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Newsroom diaries 2016: Marathwada, elections, Olympics, demonetisation and how we covered them

This past week Facebook has resounded with plangent laments about the year that will not end.

Most timelines are lengthy dirges punctuated with cries of cashlessness, Aleppolessness, musiclessness and Baracklessness. Annus horribilis is the Latinate of choice.

There hasn’t been a better year for journalism in recent history. The sordidness of 2016 has presented our estate with sufficient opportunities to peel open and consider the human condition. It has allowed us to recount such stories that newsmen and women don’t often get to tell. This is especially true for a band of journalists relaying reports, opinion and analysis from a newsroom freed of the constraints that tie down a print publication — no curbs on article length, supporting media, revisions and improvements, narrative possibilities, and so on.

Firstpost is one such outfit.

The Firstpost newsroomThe Firstpost newsroom

The Firstpost newsroom

Four stories we’ve reported in the past year should serve to showcase the breadth of material (and digital reporting opportunities) 2016 has provided the Firstpost newsroom.

The first came early when a visiting former chief minister of Maharashtra told us of the seriousness of drought conditions in Marathwada. We dispatched three writers to the region, each equipped with a small camera — none had used one in the course of reporting — to record the extent of damage. The series that resulted from their month-long journey, encrusted as it was with rich media, helped set the general course of debate on state intervention and the failure of successive governments in instituting any lasting solutions to address water scarcity in Marathwada.

In preparing for elections held to elect members to five state Assemblies, in May, we resolved to replicate a television newsroom online; in-studio political analysts, an anchor, multiple video and audio feeds from the five states, data visualisation, combined with on-ground reportage, gathered by writers applying — many of them for the first time — the fundamental tenets of print journalism to digital storytelling methods.

Soon after, the sports desk — frugally peopled — came up against the Rio Olympics, which afforded them the chance to run one of the lengthiest live blogs Firstpost has operated thus far, spanning 16 days, book-ended by the two ceremonies at the Maracana Stadium.

The fourth story is a biphonic texture of two stories that occurred almost simultaneously, over the course of 24 hours, beginning 8 November: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise announcement that 86 percent of currency in circulation would be rendered invalid in 50 days‘ time, and an election in the US that advanced the likelihood of an orange-haired real estate huckster with tenuous grasp of policy occupying the Oval Room.

Both offered Firstpost the occasion to set off a lengthy, live, accretive discourse drawn from analysis that combined text, video and audio; we hadn’t embedded such a large volume of fragmentary opinion pieces in live blogs until then. The election allowed us to build on what we’d learnt in May — we ran an eight-hour broadcast on the website, with commentators weighing in live from Toronto, New Orleans, New York, Delhi, Dubai and Mumbai.

And from all accounts, those last two stories have yet to coil themselves to a close.

The fading days of 2016 could well serve as prologue for the year before us.

A newsroom is made not by the technology or resources at its disposal, but by those who inhabit it. For a more personalised view on the experiences of various members of the Firstpost newsroom while covering specific stories, check out the following accounts:

First Published On : Dec 31, 2016 08:51 IST

Jawaharlal Nehru, as an individual, was a genuine secularist: Nalini Rajan

Nalini Rajan has written about and taught democracy, secularism and identity issues. She is the dean of studies at the Asian College Of Journalism. Here she talks about secularism, Nehru and the complexities that have in the past proven that it is not as easily implementable as it may be definable. Her book, The Story of Secularism: 15th-21st Century, has recently been published.

Nalini RajanNalini Rajan

Nalini Rajan

Has the idea of ‘Indian secularism’ succumbed to the very characteristics it has boasted of keeping together – pluralism? Is that one of the biggest challenges facing the idea, one that struggles between a proportional approach (Hindu dominated population) or a flat-denomination approach (where even a one-man religion may sustain)?

Has secularism succumbed to pluralism?  I wouldn’t put it that way, because I believe that almost all states and societies are pluralistic today, in one way or the other — and that’s a positive thing.  Pluralism [though], then, poses challenges to secularism. But as I have shown in my book, it does so almost everywhere — in the USA, in France, and in India.

France’s struggle and near capitulation over the past few centuries is indicative of something. But is a ‘Laïcité-like’ secularism not possible in India?  When there are entirely too many elements to consider, wouldn’t an evasive politics work or can at least be tried? What do you think?

France faces challenges to secularism or ‘Laïcité’ because of its inability to deal with its Maghrebian population, the majority of whom belong to the Islamic faith. Laïcité worked in France till the 1950s, as long as it had a largely Judaeo-Christian population.  The problem with Laïcité is that it does not easily lend itself to adaptability over time. As far as India is concerned, I would call for a principled, contextual, negotiated position of secularism, rather than for ‘evasive politics’ as you call it. In fact, evasive politics is what has been followed in India since the Nehruvian epoch.

Nehru is remembered, and now re-eulogised for his secular ideas. What were his successes and failures according to you?

I believe that as an individual, Jawaharlal Nehru was a genuine secularist. As a Prime Minister, however, he did little beyond calling for ‘a scientific temper’ among the citizenry, or promoting films that criticised religious superstition like Satyajit Ray’s Devi. By adopting a policy of benign neglect, a government can hardly expect people to miraculously become secular on their own!  But even so, Nehru had far more integrity as a secularist as compared to his daughter or his grandson, or indeed any other Indian Prime Minister.

One of the more elaborate ideas put forth in the book is that of the secular triangle with the State, Religion and the Individual as its vertices. You say that it is important to keep the triangle in whatever shape or form. While the French have tried to distance religion from the state, over the years in India, the two have come closer. Is that why we exist in a religion-as-ideology, or the nation-state era? Are those two vertices now too close for comfort, perhaps even inseparable? What are the risks then?


In the book, I talk about the ‘secular triangle’, with its three axes of state neutrality, freedom of religion, and equal citizenship. The problem today is that all three axes are in jeopardy.  Democracy itself is in danger, when we do not treat all our citizens equally.  If people cannot eat what they want, or dress the way they want, or pray the way they want, or even love whom they want, we cannot exist as a modern secular democracy. We are at risk of becoming a communally violent state and society.

If secularism treats all religions as equal, how does it address the issue of practice (some are different than the other)? Most religions, as you mention are patriarchal in nature, and therefore is a uniform civil code more of a necessity (to flatten the landscape) to establish humanism before it establishes a person’s religion?

Yes, I do believe that practice can be different.  At the same time, I believe that — even within one religion — there can be a huge variation in terms of practices.  For the sake of expediency, we say ‘Hinduism’, ‘Islam’, or ‘Christianity’, as if all these labels are mutually exclusive.  Yet a lot of people have seen themselves (and some continue to do so) as ‘Hindu-Muslims’ or ‘Hindu-Christians’.  I will concede, however, that almost all religious practice is patriarchal, and bringing in gender justice (perhaps in the form of a uniform civil code that would be acceptable to women) would be a way of re-appropriating our humanity.

A question that most people with secular ideas or theories fail to answer is that of atheism. How do you fit atheists in any of the secular triangles which no longer even look like a triangle? Is that also indicative of how religion grants privilege (by way of having the extra vertex and thereby a way to engage the state)?

If you look closely at the images of the secular triangle in the book, you will notice that the axis, ‘Freedom of Religion’, has ‘Religion’ at one end, and ‘Individual/Group’ at the other.  What this demonstrates is the following:  Freedom of Religion implies the group’s freedom to believe in any religion or cult and the individual’s freedom not to believe in any religion or cult.  That is how the atheist or agnostic is included in the secular triangle.  Of course the other part of the triangle is about the relationship between Religion and the State.  State Neutrality is admittedly a tricky question in India, because of Constitutional provisions like Articles 17, 25(2), and 30(2) that call for active state intervention in religious affairs. Here is where the state should take a contextual and principled stance (to which I refer in one of your earlier questions, with respect to judicial cases concerning state neutrality.

8th February 1947: Indian statesman Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964, facing camera) attends a meeting of the Constituent Assembly in the Council House Library, New Delhi, to decide on the constitution of the newly independent India. Nehru was to serve as prime minister of India from this time until his death in 1964. Original Publication: Picture Post - 4325 - India: The Last Chance - pub. 1947 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)8th February 1947: Indian statesman Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964, facing camera) attends a meeting of the Constituent Assembly in the Council House Library, New Delhi, to decide on the constitution of the newly independent India. Nehru was to serve as prime minister of India from this time until his death in 1964. Original Publication: Picture Post - 4325 - India: The Last Chance - pub. 1947 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Says Nalini Rajan, “I believe that as an individual, Jawaharlal Nehru was a genuine secularist. As a Prime Minister, however, he did little beyond calling for ‘a scientific temper’ among the citizenry.” Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images

The school years and childhood are when most people get inducted into religion by instruction and do not necessarily arrive by choice. Can we perhaps address that in some way? Does our discourse even allow that? What has your experience been as a teacher?

This is a tricky question, because it refers to the differentiation between ‘freedom of conscience’ and ‘freedom of choice’ as delineated by the American philosopher, Michael Sandel.  As far as most people are concerned, religious faith is not a matter of choice.  They are born into one or other faith, and they conduct their worship and other rites, accordingly. These people demand that the state give them the freedom to follow the religious dictates of their conscience. But there are others who want the freedom to change their faith or religion, and therefore want the state to allow them the freedom of choice for religious conversion. As a teacher, I can only say that both these freedoms are important and the state should honour them.

Finally, you say in the book that Dalits and people belonging to lower castes will carry the baton of secularism, and stand to gain from modern secularism in India. Could we then say that instances like Una, now Maharashtra etc are the face of modern secularism in India? Are we inching closer to whatever the idea of ‘Indian secularism’ is?

In a hierarchical society guided by the dogmas of caste, it is very hard to achieve the ideal of equal citizenship.  As long as the upper castes practise endogamous marriages, and believe in their own superiority, and refuse to acknowledge the fact that their privileges have a long lineage, it would be difficult to see them as the guardians of a secular democracy.  Dalits and other lower castes and tribes have a far greater stake in equality and in secular modernity.  After all, these are the values they are fighting for in Una and elsewhere.  Thanks to their struggles, are we inching closer to the idea of secularism?  I very much hope so!

I think Narendra Modi may give Bharat Ratna to PV Narasimha Rao: Sanjaya Baru

Sanjaya Baru was media adviser to Manmohan Singh during his tenure as Prime Minister. His experiences in the PMO became the subject of Baru’s 2014 book on Singh, The Accidental prime Minister. Now, Baru has turned his gaze to another Indian PM, Narasimha Rao. In 1991: How PV Narasimha Rao Made History, Baru examines how Rao steered the country towards economic reform.

Excerpts from an interview with Firstpost:

Manmohan Singh and P V Narasimha Rao are the subjects of your previous and current books, respectively. You were well acquainted with both of them and knew them personally. Was there is a specific reason for choosing them as subjects?

Sanjaya Baru: Frankly, that was not part of any plan. I wrote my earlier book because I felt that there was a story to tell and I wrote this one as (I have mentioned in the book itself) we are now in silver jubilee year of ‘1991’. In the last several months, there were many articles  that appeared in various publications about 1991. But I found that most of the writings were about what the economist did, whether it was Dr Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Rakesh Mohan or Rangarajan . Many in the media also gave out awards like Economic Times did, for Reformer of the Year.

However, many of them forgot that the political leadership at that time was provided by PV Narasimha Rao. When I started reading about it, I realised that even Chandra Shekhar  had played an important role, as he was the Prime Minister for the first six months (from November 1990) and the crisis actually started developing from October 1990.

I started reading about his role and what happened during his tenure and I realised that both Rao and Chandra Shekhar played important roles. The book, in a sense, is not just about Rao. It is also about Chandra Shekhar. At the end of the day, the fact is that Rao became Prime Minister and succeeded, while Chandra Shekhar lost his job.

Sanjaya Baru. Photo by Naresh Sharma/FirstpostSanjaya Baru. Photo by Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

Sanjaya Baru. Photo by Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

But at the book launch, most of the speakers devoted more time to Chandra Shekhar. Did you find that jarring?

Naturally Yashwant Sinha spoke about Chandra Shekhar, because he was in his government and I was expecting him to do that. I expected Chidambaram to be critical of Narasimha Rao. I wanted someone there to disagree with me. Normally, at book launches, there are speakers who just praise the author. That becomes boring. So I decided that there should be some controversy. After reading my book, he (Chidambaram) called me and told me that he was going to disagree with me and that he would point out some mistakes. I was worried — what mistakes had I made in the book? — so I read it again. I found that whatever I had written is authentic reality, as far as I am concerned.

For example, at the book launch we discussed his resignation and he questioned the way I have written it. And he gives a different version. But let me tell you, I have not written all the details as it would have been more damaging. The reason why I mentioned the resignation episode was to use it as an example of how Narasimha Rao chose to punish people who were close to Rajiv Gandhi.

The only two resignations he accepted were of Chidambaram and MR Scindia. Both of them thought that they were close to the Gandhi family, hence safe. By accepting their resignations, Rao was sending a bigger political message.  So I mentioned the resignation episode as part of the larger politics that was being played out at that time and not to get in details. If you get in the details, what Chidambaram said at the book launch was not correct. The fact is that Chidambaram met Narasimha Rao along with his wife and explained what had happened. And Narasimha Rao did not say anything. Chidambaram thought that the issue has been resolved. When he reached home, he was told that his resignation had been accepted. You see, Rao used to play such games.

It was partly to send a message that no one should take him lightly. Anyway, I expected Chidambaram to be negative about Rao. And I was not surprised. Naresh Chandra was there and he did speak about his interaction with Rao and made an interesting point which many in the audience did not register (which I have also mentioned in the book): Rao’s address to the nation immediately after he became the PM. He became PM on 21 June, and on 22 June he addressed the nation.

I have quoted from the address. His speech was written by Naresh Chandra. In the speech, Rao talked about economic reforms, the need to tighten our belt. He talked about opening up the economy. The fact that this speech was not written by an economist like Manmohan Singh or Montek Singh Alhuwalia is important. That speech was written by Naresh Chandra and some joint secretaries. What Naresh Chandra wanted to say was that Rao knew what he wanted. [We] knew what should be done. As a cabinet secretary, Chandra was briefing the press regularly and everyone was fully prepared for the change. So he was saying, give us some credit. I do that in my book. I give credit to IAS officers like Naresh Chandra, AN Verma, Suresh Mathur.

So you are saying that the script for economic reform was written by bureaucrats and politicians?

No, I’m saying that a lot of people played important roles. I don’t want to underplay the role played by the economists. The fact remains that Rakesh Mohan wrote that note on industrial policy. Similarly, Montek Singh Ahluwalia wrote that paper on reforms when VP Singh was PM. Manmohan Singh provided leadership as finance minister. Dr Rangarajan was deputy governor; he played an important role. So all of them played important roles, I’m not denying that. I’m just saying the popular thinking, the press in particular, seems to project only economists as heroes. I’m saying that this was not right. Let us recognise the role of political leadership. I’m just trying to be balanced.

Is that true then that the foundation of the reforms was laid down by the Chandra Shekhar government and Narasimha Rao walked in on it?

It is true. If Chandra Shekhar had the majority, he would have done the same thing as Rao. However, two important things that Rao did were not on Chandra Shekhar’s agenda: one, devaluation of the rupee. Chidambaram told me that then in fact, Chandra Shekhar was very critical in Parliament when the rupee was devalued. Devaluation of the rupee was very important for trade policy reform but Chidambaram had argued that Chandra Shekhar would not have done it. Two, Chandra Shekhar would not have gone in for de-licensing. But the fact is that there was a programme with the International Monetary Fund which was being negotiated in December 1990 by Yashwant Sinha. That programme required certain changes in policy which Chandra Shekhar would have had to do.

1991 was the same period when VHP launched its movement of building the Ram Mandir. In your book you have ignored that completely. Was that deliberate?

Firstly, my book is titled 1991 and all of this happened in 1992. So there was no question of my discussing these events. I end with the first two months of 1992 because I had to mention the AICC election which happened in 1992. But in my book, in the last chapter, I have stated that Narasimha Rao had written a book on the way he saw the whole issue of Ayodhya and Babri Masjid. He is the only Prime Minister who has written a book on a policy matter which he had dealt with.

PV Narasimha Rao. PTI photoPV Narasimha Rao. PTI photo

PV Narasimha Rao. PTI photo

At the book launch everyone, including you, spoke of the Machiavellian streak in Rao. But of late, there have been attempts to praise him. In 1996 he emerged as a villain of peace. Why the recent attempts to praise him then?

Firstly, when you say that he was seen as a Machiavellian figure, I don’t see it as a criticism. That is praise. Politicians are supposed to Machiavellian. You don’t succeed in politics unless you have that streak. In fact, I used to say that Manmohan Singh was Machiavellian. For Manmohan Singh’s birthday, I gifted him a copy of The Prince. In one of his parliamentary speeches, he even quoted from the book to defend one of its policies. So when you say a PM is Machiavellian, that is praise.

Second the way we saw him in 1996 was because the Congress party chose to put the entire blame of the Babri Masjid demolition and defeat on Rao. This is what Rao had written in his book as well: that if things go wrong, he would be blamed, but if they go right, the party would take credit.  In fact, I have written in Accidental Prime Minister that even with Manmohan Singh, the arrangement was the same. So I’m not surprised that he was criticised so much. As the Congress needed someone to hang, they hanged Rao.

But I think the re-assessment that is happening today is happening for a different reason. That is because Narendra Modi has shocked the Congress Party by adopting one-by-one, various Congress leaders. He adopted Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Lal Bahadur Shastri. He has not given the Bharat Ratna to Rao. I think he may do so.

How much of subjectivity has influenced your book? As in one case you were associated closely with the subject and in the second, you had some kind of rapport with the subject.

Look, all books are subjective. Let us not fool ourselves by saying that something is objective and something isn’t. It depends upon how the author looks at it. It is the way I look at it. It is my subjective view. All you can do is to draw on the existing information to support that view. I’ve quoted from various people and various biographies, interviews and various reports. But at the end of the day, this is the view of the author. Now you can disagree with it. And my view is that in a democracy, everyone has the right to write a book. Every book is subjective as it is based on one’s own understanding. Even in disciplines like economics you can easily manipulate numbers to get your desired results and conclusions. So it is a theoretical framework and preconceptions that influence your work.

Being closely associated with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh you must have seen the manner in which the ‘first family’ influenced the decision. Is this the reason why the demand to divorce the Congress from the family is made?

I make a large point, which for me is very very important: The Indian National Congress was the party of the national movement. A large number of political leaders from across the country joined the national movement and INC. There were many in the INC before Independence who left the party after (we gained freedom) and formed other parties. They went into communist and socialist movements. But at the end of the day, the Congress was a national party until 1980. Even in Indira’s time, it was a national party.

In 1980, when Indira Gandhi returned to power, she started the whole dynasty business; [Sanjay] first, and then Rajiv. After that, we have this interlude when Rao became PM. Many of us thought that the Congress had gone back to being a normal political party and will not be ruled by one family. BJP is a regular political party where you become a member; you go up the ladder and become a leader. You have the communist parties which have the same process. The Congress was like this. Rao also became PM following this process. You see, all the regional parties have become dynastic. For the Congress to become a family party is shocking.

I come from a Congress family, but today, I cannot say that I am a Congress supporter. Rao’s tenure gave us the hope that Congress would become a national party. During Rao’s time, a lot of regional leaders did come out: Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh and SM Krishna in Karnataka are few examples. There were many regional leaders who went on to become chief ministers not because someone in Delhi wanted them to but because of the political support they had.

Don’t you think that cases like that of Lakhubhai Pathak and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha will always be among the reference points in any analysis of the political life of Narasimha Rao?

First of all, in none of the cases was he implicated. He and many of his supporters see it as an attempt to discredit him. It was a systematic attempt from 1996 onwards to distance Rao. You have to seriously look at how many of these cases were genuine. I give a simple answer to this: you look at the wealth of his children and grandchildren and compare it with any politician of that time or today. Things become clear.

How the socio-political, cultural narrative about India set in motion in the Colonial era, persists

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a paper presented at the National Seminar held in Bengaluru by the Indian Council for Philosophical Research in September 2016.

Two features become immediately evident in any study about India: One, it is the only surviving non-Abrahamic ancient culture and civilisation, and two, its cultural and civilisational continuity dating back to such antiquity.

And this continuity has been more or less maintained intact in almost all realms of human activity in India: in dress, family life, social interactions, basic ethical conceptions like dharma, religious rituals, institutions, places of worship, traditions, art, music and so on. The reason why this continuity has been preserved owes to India’s fundamental philosophical conceptions rooted in the Vedas and the numerous Dharmashastras. The aforementioned realms are, in a way, the practical or outward manifestations of these fundamental conceptions.

Robert Clive (1725 - 1774), British governor of India receives from Shah Alam, the Mughal Emperor of India, a decree conferring upon the East India Company the administration of the revenues of Bengal, Behar and Orissa. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Robert Clive (1725 - 1774), British governor of India receives from Shah Alam, the Mughal Emperor of India, a decree conferring upon the East India Company the administration of the revenues of Bengal, Behar and Orissa. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Robert Clive (1725 – 1774), British governor of India receives from Shah Alam, the Mughal Emperor of India, a decree conferring upon the East India Company the administration of the revenues of Bengal, Behar and Orissa. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In brief, stress must be laid on the phrase that India is the “only surviving non-Abrahamic ancient culture and civilisation” for the purpose of contextualisation and clarity of discourse, terminology etc.

Dr S Radhakrishnan in his preface[i] to the fifth volume of P V Kane’s History of the Dharmashastras holds that

True religion should have three sides to it:

  1. State of Mind
  2. Relationship to reality and
  3. A way of life

And PV Kane himself, in the same volume notes[ii] that our “ancient sages laid the foundation [for philosophical and social harmony] by insisting upon this that there is and must be harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world and man’s endeavor should be to realize in his actions and his life this harmony and unity…social reforms and politics have to be preached through our age old…philosophy. If our leaders and people throw away or neglect religion and spirituality altogether, the probability is that we shall lose both spiritual life and social betterment.”

And to realise this harmony of spirit and the world, ancient India realised that a fundamental attitude — or state of mind — was required. This attitude, to put it in simple terms, is how one regards life itself. Our ancients regarded life as one of celebration in all its variegated aspects; life was worth living to the fullest with all enjoyments — for example, as the celebrated Chamaka Prashna shows us — as long as our enjoyment didn’t violate Dharma. Or as Kane himself quotes Sita’s address to Hanuman holding that “Joy rushes to surviving men even though he has lived for over 100 years. This adage appears to me to be true and auspicious.”[iii] The key here is the note on “over 100 years” as opposed to the widespread notion of “waiting for death in the sunset of our years” and so on.

In a line, what this shows is that one of the central features of India’s philosophical underpinnings is the near-total absence of pessimism. Both happiness and sadness are but mere phases, which attitude in turn is rooted in our conception of time as cyclic.

However, both the major Abrahamic religions stand out in sharp contrast in this fundamental conception of life, and in the sense of Dr Radhakrishan’s “relationship to reality”. While Christianity conceives birth and life itself as sinful, the core doctrines of Islam take this to violent and extreme ends. And from this conception arises the need to convert — violently if necessary — the entire world to their respective religions.

Which then brings us to an even more fundamental point: the definition of the term “religion” itself. From what we have seen so far, there can be no fundamental congruence if we include the Vaidika or Dharmic system of ancient India (henceforth referred to as Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma) in the same definitional bracket as that of the Abrahamic religions. And yet, in almost all of contemporary discourse on comparative religions etc, Sanatana Dharma is given the label of “religion” in the sense of Abrahamic religions. And this incongruent discourse become mainstream — in the media, TV, talk shows, and so on — and has almost become received truth so to say.

Needless, this state of affairs has a long history and in the specific case of India, it is a case of history that continues to repeat itself in the facets of colonialism, economic oppression, societal fissures, and especially, after World War II, driven by alien ideologies.

The approach to studying the history and consequences of colonialism in India is perhaps best given by Prof RC Majumdar that “Real history…teaches us that the major part of India lost independence about five centuries before, and merely changed masters in the eighteenth century,” referring to the first external Muslim invasions into and subsequent imperialism over large parts of India.

Yet, a key difference between the protracted Muslim rule in India and the British rule is the fact that while Muslim Sultans settled in India, the British never made India their home. Their purpose, it appears, was one of relentless economic exploitation of the country for the enrichment of England at untold cost and suffering of generations of Indians. One may refer[iv] to the chapters, Rape of a Continent and Economic Destruction in Will Durant’s A Case for India, and Madhushree Mukherji’s Churchill’s Secret War, among other notable works for a more comprehensive discussion.

Along with this, the British also spearheaded a fundamental change that in one stroke profoundly altered the national and social character of India. The introduction of English education — which was simultaneously accompanied by the comprehensive destruction of our traditional modes of learning — and a massive impetus to Christian missionaries, who not coincidentally, came to monopolise the educational sphere. Without going into too many details, one may recall Ananda Coomaraswamy’s early warning that an English-educated Indian would be cut off from his roots and become an “intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the future. The greatest danger for India is the loss of her spiritual integrity. Of all Indian problems the educational is the most difficult and most tragic”. [v] And when we observe the ideological battles being fought in the education establishment today, we notice how this tragedy has escalated almost irreversibly, if I may add.

As a sort of a handmaiden of giving English education to Indians, Indology began making steady but massive forays in the realms of higher learning especially when British rule was at its height. The biggest “contribution” of Indology over the last two-odd centuries is undoubtedly the Aryan Invasion Theory, which may rank as one of the world’s greatest intellectual hoaxes in the service of colonialism. Of course, in our own time, the AIT has been repeatedly shown to be false from multiple angles: archeology, genetics, Vedic textual evidence and so on. Offshoots of Indology include the current attempts to politicise and offer spurious interpretations of the Vedas, epics, Puranas, the Sanskrit language, folklore and indeed, anything that can be considered “native”, and valuable.

And as is well known, the Communists who began gaining prominence in the mid-1930s employed the Western Indology and missionary discourse about India with destructive zeal and consequences. Indeed, they elevated historical and colonial distortions to an art form as documented copiously by Sita Ram Goel, Arun Shourie, Ram Swarup, Dr K S Lal, Shatavadhani Dr Ganesh among other scholars. This distortion in the early years after India attained freedom took the two-pronged approach of whitewashing medieval Islamic atrocities on Hindus and portraying Hindus as oppressors, and reached the nadir when the Marxists began to deny history, most notably during the Babri Masjid affair.[vi] Equally, on contemporary events, Marxists — or their new self-description as liberals — continue to act as apologists for Islamic terrorism.

Curiously, but understandably, India is perhaps the only country in the world where the mutually hostile troika of Islamism, Christian Evangelism and Marxism are friends with each other because their goals remain the same as we shall see.

Both the Evangelical West and the Middle East do not make a distinction between the varna of Hindus because the core doctrines of their religions enjoin treating both a Brahmin and a Dalit as a heathen or Kaffir. Logically, nothing else explains why various Christian denominations continue to invest massive resources in converting say, Dalits en masse, or use subtle discursive techniques to convert, say the mostly-urban “upper castes.”

Most notably, the Christian West never gave up studying India and Hinduism in all its aspects. As the concept note of this seminar states, scholars like Sheldon Pollock continue to undertake this study for achieving purely political ends. When we observe the fairly recent history of say South Korea, Philippines and East Timor, it becomes clear that India is the last non-Abrahamic bastion to be subverted and bloodlessly conquered by the West. The aforementioned countries have now become mere Christian outposts of powerful nations of the West.


[i] PV Kane: History of the Dharmashastras Vol 5, Part 2: Preface by Dr. S Radhakrishnan, pp 2
[ii] PV Kane: History of the Dharmashastras Vol 5, Part 2: pp 1708-09
[iii] Valmiki Ramayana. Sundara Kanda: 34.6
[iv] Will Durant: A Case for India: pp 7, pp 44
[v] Ananda Coomaraswamy: “Education in India,” Essays in National Idealism
[vi] Koenraad Elst: Negationism in India

Rajiv Gandhi had an almost prescient premonition of his own death: Neena Gopal

Neena Gopal was the last journalist to interview Rajiv Gandhi on the day of his assassination, which she witnessed. A quarter of a century later, she has written about the assassination, the man himself and how he was brought down, in what is now a history she has become part of. She spoke with Firstpost about her book, the fateful day and the legacy of Rajiv Gandhi.


Veteran journalist Neena Gpal (R) was the last to interview Rajiv Gandhi, minutes before his assassinationVeteran journalist Neena Gpal (R) was the last to interview Rajiv Gandhi, minutes before his assassination

Veteran journalist Neena Gpal (R) was the last to interview Rajiv Gandhi, minutes before his assassination

Was it more of an eventuality that you would go on to write this book? What was the reason to do so? Why did the story of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination have to be told?

It’s a story that had to be told. And not from the unifocal point of view of an official or politician, who was far removed from the events of the night and whose focus stayed on the ‘who killed Rajiv Gandhi’ line, but from an eyewitness who saw the man she had spent the last 45 minutes talking to, blown up right there, not far from where she stood.  I’ve had a number of my classmates from school and college saying they clearly remember where they were and what they were doing when news of Rajiv’s assassination broke. How some were stuck on trains, others staying home, fearing the worst. But for many in today’s generation, who knew nothing of the story behind the assassination, the book has been an eye-opener, it brought them up to speed.

It wasn’t just the LTTE that didn’t want him to return to power. Neither did the Colombo elite. Or for that matter Islamabad. Or Washington. The world was changing, and Rajiv Gandhi’s first stint as premier had shown the world that he was intent on tackling anyone who challenged India. The narrative therefore needed to be taken forward, from the events that led to his assassination, to India’s flawed Sri Lanka policy (then as much as now),  to lay bare the unspoken rivalry between our various intelligence agencies and the diplomats and advisers who served as part of Rajiv Gandhi’s inside circle, whose contrarian advice led to our botched relationship with a separatist group that India singularly failed to read as malevolent and antithetical to Indian interests.

What do you remember most clearly of the conversation that you had with Gandhi minutes before his assassination? You have said in interviews that he kind of felt it was coming. How so?

As I write in the book, he had an almost prescient premonition, I believe, of his own death. He may have been sanguine about the complete absence of security. But he knew — and so did everybody around him — that the single gunman who was assigned to protect him could have done nothing if anyone had made an attempt to knife him or shoot at him on the road from the airport to the election rally. That one gunman wasn’t even with him. He was in another car. Every time people shouted out his name and chanted slogans on the road to Sripreumbudur, the car slowed and people would reach into the car and try to grab him.

Did he have any inkling of his own death? I did ask him very pointedly whether he thought his life was in danger. And this is what Rajiv Gandhi said, “Have you noticed how every time any South Asian leader of any import rises to a position of power or is about to achieve something for himself or his country, he is cut down, attacked, killed … look at Mrs [Indira] Gandhi, Sheikh Mujib, look at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at Zia ul Haq, Bandaranaike …”

As a journalist, your job would have been to ask him questions and report back. But when you become a part of history yourself, does it become very difficult to be objective or say detached?

A journalist is always part of the story. And he or she is never objective or detached. He cannot be. That would be just plain boring. It’s the viewpoint of the writer and his or her report on the events as they unfold, on the interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee that the reader or the viewer gets to see and hear.

In the case of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, there was no question of being objective or detached. They were no sides to take here. And how can you stay detached when the man you’d just been interviewing, whom every opinion poll said was going to make a comeback and become India’s next Prime Minister, dies right before your eyes, felled by India’s very first suicide bomber.

That is a story to be told at so many levels. Being detached would serve no purpose at all.

Could the assassination have been prevented? You say in the book that a number of not-so- random circumstances colluded on the given day. Have you tried to sieve them through a narrative, tie them together maybe? 

There were, I am told, eight attempts in all, on Rajiv Gandhi’s life. He was a target not just for the Sikhs and Khalistanis, intelligence agencies believed the ISI, the Israelis and the CIA had him in their sights as well. Getting corroborative evidence to prove any of this is hard, virtually impossible, but there is one story that I heard that showed  how vulnerable he was — when Rajiv was visiting an European capital, his bodyguard found a fully loaded weapon hidden away in the hall where he was to address an event.

Closer home, an IPKF commander told me that he hadn’t put it past Sri Lankan President Premadasa either, in winding up Prabhakaran to do what he did best — bump off his rivals. Premadasa had a virulent hatred for India that came across in every interaction he had with Indian diplomats. That grouse is the elephant in the room even today.

And as I write in the book, the choice of the venue, the decision to campaign in this little town was completely Rajiv’s decision. But he was a sitting duck because two successive governments — VP Singh’s and Chandrasekhar’s — took away his Z security, despite the fact that his life was under threat.  Both leaders were never adequately questioned on why they allowed petty politics to ‘trump’ a former prime minister’s safety.

The Congress party in Tamil Nadu was extremely unhappy that Rajiv was coming to campaign for Margatham Chandrasekhar, who also entrusted the arrangements to her clearly inept secretary, while the police simply did not put simple safety measures in place. They were all remiss. How else could a woman weighed down with half a kilo of RDX and explosives and a nine volt battery get through the screening procedure? She wasn’t a Congress worker. She had no badge, she was known to no one, she was wearing a salwar kameez and looked completely out of place. Why wasn’t she stopped? Barring one policewoman, no one did.

Rajiv Gandhi. File photoRajiv Gandhi. File photo

Rajiv Gandhi. File photo

India, and Rajiv Gandhi in particular, underestimated the ire of the LTTE. Is that just one of the lessons from history that we should be learning? That we know so little about our neighbours — the idea of the ‘Indian’ subcontinent as just being an extension of India — that we still cannot fully understand our relationship or have an approach that qualifies as sound?

Sri Lanka was not Bangladesh. It was not Pakistan. Sri Lanka was a whole different ballgame, and Indira Gandhi understood that — by keeping a Tamil card alive and in play. It was a threat that she held over President Jayawardene’s head but never used.

To Rajiv, and his advisers, Sri Lanka needed a quick fix. And as you know, there are no quick fixes in foreign policy.The contrast between mother and son, two successive leaders, two successive governments couldn’t have been greater. As I’ve said in my book, “One talked war but never waged it; the other talked peace but went to war.”

Did India misread Prabhakaran, believing he would do their bidding? Yes. There’s no disputing that. As the Research and Analysis Wing sceretary Dr S Chandrasekharan — who was virtually the LTTE chief Prabhakaran’s minder — tells it: “I didn’t see it coming. I thought I knew him, but one didn’t expect this. It makes me want to weep; it saddens me deeply that we were unable to save Rajiv Gandhi. We should have saved him, we should have known. We didn’t really get Prabhakaran.”

If the man who knew him best couldn’t see Prabhakaran for what he was — a ruthless megalomaniac who thought nothing of eliminating anyone who disagreed with him or stood in his way — how could less informed mortals understand what made Prabhakaran tick.

You have witnessed an assassination and also witnessed a failed attempt at one. What resonates for you from these experiences? Most people would be crass enough to suggest it ‘makes’ your career. Is that true? Would you rather have not been in those places at that time? Have these experiences changed you permanently?

There’s nothing crass about that suggestion. I make it myself. That’s reality.  I am not sure whether it can be characterised as being at the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time. Either way, as a journalist, one has seen history being made. Many of these events do stay with you, however macabre, however grisly, some heart-warming and moving.

We live in a time when the Gandhian heritage is fast becoming a burden and a contentious issue for the country’s oldest party. Do you see any of the father in the son? What is Rajiv’s legacy according to you and do you see the Gandhian legacy surviving beyond the current political climate?

Rajiv Gandhi was the new millennial, a man born much before his time. He was impatient for change, he knew that the answer to India’s ills would be rooted in an economic transformation that would cut away the bureaucratic, socialist stranglehold of the past. Unlike his children, he had a job. Despite the Gandhi moniker, he was the epitome of the urban householder: A regular guy. And as a political leader, he had a great sense of India’s place in the world.

Of his son Rahul, so little is known. Despite being an MP twice over in Manomhan Singh’s government, he was not given charge of a ministry, the discharge of which would have shown the country what kind of skills he possessed in leadership and governance. As vice president of the party, he has unfortunately seen the Congress dip to its lowest ever number of seats in its 130-year-old history.

They were two very different people. And while Rajiv Gandhi lived in a time when he could still bank on the Gandhi power and mystique, it is no longer true today. The rise and rise of Narendra Modi and the many regional leaders like Nitish Kumar, Mamta Banerjee, and Jayalalitha, have changed the political landscape, greatly diminishing the once overwhelmingly pan-Indian footprint of the Congress party. So yes, the question [that most of us are asking] is — are the Gandhis still relevant in the India of 2016?

As for lessons learnt? The Lankan misadventure held us back from retaliating even when India’s parliament was attacked. Despite the Kargil infiltration, India did not cross the border; after 26/11, it was the same story. Despite pouring billions of dollars in developmental assistance into Afghanistan, India has held back from putting boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

I distinctly remember former foreign secretary Salman Haider, looking at me as if I was completely obtuse when I asked why India was so reluctant to go into Kabul. He said “Don’t you remember 1987?”

What after ‘Udta Punjab’? Drug addiction is real, but here’s how we’re fighting it

The recent controversy surrounding the film Udta Punjab has brought into the limelight the problem of drug abuse not only in Punjab – but across the country. In retrospect, for society and our governing systems to have not realised the gravity of the issue says a thing or two about how the problem has spread. “The drug problem is an extremely serious issue. Drugs are as easily available as mint and chocolates,” notes Dr Harish Shetty, psychiatrist, LH Hiranandani Hospital, Mumbai. A first-of-its-kind National Survey on the Extent, Pattern and Trends of Drug Abuse in India, jointly released by the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime (UNODC) and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India in 2004 revealed India’s population had twice the global number of drug abusers with nearly 3 million dependent on cannabis and other opium related drugs.

What are some of the factors that contribute to such large number of people becoming addicted to drugs? “Addiction is now a considered a ‘brain disease’ which is bio-psycho-social in origin”, explains Dr Atul Ambekar, assistant professor, National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). According to psychiatrists there are some inherent biological factors that makes a person prone to addiction or some environmental situations lead them to consume drugs. Commonly understood causes responsible for addiction are peer group pressures, traumatic childhood experiences, among others: Manoj (name changed) a former addict who now runs a rehabilitation centre in Bengaluru recalls how he felt claustrophobic and deprived of freedom while growing up as his alcoholic father regularly created domestic violence at home; such experiences pushed him in seeking solace in drugs.

Drug addicts inject themselves on a road in Mumbai. Image from Reuters/File photoDrug addicts inject themselves on a road in Mumbai. Image from Reuters/File photo

Drug addicts inject themselves on a road in Mumbai. Image from Reuters/File photo

But the most important cause contributing to widespread use of drugs is their easy availability – even on campuses of engineering institutes, colleges and schools. Earliest ages of drug consumption have dropped down to between 8-10 from 18-20 in little over the past decade. Another equally alarming cause for concern is rapid globalisation and the changes that are sweeping across the country. Adults in the middle years of their lives are turning towards alcohol and drugs to cope with financial and emotional stresses. Explaining the trend, Dr Shetty says, “People want rocket kicks not aeroplane kicks, they don’t want to drink and drive but weed and fly.” Breakup of joint families to nuclear families has robbed young children of their emotional support system. Parents are unable to spend quality time with their children, and increasing number of divorce cases among young couples has pushed children (of broken marriages) towards dependence on technology and drugs.

Improved connectivity of roads, railways and internet has also contributed in easy blanket spread of drugs to all corners of the country. In the 1980s, brown sugar was prevalent with railways as a means of transport. But now the pharmaceutical drugs are available over the counter and can be delivered home contributing to an increasing trend in their consumption. Such factors along with the failure of the controlling agencies in nipping the spread of supply in its bud has led to an unprecedented problem on our hands.

However, all is not lost. Shetty and his colleagues are busy building an army of what he calls mental health soldiers across Maharashtra. A band of trained people who will proactively combat the issues faced by the addicts. He firmly believes drug addiction is not a medical issue but it is a societal one. Ambekar advocates solutions in a three pronged strategy: supply control, demand reduction and harm reduction. There is little doubt in the need for law enforcement agencies to make a concerted effort in curbing supply and playing an active role in tackling the menace of easy availability of drugs. But even more crucial is empowering young people with necessary skills in resisting addiction. Schools and colleges should make drug education like sex and physical education a part of their teachings. They should have certified counsellors as part of their staff to help children deal with educational stress and problems like low self-esteem, lack of confidence, etc. Parents should be encouraged in detecting early signs of depression and erratic behaviour in their children. They must also take active part in their mental well-being. Concerted effort must be made in maintaining emotional hygiene of people likely to be susceptible to addiction. Awareness programs in housing complexes and neighbourhoods will also help them in playing watchdogs to potential troublemakers while also being sensitive towards addicts. Society at large needs to recognise that addiction is a disease like cancer, diabetes or any other. Stigmatising an individual only makes the matter worse, instead addicts need society’s support and empathy.

Injecting Drug Users (IDUs) lie on their beds at a drug de-addiction centre in Jind, about 125 km (78 miles) north west from New Delhi. Image from ReutersInjecting Drug Users (IDUs) lie on their beds at a drug de-addiction centre in Jind, about 125 km (78 miles) north west from New Delhi. Image from Reuters

Injecting Drug Users (IDUs) lie on their beds at a drug de-addiction centre in Jind, about 125 km (78 miles) north west from New Delhi. Image from Reuters

Programmes like Narcotics Anonymous, which is a fellowship of recovering addicts and present in most major cities and towns of the world, should be encouraged and supported. They are a meeting place where addicts on the mend and patients meet to share their experiences and encourage practicing addicts to give up their habits. Such sharings slowly build their confidence and help integrate back into society. At a time when addicts are being scorned by their families and society and recovery rates from addiction are a pathetic 2 percent, meeting people going through similar experiences not only makes them feel respected again but also relieves them of their stress. They have successfully managed to keep former addicts clean for as much as 25 years and more while also transforming addicts into abstinence helping them reclaim their lives. By nature they are voluntary but as Anil (name changed) an ex-addict says, an old patient is better than a new doctor.

Good infrastructure setup of certified rehabilitation centres where manpower is clinically trained to look after patients will immensely contribute towards the ecosystem of mental health recovery programmes. Mahesh (name changed) is a recovering addict living in one such rehabilitation centre in Bengaluru. He says he has been staying at the facility for the past 10 months and has no plans to leave before he completes his engineering (which he is pursuing while staying at the centre). Now 23, Mahesh started smoking marijuana at the age of 12 and since 5 showed delinquent tendencies by stealing money from his own house. Mahesh is grateful to the centre for transforming his life by discouraging habits that he would have otherwise pursued in the outside world. Although a few bad reports on the nature of rehabilitation centres have been reported in the recent past, a professionally run set-up will plug an important gap in the welfare and rehabilitation of former addicts back into the society by allowing them to also earn a livelihood.

Drug addiction is the tip of an iceberg of larger societal problems and is as much a reflection of a society as of an individual. Dr Shetty is optimistic that with political will and a consortium of professionals and trained manpower we can solve issues like drug addiction in the next 10 years. For such a thing to happen, this fight should be a people’s initiative fought on the streets, rather than in the hospitals.

Phiroza Anklesaria is right: The plight of junior advocates in India is terrible; and it affects you too

In a recent interview of Phiroza Anklesaria, she narrates how she narrowly missed out on becoming a High Court Judge. At the height of her career, Anklesaria wrote a scathing article criticising the terrible plight of junior advocates in the profession that sank her prospects. What surprised me was how little had changed in the years since then.

Supreme Court of India. Image from PTISupreme Court of India. Image from PTI

Supreme Court of India. Image from PTI

There are roughly four categories of juniors at the bar: Connected and Meritorious; Connected and Unmeritorious; Unconnected and Meritorious, and lastly, Unconnected and Unmeritorious. Others fall between these categories. (I must bashfully admit that I am somewhere in between the first two, but precariously in danger of teetering more towards the second.) The gestation period in the profession is a long one and law has a steep learning curve, taking about five to seven years to get a basic grip on, and a lifetime to learn. It helps to have the guidance of a senior: To paraphrase Sith teachings, a Master and Apprentice: One to embody the power of the law; the other to crave it.

Those who belong to Category No 1 and 2 (fortuitously, sometimes No 3) usually end up joining the chambers of a senior advocate to learn the ropes. Even so, this senior is seldom required to pay his apprentice anything. No law, or even unwritten professional courtesy or duty, even requires him to do so (quite unusual, for a profession so steeped in tradition).

The junior, meanwhile, is supposed to feel obliged towards his senior for having been given the honour and opportunity to carry his briefs or his umbrella with him, and of course, in passing, the opportunity to learn. Meanwhile, the excesses, temper tantrums, tirades, and in some cases, even sexual harassment of the senior are to be quietly tolerated. Having no connections, it is usually No 3 who bears the brunt of this trauma.

For all of his or her deference, years of toil, and free research, the junior may be ‘rewarded’ with a princely first salary of Rs. 10,000 a month, or later, a small brief. For someone to have spent three to five years in a law college, expecting to be well-equipped enough to earn a livelihood, this is a sorry state of affairs.

Category No 1 has the best of everything. The raw talent and legal acumen required to build a successful practice, along with the right connections (the relative of a senior advocate or better still, a judge) to keep up a steady inflow of work. Category No 2 is the more interesting proposition, because he lacks the aforesaid merit to truly become great. Nevertheless, thanks to the connections, there will be no shortage of work for him, and he can always engage a counsel (with various fee scales ranging from modest to astronomical) on behalf of his client who is more competent than he.

What matters is the inflow of work – and the cut that can be taken.

Those from Categories 3 and 4 usually wind up in law firms, which follow a similarly tragic pattern, with the only difference being that what is described above now comes with an infusion of characteristically exploitative corporate culture fed down the hierarchy from partner to junior associate. Reports suggested that a stipend for juniors was in the pipeline, but that seems to have fallen through.

By now you might be thinking this is an internal problem – the province of the Bar Council alone to handle – but unfortunately, as is often the case, it is you, the ordinary citizen and litigant, who suffers. It is your access – and just as importantly, your Government’s access – to a better class of lawyer, and by extension, a better class of judge, and ultimately justice, which is thwarted.

Meanwhile, bright men and women are kept out of bounds by impervious glass ceilings, while the mediocre move ahead.

Samarth Moray practices in Bombay High Court

‘Gujarat Files’ review: Rana Ayyub’s book must be read by both sides of the political divide

They say god is in the details. Concurrently, people with different gods are likely to read differently into the tiny little details present in Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. Yet, it is in these finer details that the book holds your attention; because, from a macroscopic vantage point, there isn’t much in it that one hasn’t already heard or guessed (or vociferously drowned out with a counter-narrative).

In 2010, an independent filmmaker (and more importantly, an upper caste Hindu girl from the American Film Institute Conservatory in LA) interviewed a number of people, many of them high profile members of the law-and-order machinery of Gujarat in 2002, during research for a film about the state. That girl happened to be Rana Ayyub, undercover. Ayyub, who was with Tehelka at that time, clandestinely managed to record videos of her conversations over months, excerpts from which form the core of the book.

(L) Rana Ayyub; (R) cover of 'Gujarat Files'(L) Rana Ayyub; (R) cover of 'Gujarat Files'

(L) Rana Ayyub; (R) cover of ‘Gujarat Files’

Straight off the bat, it is the nature of her extensive, risky investigation that stands out. For a young Muslim woman to go undercover with a (Hindu) alias and a rigorous back-story; worming her way into meeting up with powerful but potentially hostile people about a prickly political topic; carrying multiple concealed cameras on her person; keeping this façade up for so long despite hiccups – all of this is an ode to journalism itself, a mark of respect to the perils that one has to face on the quest fortruth. (Put your life on the line for a cause you believe in, dear reader, before you use the word‘presstitute’ as an insult. Disagree with what they stand for, but be respectful to journalists as well as sex workers.)

Then-CM Narendra Modi’s alleged complicity in fanning the flames of the 2002 Gujarat riots has been hotly debated for nearly a decade and a half now, so talking about that would be akin toflogging the hypothetical dead puppy that (hopefully never) came under Modi’s car.

While the Godhra train burning and subsequent communal riots, remain a ghastly blot on the nation’s conscience, it would be unwise to look at these events in isolation. One of the things you’rereminded of while reading the book, as you assimilate the words of former top cops – those entrusted with the safety of citizens – is that Gujarat has always been a troubled, uneasy state vis-à-vis communalism. Multiple riots over decades festered a strained atmosphere, making the state a communal tinder box. All one needed to do, really, was strike a match.

One of the other striking aspects of the testimonials of senior officers like GL Singhal (Gujarat ATS chief in 2002), PC Pande (commissioner of police, Ahmedabad in 2002), GC Raigar (intelligence head of Gujarat in 2002) and others, is that even though morally and constitutionally the police are obliged to serve the public above all else, in reality they are completely beholden to the government in power.

Yes, our cinema has shown us this repeatedly over the years, but you get a sense of defeatism as you read cop after cop talking about how you either toe the line drawn by your political bosses, or you get side-lined with a ‘punishment posting’. Some of these cops did what they did during the riots, even things that they weren’t proud of, because you just didn’t have a choice. This is true for whichever party holds the reins in the state, in every state across the country. It is a deep-rooted malaise in our system that needs some sort of immediate intervention.

Another heart-breaking fact you’ll discover is that even in the upper echelons of the police force, your caste plays a role in how you’re are treated by your seniors and peers. Deniers of the role of caste in 21st century India must read the newspaper snippet Ayyub includes, which talks about one of the highest-ranking officials in Gujarat – former ATS chief Rajan Priyadarshi, a Dalit, who can’t buy land in his village because he is considered ‘untouchable’.

One must note, though, that the veracity of what these cops have revealed in their interviews to Ayyub will be in question until (if ever) they repeat all of this in court, under oath. Over years, memories can morph into what you want to or are expected to believe, while oftentimes people just lie outright. Former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt’s public domain testimony against Modi, for instance, was always dubious. This dubiousness is ostensibly confirmed by what was disclosed to Ayyub by senior officers, because it does appear that Sanjiv Bhatt made up the fact that he was physically present in a meeting where the Chief Minister allegedly gave certain direct orders to the top brass.

If the book suggests anyone’s role in the riots as being dodgy, it is that of then-Gujarat home minister and current BJP president Amit Shah. The nature of his rhetoric in rallies across Uttar Pradesh in 2015 is there for everyone to see. (‘Hate speech’ is what the Election Commission called it, possibly because we don’t currently have a harsh-enough term to accurately describe some of what he said.)

So it isn’t hard to imagine him taking a hard-line Hindutva position smack dab in the middle of the riots. Besides, the man was also banned from entering his home state in connection with the fake encounter of Sohrabuddin Sheikh. (Fake encounters, incidentally, are also a frequent result of police subservience to politicos. This is brought up by nearly every cop Ayyub interviewed.)

A large part of the book is actually in the interview form, presumably transcribed from the tapes. So, if you’re looking for narrative flair, the kind that journalists like Hussain Zaidi or Meenal Baghel have incorporated in their various respective works, then you might be disappointed. Rana Ayyub’s allegiance clearly lies first with the content of her sting interviews, and only after that to her own personal stand.

She avoids making inferences too often, usually content with reproducing material in question-answer form, while paraphrasing the rest. She also sprinkles portions of the book with what she did in her downtime between interviews – exploring Ahmedabad’s culinary and cultural delights (on a budget, as journalists are wont to do while actually working), along with a young exchange student from France, who helped her immensely during her investigations. (God bless that chap, just for being such a solid partner in that minefield of a scenario.) These bits offer some measure of relief in an under-150- page text that, for the most, jumps from one interview to the other.

The book is lean and breezy primarily because Ayyub chooses to forego style in favour of substance. The pièce de résistance in terms of narrative brilliance essentially arrives in the way she ends her book – it ends on a strange form of hope, because with the release of this book, the tapes in Rana Ayyub’s possession have the potential to alter the political landscape of the country, if the system so wills.

Yet, the biggest draw from the book remains the fact that a work of this kind got published in the first place. The last two years in our country could make some feel that this would’ve been well-nigh impossible. It reminds us that if you dissect the anatomy of our clunky democracy, you’ll find a deep, ever-evolving (if insufficient and practically absent) core of idealism, wisdom and justice – the ‘idea of India’, or something of the sort.

Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi and the 18th century mujahidin movement in the Indian subcontinent

Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi (1700-1850) is considered one of the early Muslim freedom fighters of India and a great reviver and thinker of Islam in the Indian subcontinent. He is popularly known among the Indo-Pak Islamic clergy and ulema as a “shaheed” (a martyr of Islam) who led the Mujahideen movement in India.

But it is interesting to note that a number of Indian Islamic scholars have recently noted that Maulvi Syed Ahmad ‘Shaheed’ Rai Barelvi was not a freedom fighter. He was actually the chief exponent of Wahhabism in India, an adherent and fervent advocate of puritanical fundamentalism and physical jihadism in place of spiritual jihad against the baser instincts and carnal desires (jihad al-nafs). Interestingly, in the beginning, he was inspired by Sufi orders and silsilahs like Naqshbandiyah, Chishtiyah and Qadriyah. But after he met the Wahhabi patrons in Saudi Arabia during his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1821, he became fascinated by Wahhabism and turned into a puritanical fundamentalist and a jihadist cleric.

The Daarul Uloom DeobandThe Daarul Uloom Deoband

The Daarul Uloom Deoband. Nearly all adherents of Deobandi and even Ahle Hadisi schools of thought glorify Maulvi Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi as ‘Shaheed’ because he was killed while waging the militant jihad against non-Muslims in undivided India

Rai Barelvi’s conversion from Sufism to Wahhabism is patently clear from his own book Sirat e Mustaqeem (straight path) in which he devoted the entire third chapter to Sufism but with the same line of thinking that was laid out in Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab’s ‘kitab al-tawheed‘ (book on monotheism). Much in the same way, he declared all mystically inclined Muslims mushrik (polytheists) and all Sufi beliefs and practices as antithetical to the pristine and puritanical Islam and thus called for a radical reform in Sufism. A great many Wahhabi madrasas, in their text books, depict Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi along with Ismail Dehlvi as the leading religious ideologues and teach their books in their syllabi under the subject of islami aqaid (Islamic beliefs).

Beside his stern attempts to purge Indian Muslims and Islam of the inclusive, pluralistic and composite traditions, the most conspicuous job he did was his tahrik-e-jihad or Mujahidin movement against the Sikhs of Punjab. Noted Islamic historian in India, Sheikh Muhammad Ikram writes about the jihadism of Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi under a sub-title “Jihad”, in a detailed and descriptive way. He notes: “Having reached his hometown, he [Rai Barelvi] began his full preparation for the jihad against the Sikh community and sent Maulana Ismail Shaheed and Maulana Abdul Hayy across the country to preach the cause of this jihad”… “On 17th January (1826), Maulana left Rai Bareli for his trip to Jihad. At that time, he had 5-7 thousand Indians with him, who were fully prepared for the jihad for the religious freedom of the Muslims in Punjab. They were well-determined to lay down their lives for this cause. Passing through Gawaliyar, Tonk, Ajmer, Marwar, Hyderabad, Sindh, Shikar Pur and Qandhar, the Maulana reached Kabul, from where he ventured into Peshawar via Khaibar”. (Mauj-e-Kausar, by Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, pp. 24-25, published by Adabi Duniya, Matia Mahal, Delhi).

Nearly all adherents of Deobandi and even Ahle Hadisi schools of thought glorify Maulvi Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi as ‘Shaheed’ (Islamic martyr), because he was killed, while waging the militant jihad against non-Muslims in the undivided India. This has been persuasively argued in a classical Islamic reference book in Urdu, ‘Mauj-e-Kausar, Musalmanon Ki Mazhabi Aur Ilmi Tarikh Ka Daur-e-Jadid‘, a history text book included in many Deobandi madrassas, written by Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, himself inspired by Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi.

Throughout his entire life, Maulvi Rai Barelvi continued to be very vigorous and active in his call for Islamic Puritanism in the entire Subcontinent of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In fact, he is an apt example of how many Sufi Sunni scholars, who were at some time essentially inclusive because of their adherence to the Sufi orders, drastically changed their worldview and espoused exclusivist religious ideas. More astonishingly, this group of Islamist scholars in India left more active, impacting and prevailing ideology in the subcontinent than even the inclusivist Sufis who had originally introduced Islam to its people. Their adherents are far more energetic and practical than those who make tall claims to uphold the all-embracing cause of Indian Sufi saints.

Apparently, Syed Ahmad’s Mujahidin movement is now an age-old history for Indian Muslims, but many still get influenced by his religious exhortations for jihad as “an act of worship greater than spiritual prayer in merit and rewards”. Therefore, a movement of revival of Rai Barelvi’s Mujahidin movement is on the rails in the subcontinent as proclaimed by a number of extremist jihadist outfits. For instance, in February 2011, the emir of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-S) party Maulvi Samiul Haq stressed ‘the need for revival of the Mujahidin movement of Syed Ahmed Shaheed Rai Barelvi’ against a religious minority in Pakistan, the Sikh community. Maulvi Samiul Haq argued that “the objectives of the jihad launched by our Islamic leader Syed Ahmed Shaheed against the British rule and the Sikhs in the 19th century have yet to be achieved”.

Similarly, Syed Ahmed Rai Barelvi is often depicted in several Talibani videos as a jihadi role model to the militants of Tahrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Not only this, even the hardcore doctrines of Rai Barelvi and their poisonous tentacles spread by Shah Ismail Barelvi created huge impact on Muslims in India after the 1857 revolt against the British rule. Countless Islamic seminaries, madrassas, maktabs, mosques, Islamic associations and outfits that were established later in India, fell in the cauldron of the Wahhabi impact.

Given all this, the question arises whether Rai Barelvi’s Mujahidin movement in India was a struggle against British imperialism or a religiously and politically motivated militancy against the Indian Sikh community? The heightened historical and ideological implications of Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi’s Mujahidin movement caused an intellectual curiosity among the classical Islamic scholars. However, most of them did not study it in an objective and critical manner and, therefore, ended up in a hollow glorification of the so-called “Shaheed” (martyr of Islam). On the other hand, a few of them ventured into a critical analysis of this first jihadist movement in India. A remarkable research work in this direction was produced by a contemporary classical Islamic scholar, Maulana Khushtar Noorani who rendered a complete book to this research question, entitled, “tahreek-e-jihad aur British government: ek tahqeeqi mutala”. The title of this book in Urdu ( تحریک مطالعہ تحقیقی ایک گورنمنٹ:جہاداوربرٹش) can be loosely translated as — The jihad movement and the British government: A research study.

Mr Noorani came up with an entirely different perspective on the Mujahidin movement of Rai Barelvi. Much against the canonical statements and writings of mainstream Islamic historians and scholars of Darul Uloom Nadwa, Deoband and Ahl-e-Hadith, he arrives at the conclusion that Rai Barelvi’s movement was not aimed at challenging the British imperialism; rather it was an armed militancy against the Sikh community of Punjab. He clearly states in this book that Syed Ahmad or his jihadi faction did not contribute to the freedom movement of India at all.

Maulana Noorani’s conclusion came crashing down the consensus of the authoritative Indian Islamic scholars such as the renowned Islamic historian Maulana Ghulam Rasool Mahr, world-renowned Indian Islamic preacher and Arabic scholar Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Maulana Masood Alam Nadwi, Maulvi Syed Muhammad Ali and several others. Maulana Noorani avers that, “Syed Ahmad Rai Barelvi engaged in the armed jihad against the Sikh adherents. He had the support of the hundreds of mujahideen of India, including various Muslim tribes of Sarhad [border] who came in large numbers to join his movement. They all actively engaged in the jihad led by Syed Ahmad Rai Barelwi with a great zeal and fervour.”

Maulana Noorani has enumerated a very interesting story in one place. He wrote that once the close disciples of Syed Ahmad sahib asked him as to why he shifted his attention from his spiritual practices and prayers to the physical jihad. Upon this, Rai Barelvi replied to them with full conviction: “There is no prayer greater than jihad. Therefore, I am fully prepared for the jihad. You too please get ready for that.”

According to the Pakistani Studies text book which is taught in Class Nine, Rai Barelvi’s Mujahidin movement was started against the Sikh community. He came to Sindh in 1826 and sought to help Syed Sibghatullah Shah who sent a strong contingent of staunch followers called “Hurs”.

The book continues: “Syed Ahmed Shaheed left his family under the protection of Pir Pagara and proceeded towards Jihad without any worry about his family. He reached Nowshehra after passing through Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass and Peshawar in December 1826 and made it his headquarter. The first battle against the Sikhs was fought on December 21, 1826 near Akora. The Sikhs were defeated. The second battle was fought at Hazro. It was also won by the Muslims. These victories inspired a number of Pathan tribes to join Jihad Movement. The number of Mujahideen rose to 80,000. Syed Ahmed Shaheed Barelvi was given the status of ‘Amir-ul-Momineen’. Islamic laws were enforced in the area which was controlled by Syed Ahmed Shaheed Barelvi”.

The author is a writer and scholar of comparative religion. Write to him at [email protected]

‘Oral history’: Four things you can learn about India through a tube of toothpaste

Baba Ramdev’s call for “deshbhakt” Indians to choose his Dant Kanti toothpaste raises an intriguing question.

How much do patriots know about dental health in India? Probably very little. Many people think dentists are boring and consider toothpaste banal.

Think again. From the ironies of history to the marketing tactics of today, dentistry and its discontents offer some compelling lessons. Oral hygiene also provides vital clues to economic and gender disparities. Here are four things you can learn about India through a tube of toothpaste.


India’s history of modern dentistry springs from a curious fact. It is intimately connected with ice cream.


India’s history of modern dentistry begins with a curious fact

Rewind to 1909, and follow the steps of Rafiuddin Ahmed. Seeking an education in the United States, this restless young man from Bengal talks his way onto an Italian ship bound for New York. After making contact with Irish activists at the NYC office of Friends of Freedom for India, he aims for a degree in dentistry at the State University of Iowa – mostly because the fees are cheaper and he can find plenty of part-time work. One summer, a friend invites him to work at an ice cream plant and soda fountain at a luxury resort at Spirit Lake, Iowa.

That creamy apprenticeship proves crucial. When Dr Ahmed finally graduates, heads home, and sets up a dental practice in Calcutta in 1920, he also launches an ice cream parlour. Dr Ahmed calls it “New York Soda Fountain,” possibly in homage to the iconic chain of Schrafft’s — where pretty Irish waitresses caught the eye of their compatriots at the Friends of Freedom for India. The idea was to funnel ice cream profits into subsidies for India’s first dental college, which takes off in Dr Ahmed’s private chambers.

Located in the teeming Dharmatala area, New York Soda Fountain quickly finds fans among middle class Bengalis. Bearers wear white uniforms. Vanilla and mango flavours are popular. Sometimes Dr Ahmed himself scoops ice cream at the counter, and supervises the vendors in Howrah and Sealdah stations.

“Boozers really liked that ice cream soda. It covered the bad odour of country liquor,” recalls novelist Supriyo Chowdhury.

Was it all a case of sophisticated backward integration? In other words, did Dr Ahmed know that the refined sugar in ice cream could cause cavities, and thus help his dental practice to flourish?

Nothing of the kind, responds his family. “That didn’t strike him at all. Now, we know that ice cream and cold drinks cause cavities. Had he known, he would have done things differently,” says Dr Zarina Aliya, a dental surgeon in Baruipur and granddaughter of Dr Ahmed.

“This was a time of entrepreneurship,” she adds. “He was a very self-made man. He wanted every citizen to get good dental treatment. Dentistry was chiefly for the rich and famous in those days.”

Dr Ahmed’s name adorns the biggest government college of dentistry in Kolkata, where West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has decreed free treatment for all. But the wholesome nature of New York Soda Fountain curdled in the 1960s, long after Dr Ahmed turned it over to new owners. (He passed away in 1965.) It became a rendezvous site for prostitutes and traders, as well as a louche hang-out for many artists, such as Ganesh Pyne and Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya.

“It was a great meeting point. New York Soda Fountain was the center of our time,” says Bhattacharya, who cooled his heels there from 1965 to 1979. By that time, the place had phased out ice cream and emphasised snacks like fish fry. Then it closed down. Today, the space is occupied by a mattress store. Its name, “Foam Junction,” still bears a trace of that bubbly ice cream soda.

Among multinationals, Hindustan Unilever Limited stands out for its continuing fondness for the toothpaste and ice cream combo. According to Euromonitor International, HUL’s Close-up and Signal figure among the top four toothpaste brands in India. At the same time, Unilever is flogging Kwality Wall’s ice cream and Cornetto, along with the more patrician Magnum ice cream.


One day in Orissa, villagers came upon a giant fake tooth displayed in an open field. Two teams were assembled. One was given shields and assigned to protect the tooth. The other team pelted the tooth with little white balls, seeking to overwhelm the defense. The skirmish ended with a friendly group photo, swiftly enlarged into a billboard. “This village is Calci-Locked!” said the sign. The digital smiles masked a silent message: No Trespassing on Colgate Turf.

In India, Colgate is trying hard to shield its whopping 54 percent market share. Last year, to counter a Dabur surge in Orissa, rural marketers from Mumbai-based Anugrah Madison implemented this surreal campaign, which recently won a Silver Medal from the Rural Marketing Association of India (RMAI). Colgate “wanted to go very aggressive in terms of reaching out to consumers,” explains Prashant Mandke, head of the rural marketing firm. Extending to some 400 villages, the initiative also included a mobile phone twist. Winners received a 20-rupee top-up if they answered questions correctly about Colgate through IVR, an automated voice recording.

Aural recall packs more punch than the written word.

“SMS is not the answer. The answer is IVR, as they are able to listen to something,” says RMAI president Sanjay Kaul. Alternatively, call centers staffed with dentists proved unprofitable and unworkable due to the high volume of calls, says Girish Chaturvedi at netCORE, a communications and marketing firm.

But most analysts argue that low-cost phone tactics alone will not sway the masses — whatever product is on offer. “If you start with mobile, it would not work. Indian consumers are more prone to like face-to- face interaction. People like to touch the product,” says Abhishek A, assistant professor of marketing at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.

That’s why marketing teams are still buzzing around India, actively engaging consumers in quizzes, magic shows, railway car surveys, and giveaways at religious gatherings. Follow-up comes via phone. “Activation is creating the need. Mobile is establishing the brand,” chants Chaturvedi.


James Wynbrandt makes an important point at the start of his entertaining book, The Excruciating History of Dentistry. “As civilisation arose, differences in diets of the wealthy and poor were evidenced in the state of their teeth. Typically, the richer the individual, the poorer their oral health, as decay made inroads in the human mouth,” Wynbrandt writes.

India was no exception. In poor rural areas, the traditionally low intake of refined sugars and the protective qualities of neem enhanced bright smiles. The custom of chewing a neem twig survives in many places today, despite the onslaught of mass-produced brushes and toothpaste. “It’s a very good agent for binding gums with teeth. This is the knowledge that has been passed down for generations,” notes IIMA assistant professor Abhishek. In devotional stories and songs, Radha invites Krishna to clean his teeth with a twig.

“It’s tasty. It’s cheaper,” says 30 year old Shiv Prasad, a Bihari who earns Rs 6,500 per month at the Alliance Jute Mill in Jagatdal, West Bengal. He buys seven twigs for three rupees from Upinder, a 75-year- old Bihari who chops neem twigs in front of the mill’s blue gate. A dense crowd of men jostle for their twigs. “Poor people don’t have the money to buy Colgate,” says Upinder.

According to RMAI, some 250 million Indians do not use toothpaste. “The deeper you go in the market, the higher the resistance to change,” notes Ankur Bisen, senior vice president at Technopak. Some families prefer ash made of burned rice husks, cow dung, or other ingredients, both for cleaning the teeth and applying a lingering gum massage. While the abrasive twigs and ash can harm tooth enamel or make gums bleed, the same holds for overly vigorous encounters with a toothbrush. “More harm is done every day, with people not aware of the particular way of brushing,” says Dr Barin Roy, a senior dentist in Kolkata who applied his talents to ministers and poets alike.

In the global context, India’s per capita consumption of toothpaste is “pathetically low,” as described by one industry veteran. According to Euromonitor International, India consumes just a quarter of the toothpaste used per capita in Brazil, and just half of that in China. Nielsen India reports that urban per capita toothpaste consumption stands at 270 grams, compared to 85 grams in rural areas.

But diets are changing. Sugary biscuits, colas, syrups, ice cream, and other dental enemies are vigorously marching through villages, having triumphed in Indian cities. Meanwhile, city travel and overseas migration have also spurred adoption of mass-produced toothbrush and toothpaste back in the village, says Anju Joseph, chief operating officer at Quantum Qualitative Research.

Still, the twig carries a certain element of style, especially for the male population — much like a rapper’s toothpick.

“Have you noticed that guys like to walk around the village and chew on twigs? You can’t do that with a mouth full of foam,” says Kolkata-based author Rimi Chatterjee.


The Indian Dental Association (IDA) has some surprising statistics up its sleeve. According to Dr Ashok Dhoble, secretary general of the IDA, 80-90 percent of recent dental graduates are women.

The number of dental colleges in India has tripled over the last decade, now topping 300. But out of India’s 25,000 dental students who pass out each year, only about 10,000 people choose to practice dentistry, says Dr Alias Thomas, former IDA president.

Many women graduates face considerable pressure to renounce a dental career and focus on their spouses and children. The steep costs of setting up a high-tech solo practice, combined with the low salaries offered in a group practice, also serve as twin disincentives. Surely, Dr Ahmed would mourn this turn of events. It’s a great loss in human resources.

Meanwhile, less than 20 percent of India’s 1 lakh 25,000 trained dentists are practicing in the countryside. That leaves considerable room for quacks.

Only 4 percent of the Indian population visited a trained dentist last year. But that figure wouldn’t bother Baba Ramdev, who does not seem fond of men in white coats. Ditto for purveyors of Dant Kanti. “All the dental problems have been solved with this. You need not go to the dentist,” advises Sadashiva Johari, manager of Patanjali Chikitsalaya in Bangalore’s HSR Layout.

Margot Cohen is a writer from New York. Her interest in India follows previous reporting stints in the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Marwari City: Stories of Kolkata’s heritage often exclude its prominent community

The man at the designer studio in Kolkata is impatient. He flicks at his iPhone, an open packet of paan masala in his hand.  His wife has a Coach bag. They are trying to pick out a jacket for their son who’s getting married. “He’s very tall, fair and handsome,” the man says proudly. He’d like something in maroon velvet, perhaps with a rose pattern on it.

“Not too Indian, no zardozi,” he says. “European like the rose.” He shows the designer a picture on the phone.

“We can do our own. But we can’t copy that,” the designer says politely. “That’s either Sabyasachi or Manish Malhotra.”

“How do you know?” the man retorts. “It’s not written anywhere.”  The wife looks abashed and tries to mumble something. The man cuts her off sharply. “I know this. I am in the same line. I am a readymade garment exporter,” he tells the designer.

The designer, a dyed-in- the-wool Bengali, smiles thinly. Typical Burrabazar Marwari he says later, rolling his eyes. He remembers another Marwari who told him “What? You have no sherwanis for over 1 lakh!” But weddings make up 50 percent of his bottomline and Marwaris, whether Burrabazar traders or Alipore industrialists, drive that business.

Breakfast is served at the Bengal Rowing ClubBreakfast is served at the Bengal Rowing Club

Breakfast is served at the Bengal Rowing Club

The cramped and bustling lanes of Burrabazar were once the first stop from Howrah Station for Marwaris fresh from the villages of Rajasthan. They lived here in basas with a common mess and did business sitting on a white gadda spread out on the floor while the wives and children stayed back in Rajasthan.  They traded in jute futures, dabbled in rain gambling and pioneered the cashless hundi remittances system. They were amoral about what they traded in — opium or grain or clothes from British factories during the height of the swadeshi movement. Soon firms like Tarachand Ghanashyamdas controlled Kolkata’s money market.

Tarachand Ghanshyamdas does not exist anymore. But his community has spread all over the city, from the suburbs of Salt Lake to the garden mansions of Alipore. When the neighbourhood sandesh shop started selling chilli paneer, a Bengali friend shook his head in dismay and said “It’s a Marwari city now. What’s truly Bengali about Kolkata any more?”

When I returned to Kolkata after two decades abroad, almost all my Bengali friends were gone, to jobs in New Delhi and San Jose. It was the Marwari boys who showed up for the school reunions, still in the city, running the family business. Apart from a handful of missionary schools, practically every reputable school is now Marwari-owned. That includes South Point, once the most famous Bengali-owned English medium school, much prized by middle-class Bengalis for churning out examination-toppers by the dozen. Marwari money runs almost every hospital, and finances every other Bengali film, whether an artsy award winner or a masala romp, courtesy Shrikant Mohta’s Shree Venkatesh Films. The Yauatacha dim-sum restaurant, the only Michelin-starred eatery in Kolkata, has an entire separate vegetarian menu aka the “Marwari menu”. The Marwaris keep the lights on in Kolkata. Literally. The Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation is owned by Sanjeev Goenka’s group.

Lobby of the Hindustan ClubLobby of the Hindustan Club

Lobby of the Hindustan Club

“Just go to Calcutta High Court and look at the case list,” says Ankit Kejriwal. “Almost all commercial matters are between a Marwari and the government. Or between two Marwaris.”

Kejriwal’s office is perched on the roof of an old building in Kolkata’s fabled Dalhousie Square. The building is decrepit, its creaky lift more so. It seems not to have been serviced since the old blue-chip British companies had their headquarters here. When the British left and foreigners started pulling out of India, the Marwaris stepped in. “With capital, connections, and enterprise, the community purchased almost all of Dalhousie,” says Kejrwial. Tea gardens, jute
mills, engineering firms — everything changed hands in a very short period.

The avaricious Marwari was already part of Bengali folklore by then. In 1925 the Bengali satirist Parashuram created the oily Marwari prototype — Ganderiram Bataparia who wants to sell impure ghai as opposed to pure ghee and donates lakhs to dharamsalas to make up for his chicanery. But the real rub, writes Susan Strasser in her book Commodifying Everything was “unlike the Marwari character Ganderi, however, the Bengalis are not as clever at making money.”

Kolkata was once dubbed Martin Burn city. That engineering firm, run by Sir Rajen Mukherjee and then his son Sir Biren, gave Calcutta the imposing landmarks that made it Calcutta — St. Xavier’s College, the Club House at Eden Gardens, the Grand Hotel Arcade. The firm still sits on 1 RN Mukherjee Road in Dalhousie but it’s owned by the Fatehpurias. Bengalis once had Martin Burn, now they have heartburn.

The Marudhar Mela in KolkataThe Marudhar Mela in Kolkata

The Marudhar Mela in Kolkata

When there was a robbery in my mother’s suburban neighbourhood of Salt Lake, a Bengali resident told television cameras bitterly that such happenings were only to be expected. Too many Marwaris, or as Bengalis put it, “non-Bengalis”, had moved into the neighbourhood.

The prosperity of the Marwari is inextricably tied with the imperial history of Kolkata. “We were agents of the British,” says Kejriwal whose grandfather came here in 1910 and started trading in edible oils and food grains before moving onto pig iron and foundries. “Nehru said we were governmentarians. We don’t care if it’s the white man’s government, Pandit government or Communist.”

Despite her chest-thumping display of Bengali pride, Mamata Banerjee convened a special meeting of local Marwari and Gujarati businessmen to seek their support during the 2016 election. Her assembly seat has 60,000 voters from those communities and she was afraid they were slipping away. Marwaris prop up Mamata’s Kolkata just as they flourished in Jyoti Basu’s Kolkata. Basu died in the Marwari-owned private AMRI hospital. Those days as Marwari businessmen acquired swathes of land in Kolkata, often at favourable rates, the standing joke was the M in CPI(M) stood for Marwari.

Shishir Bajoria laughs when he hears this. “Lots of Marwaris were close to the party but not party members. Maybe that’s why the M was in brackets.” Sitting in his stately Alipore home overlooking his lawn, while a mali trims grass and tends to the potted chrysanthemums, Bajoria, scion of an old jute family, looks like the archetypal well-settled Marwari industrialist. There’s art on the wall and a vintage car in the driveway.  His wife runs an art gallery. But unusual for a Marwari, Bajoria actually joined the CPI(M). “There was suspicion in the party because I came from the opposite camp, I came from capital.” But he grew close to the redoubtable Jyoti Basu. Bajoria once headed the Rajasthan Bengali Maitri Parishad, one of 100 odd nagar samitis from Rajasthan in Kolkata. “It ended up as an outreach campaign for the CPI(M). That was a mistake,” he admits.

At the Marudhar MelaAt the Marudhar Mela

At the Marudhar Mela

Ironically, after all that when he finally joined the Party, he was made a member of its Rajasthan unit. Bajoria didn’t even have an address there. He had to use the CPI(M) party office address. In the eyes of the Bengali babu, a Marwari, even one who loves his shukto and aloo posto, swam in Hedo’s pool in the heart of North Kolkata, and has as Bengali-sounding a name as Shishir, is at some level always an outsider. Now he’s joined the BJP. Typical Marwari opportunism? “Then I should have joined the Trinamool,” he says with a smile that makes it clear there were offers. I notice his spectacle chain. It’s the colours of the national flag.

Marwaris  were rich but often shut out of Calcutta’s snobbish elite clubs or only allowed in after great scrutiny. So they created their own clubs — Hindustan Club and the Marwari Rowing Club now re-christened the Bengal Rowing Club. Black and white portraits of the old presidents line the walls — a somber who’s who of hoary Marwari surnames — Birla, Goenka, Singhania. There’s a Shiv mandir at the entrance of BRC. A giant Ganesh guards the door of the Hindustan Club along with their own personal paanwalla. “Our specialty is, our food has no onion or garlic,” boasts club treasurer, Sudhir Satnaliwala. “But it is so delicious you will not tell the difference.” The club surveyed its members about introducing onion and garlic. Sixty-seven percent refused, says club secretary Anjani Dhanuka.

Piyush Bhagat, vice president of the Bengal Rowing Club says some members wanted to introduce alcohol but the majority demurred. “We are a family club. People are comfortable sending their children here unaccompanied because there is no alcohol,” he says. Bengal Rowing Club was set up by GD Birla. “He was a vegetarian and a teetotaler,” says Bhagat. “He wanted a club that would welcome him. In his dhoti-kurta and chapkan coat.”

Popular Rajasthani restaurantPopular Rajasthani restaurant

Popular Rajasthani restaurant

There are no dhoti-kurtas and chapkans visible among the families enjoying a breakfast of kachori sabzi and jalebis on the club lawns overlooking the misty lake. But the image persists of a community that’s insular, conservative and paan-chewing. Dhanuka says he once got a temporary membership at another prestigious Calcutta club but was ultimately rejected. When I ask him why, he says he’d rather not comment. Then he adds that the new and improved Hindustan Club has a swimming pool on the fourth floor. No other club in Kolkata, no matter how hallowed, can boast that.

But even the fanciest pool can’t quite take away the sting of rejection. Mero and Bong might be slang for both communities but Mero is also a pejorative in a way Bong is not — shorthand for tasteless and money-grubbing. Writer Alka Saraogi, Sahitya Akademi award winning writer and a Marwari herself, perhaps had the most biting description of the stereotypical Marwari in her novel KaliKatha: Via Bypass.

BCom passed, a protruding belly, betel-nuts masala in mouth, a silver snuff-box, white T-shirt on jeans, a sandalwood-paste tika on his forehead from his daily puja, mobile phone in hands. With gems-studded rings on most of the fingers.

Bengalis, she says might have had Marwari friends but preferred not to flaunt them. However Marwaris have not spent their hard-earned money just on gem-studded rings and the big fat Marwari wedding. The footprints of the Marwaris are all over Kolkata. To name just one family, the Birlas, there are dozens of institutions bearing their name: The Birla Planetarium, the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, the Birla Academy of Art and Culture. But no major thoroughfare honours the Birla patriarchs.

Stairway of Bengal Rowing ClubStairway of Bengal Rowing Club

Stairway of Bengal Rowing Club

Stories about Kolkata’s cosmopolitan heritage rarely include the Marwaris, invoking instead its vanishing Jews, its fading Armenians and the countless sahibs buried in Park Street cemetery, felled by gout and malaria. CK Dhanuka, an industrialist at Mamata’s recent meet-and-greet even sang a Tagore song but it’s as if its Marwari-ness is Kolkata’s guilty secret. Or perhaps it’s Bengalis who are just living in grand denial.

At a busy metro station, commuters waiting for the train glance at the television screen. Soumitra Chatterjee is selling some cement on it. Almost 60 years after Satyajit Ray launched him in Apur Sansar, Chatterjee remains the most trusted brand ambassador of the bhadralok Bengali, selling us everything from hearing aids to biscuits. He describes the cement he is endorsing as “Banglar gorbo”, the pride of Bengal. The words are carefully chosen. Bengal’s pride, the great actor says, not Bengali pride for he is peddling Birla Gold cement, a testimonial to Marwari enterprise in a Bengali city.

Or could it be one more sign that a city that loves to divide the world into Bengali and non-Bengali might have to start thinking of itself as Marwari and non-Marwari instead? That would make Soumitra babu a great non-Marwari success story in an increasingly Marwari city.

First-ever World Sufi Forum to be held in Delhi, to explore ways to counter spread of terrorism in name of faith

Extremism and terrorism increasingly being associated with a particular faith has brought together some members of the community in India and across the world to come together to discuss ways to counter it through a global event, World Sufi Forum in India. The first ever World Sufi Forum is being held in Delhi on March 17-29. Keeping in mind the urgent need to tackle continued violation of human rights through use of terror by jihadist forces, more than 200 international dignitaries from 20 countries will be attending the first World Sufi Forum to be held in the national capital.

The four-day event organized by All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) will involve discussions by leading global Sufi scholars, academicians, social workers on various important issues pertaining to Islam. The event is focused on finding constructive ways to spread the Islamic message of peace and tolerance as counterpoint on the ever rising global violent extremism. AIUMB is the apex body for sufi shrines and for Muslim religious leaders such as Ulama, Imams and Muftis.

Hazrat Syed Muhammad Ashraf, the founder and president of AIUMB

Hazrat Syed Muhammad Ashraf, the founder and president of AIUMB

“We want to spread the message that any terror acts or violence unleashed on people across the world in the name of Islamic faith is not right. Islam is about peace and harmony”, said Hazrat Syed Muhammad Ashraf, founder-president, AIUMB .

Excerpts from a conversation:

What, according to you, is the ideology that is being spread across the world through terror attacks?

There is a specific ideology which is not part of Islamic tradition which is motivating radicals who are wrongly interpreting the Qur’an and its narrative from their own ego pursuits and politics which is dangerous. Any extremist organisation waving Islamic flags and misusing the holy Qur’an such as Daesh and ISIS have actually no endorsement in the ambit of Islam. They are nothing but terror outfits which are tarnishing the image of Islam.

This is an extremist ideology which spreads hatred if someone does not subscribe to it. Enormous resources are invested in perpetrating violence. It is therefore important to realize and unearth the propaganda of such people and organizations that are funded by foreign entities to spread hatred and intolerance to disrupt peace and harmony in a country such as India. The minority group of the so-called mullahs in India too promote the Takfir ideology which is bent on destroying Islam here.  Fortunately, this idealism has not found much takers here.

What is the aim of the World Sufi Forum?

We believe it is high time for us to create a platform to seriously ponder over the radical interpretations of Islam by terror groups for political gains. The spread of terror and tyranny by jihadist forces in Syria and other parts of the world has damaged the image of Islam more than ever before. However we are of the belief that Indian Muslims can provide a real alternative to all the bloodshed being spilled across the world in the name of Islam by promoting their rich history of Sufism.

With World Sufi Forum, AIUMB plans to gather the brightest Sufi visionaries from around the world and empower them to create lasting spiritual connections that will produce peace, love and tranquility in the world. The event provides a platform to explore new alternatives in response to the ever-evolving socio-politico-economic nature of modern society by exploring the relevance of Sufi teachings, tradition and culture

What is the plan of action?

We will ask the participants to watch out for any misrepresentations of Islam in schools, colleges, madrasas  and anywhere where it is taught. In India, we plan to revoke madrasas that disturb the peace of the community through wrong interpretation of the teachings. We want to reinstate Sufi teachings in madrassas that have discontinued it.  Interfaith dialogue must be included in schools and colleges so that youth and students are aware of the immense legacy and peaceful culture of Sufism. The poor are being exploited in the name of religion and faith. There is a strong ideology that is emerging that does not want to associate with dargahs. The pseudo mullahs must be stopped from teaching violent extremism through Islam. We plan to have dedicated workers who will keep a check on these teachers in villages and poor neighbourhoods where the youth are being given teachings that are not spiritual.

Logo of the World Sufi Forum

Logo of the World Sufi Forum

How city of 1,000 lakes dried up: The shocking story of Bengaluru’s ailing water bodies

By Janaki Murali

Earlier this week, the Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru turned fish graveyard as hundreds of thousands of dead fish surfaced belly up, shocking environmentalists and neighbourhood residents. V Purushottam, president of a local residents’ group said that sewage water from many parts of the city was allowed to flow into the lake, thereby depleting oxygen levels in the lake water. He said that authorities have been continuously ignoring pleas to repair a bund that was supposed to keep this from happening.

Following Monday’s incident, officials swung into action. Environment minister Prakash Javadekar told NDTV that he had held two meetings with officials to discuss the incident. “They have given me details on what they are doing to improve the situation. The lakes’ system in Bengaluru has been destroyed for the past few decades. Colonies have been discharging their effluents into the lakes, which has led to this situation.”

Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru. Image from ReutersUlsoor Lake in Bengaluru. Image from Reuters

Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru. Image from Reuters

Mamata Saravanan, local corporator of the area also admitted laxity. “The maintenance of the lake has been very poor,” she said, adding that the lake’s health was worsened by the immersion of idols following festivals and unrestricted fishing activity.

Water samples collected from the lake have been sent for testing. Meanwhile, concerned citizens have started a petition on asking the municipal commissioner to affix responsibility for the loss of aquatic life at Ulsoor lake.

The real tragedy though is that Ulsoor still remains one of the better maintained lakes in Bengaluru. Located in a high-end residential colony, it’s a popular destination for walkers and joggers, while rowing and boating activity also draws crowds. And this incident comes just a few years after the government launched a massive clean-up operation here. Until the clean-up, Ulsoor was full of slush and silt left behind after the immersion of Ganesha idols. The lake was found to be full of water hyacinth. Clearly, the action taken by the government wasn’t enough.

And Ulsoor is not the only Bengaluru lake to be facing these concerns. Last year, the Varthur, Bellandur and Yamlur lakes were all found to be frothing at their mouths. Soon afterwards, the Yamlur lake burst into flames. In December last year, bird waters and students surveyed 20 lakes in and around Bengaluru to do a census on the waterfowl found here. It was the first time in 19 years that such a census was being conducted. Ulhas P Anand, one of the bird waters, told The Hindu, “Land use has been one of the biggest changes, which has affected the bird population tremendously, particularly among waders.

A bird census in the mid-90s had found several varieties of migratory birds, numbering over 5,000 in each lake. However, by 2015, these numbers had fallen drastically. According to the bird waters, sewage inflow, debris lining the shore, commercial fishing, unhindered chopping of trees along the shore and disappearance of wetlands had all affected the health of the lakes. Furthermore, some of the lakes had gone dry while some others had been bifurcated by main and arterial roads, while industrial areas surrounded some others.

All these factors contributed in a big way to the reduction of the bird population. Migratory birds, just like fish and other aquatic life, are the best indicators towards the health of a lake. In turn, the lakes are essential water bodies, needed to improve the quality of life of citizens. Disappearance of the lakes could result in rising temperatures, water shortage and reduced rainwater storage basins. Since the lakes have catchment areas for the collection of rain water, an ill maintained lake could mean increased dependence on already depleting underground water resources.

But it wasn’t always so. Bengaluru was always known as the city of one thousand lakes. These are lakes dug in the 16th century by the city’s founders, the Kempe Gowdas. The Mysuru Wodeyars and the British later developed them further. These wetlands were home to a variety of aquatic life, nurtured water birds and also provided drinking water to the area’s residents. By 1960, Bengaluru had only 280 lakes though. This figure dropped alarmingly to 80 by 1993. Currently, the number of healthy lakes in and around the city is a dismal 17.

Horrifying statistics, right? So, what happened to the lovely lakes that Bengaluru was known for?

Many of the lakes were converted to bus stands, golf courses, playgrounds and residential colonies by the government or were leased out. The rest were encroached by slums and builders, while some others dried up or became cesspools of human and toxic waste.

In 2013, DNA reported that the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) would be conducting a survey of lakes in the city to identify encroachments made by the influential land mafia. The ambitious project, costing an estimated Rs 50 crore, was supposed to clear the encroachments and rejuvenate 78 lakes in the city. This was part of a more comprehensive plan which was to revive and conserve 183 lakes in and around the city.

That was over two years ago. In September last year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had pulled up the Karnataka state government over encroachments on lake beds. The tribunal regretted that a city renowned for its 261 lakes only had 68 as of today. It also slammed the high-powered committee and the Lake Development Authority set up by the government and raised some serious questions.

Among the points the NGT raised were:
– Un-authorised encroachment and possession of wetlands by builders
– Steps to be taken by the officials and the extent of damage done to the ecology and environment, particularly the wetlands, by the builders
– What was the extent of the discharge of sewage and other effluents from the lakes? What remedial measures were being taken to ensure compliance of the law?
– What was the status of the show-cause notice issued by the Pollution Control Board to the builders? What steps are to be taken?

Meanwhile, several environment organisations have, over the past few years, been conducting regular surveys on the lost and disappearing lakes of Bengaluru. They have now joined forces to get the government to take action and save these lakes. Whatever efforts are being made to save the last few remaining lakes and water bodies of Bengaluru, one thing is clear: It cannot be left to the government alone to take action. Like any successful campaign, even this needs to happen with the support of environmentalists and citizen bodies.

These bodies have also got to be extra vigilant to monitor the action taken by the government. It is ultimately up to us to ensure that what happened at Ulsoor lake this week doesn’t happen anywhere else.

There goes the neighbourhood: Author Amit Chaudhuri talks about Kolkata and its decaying heritage

I live in the house my father-in-law built. A college professor, he poured his life savings into what was then, in the early fifties, an ordinary two-storied building in a very middle-class para (locality) of south Kolkata. It has the regulation red cement floors, high ceilings, slatted windows, ornate wrought iron grills, semi-circular verandahs, square ventilators with floral cast iron meshes but that hardly made the house appear very special.

Not to us anyway. Until, that is,  Amit Chaudhuri, novelist, singer, critic, told us otherwise.

Novel indeed. Whenever people lavish praise on Kolkata’s buildings they usually mean the grand old palaces in the north (the ‘black town’) or the massive colonial edifices dominating the city’s business district – giving Kolkata the nomenclature of “city of palaces” in the hoary past. But Chaudhuri has trained his eyes on standard residential buildings built by the Bengali middle class in different parts of south Kolkata and launched a movement to save these houses from the fell hand of philistine developers (promoters in local parlance).

He began by doing what comes to him naturally – writing.

Writing articles in the media, writing petitions to be co-signed by concerned citizens, writing letters to the authorities. All these impassioned pleas have now coalesced into the Calcutta Architectural Legacies, or CAL, set up this February with help from his friends to create awareness of the value of such buildings, build up a groundswell of opinion that will put pressure on the government to rise to the occasion. February ended with three fascinating events organised by CAL involving house owners, developers, artists and architects.

The time seemed right to find out from Chaudhuri, the moving spirit of this movement, what exactly is going on.

Here are some excerpts from an interview:

Artist Atul Dodiya delivers a talk organised by CAL. Manish Golder

So what’s so special about these houses? Are they really architectural landmarks?
Look, these houses were created by builders, anonymous builders, they were not created by architects. Yet, their proportions, both inside and outside, are extremely refined. Somehow you never feel when you look at them that that is kitsch or that didn’t work or it is sterile or this street is sterile. There is no sterility to these houses.

I, in fact, find them more interesting than the famous north Kolkata houses where you do have kitschy elements. Where you also have hubristic elements. I am not saying those houses ought not to be valued. Of course they should be, they also have an amazing sense of space. But they have neo-classical elements, which point to the kind of illusions or delusions landowners had about themselves and are reminders of their aspirational values as they were building these houses.

In a city like Kolkata, what we embrace, what we celebrate it for, is its modernity. It is kind of a crucible of modernity in India. This is where I experienced modernity first as a child. Not in Mumbai where I lived, I didn’t feel that about Mumbai when I was growing up. Now I do. When I was a child, Kolkata was so compellingly modern in its contradictions, the petrol fumes, the smell of urine, the astonishing buildings, the arts – the mix of the industrial and the organic, the ugly and the beautiful in an urban space is what characterises modernity.

You become addicted to modernity, I became addicted to modernity in Kolkata. It’s a form of existence that teaches us to look and experience life in a certain way. We look out of that slatted window onto the street, that is modernity. We go to a derelict house and are strangely moved by it. This odd realignment of values, this is modernity. You are not looking for a rose garden, you are looking for the excitement of the street. That’s modernity.

In Kolkata this modernity emerged in the 19th century and into the 20th, the latter being a kind of efflorescence and a continuation of what was created in the 19th. As exemplified by these non-heritage residential buildings which form these astonishing residential neighbourhoods that have art deco features as well as traditional features and European provenances.

These houses of south Kolkata, with their mix of elements, part European, part Bengali, rock or the cemented ledge in the front of a house, red oxide stone floors, long verandahs, open terraces, stoneworks, iron works, round knockers, slatted windows, ventilators on the sides of buildings, each building with a different kind of pattern to the ventilator, some art deco elements which you don’t see in the north, semi-circular balconies, porthole shaped windows, sunrise motifed grills, narrow glass windows on the stairwell, these are art deco motifs, they arrive at a form of building and architecture that is are exceptionally sophisticated and playful and have no hubris, have no sense of nostalgia. I think this is an exceptional inheritance.

You know, I am an outsider, I grew up in Mumbai. But I do have a deep belief in the uniqueness of Kolkata’s buildings, heritage and non-heritage, and its streets. By non-heritage I mean buildings that form a part of our architectural inheritance but have not been listed. That also remind us that to value architecture you cannot have recourse to crutches like did a famous person live there, does it look like a heritage building, is it a grand colonial institution? An ordinary residential building built by a professor in 1930 might be an exemplar of the playfulness which I think makes Kolkata’s ethos architecturally speaking so unique.

But I also believe, as deeply, that in 10 years nothing of this will remain, architecturally speaking, unless we actually take the trouble to do something. Take Pune. I was in Pune in 1998, for the launch of my third book, Freedom Song. I saw the city was changing but I also saw some wonderful buildings and realised why I used to love visiting it as a child. Then I went back in 2007, and it was all gone. In nine years. Maybe five per cent of the amazing buildings and streets that had made Pune one of the most visitable, charming, interesting small towns of India was still there. It looked like an obscure suburb of Mumbai, an upmarket slum.

We are headed that way unless we do something now.

But people are selling these houses for economic reasons, aren’t they? And if developers are pulling them down, that too must be because it makes economic sense.
That’s the default argument; that people are pulling them down for economic distress. Not everyone selling off their houses to developers are poor. There are quite a few who just don’t see any value in these houses. There are others who don’t want to sell but who are badgered and intimidated to do so by developers, thugs, and the local politician. You came to the panel discussion the other day and heard the story of house owners who desperately wish to hold on to their houses, who, as one of the owners, Prof Tapati Mukerjee, said, felt she had no right destroy something of great distinctiveness when she wouldn’t be able to rebuild something like it today. And yet, as we know from her, such owners are being badgered to sell. Others – like the owners of the great art deco mansion, Ram Dulari Park – are extremely wealth but may have razed those structures to the ground because they didn’t have a sense of their unique architectural value.

They were certainly not in need of money. Yes, there is litigation, many of these houses are trapped in legal tangles, there is economic distress too, these reasons are there, but there is also no value being given to these houses. There is no mindset that says these buildings ought to be kept and can be reused. The market in which such buildings could be sold to people who wouldn’t pull them down was never created, it was never given a chance. When these buildings began to be sold in the Nineties, they were always sold to the developers for the price of the land. So they were sold and brought down immediately.

There are no real guidelines to and hardly any accountability regarding demolition. The character of a neighbourhood or para can be destroyed with impunity. That is why we want the government to take the stand that neither buyer nor seller should have the right to demolish existing buildings, since these add up to a city’s collective inheritance and history.

But what could the alternative ways of saving these buildings be?
Well, the city fathers could arrange for Transfer of Development Rights for one, whereby owners of buildings are allowed to sell the equivalent of land value to ‘developers’, who can then use those rights to extend new properties being built elsewhere. Then there are many ways these spaces can be reused, we just have to think imaginatively. Already some people have begun to do so, holding art exhibitions and so on.

If the government is serious it could invest in them for the arts. Kolkata has this astonishing history for experimentation in the arts, in culture. If the government really wants to do something with that history it should invest in these spaces. For instance, writers from different parts of the world could come and spend time here if the facilities existed. This may sound like wishful thinking, but it’s happened in other cities. If Kolkata wishes to do more than pay lip-service to its culture by constantly invoking Tagore, it should look to reusing its spaces.

In our letter to the government we quoted Esther Duflo, professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has said Kolkata’s neighbourhoods should be showcased to the world in the same way that Prague and other great cities showcase their architecture. Not only do these buildings and precincts represent, vividly, the history of a unique Bengali modernity from the last century to the 1950s, they are the very things that will attract international visitors to the city.

But what we are actually getting are boutiques. Many of these houses have been refurbished as fancy shops, restaurants, hotels. How many boutiques can a city have?
I call in boutiquification. It’s not the ideal solution, I don’t really hold with what it does, but I prefer it to houses being pulled down. There are problems, with gentrification, with touristification too, but if we are serious then Kolkata can surely come up with creative ways to deal with these problems – as for instance Berlin, another city that was financially bankrupt for historical reasons, had.

Finally, it is up to us to decide – whether we want to tear them down or use them to live in, or use them for boutiques, or in ways that are more creative. Nobody is going to give it to us on a platter. That’s how it’s been elsewhere. It was during my travels abroad in the last 20 years that I realised the neighbourhoods we confront there not only represent the history that produced them, but a history involving communities resisting their disappearance.

What is at stake here is a discussion on urban regeneration that is connected to, but distinct from, economic revival. For the urban revival of any city, it’s a prerequisite that citizens engage with the spaces, buildings and histories that characterise it, rather than deny those features; that they understand and reuse them. Kolkata, in the last two decades, has largely failed to do this.

We know Amartya Sen and other luminaries are on board. But for the larger public, won’t it appear an elitist concern to many?
That is why this campaign is so vital. We want to make the public aware of something they have thought of only insufficiently, clarify the terms in which they think about the issue and also tell them they needn’t be crippled by embarrassment to be engaged with it. In a country where a superficial Left-oriented agenda among some of the intelligentsia will see this agenda as irrelevant, there is bound to be embarrassment in taking up such an issue. It’s true that it’s the Indian Left that feels particularly paralysed by these issues. All other Left traditions have proved to be more diverse about cultural inheritance. Only we have this knee-jerk reaction of disavowal in India, as if to prove how Left we are when it comes to these things. Having said that, there are many on the Left to whom this issue is significant. One thinks of the late Barun De. I hear that Nilotpal Basu was much energised by this campaign. There is, of course, Amartya Sen. And many of the younger members of the campaign are left-orientated in a way that’s not incompatible with thinking about reusing urban spaces. On the other, the Right prefers a Disneyfied version of Hinduism, with kitsch Ganeshas and Hanuman chalisas, and is deeply hostile to modernity and its imaginative ethos, from which, after all, these buildings emerge as much as the literature and the arts of the last century do.

Then there is also the cynicism in India, especially with what government will do. This is not only to do with heritage, it is to do with everything. You hand over the responsibility of everything to the government and then you are appalled when they behave as they do. Besides protesting and making outraged noises, you don’t actually try to actively pressure government. Because that’ll be demeaning to ourselves to dirty our hands that way.

If people in other parts of the world had felt such superiority to and distance from their governments then all those governments would have been equally corrupt. No government is on the ball, efficient, effective, transparent because they are all naturally idealists and wonderful people. They are that way because people and constantly evolving institutions create enough pressure for them to be have to be so.

Hence, the need for awareness, sustained awareness. People need to be aware that this is not an embarrassingly irrelevant agenda, that it is an agenda that involves all of us, and a belief that the agenda can be brought to some kind of fruition, that it can have a particular result. That kind of belief among people is the foundation for particular forms of action to be taken. Such as direct challenges to the government, petitions, going to court. A direct challenge to the government is ten times more likely to be heard if there is a groundswell of awareness than if there isn’t.


Artist Atul Dodiya delivers a talk organised by CAL. Manish Golder

Do you really see any hope in a city that has, just this month, downgraded a heritage building so that it can be pulled down? I mean the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s decision about Roxy cinema.

If you look at New York, if you look at places which have waged struggles to save their buildings, these struggles began not with cathedrals and churches being under threat but railway stations and cinema halls. It is exactly the destruction of those things that that made people in New York wake up to what was happening.
Roxy cinema is a wonderful, handsome art deco building, a listed building that adds a great deal to a city, to any city. The building was already partially defaced with a plastic or glass front which was added to it later which also shows something went wrong in the last 30 years for people to do something like that, that they could believe they were improving upon the building by making such an addition. Something must have gone wrong with the city, a city that could host such a building and then add something like that shows a disconnect with the past that hosted such buildings.

Now they’ve gone and downgraded a listed structure. In somebody’s wisdom it was a heritage building, maybe not a Grade I, which it should have been, but listed nevertheless. Kolkata must be one of the few cities now that is seeing a downgrading and delisting of heritage structures. What is astonishing is that the building is owned by KMC and the single functioning, or single extant body that deals with heritage from the government side is the KMC Heritage Committee. It’s very disturbing that heritage in this city is being guarded by a body that is not only non-functioning but is actively against heritage, against a city’s built ethos. This is the paradox we see in this weird paradoxical city.

Therefore, this is the right moment. Nothing proves the need for our movement better. What we are seeing here is a dreadful kind of reminder of the vacuum in official circles to do with thinking about the urban, thinking about aspects of the urban, such as buildings, such as our architectural inheritance. There is no time to waste. As Amartya Sen put it, “We do owe to the future generations a preserved and unmutilated heritage of Kolkata’s eccentric but exciting old buildings.”

Click here if you wish to sign the petition supporting the campaign.

We, the Barbarians: A spiritual examination of the hatred, anger and violence that has captured us

Sitting in us, in each and every one of us, is an entity we thought we had left behind in the course of our glorious evolution. You reading this column, I writing it, millions completely unaware of it…all of us are biological and spiritual hosts to this barbarian. The barbarian has been a part of our being forever. It is driven by a force of nature, the vital force. This force imparts life to poetry, to art, to music. It powers organisations of society, it creates visions of a better world.

But this force also revels in despair, gets joy from pain. And now, when humanity is standing at its most peaceful point in recorded history, this force tugs at our past, shuns harmony and brings out the barbarian in us. It breaks through our layers upon layers of falsehoods. If the peace within is impure, the barbarian grows. If the harmony is incomplete, the barbarian shows it to us in the raw.

Closest to us, we see it in JNU today.

A little time lapse, we watched it play out at Dadri last year.

Across the map, we read about the Islamic state in West Asia.

Further west, the barbarian shifts into Europe, creating rifts of culture.

In the land of plenty, we have plenty of gun deaths, racial subjugation.

In Sudan, genocide is the currency of control.

In Latin America, organised cartel killings have all but neutered psychological pains of death.

Each of these can be examined to great detail and turned unique. And intellectually speaking, unique they are — the religion-driven violence of the Islamic state is different from gun violence of the US, which is different from control-driven cartel killings in Latin America or lawyers running amuck in Patiala House.

But in spirit, they are one, driven by the same vital barbarian.

Individually and outwardly we might shun violence but let’s not deceive ourselves. The beast lies waiting. Patiently. It seeks little avenues to vent. In its dormancy it gathers force. It watches technological developments. It studies man’s reorganisation of society from religion to politics. It burns in frustration of the kingdom of violence lost to peace — as Steven Pinker wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.”

Created in response to a hostile environment of nature and fellow humans, driven by primal and primordial instincts of survival and procreation, with body structures that supported a physical existence, the barbarian ruled supreme till mind came into play. The mind changed everything. Initially it created tools to kill, cook, protect. Later it goaded clusters of men to richer environs, sharpening their weapons on the way, leaning on one another to create the first divisions of labour, quenching the thirst of life, seeking food chains across geographies.

Representational image. AFPRepresentational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Societal structures followed. From simple systems of tribal self-governance and nation states led by monarchies to complex democracies of today, the political evolution of the collective and thinking man has tried to leave the barbarian behind. Mass wars as the currency of inter-country discourse are giving way to tools like diplomacy and commerce. Despite news about violence every day in newspapers and every hour on Twitter feeds, the fact is physical violence has subsided.

In 260 BCE, Ashoka ‘the great’ killed more than 100,000 people of Kalinga (now Odisha). In 1397, Timur killed 100,000 in northern India and turned another 100,000 into slaves. In 1770, the British killed more than 10 million people in the Great Bengal Famine, followed by another 3 million in the Bengal famine of 1943 — a state-led strategic violence where mass-starvation was its weapon, and Winston Churchill’s quote, “If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”, its barbarous solution.

Outside India, historians believe Gengis Khan killed 40 million people in the 13th century. Between 1560 and 1700, more than 150,000 people were killed during the Spanish Inquisition. More than 16 million died in World War 1 and 61 million in World War 2. Between 1941 and 1945. More than 6 million Jews were killed by Germans in the Holocaust. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US killed 129,000 people.

Compared to these statistics, we are living in a relative peace.

History has a lot to teach but we are unwilling to learn.

Despite science, prosperity and peace, we remain a society at war.

With ‘them’. With ‘others’. With ‘neighbours’.

On ‘sedition’. On ‘lines of border’. On ‘clashes of civilisation’.

Over ‘religion’. Over ‘rights’. Over ‘ideologies’.

We are at war with everyone because we are at war with ourselves.

Enough waiting, it’s feeding time and the beast is emerging.

Beyond acronyms and incidents

JNU is just another acronym, Patiala House yet another incident, tomorrow will bring more. Tie these individual and unique episodes together and what we have is an emerging society of barbarians wearing the garb of man, happy to stand on its time-pinnacle, reveling in the illusion of grandeur that rules this planet, its expression a brutal lie, its evolution a pretence.

We are allegedly living in the age of reason. Rationality is our alleged ecosystem, logic our alleged currency. We have allegedly evolved, from the physical man to the mental man. With due respect to Charles Darwin, I use the word ‘evolution’ in its deeper and spiritual sense, not purely mechanical. For this, I lean on Indian spirituality, best articulated in the words of Sri Aurobindo, which effectively captures evolution into this statement: into matter burst life, into life entered mind, into mind will arrive the spirit.

But the process of evolution is incomplete. The barbarian lurking within us may not have the stamina or strength to kill or maim physically. But the driving vital force being of the same origin, surely it can express itself using the same tools of reason, rationality and logic to capture and control.

And so, cowardice is discovering new mediums, the most popular being keyboard courage.

Glib is expressing its latent power, with clever outrage being more convincing than truth.

Thought is hiding behind positions, and contaminating the purity of ideas by using reason.

Violence is discovering it still has political strength — it is fuelled by and in turn fuels the mob.

Spinning is realising its power to cloak, and does so with style.

Shame is the new cross on which we nail and in turn are nailed.

The barbarian has risen.


Reason is caught in the jaws of the vital barbarian

Driving the barbarian is a force that’s taking man’s evolution head-on, creating hurdles before the next future, raising barriers that sit within, that lay waiting for this stretched moment to explode, destroy, consume. An old consciousness is lingering over us like gangrene, waiting to be amputated by a humanity reluctant to let go of the stench and the agony of the past. Unaware of what lies in the mental age, our familiarity with the past that is sunk deep into the collective memory of our flesh, bones and DNA is keeping us running towards what we perceive to be a higher realm of life but is little more than a hamster’s wheel from the predictability and the pain of which we derive modern meaning.

From barbarian to man, the journey was supposed to embrace arguments, opinions, ideas. In this age of reason, in the triumph of the mind, on the ashes of conquest, killings and rapacious consumption of the other, we were to arrive at a higher equilibrium, towards a greater unity, a higher level of existence. Existential threats were to have given way to a harmonious sense of security. A new existence, based on values, beliefs, work, achievement, prosperity, knowledge was to have taken charge.

New values were to have dissolved differences and embraced oneness. New beliefs were to have made our planet cleaner, more equal, harmonious. New work was to have helped man find expression, provide meaning, grant him his swadharm. New achievements were to have pushed the barriers of excellence, at individual as well as societal level, higher. New prosperity, driven by science and technological innovations, was to have provided a basic minimum for every human. And new knowledge was to have pushed the limits of knowing higher, wider, deeper.

Technology was to have created a new balance, democratic organisation of society a new power, tools like legislated protections a new security. Arguments were to take precedence over duels, ideas were to be the new currency of discourse replacing blood, ideologies were to determine the destiny of nations not swords. In the mental age, the rational mind was to dominate over the brute body.

But when we look up and emerge from the world of screens, when we decide that we’ve spun enough and now need an inner stability based on our own thoughts and values, when we look within and behind all our justifications and ideas of self-worth, what we see is the looming shadow of a rising barbarian. From its invisible, unperceivable, untouchable stage it is now gathering a form.

The barbarian in us has merely changed its weapons. Its spirit remains strong, it powers us, it pulls us back, it tells us that the temple of the body is where salvation lies not in the fuzzy ideas of the mind. From the trails of blood on the streets, through the voices of hate, in a world of for-against, all creating, powering and capturing unthinking mobs, the barbarian is coming into his own. The soul of the barbarian is simply this: body is the temple, material the offering, trade the transaction of consciousness.

“The time is passing away, permanently — let us hope — for this cycle of civilisation, when the entire identification of the self with the body and the physical life was possible for the general consciousness of the race,” Sri Aurobindo wrote a century ago in The Human Cycle (1916-18). “That is the primary characteristic of complete barbarism. To take the body and the physical life as the one thing important, to judge manhood by the physical strength, development and prowess, to be at the mercy of the instincts which rise out of the physical inconscient, to despise knowledge as a weakness and inferiority or look on it as a peculiarity and no necessary part of the conception of manhood, this is the mentality of the barbarian.”

But evolution will not wait for the barbarian

Nowhere do we see, engage with and experience this barbarian as we do digitally — on Facebook and Twitter, in egroups and emails. It has taken charge of our drawing room conversations with pride — harsher and sharper the opinion, greater the response and reaction and more delicious the victory of the barbarian. We protect our children from this barbarian because we know it can harm. But we engage it within ourselves and spread its emissions nonetheless, turn it into a tool of vanity.

Using heavy words like sedition and democracy, converting them into marketing hashtags to fill the ravenous belly of the barbarian, in a world being spun by him, we are the spun. In our petty verbal victories and vanities we embrace a higher defeat. In our celebrations of small change, we fight to remain the same. In our little minds we create little communities of endemic barbarities. Like germs that afflict the planet every now and then, these endemic expressions are really a subset of an epidemic that’s raging wild across our planet and within ourselves.

Evolution will not stop or even pause for the barbarian. The inevitability of its end and the advent of the age of true reason is destined. As we introspect, we may come face to face with our own demons. But we may not even have to kill the barbarian within and through it free the consciousness of humanity. This upsurge maybe be nothing more than a tipping point, last burst of a dying flame, a precipice of reason on the edge of which stands the barbarian, its arms of destruction strangulating its own vitality, its feet thumping its own destruction.

The author tracks money, power, faith and mythology. He is the New Media Director at Reliance Industries Ltd. Views are personal. He tweets @gchikermane. Reliance Industries owns Network 18, of which Firstpost is a division.

Discrimination at Haji Ali Dargah cannot be passed off as Islamic: Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in December 2015. With protests on Thursday by women seeking entry into a restricted area of the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai — amid a campaign by a group seeking rights for female devotees to offer prayers at inner sanctum of Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra, it’s worth revisiting the views of the women who filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court to fight the ban.

by Dr Noorjehan Safia Niaz and  Zakia Soman

Haji Ali dargah is a landmark in Mumbai city. Scores of women and men visit it daily from Mumbai, from across the country and the world. The Dargah is the tomb of Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, the patron saint of Mumbai. Many of us have grown up with memories of visits to the dargah with our families.

As girls, we entered the mazaar (inner sanctum where the saint lies buried) from a separate entrance earmarked only for women to offer prayers, however this was true only in the past. We got a rude shock in June 2012 when a group of us women visited the Dargah. We discovered that a steel barricade was put up to prevent our entry into the inner sanctum.

Haji Ali Dargah. IBNLive.Haji Ali Dargah. IBNLive.

Haji Ali Dargah. IBNLive.

We were not going to accept this discrimination. We decided to meet with the keepers of the Dargah to sort out this situation. After all, some of us had offered prayers in the mazaar just the previous year. We wondered what changed that necessitated a bar on our entry! Soon we met with the President of the dargah Trust and sought a response on why we were disallowed entry.

We were given ridiculous and sexist reasons pertaining to the dressing of women on account of which they decided to ban women: “Unko unke pallu ka hosh nahi rahta hai” (they don’t even know how to manage their own clothing), we were told. He went on to say that the decision was for the safety and security of women and that it was being done in accordance with the Shariat. He had no answers when it was pointed out that how come we have always been allowed so far and why the sudden change? How is it that we are able to enter the inner sanctum in so many other dargahs in Mumbai and elsewhere in India? We decided to pursue the matter as it is of utmost significance for Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan to fight this gender-based discrimination — we did not wish to accept this arbitrary application of Shariat.

We started by contacting various authorities to look into this matter. We made a representation to the State Minorities Commission. We sent out similar letters seeking intervention for gender justice to the National Commission for Women, Maharashtra State Commission for Women, Chief Minister of Maharashtra as well as a few sitting ministers. We also personally met with several concerned officials to resolve this matter. The Secretary of the State Minorities Department arranged a meeting between us, the dargah trustees and some others. Her efforts were in vain as nobody from the dargah trust turned up for this meeting.

Following our request, letters were issued by different commissions to the Trust to resolve the matter. Letters were sent by us too. All these efforts at resolving the matter through discussion and dialogue were thwarted by non-cooperation of the Trust. They seem to be in clear denial of the discrimination. In March 2014, we received a received a letter from the State Minorities Commission stating that the matter is beyond its jurisdiction. In short, the women continue to be barred from entering the inner sanctum of the Dargah.

This raises several concerns. Discrimination cannot be passed off as Islamic. To us it is clear that denying access to women to the mazaar is a violation of the Quranic principles of justice and fairness. Men and women are equal in Islam; this discrimination must be challenged. Additionally, it infringes upon our fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of India.

This ban on women is also against the essence of Sufism; love, compassion and humanity. It goes against the spirit of syncretism and inclusiveness that signifies the teachings of Sufi saints. Our Sufi shrines are living examples of harmony and plural traditions in our society.

Today Muslim women are barred, who is next? There cannot be a greater disservice to the spirit of Sufism; the Pir would certainly not approve. Clearly, a conservative and extremist Salafi ideology seems to be at work here. At all shrines, female devotees have an equal right of entry and access to all parts including the mazaar on par with the male devotees.

We need to ask whether the right to religious freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution applies only to men? Aren’t the Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India meant for men and women both? This ban on entry amounts to discrimination against women and is in violation of women’s rights to equality under Article 14. It also violates the right against discrimination on the ground of sex alone under Article 15 of the Constitution.

However, this discrimination is not faced by Muslim women alone. Hindu women too are discriminated in places of worship such as Sabarimala temple and Shani mandir more recently. It would be relevant here to refer to the judgment of the Honourable Supreme Court in the matter of N Adithayan vs Travancore Devaswom Board and others in 2002. The apex Court held that there was no justification for permitting only the Brahmins to carry out the necessary rites and rituals as priests only on the ground that traditionally the rites and rituals were carried out by them.

After referring to several judgments dealing with the rights guaranteed under Articles 25 and 26, the Honourable Supreme Court came to the conclusion that any custom of restricting functions of priests or poojaris to Brahmins only, is in violation of human rights, human dignity, concept of social equality and the specific mandate of the Constitution and could not be considered as an integral part of the Hindu religion. The message from this judgment is clear. All citizens are equal and no class of citizens can be discriminated based on caste or gender or religion.

The ban on women’s entry into the Haji Ali mazaar is unacceptable. It goes against the Islamic spirit of justice. It negates the essence of Sufi ruhaniyat (spirituality). It is a clear violation of fundamental rights of women as guaranteed by the Constitution.

The authors are co-founders of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan

Journalism today: Will social media turn mainstream media irrelevant?

There is something intriguing happening at the “subaltern” level that is sensitising “India, that is Bharat” to issues that were never debated for the last 200 years.  The past few days in Bengaluru, a city that boasts of being open to ideas, technology, concepts and outlook have been educative, to say the least.

Interestingly, the die was cast when two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Steve Coll, in a discussion with Rohini Nilekani, chairperson of Arghyam, spoke of the challenges thrown at main stream journalism by social media and corporates.

Coll, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism believed journalism was vital in forging accountability and transparency while at a discussion held in a five-star hotel attended by a select gathering of around 150. Many of them were drawn from the media and extremely inquisitive on how to push back the onslaught coming from Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools.

Now cut away to a series of lectures and lively discussions taking place across the same city (at Karnatak Samskrit University Auditorium,  Chamrajpet; Bharati Vidya Bhavan; Aksharam, Samskrita Bharati, Girinagar; IISc, Satish Dhawan Auditorium; Amrita College of Engineering, Kasavanahalli; The Art of Living Campus, and a workshop in Jayanagar) where Rajiv Malhotra, arguably one of the foremost thinkers of our time according to his fans, was drawing packed crowds on the first leg of his five-city (Bengaluru, Chennai, New Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad) whirlwind tour of India during which he would also launch his seminal book, The Battle For Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred? Oppressive or Liberating? Dead or Alive? Most of Malhotra’s lectures were being slotted at big brand institutions like IIT, IISc, JNU, Delhi University etc and aimed at a discerning audience.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Additionally, the current Malhotra tour has been enriched by the presence of some really big names at the discussions. For instance, at IISc, those sharing the dais were Padma Vibhushan awardee and well-known aerospace scientist Roddam Narasimha and the erudite Mohan Das Pai, both of whom pulled no punches during their addresses. Among the packed audience of  professors, research students and others was the whiz-kid  Balaji Srinivasan of Counsyl and other fame.

At Coll and Nilekani’s “Emerging Frontiers in Journalism”, the underlying issue was how to retain the relevance of mainstream media (MSM) in a world disrupted by social media. But at Malhotra’s discussions a lot of flak was being directed at the distortion of the narrative by the very same MSM.

For instance, Professor Narasimha who at length stated that he had no Hindutva or Saffron allegiance, said that journalists, either deliberately or through ignorance, had twisted issues so badly that common readers were confused between claims and actual facts.

“The stories of ancient India having aeroplanes and flying saucers are mere mumbo-jumbo. There is no scientific, verifiable evidence to support this. But Indians’ knowledge of the Pythagoras theorem before the Greeks knew about it is true. In fact the Westerners wrote the Pythagoras theorem only 500 years after the death of Pythagoras whereas it was already being put to use here.

“Also true is that we were world leaders in mathematics and metallurgy, and that Indian maths and numerical system made possible many western discoveries and scientific advancements. Of course, we learnt a lot of science and medicine from the West. But we also knew plastic surgery. In fact, reattachment of the nose was learnt by the British from India just 200 years ago. Unfortunately the wrong issues and claims get highlighted by our media and this trivialises many of the great contributions Indian civilisation has made to the world,” he said.

During the interaction one of the IISc research students lamented that the researchers had a great hunger to publish their findings in international journals, “but only five percent was published. The remaining 95 percent which constituted a great body of our work and knowledge now lies in the hands of these publishers to do as they pleased with it.”

Pai quickly interjected to offer a solution: “Write a blog on the unpublished work. Put it out on Facebook and Twitter. This way your work won’t be stolen or plagiarised. This is the strength of social media where we are all reporters and we are all editors. This is a great way to safeguard the proprietary of your work, something our earlier generations never had.”

It was eerie that while the MSM at the Steve Coll discussion felt threatened by social media, those at the Malhotra discussions were actually finding it liberating. They felt empowered and protected by its openness.

Malhotra, whose latest book on the westernisation of the Indian discourse looks certain to set the cat among the pigeons, described how the narrative was now being controlled by forces inimical to India.

“The Chinese, Japanese and more recently the Arabs fund western universities and dictate how their narratives have to be studied and taught. But with Indians it is exactly the opposite. A disturbing trend  of late is that of Indians being given scholarship and doctorates on Indic studies which are being seen through western lens and controlled and guided by them.

“Worse, some of our philanthropists are funding India studies to be interpreted by westerners and the same rubbish is then flowed back into India. Thus there is now a political philology, an economic philology and even a sacred philology of our texts and epics, all seen through western lens and with the intention of trivialising them,” Malhotra stated.

He pointed out how a leading newspaper which had not reviewed a single book of his or covered any of his events defamed him and his work in a lengthy article last year. When he wrote a point-by-point rebuttal to the charges the editor not only did not publish it, but also said that they had no compulsion to present the other side of the argument!

Malhotra, whose lectures and discussions with eminent thinkers and public figures are gingerly avoided by main stream media, pointed out that a surprisingly large number of Indians were still unwilling to look favourably at their own narratives.  “For instance, at Delhi University I showed them books and material on how the Upanishads and Indian philosophy greatly influenced the eminent poet TS Elliot. Not only the students and their teachers, even my niece was so upset by the revelations that she did not speak to me for a year!”

Pai, who offered to finance a science congress of Indian thoughts and achievements at the IISc, believed that the tide was turning, especially in television media. “Earlier, only one view was being projected. But now you can see snatches of the other side of the argument in almost all discussions. Newspapers haven’t yet broken from the shackles of colonisation and the leftists. But with social media booming and providing alternate sources of information, MSM is becoming increasingly irrelevant.”

Now that is exactly what is worrying Coll and members of the MSM who believe that the onslaught from corporates, social media and ‘subaltern’ voices is gradually pushing them to the fringe.

Why Ashubi Khan’s pioneering run ends today

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