Sunday, May 30, 2010

Let India bare its fangs to preachy moralists

The spat involving Canada’s visa policy and India’s national honour has been resolved much to New Delhi’s satisfaction. The Intelligence Bureau functionary who is part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advance party for the forthcoming visit to Toronto has been belatedly granted a visa; the Canadian Government has issued what Toronto’s Globe and Mail called a “grovelling apology”; and it has been clarified that Canada has the “highest regard for Indian institutions and processes”, not to mention the Indian military and security services.

Just as the initial insensitivity of the provincial Government in Victoria after a rash of attacks on Indians was fast replaced by some frenzied damage control by the Australian federal Government, Canada has acted quickly after New Delhi made it clear that it was considering collateral retaliation. The BJP may have thought that the pig-headedness of Canada’s immigration authorities was evidence of the weakness of India’s foreign policy. Actually, the prompt remedial action by Ottawa suggests that India has become too important a global player for countries to be insensitive to its national pride. This is a far cry from the situation just a couple of decades ago when an Indian passport was not a great facilitator of smooth travel.

The pragmatic response of the Canadian Government to a mischievous interpretation of a section of its Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, 2002, has, for the moment, saved bilateral relations from taking a nosedive. The official Canadian description of the BSF as a “notoriously violent para-military unit” that is “responsible for war crimes in India” and the equation of the IB with rogue intelligence agencies may strike Indians as odd. But such rash and sweeping generalisations are the inevitable consequence of countries like Canada arrogating to themselves the role of global watchdogs on human rights.

The right of Canada to deny a visa to any Indian is undeniable, just as India possesses the sovereign right to tell any foreigner that he or she is not welcome. Most countries have used that right both judiciously and arbitrarily. India denied a visa to Salman Rushdie for nearly a decade after The Satanic Verses controversy erupted. A similar flight of whimsy may soon, I fear, be repeated in the case of the writer Taslima Nasreen. Where Canada differs is by statutorily barring all those it considers guilty or complicit of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On paper this may sound unexceptionable. The problem arises in deciding who and what constitutes the offence. Since there are no accepted global yardsticks, Canada has set up its own war crimes section where, presumably, gullible, starry-eyed youngsters, fresh from university and an internship with some ridiculous human rights activist body, sit in judgement over the Indian Army. More absurd, these assessments are based on ‘open sources’ which is a euphemism for random, subjective research based on what is available on the Internet.

That a Government can behave so amateurishly is inconceivable. Yet it is well known in Delhi that junior diplomats, with little or no experience of the complexities of a country, are often asked to make human rights assessments. Predictably, their most valued sources are the professional activists who have a vested interest in exaggerating and misreporting ‘atrocities’. For these activists, human rights are more than a cause: It is a livelihood issue.

Some years ago, for example, the British High Commission in Delhi arrived at a highly tendentious assessment of human rights abuses in Gujarat based on the report of a well-meaning but inexperienced Third Secretary. The junior diplomat spoke to only those who grace NDTV studios but who have little standing in Gujarat. On such casual exercises are lofty policy pronouncements made.

Canada’s assumption of the role of global ombudsman for human rights is similar in many respects to the US Congress sub-committee that sits in judgement each year on ‘religious freedom’. Both are examples of an infuriating sanctimoniousness, premised on the unstated belief that all that is good and noble in the world is to be found in North America. Conversely, there is also the assumption that the ‘Third World’ is being ruled by a cynical, corrupt and brutal elite that must be accorded pariah status. To these noble idealists, there is no real difference between India and Rwanda; both are areas of darkness.

If the underlying condescension of those who claim to have risen above the colonial mindset is pitiful, it is important to remember that these attitudes are fuelled by Indian activists financially nurtured by multilateral bodies and Western Governments. The gratuitous human rights concern of countries such as Canada don’t exist in isolation, they compensate for the political and social irrelevance of the liberal contrarians in India.

If, for example, the activists can’t make headway within India defending Kashmiri separatism or, for that matter, Maoist terrorists, they make up for their own deficiencies by getting other gullible Governments to tar the reputation of the Indian Army, para-military forces and security agencies. The Home Ministry has lists of all those activists who rubbish India before foreign parliamentary committees. If these are made public, India would realise that the fault is not confined to gullible Canadians.

There are times when the arrogance shown by China in dealing with assaults on national pride need to be emulated. Indians are naturally courteous and as a country we don’t like picking fights — not even with those who send bombers across the border. Yet, it is time New Delhi did show that it is capable of baring its fangs. The Government has acted with the right blend of restraint and firmness in dealing with the Canadian visa problem. Maybe it should now address the root causes of this dementia.

Sunday Pioneer, May 30, 2010


PS: Have a look at this retort by one Gian Singh Sandhu in Toronto Star. It indicates the thinking that drove Canada's initial decision.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Force should be met with force

Earlier this year, a fashionably 'progressive' essayist lauded India's Maoist terror squads as "Gandhians with a gun", a description that is about as persuasive as 'celibate rapist'. Not that either mockery or public anger plays any role in tempering the perversity of those who flaunt democracy only to subvert it. In the wake of the second massacre in Dantewada in two months, the experts of terror have raised their sophistry to bizarre heights.

Take the justification of the May 17 blast that killed 44 bus passengers – all local inhabitants and all poor. Since the earlier claim of paramilitary forces being a legitimate target is clearly untenable, it has been suggested that the presence of a few off-duty special police officers in the bus was a direct provocation. "If there were indeed civilians in the bus," writer Arundhati Roy told The Times of India, "it is irresponsible of the government to expose them to harm in a war zone by allowing police and SPOs to use public transport."

The logic is revealing: anyone remotely connected with the state, even a SPO drawing a pathetic Rs 3,000 allowance each month, is an enemy and must face the bloody consequences. It is further implied that by using public transport, these functionaries are inviting collateral damage on fellow passengers. The real Mao once wrote that "revolution is not a dinner party"; his disciples have reminded us that there is no place for squeamishness and table manners.

How the conduct of these armed 'Gandhians' squares with the Mahatma who called off the Non-Cooperation movement in 1922 after an angry mob killed 23 policemen in Chauri Chaura, is best brushed aside. For the moment, it would be unwise to disregard the menacing overground message from the underground.

Those who can conduct military operations with such ruthless efficiency have long lost the right to be called "misguided ideologues" and treated with benevolent indulgence. What is the difference between Kasab and the Maoists who ambushed the CRPF jawans on April 6 and detonated a deadly explosive under a bus last week? Kasab believed that he was part of God's army and that every Mumbai resident was a legitimate target for murder. The Maoists too believe they are a People's Liberation Army waging war on the state and its flunkeys.

The only obvious difference is that while Kasab came from Pakistan, the foot soldiers of the Red army are Indian by birth. In every other respect, the Islamists and the Maoists are the same: both have transformed grievance and utopia into inhumanity. They may well have had a place in the statecraft of preceding centuries; judged by contemporary norms, they have forfeited all claims to human rights.

It is important to stress the mismatch between Maoist insurgency and Indian democracy, if only to drive home the necessity of a unified response from both the state and civil society. The argument that equitable economic development will blunt the anger of those who resent their marginal status is true only up to a point. However, if the benefits of state welfare and the market economy are to reach every corner of India, it is necessary for the state to be in physical control of territory. The Maoist approach is not to present the wretched of the earth with a revolutionary alternative that can compete with bourgeois politics on equal terms. It aims to exercise a military stranglehold over a region and either intimidate or eliminate dissent. Maoists don't believe in choice; they are committed to total control.

It's literally a chicken and egg situation. Sonia Gandhi may feel that NREGA and a Food Security Act will deliver the deviants to the Indian Constitution and isolate the doctrinaire Maoists. However, the district administration and the panchayats need to be physically present to undertake good works. To undertake Bharat Nirman in a large chunk of forested, central India, the state must uproot an illegal military presence first. The development route to counterinsurgency is, ironically, prefaced on a military victory. Reduced to essentials, the difference between the hardliners and the appeasers is one of articulation.

It may be tactically prudent to keep the language of retaliation less robust and peppered with piousness but there is no escaping the fact that the Maoist leadership will not be moved by either persuasion or bribery. To make Maoism unattractive to frightened villagers, force will have to be met with force. Siddharth Ray showed the way in West Bengal in the 1970s.

Unlike separatist movements that can be coerced into compromise, there is no halfway house in confronting Communist insurgencies. In the war for state power, it's either us or them. One side has to yield. The choice is stark: it's either Maoism or the democratic way of life.

Sunday Times of India, May 23, 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Jairam Ramesh's Chindia affair

More than his contributions to policy-making and the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility, Jairam Ramesh has made a mark on Lutyens’ Delhi for his witticisms and his spin-doctoring abilities. His one-liner, “Yankee go home but take me with you,” if original, was probably the most devastating comment on the spuriousness of India’s fashionable anti-Americanism. Once dubbed the “only Kannadiga in the Tamil Maanila Congress”, during the United Front days when he was under the patronage of then Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Jairam combined his cleverness with an ability to weather political upheaval. That’s because he was a good speech writer and a crafty spin doctor, talents that the Congress recognised. He was well utilised by the party in 2004 and 2009 and many of his inputs undoubtedly helped make a difference.

It is probably unfair to suggest that Ramesh has put his spinning skills to work in the past week when it appeared that his very survival as a Minister was in doubt. Yet, it is curious that a controversy that began with an impassioned outburst against India’s “paranoid” Home Ministry mindset and a robust defence of Chinese telecom company Huawei Technologies has drifted effortlessly into a debate on political culture and outspokenness — areas where the Minister’s indiscretions can well be seen as a departure from the usual stodginess and non-application of mind.

From Ramesh’s perspective, the derailment of the debate is desirable, not least because it diverts attention from what he said in Beijing and puts the focus on his intellectual vanity. It does Ramesh no harm to draw flak for his uninhibited individualism, as long as it is accompanied by certificates from historian-ecologist Ram Guha that “Jairam is the best Environment Minister India has had.”

Guha’s assessment will, of course, encounter protests from the State Governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Kerala — all run by non-Congress parties. Nor will it be shared by India’s erstwhile negotiators to the Copenhagen summit on global warming where it was felt that the Minister was being remarkably casual about India’s interests and a bit too bothered about what China and the US thought.

Ramesh has a highly individualistic sense of what constitutes the national interest. The need to improve India’s bilateral relations with China is an issue that excites him. Through much of 2003, when he held no official positions, Ramesh wrote nearly a dozen articles in a Kolkata-based newspaper on various facets of China, so much so that he established a claim to be regarded in Beijing’s eyes as the new Dr Kotnis. He even coined the term Chindia to signify an ideal Asian convergence.

In The Telegraph of May 29, 2003, Ramesh asked the question: “Are we schizophrenic when it comes to full-fledged economic ties with China?” His answer was revealing: “While trade has taken off, we seem to be prisoners of the old mindset when it comes to Chinese investments in India. Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecommunications networking major, already employs over 500 Indian software professionals in Bangalore but it has already caused concern in the Indian security establishment. We are approaching its expansion plans very warily.” He concluded that “India is still unable to break out of the shibboleths of the past” and warned this prejudice would affect the prospects of Indian companies in China.

The story doesn’t end here. In October 2003, the Confederation of India Industry hosted an Indian Expo in Beijing. Ramesh secured a CII accreditation and attended the fair. At Beijing, he surprised Indian industry by his forthright advocacy of Chinese companies, particularly in the telecom, IT and port sectors. At the meet where the Indian Commerce Minister and his Chinese counterpart were present, Ramesh intervened from the floor and repeated the arguments proffered in his article. Ramesh’s behaviour prompted India’s Ambassador to China to alert the Commerce Minister about a possible conflict of interests.

India’s Ambassador to China in 2003 is today the National Security Adviser and the then Commerce Minister now happens to be the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. They were witness to Ramesh waving the red flag at India in Beijing seven years ago.

The position Ramesh took in 2003 may not have a direct bearing on his conduct as a Minister of the Government of India. In 2003, he was speaking for himself; today he represents India. However, we cannot but be struck by the fact that his views have not been circumscribed by his stint in the Government. In 2003, he wrote on “the ambivalence of the Central Government in its myriad form on Chinese investments in India”; last week he spoke about “needless restrictions” on Chinese companies in India. In 2003, he wrote about how the good Huawei was being thwarted; seven years later he repeated that “Huawei is creating assets in India, it is hiring Indian professionals, (and) over 80 per cent of its employees are Indians”.

The point is not that Ramesh felt for Huawei then and feels for it now. It would seem that that the Minister can’t distinguish between his advocacy of Chindia in 2003 and his assigned role in 2010. What Ramesh said in Beijing last week wasn’t an unscripted indiscretion; it followed the 2003 script. If the original script had secured Cabinet backing, Ramesh would have been in the clear. He now has some serious explaining to do about the intrusion of past friendships into official duties.

Ramesh’s outburst wasn’t against Chidambaram in person. He was hitting out at India’s perception of its own national security. Whether such a contrarian should have anything at all even remotely connected with China is something for the Prime Minister to decide. To reduce the Ramesh affair to the ‘foot-in-mouth’ epidemic in the Congress is to trivialise it. The Government is confronted with a more delicate problem.

Sunday Pioneer, May 16, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Face it, India is all about caste

In recent times the world has witnessed a lot of crying over spilt milk. Germany has apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust; Japan has said sorry to the US for Pearl Harbour; the Pope has publicly taken the burden of his errant clergy on himself and bowed his head in shame; the federal government of Australia has apologized to its aborigines for wilfully killing so many of them; Russia has apologized to Poland for Stalin's massacre of its non-Communist leadership in 1939; and 13 years ago, the Queen apologized for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Compared to these grave wrongs of history, the abuse showered on long-forgotten British civil servants by the cheerleaders of Indian nationalism seems a case of petty theft. For six decades, generations of Indians have been taught to believe that the colonial rulers saw India through the lens of ignorance and prejudice. Sir Valentine Chirol, a distinguished journalist who was prolific on 'Indian problems' epitomized the type of Englishman Indians loved to despise. Writing in 1926, Chirol observed that "Hinduism could not build up a nation because the one vital structure which it did build up was the negation of everything that constitutes a nation."

The "vital structure" that Chirol alluded to was caste. National allegiance, he felt, "was secondary to the loyalty each (Hindu) owed to his caste since his caste was his karma, determining much more than his present life, namely, all his lives still to come."

Chirol mirrored the colonial perception of India as a land obsessed by caste and unable to rise above it. Since the foreign rulers never aimed at being social reformers, they attempted to accommodate this caste obsession in public policy. They documented caste in all its bewildering complexities in the Gazetteers and, most important, attempted to quantify caste allegiances in the Census operations from 1881. As Census Commissioner for the 1911 Census, Sir Herbert Risley went one better. It wasn't enough merely to record the caste preferences of individuals. To make life easier for policy makers, the Census had also to identify "social precedence as recognized by native public opinion." In other words, the administration had to locate a caste in the ritual and social hierarchy and determine which caste was high, intermediate or low.

Risley's attempt to define caste precedence triggered an upsurge in civil society. Caste groups mobilized to redefine their varna status, undertake changes in ritual practices and even press for changes in caste names. India experienced a bizarre ferment with caste leaders pressing for vegetarianism, restrictions on widow remarriage and changes in the rituals governing marriage and mourning. The Census led to a government-induced process of what MN Srinivas was later to call 'Sanskritization' — social changes premised on the belief that Brahmins were role models.

For nationalist historians, Risley was a villain promoting 'false consciousness' and furthering a divide-and-rule approach to undermine national unity. The Census was perceived, not merely as a quantitative exercise, but a divisive game which, in the process, reduced Indian society to a hideous caricature. Even though Mahatma Gandhi felt compelled to accommodate the 'depressed classes' through the Poona Pact, the conventional Congress view was that caste, like religion, was purely a social institution that had no place in public life and political decision-making. There would be some compensatory discrimination in favour of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but that's where the encroachment of caste would end. In line with this thinking, the first post-Independence Census in 1951 dropped the enumeration of caste altogether.

So strong was this nationalist consensus that when the first Backward Classes Commission was appointed in 1954, reputed Gandhian and anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose proclaimed "the desire and will of the Indian nation to do away with the hierarchy of caste…and prepare the ground for full social equality." Indeed, when the Backward Classes Commission identified 2,399 non-SC and non-ST communities as 'backward', the report was fiercely contested by Congress.

In five decades, politics has come full circle.  Last week, the Cabinet deliberated on the wisdom of reviving the enumeration of caste in the Census. There was no unanimity but the government finally conceded that was little point persisting with the old nationalist consensus. Already politicized by democracy, caste has become the basis of the government's elaborate redistributive programmes. Sixty years of experiments with modernity have proved to be mere ripples on the surface; the depths of India's 'vital structure' have been unmoved.

India owes an unqualified apology to the British Raj for suggesting that its officials didn't understand India and, indeed, vilified it. It's our nationalist modernizers who have been defeated by the 'real' India. The future appears to belong to the khap panchayats. Chirol was right and we may as well acknowledge it.


Sunday Times of India, May 9, 2010

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