Monday, December 22, 2008

Slokas After A Noon Namaaz

Muslim children study Sanskrit and Hindu ones read Quran in these UP madrassas

We arrive at Madrassa Anwarul-Islam Salfia at 12.45 pm, a little before namaaz. As the students gather around the row of taps to wash their hands and feet and line up for prayers, this modest building in the dusty, narrow bylanes of Chauri in Jalalpur, in eastern UP's Jaunpur district, looks exactly how we expect a madrassa to be: a place for rigorous study of Islam, Urdu, Arabic. What we encounter instead is a complete contradiction. The bare, red brick walls of the Standard 7 classroom are yet to be plastered, the window frames still to be fitted. Here, 12-year-old Nadima Bano and Hishamuddin are reciting, their pronunciation perfect and elocution chaste, this ode to India, "Yasyottarasyamdishibhati bhumao Himalayah parvatraj eshah..."

It's a sloka in Sanskrit that translated means 'the land shielded by the Himalayas in the north'. "Sanskrit padhne se zubaan saaf ho jaati hai (the diction becomes clear by learning Sanskrit)," Hishamuddin tells us. "Sanskrit is considered the mother of all languages," says their teacher Rabindra Kumar Mishra. "It's ironical that institutions like this madrassa should be nursing it while it's vanishing elsewhere."

That it's no exception we have stumbled upon becomes clear to us as we proceed north to Ambedkarnagar district, to Madrassa Azizia Islamia in Kamharia village. The hands of the wall clock might be stuck at 6.45 in this primary school or maktab, but the school itself has progressed in other ways. Space is obviously at a premiumClasses 2-5 are being held simultaneously in separate, little rows in a large hall. Sirajuddin is teaching Sanskrit grammar to Class 3. "It was my favourite subject when I was a child," he says with a smile. "Balakah pathati; Sah pathati; Balakau pathatah (A child studies, he studies, they study)...," his student Muhammad Shahid recites for us. They soon move on to another lesson. "Asmakam deshasya asti ateev shobhanah (our country is very beautiful)...".

However, this story is not only about Hishamuddins learning Sanskrit. It's also about 13-year-old Ravi Prakash Pandey, a Brahmin and the son of a Sanskrit professor, opting to learn Quran in Class 1. A former student of Azizia Islamia, he can now recite the holy text from memory and has a copy at home that he peruses religiously. "Quran teaches that we must help others and do good deeds and stay away from evil," he says, without batting an eyelid, and then rushes to wash himself and wear a cap before reading it aloud for us.

We hear this echo back in Salfia where two Hindu - year-old Arti Kumari and Anita Kumari - are writing about Prophet Mohammed in Urdu on the blackboard: "Jab hamare Hazrat ki umr paintees baras ki thi (when our prophet was 35 years old)...". "They face absolutely no problem in writing, reading or understanding Urdu," their teacher Kaiser Jahan informs us.

At Madrassa Arbiya Zia-ul-uloom in Mandey in Azamgarh district, sisters Manju and Ranju Kumari have been learning Urdu from Class 1. They mean it when they recite: "Urdu hai jiska naam hamari zubaan hai, duniya ki har zubaan se pyaari zubaan hai (Urdu is the sweetest of the languages in the world)." Passing by Class 1, you can hear Prashant Kumar explaining Urdu numerals to his classmates.

The teachers on either side of the linguistic divide find much in common between Sanskrit and Urdu: both languages, they say, have an evolved, complex grammar. "Their grammar must be the toughest," says Muhammad Tariq of Madrassa Arbiya. They see this coexistence of Sanskrit and Urdu as normal and not deliberately symbolic in these troubled, divisive times. "How can you associate a language with any religion?" asks Brijesh Kumar Yaduvanshi, a long-time resident of Jaunpur and president, All India University Students' Union."Urdu doesn't belong to Muslims nor does Sanskrit have to do just with Hindus."

Nevertheless, the focus on Sanskrit, a language that has long gone out of everyday use, is intriguing. "It's not about helping students get jobs," says Qari Jalaluddin of Salfia, "but about teaching them humanity, about great thoughts and the right way to live, about being able to distinguish right from wrong." Sanskrit is taught at Salfia till Class 9, Urdu is compulsory in Class 1-5, after which it's up to the Hindu students to decide whether they want to study it further. Well versed: Ravi Prakash reciting Quran.

This easy cohabitation of Sanskrit and Urdu in Jaunpur's madrassas could well be regarded as a legacy of the town's liberal Sufi past. "It was a centre of education in the middle ages," says Yaduvanshi, "has never witnessed a single Hindu-Muslim riot, and has always been a symbol of unity." The Salfia madrassa has, in fact, been built on land bought from a Brahmin family in 1987.

The Azamgarh-Mau madrassas too offer a counterview for an area that has of late been made infamous for its alleged association with terrorist activities. "After all, it's the land of Rahul Sankritayan, Maulana Shibli, Firaq Gorakhpuri," says Sanjay Srivastava, professor at the Poorvanchal University. "It's a literary and cultural centre and people here have been feeling humiliated for being targeted for all the wrong reasons."

At a time when stereotypes about madrassas, especially those in eastern UP, as breeding grounds for terrorists have been gaining currency and every succeeding terror attack has boxed Indian Muslims further into neat categories as either educated, patriotic liberals or misinformed, misled fundamentalists, these madrassas are a powerful rejoinder, a heartening testimony to the unspoken, uncelebrated, broad-mindedness and inclusiveness of the common, faceless Muslim. The madrassas we visit have a sizeable number of Hindu students. Salfia currently has 475 students, of whom about - 45 per cent - are Hindus. In Azizia Islamia, 35 of the 143 students are Hindus. The newly set up Madrassa Faizul Quran operates out of a small makeshift building in an obscure corner of Amari village in Azamgarh district. The maktab has 100 kids, of whom 20 are Hindus. At Arbiya, 22 of the 374 students are Hindus.

There is little to distinguish students. You know Vinky and Reena Yadav from Soni and Rehana Banu only by their names or in the way they wear their head scarves. "We don't believe in bhed bhav," says Salfia's Jalaluddin. "Tameez and tehzeeb are the same in every religion." And though the madrassas do teach hifz, or memorization of the Quran, all have a progressive vision too. "You can't move forward with religious education alone, our students need to be taught everything: science, geography, math, English," says Salfia principal Muhammad Saikat. It is the only school in the village which offers high school education for girls, or else they'd have to walk 10 km to the next school. The aim now is to start computers and electronics classes.

Like many others, these madrassas are yet to get government aid. There is no midday meal scheme, nor are students given free uniforms; it is all provided by the madrassa management boards. Azizia and Arbiya give students free books and charge no fee. In Salfia the fee's just Rs 5. Faizul Quran charges Rs 40 but only 10 per cent of the students pay up. The teachers themselves get no regular pay from the government but survive on the grants patrons give to the madrassas, the salary averaging from Rs 800-1,500. In contrast, teachers on the government payroll get a princely sum of Rs 3,000.

Humble and ill-equipped though they are, these madrassas are incredible examples of how Hindus and Muslims live as one than as separate entities in these forgotten hamlets."They represent the Ganga-Jamuni sanskriti of our villages. Why would anyone want to break the sacred thread of this age-old relationship?" asks Srivastava. Why indeed?

[From Outlook Magazine, 22 December 2008 issue]

At a Fork in the Road

By: Arundhati Roy

The Mumbai attacks are only the most recent of a spate of terrorist a
ttacks on Indian cities this year [2008] in which hundreds of ordinary people have been killed and wounded.

Though nothing can ever justify terrorism, it exists in a particular time, place and political context, and to refuse to see that will only aggravate the problem and put more and more people in harm’s way.

Thanks largely to the part it was forced to play as America’s ally, first in its war in support of the Afghan Islamists and then in its war against them, Pakistan is careening towards civil war. The Pakistani government is presiding over a country that is threatening to implode. The terrorist training camps, the fire-breathing mullahs and the maniacs who believe that Islam should rule the world is mostly the detritus of two Afghan wars. Their ire rains down on the Pakistan government and Pakistani civilians as much as it does on India.

If, at this point, India decides to go to war, perhaps the descent of the whole region into chaos will be complete. The debris of a bankrupt, destroyed Pakistan will wash up on India’s shores, endangering us as never before. If Pakistan collapses, we can look forward to having millions of ‘non-state actors’ with an arsenal of nuclear weapons at their disposal as neighbors.

How should we view the Mumbai attacks, and what are we to do about them? There are those who point out that US strategy has been successful in as much as the United States has not suffered a major attack on its home ground since 9/11. However, some would say that what America is suffering now is far worse. The US army is bogged down in two unwinnable wars, which

have made the United States the most hated country in the world. These wars have contributed greatly to the unravelling of the American economy. Hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of American soldiers, have lost their lives. The frequency of terrorist strikes on US allies and US interests in the rest of the world has increased dramatically.

Homeland security has cost the US government billions of dollars. Few countries, certainly not India, can afford that sort of price tag. But even if we could, the fact is that this vast homeland of ours cannot be secured or policed in the way the United States has been. It’s not that kind of homeland. We have a hostile nuclear weapons state that is slowly spinning out of control as a neighbor, we have a military occupation in Kashmir, and a shamefully persecuted, impoverished minority of more than a hundred and fifty million Muslims who are being targeted as a community and pushed to the wall, whose young see no justice on the horizon, and who, were they to totally lose hope and radicalise, end up as a threat not just to India, but to the whole world. If ten men can hold off the NSG commandos and the police for three days, and if it takes half-a-million soldiers to hold down the Kashmir Valley, do the math. What kind of Homeland Security can secure India?

What we’re experiencing now is the cumulative result of decades of quick fixes and dirty deeds.

The only way to contain terrorism is to look at the monsters in the mirror: Kashmir, Gujarat and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We’re standing at a fork in the road. One sign says ‘Justice’, the other ‘Civil War’. There’s no third sign and there’s no going back. Choose.

[Edited by Mahendra Meghani from Outlook : 22-Dec-2008]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Death of a Salesman and Other Elite Ironies

By: Tarun J. Tejpal

Rohinton Maloo was among the 13 diners at the Oberoi, who were marched out onto the service staircase, ostensibly
as hostages. But the killers had nothing to bargain for. The answers to the big questions — Babri Masjid, Gujarat, Muslim persecution — were beyond the power of anyone to deliver neatly to the hotel lobby. The small ones — of money and materialism — their crazed indoctrination had already taken them well beyond. With the final banality of all fanaticism — AK-47 in one hand; mobile phone in the other — the killers asked their minders, “Uda dein?” The minder, probably a maintainer of cold statistics, said, “Uda do.”

Rohinton caught seven bullets. He was just 48, with two teenage children, and a hundred plans. In his outstanding career in media marketing, he was ever at the cutting edge of the new . The place was always Mumbai, and he exemplified its attitudes: the hedonism, the get-go, the easy pluralism.

For me there is a deep irony in his death. He was killed by what he set very little store by. He was bemused and baffled by TEHELKA’s obsessive engagement with politics. He was quite sure no one of his class — our class — was interested in the subject. Politics happened elsewhere. Mostly, it had nothing to do with our lives. Eventually he came to grudgingly accept we may have some kind of a case. But he remained unconvinced of its commercial viability. Our kind of readers were interested in other things — food, films, cricket, fashion, gizmos, television, health. Politics, at best, was something they endured.

In the end, politics killed Rohinton, and a few hundred other innocents. In the final count, politics, every single day, is killing, impoverishing, starving, denigrating, millions of Indians all across the country. If the backdrop were not so heartbreaking, the spectacle of the nation’s elite — the keepers of most of our wealth and privilege — frothing on television screens and screaming through mobile phones would be amusing. They have been outraged because the enduring tragedy of India has suddenly arrived in their marbled precincts. The Taj, the Oberoi. We dine here. We sleep here. Is nothing sacrosanct in this country any more?

What the Indian elite is discovering today on the debris of fancy eateries is an acidic truth large numbers of ordinary Indians are forced to swallow every day. Children who die of malnutrition, farmers who commit suicide, dalits who are raped and massacred, tribals who are turfed out of century old habitats, peasants whose lands are taken over for car factories, minorities who are bludgeoned into paranoia — these, and many others, know that something is grossly wrong. The system does not work, the system is cruel, the system is unjust, the system exists to only serve those who run it. Crucially, what we, the elite, need to understand is that most of us are complicit in the system. In fact, chances are the more we have — of privilege and money — the more invested we are in the shoring up of an unfair state.

It is time each one of us understood that at the heart of every society is its politics. If the politics is third-rate, the condition of the society will be no better. For too many decades now, the elite of India has washed its hands off the country’s politics. Entire generations have grown up viewing it as a distasteful activity. In an astonishing perversion, the finest imaginative act of the last thousand years on the subcontinent, the creation and flowering of the idea of modern India through mass politics, has for the last 40 years been rendered infra dig, déclassé, uncool. Let us blame our parents, and let our children blame us, for not bequeathing onwards the sheer beauty of a collective vision, collective will, and collective action. In a word, politics: which, at its best, created the wonder of a liberal and democratic idea, and at its worst threatens to tear it down.

We stand faulted then in two ways. For turning our back on the collective endeavor; and for our passive embrace of the status quo. This is in equal parts due to selfish instinct and to shallow thinking. Since shining India is basically only about us getting an even greater share of the pie, we have been happy to buy its half-truths, and look away from the rest of the sordid story. Like all elites, historically, that have presided over the decline of their societies, we focus too much of our energy on acquiring and consuming, and too little on thinking and decoding. Egged on by a helium media, we exhaust ourselves through paroxysms over vacant celebrities and trivia, quite happy not to see what might cause us discomfort.

For years, it has been evident that we are a society being systematically hollowed out by inequality, corruption, bigotry and lack of justice. The planks of public discourse have increasingly been divisive, widening the faultliness of caste, language, religion, class, community and region. As the elite of the most complex society in the world, we have failed to see that we are ratcheted into an intricate framework, full of causal links, where one wrong word begets another, one horrific event leads to another. Where one man’s misery will eventually trigger another’s.

Let’s track one causal chain. The Congress creates Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to neutralize the Akalis; Bhindranwale creates terrorism; Indira Gandhi moves against terrorism; terrorism assassinates Indira Gandhi; blameless Sikhs are slaughtered in Delhi; in the course of a decade, numberless innocents, militants, and security-men die. Let’s track another. The BJP takes out an inflammatory rath yatra; inflamed kar sewaks pull down the Babri Masjid; riots ensue; vengeful Muslims trigger Mumbai blasts; 10 years later a bogey of kar sewaks is burnt in Gujarat; in the next week 2,000 Muslims are slaughtered; six years later retaliatory violence continues. Let’s track one more. In the early 1940s, in the midst of the freedom movement, patrician Muslims demand a separate homeland; Mahatma Gandhi opposes it; the British support it; Partition ensues; a million people are slaughtered; four wars follow; two countries drain each other through rhetoric and poison; nuclear arsenals are built; hotels in Mumbai are attacked.

In each of these rough causal chains, there is one thing in common. Their origin in the decisions of the elite. Interlaced with numberless lines of potential divisiveness, the India framework is highly delicate and complicated. It is critical for the elite to understand the framework, and its role in it. The elite has its hands on the levers of capital, influence and privilege. It can fix the framework. It has much to give, and it must give generously. The mass, with nothing in its hands, nothing to give, can out of frustration and anger, only pull it all down. And when the volcano blows, rich and poor burn alike.

And so what should we be doing? Well, screaming at politicians is certainly not political engagement. And airy socialites demanding the carpet-bombing of Pakistan and the boycott of taxes are plain absurd, just another neon sign advertising shallow thought. It’s the kind of dumb public theater the media ought to deftly side-step rather than showcase. The world is already over-shrill with animus: we need to tone it down, not add to it. Pakistan is itself badly damaged by the flawed politics at its heart. It needs help, not bombing. Just remember, when hard-boiled bureaucrats clench their teeth, little children die.

Most of the shouting of the last few days is little more than personal catharsis through public venting. The fact is the politician has been doing what we have been doing, and as an über Indian he has been doing it much better. Watching out for himself, cornering maximum resource, and turning away from the challenge of the greater good.

The first thing we need to do is to square up to the truth. Acknowledge the fact that we have made a fair shambles of the project of nation-building. Fifty million Indians doing well does not for a great India make, given that 500 million are grovelling to survive. Sixty years after independence, it can safely be said that India’s political leadership — and the nation’s elite — have badly let down the country’s dispossessed and wretched. If you care to look, India today is heartbreak hotel, where infants die like flies, and equal opportunity is a cruel mirage.

Let’s be clear we are not in a crisis because the Taj hotel was gutted. We are in a crisis because six years after 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in Gujarat there is still no sign of justice. This is the second thing the elite need to understand — after the obscenity of gross inequality. The plinth of every society has been set on the notion of justice. You cannot light candles for just those of your class and creed. You have to strike a blow for every wronged citizen.

And let no one tell us we need more laws. We need men to implement those that we have. Today all our institutions and processes are failing us. We have compromised each of them on their values, their robustness, their vision and their sense of fair play. Now, at every crucial juncture we depend on random acts of individual excellence and courage to save the day. Great systems, triumphant societies, are veined with ladders of inspiration. Electrified by those above them, men strive to do their very best. Look around. How many constables, head constables, sub-inspectors would risk their lives for the dishonest, weak men they serve, who in turn serve even more compromised masters?

I wish Rohinton had survived the lottery of death in Mumbai last week. In an instant, he would have understood what we always went on about. India’s crying need is not economic tinkering or social engineering. It is a political overhaul, a political cleansing. As it once did to create a free nation, India’s elite should start getting its hands dirty so they can get a clean country.

[Edited from Tehelka Magazine issue of 13 December 2008]

Monday, November 3, 2008

Once Upon A Time In Hinduism...

By: Anna Sujatha Mathai

Hinduism once had a large and open heart (Bowstringed!, Oct 20). It can no longer claim that, if the bullying and mob violence by its extreme fringe goes unchallenged by the all-too-silent majority. If there were mass conversions, why are Christians still such a small minority? Hindus too go abroad and set up ashrams and temples everywhere. Hindu literature is freely distributed in the West. The first state-aided temple has opened in
London. Diwali is celebrated right across the UK, and it should be so. It is good to be able to share one’s view of the sacred. Equally, one should reserve the right to have one’s own view of the Universe, which may not be religious at all.

Christianity has always served the lowly, the dispossessed. Christians have set up so many great institutions, hospitals, schools, colleges. Did these not serve people of every religion? Did Mother Teresa refuse to hold a dying Hindu? Have Christians ever asked for a separate state or retaliated with violence? I write all this with a heavy heart. People who raped and killed children at an orphanage can’t claim to be high on the scale of human evolution. Gandhiji believed violence against fellow humans ultimately degrades us and prevents us from building a fine society. Christ too was a radical and revolutionary against a barbaric Roman empire and a caste-conscious Jewish people. India should be proud to be home to so many faiths. Kerala’s indigenous [Christian] church is 2,000 years old; it also has the first Indian synagogue. There was no persecution of Jews here. This is the country we must regain. We can’t be run by fear and mob violence. In a civilized country, we can follow any religion we choose, read any book, see any film and draw conclusions by virtue of our reason and compassion.

[Outlook Express, 3 Nov, 2008]

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Clash of Conversations

By: Valson Thampu

About five years ago, at the height of communal polarization, I took a calculated risk in suggesting a voluntary moratorium on conversions as a Christian sacrificial investment in peace-making. This envisaged a temporary suspension of the fundamental right of all citizens as enshrined in article 25 of the Constitution to “propagate” one’s faith. Perhaps I was the only Christian priest who ever made such a proposal. This was done not because I had lost faith in article 25 but to test the waters: to map the extent to which the Sangh Parivar really considers conversions a serious issue. I knew that it is merely an emotive catalyst to activate mass animosity. No one from the Sangh Parivar responded to my initiative and no debate ensued.

It is surprising that the vast, educated middle class in this country are not amused at the blanket assumption that all conversions are necessarily by “force, fraud or allurement”. One has to be willfully credulous to buy the canard that a tiny community like the Christians (2.18 per cent of the population) can convert anyone by “force”! All available evidence proves that the truth is the other way round: force is used against the Christian community. That leaves us with “fraud” and “allurement”. What is the fraud that is perpetrated on the alleged victims of conversion? What are the ingredients of this allurement? Help in times of sickness? The prospect of dignity and empowerment? If these comprise the substance of “allurement” then what political parties promise is worse than “allurement”.

The agenda of the Sangh Parivar is to convert India into a theocratic State; a tolerant, non-violent, secular society into a homogenized, militant and intolerant society.

Addressing the National Integration Council, the Prime Minister lamented that violence is increasing in many parts of the country and that the spirit of tolerance is waning. This is true. But what the PM needs to take into account is the fact that this is happening for two reasons. First, unless the rule of law is effectively upheld we grant, by default, free play to the agents of violence. Second — an unprecedented taste for, and faith in, violence is emerging in our midst. When the rule of law is kept in suspended animation and the dogs of war are let loose, the public at large — especially the youth — can come to only one conclusion: nothing pays like violence and only violence pays.

Those of us who have abiding faith in the spirit of India, even against sinister evidence, are obliged to believe that sanity will prevail . That after the present surfacing of poison, the elixir of life will emerge. But that still leaves us with the all-important question: who will drink this emerging poison, in the meanwhile?

The writer is a member of the National Integration Council and the principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi...
[The Indian Express, Oct. 23, 08]

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Who will protect us from the unlawful protectors of our ‘native cultures’?

By: Dilip Chitre, Marathi/English writer, painter and filmmaker

A small news item in Pune’s Marathi newspaper, Sakal, profoundly disturbed me. The headline of the story, dated September 13, 2008 read: Censorship by the VHP: Curtain on children’s play before its performance, Woodland Society’s play on Jesus, objected to.

The story reported that the children of Woodland Co-operative Society, Kothrud, Pune, had been rehearsing for four months, to present a play at their Ganesh festival celebrations. At the last minute, it was abruptly called off due to strong objections by the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). About 50 children were to take part in this production, presenting the universal spiritual message of Jesus Christ. The previous year, the same children had presented the universal message of Saint Jnanadev, the Marathi poet-saint. The parents were persuaded by the police and the local municipal councilor to call off the production, lest it might cause local unrest.

Are we getting used to such extra-constitutional interventions in civil life by the many senas, brigades, dals and assorted pseudo-political goon outfits masquerading as moral policemen?

The VHP, Bajrang Dal, Sambhaji Brigade, Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navanirman Sena and even smaller local ‘armies’ habitually take the law in their hands and yet, the police just placates them. In fact, it persuades citizens to succumb to their force and avoid a confrontation to help maintain peace and order. The destructive power and guerilla tactics of these ‘armies’ is not unknown to the government and the security agencies. People live in fear of them. Even the media is scared to inflame their wrath and now accepts invitations to televise their protests and agitations. Our democracy has rapidly slid from downhill to rock bottom.

For myopic political reasons, the state in India (both the Union and the state government) goes soft on acts of domestic micro-terrorism. These homegrown terrorists may not be infiltrators from enemy countries, sponsored by enemy states or international terrorist organizations. They may not explode bombs or shoot civilians at random. But what they do, time and again, without fear of the law, is to subvert the Constitution of the country by depriving the silent majority of civilians of their liberty.

Recently, Raj Thackeray, self-appointed spokesperson for the ‘Marathi manoos’, challenged an Assistant Commissioner of the Mumbai Police to step down from his chair and go out to the streets of Mumbai to learn, ‘Mumbai ka baap kaun hai?’ The message was clear: ‘Only your uniform protects you from us. We own and rule Mumbai.’

This asserts that Raj Thackeray and the likes of him, whatever political or communal faction they belong to, are above the law of the land. Ordinary citizens have to suffer them because the government and the judiciary prefer to turn the other way when such self-styled protectors of ‘native culture’ tell them who’s boss.

In the 60 years since we proclaimed ourselves a republic, we have only fabricated a grand facade of democracy, whereas real democratic values have not yet taken root. Police codes and procedures remain virtually the same as they were during the British Raj when ordinary people were subjects, rather than citizens. The bureaucracy shows no inclination to be transparent and citizen-friendly. Politicians are sworn in to hold the Constitution supreme but do exactly otherwise. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening and helping to increase the number of frustrated lumpen youth willing to join a spectrum of senas, dals and other anti-constitutional activist ‘movements’. Violent demonstrations are the order of the day and citizens can do no more than read about them in the papers or watch them on television. The legitimization of violent disruption of civil order, and the glorification of its openly defiant leaders, are crimes committed by a passive government and an overenthusiastic media.

A proactive judiciary is only part of a possible answer. The real answer lies with citizens who allow themselves to be misled by communal and religious propaganda and appeals to uphold a narrow ‘pride’ of religion, native history and communal culture above the Republic of India and its broad, secular and democratic spirit.

[From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 38, Sep 27, 08]

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Manmohan Singh Speech on the Trust Vote

(Manmohan Singh was not actually allowed to read his statement by the opposition parties. Instead he gave a copy to the Speaker to file. Below is his condensed address to the Lok Sabha on the Nuclear Deal and also the 4 years of UPA rule.

Please be aware that, although condensed, this is still a fairly long post. To read the original unabridged article on the PM's official website, please click on the title of this post.)

The Leader of Opposition, Shri L.K. Advani has chosen to use all manner of abusive adjectives to describe my performance. He has described me as the weakest Prime Minister, a nikamma PM, and of having devalued the office of PM. To fulfill his ambitions, he has made at least three attempts to topple our government. But on each occasion his astrologers have misled him.

As for Shri Advani’s various charges, all I can say is that before leveling charges of incompetence on others, Shri Advani should do some introspection. Can our nation forgive a Home Minister who slept when the terrorists were knocking at the doors of our Parliament? Can our nation forgive a person who single handedly provided the inspiration for the destruction of the Babri Masjid with all the terrible consequences that followed? To atone for his sins, he suddenly decided to visit Pakistan and there he discovered new virtues in Mr. Jinnah. Alas, his own party and his mentors in the RSS disowned him on this issue. Can our nation approve the conduct of a Home Minister who was sleeping while Gujarat was burning leading to the loss of thousands of innocent lives? Our friends in the Left Front should ponder over the company they are forced to keep because of miscalculations by their General Secretary.

As for my conduct, all I can say is that in all these years that I have been in office, whether as Finance Minister or Prime Minister, I have felt a sacred obligation to use the levers of power as a societal trust to be used for transforming our economy and polity, so that we can get rid of poverty, ignorance and disease which still afflict millions of our people. This is a long and arduous journey. But every step taken in this direction can make a difference. And that is what we have sought to do in the last four years. How far we have succeeded is something I leave to the judgment of the people of India.

When I look at the composition of the opportunistic group opposed to us, it is clear to me that the clash today is between two alternative visions of India’s future. The vision represented by the UPA and our allies seeks to project India as a self confident and united nation moving forward to gain its rightful place in the comity of nations, making full use of the opportunities offered by a globalised world, and using modern science and technology as important instruments of national economic and social development. The opposite vision is of a motley crowd who have come together to share the spoils of office to promote their sectional, sectarian and parochial interests. Our Left colleagues should tell us whether Shri L.K. Advani is acceptable to them as a Prime Ministerial candidate. Shri L.K. Advani should enlighten us if he will step aside as Prime Ministerial candidate of the opposition in favour of the choice of UNPA. They should take the country into confidence on this important issue.

I have already stated that the House has been dragged into this debate unnecessarily. I wish our attention had not been diverted from some priority areas of national concern. These priorities are:

(i) Tackling the imported inflation caused by steep increase in oil prices. Our effort is to control inflation without hurting the rate of growth and employment.

(ii) To revitalize agriculture. We have decisively reversed the declining trend of investment and resource flow in agriculture. We have achieved a record food grain production of 231 million tonnes. But we need to redouble our efforts to improve agricultural productivity.

(iii) To improve the effectiveness of our flagship pro poor programmes such as National Rural Employment Programme, Nationwide Mid-day Meal Programme, to improve the quality of rural infrastructure of roads, electricity, safe drinking water, sanitation, irrigation. These programmes are yielding solid results. But a great deal more needs to be done to improve the quality of implementation.

(iv) We have initiated a major thrust in expanding higher education. The objective is to expand the gross enrolment ratio in higher education from 11.6 per cent to 15 per cent by the end of the 11th [5-Year] Plan. To meet these goals, we have an ambitious programme which seeks to create 30 new universities, 8 new IITs, 7 new IIMs, 20 new IIITs, 373 new degree colleges and 1,000 new polytechnics.

(v) To deal firmly with terrorist elements, left wing extremism and communal elements that are attempting to undermine the security and stability of the country. We will continue to vigorously pursue investigations in the major terrorist incidents that have taken place. Charge-sheets have been filed in almost all the cases. Our intelligence agencies and security forces are doing an excellent job in very difficult circumstances. We will take all possible steps to streamline their functioning and strengthen their effectiveness.

Considerable work has been done in all these areas but debates like the one we are having detract our attention from attending to these essential programmes.

I say in all sincerity that this session and debate was unnecessary because I have said on several occasions that our nuclear agreement after being endorsed by the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group would be submitted to this august House for expressing its view. All I had asked our Left colleagues was: please allow us to go through the negotiating process and I will come to Parliament before operationalising the nuclear agreement. This simple courtesy which is essential for orderly functioning of any Government worth the name, particularly with regard to the conduct of foreign policy, they were not willing to grant me. They wanted a veto over every single step of negotiations which is not acceptable. They wanted me to behave as their bonded slave.

In 1991, while presenting the Budget for 1991-92, as Finance Minister, I had stated: no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come. I had then suggested that the emergence of India as a major global power was an idea whose time had come.

I outlined a far reaching programme of economic reform whose fruits are now visible to every objective person. Both the Left and the BJP had then opposed the reform. Both had said we had mortgaged the economy to America and that we would bring back the East India Company. Subsequently both these parties have had a hand at running the Government. None of these parties have reversed the direction of economic policy laid down by the Congress Party in 1991. The moral of the story is that political parties should be judged not by what they say while in opposition but by what they do when entrusted with the responsibilities of power.

I am convinced that history will compliment the UPA Government for having taken another giant step forward to lead India to become a major power centre of the evolving global economy.

What is the nuclear agreement about? It is all about widening our development options, promoting energy security in a manner which will not hurt our precious environment and which will not contribute to pollution and global warming.

needs to grow at the rate of at least ten per cent per annum to get rid of chronic poverty, ignorance and disease. A basic requirement for achieving this order of growth is the availability of energy, particularly electricity. We need increasing quantities of electricity to support our agriculture, industry and to give comfort to our householders. The generation of electricity has to grow at an annual rate of 8 to 10 per cent.

Now, hydro-carbons are one source of generating power and for meeting our energy requirements. But our production of hydro-carbons
both of oil and gas is far short of our growing requirements. We are heavily dependent on imports. We all know the uncertainty of supplies and of prices of imported hydro-carbons. We have to diversify our sources of energy supply.

We have large reserves of coal but even these are inadequate to meet all our needs by 2050. But more use of coal will have an adverse impact on pollution and climate. We can develop hydro-power and we must. But many of these projects hurt the environment and displace large number of people. We must develop renewable sources of energy
particularly solar energy. But we must also make full use of atomic energy which is a clean environment friendly source of energy. All over the world, there is growing realization of the importance of atomic energy to meet the challenge of energy security and climate change.

’s atomic scientists and technologists have developed nuclear energy capacities despite heavy odds. But there are handicaps which have adversely affected our atomic energy programme. First of all, we have inadequate production of uranium. Second, the quality of our uranium resources is not comparable to those of other producers. Third, after the nuclear test of 1974 and 1998, the outside world has imposed embargo on trade with India in nuclear materials, nuclear equipment and nuclear technology. As a result, our nuclear energy programme has suffered. Some twenty years ago, the Atomic Energy Commission had laid down a target of 10,000 MW of electricity generation by the end of the twentieth century. Today, in 2008 our capacity is about 4,000 MW and, due to shortage of uranium, many of these plants are operating at much below their capacity.

The nuclear agreement that we wish to negotiate will end India’s nuclear isolation, nuclear apartheid and enable us to take advantage of international trade in nuclear materials, technologies and equipment. It will open up new pathways to accelerate industrialization of our country. The essence of the matter is that the agreements that we negotiate with USA, Russia, France and other nuclear countries will enable us to enter into international trade for civilian use without any interference with our strategic nuclear programme. The strategic programme will continue to be developed at an autonomous pace determined solely by our own security perceptions. We will not accept any outside interference or monitoring or supervision of our strategic programme. Our strategic autonomy will never be compromised.

I confirm that there is nothing in these agreements which prevents us from further nuclear tests if warranted by our national security concerns. All that we are committed to is a voluntary moratorium on further testing. The nuclear agreements will not in any way affect our strategic autonomy.

Our critics accuse us, that in signing these agreements, we have surrendered the independence of foreign policy and made it subservient to US interests.

We appreciate the fact that the US has taken the lead in promoting cooperation with India for nuclear energy for civilian use. Without US initiative, India’s case for approval by the IAEA or the Nuclear Suppliers Group would not have moved forward. But this does not mean that there is any explicit or implicit constraint on India to pursue an independent foreign policy determined by our own perceptions of our national interest. I state categorically that our foreign policy, will at all times be determined by our own assessment of our national interest. This has been true in the past and will be true in future regarding our relations with big powers as well as with our neighbours in West Asia, notably Iran, Iraq, Palestine and the Gulf countries.

We have differed with the USA on their intervention in Iraq. I had explicitly stated at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC in July 2005 that intervention in Iraq was a big mistake. With regard to Iran, our advice has been in favour of moderation and we would like that the issues relating to Iran’s nuclear programme which have emerged should be resolved through dialogue and discussions in the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The management and governance of the world’s largest and most diverse democracy is the greatest challenge any person can be entrusted with, in this world. It has been my good fortune that I was entrusted with this challenge over four years ago.

I have often said that I am a politician by accident. I have held many diverse responsibilities. I have been a teacher, I have been an official of the Government of India, I have been a member of Parliament, but I have never forgotten my life as a young boy in a distant village.

Every day that I have been Prime Minister of India I have tried to remember that the first ten years of my life were spent in a village with no drinking water supply, no electricity, no hospital, no roads and nothing that we today associate with modern living. I had to walk miles to school; I had to study in the dim light of a kerosene lamp. This nation gave me the opportunity to ensure that such would not be the life of our children in the foreseeable future. My conscience is clear that on every day that I have occupied this high office, I have tried to fulfill the dream of that young boy from that distant village.

The greatness of democracy is that we are all birds of passage! We are here today, gone tomorrow! But in the brief time that the people of India entrust us with this responsibility, it is our duty to be honest and sincere in the discharge of these responsibilities. As it is said in our sacred texts, we are responsible for our actions and we must act without coveting the rewards of such action. Whatever I have done in this high office I have done so with a clear conscience and the best interests of my country and our people at heart. I have no other claims to make.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stray Thoughts

By: William J. Bennett

The problem is not that modern politics has become particularly uncivil and nasty. The problem today is that politics has become boring and unengaging. Too much political discourse is lame, mushy, and vapid.


[Thomas] Jefferson closed one of his letters to Madison with the hope that “the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” Madison echoed the sentiment: “The diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”


The greatest debates in American history have involved sharp, vigorous, spirited clashes. That’s fine; politics was never intended to be confused with a garden party. This cultural war is not an undertaking for people with delicate sensibilities.


Politicians often try to protect their views by suggesting that sincerity can substitute for sound reasoning. [But] sincerity has nothing to do with whether [one] is right or wrong. Sincerity is not the test of truth. Sincerity is a reliable guide to action or belief only when it is joined with intelligence. No fact was ever altered by believing it wasn’t one, no matter how sincerely.


There is plenty to be disappointed, angry, and even furious about the way politics is practiced. This side of Washington was captured best by C.S. Lewis’s description of hell:

"We must picture Hell as a state where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the stab in the back."


There is no oversupply of good character anywhere. Character is part and parcel of the individual, not his party or institution. People with enough regard for the common good merit confidence and praise and are worthy of Walter Lippmann’s reminder: “Those in high places are the custodians of a nation’s ideals, of the beliefs it cherishes, of its permanent hopes, of the faith which makes a nation out of a mere aggregation of individuals.”


Pericles said the secret of democracy is courage. Assume the worst, act your best. Assume there is going to be trouble with everything, that nothing is going to go through unchallenged. And be ready. Prepare more of the case than you think you are going to need. In the face of distortions of what you believe, the key is perseverance; hold shape and keep explaining your views; if you articulate your views well, forcefully, and often, your point of view will gradually get across.


The character of a society is determined by how well it transmits true and time-honored values from generation to generation.

[Excerpts from The De-valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children; 1994]

Time to Give Women Their Due

By: Meghnad Desai

In The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen says with some pride that 50 years before Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, Sarojini Naidu was president of the Congress. Hence we Indians are way ahead of the Brits etc in honouring women. Of course, Sarojini Naidu had a ceremonial role for one year in an organisation, while Thatcher was PM.

The point is worth discussing. But what does that say about the lives and opportunities of women in Britain as against India? Across South Asia, upper caste and upper class women have made it to the top. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was a cabinet minister in the first Nehru government after Independence. Indira Gandhi was prime minister some dozen years before Margaret Thatcher. Benazir Bhutto, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, her daughter Chandrika Kumartunga, Sheikh Hassina and Begum Zia - all made it to the top when women find it hard to get to the top in the West. Just look at Hillary Clinton's struggle.

But Sen has also been the first to point out how many millions of women are 'missing' in South Asia. The sex ratio in South Asia is one of the lowest in the world. These are women who were either killed in the foetus or throttled at birth once they revealed their sex. The rest were malnourished, beaten up, died in child birth or for the glory of our ancient culture persuaded to perform Sati.

Thus it is not at all surprising that men were seen on live TV in Rajya Sabha tearing up the Women's Bill which the UPA had stealthily introduced on last day of the session much to the mirth of the women ministers. Clearly both sides treat this matter as frivolous. The UPA is interested more in being able to claim that they have done something for women with no intention of passing the Bill. The opponents of the Bill can pretend that they are not so much against women's representation but they must have their OBC piece of flesh. The Bill has been around for 12 years. I bet if it had been about MPs' perks and privileges or their freedom to misbehave and disrupt proceedings, it would have been carried unanimously in five minutes.

Yet a Bill so important should invite a big national debate in Parliament. As a legislator in UK I know we would have extensive debates on the floor of the House of Lords if such a vital piece of legislation was before us. We would be lobbied by NGOs and ad hoc organisations. The Bill would lead to debates outside Parliament.

In the Rajya Sabha a Standing Committee on which men are in an overwhelming majority - except for the vacancies they are all men - will discuss the Bill away from public gaze. Even so, the country should make this an occasion to highlight the plight of women in India. It is not the case that the deprivation is only a SC/ST/ OBC issue where women are concerned. Foeticide happens in rich middle class families. I was at a restaurant in Delhi - GK II, since you ask - where on the next table a group of women, obviously affluent, were chatting away in Punjabi about this or that child in the family which had been aborted after amniocentesis. This as they chomped their way through delicious South Indian food.

South India is not as bad in terms of women's health This has to do with Christian missionaries and the strong anti-Brahmin movement since the early 20th century. Women's literacy and infant and maternal mortality numbers are also better. Move across the Vindhyas and the situation is dire. Gujarat which is progressive in many aspects is backward in women's human development numbers.

Reservation at 33 per cent is much below the women's share of the population. If such concessions were granted it would be just the beginning of the solution which requires the full redress of all the handicaps women suffer. Of course the Bill will be dropped as one or the other of the 'secular, anti-communalist' dada of North Indian politics - Lalu or Mulayam or Paswan - will issue a veto. Congress lacks the guts to stand up to any opposition be it from current allies or future possible friends.

But then Put Not Your Faith in Princes. In the West, women's position is by no means fully equal. What has changed is the language in which they are spoken of and spoken to, the respect with which they are treated in public and private, the fury which any news of domestic violence arouses - even if defended as 'part of our culture' by Asians and Africans, the tremendous boost to girls' education and their participation in sports and public life. Indian men should begin to examine their own behaviour towards women. Do men indulge in needless lewd talk when women are around, do they belittle their women colleagues and friends pointlessly - as I witnessed to my shock in a Parliamentary delegation from India visiting the House of Lords, do they condone or even worse indulge in beatings up their wife/mother/daughter/maid servant?

Do Indian men still regard women as their property, their chattel? This is what they call a no-brainer. Reform will have to come from below and start at home.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Everyman’s Tagore

EVERYMAN'S TAGORE : Edited by Mahendra Meghani, Lokmilap Trust, 2008, p.96, Rs. 30

Rabindranath Tagore was described as the Poet of Humanity by Jawaharlal Nehru. Tagore’s 147th birth anniversary fell on May 7th, 2008. A few days before that, Lokmilap Trust published Everyman’s Tagore. Compiled by Mahendra Meghani, who last year had given Everyman’s ABC of Gandhi, this book contains 400 extracts from the poetry and prose of the Poet, who was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

Here are a few specimens from Everyman’s Tagore:

All the great civilizations that have become extinct must have come to their end through slavery imposed upon fellow-beings, through parasitism on a gigantic scale bred by wealth.


The butterfly flitting from flower to flower ever remains mine,
I lose the one that is netted by me.


Day by day thou art making me worthy of the simple great gifts that thou gavest to me unasked – this sky and the light, this body and the life and the mind.


Wrong cannot afford defeat, but right can.


Every child comes with the message that
God is not yet discouraged of man.


Grant me that I may not be a coward,
feeling your mercy in my success alone;
but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.


I am able to love my God because
He gives me freedom to deny Him.


I love India, not because I have had the chance to be born in her soil, but because she has saved through tumultuous ages the living words that have issued from the illuminated consciousness of her great sons. I love India, but my India is an idea and not a geographical expression. Therefore I am not a patriot. I shall seek my compatriots all over the world.


The leaf becomes flower when it loves.
The flower becomes fruit when it worships.
Let life be beautiful like summer flowers,
and death like autumn leaves.


Let me not beg for the stifling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it. Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.


Make me thy poet, O Night, veiled Night!
There are some who have sat speechless for ages in thy shadow;
let me utter their songs.


The moon has her light all over the sky,
her dark spots to herself.


My King, thou has asked me to play my flute at the roadside, that they who bear the burden of voiceless life may stop in their errands for a moment and say, the flowers are in bloom, and the birds sing.


Not hammer-strokes, but dance of the water
sings the pebbles into perfection.


The sweet, soft freshness that blooms on baby’s limbs – does anybody know where it was hidden so long? Yes, when the mother was a young girl, it lay pervading her heart in tender and silent mystery of love – the sweet, soft freshness that has bloomed on baby’s limbs.


They try to hold me secure who love me in this world.
But thy love is greater than theirs, and thou keepest me free.


The life is the crossing of a sea,
where we meet in the same narrow ship.
In death we reach the shore, and go to our different worlds.


When a religion develops the ambition of imposing its doctrine on all mankind, it degrades itself into a tyranny and becomes a form of imperialism. That is why we find a ruthless method of fascism in religious matters prevailing in most parts of the world.


“Who is there to take up my duties?” asked the setting sun.
“I shall do what I can, my Master,” said the earthen lamp.


The 96-page hard cover book costs $5 outside India, inclusive of airmail postage, and 25 copies will be available at $4 each.

Being simultaneously published in Gujarati is રવીન્દ્રનાથ સાથે વાચનયાત્રા (Ravindranath Sathe Vachanyatra). Also edited by Mahendra Meghani, it contains about 90 selected translations of Tagore’s writings by about a dozen writers, including Nagindas Parekh, Jhaverchand Meghani, and Umashankar Joshi. The 160-page book in hard cover costs $5 outside India, inclusive of airmail postage, and 25 copies will be available at $4 each. Books sent by airmail from India usually take a fortnight to reach USA.

Those interested in buying either book may send their checks to: Lokmilap Trust, P.O.Box 23, Bhavnagar, 364001, India. Their telephone number is: (0278) 256 6402, and E-mail address: