All entries for December 2005

December 20, 2005

Asia Times Letters


Cha-am Jamal's letter [Dec 19] in response to Software and boiled beans (Dec 16) assumes that there is but one definition of a nation. Sure, the imagined community is needed to form a nation in the Westphalian sense, and India was not a nation in those terms until the British Raj was firmly entrenched. However, India has always been much more than a nation – it is a civilization. Ancient scriptures refer to people from as far as Jambudweep (Indonesia) as their own kin. Sprawling empires had brought a sense of unity since the days of Ashoka. Switching to a traditional name for a city is, therefore, not a mistake. However, the priority should be repairing the pothole-laden roads in Bangalore. In his [Dec 19] rant, Frank correctly "accuses" me of justifying the caste system on its ancient roots – that of division of labor. I would have no qualms being compared to a toilet cleaner who would be from a different caste, because different does not entail inferior. It merely teaches us that each of us [has] a different duty in society. Were I to take her job, I would have different duties to what I have now. By the way, how does Frank explain the Confucian social hierarchy? Or does he consider that redundant vis-a-vis the "genuinely Chinese" Marxism? As far as outsourcing being equivalent to "master-servant", I am not sure if he himself knows what he is saying. If producing bespoke software and managing business processes for clients is "enslavement", then exporting cheap toys and clothes for Tesco and Wal-Mart cannot be any different. He should realize that this is a world of interdependence, where economies are trading with each other for mutual gains. Nothing less, nothing more.

December 18, 2005

The Coming of the Kalki

India Nest, 18.12.2005

“In general, there has been a decline in ethical standards in society”

That is how an editorial in The Telegraph concluded on the 14th of December, commenting on the bribe-taking spree by MPs – the latest ghotala to jolt the credibility of the Indian polity. Can the quote be applied to our society per se?

I speak Hindi and Bengali, but do not speak Tamil, Telegu, Oriya, Malayalam, Kannada or any of the other major languages in the region for that matter. Similarly, Deepak – who is from Chennai – speaks Tamil and Malayalam, but none of the other aforementioned languages.

How can we both consider ourselves hailing from the same country?

It is a perplexing question, usually asked by a stiff upper lipped Westerner, always sceptical of the mystifying Orient. Typically Indians answer with a somewhat vague reference to an “invisible Indianness” that binds us together. When asked to explain how this manifests itself in the life of a common man in the 21st century, we are left clueless.

It is embarrassing, especially if you are representing your country in an alien land.

Sitting in a Kentucky Friend Chicken (KFC) joint in Tile Hill, Coventry, one witnesses interesting conversations.

Conversation 1

X to Y- All right there mate?
Y- Yeah, I’m fine. Just woke up actually – such a bad hangover from last night.
X- Tell me about it- one heck of a night, wasn’t it?
Y- Did you get it on with that bird, what’s her name now?

[“bird” is what Americans call “chick”]
X- I’m not kissing n telling mate. Anyway, you up for a pint later?
Y- Sure. By the way, what’s the model name of your mobile phone?
X- Its C975. It has 3G, video calling and a cool ring tone.
Y- Sounds awesome. Where did you buy it?

Conversation 2

D to A- Oi yaar, did you see Pathan?

[referring to the 93 scored in the second innings at Delhi]
A- Nailed the Lankans, didn’t he? I think we should send Dhoni to open too.
D- Why don’t you apply for Chappell’s job?
A- Ha ha, I just might.
D- Are you coming home tomorrow? I’m cooking some dosas.
A- And I would miss it why? But after 8 though, since I’m working before that.
D- Why are you working so much? You’ve got enough to last you this term.
A- Are bhai, I am just earning some extra money to help parents with the

D- How do you balance it with studies?
A- I have to, don’t I?
D- Just think that you’re working for a higher cause and it’ll be easier.
A- Thanks. Now let’s go and watch Kyon Ki.

In Conversation 2 lies what is essential to being an Indian. No not just cricket, but the unique juxtaposition of the smaller and bigger things in life coated with the popular culture flavours. To soothe the pains of life through cricket and Bollywood is what we do (or at least, did). Friends and family are not just brochures for consumer goods or chequebooks to last us through college, and life is not all “ha ha, hi hi”.

Among the innumerable real-life, telephone and internet exchanges that take place in today’s India, the proportion of “2” is being steadily eroded vis-à-vis “1”. Most non-resident Indians gape in remorse as they drift further and further apart from their homeland, whose young generation sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss where Western society rests today.

“Nay to the moral guardians” they scream, but with processions lined up with blindfolds, striving to ape the “cool dudes”, Rabindranath Tagore refuses to be swept aside, as he reminds us –

“We have for over a century been dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot, choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our own helplessness and overwhelmed by the speed.”

Fortunately for Tagore, he had a Gandhi who pointed out “the depth of the ditches lying in the chariot’s path”.

We do not have a Gandhi, so we must look out ourselves, at least- for those who believe in Hindu mythology- until the Kalki arrives.

December 16, 2005

Asia Times Letters


So, my letter has finally been misread (again!) – this time by the irrepressible Frank [letter, Dec 14]. He fails to see the crystal-clear argument: dignity of labor per se cannot – and should not – be judged by comparing the lives of a single category of manual laborers. If we were to look at how "urban, upper-class" (adapting Frank's quote) Chinese look down upon migrant workers and farmers, then their plight would be comparable to what toilet cleaners face in India. It is a fundamental error made by one of Asia Times [Online's] journalists [Pallavi Aiyar, In the men's room, China leaves India standing, Dec 6] by launching into such big generalizations. As I mentioned, she should [have] restricted herself to toilet cleaners, and not gone on to take this as a minuscule version of the bigger picture. What caste and English proficiency [have] to do with this topic, perhaps even Frank doesn't know.

December 14, 2005

Asia Times Letters


At the risk of prolonging a discussion on the Letters page, I must dissociate myself with the dubious "seconding" of my December 6 letter by Jayanti Patel (Dec 12) in response to Pallavi Aiyar's December 6 article [In the men's room, India is left standing] By no stretch of imagination did my letter come close to comparing the polities of India and China. Although I do agree with the benefits of Indian democracy vis-a-vis the Chinese system, this is a point entirely irrelevant to the discussion. To reiterate, my point in the letter simply was that Aiyar's analysis was hampered by a much too narrow compartmentalization of societal evils, and no worthwhile evaluation can be made about such diverse societies such as India and China without taking into account more factors. So toilet cleaners are better off in China – but what about the plight of migrant workers? Her analysis robs us of the overarching picture.

December 06, 2005

Asia Times Letters

Had Pallavi Aiyar stuck to comparisons between Indian and Chinese societies based on the status of toilet cleaners alone, there would be little dispute with her article (In the men’s room, China leaves India standing, Dec 5). However, she goes on to argue that “India is generations away [from] a general belief in the dignity of labor” vis-a-vis China. The fundamental problem with such a truncated argument is that it leads to a mud slinging competition whereby one could cite the status of Tibetans, Uighurs, migrant workers, farmers, etc in today’s China, and also the ways in which mainland Chinese are looked down upon by the citizens of Hong Kong, to portray a similar societal problem for China. On the other hand, the kisaan (farmer) is a figure much celebrated and idealized in Indian public life, especially by the politicians and Bollywood. Aiyar has two options. One, to restrict the contours of her article to toilet cleaners alone; and two, to acknowledge that in diverse societies such as those of India and China, there remain numerous problems of varying degree which both need to address.

December 05, 2005

Asia Times Letters

Pepe Escobar pens what is an extremely interesting piece on his encounters in Mumbai and Kerala (Full Power on the Arabian Sea, Dec 3). The commotion he witnessed, the mind boggling different activities people seem to be undertaking at a given instance, and the often frustrating cul-de-sac that Indian urban life can seem to be are all intrinsic parts of India. Perhaps it is apt that Asia Times Online published a review of The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen [Indian culture, heterodoxy under scrutiny] on the same day as Escobar’s article. For both of them show that there is no singular representation of India. From the stifling crowd in the local trains of Mumbai to God’s own country in the backwaters of Kerala – all of this is equally India. Crucially, as Escobar recognises, there seems to be an invisible force that propels India – and binds it together. Scholars have struggled to define this force which is the soul of India throughout centuries, and it is this that holds out a beacon of freedom and democracy in a still-poor part of the world, something unparalleled anywhere else.

December 04, 2005

Is Indian Secularism Unique?

3 out of 5 stars

India Nest, 04.12.2005

In the first paperback edition of this book (originally written in 2003), the author undertakes a substantial academic challenge – to compare and contrast Indian secularism with that of the United States and Israel in their constitutional context. This “comparative trio” has developed three distinct avatars of secularism defined as assimilative, visionary and ameliorative, attributed to the US, Israel and India respectively. His essential aim is to gauge wither a defence of religious liberty can be reconciled with constitutional secularism.

When Gregory Johnson was burning the American flag in 1989, he breached the “wall of separation” that is enshrined in US polity between the Church and the State. Such delineation is impossible, as the author argues, in Israel, where the Star of David epitomizes the Zionist inspiration behind the birth of the nation itself. As such, the republican flag does not represent anything other than the “American way of life”.

In a country where “religion permeates everyday life and informs national identity” (although by no means a single religion) like India, the flag is also a symbol of its constitutional mindset. While some commentators have made the grave error of associating the saffron on the Indian tricolor with the Hindus, the green with the Muslims, and the white with the desire for peace between these communities, the author cites Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the Constitutional Assembly, arguing that the colors stood for revolution, industry, agriculture and commerce instead.

Rock Edict 12 of Emperor Ashoka (273 BC to 232 BC) states that the “essentials of dharma” necessitate “restraint in regard to speech”- that “it should be moderate” and “the other sects should be duly honored”. The chakra of Ashoka – the wheel of law – has spokes of equal length suggesting just this. The author traces this influence not only to the tricolor, but also to the Representation of the People Act (1951) enshrined in Indian jurisprudence.

The author focuses on the “Hindutva cases” of the mid-1990s in the Indian Supreme Court after the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992. The central government’s usage of Article 356 to dismiss 3 state governments was being challenged in the apex court. The court upheld the decisions of the government in Delhi based on its condemnation of the “corrupt practices” of cultural nationalism. Since this is a significant departure from the strict neutrality in such cases (for example, in defining cultural nationalism as corrupt practices rather than simply focusing on the resultant violence), it gives the judiciary’s power a different contour in India vis-à-vis the US and Israel.

Article IV, Section 4 of the Guarantee Clause in the US was evoked to deter the federal government from acting against the southern states’ insistence on continuing slavery. This can be attributed to the liberal insistence on absolute neutrality. Similarly, a long standing demand of the Hindutva supporters in India has been to establish a universal civic code, deterred thus far by India’s ameliorative conception of secularism. It is nearly 36 years since Amartya Sen built on the 1950 paradox outlined by Kenneth Arrow to suggest that welfare and liberty doomed to an irreconcilable conflict in a society with multiple choices. The dilemma over secularism in India continues to vindicate this paradox.

The author criticizes some of the Hindutva ideologues of advocating a “slavish emulation” of the Israeli polity in India. However, as jurisprudence in each country is directly impacted by both the constitutional context and “ethnography”, no one size can fit all. Contrast this with the complicated juxtaposition of innumerable religions and castes in India, and a singular vision like that of Israel becomes impossible to conceptualize.

The assimilative model of secularism in the US is also questioned by the author, when he suggests that political assimilation is increasingly being coupled with social assimilation, implying standardization. Invoking Employment Division v Smith (1990), the author argues that US jurisprudence has much to learn from the ameliorative model of India, which he considers to be apt for application in this case.

Certain arguments in the book can be readily questioned. First, Jawaharlal Nehru agreed that religion was a “restraining influence on changes in civil society”. Alexis de Tocqueville, on the other hand, was favorable to a “peaceful dominion of religion”. But do religion and civil society need to be problematically intertwined? Romila Thapar has argued- and the author agrees- that the wheel of dharma was essentially secular in its implication. However, the problem lies in the static visualization of religion, which is not the case in India, as the “ever-changing” definition of Sanatana put forth by Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan so vividly portrays.

Second, Jacobsohn quotes Seymour Martin Lipset and agrees that “nations can be understood only in comparative perspective”. Although it can be readily conceded that analyzing differences between polities can indeed yield fruitful answers, often to understand the essence of a nation, we need to refer to the famous phrase of the 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke – Wie es eigentlich gewesen (how it essentially was).

Third, in what is supposedly a holistic analysis of the Indian constitutional field, a marked absence is that of a critique of the extremist Maoist and Islamist movements that have sprung up and gathered momentum in the 1990s, establishing “peoples’ courts” and those following the shari’a, bypassing the laws enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The “crisis of secularism” can hardly be understood adequately with just one dimension in the author’s analysis- the Hindutva movement. While it is perhaps unorthodox to classify the far left movements under the same umbrella as a religious movement, it too threatens the constitutional balance in Indian jurisprudence by attempting to forcibly include provisions alienating the so-called upper caste communities in many far flung rural areas.

Ultimately, Jacobsohn’s analysis concludes at a rather persuasive argument. While impartial on the surface, American social and political life is impacted significantly by the role of the Church on issues of public concern such as abortion and education, the latter also being hotly debated in India. However, in India, there has been no attempt to artificially water down this impact by assimilation (which could lead to homogenization). On the contrary, the Sarva dharma sambhava principle is essentially impartial, although it involves including all religions in the jurisprudence, making matters more complicated, albeit more reflective of how society really is, but perhaps being more sensitive to the religious liberties of the individuals and communities concerned.

December 2005

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