Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nationality is the only Identity: Part III

By Dileep Padgaonkar, 21 November 2009: Reproduced from Times of India

For three decades Bal Thackeray has ranted about one issue or the other with dollops of coarse humour to the delight of his flock and the wrath
of his detractors. Early in his political journey he realized that to achieve success he needed to exploit the insecurities of the urban, middle and lower middle class Maharashtrians. They had been left far behind by the enterprising Jains, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Punjabis, south Indians and north Indians. The feverish rhetoric of regional identity, he reckoned, would mobilise the Marathi manoos more effectively than the tall talk of progress, secularism and national pride.

And so it is that he directed his ire first at the 'Madrasis', then, high on the heady brew of Hindutva, at the Muslims and finally against the 'Bhaiyyas' of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Time and again the arms he deployed against these communities proved to be lethal: intimidation, threats, harassment and, with growing intensity, raw violence. These were the times when one statement at a Shivaji Park rally, one editorial in the party organ Samnaa, one order issued from Matoshri, his Bandra residence, could shut down Mumbai and send his opponents cowering for cover.

Thackeray had the means, and the gall, to "teach a lesson" to anyone who crossed his path: a defector, builder, film star, businessman, underworld don or journalist who failed to pay obeisance to the Supremo. In such instances, he showed a sovereign disregard for the rule of law and constitutional niceties. He placed himself on a pedestal higher than the highest court in the land.

That is why he could gloat over his 'achievements' that included the felling of the Babri masjid and the wave of violence he unleashed against Muslims in Mumbai. None of this would have been possible had his declared adversaries, the Congress and especially the NCP, not played footsie with him. But that Faustian deal was Thackeray's insurance against arrest and prosecution.

The idyll was too good to last. The deaths of a son and of his wife shattered him. He became more vulnerable when close associates began to abandon the ship. Age, too, had started to take its toll. But what crippled him was the crisis that gripped the family. In the bitter fight between his son, Uddhav, and his nephew, Raj, to take control of the party, Thackeray cast his lot with the son. But the son could simply not match his cousin's charisma, organisational abilities, determination or his rapacious ambition.

The result was obvious in the recent assembly polls when the MNS outsmarted the Shiv Sena reducing it to a sideshow. This should have encouraged Bal Thackeray to introspect. He did nothing of the sort. Instead, he chose to revile the Marathi manoos for stabbing him in the back. Later he sought to make some amends. His statement, he argued, was made not in a fit of anger but merely to express a benign patriarch's feelings of hurt over the conduct of his errant progeny. It triggered a fusillade of ridicule.

Hardly had the dust raised by the display of 'hurt feelings' begun to settle down than Thackeray fired another diatribe. This time the target was none other than a national icon: Sachin Tendulkar. The nation, and the world at large, applauded him as a cricketer beyond compare. But India discovered another, immensely attractive side of him when he declared that he placed his Indian identity above his Maharashtrian identity. He took great pride in both but his priorities were clear. Add to this his assertion that Mumbai belonged to all Indians.

Bal Thackeray, ever eager to seize the initiative from nephew Raj, gave Sachin an 'affectionate' earful. The ploy misfired. Sachin has emerged from this episode as an enlightened citizen of the republic, one who bears not the slightest taint of any sort of parochialism and, by that token, represents the face of a modern, self-confident and pluralistic India. In the process, he has exposed Bal Thackeray the troubadour of communal strife and regional chauvinism and the destroyer of Bombay's much cherished cosmopolitan character for what he has become today: a caricature of his former self with nothing but bile flowing in his veins. He cannot, or will not, read the writing on the wall. It says: your time is up.

Nationality is the only Identity: Part II

by Chetan Bhagat: Reproduced from Times of India
Raj Thackeray and the MNS have hogged headlines for some months now. Many of the enlightened articles that have appeared in newsprint paint him
as an evil villain who runs a party of goons. Quite frankly, this reductionist approach is not too different from that of his supporters who view him as a crusader for the ignored Marathi cause. The trading of such direct personality attacks makes it difficult to understand the real issues at hand. We should remember that the MNS is not alone. Millions of people now vote for it. In a mere three years of existence, it has attained a significant vote share as seen in the results of the recent assembly polls in Maharashtra. Compared to the Congress's vote share, the MNS still lags behind. However, for every four people who voted Congress in the state, one person voted MNS. This is significant.

To understand how the MNS gained so many supporters so fast, we must examine the issues taken up by the MNS that seem to resonate with the people of the state. One, while most of India's billionaires have Maharashtra addresses, the state also houses large numbers of poor people in the country. A majority of the state's population is dependent on agriculture, and this sector has suffered with falling crop yields and a poor irrigation infrastructure. The result is a dependence on rainfall, and high fluctuations in output. The state has the highest numbers of farmer suicides in the country. Why? If we want India to progress, shouldn't our farmers progress too?

Two, the so-called secular or nationalist parties don't seem to be doing much presently. There are little signs of visible progress. While agriculture is suffering, the situation in urban areas is no better with crumbling basic infrastructure. Compared to someone inept and invisible, at least the MNS comes across as action-oriented.

Third, the media's elitist obsession plays a role. Most publications and channels are only interested in covering high-class issues rather than the stories of the people of Mumbai, thus relegating a perfectly fine Marathi culture to a lower-class status. Ours is probably the only country where local cultures are looked down upon. Anything too Indian, or liked by too many Indians, is considered down-market. This, despite Marathi culture being one of the richest, original cultures in India, followed by a majority of Maharashtrians. In such a scenario, any party offering visibility to an ignored but loved culture is bound to get support. For the record, the MNS has organised Marathi poetry recitations and literature exhibitions.

However, despite the above valid causes and potentially good intentions, MNS may not be the best bet for Marathis. MNS has gained maximum publicity when it does something dramatic and violent. While such acts attract attention, it is a slippery slope. To get noticed next time, you have to keep increasing the intensity and do something with higher shock value. Members of the MNS have reached the point of slapping an elected representative in the state assembly. But even that story died soon. Soon they'll increase the heat further, hurt innocent people, and cross the limits of civilised behaviour. Is that Marathi culture?

MNS may have brought forward the Marathi cause but by going against almost everyone non-Marathi, it has demonstrated how little it understands the state's dependence on the central government. Maharashtra needs central support to complete critical irrigation projects, which will cost thousands of crores of rupees. Our best shot at progress as a nation is if all states work together with a common agenda, instead of pulling in different directions. Also, by indulging in violent fights with other political parties, the MNS displays an unwillingness to get along with other interest groups. Such an attitude is impractical in a country like India. If MNS members can't listen to people, who will listen to them?

By claiming Mumbai for Marathis and calling everyone else an outsider, MNS is only harming Marathis in the long term. In today's world, progress depends on inter-dependence. If global agricultural companies are incentivised and welcomed to base themselves in Maharashtra, it can dramatically alter the standard of living for Marathi farmers. Kicking everyone else out won't. A lack of understanding of the modern world also casts doubt over MNS's ability to actually deliver on the issues it has raised.

Most Marathis still do not vote MNS. It is these people who can help most by talking more about the choices available to their community and the pros and cons of each option. Increasing the decibel levels of the moderate Marathi voice is needed now. In that respect, the recent comments by Sachin Tendulkar are commendable. Non-Marathis have to stop painting individual personalities as villains and spend more time thinking about what is truly driving the support base of a divisive person. If you dig deep, you will find that just like you, all that the MNS supporters are looking for is a better life. And that common desire alone is enough reason for us to be one.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Nationality is the only identity

I always like to pronounce the name Bal Thackeray because of the Bengali intonation of the word 'Bal'!! I used to like him a lot because he has guts and is not pretentious. He doesn't like Pakistan and he makes it very clear in all possible ways. He did do some good development in Maharashtra when he was in power. Well, that's good, but there's one basic problem in the functioning of people like him - they seem to think that a regional identity is more important than the national.

He suffers from the same cancerous disease that was perhaps introduced for the first time in India by the Tamil leader Anna. I may be wrong, but I don't recall any other leader before him who had put forward a regional identity above everything else. Irrespective of multiple empires rising in India, throughout the history the entire landmass of Indian subcontinent used to be always referred to as a single civilization by the external world. The name India or Indika or Hindustan never denoted any particular empire or group of people. From Chandragupta Maurya to Shivaji every emperor was always an Indian emperor. Though truly regional powers, still the Vijaynagar or the Chola kingdoms were always referred to as Indian kingdoms. Even now irrespective of the religion or language apart from being Indian there's no other identity that an Indian has when he or she is abroad. How many people outside know of so many languages of India. Does it make any sense to stand at the emigration counter in Iceland and say that I'm a Bengali or Tamil?

This doesn't mean that the regional identity is insignificant.

I've been recently reading "Identity and Violence" by Amartya Sen and he has dealt with this very topic in a very elaborate manner. Every individual has multiple identities and all of these identities may be equally important to him or her. Suppressing one particular identity and highlighting another is not a good idea. Different identities have significance at different forums. A person can be a Hindu, but a non-vegetarian, a lover of Qawali music, a gay, an economist, a speaker of Bengali, Hindi and English languages, born to parents who stay in West Bengal, a native of Bangalore for the past thirty years and so on. Each identity has a significance. When the person wants to enter into the Jagannath Temple in Puri his Hindu identity is important otherwise he won't be allowed to enter. When he books a flight ticket he has to inform that he needs a non-vegetarian meal in flight. When there's a function by Rehat Fateh Ali Khan in Bangalore then he buys a ticket because he loves Qawali. When he buys an agricultural land in Bangalore his domicile identity as a resident of Karnataka for the past thirty years is important. Each identity is thus dependent on a particular event or activity.

It's really foolish to flaunt the irrelevant identity at the wrong place. It's foolish to flaunt the Karnataka domicile identity for buying a flight ticket. The only thing relevant here is whether he takes vegetarian or non vegetarian food. Like wise for his employment as the professor of Economics at a university in Timbuktu the only identity that is relevant is his being an economist. It's immaterial if he is a Hindu or a gay or a vegetarian.

Like wise it's totally immaterial whether I'm a Maharashtrian or a Tamilian if I want to reside in Bombay. As long as I'm an Indian or a foreigner with a valid Visa, I can stay in Bombay like anyone else. Sachin very correctly pointed out that he is proud of being a Maharashtrian, but he is also an Indian. He also iterated that Bombay belongs to the whole of India. I wish some one told the same thing to Anna that Madras or Tamil Nadu belongs to India not to someone who speaks Tamil or who have stayed in Tamil Nadu for hundred years!!

If we go back a little, in the pre-independence era, Jawaharlal Nehru and his colleagues in Congress had opted for a strong centralized government with lesser power to the states. Jinnah had opted exactly the opposite - a weak federal government with autonomy for states - something like USA. Fast forward 60 years and we know which is a better model. There's still not much of difference of culture between the people of Pakistan and India. Still Pakistan is on the verge of disintegration and India is still better off, though we do have our own internal problems. The only reason is that Pakistan never had a strong federal government which is very important for such a multi cultural and diverse country. Historically also only those empires became large and successful in India who had very strong federal governments with limited powers to states. Starting from Chandragupta Maurya-Ashoka to Akbar-Shivaji, every where it's the same story. If today we allow the regions to grow stronger than the center then we're also going the same way as Pakistan.

You may argue then why is USA so successful. Haven't you heard of different strokes for different folks? Culturally we're different and much diverse than USA. Europe never became a strong nation, rather remained a cluster of small regional powers for ever because of the same reason. They are also culturally as diverse as India but they very rarely had strong and powerful federal governments like that of Ashoka's or the Mughals or the Government of India in the past 60 years!!

So that's it.... let's really put an end to these silly regional politics. No regional identity should be allowed to rise beyond the national identity. There's no place for a Raj or a Bal or an Anna!! As the Bengalis say, these are all 'BAL'!!

Empires of Indus

One more young girl I'm falling in love with - Alice Albinia - merely in her late twenties and the writer of the best travelogue I've read ever - that's "Empires of Indus".

People who haven't read the Bengali travelogues of Kalkut, (pseudonym of Samaresh Basu), they are anyway deprived of a genre of travelogues which mix a travel experience with passion and emotions derived from the past and present of the people around. At the end of the reading you just become a part of the place. You identify yourself with the people you just read about. You become a part of the history of the place you just read about!! The real life characters and the backdrop become a mystical novel - a piece of fiction which you have problems to believe that they are real!! After reading "Empires of Indus" I just felt as if I've traveled along Indus from Karachi to the source in Manas Sarovar, traversing through a history of three millenia and witnessing the rise and fall of so many civilizations along its banks!!

The river Indus not only gave the name to India (rather the entire Indian subcontinent or South Asia), it gave all her identities and religions and cultures. Starting from the ancient Persia in the west to the eastern most boundaries of Indian sub continent Indus has its influences spread across histories and geographies in various forms. Indus has been one of the cradles of civilization of the world. For a greater part of the history of Indian subcontinent Indus has been at the center of all activities. It was at the center of Indus Valley Civilization, the earliest Aryan settlements in India and the Rig Vedas - the first book written by humanity, the invasions of the Persians and Alexander the great and even the first Muslim invasion and the subsequent spread of Islam in India. But sadly the river lost most of its significance in the Indian subcontinent in subsequent times. Alice has tried to revive the lost glory of Indus.

Alice traveled from the mouth of Indus in Karachi to the source, traveling through some of the most dangerous areas of the world infested by militancy and lawlessness and the most unfriendly terrains. Most of the times she has traveled through Pakistan and a little bit of Afghanistan and India (Jammu & Kashmir). Not that has always traveled along the banks of Indus, but Indus was always at the center of her adventures. Where ever she went she mixed with the local people, tried to understand the local culture and tried to unearth many untold histories. She took the path that Alexander is believed to have taken during his not-so-successful conquest of India. She went to the places where the mystical Aryans are believed to have left their only physical marks in the forms of graves spread across a heavenly abode where the three highest mountains of the world - Hindukush, Himalayas and the Karakoram - meet. On her way she discovered the unfolding of a number of empires and civilizations. Metaphorically the Indus comes to life and speaks of the empires along his course!! The most enchanting thing about the book is that the present and the past are mixed so well at every point that the reader never gets bored with the serious history that she deals with. No reading of history could have been so interesting and thrilling.

Most importantly if Western people read this book they may get a totally different perspective of Pakistan which is now midst of all wrong things. It's high time that people within and outside Pakistan take a different perspective of their own culture and history and get things on right track. Indus is not only important to India, but also to Pakistan. Indus stands for a unique and rich culture and civilization that has made the entire Indian subcontinent one of the most sought after places in the world. The book is a reminder of all of that!!

I'm no longer interested in "Lost Symbol"

Two weeks back suddenly I'd to undergo an emergency surgery to remove my infected appendix. That was very unexpected and one fine morning I suddenly found myself lying on a hospital bed getting ready to enter into OT. Knowing that I'd be in hospital for a few days and then bed ridden for the next few at home, I'd asked my wife to get some books to hospital. For quite some time I'd been lagging a bit in catching up with a number of books that I'd been planing to read. I thought getting an unexpected respite for 10-12 days won't be that bad a thing - I could make up for the backlog with my books.

Very recently I'd bought "Empires of Indus", by Alice Albinia - by far the best travelogue I've ever read. (I'll very soon write a blog on this book). At the same time my friend Pankaj gave me a huge bricked shaped book - Dan Brown's latest thriller - Lost Symbol. Pankaj did warn me of this 'brick' and advised me not to read this in public because I may get so violent that I may throw the book to people around me!! Well, Pankaj has a very good sense of humor and I didn't take it in literal sense. But I now know that he was not wrong!! Yes, I did go violent not because I didn't like the book, but because the writer has betrayed an avid reader of his and that's a serious offence for a writer.

Well, first of all there's no denying the fact that Dan Brown researched even better than any of his previous books. I always maintain that his "Deception Point" is by far his most researched book. In fact I can say that "Deception Point" may be one of the most scientifically researched books I've read. "Lost Symbol" seems to be even more deeply researched. Most importantly he has endeavored very well to mix the spirituality and mysticism of all the ancient religions and cultures with modern science. In general Indian spirituality is more often than not depicted in a derogatory manner by most of the Western writers, off course barring the better few. After the likes of Einstein and Heisenberg, Indian spirituality and mysticism and philosophies never needed any other Western writer of novelist for propaganda or generous space in books. Nevertheless, Dan Brown's indepth and authentic studies about the advancements of scientific knowledge in ancient India and its correct depiction is indeed a very surprising experience in reading this book. I haven't seen much books, even now when information and knowledge is no longer restricted or limited, talking about advanced Indian sciences of ancient times at par with that of the Greeks and Egyptians. More over the entire usage of Noetic Science is a very charming thing. In today's worlds when traditions and cultures seem to attract lesser and lesser people, it's indeed a very good attempt to instill in the young minds the thought that science and technologies never tell anyone to be dismissive of religion, faith or cultures. It's true that most of the dialogues that Katherine Solomon, the Noetic scientist and a main character of the novel, speaks have shades of Einstein, still it's indeed a good attempt to bring it up again for the young readers - who I doubt would ever read anything written by Einstein - be it scientific or else.

But the main problem with "Lost Symbol" is that it's too repetitive and boring. First of all it's probably bigger in size than the previous adventures of Robert Langdon - it's more than 500 pages and just imagine those many pages in a hard bound edition. The stuff like ancient mysteries and hidden knowledge and the excessive of the weirdly depicted dark rituals of the Freemasons have been dealt with quite heavily in the past two adventures. One more novel again on the same topic and going into so much depth about the same things seemed quite boring to me. I was shocked to find that I'd to skip pages of grotesque descriptions of rituals that the villain Ma'lakh indulge in. It may be true and very authentic but I somehow didn't enjoy. I was feeling bad because I never had to skip even a single word of the other works of Dan Brown. The dialogues between the different characters get too lengthy and hence boring. At times the novel seems to be mere research notes rather than a thriller. And at least once, I can remember very well, that the research notes are over done. Just think about this - Katherine Solomon is shown to have invented a gadget that measures the weight of the soul!! It's a very simple stuff - a dying person is put into this "soul-measuring" gadget and Katherine keeps a tab on the weight of the person. As soon as the person dies his weight is shown to reduce by a notable amount - accounting for the soul that leaves the body of the dead person!! Wow, that should impress us Indians who believe that atma or Ruh never dies but leave a body to enter into another!!

The story is quite simple. The Solomons, a family of highly esteemed masons have been hiding for more than a century a clue that will lead to some ancient mysteries and the most enlightening knowledge of the world which is supposed to be hidden somewhere in Washington DC. Obviously Robert Langdon is summoned to decipher it. The bachelor Robert has, this time, as his charming companion Ms. Katherine Solomon, the sister of Peter Solomon - the third generation Solomon keeping the clue in secrecy. Off course there's the villain Ma'lakh, who reminds us of the villain of "Da Vinci Code" - a weird nut who indulges in dark rituals!! And there is the CIA and a very unconvincing national threat. I may not speak more about this because avid readers may get angry because I'm spilling to much. But I can say that at present an American would be surely considering many things else as national threats rather than what is told in the novel. A previous American president was allegedly given a blow job by an intern and when that was spilled out even then it didn't become a national threat and here Dan Brown thinks that if people know that some senators indulge in dark rituals then that's a national threat!! Wow..... is it?

C'mon, Americans, what do you say?