Category Archives: social justice

2014 elections: the death of decency

The ordeal is finally over. After more than a year of having to endure twitter/facebook posts on economics, history, politics, ethics and conspiracy theories by people whose only information came from a couple of books and random websites, one hopes things might cool down a little (for now at least). We have a new government, and its immediate effect should be the suspension of catfights on social media. The social media websites must have been banging their heads about using precious hardware to store the crap generated by Indians over the past year, all of which pointed to the same thing: the death of decency within Indian society.

It may matter who holds power at the centre, or it may not. But one thing is certain: to call ourselves citizens of one nation, members of one civilisation or simply human beings requires traits that have been completely abandoned over the past year. Mutual respect, restraint in thought and action, tolerance of opposing world-views, attempts to put oneself in the other’s shoes — all these are vitally important as we Indians march towards a future where each and every individual has the capacity to hurt many people, both physically and psychologically. Like someone once said, it is foolish to expect that leaders will be good or even decent; It is upto the people to provide the counterbalance to the inevitable abuse of power by political leaders. This is possible only when we embody the traits mentioned above, among others. Without these, we become susceptible to manipulation and eventual physical or mental slavery.

Before going ahead, one thing must be acknowledged: Politics, however practiced, is a dirty game: one cannot sip tea in elegant settings and talk high-minded philosophy in the process of engaging in politics. Politics is a game to garner as much power to oneself within the framework of certain rules (which are rarely followed, unfortunately). It is unlikely that someone indulging in politics, for however noble a cause, will come out of it more emancipated than before he entered it (There are exceptions to this rule, but that’s what they are: exceptions). The only hope is to emerge out of politicking with at least the same amount of dignity that one went in with. It is by this metric that the ‘politically awakened middle class facebook user’ has miserably failed.

I mention Facebook simply because that is the one medium to which I have been exposed (not fatally, one hopes), dinosaur that I am. But without doubt, this has been the case with every medium out there, web-based or otherwise. Long-term friendships have broken apart. Prejudices in the form of ideals have hardened due to the incessant brainwashing. Respectful dialogue has been replaced by invective. Personal identities have been drowned by the mob identity. Self-criticism and introspection has given way to a smug self assurance typical of morons, even among otherwise discerning people. All this in the name of getting this or that crook into power.

This is one fact that all of us must agree upon: politicians, regardless of their place in the spectrum, are crooks. And all we have achieved is break bonds and burn bridges in the name of one or the other, arguing that this or that crook is less crookish than the other and therefore a great hope for the nation. The politicians, party workers and other assorted hired guns have always been hungry for power, regardless of what they tell themselves or others. It has been justified by various means: For a United and Strong India. For a Corruption-Free India. For a Secular India. For the Dalits. For the Muslims. For the Hindus. No matter what the justification, all one wants is the means to power. I am not being cynical, but merely stating a matter of fact. What one does with power is normally secondary during elections to the actual acquisition of power. In the song-and-dance sequence that is the Indian elections, any and all means to attract attention is used, and most of them have the unfortunate consequence of dividing people. What the British taught us over a hundred years ago, we have learnt well. Probably, too well.

About the elections themselves, one thing was certain: the Congress Party was going to lose, and lose spectacularly. This was obvious for a very long time. Even if there were no scams, the sheer force of anti-incumbency would have removed them from power. The scams and the global recession/volatility (which was not under their control) helped a great deal, no doubt. The same thing happened in Karnataka, when the extremely corrupt BJP government was overthrown and power was handed over in a platter to the only alternative by the people. This would have happened even if the Karnataka Congress Party had sleepwalked through the elections.

The reason I brought this up is to underline the fact that the Indian voter is not stupid, and not insulated from the happenings on the ground (unless he is posting photos of what he ate on Facebook). The spectacular fall of the BJP in Karnataka happened without major drama in the social media and without the spewing of venom at all and sundry. This begs the question why this was the case in the national elections.

Though religious missionaries are always in the news for almost always the wrong reasons, we have seen the emergence of multiple missionary orders during this elections. Facebook Missionaries of BJP, AAP and INC were of course the most vociferous,  but others were present too. Their activity was the source of both amusement and concern. They ensured that our elections became Americanised, with cults of personality taking prominence over ground realities. It was sad and shocking to see one politician’s ‘undeclared’ wife being subjected to a media circus. Another politician being slapped or having a shoe thrown at him was celebrated with glee. ‘Friends’ on Facebook were calling each other Fascists, Naxalites and AAPtards (whatever that means). Caricatures were no longer for irony, but for vicious attack. One conspiracy theory video on Youtube was answered using another video, left-leaning articles being shown as the reply to right-leaning articles. A sad way to expend the enormous energy and creativity India today radiates, to the whole world’s envy. Like all missionaries, the desire to impose one’s world view on others at all costs has disabled the lifeblood of Indian civilisation, that which has kept her alive for thousands of years: the capacity to understand, assimilate and create.

All in all, India now has a poisonous, divisive and menacing air about it. Of course, this is not the product of one elections, but a progressive trend caused by the systematic application of the tactics of the British Raj by all the political parties with the hope of ‘harvesting our souls’, as someone put it. With the polity in tatters and hopelessly divided, no counterbalance exists to keep our leaders in check. That, to me is the greatest contribution of the BJP, INC and AAP in this election. Congrats, and all the best!

The sense of entitlement

The primary focus of economic study is what you are entitled to, given what you have and what you are capable of doing with what you have. In short, economics can be called the study of entitlement, given endowment and capabilities. Of course, many economists will beg to differ, and say study of endowment and capabilities are as important (Amartya Sen and Karl Marx, two examples from different parts of the economics universe.)

The problem economics faces is that entitlement needs to be quantified to make the subject earn a (pseudo)-scientific status. Therefore, what you are entitled to is reduced to numbers or very detailed set of services. This to me pushes a lot of questions and intangibles under the carpet, as will be explicated below.

The best place to start will be the trains in India. When you reserve a ticket, all you are entitled to is your particular seat or berth on it. On a particularly crowded day, like during festivals, it is inevitable that people will crowd into the compartments reserved as well, and request or shove (depending on which part of India you come from) you for some place. Some oblige, some don’t, but always grumbling about how they have reserved this place and they are entitled to ‘better’. It is not uncommon to see people grumbling if people even stand inside a reserved compartment. Their sense of entitlement for a reservation goes beyond an assured seat to a comfortable, non-crowded, no standing people journey.

Most of the politics that happens is due this sense of entitlement that cannot be captured within economic frameworks easily. Reservation is such an issue. Those demanding reservation say they are entitled to justice for historical wrongs, whereas those opposing it speak a very ‘economics’ language of efficiency and meritocracy. It is not surprising that the debate normally goes nowhere. Reservation has economic implications, sure, but it does not stop at that. The same goes with the debate on climate change as well. Though we say big things about economics driving the world, there is little economics at the core of climate change debates, which talks about the entitlement of countries to pollute like the West did historically and continues to do.

This non-tangible part of what you think you are entitled to makes all the difference in your attitude toward other people in general. It is not uncommon to hear idiots trying to gain the upper hand in an argument by invoking their past and family and qualifications. They somehow feel that getting a Master’s or being a Manager in a company entitles them not to deal with ‘incompetents’, as they would put it. Similarly, someone dining in an expensive restaurant would be mortified if the waiter was not ultra-polite, unfolding napkins and capable of an intelligent conversation about their food and liquor range. They believe that their paying that ‘extra’ justifies having an attendant who just stops short of kissing their feet. You would give ugly stares at that neighboring table who just can’t keep their voices down, since of course you are also entitled to a certain etiquette from all the other customers in the restaurant. However, since none of this is printed on your bill, economics cannot really play any role in determining it.

The other extreme would be people who think they are entitled to very little, and take away from an economic transaction even lesser than what a traditional economic analysis or policy would put in your pocket. This is typical of how the poor are treated, which is well documented is the case of the MNREGA programme. Whatever they get is a blessing and nowhere is this better observed than in the general compartment of a train. 6 people on each seat, 6 on the luggage rack, 5 on the floor between the seats and a very large number on the aisle, it sometimes seems that the ticket they buy has no value at all. They seem to be entitled to only going from place A to B, without any consideration as to how. In fact, the more spectacular acts of kindness and generosity comes from the people in the general compartment, not those in the 2AC, which is strange since economics would say that only the rich can ‘afford’ to be generous and kind. This is simply due to the fact that each views what they are entitled to in a very different manner.

The rich get richer and poor, poorer. This is because those who have tend to overestimate what they are worth and those who don’t consistently underestimate the same. More than economics, culture and social norms play an important role in determining one’s sense of entitlement. However, one should not forget that this has important economic implications. An artist feels he is entitled to earn lakhs for a painting is indulging in the inexact science of translating those intangibles into a price, which is why there are so many poor artists for every one that makes it big. This inexact science depends on luck, where you live and who you know, none of which are economic variables.

In the long run, we are all dead. Can’t we take the opportunity to be kind and thoughtful without trying a rational analysis of our entitlements? Apparently not.

View from the outside – reality or caricature?

Social situations suffer from problems of interpretation, as much as any literary work or puzzling movie. The dynamics which make a situation what it is are very widely spread, both in time and space. From the immediate spark to historical wounds, from neighborhood feuds to global markets, all play their part in shaping interesting situations.

For this reason, much like in the natural sciences, social thinkers have tried to find the ‘essence’ of the situation — Marx saw class war as the dominant dynamic, others see markets as playing this role, Nationalists see it as an ‘us vs. them’ logic, and so on. The problem does not lie in an analysis for personal clarity, but in drumming it around as the way to look at things. Since forceful views feed back into popular perception, the analysis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, tribal communities have always been handed the short end of the bargain for a long time. So also the Dalit community all over India. However, there are many facets of tribal or dalit life that is simply inaccessible to the external analyst (who is normally urban and middle class), their daily lives, routines, modes of resistance, their culture, songs, Gods and loves. If an external analyst tries to learn about everything he/she can no longer be ‘external’. However, given the respect such a person normally accords, normally due to eloquence of speech and unsubstantiated self-assurance, the way these people view the world and themselves changes. Dalit writers themselves have documented this change, with Dalit leaders despising their own roots in the villages, consistent with Ambedkar’s analysis. The loss of a world view has to be replaced, and modern, Western thinking and contempt for non-European thinking set in, with an intensity that only occurs in new converts to a way of thinking or a religion.

Another example is that of the current trend of acquisition of rural land for personal gain by the BJP government. It is being seen as a farmer vs. corporate/politician nexus. This, however, does not explain why quite a few farmers (always with large amounts of land) seem to be willing to sell. Rural Karnataka has had to my mind three major changes over the past few decades.

One, with laying of roads everywhere due to the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana (started by Vajpayee), transport to the nearest city/town centre has become very easy. With urban wages and a rural lifestyle both being within reach, most of the labor force prefers to work on construction sites. Farmers with lands larger than they can till (not just absentee landlords) are consequently finding it impossible to find farm hands. This was something I noticed in Bihar as well on a recent trip. The advent of television and the boom in rural telephony due to cellphones is also facilitating wider awareness of options beyond the rural economy, driving people out.

Two, the trend of waiving away farm loans was started in Karnataka and is now there everywhere in India. This is not a very new idea, with landlords historically having done this during bad years. However, now neither the fine grained differentiation between deserving and otherwise is no longer possible, with the latter gaining more, nor is there accountability, with farmers taking loans from the local bank and waiting for the Government to waive it off. Access to credit at low interest rates has also enabled over borrowing, say borrowing 3 lakh when all you need is 1 lakh. An interesting case was of a woman setting up a shop using microcredit and using it to buy a TV and refrigerator (even though her roof still remained a thatched one) in an urban slum which was documented by one of my classmates. Oh, and she defaulted on the loan as well.

Third, NREGS work is highly attractive wherever it is working even half well, and there have been cases of laborers not working and simply paying off the contractor to get wages, which in the case of men inevitably goes to the nearest toddy shop-owner. Farmers growing time sensitive crops like rice, which simply have to have certain things done at certain times, are unable to find workers and this forces them to shift to horticulture or other alternatives. Ironically, the proper working of NREGS seems to be putting people out of work in such cases — there are many farmers who are simply giving up cultivating more than what is necessary for personal consumption.

Thus, it is not as if the rural population is a passive, mute spectator to emerging trends, but very aware, discerning and looking at how to profit from change. The only difference is that they don’t use excel sheets.

When a community listens to an outsider describing it, there can be two reactions, both flowing from an awareness of what is important and what is convenient. Most would go with a path that makes things more convenient, like developing a victim complex, which is present in Muslims, Brahmins, Dalits, Christians, rural and urban communities if one cares to look closely. Any ideological stand that facilitates a way to not do inconvenient things and gain political power is preferred, even though it may have no internal coherency. The second, harder way of actually learning what is relevant from an external analysis without losing self identity is rarely taken, and such attempts are celebrated for very good reasons. From being a real, living community that had its own way of looking at the world, we get a community that sees a caricature of itself, which focuses only on some aspect of their life, as reality.

Politics from above and below

A bus journey from Bangalore to Mysore shows interesting patterns – until the periphery of the urban sprawl, which extends nearly to Ramangara, you will see walls painted advertising the protectors of Kannada, of which there are more than desirable – Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, Jaya Karnataka, Pratidhvani Vedike, Kasturi Janapara Vedike and so on. They mysteriously disappear near the villages, where the walls are painted with advertisements for consumer goods and appear regularly at all the major towns in between. Maybe since their fight is against the English and Hindi speakers, they stay where such riff-raff tend to gather. Or maybe there is simply no interest for their cause among the `simple-minded, ignorant’ villagers. who knows.

These organisations, along with the collection of miscellaneous Senes, and the more established Congresses and BJPs, represent the `sexy’, visible side of politics in India. Whatever the theoretical aims of such people, all they do nowadays is power brokering without any particular ideology guiding them. Power is required to acquire money and more power, nothing else seems to matter. Not surprisingly, the common person is both attracted and cynical toward them. Attracted, since they seem to matter the most, and hence can be a source of leverage when need arises, and disappointed since in most likelihood, they are not responsive to his needs.

If politics is a process of rearrangement of power, then these organisations simply have no proper method by which to devolve power to those they claim to serve. They would claim that power in a few hands will be more effective for the battles of today. Unfortunately, not so in the ultimate war against prejudice, hatred and misunderstanding.

Is it really that hard to empower individuals? Take the example of computers for Kannada speaking people. There isn’t a single Kannada font out there worth its name. The best one is from, god forbid, Microsoft. Can’t any one of these outfits with their enormous reach pressurise the government or themselves undertake the task to make one? A computer completely usable by someone who does not know English is still a dream.

Similarly, those who go on protests to protect Kannada culture, however one may define it, don’t seem to want to take it forward by putting in the hard work to become established poets or authors or even decent journalists or expositors of famous works. Wonder where Carnatic music would have gone if Tyagaraja had started going on dharnas to save traditional music.

Similarly, taking out processions and discussion meetings about slum dwellers or farmers or tribals or whoever is going to create a very aware, sympathetic, but ultimately useless set of armchair philosophers. Unless one has the commitment to stay in a place for years on end and bring about the change within themselves and the world around them, there is no hope that anything constructive will ever happen. In a place of contrasts like India, the challenge not only lies in outreach to the less priviledged, but also in forgetting whatever one knows about ideas of desirable and otherwise, and try and see the world from a point of view as alien to you as a person from the Amazon.

This is a more subtle, constructive politics that allows a person to assume charge of her life and gain the confidence that her destiny can be written by herself, and that too by modes of living which are not derived from a middle class model. It is slow, painful (like all interpersonal interactions are!) but ultimately the only way forward.

Expression of love or rat race?

If you have been following the media with regards to Valentine’s day, this is the first thought that comes to mind. It is quite amazing how the mass media combined with those awful geniuses at ad agencies can combine to convert pretty much anything into a race.

We are a rat-race culture: no denying that. Starting from schools, onto entrance exams, then workplaces – even PhDs are reduced to a race for ‘papers’. One would hope that at least when you are with the ones you love this is not the case. Not anymore.

You are now expected to find ways to ‘make her feel special, even if there is no occasion’, or to ‘make him his favorite meal’ after you return dead tired from work, ‘find an innovative way to express your love this Valentine’s’, so on and so forth. Google for Valentine’s day, and all you will find are ‘valentine day ideas’, ‘love sayings for your valentine’ and things in a similar vein. From a day of expression of love, it becomes a high pressure situation where you are expected to deliver the goods. Don’t we have enough of this already at schools, colleges, workplaces and other such hindrances to a good life?

Of course, in India things get spiced up a little more than the rest of the world. So, we encounter random saviours of Indian culture (however one may define it) threatening to beat up couples seen on Valentine’s day. They seem to be missing the point that the more ‘interesting’ couples won’t be seen outside private places where one can be more intimate than the poor couples who can only hang out at parks or ice-cream parlours. Like all else in India, symbols matter more than substance. And then you have the liberal intellectual kind who defend the right of couples to express their love in whatever way they wish. Thus starts another rat race, one of people trying to push their own ideology as hard as possible, to the largest number of people as possible, so that ‘the world can retain a modicum of sanity’. One wonders how these obsessive-compulsive kinds can bring about anything resembling sanity anywhere.

Of course, the big picture is always lost in the colours and sounds of everyday India. Whether people buy Valentine’s Day gifts bowing to media pressure or to burn it on live television, it does not matter to the Hallmarks and Archie’s of the world. In pushing this point of view or that, one might lose track of the fact that there is something to be learnt from someone who disagrees with you. In the guise of administering sanity, all one may accomplish is to impose uniformity, one way or the other. Unity based on political ideologies, whether right, left or centre is a hopeless cause in India, and people like Tagore recognised this very early on. But with centuries of brainwashing that the nation-state and Nationalism are the only effective factors to bring a people together, we may be losing sight of more interesting, less violent, and therefore harder to implement ideas.

This Fissured Land – Review

My second book by these two authors – Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, ‘This Fissured Land’ is as much an exercise in understanding systemic biases against those who rely on their local ecology for sustenance as it is a history of India from an ecological point of view. It also makes clear the ecological roots of the various tribal/peasant vs. forest department conflicts that continue to plague India to this day, nowadays very much in the news due to the Naxalite problem.

The agenda of the book is to understand usage of resources by various types of communities, which are classified from lowest impact (hunter/gatherer, pastoralist) to the highest (Industrial/urban dweller), and the conflict that these usage patterns have caused and who eventually won. It also examines the belief systems, technological capabilities that made each type of community what it is. In short, the hardware and software of coexistence and conflict of very different human communities are examined here.

Books such as these are as important now as when they were written, just to give some historical perspective on what seems extremely ‘odd’ or ‘natural’ in our society today. For example, shifting cultivation terrifies ecologists as much as wildlife sanctuaries reassures them. While shifting cultivation may no longer be a sustainable practice nowadays and wildflife sanctuaries may have no alternate, it is instructive to understand under what circumstances this has come to be the case. Most opinions about tribal poaching and Naxalism are held without any historical context, and thus the actual problem is never identified. This leads to strange prescriptions like ‘kick the tribals out of the sanctuaries’ and ‘send in the army to wipe out Naxalism’, which are not assured of positive results but will definitely increase the suffering of those who are already at the brink.

The book  starts off interpreting prehistorical societies in India as being shaped by their environment and technologies, and given ecological explanations for the rise of the heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism, and finally an interesting explanation of caste as a system to prevent resource conflicts. It then comes to the Colonial Era and outlines the major changes in the belief systems especially with respect to the utility of forests, whom they belong to, and the inevitable clashes when traditional users of the forests were excluded from them in the name of British interests.

It then outlines how a change in administration did nothing to change the forest policy of the State, with British interests being replaced by State and industrial ones. The subversive acts of those who were denied what their ancestors assumed to belong to them are then highlighted and this seems to be the only thing that people outside seem to care about.

Reading this should ensure no one ever blames tribals for the present state of the environment in India. Its strong focus on equity and its insights into understanding how conservation is not a value-independent notion, but stems from a certain world-view are useful take aways from the book.

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.