All entries for November 2005

November 22, 2005

Contesting Guha on Sen

Economic & Political Weeky 40:46, 12.11.2005

Ramachandra Guha provides an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat contentious, review of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian (EPW, October 8). I associate myself with two of the points made by the reviewer. First, Sen’s grasp of historiography – self-admittedly – is not comparable to his depth of knowledge in welfare economics and social choice theory or western political philosophy. His factual errors, as mentioned by the reviewer, are a good example of this. Second, the reviewer has a compelling case when he agrees with Mohandas Gandhi in arguing that it was Hinduism which gave Mohammedanism its Akbar. Sen ignores the cornerstone of the “Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam” principle, and fails to gauge the importance of the inclusive nature of Hinduism that distinguished the Indian version of Islam from its counterparts in west Asia. For example, Sufism in India flourished as a mystic and unorthodox variant of the vigorously legalistic mainstream version of Islam prescribed by the muftis vis-ŕ-vis in west Asia where it came under the influence of the sunni and shi’a law schools to develop its own rigid and codified system.

However, this is not to grant the reviewer full marks, for there are issues that could be raised with his analysis of Sen’s work as well. First, his insistence on the fundamental – and perhaps only – reliance on the proximate past while understanding the present is misleading. While Sen would have done well to include a far deeper analysis of the thoughts of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, among others, the crux of his argument lies elsewhere. Sen argues that the essence of India is inevitably argumentative, and that can be seen in its most distinct form in ancient India, not corrupted by the advent of colonialism. Yajnâvalkya may have been a bigot, but he did debate with Gârgi. How often did Aurangzeb or Lord Linlithgow do the same?

Second, the choice of scholars is – as the reviewer argued – primarily from north India and especially from Sen’s native Bengal. I see nothing wrong in that except the possibility of a major school of non-deliberative and non-pluralistic thought being ignored by Sen. Whether that is the case is not pointed out by the reviewer.

Finally, Sen is not looking at just the past to understand the present, but he argues for identifying a trail of thinking that he believes is India’s soul. Admittedly, Sen associates with the idea of India, but it is not the imagined community envisaged by the Hindutva ideologues. Sen’s India is a pluralistic and argumentative civilisation.

Aruni Mukherjee
University of Warwick, UK

November 21, 2005

Rebels Without A Cause

The Telegraph, 21.11.2005

It is shocking to learn that one of India’s most upright and respectable prime ministers was greeted with slogans like “Manmohan murdabaad” during his visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University (“School of protest revives professor in PM”, Nov 15). That a large section of JNU students have left leanings is well-known. The prime minister, during his speech, warned against the “temple of learning” being held ransom to bigotry. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case with most Indian universities.

Most striking was the reason behind the demonstration. The protesters’ concerns about India voting with the United States of America against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency are hardly pressing enough to call for such unruly behaviour. Why do the students never protest against the violence in Kashmir or the Maoist attacks in Bihar? Are these events any less important or are they not glamorous enough? What the students must understand is that Manmohan Singh is far more capable of managing India’s national interests than any one of them. If they really want to lend their lungs to a worthy cause, they should stage similar protests outside the offices of Prakash Karat or H.D. Deve Gowda who are more interested in stalling the country’s progress under Singh.

November 16, 2005

Service with a Smile

The Telegraph, 16.11.2005

In “Slave, scab, pipe dream” (Nov 11), Ashok Mitra compares call centre workers to prisoners and slaves. But in doing so, Mitra seems to have forgotten that the former take up the job on their own accord, unlike the latter. The high attrition rate in the business process outsourcing industry bears testimony to workers making conscious choices about their careers.

One of Mitra’s contentions is that outsourcing takes place because importing migrant workers could result in their unionization. This is a preposterous argument as countries with whom India has the closest links in terms of outsourcing are among the least unionized in the world — the United States of America and the United Kingdom. Mitra’s fear that the high unemployment rate in continental Europe might ring the death knell for India’s BPO boom is also unfounded. The reason why many European companies are doing well is because they have outsourced some of their operations to India. Sooner or later, other countries in the continent would follow suit, and Indian BPO companies would continue to prosper. Where else would these companies find thousands of computer-savvy, English-speaking workers ready at hand?

The success story of the BPO industry in India can be attributed to the fact that the government has not meddled in this sector. And if the revenues generated by the software industry is anything to go by, it seems unlikely that the government will do anything to hinder its growth. The real problem, however, with the BPO companies is the lack of awareness regarding the intellectual property rights of products and services outsourced. The companies simply develop an application for the end-user who takes over the copyright. If adequate attention is not paid to the IPR issue, Indian companies will continue to pay for purchasing applications that they develop, just as they are doing it now.

November 11, 2005

The Evolution of Hinduism

4 out of 5 stars

Asia Times, 11.11.2005

William Wilberforce, a British parliamentarian who died in 1833, once spoke of the "dark and bloody superstitions" that embody the creed that came to be termed Hinduism.

Prior to that, the mind-boggling diversity in sub-continental religious practices existed without a common definition to bind them together, and this "crystallization of the concept" is what Brian K Pennington traces in his book Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians and the Colonial Construction of Religion.

Between 1789 and 1832, the Orientalist fascination for the "cloud of fables" – according to William Jones, the 18th century Indian historian – embodied in Vedic literature was replaced by the East India Company-backed intelligentsia who were preoccupied with utilitarian criticisms of the "sinister principles" of the same, depicted nowhere more vividly than in the works of James Mill and Thomas Macaulay.

Pennington argues that the modern avatar of the somewhat homogenized ancient religion that can be loosely termed Hinduism is a direct reaction to such seething and degrading criticism from the colonial academics, some of it indeed valid (such as vilifying the sati tradition – the traditional Hindu practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre).

He argues that the elites within Hindu society entered a "dialectical space" with colonialism, thereby producing a defensive self-determined version of their faith. While celebrating colonial promotion of certain scriptures, they vehemently opposed stereotyping, as can be seen in the outcry among the Bengali educated middle classes over the label of the effeminate babu. This similar dialectic process was behind the rise of Hindu nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as behind the progress made by the Hindutva movement of the late 1990s.

Nevertheless, Pennington refuses to present the colonial state with the credit of transforming "fragmented, disparate, localized, particularistic and ever-changing mini traditions" into a world religion. Whereas "Indophoebia" and the "racist science" of the 19th century did indeed contribute substantially toward the development of a defensive definition of Hinduism, crediting the state with the invention of Hinduism as we know it is ignoring the "mess of encounters" that can better explain this development.

Whereas literary critic Edward Said accused the West of essentializing the East, the opposite argument is also true. Pennington makes a distinction between various classes of Hinduism’s "other", and argues that class, nationality, outlook and background of the actors on the ground made the encounters between, say, a missionary and a peasant much different from that between a colonial academic and a local historian.

What follows from the importance of the nature of the "other" is the fundamental significance of religious values in this discourse, discarded by many schools of historians preferring to focus solely on socio-economic trends. Pennington associates himself with Partha Chatterjee who wrote in the first volume of the Subaltern Studies about the various ways in which the downtrodden communities often express themselves in the form of their religion. This is also seen in the works of David Hardiman on Adivasis or indigenous people in western India, as well as that of Saurabh Dube on the Satnamis of central India.

Pennington uses a relatively small number of first-hand sources, but adheres closely to them. The archives of the Church Missionary Society reveal the attitudes of missionaries toward evangelizing the natives, an attitude advocated by many including Charles Grant, the Scottish politician, and Wilberforce. On the other hand, the transformation in colonial attitudes can be seen in the archives of the Asiatick Researches, which gradually gets taken over by colonial influences, sidelining the Orientalists. He also dwells on the religious newspaper Samacar Chandrika published by Bhabanicaran Bandyopadhyaya, which took on the task to refute much of the essentialism dished out by colonial literature. However, all of this does strengthen the author's point about the importance of religion, explicit or implicit, in colonial policy-making.

Two questions beg to be answered by Pennington. First, he says nothing about the crude distinction made by the colonial state between "martial" and "non-martial" races in the subcontinent, and the various categories of castes it defined. Such essentialization went a long way toward complicating the already juxtaposed threads of Hinduism, and much of that legacy exists to this day.

Moreover, whereas the colonial state may not have explicitly defined Hinduism, its criticisms of the same nevertheless led to Hindu nationalism adopting a very homogenous and essentially narrow view of Hinduism. As Amartya Sen has argued in his recent work The Argumentative Indian, Hinduism is simply too diverse to speak of in one single breath. Therefore, the prevalent definition of Hinduism (as in the stereotype used in the public domain today) may well have been invented during the high noon of colonialism.

Second, Pennington argues that there is increasingly a "need of structuring the relationship of religion and the nation state". This contemporary universal "need" can be readily questioned if one looks at secular Europe and India. Debates about race relations in Britain and France, and that of minority reservations in India are more to do with social exclusion and opportunities rather than any concerns about delineating the contours of state and religion. A more relevant discussion is the Middle East, where Islam and the nation state remain problematically juxtaposed.

However, Pennington is in need of recognizing the "essence" of Hindu philosophical writings during times much before his book covers, but which can indeed be a useful apparatus to determine the role of the state vis-a-vis religion. The image of the Brahmin holding the sveta-chattra (white umbrella) over the king was never involved in the analytical modus operandi of the colonial state while defining Hinduism.

On the larger question of whether contemporary Hinduism was invented, Pennington seems to adopt a persuasive argument. Whether there exists an alternative and distinct definition is a question that he leaves unexplored.

Aruni Mukherjee is based at the University of Warwick, England.

High Thinking

The Telegraph, 11.11.2005

Ramachandra Guha makes a disguised pro tanto distinction between Mao Zedong and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (“Helmsman and boatman”, Oct 15). He is right in observing that Gandhi’s unflinching adherence to ahimsa set him apart from other thinkers of his time and after. Chairman Mao, on the other hand, believed that the gun yielded political power, and did not hesitate to use it on his own people. But Mao and Gandhi have left strikingly similar legacies. And both have been quietly forgotten in their countries. Today’s China does not belong to Mao but to Deng Xiaoping. Similarly, today’s India is largely Nehru’s, not Gandhi’s. Hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party, and staunch Gandhian social activists who remain at the fringes of mainstream politics, both harp on the good old days under their helmsman. While Gandhi had a formidable rival, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who managed to spoil his dream of a united India, Mao too had Chiang Kai-Shek, who took control of Taiwan and kept it independent of the mainland.

As Guha mentions, both Gandhi and Mao were advocates of social equality. Gandhi forced his own orthodox wife to clean latrines, and Mao, during the Cultural Revolution in China, enforced mass deportation of intellectuals to countryside communes. The crucial difference between the two is that while Gandhi never tried to transform dissent into submission, Mao did. Perhaps that explains the fundamental structural differences between contemporary Indian and Chinese society.

November 10, 2005

Asia Times Letters

Ironically, while Farid Bakht [When will 'South Asia' disappear?, Nov 10] calls for dumping the baggage of colonial legacy from the nations in the Indian subcontinent, he forgets that "South Asia" as a term is indeed alien to the region. None of the countries share the slightest traits in common with each other except all of them having something or other in common with India. India is the glue that affords lending a regional name to this diverse area. Therefore, by harping for the correct formulation of the region, he may be unconsciously siding with the Hindutva ideologues who want to turn back the clock on partition. Now who's stuck under the baggage of history? Second, his predictions about the imminent collapse of the BSE [Bombay Stock Exchange] are based on mere speculation. The market has already been corrected in the last week or so. The fundamental point is that macro-economic fundamentals and corporate balance sheets of India are extremely healthy, and that is in turn likely to keep foreign funds interested in the market. Where direct foreign investment is concerned, India is rather insular. While that has its disadvantages, it also makes India less prone to succumb to a global downturn. Finally, the author seems peeved at India's de facto dumping of Dhaka over the Myanmar gas pipeline. If only the jihad junta could be controlled, and Bangladesh would quit dragging its feet over the project – and SAFTA [South Asian Free Trade Area] – things could well be different.

November 09, 2005

Asia Times Letters

Francesco Sisci [Democracy with Chinese characteristics, Nov 9] provides an illuminating summary of the discourses that have recently resurfaced over two individuals who were widely expected during the 1980s to be at the helm of China today – Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Had Hu and Zhao been in power instead of the likes of Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, China's political economy may well look significantly different today. However, Sisci does not seem to provide an answer to the original question: Does democracy have any prospects in China? He cites [Antonio] Gramsci on the organization of the party, but he excludes Gramsci's most profound contribution to scholarship – that of the power of ideas. In China, these powers are surprisingly small. Therefore, a resurfaced discourse will not achieve anything substantial towards ensuring greater democracy for China. The crucial point expressed by Sisci is that the people will have to "ultimately trust that [the party] will give China what it expects". In other words, the people will have to wait for the right time (as defined by the cadres in Beijing) before they can have the bliss of individual rights, freedom of expression, transparent elections et al. Even then, the delineation of the extent of that democracy will perhaps be "guided" by Beijing. All in all, the Communist Party is preparing to shift its role within the country. That doesn't equate to giving up power, but holding different variants of power.

November 08, 2005

Rules of Friendship

The Telegraph, 08.11.2005

Ashok Mitra makes his analysis a laughing stock by juxtaposing race relations in America with the relative clout of the Pentagon vis-ŕ-vis the state department in the US administration. What evidence does he have to prove that Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell have lost much of their powers with the installation of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld et al? Second, it is all very well to believe that Tehran is trying to develop “civilian nuclear power”. Why, then, does it refuse to open up its installations to IAEA inspectors? Moreover, the recent call by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to “wipe Israel off the map” certainly doesn’t portray a humane face of the regime. His extremism has been opposed within the Arab world, including Palestine. Third, if the Americans are making the mistake of treating the Middle East as one homogeneous entity, so is Mitra. There is no universal pan-Arabic plight to Western imperialism. Such attempts have consistently failed in the past, as states have recognized that their interest lies separate. The big picture is still hazy. Only time can tell, not Mitra.

November 07, 2005

Times have been Tough for India

Indian Express, 02.11.2005

Instead of showering abundant pleasures and prosperity on their faithful devotees ahead of Diwali and Eid ul-Fitr, the Gods of India sprinkled misery aplenty on the land. Terror and nature came together to weave deadly dreams for its people.

Times have been tough for India recently, with the earthquake in Jammu & Kashmir, large parts of the country flooded due to excessive rains and its Foreign Minister having earned a dubious place on the UN report on the Iraqi oil-for-food scam. The worse, however, was yet to come.

On Saturday, three serial bomb blasts capital Delhi killed at least 55 people (at the time of writing) and injured nearly 200, with more casualties feared. While a train derailment in Andhra Pradesh took the lives of 150 people. In all, it was a forgettable weekend for a nation gearing up for celebrations in the midst of the festive season.

The bomb blasts were coordinated with utmost accuracy. Within minutes of the first blast at 1740 IST in the bustling Pahargunj marketplace, others were detonated in the Sarojini Nagar Market, followed by another in Govindpuri.

It was the timely reactions of passengers on a bus that prevented further casualties, as they threw out a time bomb before it exploded from the moving vehicle. The bomb disposal squads defused another explosive at a bank in Chandini Chowk, another busy commercial area.

The targets were well selected. Ahead of major festivities, the markets were crowded and the Pahargunj market is frequented by large number of foreigners. Police Commissioner K K Paul said that the explosives were placed in a moving vehicle, possibly a motorcycle or a rickshaw.

The response from the state has been unpredictably robust. A red alert was sounded in Delhi, and all major cities had their borders sealed off. By evening, 10 arrests were already made from the railway station.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cut short his trip to the restive northeast and returned to Delhi. In a televised address, he declared, "These are dastardly acts of terrorism. We are resolute in our commitment to fighting terrorism in all forms."

The bogeyman? Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba.

According to some reports, the resignation of Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed did not go down well with some of his party cadres, who allegedly have "close links" with terrorist groups such as LeT, Hizbul Mujahideen and Jammat-e-Islami.

Foreign governments, from the United States to South Africa to Israel and the European Union expressed their deep remorse for these attacks. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, "On behalf of the British government, I would like to offer the people of India my support and deepest sympathy." India and the United Kingdom have both recently witnessed the sharp canines of terror.

Quick to distant itself from the attack, Pakistan's foreign ministry criticised it as a "criminal act", adding, "Pakistan strongly condemns the terrorist attacks in Delhi, which have resulted in the loss of a number of innocent lives".

Some commentators have argued that by these attacks an attempt to dent the on going talks between India and Pakistan has been made. They also point towards the recent attacks in the Kashmir valley despite both sides co-operating in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. Others, however, would insist that the Musharraf government is simply not doing enough on its part to curb such menace originating within its borders.

"India will win the battle against terrorism," declared the Prime Minister. The victims of these attacks have no religion, no creed, and no political stance. At this testing hour, the people of India must celebrate Diwali and Eid with as much enthusiasm and elation as they can muster- to show that their way of life will not be bullied into a compromise. India must not succumb to terror.

November 2005

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