Friday, March 14, 2008

pieces of a puzzle

Babri Masjid. Bombay Riots. Gujarat. Caste. Communalism. Politics. Elections. Violence.

This is India. You read the morning paper, and it screams to you -- Raj Thakerey demands only Maharastrians in Mumbai. Others, Muslims, stay out! You have to wonder, how is it that India survives? Since 1947, has the country agreed to disagree? Set the common lowest denominator for living with the 'other' and made peace with it?

What is the idea of India?

Go back in history. The Hindu-Muslim demographic divide has always been around. Some Mughal leaders like Akbar made overtures to keep some peace, once their rule had been established. Others had plundered the country to establish their dominance. But it was during Shivaji's time, half a century after Akbar, that the sentiment of a "Maharashtra Dharam" was first heard. Shivaji's little kingdom was nestled in the middle of the Shia Muslim kingdoms of South India, and Maharashtra became a calling card. Scholars have long held that when it came to the villages and common folk, neighbours peacefully co-existed. Mosque and Temple, side by side. And the East India Company, too, did not want to meddle with the personal laws of either religion, and so the British only introduced a common commercial law.

Fast forward to the demands of self-government, and it was with the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909 that the seed of divide and rule made head ways into a democratic set-up. Seats were divided by religion. And once both camps tasted power, it was difficult for them to give it up. By the time India became free and the Constitution was drafted, these separate interest groups could not be removed.

But we know all of this. The real scandal is the answer to the next question: When did Hindu v/s Muslim become an acceptable, even popular, election platform? After Gandhi's assassination by Nathuram Godse of the RSS, the extreme Right Hindu organisation was banned. Writings such as Veer Savarkar's "Hindutva" -- where he took the concept of Hindu as a way of life and converted it into a political concept -- were becoming dangerous because hatred for Muslims was reaching a fevered pitch. The RSS reinvented itself as the Jan Sangh in the 1950s. But the Congress ruled India as the only party, and there was no space on the national arena for these voices to be heard.

Till the Emergency. That's when J.P. Narayan emerged as Mrs Gandhi's alternative -- and attracted youth leaders from all over. Laloo Yadav, Sharad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, all began their careers there. And when in 1976, the Janta Government was formed, all these little parties and people that cropped up in the shadow of the Congress, tasted power. But the coalition didn't last long because leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani of the Jan Sangh refused to resign from the RSS. What did emerge from the ashes was the newest addition to the Indian political scene, the Bharatiya Janta Party.

In the early 1990s, when V.P.Singh found himself prime minister of India, and Devi Lal our deputy PM, all kinds of trouble started. Devi Lal wanted to polarize urban and rural voters, so as to capitalise on his kisan backing. Not to be outdone, V.P. Singh resurrected the Mandal Report. And so, caste became key. Quotas remain a buzzword till today. But what about the BJP? Here you had a relatively new party, one that stood for Hindus, but what was their natural platform was already taken by other leaders. So began L.K. Advani's Rath Yatra, from Somnath (where Alauddin Khilji destroyed a Hindu temple) to Ayodhya (where a Ram temple had been destroyed by Razia Sultan). To his credit, Laloo did not allow Advani to enter Bihar, saying he would not allow communal violence in his state. (That caste violence flourishes in Bihar is another story). Meanwhile, another off-shoot of the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) became very active, demanding the demolishing of the Babri Mosque. Ultimately, on the 6th of December, 1992, under false assurances given to the Supreme Court of India, under the watchful eyes of Advani and his flunkies, the Masjid was demolished. "The happiest day of my life" is how Advani described the occasion.

But why did all this happen? Talk to people around you. Do they think that communal, even caste-based violence, is inevitable? Ashutosh Varshney, a highly regarded political scientist (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), has suggested that areas where there are no civic ties between communities are 'riot-prone'. Is that true? Does that mean that Narendra Modi's statement, that the Gujarat violence of 2002 was an "equal and opposite reaction" to a train burning in Godhra is correct? The frenzy that is caused by communal violence is described by Dipankar Gupta, sociologist (JNU), as "picnic rioting" -- referring to the manner in which Hindu mobs actually celebrate the killings of Muslims. Not everyone thinks so. Another opinion is offered by Steven Wilkinson, another political scientist (Duke University), who believes that these ethnic riots are "far from being spontaneous eruptions of anger" and are instead used to "advance political agenda".

Advance political agenda. Scary thought, but think about this too: statistics have shown that communal riots are more likely to take place close to elections. And that there are sharp state level variations in the handling of riots. Translation? That preventing, controlling, stopping violence is not a problem with the state machinery, but has everything to do with the directive of the politician in-charge. But why? Why not a quest for equilibrium? The answer is a numbers game. Governments are unwilling to fight minorities because they systematically under-represent them in government, police and local administration. And this means, that local politicians try and secure whatever votes they do have. And the best way to ensure their identity is locked with their voters is to create a common enemy -- for example, the "Muslim threat". If they do react, then the mobilization of minorities is projected as "anti-national" and the ever convenient "myth of the foreign hand" comes into play. Think about it, is every Muslim a terrorist? No. Is every Muslim pro-Pakistan? No. Is everyone Muslim anti-development? No. But yet, these myths thrive despite a free press.

I'll admit, it's a bleak picture I am painting for you. That communal and often caste rioting in India have sharp political and electoral undertones. Institutionalised rioting, if you will. But mull over this as you sip your drink: it begins with the 'rehearsal' -- tensions are kept alive, such as cow slaughter or kidnap of a girl so that the community is offended; then 'enactment' -- all this, of course, in the right political circumstance such as elections; and an 'explanation' -- the community is told who is to blame, and finally, once the time is right, comes the first blow.

There is a difference between people who take the law into their own hands, vigilante crowds who stone a man to death for raping a girl and calculated communal violence for political gains. Tehelka broke this story. It got testimonies from people who made very clear that the Modi government encouraged the Gujarat riots. The response? "This might actually help Modi win the upcoming Gujarat elections".

What does one say to that?

Friday, March 07, 2008

bitch is the new black

Have you been watching the American primaries? Since I’m not so keen on a Republican winning office, I’m not really looking at that side of the pond. Especially because McCain has won the nomination and now there isn’t really much to do but wait for the Democratic nominee.

Listen, if I could vote, I’d probably vote Hillary. It’s a gut instinct. I just think she’s tough and smart enough to push for the right agendas and get things done. I know people are worrying about the trade policies, that’s what India should be worrying – Clinton and Obama have an isolationist twang to their thoughts – in fact, I think Fareed Zakaria recently wrote a piece saying that people in other countries were almost feeling bad Bush is leaving office because of the way he backed free trade. But I don’t care to get into these conversations right now. My practical side tells me I don’t have a vote so I will just watch the election process as a study of human behavior. Plus politcal satire always rocks during election time! Jon Stewart is supporting Obama and SNL is supporting Hillary. You have to jump in on this action if you haven’t already! Tina Fey hosted the first SNL after the Writers Strike, and they had this whole section on women’s news, where she says, “people don’t like Hillary cause she’s a bitch. Well, I’m a bitch… Amy’s a bitch…. Bitches get things done! Bitch is the new Black!!” Its insane, go to the website and see the links!

Anyway I’m rather uninspired in life, I apologize, so I just came here to say this. That is all!

Oh, btw, has anyone read Life of Pi? I read it recently. Imaginative, yes, but normally, with my love for cultural analysis I can really jump into “what it all means” I really didn’t. So then I picked up Chetan Bhagat’s five point someone, about these three IIT students who screw up their years in college, try to steal the exam papers, all that jazz. It was so bloody cute. Read it!