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Oped: Gurgaon Must Resist the Communal Narrative for the Sake of Its Economy

Diversity has been the bedrock of Gurgaon’s economic success, and the incendiary atmosphere created by those who are trying to disrupt namaz will prove to be detrimental to its growth.

Originally carried by The Wire, please read here

While the newly-formed Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti’s attempts to violently disrupt and diminish congregational Friday namaz in Gurgaon may be temporarily on hold for Ramzan, khaap and religious leaders across faiths from Gurgaon’s villages have sent out a clear message that they will resist those disrupting harmony in the city.

Through a press conference on May 15 in which they announced a multi-faith mahapanchayat on the 27th of the month, they made the pitch that religious divisions have no place in a modern city that attracts investors, entrepreneurs and workers from India and abroad, and where citizens have found ways to co-exist peacefully.

Certainly, Gurgaon’s ability to embrace a diverse range of residents plays a big part in making it an economic success and the global brand it is today. Gurgaon has grown exponentially since 2000. Its current estimated population of over 8.7 lakh (as per Census 2011) comprises local villagers, high-skilled migrants working in its globally competitive corporate sector and low-skilled rural migrants who work in the informal services sector, the latter severely undercounted in official estimates.

It bears repeating that Gurgaon’s development model was driven by land consolidation and development by private developers, with public infrastructure and planning playing catch-up. This has resulted in a highly-segregated city of elite gated communities built on erstwhile agricultural lands, while the village settlements have adapted and transformed to provide affordable housing, and space for low-end manufacturing and back-end service functions.

In this scenario, the villagers’ call for harmony and tolerance is significantly motivated by the interdependence between them, in their avatar as landlords, and the migrant renters. In the rapid transition of this landscape from rural to urban, villagers have played a key role, one that goes largely unacknowledged.

In the words of Mahinder Yadav, who I interviewed in Nathupur village adjacent to DLF Cybercity as part of my field research in 2013, “Pehle kheti thi, phir hamaari jameen biki aur ye tower ban gaye. Phir kirayedaar aaye. Ab inse hi hamaara gujara hai (First we were farmers, then we sold them and these buildings came up. Then the renters came. Now we make our living mainly from them).”

Clearly, the incendiary atmosphere created by those who are trying to disrupt namaz in the city is detrimental to the core business of rental housing and other services targeted towards migrants that economically sustains these village communities today. If the city’s communal climate were to chase migrants away, this would directly and significantly impact incomes of the village communities in Gurgaon.

Of course, landlord-tenant relations in villages are characterised by an unequal power dynamic. While migrant renters see the landlord (makaan maalik) as both exploitative and benevolent, enforcing restrictions while also offering certain forms of protection, the landlord sees the renter (kirayedaar) as good (read submissive), but in need of management and control. In this scenario of ‘care and control’, landlords have generally been tolerant of migrants’ religious and cultural practices. I have found Nepali Dussehras and Bihari Chhat poojas being celebrated in some villages and, in the same vein spaces for Jumma namaz have always been peacefully negotiated.

As needs grew, those seeking space for namaz – residents of the city as well as commuters from Delhi and beyond – have worked with local communities, private land and building owners and local police stations to find open grounds, parks, strips of pavement and green belts to pray each Friday. Every now and then, these places move to prevent traffic congestions or if the namaz clashes with another use. Considering that Muslims offering the Jumma namaz in the city’s open spaces has been a familiar sight for nearly a decade, it is perhaps worth questioning why, all of a sudden, they are ruffling feathers now.

Moreover, several commentators have already made the point about there being no opposition to the same spaces being used by other (non-Muslim) groups for congregational activities.

Much of the ire of the namaz disruptors seems to be directed against the Muslim migrants from West Bengal, with tropes like Bangladeshi and Rohingya being used to target them. This is doubly unfortunate because these people are generally documented migrants – it is near impossible to work in the city today without identity papers – at the lowest rung of the ladder, discriminated by language and concentrated in the most menial jobs: women in domestic help, and men in housekeeping, waste collection and cycle rickshaw driving.

In the affluent homes across Gurgaon where these Bengali women work, there is a stunned silence on the namaz issue as households struggle to reconcile the myriad bigoted anti-Muslim tropes – Bangladeshi, Rohingya, terrorists, perpetrators of ‘love jihad– being bandied about with their dependence on this large pool of affordable labour for cleaning, cooking and childcare work.

Gurgaon’s attraction has been its miraculous construction as a mosaic of communities including migrants of many hues – language, religion, class, region and nationality – despite its spatial segregation. This precious diversity, created through negotiation and inter-dependence, is the bedrock of its economic success. The village leaders have instinctively recognised this and taken a stand against the disruptive forces that seek to communalise the city and squander away its key competitive advantage. Gurgaon’s affluent residents must join them.

Mukta Naik is Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. She works on issues related to migration, urbanisation and housing.

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Hi-tech Dutch ID cards helped Nazis identify, exterminate Jews: What does that teach us about the ethics of technology & the choices we are making today?

I can, in part, blame my fascination for The Holocaust on reading too much of Leon Uris in my teen years. This fascination intensified on the trip to Berlin in 2014 and continues to be a theme of my explorations in Europe since. So this past weekend, on a loose limb on a Saturday morning, I decided to explore the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam.  The motivation was a listing for an exhibition titled Identity Cards and Forgeries: Jacob Lentz and Alice Cohn on the IAmsterdam page. On a recent trip to China, a PhD researcher had presented at a workshop we co-organized her preliminary research on documents and identity that mentioned the use of ID card forgeries to help migrants access services. That discussion played in my head, as much as the recent heated debate in India on privacy and misuse of information collected under the UIDAI project, popularly called the Aadhaar, which the Indian government is aggressively developing in the form of a universal identification system for the country. The Supreme Court of India is currently in the midst of hearing petitions that contend that the Aadhaar identification programme violates an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. A curious me arrived at the National Holocaust Museum and the exhibition did not disappoint!

Set in an oppositional format, the left half of the exhibition space showcased the work of Jacob Lentz who, as the head of the Dutch National Inspectorate of Population Registers, had been at the forefront of designing a highly secure and for the time hi-tech system of ID cards from 1936 onward. While Lentz and some of his colleagues seemed to have designed the system expecting every Dutch citizen carry an ID card, interestingly in March 1940, the Dutch government decided not to implement this system. Their reason? That it was contrary to Dutch tradition.

But of course the highly sophisticated, and virtually non-forgeable, ID card system was ready for the Nazi occupiers to use when the Netherlands fell to German forces post the bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940. The ID card system was brutally used by the Nazis to identify Jews (with a large J on the card itself), in order to initially curtail their civic rights and eventually deport them to concentration camps where they were largely exterminated in gas chambers. Lentz, as one of many bureaucrats who inadvertently aided the Nazi  genocide, is cited as an example of Hannah Arendt’s famous Banality of Evil hypothesis, which  highlights the absolute ordinariness of the human beings who perpetrate acts of evil merely by being complicit. Read in another way, one may say that the compliance of ordinary people under conditions of terror are sufficient to aid evil. Something we in India could keep in mind if we were ever to be on the scene of a horrendous rape, lynching or honour killing, all of which are alas becoming all too common!! I won’t go into the larger implications of the ‘banality of evil’ in the Indian context as manifested by, for example, widespread self-censorship in public life and social media in the face of a vindictive regime served by an army of online trolls. I have written on those issues before.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

~Edmund Burke

On the opposite side of the exhibit, was displayed the work of Alice Cohn, a German-Jewish graphic artist and member of the Dutch resistance who obsessively and often successfully forged these ID cards to help innocents escape. The work of the Resistance is marked by the very opposite of what I have discussed above, the involvement of ordinary people, often from the non-persecuted majority, in a commendable demonstration of altruism usually at considerable risk to themselves (on that note, check out this fantastic NatGeo piece on the psychology of altruism). Those stories reinforce our faith in humankind and at the end of the exhibition, I was left with a positive feeling despite the overwhelmingly “heavy” sense one has in a building that is dedicated to the memory of those persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust.

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Exhibition space

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The ID cards for Jews, marked with the prominent J

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Alice Cohn

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Some of Alice Cohn’s graphics work

Alice Cohn’s story has a specific resonance with the history of the building that houses the Museum. One of her bravest acts was the use of a forged identity for herself to be able to walk into a creche, located next door to the Museum, and rescue the child of a Jewish couple who were her friends. The creche is where the children were kept before deportation, while the parents were crowded into the Hollandse Schouwberg, a theatre building on the other side of the street. The story is that Director of the non-Jewish School that was run in the Museum building, and the woman who ran the creche collaborated to smuggle out over 600 Jewish children to safety, out of the clutches of the Nazis and into foster homes where they grew up safe and sound. I held on to these stories of altruism even as I wept at the small but evocative collection of material artefacts from families who died in the Holocaust.

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Where the Amsterdam Jews were held before deportation

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A bit further down the road, the Portuguese Synagogue. The Jewish population in Amsterdam immigrated from Spain and Portugal (the Shephardic Jews.) during the Reformation.

The Dutch Jews were concentrated in Amsterdam, and so this community was hit hardest by the Holocaust.  About 107,000 Dutch Jews were killed in the concentration camps, some 5,200 survived while the Dutch Underground was successful in hiding 25-30,000 Jews and hence saving their lives. Among them were these 600-odd children who were aided by the school. Franz, the volunteer who narrated us the story, told us that though a few of the parents of these children did return from the concentration camps, they were “neither right in the body, nor in the head” and the reunions were almost as difficult as the separation. The impacts of extreme hatred and mass ethnic cleansing are often discussed in terms of death and annihilation. Sadly, in our world today, these words have become normalized. It would do us all well to remember that between living and dying are myriad states of pain and half-baked existence, the personal and social consequences of which are almost as unbearable.

The pall of the Holocaust hangs over Europe decades after. As the extreme conservatives rise over the continent and indeed the world, people worry and fret but alas, also forget. And evil has the chance to be banal again.

#NotInMyName protests in India: A personal interpretation

If you are disturbed about the series of mob-driven lynchings occurring across India, you are not alone. Thousands of Indians were out on the street last evening in at least 12 Indian cities and a few international locations to express their dismay and protest. The tagline used #NotInMyName is telling. It disowns the type of Indian who would use violence to settle a debate or an argument. It rejects the form of Hinduism that bases itself on hatred and the ‘othering’ of minorities. With my largely liberal upbringing, one that included the usual ingredients of everyday Hinduism (ritualism, temple visits, certain food practices), I find it normal that people would be nauseated by the normalization of violence and the senseless killing we are seeing around us. I feel this too when women are raped, when soldiers are killed by terrorists, when old people are mistreated, when children are sexually violated by their family members and beaten inside classrooms by teachers who are meant to be their gurus and mentors…….

I do not think my views are ‘leftist’ because I feel this way. No, if anything, they are humanist regardless of the political hue you wish to read inside them. They stem from the belief that certain things are essential rights: the right to dignity and a peaceful existence, the right to a life mediated by the use of peaceful means of dispute resolution, the right to self-improvement and growth (and everything that comes with that including opportunities for education, skill attainment, decent work and quality of life). At a basic level, I would be surprised if most of us didn’t agree to these ideas. Would we not want this for ourselves, for our children? By that logic, if we believe that humans are born equal, we should want it for everyone else, and their children too. I know this is idealistic and I know that many people do not believe in fundamental equality. But that’s bigotry; whatever the form may take (race, religion, cultural values, ethnicity, language, complexion, caste, what-have-you) and I will take every opportunity to stand against bigotry, without any apologies whatsoever.

Yes, I know, things are not black and white. We seem determined to disagree about everything. We are debating on nomenclature (Is this lynching or something else?), we are pulling statistics to determine trends over time (Is this a new phenomenon at all?) and we are debating the political and religious hue of protests against it (Are these leftists? Are the protesting Hindus truly Hindu?). That is the nature of politics. Shivam Vij makes a point about the ineffectiveness of such protests as a political tool to oppose the right wing (read here) and he may be right. From what I can observe from far away, this is an expression of dismay and frustration reminiscent of the post-Nirbhaya protests. I would not consider it insignificant.

However, two features defined the post-Nirbhaya protests. One, they gave expression to a very personal sense of fear, one in which each family felt like they could be a victim of the type of violence Jyoti had faced. That is not yet palpable at this time, because Hindus believe themselves to be immune. This is a fallacy. No one is immune once the rule of law ceases to have respect. Two, a long standing gender movement existed in India and activists could leverage post-Nirbhaya public support to push forward an agenda that worked towards women’s safety. Of course it is debatable whether the outcomes have truly questioned patriarchal norms or merely resulted in increased restrictions on the movement of girls and women, but policy conversation around public safety in terms of security, transportation and infrastructure has certainly increased. The number of women reporting sexual crimes has also gone up. So there have been tangible benefits. With current protests, there appears to be no clear leadership that can help build the momentum, but it is possible that one could emerge. For me, these appear as opportunities for feminist and youth-centred political discourses, but we do not have something strong enough to resist appropriation by mainstream political movements yet.

Having said this, it will be tragic if these beginnings are not taken forward in some way. First, we need to oppose those trying hard to brush away these murmurs as insignificant by painting them in broad-brush strokes like anti-Modi, anti-elite (read here). I don’t think the protestors are such a united, clear set of people yet (and that might be a strength in disguise). We also need to focus on the disintegration of the rule of law, which threatens everyone and not just a certain minority or those with particular dietary preferences. I’m not sure this is a policing issue as one commentator suggests (read here); are we to be a society in which folks are civil only because they fear punitive action?

In the end, it is about agreeing to what exactly is the ‘social contract’ that we commonly understand and practice. What is that voluntary agreement among individuals by which organized society is brought into being and invested with the right to secure mutual protection and welfare or to regulate the relations among its members? I’ve been in Paris the past few weeks and have had many passionate discussions on these issues with folks here; given France’s history, these issues have been a matter of intense and prolonged public debate and there is a common understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. I am not sure if in India we have invested adequate time and energy discussing this at all. Yes, the Constitution has served as a template for us, but how many Indians really have had adequate exposure to this most wonderful document. If movements to protest against lawlessness are to gain traction, they need to appropriate that space in which these discussions can happen, without violence or judgement.

In India, the political is everywhere, the space for the neutral has shrunk

Everything is political in India right now. Simple pleasures are tinged with the political. Conversations, amplified and intermingled with digital social interactions, are no longer linear but imbued with multiple meanings. For instance, I befriend someone I nod at on my regular evening walks. I think this person is nice. We become Facebook friends. On FB, I find this personal has a radically opposing political stand than mine. Our evening conversations become strained. I am no longer able to separate the political from the personal. I’m suspicious about a (probably) innocent comment by the said friend about her house help’s ethnicity, for instance. I’m questioning her motivations even as I nod and listen to her. Mentally, I’m wondering if I should change my walking routine!

I’m sure this has happened to many of my friends in India. This inability to separate what used to be separate worlds for many of us middle class folks has brought an element of stress into everyday life.

This is to be expected. The spectacular rise of the BJP on the back of Modi’s popularity is rewriting the script for how we live our lives. The political thinking of our parents’ generation was dominated by post-Independence thinking and the enormous footprint of the Congress party (whether they were supporters or opposers). Young folks today are looking for change and novelty. They are accepting that the BJP is here to stay and falling in line with its new script.

For folks like me, in their 40s with a political sensibility that is part-old and part-recent, these are confusing times. Personally, I am well aware of the dangers of echo chambers. As a researcher, the easy trap of preaching to the converted is something we discuss all the time. I am used to analyzing my own speech, writing, behaviour and I put everything under the scanner.

Even so, I am deeply uncomfortable about this point we seem to have reached, when facts are junked almost entirely and we seem consumed by the political narrative. We forget that it is change driven by evidence that will eventually drive policy, innovation and investment, the factors we need to evolve, become economically stronger and deliver a better life for India’s people.

As Kaushik Basu points out in his recent piece Look at the facts of demonetisation, Modi’s ‘master stroke’ is a perfect example of a move that has been a total failure in its own stated objectives, but yet touted repeatedly as a success by a political establishment that seems to have simply erased the word failure from its vocabulary. I would be perfectly ok if they said something like: We tried our best. It did not work out as planned. I would be happy to admire the immense boldness of the move if the analysis of its outcomes were honest.

But the politics of today does not allow me to take a nuanced position. It does not allow me to be neutral if I am not also silent. For example, the critique of demonetisation offered by my colleagues and me (read our two opinion pieces here and here and listen to our podcast here), for instance, was read by several as anti-Modi anti-BJP rather than an honest analysis of what we observed in our research. Those who engaged with the content were rarely our critics, but there were many who judged us by the titles of what we wrote. There were those who refused to engage, insisting on slotting us into a particular narrow political spectrum.

Why is it that we have become so averse to complexity? Why does everything now have to be black or white, yes or no, aar ya paar? For a nation full of fence sitters, why is being politically non-aligned, or simply cautious, now a cardinal sin?

Fascinating chats with kids and a confrontation with misogyny 

I’ve always been fascinated about the trajectories of everyday conversations. This morning, Aadyaa complained about the days getting shorter and we started talking about the forces and mechanisms of nature. That you can’t pick what you want, it’s a package deal!

That reminded me of Ingapirca (watch out for that post, coming soon!), an Inka ruin I visited in Ecuador where the intimate knowledge developed about solar and lunar cycles was evident. I commented on how amazing it was that man had learnt so much through observation and analysis even very far back in time. Udai, whose grade 7 history syllabus includes the European Middle Ages, reminded me that medieval Europe, to the contrary, went through a ‘dark’ period in which science was ignored and reviled. He went on to educate me about how he saw rationalism and empiricism as the two main approaches to scientific thinking.

The jump to present day politics in our conversation was inevitable. Is the rejection of rational thought as seen in majoritarian political behaviour the world over (especially in the use of unsubstantiated information as part of a communication strategy) part of a cyclical process? Could poor basic education that does not grant people the ability to engage with content, leavealone have an independent opinion, be part of the problem? Has credibility in post colonial India been (wrongly) built on status, class and the ability to speak English instead of facts? And is a backlash against liberal intellectuals about a re-evaluation of whether these attributes constitute credibility or is it built on something entirely different like effective communication that feeds into people’s fears?

By this time, the kids were in a contemplative mode, realising just how privileged they were to be in a good school, where standards of education are high and teachers competent. The bus arrived and they left.

When I got back home and checked my social media feed, an abusive comment from an acquaintance on a post that critiques India’s recent demonetisation policy brought home to me that we are fighting a very real war, one which is fuelled by resentment against those who are capable of providing the empirical evidence. Combined with an odious level of misogyny and low self-confidence, rendering those with an opinion legitimate targets of abuse. Especially if they are women.

Not a nuisance but an opportunity to include: Why you need to rethink your opinions on the kaawad yatra

For the last many years, I’ve been fascinated with the annual kaawad yatra, which takes place during the saawan month of the Hindu calendar and involves the transport of holy waters from the Ganga in Hardwar back home by pilgrims usually on foot (more here). Its a tough pilgrimage. Watching the yatris rest at the end of a long day of walking at the makeshift camps that local communities erect along the entire route, I’ve often admired their resilience and also the growing number of women yatris. I’ve observed them bandage each others tired, swollen and cracked feet. I’ve seen communities volunteering to cook, clean and heal yatris. I’ve even smiled at their obvious enjoyment of the music blaring out of speakers, as I’ve watched them dance and sing in camaraderie and joy closer to the completion of the arduous journey. To me, the kaawad yatra has always been a demonstration of India’s multiple faith-linked traditions that have the power to bring people together in a continuance of age old traditions.

For the educated classes behind the wheels of their motor vehicles, though, the kaawads are another word for traffic hold ups, mayhem and chaos that compounds the water logging caused by incessant rain and poor drainage each year. It’s an inconvenience, an injunction into the (imagined) smooth functioning of their lives. Its a faith system they don’t understand, even though many among them are deeply religious.

This divide and the vitriol towards the kaawadiyas was brought home to me last evening. I was driving  and a friend’s daughter, all of eight-years old, pointed out to a truck full of kaawadiyas and declared, with much feeling that she hates them! Hate? I was taken aback and I asked her why, were they not entitled to celebrate the completion of their yatra? And her response was something entirely unexpected: “They don’t wear clothes!,” the little girl told me. “See, that man is only wearing those short orange shorts!”

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A different kind of yatra: The influence of money and power

The transformation of the kaawad yatra itself, in the past few years, from a low key humble affair to a loud, rambunctious public party is partly responsible for the perceptions that this young girl and a large section of elite urban society. Clearly there is more money in the yatra business now, perhaps in reflection of a more affluent rural and small town middle class. The camps have grown larger, the music louder, the trucks of enthusiastic and often rowdy yatris and supporters are ubiquitous. In the past, State-sponsored protections like traffic cordons to create safe passage were a response to the unfortunate deaths of kaawadiyas in motor accidents. Today, youth in motor cycles and trucks break traffic rules with impunity in the name of religion. The little girl’s comment on how the yatris are dressed is also telling. A display of hyper masculine behavior is not only hurtful to urbane sensibilities but frankly threatening as well!

The farcical liberalism of the urban elite

On the other hand, the educated elite does not usually bother to learn more about the yatra itself. I know from my interactions with villagers in and around Gurgaon, that the yatra is deeply symbolic to these communities. It is taken with a sense of duty; it is also a means for young people to take a small holiday and earn brownie points in the process. There is also some bit of harmless competition among groups in the village on who gets back the holy waters first.

Plug the gap or prepare to be drowned

It is this big gap between the two Indias that is immensely disturbing to me. The divide of the rural and urban, the chasm between the educated well-heeled and well-traveled elite and the homegrown upwardly mobile middle classes, the totally different perceptions of the pretend liberals and the deep-rooted faith systems of the more rooted-to-the-land populations. All this is exacerbated by urban planning that puts the elite into ‘safe’ gated communities and ‘others’ those who tilled the very lands on which these gated complexes are built!

We need a new movement here to bridge this gaping chasm that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our society. We talk about tolerance in our cozy drawing rooms, but we do not even understand the meaning of the world when we say hateful things that our children reproduce without understanding what they are saying. We need to start with understanding the traditions of our land and respecting them for what they are, even as we call out those who break the law and those who protect these detractors. We need to broaden our definition of community to include people from different classes. What stops the kaawad yatra organizing committees from reaching out to RWAs to contribute and collaborate in offering shelter to the yatris, as a gesture of humanity? Maybe this will lead to better ideas on how to resolve traffic snarls and conflicts of interest? What stops the police and local governments from running awareness campaigns that create empathy towards the yatris and use this enhance sense of pride to request them to remain within the law?

Of course, my comments could well be dismissed as naive. Many will say that I am deliberately leaving out the realities that confront us: the rise of the right wing that grants additional immunity to Hindu religious groups at this time, the alignment of local law enforcers with local communities that permits them to look the other way like we saw during Haryana’s infamous Jat quota agitation, the politicization of religion as seen in the capital that is now blatantly on display during the yatra. I admit there might be truth in all of this, but we must also admit that the insensitivity exists on both sides. If we do not bring empathy into the mix at this point, these conflicts will only get worse. We owe it to our children to speak a different language: one that opens the doors instead of slamming them shut; one that seeks to learn more before pronouncing opinions; one that celebrates diversity and shuns the idea of homogeneity that dangerously pervades our social lives; one that, in the true tradition of this land, refrains from violence seeks to include and find solutions through consensus.

Of Gurgaon and Gurugram: Nay to shouting matches, yay to meaningful debate

Gurgaon’s renaming has come as a bolt from the blue for most people I know. I’ve been a resident of Gurgaon for over 12 years and many of my friends have lived here longer. It isn’t just shock, it  is also disappointment and anger at the government’s decision to focus on something cosmetic like a name change when so much meaningful action needed to take place. Others worry about the sheer cost incurred in changing an address. Still others are raising the issue of identity and the right of citizens to be consulted before such decisions are taken. But then that’s the thing….. who is considered a citizen worth consulting? how is the consulting done? The Devil is truly in the details. Even as an online petition is floated by a dear friend requesting the CM to hold widespread citizen consultations before the decision goes up the the State Cabinet and the Union Home Ministry (link to petition here, news item about it here), it comes to light that in 2014 a zealous Gurgaon councillor has already done the requisite consultation and got a slew of people to participate in a signature campaign to reclaim the honour of the city and call it Gurugram!

The resolution passed by the municipality in 2014 is the basis for the recent renaming and it is clear from social media feeds that people are divided on the issue. For every person who raises rational arguments related to cost or prioritization, there is someone sold on the idea of reclaiming a glorious past. In all this Veena Oldenburg’s argument about the symbolism of honouring Dronacharya is worth a mention. Dronacharya is infamous for demanding Eklavya’s right thumb as gurudakshina, thus ensuring the socially disadvantaged but talented Eklavya could not rival his royal protege, famous Mahabharata warrior Arjun.

And so, while I am all for taking pride in history, we must think about what that history implies. Whose history is important? What symbols are we glorifying and what do they say about us as a people today? What pains me is that no one is thinking and talking about the issues. There seems to be no space for an open and vibrant debate. Not even on social media, which should enable dialogue instead of becoming the site of abusive shouting matches. Unless we create and nurture spaces of discussion and debate, how do we raise a new generation of creative and enlightened individuals? I wonder….

The guru shishya parampara has lessons for modern education systems

Several scholars and social commentators are making the link between the rising tide of overt nationalism and a discomfort over the democratic nature of some educational spaces in India today. Janaki Nair, the feminist and historian from JNU, wrote yesterday in The Hindu that:

“The moral panic that has gripped large sections of the Indian public is… related to the fears about the democratising opportunities offered by campuses today. In this expression of outrage, the newly moralising Right ….. aims to replace critical thinking with worship, forms of hard-won equality with structures of deference, and forms of new community-building with a return to the ideal of the patriarchal “family”.”

She goes on to cite an example that is a bit uncomfortable for me. She sees in the Indian Council of Historical Research’s program to institute fellowships that will foster a Guru-Shishya parampara a patriarchal design. She says that shishyas will be tied in “a relationship of obedience and honour, rather than thinking and debating”. She sees this as a problem.

While I buy her point about the important place of critique and question in the process of learning (refer my earlier post on this issue), I’m not sure her understanding of guru shishya parampara is accurate. I’m no authority on the subject, but I’ve been a shishya, first of Hindustani classical music for many years and in recent years of kathak. In these years, I’ve interacted with many gurus and shishyas, heard many stories of how the gurus learnt and experienced first hand the complexity of this relationship and my comments are limited to the learning of the performing arts.

The relationship between the guru and shishya has some prescribed rules. Broadly, the shishya is expected to train rigorously and usually has limited freedom until this period of training is completed. This period may vary. Modern gurus permit their shishyas to perform in public much earlier than what was the norm a generation ago. Once the shishya is past her training period, she is not only free to make her own adaptations and improvisations to her art but is in fact expected to do so, while taking the traditions of her guru and gharana forward. A good guru will appreciate out of the box thinking, though the tolerance to deviating from the gharana’s essential style may vary. In the classical arts, learning is a lifelong process. In the traditional form of the gurukul, theoretical training involved both reading and debates among students and with the guru. The education was not designed to be a one-way dictatorial process and Prof Nair seems to imagine, though the status of the guru was (and is) undoubtedly exalted, with respected to her many years of rigorous sadhna and the exalted knowledge derived from this.

There are many positives to this model in my view – a long period of sustained interaction, an expectation of commitment, peer-to-peer learning and the setting of high standards. I do not believe the guru shishya parampara is in conflict with freedom of expression or dissent; yes, it is a system in which charting your own path comes after years spent learning the basics and that is the nature of the kind of knowledge the system was designed to impart.

In today’s far more transactional education system, with its short-term targets and restricted rather than expansive curriculum, the guru shishya parampara often finds itself out of sync. That I do perceive. I also feel that our dislike of religion-based politics must not blind us to the positive aspects of our traditions. And so, instead of writing it off, we must reflect on how to weave in some of its positives into our discourse on pedagogy and education.

Re-reading Bhagat Singh: Those who question and disbelieve pave the path to progress

As political parties around us continue to appropriate and re-appropriate historic figures from the past in a desperate (and despicable) attempt to reap mileage from their reflected glory, a few days ago we reflected on the idea of revisiting the writings and documentation of some of these resurrected (and often misinterpreted) heroes. Fittingly, we started this journey on Shahid Diwas, a day to mark the martyrdom of the three icons of the revolutionary side of the Indian struggle for Independence- Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. The idea was connected to a discussion last week between Udai (my nearly 12 year old son) and my mother-in-law on atheism and belief, the chief takeaway being the importance of informed opinion that builds from a knowledge of all possible points of view, not just one’s own position.

In this context, we decided to read Bhagat Singh’s famous Essay titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’, written in October 1930 and available here in an English translation from the Punjabi original. I made Udai read it aloud to us (and several new words were learnt and discussed along the way, but that’s another discussion). I hadn’t read it before either and it was eye-opening. I’m sharing some excerpts that I think are particularly relevant, both to today’s political situation in India and to my immediate objective of expanding the debate within our home.

Questioning the status quo

Udai’s outcries against religion (and many children go through this phase) are almost always based on the idea of the lack of scientific proof that a higher omnipresent power exists. Add to that the idea of what the rational arguments could be for or against the existence of God. Bhagat Singh’s passionate plea in support of his atheism, however, rests on the idea that a periodic critique of existing ideas and beliefs is the only way forward. He writes:

“It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.

“Any person who claims to be a realist has to challenge the truth of old beliefs. If faith cannot withstand the onslaught of reason, it collapses. After that his task should be to do the groundwork for new philosophy. This is the negative side. After that comes in the positive work in which some material of the olden times can be used to construct the pillars of new philosophy.”

The corollary: When society represses the urge to question and shrinks that space, especially for young people, we also throttle the pathways to progress.

Belief in oneself despite all odds

All atheists I know have an unwavering faith in themselves, including my late father with whom long discussions on the matter of religion and belief systems were a common occurrence. It is not that they are devoid of self-doubt. On the contrary, they have no choice but to work very hard to find conviction within themselves, to question their own actions and motivations frequently and they work to re-focus themselves. It is an exhausting task!

This is because the solace of faith, in which sacrifice and good behaviour is ‘rewarded’ by freedom from re-birth (as in Hinduism) or the experience of paradise (as in Islam, Christianity) is not available to an atheist. Bhagat Singh points this out very clearly as he counters the allegations that atheist is born out of vanity or arrogance. Remember, he wrote this only a day or two before he was sentenced to death.

“Beliefs make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His Name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds. In difficult times, vanity, if it remains, evaporates and man cannot find the courage to defy beliefs held in common esteem by the people. If he really revolts against such beliefs, we must conclude that it is not sheer vanity; he has some kind of extraordinary strength. This is exactly the situation now. First of all we all know what the judgement will be. It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be!”

Some questions raised: Does your religion empower you or does it work as your crutch? Are the positions of atheism and faith contradictory or can they both find space in a broader discussion on morality, empathy and self-empowerment?

What are we learning from Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom and struggle?

It is getting harder and harder to propose empathy and cooperation as strategies to wage a war that is increasingly violent, repressive and chauvinistic, be this the war on terrorism, the war of identities or the war with oneself as young people navigate the complex pathways to economic mobility and ‘success’. There is no patience for this approach, which is perceived as too slow, too risky. The dangers are put forward as imminent, the solutions needed as urgent. The liberal perspective is not exciting, perceived as the bastion of those already comfortable, and run down as impractical for a nation full of impatient youth in a race to get ahead.

But think: Are the dangers we face today any different in urgency that what Bhagat Singh and Rajguru faced in the 1920s? Are the quandaries and moral dilemmas those young men found themselves in any less heart wrenching and difficult? If Bhagat Singh could question what was prevalent, so must young people today. And that is the legacy we must take forward. Not the machismo, not the ‘nationalism’, but the thinking and rationalism that drove it.

Mr Modi, the critics are the ones you should be talking to

It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China’s senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”

This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?

Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.

Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.

For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.

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