Saturday, March 15, 2008

Indian Curbs Freedom of Expression III

I think I should be frightened. India continues to curb our enshrined freedoms on a daily basis. The state is not humane. Instead, it is an authority, no different from our caste system and priestly power that held sway over our fates for many generations (and which still continues to do so).

Our state is turning out to be another of our masters who continues to chain us. We are yet to attain our complete freedoms. Our Independence Movement continues.

Here, in the last few days, the Indian State has curbed individual expression stamping on our freedoms.

In the South, in the city of Chennai, a painting exhibition was organized which displayed art work displaying Aurangazeb ransacking Hindu Temples. Indian Muslims felt infuriated and thought it was now their turn to show how ‘hurt’ their ‘sentiments’ were. Some of them showed up at the exhibition and ensured that it was closed. The Tamil Nadu government proceeded to close the exhibition. The Indian State, as usual, has lent its hand to ensure our freedoms are curbed, all in the name of some inane and vapid sentiment called ‘to maintain communal harmony’.

If the communal harmony is fragile that it will get affected by a painting exhibition, then I want to flush that communal harmony down the drain. I don’t want to be hijacked by fanatics, terrorists, superstitions, blind beliefs and most important of all, human stupidity.

Its high time we stand against all such irrational sentiments that allow the state to encroach upon our rights.

In another case, a documentary featuring the treatment meted out to Muslims in Gujarat was disallowed from screening in Jaipur. The police hounded the director and ensured he left the city, all in the name of ‘maintaining communal harmony’.

The rest of us are just being the silent spectators. We are interested in who the perpetrator is – if it is Hindu or Muslim. We have convenient justifications to explain our apathies. Slowly we are giving up some of our most precious rights, without a voice or protest. At this rate, that day is not very far away when the ‘moral police’ will be knocking at my doors for expressing my views.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dethroning our Masters

After reading my previous article, ‘On our Independence Movement’, some readers inferred that I was condoning or justifying the British Rule in India. That somehow I would support an extension of their rule beyond 1947. That somehow I would prefer British Rule to our Independence. I am not sure how those readers came to that conclusion.

I do believe that our struggle for independence was long overdue. But that struggle for independence is not just against British. India’s Independence in 1947 was not just about toppling of British and establishing the rule of Indians. It was a culmination of a long struggle that was going on for centuries in which we had to battle many of our masters.

Those masters were our Mughals, our Rajahs, our landlords, our zamindars, our priests, our superstitions, our beliefs, our prejudices, our occult practices, our inferiorities, our untouchability, our caste system, our sati, our persecution and marginalization of women. And also the British.

In 1947, we came victorious in toppling some of our masters who held sway for centuries- the British, the Mughals, the Rajahs. However, it is not a complete victory. Unfortunately, some of our masters still remain in power. That fight is still on. We are still not free from all those masters. The struggle for our complete independence is long overdue.

When I said – it was good that we did not get our independence in 1857, there is a reason for that.

Nationalism, which eventually united us, and also brought in the concept of a free man as a citizen with rights and institutions to protect that rights, protected by Indian Constitution and legal system, came about much later (after 1857).

Rationalism, which eventually seeped into our Indian governance, polity and educational institutions to spurn some of our superstitions and blind beliefs, and brought in reason (though we are eroding this fast now), came about much later (after 1857).

Rule of Law, which was completely missing in the Indian subcontinent, and which was not yet an instrument that Indians got acquainted with through their exposure to British-style governance respecting the universal laws and legal systems, came about much later (after 1857).

In retrospect, I am glad we did not get independence in 1857. If the rebellion had won, it would have meant that power would now be in the hands of petty rajahs and weak Mughals. Priestly power would have held sway, we would continue to be superstitious, and our untouchables and women would never be emancipated.

Also, most of our reformers and leaders came from English education. Many of our leaders wanted freedom as defined by their British masters in England. This came about much later (after 1857).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

On our Independence Movement

I think we all read our histories in school. And some of us, who showed more interest in history than others, have read up from various other sources. I have read about our Independence movement at different stages of my life, going back to read about it at regular intervals. I see certain patterns which I would like to talk about here. This is one version of how I want to tell this story. This is not the only version. I concede that there are many versions. But I find this the most interesting. [Remember, There are no facts; only interpretations – Nietzsche]

First War of Independence?

We usually term 1857 revolt as First War of Independence. In the beginning it was called Sepoy Mutiny- that’s how British termed it. However, Indians wanted to see it in a different light and called it War of Independence. Was it really a war of Independence?

Not really. It was not even close to one actually. The way it started has nothing to do with India or Indian nationalism or patriotism. It was more to do with religious sentiments and inferior treatment of soldiers by their masters. A Muslim not able to chew on a pig’s fat because of what was said in Koran and a caste Hindu not able to chew on cow’s fat due to fear of loss of his caste. Did these soldiers really think in terms of Indians vs. British? Not really.

However, once the mutiny picked up, there was a widespread participation from many other soldiers and also from local rajahs and landlords. These rajahs and landlords were keen on bringing back their rule by throwing off British. They were neither keen on bringing independence to its people or giving them the rights as citizens. The people were to remain subjects of the kings and bonded laborers of landlords, not citizens.

This movement was then taken up by Mughal-Empire-revivalists. These were those petty kings who wanted to bring back Mughal Empire so that they can have their share of the pie in ruling. This was more of a war where Indian feudals wanted to restore their power. It had no element of Independence that we finally obtained, where the people became citizens, where we had adult franchise, elected legislature, independent judiciary, people’s rights, etc.

The fact that India did not get Independence in 1857 was actually good for its people, in retrospect. If we had thrown off British right then, we would have gone back to having many kings and rajahs with independent kingdoms, and we wouldn’t have had opportunity to bring in a national movement that gave its people rights as citizens and modern institutions that safeguard their rights as citizens.

Indian National Congress

Few years later, Indian National Congress (INC) was formed with great support and help from some British people. During these initial days, Indian National Congress was completely an elite pastime. The members were intellectuals, coming from well-to-do families. INC was not a movement either; it was an organization that met once a year where intellectuals discussed issues from a podium. It was not a people’s movement nor did it involve the masses. If India got Independence during this time, it would have remained an extremely aristocratic rule, where certain intellectuals would have captured power while the actual freedom to its people and its participation would have been a distant dream.

Moreover, it did not include Muslims in those days. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had his own ideas about the role of Muslims in India (vis-a-vis British). He wanted to be friendly with British, because he saw them as somewhat equals, both being from ruler clan (first the Mughals, now the British). He expected special treatment for Muslims from British because of their earlier record of ruling India.

Entry of Gandhi

Only when Gandhi came onto the picture, did we see the actual people’s movement. What is so significant about Gandhi’s role is that he wanted to bring in revolution in India on many fronts, not just kicking out British, but bring untouchables into the mainstream, to bring women into the mainstream, to bring Muslims into the fight, to bring in self-respect in a common man, and teach him the duties of a citizen. [For example, he spent a great amount of time to teach Indians to clean up streets, to bring accountability and responsibility to its people and leaders, form a nation based on peace not based in hatred and violence, etc]

He wanted to see Indians capable of ruling ourselves fair and just when British were gone. He had strong suspicions on whether we were ready to rule ourselves.

The intervening years are quite important because he brought Muslims into the fold. Khilafat Movement which sounds so ridiculous now, was his way of bringing in Muslims into the people’s movement. If in the subsequent years, the talks with British failed, it was because Gandhi did not want to concede on the differences between Muslims and Hindus. He was against separate electorates, because he saw roots for division in it. He was bent on giving sops to Muslims so that they come together and fight. His fear, that Muslims having a separate agenda would dilute the cause and would also break up India, was clearly seen from many of his actions.

First Taste of Power

The fact that INC participated in one of the governing elections (during British rule) and had actually held power is significant because that allowed some of its leaders the taste of governance before India got Independence. Work on Indian Constitution started long before the Independence itself. Many of the notions of how we are going to rule ourselves were learnt between 1857 and 1947. And thanks to Gandhi, many of its rulers were ready to concede to the notion that this country belonged to its people, not its elite, not its rajahs, not its upper caste, not its Hindus, not its men.

Nationalism and Non-violence

Another significant aspect of this movement is Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence. According to him, this country could not have been borne out of blood and iron. He saw too many cultures, too many languages, too many religions, too many castes, too many classes- too many differences in this country, and he couldn’t find a unique slogan for all them, except nationalism and non-violence, which could be applied to different kinds of people irrespective of their allegiance to a local identity. The first one (nationalism) gave a sense of reason to fight British and to stay united; the second one (non-violence) gave a sense of self-restraint to become more mature and responsible to be able to serve and govern India better.

During 1920s, when some young nationalists, who got fed up with Gandhi’s delaying tactics, took to violent forms of protest, Gandhi felt the time was not ripe. Much to the dismay of so many ardent nationalists, he called off the movement designed to dislodge the British and secure the independence. Time and again Gandhi disappointed many leaders who wanted a quick route to India’s freedom. Gandhi believed that if it was complete freedom, then it had to come when Indians are more responsible.

Rejection of other ideologies

Also, during this time, India got time to experiment with communist and militant ideologies only to reject them. It also got time to experiment with what happens when you tried to share power with those Muslims who saw themselves different and wanted to be treated differently because they came from ruling clan. India got time to dabble with organization capabilities, both in terms of moving masses across the nation, and also in terms of ruling the country through bureaucracy. India got a chance to look at how world was divided on various cultures, and thus imbibe those principles in drafting its constitution. India got a chance to uplift its masses, bring them into the mainstream. With the advent of Ambedkar fighting for Dalits, reservations were possible. If India got Independence too soon, such a thing would have been unimaginable.

India got time to experiment with ideologies of Subhas Chandra Bose and other militants to reject them in favor of more balanced and composed approaches towards dealing with its inner conflicts.

India realized that it cannot embrace military ideology of Japan or Germany, that it cannot embrace communist ideology of Soviet Union, and that it cannot be oblivious to differences between religions, cultures and languages. That it cannot use one language or one religion to rally its people. That it cannot impose one identity onto everyone. That it had to be all-embracing, which also means more restraint and more composure. More patience and more balance. No room for militant ideology, because it can easily spin out of hand.

Mature parting with British

Whether we like it or not, the decision to part with British on friendly terms was hallmark of that maturity, which Gandhi championed, wherein we accepted what happened in the past as consequence of those times, and looked towards future without rejecting the legacy and the past. We did not have to resort to breaking up their statues, their buildings and their idols; we did not have to reinvent our identity through breaking up idols or hating our masters. We smoothly transitioned into a mature young adult having been a rebel in its teens, eventually accepting the independence without having to hate the parents or the fathers.

This is what Gandhi envisioned and that’s what happened. Gandhi had high expectations from British. He did not hate them or found them repugnant. Instead he brought out that gentleman in British and negotiated with him, as man to man. To him, history was not a snapshot of few years, but a continuum in which we had different masters at different times. British happened to be those masters now. What was important to him was not overthrowing of British, but that we learn to rule ourselves, to know how diverse India is, accept its diversity, and gear ourselves to act maturely.

If Gandhi failed, he failed when India got partitioned. He was so sad that day, when India got Independence, that instead of celebrating in New Delhi he was elsewhere nursing the wounds Partition left on India.

Right set of leaders for new nation

Our Independence movement threw a slew of mature and well-trained leaders who could later become the governing body. It threw open many architects who framed our constitution, making sure it respected each language, culture, religion, and also to uplift women and lower castes. Though Gandhi and Nehru had many differences over the future course of India, Gandhi believed Nehru was the right person to take the helm.

Sardar Patel did not live long enough. Nehru, having gone through the troubled times that preceded Indian Independence, had a grand vision for India. In it, democracy was important, creating the right institutions was important. There was no room for bigotry, militancy, sectarianism. Also, the results of Enlightenment were embraced by the rational Nehru. He ensured that we pursued the tools of rationality. For that he created the institutions that bore fruit long after he was gone. He had his own flaws. He believed that the state was somehow more humane than the individual. That belief led to License Raj and other ills that befell on India later on.

I see the period between 1857 and 1947 as a class struggle- a movement of its people, emancipation of the untouchables, lower caste and women, a struggle to deal with multiple identities in the modern world which put us in conflict with each other more often than in the past, a process of maturing where we didn’t have to settle the scores on the killing fields.

The Independence Movement is the story of our fight within- an inner struggle, maturing of a teen into an adult. India had to cope with its own problems. The enemies were its past, its caste system, its ruling class, its subjugation of woman and many of its superstitions and belief systems. And those problems were far bigger than the British.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Excessive Regionalism

When I wrote my article ‘Excessive Nationalism and Blurring of Local Identities’, some readers interpreted it as promotion of excessive regionalism. In fact, I never did that. In that same article, I wrote the following:

Excessive nationalism when not really in use sometimes vents itself as other isms- such as regionalism or communalism. As a corollary, certain groups starting out with parochial and radical regionalisms and communalisms get legitimacies when they portray themselves as nationalists. For example, Shiv sainiks who named themselves after Shivaji (who is considered a patriot under a national banner), first targeted Tamils in Mumbai, displaying their excessive regionalism, and later transformed themselves into a group targeting Muslims, displaying their excessive communalism. They get their legitimacies from many educated Hindus when they champion nationalism. Many Hindus laud Bal Thackeray and his Shiv sainiks when he takes a belligerent stand against Pakistan during a cricket season. Shiv sainiks get their legitimacy as true patriots and they use this slogan to cover up many of their other isms.

Certain groups move between these various isms very easily. The defenders of Kannada in Bangalore target Tamils on Cauvery issues, and then vent it out on non-Kannadigas during other incidents showing excessive regionalism, but also portray themselves as the defenders of the nation when protesting against Narayana Murthy over his comments on National Anthem. BJP and its affiliations use this card on a regular basis. They are defenders of national prestige and pride on the national arena while targeting Muslims and Christians in their local constituencies.

Why I touched upon excessive nationalism in that article instead of concentrating on excessive regionalism is very simple. In India and in most nation-states, nationalism and its excesses are always touted as virtues while regionalism and its excesses are always derided as villains. Hence, in India, excessive regionalism was already discredited, like what Tamils preach in Tamil Nadu was always derided by most non-Tamils. Therefore, there was no need to go about writing on a topic which was already a mainstream opinion.

Since, I have decided to touch upon this topic, let me write a bit about excessive regionalism.

I am against excessive isms. Either it is excessive socialism or excessive capitalism, or excessive regionalism or excessive nationalism – it is not good for anyone.

In that article, I asked for promotion and tolerance of local identities. That does not mean rejection of other local identities or imposition of our identities onto others.

Promotion and tolerance of local identities does not mean support for excessive regionalism, just the way promotion of diversity and different cultures does not mean support for excessive nationalism.

Raj Thackeray and Marathas

Raj Thackeray is a byproduct of Shiv Sena ideology. He only pushes the agenda of Shiv Sena little too prominently to the discomfort of its leaders who want to play a national game. He comes as an embarrassment to these leaders, but in reality, his agenda is an outgrowth of the core ideology.

The way Shiv Sena grew into prominence is by targeting non-Marathis, South Indians in Mumbai, not very different from what’s happening now with Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

Excessive regionalism, as clearly promoted by Raj Thackeray, that targets people of other states has its roots in Shiv Sena who target Muslims at the national level. Many Hindus love Shiv Sena on the national level because they target Muslims, but balk at what Raj Thackeray is doing because one of their own kin is now being targeted.

I keep repeating in this blog many a times that the common element in all these groups is hatred. Once you foment lot of hatred, it is not like a tap or a hose that you can turn it off when you want to or focus it onto one single element. That hatred once stored is bound to come into open and it will negatively affect all kinds of people.

Narendra Modi and Gujarat

When I wrote my article, ‘Excessive Nationalism and Blurring of Local Identities’, some readers pointed out that Modi is an example of regionalism that I was purportedly promoting.

This is what I said:

"What will save India is its diversity. While Hindutva forces continue to unify all Hindus under one banner, regional and other distinct groups will continue to prop their own factions. That alone will save India. I encourage and promote such local identities."

To which, Ledzius said...

And I believe this is precisely one of the reasons Modi won. Unlike any Congress leader who would have been a stooge of the Centre, Modi was seen by many Gujaratis as a symbol of Gujarati pride (more than even that of Hindutva). The fact that Sonia resorted to name-calling only helped Modi further, as many Gujaratis were incensed by what they felt was an affront on Gujarati pride.

That is an extremely wrong extrapolation of my thesis. Let me explain.

Narendra Modi is fomenting hatred. He is marginalizing Muslims to win marks from Hindu worldwide. One day, if he has his way, he would have marginalized them enough to make them a completely incapacitated group without any voice.

After that, haranguing against ills from Muslims will not fetch him votes. He will turn his hatred to others. Who are these others?

Already, Narendra Modi and his workers have clearly outlined their hidden agenda- for those who want to see it. They would like to target Christians, and that will be even faster and easier job since they are in a much smaller minority in Gujarat, and then Communists, who are again non-existent in Gujarat. So who are these others?

In many speeches, Narendra Modi and his party members rallied the voters towards him on the slogan of a great Gujarat. In future, the hatred has the capacity and all the inclination to turn against non-Gujaratis. The same support that Hindus are extending to this ideology is bound to create a strong force that will fight against non-Gujaratis, the way it happened in Maharashtra with Shiv Sena.

Excessive Nationalism and Excessive Regionalism

Hate groups have the capacity to move between excessive regionalism and excessive nationalism at will. On the national level they are bound to target enemies of the nation or enemies of an identity that identifies them as a nation-group. On the regional level, they are bound to target enemies of the state or enemies of an identity that defines them as a state-group.

My thesis of promotion of local identities is to allow, promote and tolerate various identities without have to reject others or impose ours onto others.