Saturday, April 05, 2014


The Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid yesterday called on secular forces to support the Congress. Such an appeal whitewashes the Congress’ complicity in laying the foundation of HIndutva politics. Through this appeal, the electorate is expected to forget the ways in which the Congress took recourse to orchestrating communal violence against Muslims and Sikhs ever since its electoral dominance began to crack. In the final years of Indira Gandhi’s regime, when she actively began to speak of protecting Hinduism in the face of the crisis unfolding in Punjab, the Congress clearly appropriated the mantle of the Hindu Right. The controversial events in Ayodhya, ignited by Rajiv Gandhi’s actions, are too well-known to be repeated. How can the Shahi Imam, or anyone else, forget that the Congress systematically laid the groundwork for the BJP and other affiliates of the Sangh Parivar?

It has often been suggested that the communalisms of the Congress and the BJP are fundamentally different. The Congress’ communalism is supposedly ‘pragmatic’ in that it is deployed to maintain the party’s political dominance. But this can be said about the BJP as well. Sociologist Raheel Dhattiwala’s study of the riots in Gujarat reveals that the worst violence was orchestrated in the areas where the BJP’s electoral dominance was precarious. On the other hand, we are told that the BJP’s communalism is programmatic, in that it seeks to establish political power to establish Hindu Rashtra. While the Congress has admittedly never said it intends to impose Hindu Rashtra over Indians, neither has the BJP- at least not for the last several elections.

Even a casual glance at the words and deeds of the leading lights of the Congress of yore reveals the extent to which it took India’s Hindu character for granted. The newly appointed head of state of the Indian Republic, Rajendra Prasad, considered it his honorable duty to wash the feet of 200-odd Brahmans in Benares, where the BJP is now fielding the ‘Hindu-minded’ Prime Ministerial candidate nominated by the RSS. The President and Home Minister Sardar Patel considered it their duty to participate in laying the foundation of the temple at Somnath.

But they were unapologetic about flaunting their Hindu-ness. On the other hand, even that fount of secularism in the Congress, the  darling of the self-styled progressive elite, Jawaharlal Nehru did not so much as blush when the honorific of ‘Pandit’, a title used by religious scholars, was conferred upon him. In his magnum opus The Discovery of India he can scarcely conceal his admiration for what he called ‘the record of public service and personal sacrifice for the public good’ (page 87) of the Brahmans. Independent India made its ‘tryst with destiny’, under his watch, to the blaring of conch shells at the ‘stroke of the midnight hour’, a replay of Hindu rituals attending to the anointment of kings by priests in an earlier era. BJP leader Yashwant Sinha is not far off the mark when he called Nehru a Hindutvawadi- “When he can preside over a function inaugurated by Vedic chants, what else does that make him but a Hindutvawadi?” Sinha asked in an interview with India Today.

Contemporary discourses matter too. And here again, the similarities are uncanny. The BJP’s tilt towards Hindu idioms is commonly known. It is when the Congress competes with the BJP to ostensibly reclaim the Hindus that the slippages become apparent. It is when the Congress mouths sentiments that ‘India is secular because Hinduism is secular’ that its substantive continuity with the Sangh Parivar become evident (As a thought experiment, how secular would it sound if Sheikh Hasina said- Bangladesh is secular because Islam is secular). Digvijay Singh, who styles himself as Modi’s antagonist and a great champion of secularism, personifies this way of thinking. In a piece written on his blog last year, he leaves no stone unturned to convince readers of his Hindu devotional credentials and Sanatanist affiliations.  The Sangh Parivar, he alleges, is steeped in Arya Samaji thinking, which is intolerant of Sanatanist views. The fratricidal nature of the Congress’ tussle with the BJP comes through clearly from his polemic, especially when he refers to the supposed tolerance of the Sanatanists against the alleged intolerance of the Arya Samajists. The Congress/ BJP tussle maps onto the Sanatanist/ Arya Samaji joust. People who lie outside these embrace of these factions (such as religious minorities, Dalits and Adivasis) can expect unkept promises of protection and vague threats of subordination from the two factions. But they cannot expect either the promise or practice of equal citizenship from either.

Secularism in India deserves better champions than the Congress. It is unwise of the Shahi Imam to write off political parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party under whose watch Uttar Pradesh’s law and order situation was remarkable. Even the Samajwadi Party is a better champion of secularism than the Congress Party can ever be, Muzaffarnagar notwithstanding. Has the Shahi Imam forgotten that it was the SP that, for the first time ever in independent India, deployed troops to prevent Hindu mobs from destroying a Muslim shrine? And has he forgotten that the very party that he now holds up as a champion of secularism twiddled its thumbs when this shrine was demolished two years later? True votaries of secularism in India would do well to ensure the defeat of both the Congress and the BJP in the ensuing elections.  

Wednesday, April 02, 2014


With India heading to polls in a few days, political pundits predict an impending battle for India’s soul. A few think-tanks have even described the polls as the most important elections since 1977. Their predictions appear to be bolstered by the manner in which political parties, or at least some of them, claim to be committed to ‘transformational politics’. This commitment, according to many commentators in the print and social media, reflects the emergence of a New India. What matters for voters today, they say, are issues of good governance and efficient administration; corruption, transparency and accountability; and sustained growth and development. One study claims that economic growth is the ‘No. 1 priority’ for voters in India today. But what neither the pundits nor the politicians are talking about is widening economic inequalities in India. What they are silent about is the fact that these widening economic inequalities are sharpened by discrimination based on caste, ethnicity and religion. What they ignore is the demand for social justice that is made daily by the oppressed, marginalized ad exploited members of society. Most political parties- whether Congress or BJP, AAP or CPI(M)- do not even pretend to nod towards social justice. Their deafening silence on these issues makes their claims about ‘transformational politics’ sound like empty rhetoric.

Widespread and widening economic inequality

That India’s economic reforms opened up unprecedented opportunities for several sections of the population is without doubt. That some people, groups and sectors benefitted more from these opportunities than others did is also without doubt.  Thus, on the one hand, according to the World Bank, the proportion of the population living on less than $1.25 a day in the country declined from 47% in 1990 to 33% in 2008.  However, on the other hand, a report of the International Monetary Fund suggests that the impact of economic growth on poverty reduction is weaker in India than in the Sub-Saharan African, Latin American and other South Asian countries. The Gini Coefficient, a standard measure of income inequality, increased from 33 to 37 between 1993 and 2010, indicating rising income inequality. Furthermore, the rate of poverty-reduction through this period has not been uniform across socio-economic groups.  Economists Sukhdeo Thorat and Amarish Dubey point out that poverty-reduction has been lower for off-farm and agricultural wage laborers, urban casual workers and self-employed. For Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims among these occupational groups, the rate of poverty-reduction has been even less.  Clearly, some castes and classes have benefitted less from the reforms than others have.

Although employment opportunities have increased since the reforms, work has become even more precarious than before. The National Commission for Employment in Unorganised Sector provides data for the caste basis of this casualisation: a quarter of all Dalit workers and a third of the Adivasi workers are employed as casual labor in the informal sector, against 15% of the total working population. Farmers in central and eastern India, the majority of whom also belong to underprivileged communities such as Adivasis and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), are increasingly confronted with the prospects of being dispossessed of their agricultural properties to make way for Special Economic Zones, industrial and business parks and extractive operations, in which the high-value jobs are almost entirely likely to be cornered by members of the privileged communities.

The reforms facilitated rising incomes as well as rising inequality, based on caste, ethnic and religious cleavages. Capitalism has contributed to and benefitted from the erosion of caste as a system of ritual hierarchy. But it has also contributed to and benefitted from the so-called ‘comparative advantage’ of the different caste groups. Therefore, parties that are content with attacking corruption and crony capitalism- such as the AAP and the CPI(M)- miss the point. Where in the world has capitalism been anything but crony? Like elsewhere, capitalism has fed off on existing structures of exploitation and oppression, such as caste in the South Asian context.

The reality of economic inequality versus the claim of social equality

It is one thing for economic inequality to widen. It is another for it to be a experienced by those who are at the exploited and oppressed end. In a closed economy with limited political mobilization, economic inequality might not be perceived as such: contacts between different groups and classes are limited. But in an open economy, with high levels of spatial mobility and political mobilization, economic inequality is experienced on a daily basis and therefore matters a great deal. During my interviews with construction workers and domestic helps employed in South Delhi, this experience of inequality was articulated time and again: while most workers have seen their own real incomes rise and consume more than they could earlier, they are also aware of the disproportionately high incomes earned and assets owned by their employers. Nandan Nilekani recently observed that there was a steep aspirational curve among the youth: the children of domestic helps and agricultural workers aspired to become doctors, engineers and teachers rather than continue to do what their parents and grandparents had done. An estimated 100 million people are thought to be ‘Internal circular migrants’- moving from one place to another aspiring for better opportunities. These aspirations do not necessarily stem from a desire to see increased national growth rates or to move above notional poverty lines. Rather, they are motivated by a wish to lead dignified lives, which in turn is based on an imagination of social dignity.

Where does this imagination of social dignity come from? From the political mobilizations by Dalits and Other Backward Classes (both Hindu and Muslim) that have characterized Indian politics since the 1960s. The prime movers of these political mobilizations have been the different Janata factions and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Despite ideological differences between the two formations (the former deriving their ideas from Ram Manohar Lohia, the latter basing theirs on Bhim Rao Ambedkar), these mobilizations have succeeded in making social dignity central to the political imagination of Dalits and OBCs, caste-clusters that contribute disproportionately to the bulk of the workers and the poor in this country. Ironically, today it is the Hindutva forces that have appropriated the language of social dignity. One of my interviewees in Araria district, a respected academic with obvious sympathy for the BJP, told me in no uncertain terms that the party’s popularity was increasing because, irrespective of the official proclamations on development and good governance, the cadre promised ‘social dignity’ to the poor among the Dalits and the OBCs. During interviews I conducted in Ahmedabad with the Cambridge sociologist Manali Desai, our interlocutors told us that the BJP was their party of choice because it gave them a ‘dignified identity’.

In expressing their imagination of social dignity, Dalits and OBCs assert their social equality with others. However, the caste basis of the economic inequalities points to the disjunction between the claim of social equality and the reality of economic inequality in the country today. Discrimination on the basis of caste, ethnicity and religion in the fields of employment continues to remain one way in which the claims of Dalits and OBCs to social equality are routinely denied by those who control access to these resources. Such discrimination further perpetuates their skewed participation in the economy. My interviews in north Bihar show that employment opportunities in Delhi allow Dalit agricultural laborers to withhold their labor from farmers back in the village who continue to use casteist slurs and practice untouchability. But, during the same interviews, they told me that they also realize that employment opportunities in the cities are restricted to the precarious world of informal employment, from which they can be arbitrarily fired. Dalit workers in Ahmedabad find that they are among the earliest to be laid off and their compensation packages among the last to arrive. Such precariousness inhibits their abilities to support their children who want to become doctors, teachers and engineers, threatening their aspiration to social dignity.

Justice- social, economic and political
The claims of social dignity and equality made by the poor and the workers from among Hindu and Muslim Dalits and OBCs substantiate the first principle articulated in the preamble of our constitution: ‘justice: social, economic and political’. They have made social justice the horizon of our politics for the workers and laborers from underprivileged communities. However, with the exception of individuals such as Nitish Kumar, Mayawati and Abdur Razzak Molla, most of our politicians have lost sight of this horizon. The Congress has little to say about some of its own promises, such as affirmative action in the private sector. The BJP treats social justice as an illegitimate child: its cadre speaks of social dignity while wooing the poor but shies away from explicitly committing to it at the national or even State level. The Left, which should have been at the forefront of the demand for social justice, has restricted its pronouncements to questions of economic inequality without confronting the caste differentiation that bolster such inequality. How it can hope to remain relevant in an India where social equality and dignity have assumed the political importance they deserve, is something only the Brahmanical leadership of the Politburo knows. All these parties seem to have bought in the pundits’ proclamations about the New India. Now, the pundits are right that the New India is less about community and identity. But they are wrong that the New India is more about economic growth, and that inequality and social dignity does not matter. That is a grave error. The New India is about social justice. And if our political parties are serious about ‘transformational politics’, they need to talk about social justice.

Friday, February 01, 2013


The ill-conceived and ill-founded remarks made by Ashis Nandy at the JLF and the subsequent exchanges between his critics and defenders have provided a good opportunity for those influential ideologues currently at the helm of molding and shaping opinion in the public sphere to introspect and ask what lessons are being learnt. Hopefully, they will not remain content with decrying the apparently diminishing space for dialogue, the so-called thought terrorism unleashed on the public sphere, the lack of nuanced understanding among the putative lumpens, and the soft targeting of the intellectuals. Rather, they should ask why is it that they and the ‘subalterns’ whose interests they claim to have defended all these years seem to be talking past each other. India’s progressives have two choices: either to ceaselessly lament the “descent of our politics into the ludicrous” (The Hindu, Jan 31) or to ask how they can honestly interpret their role in the transforming politics of contemporary India. While Nandy, who has apologised only to those hurt by his remarks, has desisted from withdrawing them altogether as he should have, his apologists have refused to even engage with his critics. While the former claim to be defending our democracy, it is the latter who are actually strengthening it.

We need to be asking some difficult questions. Why did Nandy's remarks meet with the response they did? Did he or his supporters do justice to those responses? Why were they so surprised at those responses? What does this episode tell us about our public sphere and about our public intellectuals? These questions become all the more significant in a week when Khairlanji’s ghosts returned, but were treated as unwanted dinner guests by most of the English language media, with the usual exception (The Hindu, Jan 29). The answers, I believe, lie in two domains: first, their inability to appreciate the responsibility of the public intellectual; and second, their unwillingness to recognise as legitimate ‘subaltern’ (an admittedly shorthand for those from historically underprivileged backgrounds) voices who express fundamental disagreement with them. This article is not written to please: those demanding Nandy's arrest will find it tepid as I do not endorse these calls, while those defending him will not like the irreverence for his age, experience and wisdom. That the subject of this piece is somebody who has been subjected to charges of sedition by Narendra Modi’s government makes it all the more painful to write, but necessary in the context of India’s mass mobilised democracy.

The responsibility of the public intellectual

The episode has exposed the tragic hiatus that exists between India’s public intellectuals and the public sphere. Public intellectuals have to take responsibility for connecting with others in the public sphere, to become truly public intellectuals, and not merely intellectuals mouthing sharp witticisms that only those within a charmed circle of friends and students understand. If they are misunderstood, it is their responsibility to ensure that they are as clear and accessible as possible in the first place. Colleagues vouching for the progressive credentials of public intellectuals will not do: s/he may have dedicated the entire corpus of their work to analyzing how the poor and the marginalized are mistreated by the institutions they have come to trust (in Nandy’s case this has often been debated), but if they cannot explain that in five minutes- that too to a socially engaged audience, they should humbly renounce claims (admittedly conferred by others) to public intellectual-ship and limit themselves to the class room or conference circles. It is unfortunate that a person of Nandy’s scholarship failed to appreciate the dynamism of the public sphere he has been documenting for the last four decades.

In a rapidly democratizing public sphere such as ours, it is increasingly becoming difficult for elites to erect comfortable intellectual barricades against those who they were not accustomed to interacting with till just a few years ago. Given the vast heterogeneity of the Indian population, democratization means diversity: people with different social, economic, cultural and political backgrounds, ideologies, experiences and expectations are enthusiastically joining a public sphere whose existing ideologues, they soon find, speak a different language (both literally and metaphorically) from them. People in this public sphere want to know what the so-called public intellectuals say, feel, think and- more importantly- they want to be part of the conversation. However, instead of engaging them, the clarifications extended on behalf of Nandy have been patronising at best and dismissive at worst. Academic colleagues defending the dedication of the public intellectual to the cause of the subalterns and, indeed, turning upon members of the public for their intolerance, lack of nuance and inability to grasp sophisticated understandings and interpretations only contribute to the imagery of a coterie tightly insulated from the very public whose world they claim to analyse and interpret. Throughout the televised debates on NDTV and CNN IBN, we heard academic colleagues commenting about “knowing Ashis da’s work”, “what he really said was”, “he meant to say…”, “he comes to dine with us…”, etc. The heart-warming intimacy further strengthened the image of a well-guarded garden party where everyone knew everyone else as well as how to behave, and couldn’t be bothered to explain the import of his work to the apparently uninformed (and uninvited?) members of the public. The public intellectual is an important constituent of the public sphere, commands respect as a thought-leader and should therefore be more careful about- as Chandrabhan Prasad reminded us early on in the debate and the Supreme Court has reiterated- what s/he says, at least in a public forum (Nandy clarifies that the JLF was an invited- and by implication- a private assembly, an unsustainable claim given the State Government’s provisioning of security at the event).

Reasonable demands or inchoate cacophony?

A democratic public sphere functions on the premise of the ontological equality of its constituents: that is to say, irrespective of differences in social class and economic position, everyone’s opinion counts and must be expressed, and taken seriously. Unfortunately, in the ensuing debates, the perfectly valid criticisms of Nandy’s remarks were met by dismissive tones about how the public sphere was being trivialised and how his critics were being intellectually lazy. TV anchors and newspapers referred- sometimes in amusement, sometimes in alarm- to the ‘clamour’ for his arrests, and drew up images of mobs baying for his blood. Their responses to the legitimate demand for the application of the law were unequivocally dismissed by these worthies as being unreasonable, and one that was merely the inchoate noise made by self-serving attention-seekers, possessing low intellectual calibre. Imageries of “Hedgehog nation” (Economic Times, Jan 30), echoing the description of India as a “Republic of Hurt Sentiments” (The Hindu, Feb 9, 2004) have been invoked, with battle-lines drawn up between those who allow their emotions, passions and sentiments to overtake them on the one side, pitted against those who are supposedly more rational, reasonable and cerebral on the other. These were inaccurate characterisations. Nandy’s critics were asking him, as reasonable- albeit angry (and it possible to be reasonable and angry at the same time)- individuals, for evidence to substantiate his caste-specific remarks. He admitted that he had none, and was making a general observation (and, almost as a sop he helpfully added during his interview with NDTV, he was happy for the corruption of these ‘caste’ groups!).

What followed was an ‘apology’, which is now being held up as evidence of his magnanimity. Even a cursory reading of this apology of an apology puts the onus onto those who misunderstood him, people who, he clarifies, had “no reason to do so”. He has apologised only for the ‘hurt’ he has caused, not for the remarks themselves, which were baseless and speculative. He says he did not mean to hurt anyone, and that even if people are “genuinely hurt”, he is sorry.  Hurt? More than hurt, people were angry (and a psycho-sociologist like him should know the difference) over the confident and, as at least one of his disciples admits, pompous (S. Sengupta, Kafila, Jan 30) declaration of what he believed to be a fact. Not only did he assert that most of the corrupt came from the OBCs, SCs and STs, he also endorsed the argument that their corruption was an equalising force. When his detractors asked him for evidence, he and his coterie closed ranks behind up, and characterised the perfectly reasonable demands for evidence as inchoate noise being made by a bunch of politically motivated unintelligent rowdies ( a fashion guru clubbed these rowdies with those perpetrating cultural dadagiri). When asked by the New York Times about his response to the reactions, he called them “silly, somewhat comical” (NYT, Jan 30). This continuous characterisation of the demands for explanation in terms analogous to childish behaviour enabled these to be quickly brushed aside by the mainstream intelligentsia, media and other elites as no more than cacophonic. That these were real people -and I don’t mean the likes of Rajpal Meena, PL Punia, Ramvilas Paswan and Mayawati, but those who comprised the ‘crowd’ outside the JLF and the plaintiffs in Chhatisgarh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh- did not seem to matter. Was there one snippet, one story, one quote from that ‘crowd’ offered by the media? Even a random query: why were they there? At least none, to the best of my knowledge. Relative to the outpouring of support for Nandy, very few of those critical voices from the blogosphere- increasingly celebrated as the motor of democratisation- have found a place (yet) in either the English-language newspapers or in the electronic media.

The confident assertion that most of the corrupt came from specific castes did not sound jarring to the Liberal ears of India’s English-speaking intelligentsia, but subsequent protests did. This selective reaction reveals the extent to which they remain alienated from the world of the ‘subaltern’ communities in India. Of course, one could argue that they were after all being good Liberals in doing this (but that is another debate!). Nonetheless, a more opportune response from Nandy would have been to withdraw his speculative claims and to apologise not only to those he thinks he has hurt but to the entire nation for introducing a caste-centred dimension to a socio-political phenomenon. Akeel Bilgrami ( counters the demand for statistics as “comically pedantic”. To me, the question is not about providing statistical evidence, but about introducing an entirely inappropriate way of thinking- and the world ‘mentality’ as used by some of our unfairly-maligned politicians is not far off the mark. It is the mentality- this “false agency” which Dr. K. Satyanarayana (Round Table, Jan 31) refers to, which is sickening and disgusting. How is it that the question of caste, and of OBCs/ SCs/ STs becoming more prominent in politics figures only during a conversation on corruption? And this is the wider question for our public intellectuals- why are these groups only recognised and named as perpetrators of corruption, crime and violence. The specious argument that this is due to their numerical preponderance falls flat when one recalls the discussions led by the very same intellectuals after the ghastly rape in Delhi last month- discussions that focused on the theme of ‘rape’ rather than the caste of the raped (OBC) and the rapist (at least five of six with Savarna names). That SC/ST/OBC women are raped with impunity in the countryside on account of their caste did not once enter the conversations on this topic. While caste was strictly kept out of the purview of discussions on rape, Nandy’s comments have made it appear to be seamlessly a part of the growing corruption story. Different discursive registers are being used, and it is these double standards that are frustrating and shocking.

Nandy being pro or anti-reservation is not of as much consequence as the fact that he has sought to confirm elite stereotypes about individuals who, on account of their caste affiliations are not thought fit by societal elites to hold positions of authority. Nandy’s colleagues and well-wishers ought to have publicly questioned the caste-centered lens he took on this issue. Instead, they have turned the issue into one of academic freedoms, freedom of speech and the like. India’s self-styled progressives have to learn to treat dissenters with more respect. They may think of themselves as being champions of India’s marginalised. If the latter do not agree, they cannot be threatened that they will be “losing their friends”. This attitude that ‘the intellectual’ knows best has to be eschewed and replaced by one of greater humility. They have to stop abrogating rationality and reasonableness to themselves and irrationality, emotion, passion and sentiment to subalterns dissenting: both sets of interpretive devices are important in politics, but do not make up the ‘substance’ of this or that caste, class or community: the attitude that a rational ‘we’ are embattled by an irrational ‘them’ only perpetuates, as Gopal Guru has reminded us through his incisive writings, an ontological hierarchy which places ‘us’ on a pedestal and ‘them’ way below.  

Hope for the Republic

Much has been made by Nandi’s apologists of his stature. Indeed, because of his stature, he should have been more responsible in asserting his views. As a matter of fact, it is also not clear how the so-called corruption among the subaltern groups is an equalising force, but that is another argument. Growing corruption will only create vested interests among the elites of all castes, classes and communities in sustaining a rotten system. On the other hand, it is the assumption of equality by those on society’s margins and those left out of double-digit growth rates but those who, nonetheless, continually encroach into the material, political and intellectual spaces that have been appropriated by the propertied and the privileged that will save the Republic. It is to the credit of the democratisation of India’s public sphere that elitist generalisations and flippant remarks, at least of some kinds, no longer go unchallenged by the ‘subalterns’ on whose behalf they are made. In ensuring that these remarks do not go unchecked, Nandy’s critics have performed a stellar service to substantive democracy in India. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A trip to Amritsar, 466 kilometers (289 miles) northwest of Delhi, was on the cards for a while. Motivated by a desire to get myself and the family a ‘bit of culture’. The city is famed for Harmandir Sahib, more popularly known as the Golden Temple, which in turn has lent its name to one of India’s most well-known superfast trains connecting this city with the country’s financial capital Mumbai, via Delhi, Kota, Ratlam, Vadodara and Surat. It is also home to the Jallianwallah Bagh, today a pretty garden, notorious for the bloodbath visited in its precincts upon a peaceful assembly of women, men and children that had gathered on April 13, 1919 to listen to speeches being made by their leaders. The city’s informal sector provides the backbone for its best-known produce, the Phoolkaris, which are best-presented on the Anarkali suits available in nearly every garment store worth its name. And, finally, it is also the springboard for Wagah, the last stop on the Indian side if one were to make a legal trip to India’s western neighbor through Punjab. It is to savor some of these sights and sounds that I dragged the rest of my family to make this journey with me, through the heat and grime of the northern plains.

Our hopes for an early start were not to be: the overnight Chhatisgarh express was late by a couple of hours. Nonetheless, a kindly rickshaw pedaled us to our first destination, the Jallianwallah Bagh, a garden named after the caste of the man who donated the land to the public. It was nothing short of a humbling experience to be there, to see the spot from where shots were fired to butcher hundreds for a peaceful assembly, to view the wall which the hapless victims tried to scale, only to be mowed down, and to walk through the alleys through which the hunters and the hunted had both walked nearly a century ago. It sent shivers down the spine to think that the military came armed with tanks and, had the alleys not been so narrow they would have taken the tanks through to ensure efficiency. The park has since been beautified, with graveled pathways, sun-shelters and taps for drinking water. An ‘eternal flame’ burns within the compound, in remembrance of the victims martyred during India’s struggle against colonialism. There’s a quaint little museum as you exit the compound, with sepia-tinted photographs and newspaper clippings about the event, and sundry other memorabilia.

From the Bagh is a short walk to the Harmandar Sahib. Renowned as the seat of the Akal Takht, the Sikh spiritual order, the walk into the temple complex is made comfortable thanks to jute mats and a shallow tank of cool water, into which devotees can dip their feet and cleanse it before entering the temple precincts. Within, the authorities have made many arrangements to ensure that devotees have some respite from the relentless summer heat. The path to the sanctum sanctorum, over the lake, is covered with white cloth, and dotted with sprinklers. Little fans fitted all the way ensure that the atmosphere is kept cool and comfortable for devotees. A simple, yet effective, mechanism!

As might be expected, the temple is crowded in with devotees, not all of whom are Sikh. Its precincts are remarkably clean, and kept so round the clock, thanks to the enthusiastic kar seva (voluntary service) of the faithful. After paying homage, one is led to a flight of steps leading to the first floor, where a huge copy of the Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib, is housed. It is continuously read by a battery of mahants. A further flight of steps leads to the terrace from where one gets a nice view of the surroundings. But the sun beats down relentlessly, so we head back down in a hurry. A note of caution: the steps are steep and the staircase winds down, so it is easy to slip on the edge. We have to be careful!

Another attraction in the city is the museum dedicated to Ranjit Singh, the mighty Emperor of the Punjab from 1799 to 1839, and the last successful defender of that region’s sovereignty before it was incorporated into the British East India Company’s South Asian empire. Ranjit Singh’s rise to power was phenomenal. At its zenith, the Punjab Empire touched the plateau of Tibet in the northeast to the Khyber pass in the northwest. Its eastern border was defined by the River Sutlej, and its southern border by the province of Sind. It appears that his was a regime well-respected by his subjects- Muslim, Hindu and Sikh alike. The museum could be better managed, but as it stands now, it provides interesting insights into the life, times and especially conquests of Ranjit Singh. It could do with more tableaus on the Punjab society in Ranjit Singh’s times.

Our final stop on the tour was the ‘flag-lowering’ ceremony at India’s border with Pakistan at Wagah. We made the mistake of taking the tempo, which made the journey far more tiring and exposed us much more to the heat and dust. We arrived at the border tired, and too late to take a place on the stadium from which we would have got a convenient view of the proceedings. The governments of both the countries have constructed make-shift stadia (one each on the north and another on the south) close to the border gates to enable their citizens to observe (and cheer lustily) the daily drill. It’s the same routine everyday: the border guards march up to the border, aggressively salute each other all the way thumping their feet as they do so, open the gates for a few minutes, and as dusk falls lower the flags of their respective countries for the night. To get to the actual stadium, one has to pass through two checkpoints. Before that, do make sure that you have taken off all bags, pouches, etc and left it either in the car or with small bag counters where the caretaker baby-sits these for a small fee.

Nonetheless, I hadn’t come this far to turn back. I edged my way into the jostling crowd that had already occupied every inch of the southern stadium, till I could catch a peek of what was going on at the border gates. It was well over an hour before they would be opened. But, clearly, the spectators were intent on making the most of their time there, and the authorities were more than willing to oblige. There were Bollywood songs, to which some of the revelers danced, and others joined in clapping.  There was even an official master-of-ceremonies, who was coordinating the show, informing the audience about what was going on and what to expect, and cheering them on to support their country. Once the marches began, it was he who was providing the cue for the crowds to cheer on the soldiers, egging the former on with jibes, such as, “Have you not had lunch today?” At the same time, it was also his job to see to it that crowd frenzy did not take on ugly dimensions, especially when it came to sloganeering. Only three slogans were ‘authorized’: Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata ki jai, and Hindustan Zindabad, although I was pretty sure he was emphasizing ‘Hindu-sthan Zindabad’. Understandably, we heard competing slogans from across the border as well. When the gates finally opened, the crowds on both sides rose to a thunderous applause. It was quite an experience!

We headed back to the station as the twilight transformed into night. The markets were bright and vibrant, and eager retailers were seeking out even more eager customers to conclude the business day. Most of the commercial business was transacted in small shops where the owner worked alongside his or her several assistants. The best-known production of the region, its famed phulkari (literally ‘flower-making’) embroidery is abundantly displayed along the numerous retail outlets all along the cloth markets. Not too long ago, phulkari was one of the several elements that bound together eastern, central and western Punjab- Hindu, Sikh, Muslim alike. Apparently, religious and royal motifs were completely absent in the traditional work, which was more focused on ideas from everyday life- such as crops, flowers and the like.

We didn’t get down to tasting (and enjoying) the city’s culinary delights very much. But I do wish I had consulted the site before embarking on this journey. They have some very confidently-made suggestions. The view from Delhi has always been that Punjab is a foodie’s delight, with Amritsar being no exception. If the ringside views were any indication, then surely we missed out a great deal. However, given the intra-household bargaining that accompanied this trip (as it does any family trip I guess), we had to settle for something the kid wanted.

We discovered that the city is home to several malls which, like malls everywhere, have blunted the city’s uniqueness and make you at once comfortable (the familiar Mc Donald’s, although the Mac Chicken burger here could only have been made in Punjab- it was deliciously spicy!) as well as distant (the environs of the mall were so distant from that of its vicinity). This is a dilemma that has to be faced and reconciled by the city’s inhabitants, but is not unique to Amritsar-ites alone. Leaving the city to resolve this conundrum, we headed for the comforts provided by the Indian Railways. As the train chugged out of the station, sleep enveloped us.

Good night, Amritsar, and thank you for a wonderful day.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The ‘discursive  game’ of poverty
The ‘poverty’ question has remained among the most persistently nagging ones for at least a century and a half now. Even as observers and policy-makers claim that the numbers and proportion of the poor in the world has declined, there continues to be little agreement on who ‘the poor’ are, and what constituted ‘poverty’. Human society claims to have made spectacular progress during this time, which can hardly be doubted if we were to consider technological and economic aspects. However, the sheer numbers of ‘the poor’, if global agencies are to be believed, compel us to be sober and modest about these ‘achievements’. Using an income poverty approach, researchers at the World Bank tell us that the poverty headcount- the proportion of people living below the poverty line (at US$ 1 a day)- in the developing world has reduced from 41% to 16% between 1980 and 2005. On the other hand, scholars who formulated the multi-dimensional poverty index being used by the UNDP estimate that 32% of the population of 104 developing countries is ‘poor’, presenting a rather somber picture. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that 925 million people- or 13% of the world’s population- are undernourished.

Below the surface of the statistics, the real question arises: do ‘the poor’ constitute an empirical fact, or a discursive category? This has often been posed as a dichotomy, with policy-makers, economists and statisticians ranged on one camp, and activists, politicians, political scientists and sociologists on the other. Perhaps it is more fruitful to view the category of ‘the poor’ as indeed a product of specific discourses. Now, before this exercise is labeled Foucauldian, let me hasten to clarify that by ‘specific discourses’ I have in mind not so-called hegemonic discourses, but the often contentious interweaving of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic, elitist and populist discourse. So, while the World Bank might point to declining poverty (perhaps to justify lesser government spending), the UNDP, as we saw earlier pegs global poverty at a higher level. To take a specific country example, while the Indian Government attempted to sing the ‘reduced poverty’ song, societal actors- activists, economists, policy advisers, journalists- have compelled it to revise upwards the proportion of the poor in keeping with reality. Thus, in 2004-5, the Government claimed that only 28% of the rural population was poor. This figure was subsequently contested by different Expert Groups constituted by it. One of the Groups, led by retired bureaucrat NC Saxena recommended (beyond its brief, it seems) that half the rural population be declared living ‘below the poverty line’. Another Group, whose mandate this number-crunching was, did indeed advise that 42% of the population be considered ‘poor’. Although both couched their recommendations in technical terms- reinforcing the ‘poor-as-empirical’ fact view, the motivation for forming such Expert Groups perhaps seems to have arisen from political calculations  to meet (or perhaps undercut?) the demands of political parties that claimed to represent the poor, no matter how half-hearted!

By claiming that poverty is a discursive construction, I do not mean to dilute the harshness of poverty and the violence that the poor face.  What I have in mind rather is the myriad of ways in which experts construct poverty through simple or sophisticated methods, and politicians and citizens themselves make claims in the name of ‘the poor’. The former is the result of increasing knowledge and intuitions among the experts, who are able to build on generations, if not centuries of understanding of the subject. The latter construction is an inevitable result of the widening of ‘electoral-developmental politics’ in different parts of the world. Political movements, slogans and rhetoric around ‘poverty-reduction’, with the advent of populist politics have contributed immensely to such a construction, removing much of the shame and stigma associated with being ‘poor’. Normatively, this may be seen as progressive, since it confers legitimacy upon the state’s central role in poverty reduction, even if- in practice- states usually fall short of meeting these expectations. Nonetheless, it is discourses such as these (deigrated in mainstream political science literature as 'populist') that allow "the poor" to storm through political doors.

Thursday, August 29, 2002