Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Chowkidar for the Caste-Corrupted Empire

A bullet train is no match for the speed with which our great political orators spit out catchwords to capture the nation’s imagination. The latest comes from our Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi. He had earlier tried to convince the electorate that he was the only √úbermensch who could protect their borders, their bank balance and their dharma. But after nearly five years—in which he coined innumerable new terms and renamed old schemes—he realized that he had not delivered as the chowkidar, the prime watchman of the nation. Lo and behold, he decided to share his failure with his entire constituency. Hence you have #MainBhiChowkidar trending on the social media. From cabinet ministers to former cow vigilantes, all have prefixed their social-media identities with the word, Chowkidar.

An incendiary Hindutva ideologue from his party, Sri Subramanian Swamy, refused to follow the fad. A former Harvard faculty member, he had sound reasons. In an interview given to a Tamil TV channel he said that being a Brahmin, he could not be a chowkidar. Brahmins, in the orthodox social hierarchy, are the priests and teachers. They instruct others and do not take orders a la doormatly doormen. In ancient times they had absolute control over knowledge, the classical language, and the sacred texts, while the rest of the populace was practically illiterate. Sri Swamy has made it clear to the prime minister that it is fine for an OBC (a Shudra, in the traditional hierarchy) like him to be the chowkidar, who would take orders from the citadel of Brahmanism in Nagpur. But Sri Swamy would not exchange his role as intellectual commander of the bahujans (majority-people, the so-called backward castes) for such sentimental reasons. 

After the 2014 general election, when Sri Narendra Modi was chosen to occupy the highest political office of the country as a democratically elected parliamentarian, there were many among even the so-called liberal-left anti-caste intellectuals who were filled with awe and praise for the RSS. They began to argue that unlike the secular parties, RSS seems to have given an OBC the chance to scale the political ladder and become the prime minister in a democratic manner. They believed it to be the sign that under RSS, the traditional caste system is being dismantled and a unitary and unified identity of a casteless Hindu is emerging, or, in fact, has emerged.  

But as the seemingly off-the-cuff remark by Sri Swamy shows, Brahmanism continues to pull the strings of even this stage-managed show of the casteless Hindu. The India that Sri Narendra Modi is a prime minister of is not the India of RSS’s dreams. This sovereign, socialist, secular democracy—this India that is Bharat, which is governed by a constitution guided by Western liberal and Christian principles, and has been drafted by a Dalit—is something they loathe. They are extremely uncomfortable with the Indian Tricolour, which they never hoist in their gatherings. Their ideal is a vast Hindu empire that holds almost the entire South Asia within ancient hierarchies of caste under a saffron flag. Until that happens, they must let a Shudra pawn consolidate India’s “backward” castes behind, ultimately, the Brahmin leadership. Accommodating one Modi is a small price to pay to win the allegiance of the entire backward communities of India. In a dark dystopian fashion, Sri Narendra Modi is a harbinger who will  do the dirty job of destroying democratic institutions and structure of India, till the “rightful owners” are back in power with all their Hindutva glory. 

Between Sri Modi’s call of letting the world know that we are fellow chowkidars with him and Sri Swami’s smug rejection of the same, a shocking news came out. It was in Sri Modi’s home state Gujarat. A 17-year-old Dalit student was allegedly tied to a tree, beaten up and was prevented to appear in the all-important board exams. The two attackers had apparently told him that since he was an untouchable “he should not study and take his exams but do labour work”. Later, it was also alleged that the boy was attacked because he was in a relationship with an upper-caste girl. In either case, the assaulters were trying to guard their caste status. After all, ye bhi chowkidar hain! (They too are watchmen). 

People are being deluded into thinking that by calling themselves chowkidar they are somehow fighting economic corruption. But can any of these swords-wielding sentinels do anything to prevent the kind of crimes committed by the likes of Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi and Vijay Mallya? Most of them won’t even challenge the corruption in their gram sabhas if the sarpanch is from their religion or caste. The chowkidars, like their previous cow-vigilante avatar, would target the Dalits and religious minorities. In this election season chowkidars will use the morally charged language to unleash terror among the political opponents. That’s where the whole chowkidar movement is leading to. Didn’t Sri Swamy once say that elections are not won on the basis of soundness of your economics, but how well you emotionally manipulate your cadre and the electorate? That seemingly off-the-cuff remark by him has deep roots in Hindutva ideology of brahmanical supremacy. And the foot soldiers, with the new name of chowkidars, would very willingly give their all to revive and protect the caste-ridden structure of the society. 

This is where the chowkidars will become their own gravediggers.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Why Saffron Brigade Hates Pandit Nehru

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru practised yoga. Of course, he was a Kashmiri "pandit". Why does RSS, BJP, and the whole bhakta bandwagon hate him? One reason is that unlike the fanatics, he did not fantasize about an ideal "Hindu" past. For example, unlike a current BJP minister who said journalism began in the Mahabharata, Nehru acknowledged the pioneering role of Serampore missionaries, William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward, in setting up free press in nineteenth-century India. Nehru was a reform-minded, moderate, educated Hindu who was sensible and humble enough to acknowledge historical debts. He did not try to paint Indian history with saffron-soaked brush. Here are some of his thoughts—culled from his masterly The Discovery of India—about the emergence of modern Indian mind. This will be of immense value to the younger generation
"Individual Englishmen, educationists, orientalists, journalists, missionaries, and others played an important part in bringing western culture to India, and in their attempts to do so often came into conflict with their own Government. That Government feared the effects of the spread if modern education and put many obstacles in is way, and yet it was due to the pioneering efforts of able and earnest Englishmen, who gathered enthusiastic groups of Indian students around them, that English thought and literature and political tradition were introduced to India." (Nehru 313).
"Full of the ideal of the patient loving service of the Franciscans of old, and quiet unostentatious, efficient, rather like the Quakers, the members of the Ramakrishna Mission carry on their hospitals and educational establishments and engage in relief work, whenever any calamity occurs, all over India and even outside." (Nehru 315).
"The first private printing press was started by the Baptist missionaries in Serampore, and the first newspaper was started by an Englishman in Calcutta in 1780. All these and other like changes crept in gradually, influencing the Indian mind and giving rise to the 'modern' consciousness." (Nehru 313).
"From 1780 onwards a number of newspapers had been published by Englishmen in India. These were usually very critical of the Government and led to conflict an the establishment of a strict censorship. Among the earliest champions of the freedom of the press in India were Englishmen and one of them, James Silk Buckingham, who is still remembered, was deported from the country. The first Indian owned and edited newspaper was issued (in English) in 1818, and in the same year the Baptist missionaries of Serampore brought out a Bengali monthly and a weekly. Newspapers and periodicals in English and the Indian languages followed in quick succession in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay" (Nehru 316).
"Serious writing was almost confined to Sanskrit and Persian, and every cultured person was supposed to know one of them. These two classical languages played a dominating role and prevented the growth of the popular provincial languages. The printing of books and newspapers broke the hold of the classics and immediately prose literatures in the provincial languages began to develop. The early Christian missionaries, especially of the Baptist mission at Serampore, helped in this process greatly. The first private printing presses were set up by them and their efforts to translate the Bible into prose versions of the Indian languages met with considerable success.
"There was no difficulty in dealing with the well-known and established languages, but the missionaries went further and tackled some of the minor and undeveloped languages and gave them shape and form, compiling grammars and dictionaries for them. They even laboured at the dialects of the primitive hill and forest tribes and reduced them to writing. The desire of the Christian missionaries to translate the Bible into every possible language thus resulted in the development of many Indian languages. Christian mission work in India has not always been admirable or praise-worthy, but in this respect, as well as in the collection of folklore, it has undoubtedly been of great service to India" (Nehru 317–318).
(Originally shared as an FB post on 31.05.2018)

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Guiding Philosophy of NDA Government

You may remember the popular mind teaser where they ask you to make a line shorter without erasing it. Do you? You just needed to draw a bigger line! The present government has taken it as their guiding philosophy. In the last four years, the NDA government has created bigger problems, compared to which the former problems fade away. 

Four years ago, in 2014, we asked a question: How do we tackle rampant corruption in India? In the last four years, this question has conveniently been swept under the carpet. Instead a new question has been hurled at us: WHAT IS "INDIA"? The politicians and trolls, including the PM himself, have made it their point to persistently peel off our nation's skin to look for a true, real, genuine India, which according to them is nothing but another name for a particular religion. But they don't realise that while doing this, they have done great harm to the very soul of India. They have bruised it beyond recognition. 

The new India entered a gestation phase after the dissolution of the great Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century. It grew for 250 years in the womb of history's fluid yet defining influences, before being born as a nation in 1947. Last two hundred years have been the most influential, when two most important principles of civilised existence, namely freedom of conscience and education for all, became part of our cultural ideals. Those who lived on the margins of the great Indian civilisation began to crawl and toddle towards the centre. A new India began to stand on its feet. 

The flag bearers would love to throw the baby with the bath water. The problem is that baby is grown and would not be so easily thrown out. Not without a fight, even when bruised.

The trickery would be exposed one day. You can't keep committing bigger blunders to hide the previous imbecility.

(Originally a Facebook post, dated 08 June 2018)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Phule's "Tritya Ratna": A Tribute to Missionaries

In 1855, the 28-year-old Jotirao Phule of Poona wrote a Marathi play Tritya Ratna (Third Jewel). It was to be sent to a prize committee managed by the British government of the time. The committee had been set up to reward scholars’ accomplishment, which at that time were mostly Brahmins proficient in Sanskrit. Poona’s enlightened citizens had petitioned the government that it must also encourage original Marathi writing among the literati of the Bombay Presidency. The award was called Dakshina Prize.
The original Dakshina Prize had been instituted by the great Shivaji himself. It used to be given to the learned Brahmins who had mastered the Sanskrit religious texts. Later, Peshwa rulers of Maharashtra used it to strengthen their hold over the state power. Peshwa Baji Rao II (r. 1795–1818) reportedly gave Rs 1,00,000 as dakshina to fellow Chitpawan Brahmins.

The British defeated the Peshwas in 1818. As pragmatic rulers do, they continued most of the cultural and socio-religious practices inherited from the Peshwas. This included awarding of Dakshina. Traditionally that meant the gift to the Brahmin priest. The British knew that to perpetuate their rule in India, they must make concessions to the elite class from among their subjects. The support extended by the East India Company to temples, religious practices, rituals and customs of the Hindus led some historians to remark that the “Indian Empire [of the British] was, fundamentally if not formally, a Hindu Raj” (R. E. Frykenberg).

Lord Mountstuart Elphinstone, the governor of Bombay, continued the practice where only Brahmins were considered for Dakshina. He founded a Sanskrit college in Poona in 1821 and spent forty percent of the Dakshina amount there. However, in due course of time, he brought about two changes in this policy. First, he made it possible for non-Brahmins to apply for the prize. Second, he made works not only in Sanskrit but in Marathi to be considered for state support. At that time Marathi was just developing into a modern and respectable literary language. This happened because of the pioneering work done in the field of Marathi lexicography and grammar by missionaries such as William Carey.  He published the first Marathi grammar in 1805 and then a Marathi dictionary in 1810. Later, American and Scottish missionaries brought out number of school text books that prepared a new generation of Marathi readers and writers.

Elphinstone was not the only one interested in giving prizes to non-Brahmins. Reform-minded Brahmins such as Lokhitwadi Gopalrao Deshmukh also collected signatures to pressurise the government to give some of the Dakshina fund to Marathi works. These reformers, however, were threatened by the traditionalist Brahmins. In this case, Jotirao himself provided security to the petitioners.

Coming back to the play, we know that that play was never performed. Dakshina Prize Committee rejected the play. Why? In his most celebrated work Slavery (1873), Phule recounts: “…I had written a play to the Dakshina Prize Committee, too. This was way back in 1855. But even there, the opinions of the bhat [Brahmin] members held sway and the European officers could do nothing. So my play was straightaway rejected.”

The play tells the story of a rural couple. A farmer and his pregnant wife are exploited by the religious trickery of the local Brahmin priest. The shenanigans of the priest, his wife and extended family are laid bare in a great detail. The Vidushak in the play adds humour but also sheds light on the nature and extent of exploitation with his incisive remarks. Vidushak is the traditional drama narrator, often a mouthpiece of the author—and in this play he is the alter ego of Phule. The play concludes that, for the unlettered, “backward” villagers the way out from exploitation is through education. The farmer and his wife decide, by the end of the play, that they would go and enrol themselves in the night school of the Phules, and will create a new future for their unborn child.  

The curious thing about the play, however, is the presence of a Christian padre. During the latter part of the play, Phule makes this unnamed padre almost the central character. It is he who makes the first move to open the Tritya Ratna (Third Jewel or Eye) for this “low-caste” couple. Third jewel is a metaphor for critical, rational thought unrestrained by fear of the socially dominant classes. The jewel is more than mere literacy, or the mere ability to read and write. It is ability to interpret life and what it dishes out to you for yourself, without coercion or deception. The jewel, the proverbial third eye, is flowering of the intellect enthralled for ages by the mythologies and superstitions. It is the life-line for dignified living as a respectable human being.

Phule could have written his play without the padre. The plot for the play would be simple and effective. Lack of education leaves you prone to exploitation: get educated, escape exploitation. But by making a padre the catalyst for the true awakening within the individual as well as the society, Phule was underlining a historical reality. He was documenting a social truth. It was the Christian missionary who brought enlightenment and the knowledge of true God to the masses of India. Phule himself studied in the Scottish missionary school and it is very likely that he developed his own critical acumen and strengthened the courage to question the degrading caste system of India in the company of highly inspirational and dedicated teachers like Murray Mitchell (see Rosalind O’Hanlon).

Phule saw clearly that British had established their rule in Maharashtra with the help of the shetji-bhatji combine (moneylenders and priestly class). They would not risk their government by offending them. British rulers could not be seen as promoting the interests of the “lower castes”. Phule also saw that the only social force that worked for the genuine uplift of marginalized shudras-atishudras of Maharashtra was the missionaries.

Jotirao Phule is considered the first “Indian” to start a school of untouchable girls in 1848 in Poona. He was inspired by another such school he had seen in Ahmednagar the previous year, which was run by a woman missionary Mrs Farrar. Dhananjay Keer, Phule’s biographer tells us that, Phule and his friend Govande had been “impressed by the foreigners’ perseverance in improving [India] and felt for their [fellow]countrymen’s neglect for it”.

It can be said that Phule’s play was not only a battle cry for the education of Indian masses long neglected and exploited by the country’s elite but also a rich tribute to the pioneering and self-less work by unsung heroes of India’s regeneration—the Christian missionaries.


Frykenberg, Robert E. “Christian Missions and the Raj”. Mission and Empire, edited by Norman Ethrington, Oxford UP, 2008.
Keer, Dhananjay. Mahatma Jotirao Phooley: Father of the Indian Revolution. Popular Prakashan, 2005.
O’Hanlon, Rosalind. Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-century Western India. Cambridge UP, 2002.

Friday, December 29, 2017

"Newton" Fell on My Head

YESTERDAY NEWTON FELL ON MY HEAD: My Musings on the Film's Ideas Including That of Human Equality

At one point, Loknath ji asks Newton Kumar about the source of his courage. "You must know a politician or some other big shot. Otherwise, how could you take on the police officials?" Of course, the source of courage that Newton Kumar, the presiding officer of a Dandakaranya election booth, had was his sense of duty. He wished to work honestly. He wished to work honestly in an environment that is clogged up with lies, indifference and make-believe.

But that is not all. Our personal sense of right and wrong is not the only thing that determines that we will choose the right thing. We choose the right thing also because we are inspired by some heroes. Who was Newton Kumar's Hero? Newton Kumar, a government officer from Dalit background, we know, is committed to the Indian Constitution, which in popular imagination is the brainchild of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. For a fleeting second, one could see that in Newton's room is hung a portrait of Dr Ambedkar.

But that again was not all.

We are inspired by ideas we believe to be true. Sometimes these philosophic ideas are bigger than heroes. The big idea that gave edge to Newton's resolve to be honest was an insight into the work of Isaac Newton, the apple-wala scientist! Nature is no respecter of people. Natural Laws are the same for all. ("You can throw a business tycoon and a tea seller from a cliff and both will meet the same fate!", says a senior officer) By implication, all are equal. The vote of every single individual is equal. That is why Newton Kumar is ready to put his life on  the line to make every single voter cast his or her vote.

The little problem is that nature does not always teach us equality. Nature, to many people, teaches "survival of the fittest". By the way, our social experience teaches us that it is much easier to throw a tea seller than a tycoon from the top of a cliff!

It may sound strange to most people but Isaac Newton, the scientist, was also a man of religion. He considered God, and not nature, the final arbiter of the question of human equality and dignity.

Human beings have dignity and they deserve to be treated equally because all of them are made in the image of their creator.

Last but not the least, the ability to give oneself a new name and new identity could be very empowering. Nutan is a beautiful name, but in the given context, Newton changed the life of the man. I am also reminded of the call by Professor #KanchaIlaiahShepherd to add English surnames to one's given names.

By the way do watch the film #Newton #NewtontheFilm. #RaghubirYadav as Loknath is masterful. It has moments of genuine comedy and leaves you feeling inspired. Stay back till the closing credits are over and enjoy Raghubir Yadav's song!

(FB Post/6.10.2017)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Anarkali of London: The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

When I watched Anarkali of Arrah the other day on TV, my mind immediately went back to a novel about a young servant girl, poor and vulnerable, hounded by her lustful aristocrat master. The novel was written many, many years ago. Two hundred and seventy seven years ago, to be precise; yes, 227 years.  The novel became a literary sensation. Everybody was reading it, its success was unprecedented and astonished the literary circle! The novel was written by an unpretentious printer in London, a Puritan called Samuel Richardson—and the title of the novel was Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740).
I am not sure if the makers of the 2017 film had read the novel; incidentally, the film was based loosely on real-life incidents. In 2011, a folk singer was allegedly molested in public by a vice-chancellor of a university in Gaya in Bihar, and the former decided to take him on. When Richardson wrote his novel, he too fell back on a similar story he had heard about 25 years ago. To be fair, it’s not hard to search for these kind of incidents. Deprivation and depravity spawn hundreds of such stories around us.
But when turned into a book or a film why do they become such a rage. Why did 18th-century Londoners love Pamela? Many opined that its success may be attributed to purely voyeuristic reasons; the reader wants to know, will she surrender or not.  What graphic details could be expected to be there when she does give in? It’s the “vicarious sexual experience” that readers were looking for. However, the scholars agree that such stupendous success could not be ascribed to voyeurism alone. The readers saw that in the novel by not surrendering to the supremacy of her master, that “chit of a girl” had challenged the power relations of her society. More than that it was the triumph of the meek against the mighty that resonated with the public. Walter Allen, a historian of English novel, comments: “Against an almost omnipotent authority Richardson pitted helplessness combined with virtue – and despite all hazards, helplessness combined with virtue triumphed, simply because it was virtue, and what is more, forced authority to accept it on his own terms. It was this that the age applauded: Richardson was the spokesman of justice.”
It wasn’t sex, but justice that people craved for. Modern literature, especially the modern genre, the novel, centred on the lives, struggles and triumphs of people who had been on the margin of society. Their presence and representation in culture was marginal, too. Epics and tragedies, the classical forms of literature, would tell the tales and fortunes of high-born men—kings, warriors, demigods—pitted against the cosmic powers, but no epic could have been written about the inconsequential struggles of a hapless “Pamela”—a woman and social nobody. Why is her virtue so important—after
all, hundreds and thousands of servant girls had been sexually exploited by their masters throughout history. The reason lay in that post Reformation, the moral and intellectual climate of Europe had changed. Individualism and individual dignity, Reformation’s gift to the West, birthed a new intellectual climate in Europe and with it a new literary form, the novel. Incidentally, critics of this new low-brow literature deemed it fit on the ill-educated and women. But as Terry Eagleton tells us, “In the end, the English novel would wreak its vengeance on those who dismissed it as fit only for females by producing some magnificent portrayals of women. It also produced some distinguished female exponents of the craft.” World literature would never be the same. Cinema, the youngest narrative genre, has inherited the same moral framework.
Anarkali of Arrah, reaffirms that our apparently sex-crazy world pines for justice for the weak, justice for “helplessness with virtue”. In the end of the movie, we see the police commissioner getting ready to begin criminal proceeding against the vice-chancellor. The film, however, has a reformatory ending, the lonely VC breaks down, and one hopes these are tears of repentance. Anarkali is free to live her life, her way.

In the novel, Mr B., the prurient master, repents and honourably marries Pamela. Anarkali and Pamela could exchange places because 18th-century London and 21st-century Arrah are under one moral framework that says “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Anita Desai Turns 80 Today

I was lately going over her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (No, it's got nothing to do with procreative prowess of the pheasant's tears). The protagonist longs to go to Darjeeling (No, it's got nothing to do with the Gorkha agitation; she wants to get away from oppressive Delhi summer).
It's a story of woman tormented by dominant philosophies of fate, detachment and male ego.
The novel was published in 1963, sixteen years after India's independence and gives an interesting insight into the psyche of the upper-upper-middle-class society (Delhi and Lucknow are the two key places) in those early years of our "young" nation.
There's a marital mismatch. Husband, a cerebral lawyer, is almost twice the age of his sensual wife. He wants to teach her detachment as found in the Gita; she, who has memorised a fair bit of the Gita herself, finds the doctrine of detachment absurd in the context of married relationship. And, that's the conflict, which has some dire consequences!
Desai has admitted in an interview that her earlier books are "overwritten". The imagery and symbolism in this novel is cloying—there is a glut, in fact. However, in terms of seeking answer to some philosophic questions, it is an honest book.
A few quotes from the book:
"Trains passing in the night, I cannot bear to hear them. They all leave me behind alone."
"It is the evening that break one's heart. At night one only hears the pieces falling."
The one I think was quite clever is this. She has just opened a tap...
"It gurgled in hesitation, then spat, and the water came burbling out, laughing at my surprise."
Happy birthday and God bless, Ms Desai!