity and sleight of hand, is unable to conjure. The article can be read here. The innocuous comment that I had attached to the shared link was as follows: ‘And to think that there will be a State Funeral for a confidence trickster! I would bet P.C. Sorcar is a better jackfruit-conjurer.’

To this, my friends on FB were scandalized and some even went to the extent of calling my comments ‘cheap’ and that I have no business to badmouth a saintly personality who has done so much good for mankind, and that too after his death. Looking back, I admit that my choice of adjectives could have been a tad less colourful and better chosen. I offer my sincere apologies to those who have been offended.

I have nothing personal against the ‘godman’ per se. In fact, I feel his unconventional hairdo was quite ahead of his time. Rather, my problem is not with the Baba, but with the kind of things he (and all other men of his trade) expects his customers to believe, and which take us back in time to the mediaeval ages. It is being pointed out to skeptics like me that great men from all walks of life – sportspersons, politicians and heads of government alike – have been ardent followers of the Baba, and hence he deserves to be held on a high pedestal in public memory in spite of the all the mumbo-jumbo that he claimed to do throughout career, including his claim that he was a reincarnation of the original Sai Baba, and his ability to regurgitate Shivlingas and the like. Examples of his philanthropic activities are also being brandished in the face of people like me (who do not believe in his miracles or the fact that he was anything more than a pretender) in the hope that we would stop criticizing someone who gave so much to the poor and needy.

Well, there is something fundamentally wrong in calling the Baba’s social activities philanthropy. The essence of philanthropy is giving without the expectation of receiving anything in exchange. Whatever good work the Baba did was in exchange for a belief by his followers and beneficiaries in the divine concept called ‘Sai Baba’. He purchased blind faith in his supernatural powers by giving poor and illiterate people in some villages essential commodities like food, water and electricity- things for which they can believe any incredulous and absurd nonsense that they are asked to. Had he done all this as an ordinary, mortal being sans any divine pretensions, I would have held him in utmost respect. But alas, all of his philanthropy was only an exercise to grow his popularity and feed his vain ego through the ignorance of the uneducated or else irrational masses.

If we are to measure his life in terms of the number of followers he gathered, then he is a very great man indeed. But if the measure of his life be his contribution to humankind in terms of spiritual, philosophical or religious output, I fear a close inspection would only reveal that whatever he preached was mostly banal, commonsense or restatement of the teachings of other men who have come before him. His life, in that sense, would be really insignificant. It is our great misfortune as a nation that sends spacecraft to explore the universe and swears by Satyameva Jayate or the ‘Triumph of Truth’ that we are glorifying and legitimizing the life and work of an impostor and an apostle of ignorance and pseudoscientific belief by according him a State Funeral. Were I to even believe in reincarnations, I would never wish another version of the Sai Baba on a thinking and rational populace.

There are many who say that spirituality is a matter of faith, and some have it while some don’t. To them, all I say is that if spirituality means, as Anil Dharker asks in his blog, ‘stopping your mind from thinking for itself and allowing it to do the bidding of someone else’, then I am happy to be non-spiritual. At least, I am doing justice to my intelligence and rational upbringing. The world, as Carl Sagan said, ‘is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there is little good evidence’.

According to me, the entire institution of the Sathya Sai Baba has been nothing more than a pretty story with little good evidence.

(P.S.: At the invitation of The NRI, an online magazine, I guest-posted a piece on the Sai Baba. I would urge readers to read it here.)

Seats of Unlearning

The Times of India carried an editorial yesterday on the on-going unrest in Jadavpur University (JU), and blamed the political polarization of students, teachers and administrators alike for the sorry situation in which the University finds itself today. Even as this assessment distressed me as an alumnus of JU, I could not help but agree with it completely.

Politics in university campuses as such is not an undesirable thing, for politics is not divorced from any branch of society. In fact, the values and philosophies that drive the nation as a whole, like freedom of thought, equality of opportunity and democracy in decision making, should inform all aspects of life and activity on university campuses as well. After all, these are the places where the minds and opinions of the future stakeholders of society are moulded, and if this all-important process does not take place in an atmosphere inspired by debate and dissenting opinions, then the extension of this tradition to society at large shall remain at stake.

The problem arises, however, when concepts like democracy and freedom are interpreted in a loose and self-serving manner. The recent protests following the decision of the university to install surveillance cameras in the campus illustrates the point. The student union is opposing, by means of the practice of gherao and class boycott which it has mastered over the years, what is purely a security measure on the ground that it infringes upon their personal liberty. Any person remotely acquainted with the social culture on JU campus can well understand what the union means when it talks about ‘personal liberty’ and ‘democratic space’. In fact, one of the posters that they have put up in protest could not make the meaning clearer: it reads ‘Let us breathe freely’, the implicit assumption being that the word ‘breathe’ be interpreted in the most liberal sense to include inhalation of every kind of narcotic effluvium, presumably as tribute to a culture which the rest of the world has left behind in the eighties. One does not wish to sound sarcastic, but do these students sit in protest when their liberty is taken for a toss in public places like shopping malls, airports and stadia? Do they even raise their voices above a whimper when they go on to work in offices where they are denied access to every conceivable social networking and emailing site?

Student activism in JU in recent years has been completely misdirected, and most of their protests are desperate attempts to retain their relevance amongst students. The union seldom raises issues that really matter to students. Take for instance the issue of working hours. At present, the entire university, like a post office, ‘shuts down’ at 5.00 pm, along with all its libraries, classrooms and discussion halls, and does not open until the staff arrive at their leisure the next morning. (A visiting professor once quipped that the emblem of the university, which is the image of a burning lamp, ought to be replaced by that of a padlock to do justice to its true culture!). As a result students find it very difficult to work on group assignments after class hours. These, and many other real issues, like improvement in teaching and evaluating standards, quality of faculty, provision of residential facilities, restructuring of curriculum, increase in the number of exchange programs, involvement of students in placement activities and the like are never raised by the unions. Instead, they waste their energies protesting vociferously against fee hike and reduction in the number of holidays, matters which have no bearing whatsoever on academic standards. (If anything, an increase in fee would at least reduce the University’s dependence on the state government for funds.)

It would be unfair to blame the students alone for their misguided ‘political’ behaviour. The other stakeholders – faculty, staff and administration, are equally misguided in their convictions and commitments. They are all aware of the importance of politics and political awareness in the campus, but they interpret it as affiliation to either of the two powers that are constantly fighting it out in the halls of government and on the streets outside. As a result, the colonnades inside become indistinguishable from the streets outside. The campus loses its academic environment, and the public exchequer is drained to train young men and women in the martial art of gherao and dharna. That politics is fundamentally a tool for collective decision making, and can be employed in constructive ways without taking recourse to party affiliations and ideological commitments, is beyond the scope of the sterile imagination of teachers and students alike.

University campuses are established to serve as crucibles of thought and experiment, so that they may give birth to new ideas and ways of thinking, and provide society with new directions and novel aspirations. A university need not be insulated from politics to achieve this end. It must, however, be insulated from the political culture that prevails outside its walls, so that it may develop its own superior culture in the hope that it may one day permeate outside and supplant the original and inferior one. On the contrary, universities in Bengal (and particularly those funded by the State) are pitiable imitations of the decaying social system. The corruption, bureaucracy, favouritism, petty political bickering, factionism and stagnation of thought that are unfortunate hallmarks of social and political life in the state are to be encountered in miniature within the four walls of the University campus. Once a university ceases to give something new to society, but instead begins to imitate its ills and infirmities, it suffers an intellectual and moral death; and society can not be expected to bear the heavy burden of its corpse post mortem. JU seems to be heading in this direction.

Jadavpur University was born as the product of a socio-cultural renascence. Nothing short of another renascence is called for if it has to be rescued from the downhill course it has set itself. The first step in this direction would be to make the university self-dependant, since dependence on and influence of the state government is at the root of most of its problems, including that of a decadent student culture. As an alumnus, I can only hope that the fabled canteens of my alma mater shall once again come alive with heated intellectual debates (and budding romances) over bread chops and cups of coffee, while the anxious lovers are, after all, left to their cosy corners, away from the prying eyes of the surveillance cameras!

The Enemy Within

The brutal massacre of 76 CRPF personnel in Dantewada last week should have shocked our conscientious nation out of its summer torpor with a far greater jolt than the events of 26/11 in Bombay, but such has not been the case. After all, anything that is not covered live on TV fails to deserve our attention nowadays. We didn’t see any live footage of bombings, nor could we hear any gunshots from behind the reporter’s back, and neither was there any ‘survivor’ to narrate his bloodcurdling experience. All we were treated to was an array of 76 neatly arranged corpses, after all the action was already over. Moreover, most of us didn’t even know that a place called Dantewada existed on our map before the events unfolded. Our lukewarm reaction to the massacre should therefore, in all fairness, be excused, and we should be allowed to pursue our voyeuristic interest in Shoaib Malik’s second marriage and Shashi Tharoor’s prospective third. With so much happening around us, one can hardly expect us to remain with one incident for too long. Sarcastic as this may sound, it is unfortunately the reeking truth and only goes to show that we like to put our money (and attention) where the drama is. 26/11 was high drama, and on that scale, Dantewada was a passing short sketch and does not even deserve a handy nickname like “6/4” or “April Massacre”. So subdued was the public interest in this event that it was left to the CRPF alone to declare the day as Martyr’s Day (in a function telecast only on DD).

Collective public response to any event is predictable and is guided by the same laws always and everywhere and the mass media generally plays a pivotal role in moulding it. Passive response to an act of terror is one thing, but to sympathise with the perpetrators is a very different thing altogether. What defies understanding is the behaviour of certain members of the so-called ‘civil society’ who pose themselves as voices of the collective conscience and are generally designated by the term ‘intellectuals’. A closer study of their antics reveals that they are neither conscientious nor intellectual. In the particular case of the Naxal movement, these individuals have always taken the side of the Naxals and consistently criticized any attempt by the state to enforce the majesty of the law upon these criminals. A casual survey of the backgrounds of such ‘intellectuals’ reveals that they are mostly practitioners of what we call the liberal arts, who may now have lost their former verve, and have taken up the cause of misguided and brainwashed people in a desperate attempt to remain relevant in the scheme of things. (Arundhati Roy fits this description to the tee, and Aparna Sen’s latest movie convinces me that she too is headed the same way).

To all such self-proclaimed champions of civil society, one must pose a few straightforward questions: What comprises ‘civil society’? Do the armed forces of the state, who risk their own lives to protect the lives of civilians, not belong to this category? Are they not civil, and do they not belong to society? The usual justification that the intellectuals offer for their support to the Maoists is that the acts of violence committed by them is their way of revolting against decades of neglect, deprivation and oppression, and therefore, their conscience prohibits them from condemning these acts. Do they even realize that in so saying, they are positioning themselves in the company of those who support violence as a means of salvation, including terrorist outfits like the Lashkar, Al Qaeda and the Taliban?

The Maoists do not believe in the way of life that we are accustomed to. In the words of their late ideologue Mao Zedong himself, “War is the main form of struggle and the army is the main form of organization”. In a society guided by this principle, Mao goes on to say that “armed agrarian revolution will be the key in the creation of the unending flow of armed revolutionary forces from the mass of the peasantry, which will lead towards establishing the invincible people’s army. The protracted people’s war will advance towards victory by liberating the vast areas of the countryside first and then encircling and finally capturing the cities”. No sane person can remain unmoved by such a horrific agenda. By this definition alone, the Maoist movement is terrorism in its most pristine form – bloody, macabre, calculated and ruthless. However, in most discussions on this issue, we hear it said that there are two sides to this debate; that the root cause of the violence is the state’s apathy towards the backward tribal districts, and that use of force to counter the Maoists is not a justified course of action and will further alienate the tribals from the mainstream of society. At best, such an assessment is unrealistic and naïve.

A garden can overgrow due to neglect and in due course become a haven for snakes and pests of all kinds. Unknown to the landlord, the snakes multiply and organize themselves and one day bite his own children to death in a show of audacity. The landlord understands that a stitch in time could have prevented this disaster, but now that the situation is beyond his control, does he try to strike a deal with the killer snakes and try to explore options of peaceful coexistence with them, or does he protect himself and the rest of his family by razing the undergrowth and flushing out the vipers once and for all? To my understanding, the Maoists are no different from these virulent snakes, and need to be smoked out of their hiding places in the jungles and brought to task. If lack of development be the reason for the growth of the Maoist menace in backward areas, then they are admittedly monsters of our own making, but nothing should compel us to tolerate monsters beyond necessity. They are no Robin Hoods of modern day, championing the cause of the poor and killing only the rich. Their only agenda is terror, and they kill rich and poor alike. They terrorize the villagers, force them into compliance with their demands, extort money from businessmen to feed their own minions and buy illegal weapons. They destroy schools, hospitals and police stations and subvert every attempt at development. They revel in the backwardness of the people they claim to defend, for that is what keeps them going. I do not know of a single characteristic of theirs which distinguishes them from the Taliban of Afghanistan, just as I do not know of a single reason why we should not deal with them in the same way as the world dealt with the Taliban.

Opponents of war rightly describe recourse to violence as abdication of reason, but in breaking the backs of the Maoists, we shall not be abdicating reason, but forcing reason down the throats of those who have long abdicated it. However, for this war to have a meaningful and lasting impact, its aim should not be to merely eliminate the miscreants, but to substitute them with a contented and industrious people who shall have no reason or inclination to take up arms in future. Undeniably this is a war that we have brought upon ourselves through decades of inaction, malgovernance and skewed development, but if there be any meaning left in the vision of India as a land ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’, then we must fight this war to a logical conclusion.

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