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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Converting science into obscurantism



The cult of hindutva first appeared on the political horizon in the 1980s as a movement to build a temple in Ayodhya where a mosque stood. Over the next decade, its leadership stoked the most primal of mankind’s urges, religious bigotry, and helped vault its political front, the BJP, to power in coalition with several other political parties. Finally, in May 2014, hindutva found utterance in the formation of a majority government headed by Narendra Modi, a self-described pracharak of the mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Now three years into its terms, the government is being shown up as inept and clueless about governance. There are many instances of its abject failures on the policy front as it tries to promote its hindutva agenda. What follows is the story of an attempt to paint science policy in saffron hues.

According to a report in The Hindu, the Modi government has directed the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) “to generate half of its funds and start sending report cards to the Centre on how each… laboratory (is) focusing its resources on developing specific lines of inventions which would contribute to the social and economic objectives of the Narendra Modi government for the poor and the common man”.

For the record, CSIR was established in 1942 to fund and develop original scientific and industrial research. Starting out as a testing and quality control unit, the organisation sadly failed to evolve to fulfil the grandiose dreams of its votaries, and has degenerated into an ineffectual bureaucracy that’s done what a bureaucracy does best: expanded its turf to affiliate 40 ‘research laboratories’. Unsurprisingly, its list of achievements in 75 years of existence is unimpressive.

At first glance, the government’s directive is not unconscionable. CSIR has grazed in the fields of public funding all these years to produce very little of consequence. To that extent, the June 2015 directive, announced at what the Hindustan Times dubbed a “chintan shivir (think camp) for scientists” in Dehradun was welcome.

However, nothing is uncomplicated or untwisted in the world of hindutva champions. The optics suggested that the Modi government wants to use the rod against CSIR and whip it into shape. In the so-called Dehradun declaration issued at the end of the summit, The Hindu quoted a senior official who attended the meeting as saying, “The most worrisome aspect was representatives from Vigyan Bharati, an organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), being part of this discussion. The idea was to ensure ‘indigenous science’ was promoted. But what was the RSS doing in this meeting?”

The plan seems to be to reward foot soldiers of hindutva with jobs and lucrative projects in RSS-favoured fields, especially research and development of ‘indigenous’ science, a thinly-veiled nudge for cow urine pharmacology and therapy. Bypassing the ministry of science and technology, the AYUSH ministry has taken charge of the project.

Thus, AYUSH minister of state Sripad Naik announced in Parliament, that “CSIR through its constituent laboratories has conducted research studies… on cow urine distillate for its anti-oxidant and bio-enhancing properties on anti-infective and anti-cancer agents and nutrients. Four US patents have been secured… and one pharmaceutical product containing cow urine distillate with anti-oxidant property is available in the market”.

In a scathing critique of “the government’s cow urine craze,” The Wire, a news portal, expressed concern about the AYUSH ministry promoting obscurantism. Since November 2014 when it was constituted, just five months after the Modi government assumed office, the ministry began to sprout saffron wings.

Intended to serve as a knowledge and resource centre for traditional medicine systems, it was set up in 1995 as a department in the health ministry, the outcome of a 1993 push by Sam Pitroda to incorporate traditional Indian systems of medicine into a holistic public health offering. To that end, Pitroda established I-AIM (Institute for Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine), whose major focus was on creating a database of medicinal plants. From there to the department of Indian systems of medicine and homeopathy (ISMH) was a short hop. In 2003, the BJP-led government attempted to burnish its hindutva credentials after four years of non-performance: it transformed the department of ISMH into the AYUSH ministry.

Now more than a decade later, the Modi government seems to have concluded that it needs to do more to woo the base; hence, its focus on the cow. To marry this to its ‘development’ agenda, it convened the chintan shivir of scientists in Dehradun. The idea seems to have been to impart a modern touch to its obscurantism, seeking to make cow urine a CSIR focus, an initiative that fits into its Make in India, Skill India, IT plus IT equals IT manifesto of acronyms that are a unique feature of this non-performing regime.

Lamentably, a commendable academic effort to document traditional medical knowledge has been subverted by hindutva obscurantism to a profound absurdity and object of ridicule.

(From Education World, June 2017.)

Friday, April 21, 2017

Hindutva can be a racist and neocolonial force, but not Hinduism



Just to get the main thesis of this article sorted out: the Hindutva advocated by the BJP government and its ecosystems is most definitely not Hinduism. It is a network of cults that may be embarked on a 21st century attempt to colonise India. Here’s how:

Hindutva is a set of beliefs and practices that can be traced to illiberal formations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its various avatars and offshoots.

These groups found utterance about a decade after the Indian National Congress launched the freedom struggle. In awe of the whiteness of India’s British Raj, they chose obsequious collaboration and stayed away from the nationalist movement.

Always denizens of dark alleys and troubled waters, RSS supremacists were arrayed against the Congress because it espoused secular liberal values. They reserved special venom for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who they saw as an appeaser of Muslims.

In the event, the nascent government of India banned the organisation after Nathuram Godse, reportedly one of its members, was arrested, tried and hanged for the murder of Gandhi.

Since then, the supremacists remained in the shadows, nursing their hate and plotting their phantasmagoria of a Hindutva “rashtra”. Their biggest leap into public life was in the revivalist Ram Janmabhoomi campaign against the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

Grandiosely termed a “movement,” the campaign was more like an expanding wave of communal violence and found resonance in sections of the urban middle classes in India.

The revivalist agitation also won support in the immigrant community in the United States.

In the 1980s, a large number of Indian community organisations were formed around the construction of temples in various US cities.

These groups were an entirely new service sector comprising merchants, traders and small businessmen to supply community needs for Indian foods, clothes, artefacts, entertainment and various other products and services.

Comprised largely of Gujarati and North Indian NRIs, from hourly workers to struggling professionals and crooked businessmen, this segment of the immigrant community found itself at loggerheads with their interlocutors in America: other lower middle class immigrant groups and the white working class and also with blacks because of their overt racism.

Living cheek by jowl with the prejudice of their neighbours in the urban ghettos and in the workplace, these groups sought comfort in the supremacist cults of Hindutva.

As such, these working-class groups were in the forefront of a clamour for a unitary church, a single book of worship, a uniform culture and alarmingly, they wanted to reverse the separation of church and state.

As a normal Hindu person, never have I heard advocated a view that Hinduism needs to become semiticised around a single culture, a single language, a single-minded faith in myth and superstition, in-your-face rituals, a victim mindset. The demand arose among ghettoised NRI groups in America and spread to opportunistic RSS supremacists in India.

Over the years, the saffron dispensation and its NRI fans managed to fudge the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. They developed fantastic theories of Aryan descent and achievements of mythological forebears.

As a journalist in the US, I have personally heard life insurance salesmen, factory workers, retail merchants, others openly assert that being of Aryan descent, they were whiter than the whites, certainly purer because of their diet and their ability to keep their women and children cloistered from the lascivious attractions and impure ways of American life.

The claim about Aryan descent of the Hindutva cults is worth exploring. So I dived into my library to locate Ainslie T Embree’s Sources of Indian Tradition, a book that was prescribed reading for my graduate course in Hinduism. An excerpt:

“The Aryans were a nomadic, pastoral people, and it was probably the search for new grazing lands for their cattle that led to their migration into India. The cow was their main source of wealth, and scholars have speculated that this was the basis of the later emphasis in Hinduism on the sanctity of the cow. As the Aryan moved into India from the northwest, they fought many battles with the original inhabitants of land, a dark-skinned people whom they contemptuously called “dasas,” a word that later came to mean slave.”

Members of the various Hindutva cults have decried this as a false interpretation of the origins of Hinduism, insisting that Aryans were native to India and not invaders from Central Asia.

The subtext is that they are descendants of the Indo-European (read white) races.

However, no respectable scholar accepts that thesis. What is abundantly evident from this conflation of Aryans, white-skinned people and members of the Hindutva cult is that such theories are racist to the core.
Just consider the views of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, chief of the RSS until his death in 1973. He was big on issues of race and national pride. His take on the Third Reich and Nazism is produced below verbatim:

"To keep up with the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races — the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and Cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for use in Hindusthan to learn and profit by."

In their racist claims to be counted as Aryans, champions of Hindutva are actually hoist by their own petard. Their claim that Aryans are indigenous to the subcontinent has been widely and thoroughly discredited.

As such, their insistence on being Aryan leaves them open to the charge that they are a racist neocolonial force in India.

How else can you interpret a recent comment by Tarun Vijay, former editor of the RSS publication Panchajanya?

Vijay said in a debate on Al Jazeera television: “If we were racist, why would we have the entire south... Tamil, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra... why do we live with them? We have black people around us.”

(An edited version of this post will appear in Dailyo.in, April 2017.)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Goa Journal: A sense of liberation

Tainted Congress is Turfed Out.

Driving in from the airport on the day of the election results, we passed caravans of pick-up trucks, cars, scooters and motorcycles. Draped in BJP colors, the caravans were celebrating the clear victory of the BJP in the recently-concluded Assembly elections. As they whizzed past towns and villages, people gathered on the edges of the highway, cheering them on. Like Woodstock, it appeared to me “everywhere there was song and celebration.”

I was struck by the sense of liberation that was palpable on the streets and squares. It was as if a dictator had been felled. “Sir, we are free from the corrupt Congress raj,” the owner of a shack on Morjim Beach told me as we walked in the next morning to laze a few hours away, swimming in the blue-green Arabian Sea and savoring the shack’s basic wares: shrimp curry and rice with fried fish and chips, washed down with fresh pineapple juice and Goa’s own King’s beer.

To get to this picturesque beach, you have to drive east from our house into Mapusa and then head north through Siolim across the bridge on the spectacular Chapora River. The drive from Mapusa, an ugly, Indian-style market town, to Siolim is over a forested hill with gorgeous valley views. The road is superb like most of Goan roads, except that over the years it has become a garbage dump. Mounds of garbage line either side of the road, detracting from the sheer natural beauty.

Even along National Highway 17, the major artery that crosses Goa north to south en route to Kerala, you see similar sights: piles of garbage on both sides. This odious development has come about in the past five years. The years from 2007 have seen Goa assaulted by real estate developers; exploited by illegal mining and stalled by crumbling infrastructure: no waste management, acute power and water shortages, traffic jams, eroding beaches and the growth of Bombay-style slums. Then there are drugs, the Russian mafia and vastly increased crime.

This has happened on the Congress watch. Clearly, these problems were building up over the years but neglected because of political instability. Between 1963 and 1990, there were just four chief ministers; since then, there have been 15. In 2007, the Congress formed the government and lasted the full term until March 3, 2012. It appeared as though a stable government might address the mounting problems. Well, it didn’t; what’s more, it was seen as a beneficiary of these ills. On March 3, Goans voted with a vengeance and turfed the Congress out.

One of the major causes of the Congress defeat is the defection of the Christian vote. Though they form just a little more than two percent of the Indian population; strikingly, Christians in Goa number nearly 30 percent of the state’s inhabitants. They have traditionally shunned the BJP because of its insular Hindutva agenda; this time they overcame their distaste for the saffron party and voted against the Congress.

There is euphoria in this bucolic little corner of India. The BJP has won handily so there should be no trouble for the next five years. Manohar Parrikar, the likable former chief minister, is set to run Goa again. Peoples’ expectations are high; but clearly it more an anti-Congress than a pro-BJP mandate.

Parrikar is a soft-spoken man, educated at the exclusive Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. I happen to know him because he asked me to help publicize the first International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa in 2004. In the course of the project, I met him several times and found him to be focused on outcomes. In the event, we worked together to make the festival a success and to make Goa a permanent home for it.

At the time, I was a member of the Congress Media Advisory Board but that didn’t make a difference to Parrikar. He wanted professional public relations support and so was happy to work with me and my firm. The brief was to make it into a South Asian Cannes.  The IFFI public relations project went south after he was ousted. Subsequent Congress governments had an opportunity to build on the national and international notice the festival attracted. Instead, as a former senior official of the Entertainment Society of Goa (ESG), the unit that ran the festival, told me: “It has become a den of corruption.”

I learned it the hard way when my firm responded to a tender for public relations support for IFFI 2011 put out by the ESG. We made our submission and I undertook a trip to Goa for the opening of the bids. The entire procedure was opaque. Three bids were opened: two firms including mine, made similar financial proposals. Within minutes, the bureaucrat, who read out the numbers (and he looked every bit vile and corrupt), dismissed us and awarded the project to a firm that bid one-fourteenth of the amount that we proposed.

This is the way Goa functioned under the Congress. Even though I am a supporter of the GOP, I found the party’s Goa dispensation less than transparent. I am not surprised they were booted out.

###



This article appeared in The Times of India on March 14, 2012.



Monday, February 6, 2017

Mindless activism is the root of Goa’s political stasis

Contemplating the election just completed in Goa, my mind wandered to a Sunday afternoon a few years ago. At lunch in a friend’s place near Panjim, I found myself under assault by an “activist”. He challenged my assessment that the “India against Corruption” protest, then in full flower, was just another anti-Congress formation. My interlocutor was the well-spoken scion of an influential Goan family and he took umbrage at my assertion that Anna Hazare, the figure head of the protest, was a congenital publicity hound.

Sadly, the conversation degenerated into a diatribe with the activist scolding me for my views on politics, economics and society. There was not much subtlety in his charge that people such as I must be held responsible for the state of affairs in India, tainted as it is with political corruption, skewed economic priorities and consumerist societal norms.

Fast forward to 2014, post the Hazare protest: A group of “activists” led by Arvind Kejriwal emerged to form the Aam Aadmi Party. Kejriwal’s group did surprisingly well in the ensuing elections to the assembly and was able to form a government with support from the Congress. The rest is history.

Last year, when AAP announced it would contest elections in Goa, which is a particularly fecund political environment for activism, I was not surprised. All these years of living in the haven, I was witness to the mindless activism that challenged the long-reigning Congress on any and every development scheme or project. Bringing to bear their networking skills and media clout, activists went hammer and tongs after the Congress on often unsubstantiated charges of corruption. In the event, they did not change the fluid and corrupt politics in the state or root out corruption; they ensured the rise of the BJP.

The entry of AAP to Goa politics has been made possible by the cosy fit with local activists. Coasting on word-of-mouth publicity, AAP brought to bear its propaganda skills to project a victory in the just-completed election to the assembly. Many people, with a foot in both places, Delhi and Goa, are understandably appalled. In their view, Goans have regarded them with hostility as outsiders spoiling the Goan environment with their South Delhi ways. But Goans see no contradiction in embracing a Delhi-centric political party with roots in the rough-and-ready exurban areas of the National Capital Region.

This election was held against a national backdrop in which there is a massive pushback against the BJP and a growing disenchantment with the politics of AAP. Sensing this, the Congress put in place ambitious revival plans. It opted for a seat-sharing arrangement with: Two seats for Goa Forward, a year-old party pledged to defeat the BJP; one for Atanasio Monserrate’s United Goan, a party sworn to keep the secular vote from splitting; and it has decided to support an independent candidate.

Aside of the seat sharing arrangement, the Congress is likely to benefit from a split in the BJP vote. This is because of an alliance between Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, Shiv Sena and Goa Suraksha Manch, a new party floated by a rebel RSS member, Subhash Velingkar, head of the influential Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch. This Right-wing alliance, which had been instrumental in the BJP victory in 2012, threatens to jerk the rug from under the BJP.

The Congress sources in Goa and Delhi say they have long believed Kejriwal’s AAP was a front floated by the saffronistas to divide the Congress vote, especially in two-way contests as in Punjab and Goa. Their response to the split in the BJP vote in Goa is a nudge and a wink to suggest the Congress stands to make a huge gain because this split will take more votes from the BJP than AAP will from the Congress.

Though polls predict a hung assembly, the mood in the Congress camp is upbeat.


(An edited version of this post will appear in http://hindustantimes.com, February 6, 2017.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Narendra Modi: One-term PM?

Gujarat is a small, relatively homogeneous state. Its people are entrepreneurial, focused on business and count their success in accumulated assets; not for them the glamour of a corporate career or the power of a government position. To them, government is somewhat ceremonial in the state and a complexity best avoided at the center. They want to just get on with it, providing for their families and future generations, with travel thrown in as a major diversion.
The Gujarati believes that governance with a light touch is best. For the first decade of its existence, the state government coasted along building assets: roads, power stations, factories, pleasant cities and not getting in the way of a thriving mercantile culture.
Things began to change with the decline of the textile industry, the backbone of Gujarat’s thriving economy. Politics began to dictate outcomes. The state was overwhelmed by civil disturbances including large-scale religious and caste riots. This set the stage for the populist Navnirman movement that gave way to the rabid bigotry of the BJP.
There are interesting coincidences surrounding the rise of the BJP in Gujarat and emigration from the state to the US. With the amendment of the US Immigration and Nationality Act in 1968 to allow relative petitions leading to permanent residence (green card) and citizenship, a veritable flood of middle-class people from Gujarat immigrated to the US through the 1970s. By the 1980s, they had established small businesses and begun to prosper.
Like most Gujaratis, the US cohort retained its insularity: not engaging with the host culture, refusing to blend in but especially remitting savings to families back home. Most of the money was transferred through informal channels. I can remember some people wanting to advertise in my India Tribune newspaper offering more rupees to the dollar and cash delivery to specified persons and addresses in Gujarat.
As the quantum of remittances in unreported cash grew, investible surpluses held by recipients also grew and were ploughed into real estate projects. An array of brokers and fixers emerged to facilitate such investments, usually by bending bylaws and circumventing other legal inconveniences. They became the forerunners of the BJP that came to dominate Gujarat politics, banishing the genteel idealists who served Gujarat since its formation.  In their place arose a horde of scofflaws and bigots to grasp at political power.
From these murky swamps emerged a man of overwhelmingly modest intelligence but with remarkable amounts of cunning, Narendra Modi. Starting out with the Kutch earthquake in January 2001, he successfully undermined the incumbent BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Modi used the earthquake to promote himself as a development icon. In reality, he merely coasted on a global disaster relief effort that was mounted in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Right at the outset though, his claims to have created an industrial and infrastructural miracle in Kutch were challenged by Edward Simpson, a highly-regarded anthropologist from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In his book, The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India, Simpson argued that not all the changes in Kutch following the earthquake were for the better, and that in the years following the quake, divisions between Hindus and Muslims in Kutch widened.
But with his headline management skills, Modi successfully staved off questions about his role in Kutch by focusing on the development story while stoking the communal fires. As he vaulted to the chief minister’s position after Patel’s ouster, Modi appeared to have crafted a winning election strategy in which the rhetoric was development but the actual organizational play was to polarize the electorate on an anti-Muslim platform.
The following year, 2002, he put it in play following the burning of the train in Godhra and asserted his dominance on Gujarat politics and on the BJP for the next 12 years without ever being challenged about outcomes and intent. Finally, it enabled him to vault to the Prime Minister’s office.
There was one crucial difference, however. As Gujarat chief minister Modi delivered both seats in the assembly and a large vote share. As Prime Minister, he chalked up the first single-party parliamentary majority in three decades but with just about 31 percent of votes. And that’s where the rub lies. Nearly 70 percent of the electorate did not vote for him. Consequently, the questions began to fly thick and fast from virtually the moment he became Prime Minister.
To avoid these questions, Modi took to what Ravish Kumar, the highly regarded anchor of NDTV India, called “eventocracy” facilitated by a “comedia.” Essentially, this meant remaining silent until the questions became persistent and shrill and then with the active collaboration of mainstream media, changing the subject to emotive issues like nationalism, patriotism, terrorism and Pakistan. Or else staging events like the BRICS summit, Madison Square Garden, Wembley or campaign rallies in which the melodrama quotient is insufferably high with quivering voice and tears in his eyes: “beat me first, I have taken on vested interests that will not rest until they have killed me, give me 50 days.” Also high in these rallies is abusive content and whataboutery in which he mocks, derides and rails at opponents.
Easily, the mother of all diversionary tactics was demonetization, his draconian assault on the monetary system. Everyone but the mainstream TV news channels could see the widespread pain it inflicted on the average person but especially the poor and rural populations. But Modi and his cohorts refused to acknowledge just how vindictive and arbitrary it was. They laughed at first, saying the people lined up in banks and at ATMs were black money hoarders. Then they changed the subject to digital payments, cashless economy, and surgical strikes on terror funding and counterfeit banknotes.
But the questions still persist. No amount of headline management and propaganda including suspect opinion polls and feel good stories in the media can change the facts about demonetization: it was a disastrous ploy that hurt virtually the entire population of India; it was an ill-conceived attempt to divert attentions from legitimate questions about the palpable lack of governance; it was a body blow to the economy that could take years to nurse back to health.
Clearly Modi has no answers about the black money cornered by his November 8 announcement; he has no idea of when a semblance of monetary stability will be restored. But he is campaigning for the upcoming state elections as though his life depends on it, cleverly bending the narrative to suggest he is leading a fight against black money, never mind that he has been accused of taking payoffs from a dubious business enterprise and is engaged in a Watergate-style cover up, using government agencies and arbitrary transfers of inconvenient officials.
By staging event after event, finessing the narrative propagated by the pliant and unquestioning media, he hopes to dodge accountability. Many believe though this time, the impact of his idiosyncratic manoeuvre is just too overwhelming. In Gujarat 2002, where his victims were, by and large, a minority; demonetization pits the wishes and hopes of more than a billion citizens against him. That’s why Modi is going to such lengths to convince selected audiences he has the support of the vast silent majority that has suffered because of the black economy.
Back in the real world, many economists are predicting a massive deflation led by huge drops in employment, in investment, in trade. The GDP is expected to plummet to the original Hindu rate of growth.
The countdown begins now; at stake is whether people will be swayed by his fantasies or hold him responsible for the massive damage demonetization has perpetrated on the nation. The way things are going, he could be a one-term prime minister. But there’s no telling what other knee-jerk options he could pull out of his bag of amoral cunning.
(An edited version of this post will appear in http://timesofindia.com, January 14, 2017.)