Category Archives: Gandhi

What to preserve?

Here, we will focus on our cultural heritage rather than our natural one, since the latter has been the focus of popular attention in the recent years.

The preservation of certain forms of art, architecture, handicrafts for fear of their being lost in the mists of time has been a matter that has preoccupied many a diligent individual. As is probably well recognised, it is only the form of the cultural artefact (be it art or anything else) that is preserved, not the substance. It is easy to explain the previous sentence with an example. Indians all over celebrate some or the other form of a harvest festival. This makes sense because India has been (and continues to be) a predominantly agricultural nation. Many Indians are no longer farmers and nor do they have any remote connection with farming, and yet they continue to celebrate such festivals in towns, cities and even places outside India. Thus, they continue a tradition that makes sense only in an agricultural setup even when they no longer live within such a setup. Thus, the form of the harvest festival is preserved (with some modifications maybe), but there is no substance backing it. It is similar to Christmas being celebrated in a predominantly secular West.

Most cultural traditions have an inherently multi-faceted nature: they are not purely religious, nor purely economic or purely anything else, but a mixture of all these. When the factors that underpin these traditions change, the traditions themselves must change to adapt, else die out. This is the stage at which preservationists intervene, and try to preserve a snapshot of the dying traditions for posterity.

Most cultural traditions are naturally evolutionary, since socio-economic conditions change over time. To preserve a snapshot means to pull that tradition out of the context that makes it meaningful and ‘museumize’ it. There is also an inherent bias in the preservation of such traditions: those which are aesthetically striking and appealing (like music and dance) have a better chance of being preserved than others (like how to milk a cow or how to make dung cakes).

Without taking sides as to whether it is important or not to preserve certain parts of our cultural heritage, one must still ask as to what end such preservation is directed. Most farming traditions, for example, arose in a context where there were no chemical fertilizers and pesticides or even irrigation. Now, as we realize that chemical farming cannot go on indefinitely, there is definitely value in preserving these traditions. Here, we are not only preserving certain agricultural practices, but also a world-view that appreciates the necessity of maintaining a balance with natural processes. Only within such a world-view will these agricultural practices make sense, and are meaningless otherwise.

A great example of trying to revitalise not only a tradition but also the context is Gandhi’s attempt to revitalise the khadi economy in rural India. This was to be accompanied by socio-economic reform at the village level by ‘constructive workers’ and large scale marketing in the urban areas to make it economically viable. There was also the moral dimension to it in asking the urban rich to relate to their underprivileged brethren by spinning some thread on the charkha. With Gandhi’s death and an intellectual tide that was against his ideals, this attempt was museumized as well into the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), and only with the emergence of new organisations like Dastkar and Desi are such traditions looking to re-emerge.

It is only when cultural traditions make sense within a certain world-view can they be innovative and inventive and alive. Otherwise, they have to be kept on ‘life-support’ at a great social and economic cost. The preservationist’s attempt to create an unchanging snapshot of the same will only result in decay and perversion of the traditions, like has been done by various politicians and ‘cultural’ groups looking at gathering power by projecting themselves to be the saviours of ‘the great ancient Indian traditions’. The vitality of a tradition lies in its ability to respond to its present context. This response may lead to strange results, like handloom weavers wearing modern polyester sarees and ‘modern’ urban elites wearing traditional handloom garments, but it shows that a world-view is refusing to die and responding to changing (albeit unfavorable) circumstances.

Humanity has matured to a sufficient extent to understand what is necessary to maintain its continued existence on this planet, though it has not matured enough to act on this knowledge. It is something like learning to dance: understanding how to perform a particular step is much easier than getting your body to execute it. We know with some confidence what is the world-view that will help us live in harmony with the rest of nature. Ensuring we develop and preserve traditions that take us toward this end should serve as a thumb rule in making the decision about what to preserve, and what not to.

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‘Anna’lyzing Hazare

I rarely worry about current affairs, since they are not my interest, but the situation in Delhi has some historical precendents that prompted me to add my two bits to the equation.

For the second time in recent Indian history, an honest, practically saintly man is threatening to bring down an Empire (for that is what Indian Governments for the past few decades have been) by simply refusing to eat. Indians, emotional as ever, suddenly are consumed by a nationalist frenzy that should be scary even for a hardened dictator, let alone an economist-politician.

Is it a creation of the media? in part, without doubt. But there simply is no other way of mobilising so many people that I’m aware of. But the recent spate of politicians gettting too stupid to get caught contributed to this, without doubt. Also, the new generation of Indians, growing in self confidence that comes from world-wide admiration for our IT sweatshops, who think they have analyzed the situation perfectly and know best what is good for the country, have also added fuel to the fire.

On the side of the muted minority, a few who are wary of such frenzies occluding the real issues, whatever they may be, are criticizing the new Great Indian Show as shallow and ignorant of ground realities. They believe that it simply exposes the shallowness of Indian democracy and worry that the democratic process will be hijacked by the coercion of a few capable of moving millions.

Whatever may be the case, it is undeniable that this fast has fired the imagination of the country like very few events over the past few decades, including winning the World Cup and the Godhra mess. The reason for this seems simple — people can relate to and understand the anger against corruption, since they face it in their everyday lives, all the time. Though it may seem desirable, but worrying about Irom Sharmila and the AFSPA, or what conspired in Gujarat early in the 21st century or the inhuman treatment of tribals in Jharkhand or Orissa can hardly be part of their daily exertion to make ends meet. When someone raises their voice in support to Anna Hazare’s fast, they have that clerk in that department in mind, not Ratan Tata paying off the UPA government or the Birlas buying out tribals in Orissa.

If not word for word, but in spirit, the exact same debate had been carried out between Gandhi and Tagore some 90 years ago. I had described it, though with a more abstract focus, for a term paper last year. When Gandhi roused the people to join the non-cooperation movement in the 1920s, Tagore took exception to his methods, which to him depended heavily on the presence of a strong personality like Gandhi to be around to work. It would not ‘deepen democracy’, he said (though not in the same words), as some journalists have been murmuring about the Anna Hazare movement. It had the potential to degenerate into empty flag waving and slogan raising and to smother genuine criticisms and concerns, according to Tagore. For more details, have a look at the above pdf.

90 years on, Tagore’s fears did pan out, and India still requires a saintly figure to stop eating to rouse them against the Empire. The methods are still fundamentally anti-democratic, like Gandhi’s fast against separate electorates which spawned the Dalit movement of today (which hates him for it), or his throwing out of Subhash Chandra Bose from the post of Congress President. Gandhi’s political proteges chafed against the tight leash with which he held them back, to advance his ideas of a non-violent nation which they neither understood nor appreciated until the horror of the Partition. They would have gladly ignored him if it was politically feasible, and this happened during the final talks with the British before they left India.

That this debate continues in present day India is significant in atleast two ways: One, the question of how to involve the mass of the Indian population in the governance of the nation has not been solved satisfactorily. Two, the intellectual and moral legacies of those great Indians, Gandhi and Tagore live on to this day.

What model of governance would suit a country where the ‘Northie’ and the ‘Madarasi’ still cannot see eye to eye, and the Brahmin and the Dalit still cannot sit at the same table? The easier way would be to try and homogenize the people by means of an imaginary past, like the RSS actively are doing all over, or rouse people based on issues close to their hearts, however temporarily, like Anna Hazare is doing. The harder way, which Tagore espoused and which Gandhi implicitly agreed to later in his life when he resigned from the Congress and plunged head on into the Constructive Movement to help villages become self sufficient and the centre of any economic organisation in India, is to ‘deepen democracy’ so that people can in some sense rule themselves (which is after all what ‘Swa – raj’ means), and exert control over their lives.

This, however, would require a very different kind of socioeconomic organisation from the one bequeathed to us by Ricardo, J. S. Mill, Marx and Manmohan Singh, in chronological order. The British legacy in India was to fundamentally alter the material lives of people in some respects, and as I have mentioned before, to change it requires a lot of time or a lot of violence. So too for the society and economy which derive from it.

India has grown in confidence, no doubt, but it is a result of the arm twisting tactics of the World Bank and IMF (who first forced the Indira Gandhi government to asymmetrically distribute agricultural inputs to usher in the Green Revolution, and then forced the P. V. Narasimha government to implement what has come to be known as ‘Manmohanomics’) rather than any innate genius of the Indian people. Our so called ‘gifts to the world’ that Swami Vivekananda was so proud about, are only inheritances from our ancestors, which only goes to show that as a civilisation, we are stagnant in the 16th or 17th century. Like Tagore, my hope is that India can show the world that a Northie and Madarasi need not see eye to eye to build a prosperous nation, that a Hindu and a Muslim need not dissolve their individual identities to forge a strong country. That will be her greatest contribution, a mark of her genius.

On ends and means, rights and duties

A quite generic model of a human is one who has certain ends that he wants to pursue (gaadi-bungalow, moksha, etc.,), and is looking for means to achieve these ends. Given this, your preferred ends are finally governed by your ethical, moral and metaphysical outlook, and the normal means are politics, economics and religion. For example, if national service is what interests you, you might want to look at politics (replace national with self, and still the same means holds. Politics is such an adaptive thing!). If you wish a comfortable life, you look to the market to sell your goods/services/labor to make money. A normal person will have many such ends, and we end up doing politics, economics and religion. Now, if we are to accept the axiom that each person must be free to pursue any end that she so wishes, the as societal beings, we must come up with a way to ensure that this axiom holds, atleast theoretically.

And thus we come to the concept of a State. Whether it materialized due a ‘social contract’ or as a necessity in a Hobbsean society, the main function of a State is to ensure the above axiom holds. Thus, the State has powers of coercion over its citizens, which is willingly given to it by the citizens themselves (who are given a fancy name: ‘polity’) to ensure that each can lead a fulfilling life. Why this is necessary has been written about before.

There cannot be a common set of ends for all, since each person is unique (not everyone wants the same brand/color of motor vehicles!). There are, in any sufficiently organized society, limited number of means, and they are normally classified as those that do not harm others, and those that do. Since we want each person to acheive whatever he wants to, provided he does not hurt anyone, each person is assumed to have a set of ‘rights’. There are some negative rights (‘right against something’, ‘something’ can be being cheated, murdered, discriminated, etc.,) and positive rights (‘right to something’, ‘something’ can be a good education, employment, etc.,). There have been arguments as to whether the State much only ensure negative or positive or both kind of rights, but that is a different story altogether. Get this if you want to dive into this stuff.

The Indian State is no different, and certain rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Violation of these can be referred directly to the Supreme Court, without going through any lower courts. We also have certain duties, but these are not enforcable and citizens are ‘morally obligated’ to perform them. This is not the case with other countries, with Switzerland having compulsory military service for all male citizens.

In all political activity seen nowadays, the main cry is to demand for certain rights, whereas duties are never mentioned. Bangalore demands a positive right to water, but Bangaloreans have absolutely no interest even in a basic duty such as voting. The reason for this is a conception of humans as ‘possessive individualists‘, which simply says that people have to make money from their (god-given, or acquired?) skills, and owe nothing to society. Whether it be Dalit, Brahmin, tribal or industrialist, the political scene is full with clamor for rights, new rights, and redressal for their violation. Everybody wants good food at the mess, but nobody (including myself!) wants anything to do with how it runs. It should simply run itself, somehow.

Another approach is to say our duty is to pay tax and obey laws, the rest is the duty of the State. This has worked well in the Scandinavian countries, but in a country as vast and heterogenous as India, this amounts almost to escapism – no State of reasonable size can ever perform the duties of a billion people. The gradual withdrawal from society to ‘attain realization’ amounts to saying moksha can be pursued without the fulfillment of dharma. It is in this sense that modern economics and liberalism have been a liberating force: they have given theoretical justification for people to be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of dharma. Religions were the traditional body of authority which dictated the duties of an individual, but no longer wield the same influence as before.

Asceticism or the theory of karma cannot justify the non-performance of dharma. Renunciation, as taught by Buddha, Mahavira or Sankara, which involves a complete removal of oneself from society to attain moksha has found rebuttals by the actions of reformers like Basavanna, Rammohun Roy, Gokhale, Vivekananda and Gandhi. Even Buddhism requires of enlightened individuals to alleviate suffering by removal of ignorance, which is what Buddhism considers the root of suffering. While this purely mental view of human suffering may not be correct, but it is aleast something. The new age philosophers/activists, especially Gandhi, believed that only through active participation in civic duty can one harmonise artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Gandhi himself, though a continuous seeker of moksha (which he called Truth as well), used the instrument of politics to achieve this end. Of course, his idea of politics which was to uplift the underprivileged, unlike present day netas.

And thus from Gandhi comes the most clarifying present day articulation of what one’s dharma should be in this day and age:

I will give you a talisman. ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person whom you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him the control over his life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and starving millions?’ Then you will find your doubts and self melting away.

Bahuguna in Melkote

Was pleasantly surprised by the news that Bahuguna was passing by Mysore and will be in Hosajeevana daari in Melkote (look in the map next to this post). An informal meeting was arranged and a few of us from Mysore were there.

The Bahugunas with Surendra Kaulagi

Bahuguna spoke for sometime and then there was a discussion with  the people, with questions ranging from the serious like his advice for the handling of the people’s movement in Chamalapura (the power plant nearby Mysore that was recently shelved) to the idiotic like ‘have you been threatened’, ‘why do you wear a turban’.

Sunderlal Bahuguna

One thing that immediately strikes you is how peaceful the man seems to be. The intensity and fire of a man who led what is probably the largest peoples movement in the Himalayas are not immediately seen in his calm, composed demeanour. He seems slow to irritation, considering how patiently and properly he handled even the most idiotic of questions. Vimla Ben, though she did not speak (atleast not into the mike) always had something to say to Sunderlal which he relayed to us. This in some ways confirms a long standing hunch, that activism that is grounded in inner strength, non-violence and compassion seems to be the only sustainable way to go about things as opposed to action based on anger, fear or insecurity which is the current, heavily glorified trend.

He understandably has no faith in the Government, which like every institution is primarily concerned with its own survival and hence favors the status quo. Thus, change can only be brought about by a concerted peoples movement along with ‘Eternal vigilance, the price of liberty’ (to paraphrase Bahuguna). He also made an interesting point about ‘replacing high learning with good behavior’, which I think should ring true for anyone who has observed the ‘well educated’ engineers and kind in Bangalore. Education, rather than acting as a liberating force, simply increases divisiveness and parochialism as people get more confident (arrongant?) due to academic and professional success, something that IISc has shown me since I joined.

Vimla Ben

He is never sarcastic during his speaking, something that I admire about most Gandhian leaders. Sarcasm seems to be a very useful device to show your intellect and attract attention and one can see plenty of this in Dawkins’ `The God Delusion’, which irritated me to no end. There seems to be some intrinsic problem with differentiating things as right or wrong with logic and condescension (which to me is what sarcasm is all about), as opposed to a the peaceful alternative of holding something as the Truth, backed by strong personal conviction and action. People like Bahuguna and Vimla Ben seem to be driven by a strong sense of Truth rather than a simplistic true/false logic. Truth, backed with a very strong ethical system derived from Gandhi can be a very strong force indeed as this couple has shown.

Contrary to the angst that postmodern thinkers seem to display when they worry about cultural relativism and ‘many Truths’, Bahuguna is supremely confident in his understanding of the same, of which there is only one to him. The Indian notion ‘One Truth with many faces’ seems to be a far more effective platform on which to build discussion and mutual understanding and action. Activism driven by Satya and Ahimsa seem to me to be the only kind in which there is no ‘collateral damage’.

Overall, it was a great learning experience and an inspirational one too. Below are some photographs taken along the way.

Fields along the way
Tree in Memory
View along the way
Random tree in full bloom
End of an interesting Day!

Political Fasting – Gandhi’s footsteps ?

There seem to be a huge number of politicians going on fasts nowadays, preferably a fast-unto-death (with glucose being fed intravenously, just to be sure). Keeping in with a new trend in trying to split up states with the ostensible aim of improved governance in backward areas, our political babas are nobly taking up this burden using ‘peaceful, non-violent, Gandhian’ methods, to quote one of them.

Whether such actions are aimed at better governance or creating new political posts for those who have been sidelined for decades is probably apparent to everyone but the most partisan of people. Invoking Gandhi to justify this displays not only a lack of understanding of Gandhi’s views on fasting, but also how Gandhi is now a political expedient rather than a political ideal.

Gandhi fasted very regularly as he considered it a form of self purification and penance. If one looks at the many times that he has fasted, most of them were aimed at performing penance for the violence that was happening elsewhere, perpetrated by someone else, particularly communal violence. His aim was to bring about a moral awakening (he believed in the ‘inherent goodness’ of people). The effect of such fasts was nowhere more dramatic than in Bengal during the Partition, where he single-handedly stopped communal violence simply by refusing to eat, whereas the armies of Mountbatten could not control a similar situation in the Punjab. His most famous fast against the Government was  in opposition to the decision to have separate electorates for the Dalits. Ironically, present day politicians invoke Gandhi and fast for the exact opposite purpose, it seems. Aware of the fact that he had a huge following throughout India, he rarely fasted against the British, but mainly against the atrocities his own people committed (as penance).

One of the first political fasts against the Government in Free India resulted in the death of the person fasting (named Potti Sriramulu) and the formation of a Telugu state (Andhra Pradesh) and paved the way for linguistic division of India. Again, the Andhra region seems to have taken the lead in further divisions based on regional identity. Without doubt, in a country as diverse as India the smaller the unit of administration, the better. Greater autonomy at a smaller scale can atleast give people the chance of a more accountable Government.

A more apt question to ask, however, is what effect will division along regional identities engender, de facto : removal of corruption ? speedier justice ? equitable resource distribution ? Political division merely results in replication of the older State machinery at a smaller scale, and will carry all its deficiencies forward. Like they say, it is easier to take a person out of a slum than taking the slum out of a person. As long as the reliance on a corrupt bureaucracy driven by powermongers in Parliament remains, no amount of division will result in any good, but result in deepening the already huge divides within the country.

Present day politics, from tribal agitations to farcical climate change negotiations, seem to be guided by a single principle : dominate or be dominated, leading to a very unfortunate Hobbesian conception of society and polity. There seems to be very little place for mutual respect, understanding and compromise. As long as life is seen as an endless competition, cooperation and trust can never be important. Without trust there is no understanding, without understanding no empathy nor peace.

Review – Rajaji: A life by Rajmohan Gandhi

Go Buy!!
Go Buy!!

There is not much that one can say about a biography, other than that it is written well or not. This one, written by one of Rajaji’s grandsons is quite masterful, intimate yet critical, sweeping yet detailed.

One of the main reasons to read (auto)biographies for me is to understand the freedom movement or contemporary India from various angles and try to stitch together a coherent view of the past, on which today rests.

This biography of a man who can only be described as a present day prophet for his foresight will definitely have enough in it to entertain and inspire anyone who is interested to read. The research is good, prose is excellent, insights are valid and impartial.

One feels about Rajaji the same way as about Gandhi – if only people had listened to him!! Again like Gandhi, Brahmins hated him for being anti Brahmin, Dalits for his being pro Brahmin, North Indians for opposing Hindi, South Indians for espousing Hindi, Muslim League for being opposed to Partition and Rest of India for proposing a formula for Partition. When lesser minds try to understand genius, this seems to be the inevitable consequence – lack of understanding leading to misunderstanding leading to dislike.

One of my all time favorite personalities from now onward.

Review: Debates in Indian Philosophy

yes, yes, I had promised not to do much philosophy in these pages, but this book deserves an exception. With an agenda as good as the exposition itself, it is worth recollecting.

I will not try to explicate  the arguments (which require atleast a couple of readings to understand properly), instead will try and give an overview so that anyone interested can pick it up themselves. The book concerns itself with the question of the lack of debates in contemporary Indian philosophy, which were a regular feature in classical times (Upanishads are a good exmaple), and also of Western philosophy at all times.

The author tries to understand the conflation of philosophers who differed in important aspects like Vivekananda and Gandhi as something that was required in the colonial scenario, since a show of unity was important to the nationalist agenda. He tries to set the record straight by bringing out the differences in their thought which he hopes will provide fresh material for debates to continue.

He also tries to understand the socio-cultural milieu in which they existed, wherein classical Indian philosophy was not the only factor to consider, but Western ideas needed to be imbibed and used to make their voices heard and understood by their colonial masters. He argues that contemporary Indian philosophy does not have a direct continuity with either classical Indian but has lost a major structural feature which is the dialogic tradition.

This being said, he embarks upon a journey to read from these philosophers and show differences which were never expressed directly even though they were from the same time. He chooses three hot spots : Vivekananda and Gandhi, Savarkar and Gandhi, and Sri Aurobindo and Krishnachandra Bhattacharya.

In the first, he shows how Vivekananda supported a ‘barter’ between the East and the West, gaining material progress from the West in exchange for our spiritual knowledge, and how Gandhi rejected Modernity and tried to define progress in a manner different from the Enlightenment’s notion of increasing rationality and material affluence. He argues that Modernity is a completed task in the West, whereas in India the modern and the pre-modern coexist, often on the same street. He argues that Modernity is anthithetical to pluralism due to its focus solely on the individual and not on the community and rejection of differences between people of different communities (This is something I have personally noticed when in conversation with Indian friends in the US). Something like a Brave New World scenario. You can call it the Melting pot scenario as well. The difference in the cosmopolitanism of a New York and a Mumbai or Bangalore make this distinction all the more stark. Communal identities are still strong in Indian megacities unlike in the Western European or US ones. The author tells us that Gandhi’s was a more realistic ideology since it was based in the realities of the Indian social structure.

Addendum: some parts of the argument above was taken from the Savarkar-Gandhi chapter, but can be justified since both deal with the same issue: nation/state building vis-a-vis society building.

I will not go into the other two debates, between Savarkar and Gandhi (one politicizes religion, the other spiritualizes politics) and Aurobindo and KCB (one says science and metaphysics complement each other, the other that science denies metaphysics), but if the one above sounds interesting, then this book is for you.