Sunday, July 26, 2009

Not just heroics, it's our history (July 26, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

I have spent the past few days in a country where history is a constant preoccupation. Two days ago, the British Library released the unpublished manuscript of the memoirs of Anthony Blunt, a much acclaimed art historian who sullied his reputation by spying for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. Blunt wrote his life story shortly after he was named by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the “fourth man” of the notorious Cambridge spy ring. He deposited the manuscript with the British Library with the proviso that it would not be released for 25 years.

The Blunt revelations will shed further light on a generation which believed Stalin was the antidote to Hitler. The explanation that these well-heeled spies were motivated by high idealism and a fierce anti-fascism has generally been accepted. Blunt, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and others haven’t been formally rehabilitated but they certainly haven’t been tarred by the same notoriety as, say, those renegades who batted for Hitler in World War II.

Elsewhere, they are getting ready to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Of course, it will not be a time for celebration but canny publishers, forward-looking media houses and a market-savvy hospitality industry have drawn up elaborate plans to make a decent amount of money from history. I, for one, would certainly like an opportunity to own a MP3 recording of Neville Chamberlain’s speech that fateful Sunday morning when the lights went out all over Europe for the second time in 25 years.

Britain and, for that matter, Europe’s obsession with history has been a source of amusement to Indians. Many of our dynamic countrymen cannot understand why anyone would spend their leisure hours reading about the past when the time could have been so much better utilised in self-improving pursuits like reading motivational books by management gurus.

The reason is simple. The past 100 years has been Europe’s bloody century. By all reckoning, the inconclusive World War I, fought in the trenches of France was the bloodiest. It brought to an end a settled way of life and killed off an entire generation. World War II brought physical devastation of cities, the massacre of European Jewry and the uprooting of entire communities. For the subcontinent, the most traumatic event of the past 100 years was Partition. But you have to multiply the physical dislocation caused by the political division of India some six or seven times to get a sense of how much different parts of Europe suffered.

I refer to the European passion for the past in the context of a brief flicker from contemporary history in the form of another remarkable confession by Gen Pervez Musharraf to the indefatigable Karan Thapar last week. Ten years after the bitter war for the control of the hills that overlook the road to the Kashmir Valley, Musharraf has finally admitted what was known all along in India but never formally acknowledged in Islamabad: That the Pakistani Army was very much a participant in the conflict that could just as easily have escalated into a full-scale India-Pakistan war.

Predictably, the cocky Musharraf is not in the least apologetic of his role in the deaths of at least two thousand young soldiers from both countries. In his view, it was the Pakistani Army’s audacity in Kargil that resurrected the Kashmir issue. Even though Pakistan was coerced into a humiliating retreat by President Bill Clinton, Musharraf believes that the country has gained in the long-term. The threat of a war involving two nuclear weapon states has contributed to Western pressure on India to meet Pakistan half-way on Kashmir. Although India has so far resisted Uncle Sam’s intrusive diplomacy, the likes of Musharraf firmly believe that it is only a matter of time.

This may not be the occasion to assess the veracity of Musharraf’s boast that he advanced the Pakistani national interest by waging the Kargil war. All that can be said is that prima facie, it doesn’t seem that the old guerrilla commander’s contention is entirely fanciful. Kargil didn’t revive an old secessionist movement. The credit for that goes to Rajiv Gandhi for the rigged election of 1987, the kidnappers of the then Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s daughter in 1989 and the men who masterminded the ethnic cleansing of Hindus from the Kashmir Valley. What the Kargil war did was to elevate a covert Pakistani role in Jammu & Kashmir into an overt one. Musharraf showed to the world that there are enough desperate forces in Pakistan willing to subvert an elected Government and trigger war with a neighbouring country. The nearest historical analogy for what Musharraf did was the privately-funded Jameson raid which led to the three-year Anglo-Boer war in South Africa in 1899.

I suspect that Pakistan is going to lap up Musharraf’s version of what was hitherto regarded as a colossal “misadventure”. In a very clever way, the General is not merely preparing the ground for a possible political comeback but setting the parameters for his own rehabilitation in Pakistani history.

And what about India where history has been at a permanent discount, overtaken by either metaphysical escapism or commerce (actually, both combine rather well)? Predictably, the commemoration of Kargil has been confined to the appreciation of the heroism and martyrdom of those soldiers who died for India. But there has been less scrutiny of the mindset that created the conditions for the death of our young soldiers. When Britain discusses Blunt and Chamberlain as part of their date with history, Indians should listen carefully. They will find striking parallels with Kargil.

Sunday Pioneer, July 26, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Nuffield spirit (July 24, 2009)

How the shadow of Oxford falls on India's Prime Minister

By Swapan Dasgupta

The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, knew the real priorities of life. As chancellor of the exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s government, he didn’t let the infuriating intricacies of the world of high finance bog him down. In early-1933, when the world was trying to make sense of the turbulence in banking — a situation not dissimilar to the one confronting finance ministers today — Chamberlain was moved to write a letter to The Times. “It may be of interest to record,” he wrote sombrely, “that in walking through St. James’s Park today I noticed a grey wagtail... Probably the occurrence of this bird in the heart of London has been recorded before, but I have not myself previously noted it in the Park…I mean a grey wagtail and not a pied.”

It is worth recalling this trivia in view of a curious clarification in last week’s Businessworld: “I am shocked that you should describe Manmohan Singh to be a Cambridge PhD. As an Oxonian, I must point out that he holds a D.Phil from Oxford University, which is a much older institution than some obscure and parvenu university by the river Cam. Manmohan Singh is from Nuffield College which rescued him from a place called St John’s College on the Cam. Also, one gets a D.Phil from Oxford. A PhD is given at the other place, whatever it is called.” Since the indignation over this colossal factual inaccuracy was in the context of an article on the budget, it is instructive to probe the shadow of Oxford on India’s prime minister.

As another Indian who benefited enormously from Lord Nuffield’s munificence — my doctorate, alas, was courtesy another “parvenu” university established by Royal Charter in the metropolis as recently as 1836 — it is reassuring that Manmohan Singh has played his part in establishing Nuffield College as an integral part of the pedigreed Oxford firmament. Even in the early-1980s, it was fairly routine for older fellows of the university — usually the ones who last stepped out of Oxford before 1945 — to regard Nuffield as the new kid on the block, an institution created on the proceeds of vile commerce, and its imposing tower (completed as late as 1950) a blot on the landscape. Mercifully, such derision is reserved these days for a glass-fronted institution named after an Arab king, located next to Oxford railway station.

What, however, distinguished Nuffield from the older colleges was not merely the newness of its cellars, the relative modesty of its high-table fare and the absence of boisterous undergraduates. Nuffield was modelled along the lines of the venerable All Souls College, but with a touch of modernity.

In keeping with the philosophy of its self-made, car-maker founder, the focus of Nuffield College was statecraft — politics, economics and sociology. Power and policy were the themes that resonated in the conversations at the Wednesday- and Friday-night high-table dinners. Unlike other colleges where dons entertained fellow dons, plotted, bitched and made incestuous jokes, outward conviviality and small talk were at a relative discount in Nuffield. The honoured tended to be politicians, diplomats, industry honchos and lots of visiting Americans. The betting book in the senior common room was filled with recordings of a professorial fellow betting a cabinet minister a bottle of decent claret that Labour or Conservative would secure such-and-such a majority three years down the line; the more abstruse bets were over currency fluctuations and rates of interest. Apart from the historian, David Fieldhouse, once telling me that Labour couldn’t be supported because it opposed hunting, I can’t recall too many occasions when a serious conversation was couched in ideological grandstanding.

Manmohan Singh, it may safely be presumed, imbibed the Nuffield tradition. He has moved quite effortlessly from the earnestness of the Brandt Commission to the idiom of market economics. Without being a preacher, he has quietly presided over some of the most fundamental changes in the Indian economy. As prime minister, his ideological interventions have been limited to deifying ‘inclusive’ development. But apart from putting a loose philosophical gloss on expediency, he has ensured that his Congress-led coalitions have kept their focus on the nuts and bolts of governance. He has tried to operate within the loose framework of what was idolized at Nuffield: old-fashioned pragmatism laced with a measure of (attempted) empirical rigour. He has shied away from the very un-British ideologism of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Even blatantly populist moves have been tempered by a matter-of-fact spirit.

There is one area of governance, however, where the Nuffield spirit appears to have deserted the prime minister. On foreign policy, Manmohan Singh seems to have been bitten by two different bugs: the radicalism he may have imbibed in Cambridge, and the woolly capitulationism that was the hallmark of All Souls.

The parameters of the radicalism that pervaded the Cambridge air have been the subject of both detailed inquiry and imaginative fiction. Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and the Apostles may have defined an earlier generation, but it set the benchmark for an uninhibited radicalism that later resurfaced in a less treacherous form in continental Europe during the 1968 student unrest. Did the institutional memory of the unwillingness of those who invested in Stalin to fight for king and country influence the prime minister’s disavowal of the nuclear nationalism he inherited from Atal Bihari Vajpayee? Interpretations of why Manmohan Singh risked his own political future on the Indo-US nuclear agreement will vary. But in the context of formative influences, it is tempting to discover a link between the blunting of India’s nuclear assets and romantic radicalism.

A.L. Rowse’s monograph, All Souls and Appeasement (1961), chronicles an alternative tradition that Britain’s most ancient university isn’t very anxious to publicize. Oxford’s most rarefied institution, All Souls College, was the nerve centre of Baldwin and then Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement that gave Hitler the time and the elbow room to prepare for war. The main architects of appeasement — Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Simon and Times editor Geoffrey Dawson — were fellows of All Souls and dined in college regularly.

Rowse’s analysis of why the mindless accommodation became the hallmark of pragmatism is worth recalling. In his view, the institutional ethos of All Souls epitomized “the decadence of British empiricism”: “The practical way of looking at things, not looking too far in advance, not rocking the boat and other clichés that do duty for thinking ahead, may serve well enough in ordinary, normal times. But our times are not ‘normal’ in the good old Victorian sense…This conventional British way of looking at things was simply not equal to the times, and it caught these men out badly.”

Secondly, Rowse added a class dimension. “These men, even Halifax, were essentially middle class, not aristocrats. They did not have the hereditary sense of the security of the state…They came at the end of the ascendancy of the Victorian middle class, deeply affected as that was by high-mindedness and humbug. They all talked, in one form or another, the language of disingenuousness and cant: it was second nature to them…”

Rowse was writing of another time and another place. But those with a sense of intellectual history may be inclined to locate the philosophy behind the joint Indo-Pakistan statement issued in Egypt last week to the triumph of pre-war All Souls over Nuffield. Manmohan Singh is an Oxford man caught in the contradictory impulses of the various Oxfords and, for good measure, the misplaced certitudes of a lost Cambridge generation.

The Telegraph, July 24, 2009

Monday, July 20, 2009

With an adaab, PM capitulates (July 19, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta
A photograph, it is said, is more telling than a thousand words of succinct prose. Last Friday morning, the readers of many newspapers may have observed a very revealing photograph from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where Indian and Pakistani delegations, led by their respective Prime Ministers, met on the sidelines of the redundant Non-Aligned Movement Summit. The photograph showed Manmohan Singh, flanked by Yousuf Raza Gilani, greeting a woman member of the Pakistani delegation with what, presumably, is either an adaab or a feeble imitation of the signature Pervez Musharraf salute.

How the Prime Minister of India chooses to greet a foreigner is an individual decision. He may offer a limp handshake or even a firm one; he may copy Fidel Castro’s bear hug; he may, though this is extremely unlikely, greet the visitor with a peck on both cheeks; he may favour a deep Japanese-style bow; and alternatively he may offer the traditional Namaste. It is entirely a personal decision and one that need not be bound in protocol, as long as it is laced with courtesy.

Not even his worst enemies will accuse Manmohan of either rudeness or discourtesy. He would not have invited charges of either cultural insensitivity or inappropriate conduct had he chosen to greet the Pakistani lady with folded hands. Most foreigners, in fact, expect to be greeted with a Namaste by an Indian, especially when it is a formal occasion.

That Manmohan chose to greet the Pakistani officials with an adaab is revealing. It suggested a mindset centred on supplication which translated politically means a desperate desire to accommodate and please. Pursuing the line of least resistance has been the signature tune of the PM in his relationship with the owners of the Congress, his coalition partners and in his conduct of foreign policy. Some may see in this Manmohan’s grand vision of reconciliation: Breakfasting in Delhi and lunching in Lahore. But attributing profundity to inanity is a well-known Indian trait, except these days it passes off as media management.

The outrageous joint statement issued from Sharm el-Sheikh has been analysed threadbare by a country which wants to know whether the ‘tough on terrorism’ stand adopted by India after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai was meant for electoral consumption alone. Read with the apology the PM issued to President Asif Ali Zardari for miscuing his rehearsed lines at Yekaterinburg in Russia last month, the joint statement’s clear willingness to not let the trivial issue of terrorism mar the composite dialogue reveals the spinal condition of Indian diplomacy under Manmohan.

Manmohan’s inclination to appease the rogue state in Pakistan was first in evidence at the Havana summit of NAM two years ago when it was proclaimed that India and Pakistan were co-victims of terror. The groundwork for this shameful retreat from the Islamabad declaration of January 2004 had, in fact, been done at the meeting of Foreign Ministers in Delhi immediately after the UPA Government assumed power in the summer of 2004 when it was stated that terrorism would not be allowed to derail the peace process.

However, what is intriguing about the latest reiteration of a decision to delink dialogue from acts of aggression is that it even caught the decision-making apparatus of the Government unawares. The overall consensus in the Ministry of External Affairs and the intelligence agencies was that it would be imprudent to resume formal dialogue with a duplicitous neighbour unless there was clear evidence that it was taking firm and effective steps to defang the terrorists operating from within its territory. It was felt that any engagement with Pakistan could well be conducted within the framework of discreet back channel diplomacy.

This was the gist of the briefing by the Foreign Secretary to the Indian media accompanying the Prime Minister to Egypt. At best, Manmohan was expected to show some recognition of the civilian Government’s difficulties in confronting a monster that had been nurtured by the Pakistan military establishment and the ISI. After all, Zardari had owned up to Pakistan’s role in sustaining fanatical jihadis. Not even the most clued-in expected Manmohan to walk the entire mile to placate Pakistan, going to the ridiculous extent of even tacitly conceding an Indian role in the disturbances in Baluchistan.

Conspiracy theories tend normally to be a little fanciful but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Manmohan’s actions may be guided by a nudge and a wink from the US. That Washington no longer has the stomach to continue the fight in Afghanistan is hardly the world’s best kept secret. But no disentanglement from Afghanistan is possible for the US unless it has some assurance that Pakistan is not going to fill the vacuum with a barbaric Taliban regime intent on wreaking havoc in the heartlands of Western ‘decadence’. Was India chipping in to raise Pakistan’s comfort level? Has India become a collaborator in the US’s AfPak policy?

At this juncture only questions can be raised. But there is merit in scrutinising a number of other steps taken by Manmohan to placate the US. First, there was the change of the Commerce Minister followed by clear indications that the ‘intransigence’ of Kamal Nath would be reviewed in future WTO negotiations. Second, in signing the G-8 declaration, Manmohan indicated a retreat from India’s existing policy on Climate Change. Finally, by adding his signature to the G-8 proclamation on non-proliferation, Manmohan may have taken the first covert step in accommodating the Obama Administration’s determination to rollback India’s gains from the agreements with the IAEA and NSG.

These are early days yet but Manmohan’s adaab suggests that accommodation of others rather than enlightened self-interest may become the new principle of Indian foreign policy. Maybe the time is fast approaching when India should prepare to do its Namaste to him, before he travels down the IK Gujral route.

Sunday Pioneer July 19, 2009

Learn from past, focus on China (July 19, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Shortly after Independence, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel was asked to comment on the flare-up in Indonesia. ‘‘Indonesia? Ah, Indonesia,’’ Patel mused, and then, flashing a smile, replied, ‘‘Ask Jawaharlal.’’ The story may well be apocryphal but it does suggest that his colleagues viewed Jawaharlal Nehru’s penchant for pontificating on world affairs as silly.

Six decades later, Nehru’s preachiness has been replaced by an astonishing measure of babu-speak. ‘‘We don’t comment on the internal affairs of another country’’ has become the template response of ministers to almost everything, including attacks on Indian students in Australia and the offensive depiction of the Goddess Lakshmi by Burger King. Given this stonewalling, South Block’s silence on the upsurge in the so-called Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China isn’t surprising. ‘‘What’s it got to do with us?’’ may well be the Twitter-formatted ministerial response.

That Xinjiang or East Turkestan (as it is called by Uighur nationalists) has long and profound links with India has been conveniently forgotten. Yet, as late as 1951, India had its own consulate in Kashgar, the trading hub of Xinjiang, an arrangement that dated back to 1890. The occupant of Chini-Bagh (renamed India House in 1947 but now known by its original name) in Kashgar was drawn from the Indian Political Service and received instructions, not from Whitehall but from the Viceroy’s council. Indeed, before he was accorded full diplomatic recognition by the Chinese government in 1904, Sir George Macartney’s official position was special assistant for Chinese affairs to the resident in Kashmir — a pointer to the fact Xinjiang had everything to do with India.

The consulate in Kashgar had two primary responsibilities. First, to be an observation post in the Great Game that involved Russia, Turkey and British India; secondly, to look after the interests of the Indian traders in Xinjiang. There was also a third, unstated role: as a facilitator of archaeology.

In 1890, Captain Hamilton Bower stumbled across 5th century Sanskrit manuscripts on birch bark leaves while surveying the Taklamakan desert. This discovery led to a flood of archaeological expeditions from Russia, Sweden, Germany and Britain. Sir Aurel Stein, a scholar of Hungarian Jewish descent, was by far the most well known of these scholars who established Xinjiang’s importance as a centre of Buddhism. Modelling himself on the 7th century Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang, Stein, with his fox terrier Dash in tow, gathered a rich haul of antiquities which he donated to the British Museum and left a few pieces for museums in India.

China viewed the likes of Stein as bounty hunters which they undoubtedly were. However, China’s commitment to preserving Xinjiang’s heritage has itself come under a cloud. The indiscriminate demolition of the old town in Kashgar has riled Uighurs, already sore at being reduced to a minority by organised Han Chinese immigration.


It was the wooliness of Nehru and the gullibility of K N Panikkar, India’s first ambassador to China, which allowed Zhou Enlai to sweet-talk India into closing its consulates in both Kashgar and Lhasa in Tibet. Zhou gave a verbal assurance that Indian interests will be looked after by a friendly China. The closure was the precursor to the stealthy construction of the Karakoram highway linking Xinjiang and Tibet and the formal occupation of Aksai Chin in 1962. India suffered humiliation because it was too trusting and had abandoned its geo-political responsibilities.


Unlike what the Panchsheel lovers claim, invoking a lost legacy isn’t fanciful nostalgia. When the Communists reneged on their commitment to grant Uighurs political autonomy — the top leadership of the community was conveniently killed while flying to Beijing for talks — several hundred Uighurs fled China. These included Isa Yusuf Alpetkin and Mehmet Emin Bughra, the leaders of the Eastern Turkestan Republic which existed from the 1930s to 1949. It is significant that they took refuge in India because they regarded New Delhi as a sympathetic neighbour. It is only after they experienced India’s cravenness that they shifted to Turkey.

It is fortunate that the sustained neglect of India’s interests in Central Asia was somewhat corrected by P V Narasimha Rao with his support for the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Today, India enjoys both goodwill and a political clout with the leadership of the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks — communities that have ties with the Uighurs and are agitated by the goings-on in Xinjiang. These are relationships waiting to be built on.

If India wants to play a more meaningful role in global affairs, it has to come to terms with its rich imperial inheritance. There is precious little in the post-1947 record that can guide India’s journey back to relevance. The meek, it has repeatedly been shown, don’t inherit the earth.

Sunday Times of India, July 19, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ironic euphemism for brazen betrayal (July 12, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is a small minority of Indians who grew up in cities and hill stations where the British influence lingered for a decade or two after Independence. Of them, there must be another lot that developed a liking for the oh-so-English fudge — an extremely rich confectionary made with sugar, butter and milk with a light flavouring of cocoa or vanilla or even chocolate.

I have always preferred the fudge to either lozenges or toffee. There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than landing up in a quaint English town or a village fair in the ‘Shires and buying a small packet of creamy fudge from one of those sensible ladies who run those quaint tea shops. It is one of those simple pleasures of life — as worthwhile as re-reading an Agatha Christie whodunit on a holiday.

Unfortunately, life isn’t all that uncluttered. Like the perfectly innocuous terms ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ that have been misappropriated by determined crusaders of ignoble causes, fudge no longer conjures happy images of innocent childhood. The term is more commonly associated with a sleight of hand, deceit and manipulation. In the age of innocence, this fudge would have been shunned; in today’s world of cleverness, it has become a political attribute, a byword for canniness.

Take the battle of figures involving Minister for Railways Mamata Banerjee and her predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav. In her intervention in the Lok Sabha on July 9, Mamata revealed that Lalu’s claim that the Indian Railways was in the pink of health with a cash surplus of Rs 90,000 crore was worse than an eyewash — it was a fudge. “One cannot talk about the income and skip the expenditure part,” Mamata told the House, “after spending Rs 28,200 crore on account of the Sixth Pay Commission award for two years, we are left with a cash surplus of Rs 8,361 crore.”
It is a misfortune that the significance of this scandalous revelation by the Railways Minister has, by and large, escaped the political class. What Mamata was alluding to wasn’t a minor miscalculation or an accountant’s error. She was suggesting that her predecessor wilfully misled both Parliament and the nation. Worse, her revelation of the true state of railway finances pointed to the fact that the Budget has lost its sanctity and that official statistics are fudged.

The significance of the fudge is awesome. Less than a year ago, the corporate sector was shaken by the disclosure that Satyam Computer had misled its shareholders about the true state of the company’s finances. The company has been charged with criminal conspiracy, its auditors have been sacked and its chairman is behind bars and may well receive a stiff prison sentence. If Lalu is guilty of concealment and misrepresentation, it follows that his offence is no less severe than that of the hapless Ramalinga Raju. If Raju is prosecuted for playing havoc with the money of investors and banks, does Lalu and, for that matter, the Railway Board get away by fudging the accounts of a corporation funded by the taxpayer? There cannot be different sets of laws for the private and public sector.

Nor does the buck stop here. Lalu was a member of Manmohan Singh’s Government and was repeatedly praised by the Prime Minister for his remarkable performance. Surely the Prime Minister now owes the country an explanation? So far he has been silent.

Fudging, it would seem, is fast becoming a national preoccupation. In suggesting that the fiscal deficit of India stood at some 6.8 per cent of the GDP, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee need not be charged with Laluism, but he was certainly guilty of inexactitude. The figure, as he well knows and as do economists, is only a partial representation of the true state of public finances. If non-Budget items such as the deficit of States, oil bonds and fertiliser subsidy are added to the list, the real fiscal deficit is likely to approximate between 12 and 13 per cent of a falling GDP.

The implications of this are staggering. It means that the Government is bequeathing to the country a debt burden that will haunt the present and the future. Yes, there is a law enacted in 2003 that makes it obligatory for a Government to pursue the path of fiscal responsibility. But the Government has unilaterally waived its own responsibility for following the law — on the ground that exceptional situations warrant exceptional remedies. This means that there is very little faith in the Government actually carrying out its commitment to lower the fiscal deficit in the next two years. If the monsoons don’t come up to expectations, the profligacy with public finances will continue merrily and be justified.

The issue is not so much whether or not the Government has a right to pursue voodoo economics. That privilege cannot be taken away from an elected Government. The more important question is the ethics of selective revelation, bordering on concealment, what in everyday parlance is called fudging. If you doubt what I am saying, just correlate the official claim of a negative rate of inflation with the soaring consumer price index.

At one time, particularly after smooth public relations professionals started regulating the flow of information, many Western Governments were charged with being a hostage to spin. In India, the quality of non-cricket spin is still amateurish. But we have moved to a higher level of political management. We are now a nation driven by fudge.

What a shame, it isn’t the real thing.

Sunday Pioneer, July 12, 2009

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Inclusive desire (July 10, 2009)

Homosexuality was seen as an aberrration in Hindu society

By Swapan Dasgupta

The subversive potential of homosexuality has been the theme of endless sermons from the pulpit and countless drawing room tittle-tattle. But few expressions of mirth and righteous indignation can match the intriguing hypothesis proffered by The Times in an editorial on the occasion of the formal unmasking of Sir Anthony Blunt as a lapsed Soviet spy in November 1979.

Alluding to the social milieu of the upper-class homosexuals who embraced Communism in the 1930s, the newspaper observed that “theirs was largely a homosexual culture, with necessary dependence on ties of friendship rather than on the functional ties of family, and defiance on conventional sexual morality leading to a broader moral relativism. Even in the case of Maynard Keynes, perhaps the finest product of this culture, there may be a parallel between his emotional resentment of the monetary rules which prevented inflation, and particularly the gold standard, and the need to reject the conventional sexual morality of his period. He did not like rules.”

At a time when the disregard for fiscal prudence has become the hallmark of “inclusive” development in India, it would be fascinating to see a connection between the Manmohan Singh Government’s economic profligacy and the Delhi High Court’s judgment de-criminalising consensual homosexual sex. In ruling that section 377 of the Indian Penal Code violated the fundamental rights of gays, their Lordships deemed that the principle of inclusiveness warranted the negation of existing rules.

Whether this unshackling will lead to a rash of creativity, creating windows of opportunity for an intellectual wizard like Keynes, a treacherous aesthete like Blunt and a dissolute spy like Guy Burgess is a matter of conjecture. In the short term, there is certain to be fierce battle between the upholders of faith-based morality and the advocates of unlicensed personal freedom which is calculated to leave at least one side bruised. In the long run, however, the outcome of this (as yet judicial) conflict may well determine the parameters India’s future social development.

The issue at stake is not the letter of section 377 of an India Penal Code which was drafted by noble Victorians as a carbon copy of existing English law. There wasn’t anything specifically colonial in the criminalising of homosexuality in India. That same-sex relationships were sinful was conventional wisdom in Europe ever since the New Testament declared it a “perversion”. “Make no mistake”, Paul proclaimed colourfully in his first Letter to the Corinthians, “no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.”

The process of limiting homosexuality to being a disqualification for entry through the pearly gates rather than a criminal offence on earth took a long time coming. Those who rant mindlessly about section 377 being an insidious colonial legacy should note that the British Parliament put homosexuality—involving consenting adults of 21 and above—outside the purview of criminal law as late as 1967. It should also be noted that the inclusion of homosexuality in the general lowering of the age of consent to 16 in 2000 was fiercely resisted by the House of Lords and the Christian churches. As late as November 2005, the Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed that “The Tradition has constantly considered them (acts of homosexuality) as intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law. Consequently, under no circumstance can they be approved.” It is incidental that Rome has the added problem of deviant clergymen ready to skirt the trauma of celibacy with violations of the natural law.

Field Marshal Montgomery offered his own quirky way of disentangling the knotty conflict between morality and an increasingly permissive social environment. In 1965, during the debate on the Sexual Offences Bill, he proposed an amendment putting the age of consent for homosexual sex at 80! Even his fellow peers couldn’t agree.

Last week, the conservative Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali reignited the debate in the Church of England. “The Bible’s teaching shows”, he said, “that marriage is between a man and a woman. That is the way to express our sexual nature. We welcome homosexuals, we don’t want to exclude people, but we want them to repent and be changed.” In a similar vein, the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Latvia has recently warned of an emerging “era of sexual atheism”.

What is significant about this ongoing tussle between theology and culture is that disapproval of gays stops short of moves to restore homosexuality as a criminal offence. Among the Christian clergy, there is a broad acceptance that homosexuality is on par with adultery, a sinful act in the eyes of God, but not an offence that warrants criminal prosecution. This is also the position of a minority of Muslim theologians who argue that while Islam is categorical in its disapproval of homosexuality, it doesn’t stipulate the exact punishment for the offence. The death punishment for homosexuality in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran apparently flow from man-made Islamic jurisprudence.

Since the Hindu way of life is neither an ideology nor governed by texts whose acceptance is obligatory, there is no such thing as a Hindu view of homosexuality. There are divergent views in ancient texts and there are many social practices that highlight the Hindu penchant for accommodation. However, the absence of rigid theological prescriptions doesn’t distract from the fact that homosexuality was seen as an aberration in Hindu society. It was accepted as an awkward reality but never celebrated.

India may not have experienced the virulent homophobia that was a feature of many Western and Islamic societies but there was no social acceptance of homosexuality. It was, at best, seen as a fringe phenomenon which had to be tolerated as long as the “deviants” kept their sexuality private and didn’t disrupt society. There was a special status and role for Hijras, the “third sex”, but this institutionalised accommodation on the fringes of society wasn’t extended to gays. The IPC superimposed a law on an unwritten social code marked by both passive intolerance and generosity. In any case, it is important to note that the law existed merely on paper. Actual prosecution under section 377 had ceased long before the Delhi High Court judgment.

In justifying the decriminalising of gay sex, the High Court argued that “Constitutional morality” must take precedence over theology and public opinion, “even if it be the majoritarian view”. The point was well made but is fraught with a wider significance. Can gays now plead for a redefinition of marriage on the grounds that a man-woman arrangement is inherently discriminatory towards those who prefer a same sex bonding?

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. If the criminal ban on homosexuality violates the fundamental rights and dignity of some individuals, it follows that all personal laws must be tested against this principle. If equality becomes the litmus test, can the existing Muslim personal laws relating to divorce and polygamy withstand impartial judicial scrutiny? Can the principle of inclusiveness extend to gays but not to Muslim women? Can the government enact Shah Bano-type legislation if it violates a fundamental right of the Constitution? The Supreme Court will have to consider these questions when it hears Baba Ramdev’s appeal against the High Court verdict.

The Times may have been prescient after all. Eschewing the rules (of nature) may well open the floodgates of a wider churning. Why confine the legacy of Keynes to the fiscal deficit alone?

The Telegraph, July 10, 2009

Saturday, July 04, 2009

A truth nobody will ever admit (July 5, 2009)

Sunday Times of India, July 5, 2009

By Swapan Dasgupta

When asked about the impact of the French Revolution, Mao Zedong is said to have quipped: "It's too soon to tell." In missing the deadline for his report on the Ayodhya demolition of 1992 some 48 times, Justice M S Liberhan may not have been driven by any such noble quest for detachment. Yet, we need not be too harsh on this deft management of superannuation. In the context of a 480-year-old dispute, the delay isn't even a footnote: 17 years may be a long time in politics, but it is a mere blip in history.

The long campaign for a grand Ram temple on the site of the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was, at a very basic level, an issue of faith. The belief that one of Babur's generals had destroyed a temple commemorating the birthplace of Lord Ram and replaced it with a mosque in 1528 had been a source of tension in Awadh. There were various attempts by Hindus to regain control of the site and it culminated in the mysterious appearance of idols in the mosque in 1949. This resulted in the Babri Masjid becoming, for all practical purposes, a Ram temple. The Ayodhya movement was aimed at replacing a Mughal building with traditional Hindu temple architecture.

Ideally, the law should have stepped in to resolve the conflicting claims. The issue went to the district court in 1951. In 1955, the Allahabad high court regretted that a decision was not forthcoming even after four years. Some 58 years later, the litigation continues in the high court.

The equally contentious issue of whether or not a temple predated the Babri Masjid was referred to the Supreme Court after the 1992 demolition. In 1994, the apex court returned the reference under Article 143 "unanswered". Was the court signalling its inability to settle a dispute that, ideally, needs a social and political resolution?

However, it was not merely religiosity and exasperation with the judicial process that catapulted a local dispute in Ayodhya into a signature tune of turbulence. The Ayodhya movement encapsulated a larger disquiet over the state of India. The proposed temple symbolised a churning over the meaning of national identity and, at a more subliminal level, the relationship between history and historical memory. The movement generated intellectual debates of a kind that India hasn't experienced since. To reduce the ferment of that decade to selective images of boisterous sadhus and unruly kar sevaks would be an act of arrogant condescension.

There was a context to the Ayodhya movement that won't emerge from Liberhan's prose and superficial TV discussions. Ayodhya was also a revolt against a failing Nehruvian consensus centred on the Congress' manipulative politics, the Left-progressive control over intellectualism and a closed economy built on controls and cronyism. The symbolism of the first (Rajiv Gandhi-approved) shilanyas in 1989 coinciding with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall shouldn't be dismissed casually. Ayodhya, too, was a movement for change and it too was energised by a staggering participation of youth.

Was this belief in a new direction dissipated after the colossal misadventure on December 6, 1992? To those who witnessed the frenzied six hours, it was a clear case of a riotous mob targeting two symbols of its hate - the Babri structure, in its eyes the reviled symbol of conquest; and a media which it saw as the personification of cosmopolitan derision. Those who blamed P V Narasimha Rao for his failure to save the "disputed structure" underestimated the size and the frenzy of the crowd. Military action would have led to a massacre far bigger than Jallianwala Bagh.

The first draft of history having a distinct liberal bias, it has become obligatory to view the demolition as an act of fanatical vandalism. This is only half the truth. In its 1994 judgment on the presidential reference, the Supreme Court pronounced that the "Hindu community must... bear the cross... for the misdeeds of the miscreants..." At the same time, the court allowed Hindus the right of worship and, more important, endorsed a Privy Council judgment of 1940 that rejected the principle of "once a mosque, always a mosque". Hindus won a technical victory but were awarded a post-dated cheque as punishment for jumping the gun on December 6.

The law is said to stand above politics and passion but reality is more awkward. The guilty men and women of December 6 haven't suffered from legal retribution (but nor have they been exonerated) because the demolition enjoyed a wide measure of Hindu endorsement, cutting across party affiliation. This is a truth that will never be formally admitted.
Since then, India has moved on. Ayodhya has been disentangled from politics and left to history to judge, or even leave unanswered.

Aggressive gay evangelism (July 5, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

In 1965, when the House of Lords debated the proposal to legalise homosexual relations between consenting adults, the legendary Field Marshal Montgomery proposed a curious amendment. Incensed over what he called “this most abominable bestiality”, he argued the age of consent should be raised to 80!

It is entirely possible that this very original suggestion may find takers among MPs and religious figures agitated by the Delhi High Court’s judgement to de-criminalise gay sex between consenting adults over the age of 21. That the private conduct of two responsible adults should not be the business of the state — unless it jeopardises national security and public health or constitutes a fraud — has long been recognised as a tenet of personal freedom. Carnal relations involving the same sex may well be against the laws of nature and, therefore, ‘unnatural’. But there is nothing in the act that corresponds to the common sense definition of criminality. If voluntary gay sex is deemed criminal, the law may as well attach the tag of criminality to adultery — a move that could result in considerable discomfiture to some of those who are most indignant about the High Court decision.

If the High Court had confined its judgement to merely removing the stigma of criminality attached to queers (oh how this innocent word has been tarred), it would have done its bit to ensure that laws keep pace with changing social mores. Unfortunately, the High Court went a bit over the top. It was bad enough to inject BR Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Sonia Gandhi doctrine of inclusiveness into the pantheon of gay rights, what was more ominous was the incorporation of minority sexual habits into the notion of equality.

It is one thing to accommodate gay sexual preferences into a loose framework of individual freedom so that a minusculity is spared needless harassment, it is a different matter to establish a moral equivalence between same-sex relationships and man-woman relationships. The judges may not have intended to put them on par but that is the unintended consequence of pitting an arcane clause of the IPC against some of the fundamental rights in the Constitution. If the contentious part of Section 377 violates the Constitution, as the High Court has decided, why was it allowed to remain in the statutes for a full 59 years? Like the classification of some communities as ‘criminal tribes’, why wasn’t it junked earlier? If the inspiration for Section 377 was Victorian morality, why wasn’t it re-examined after the passage of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 in Britain?

The High Court need not have undertaken surgery with general anaesthesia to remove a tiny wart in our laws. The reason why 377 persisted for so long owed partly to the colonial inheritance. But far more important, it found a place in the statutes because it corresponded to an unspoken social definition of ordinary decencies. This perception has changed over time, just as polygamy and child marriage have been outlawed for most communities, the age of consent raised progressively and the law of primogeniture scrapped. Legal strictures against consensual adult homosexuality had to go because it was perceived as unjust and unfair.

This is not to suggest that homosexuality is now kosher. The opposition to the High Court judgement from all religious groups indicates that same-sex relationships may be tolerated but they have no wider social sanction. The judgement has merely defined gays as a distinct minority group defined by their sexual preferences.

To my mind this is fair. There is absolutely no reason why decent individuals such as the writer Vikram Seth — who has spoken about his gayness with sensitivity — should have the threat of criminality dangling before him for something that is clearly a very private emotion. No one wants a repetition of the disagreeable witch-hunt of Oscar Wilde in the 21st century and no one wants rabid homophobic utterances which characterise President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Gays have the right to live their life with dignity and without the fear of persecution.

Unfortunately, the High Court judgement has opened the floodgates of what may best be called aggressive gay evangelism. If the experience of the West is anything to go by, it is a matter of time before there are demands — backed by the usual clutch of NGOs and international agencies — to lower the age of consent, accommodate gay marriages within a legal framework and allow the right of adoption to gay couples.


In Britain, for example, the age of consent for voluntary homosexuality was 21 at the time of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967; by 2000, this was lowered to 16 despite the fierce opposition of the House of Lords and the Christian churches; now there are demands for legalising gay marriages and altering the school curricula to show that man-woman relations are not the natural order of society.

Equally insidious, militant gay campaigners have made life impossible for those gays who want to lead private lives without ‘coming out’ and flaunting their sexuality. In 1974, the Gay Liberation Front ‘outed’ EM Forster and denounced him as a “downcast gay” for keeping his sexual preferences private. A perverse in-your-face-gayness has come to define gay activism.

The invocation of equality and the principles of non-discrimination are a double-edged sword. What may begin as an innocent gesture of accommodation and tolerance has the potential to spin out of control. The gesture of de-criminalising homosexuality — which is different from endorsing it — has to be accompanied by a robust assertion of the state and society’s commitment to family values. Unless, of course, we see the recognition of gay rights as a precursor to a gender-neutral, non-denominational, secular, uniform civil code — just as the Constitution-makers desired.

Sunday Pioneer, July 5, 2009