Monday, December 31, 2007

Polarisation of Indian Politics & The Search for a New Rhetoric

The real attack on Indian democracy was not on December 13th, the day of the terrorist attack on the parliament. It began the day Sabarmathy Express was torched at Godhra and a carnage was let loose on Indian citizens by the state machinery. Shri. Narenda Modi, whose complicity in the post Godhra carnage is proved beyong doubt by the recent tehelka expose,, was re elected twice after the holocaust, with a resounding majority. All this leaves the people of India with few reasons for optimism and cheer. How, one wonders, could such things come to pass in a nation constitutionally bound to secularism?

One could, perhaps, begin by exploring how, in a nation, which holds up “secularism” as an absolute value, it has suddenly become a problemetised term, prompting even hardcore advocates who swear by it, to speak of it in a defensive manner!

“Language”, Ronald Barthes states “is the origin of man—it is the language which teaches the definition of man, not the reverse”. Barthes’ observation draws attention to the power of words to create reality. The story of man is one of struggle for domination between groups of people. In this power struggle, the warring groups construct modes of discourse, which soon gain the status of empirical truth and undisputed knowledge. In this power game, language is appropriated, and utilized to promote agendas. In this technologically advanced age, where television has invaded the homes, language has acquired another dimension – of images on the television screen. The reach of language is frightening. Today, its capacity to shape consciousness is instant, a fact to which can be attributed the phenomenal speed with which a communal ideology could translate itself into a political power capable of forming government at the Centre.

The last two decades of the previous century saw this happening in India. Of course, there had always existed certain ideological binaries in the subcontinent that had not matured into full-fledged rhetoric at the time of Independence; nevertheless the tensions between them prevailed and erupted occasionally into violent acts, culminating in the assassination of the Mahatma. In the nineteen nineties, Hindutva emerged (for political reasons which are not our immediate concern here) as a force to reckon with and today the nation is polorised between two ideologies – Hindutva and Secularism. Tragically, the casualty is peace, harmony and that minimum level of predictability in day-to-day life so essential for development.

The role of language or discourse in effecting this Volte-face from secular to communal ideals on a national scale ought be of more than mere academic interest. The past two decades saw linguistic or verbal formations being imperceptibly but systematically constructed to disseminate a certain communal discourse throughout the country, enabling the emergence of Hindutva as an alternative ideology to Secularism. History is replete with evidences of how the discursive formations of an era determine or construct ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth’, that is, construct a reality that tacitly buttresses the interests of the dominant group. What happened in India towards the close of last century is not dissimilar to the way, centuries go, white nations/cultures used language to appropriate Christianity to validate the imperial agenda of the European powers.

Christianity was born in the semetic soil. A particular semetic tribe was groomed through centuries for the nonviolent religion that Christ founded. On account of the political situation that prevailed in the Middle East at that time, Christianity spread to Europe. However the christianisation of Europe was, in effect, a superimposition of a religion of peace on a brutal race, ill prepared for it. The result was Christianity underwent a drastic transformation in Europe, bearing little resemblance to the fundamental concepts laid down by its founder. With Rome becoming the capital of Christianity, Europe asserted its proprietorship over this Semetic religion which soon became institutionalized, politicized, and a motif of the axiomatic concept of divinely ordained rights for the European people. In short, the religion, thus hijacked by Europe, developed a new face, and to take the analogy further, developed Stockholm syndrome. It sanctioned conquest, murder, genocide and brutality, which had always been integral to European civilization.

Language/rhetoric/ discourse was a principal facilitator in this process of ‘managing’ religion to legitimize and perpetuate the interests of European powers. Primitive Christianity (not an accepted term but I use it in analogy with primitive Buddhism ie, pristine Buddhism as taught by Gautama) was all about creating a casteless, egalitarian society bound by love and characterized by nonviolence. Christ’s message was as simple as that. This is the Kingdom of God he spoke about. But this kingdom would pose a challenge to the imperial intent of the European countries. So a new definition of Christianity- a new rhetoric or discourse was constructed to counter this challenge. The Imperial rhetoric projected all non- Europeans as pagans, hence uncivilized. The same rhetoric represented Christian Europe as the ‘divinely ordained’ saviour, destined to bring salvation to the rest of the world.
Terms such as pagans, infidel, Saracens, heretic, White Man’s Burden were part of this rhetoric. They enabled European practitioners of Christianity to violate every code of behaviour laid down by its founder, by providing spiritual rationale for plunder and murder, territorial violation and genocide. European literature subtly equated non- Europeans to sub-humans or evolutionary dropouts- a convenient turn of the rhetoric, for Christian love did not include nonhumans! Thus over centuries, the imperial rhetoric developed subtleties and nuances to ratify every unchristian deed that the imperial powers resorted to. This discourse had an internal consistency, and a durability, which made it a formidable fort of rationalism. The rhetoric continues to date, in new forms, though at long last chinks are beginning to appear in its walls-----.
This is, no doubt, a vast oversimplification of a very complex issue; nevertheless, it serves to illustrate how language defines and shapes reality; in other words, in human perception there is no reality other than what language creates.
Coming back to India, the first major victory of the Hindutva agenda is the construction of a discourse within whose framework was effected a gradual, subtle (initially), but a systematic destruction of the sacrosanct status of the term ‘secularism’. This was achieved again with language. Secularism was reborn in the Hindutva rhetoric as ‘pseuedo – secularism’. Questioning secularism would once have made any leader a political leper. It is no longer so. Dismissing it as an anachronism or as unpatriotic has not only become possible and legal but also a highly respectable position to take, so long as the term occurs as pseudo secularism, within the structured rhetoric of Hindutva. Hence, with great ease and elan, a politician can, at any public meeting or even in the parliament, ridicule this cornerstone of democracy called secularism and get away with it! The situation is similar to the systematic Calibanisation of nonwhite people in the imperial discourse in order to validate the imperial designs. Also, that great mother of religions, Hinduism, is also being appropriated by vested parochial agencies to legitimize the Hindutva programme.

Those political groups who do not subscribe to the Hindutva agenda have today rallied under the banner of secularism, but their discourse is suspect; for people, at long last, have learnt to distinguish between statesmen and politicians. Secularism is bandied about in a manner that lacks conviction; an effective counter rhetoric seems unable to be born. It therefore becomes imperative that, we, the people, who desire nothing more than a peaceful atmosphere for our children to grow up in, be on our guard when politicians and the media float catchy slogans like ‘secularism’ and ‘pseudo secularism’, ‘majority feelings’ and ‘minority rights’, for every rhetoric has an agenda.. When the government gives to minority groups sops that override court rulings, we need to realize that it is part of the rhetoric of vote bank politics. When carnage is officially glorified and is used as vote winning propaganda, we definitely need to cry for our beloved country. When a politician holding a responsible position, writing for the ‘middle’ of a reputed daily, cites the precedence of the post Indra Gandhi assassination violence to legitimise the post Godhra holocaust, we need to inquire into the agenda of the daily. When the same daily employs a journalist to regularly take up the cause of a certain community and indulge in secularism bashing, the time has come to beware. Remember, the media was responsible for Hitler's phenomenal growth into power. Forget the lessons of history and be prepared for the talibanisation of India!
Political and religious leaders, and those who wield their pens should get their priorities straight. Let them not shed tears for the Church of Nativity. Instead weep for the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost. Let them not weep for Babri Masjid, or Ram Temple destroyed by Baber. Instead, let us all hang our heads in grief and shame at the lives lost in the name of these structures.
“Is there no redemption?” is the question teasing the hapless citizen out of thought. Yes. There is. The need of the hour is a new rhetoric with public weal alone as its agenda. We, the people, look to the media for it. The freedom of speech it enjoys and the power of word that it holds obligates it to safeguard democracy and secularism. We are deeply concerned that the media, with its power and reach does not evolve that new rhetoric that will neutralize the rhetoric of polarization. We are concerned that the media does not take upon itself the role of the agent of resistance that can intervene to transform the dangerous political arrangements taking this country to a theocratic system. We expect it to dissociates itself from the various cantankerous groups and interests that are eating into the polity of the nation and carry out an all out war against this communalization of Indian politics.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto's Assasination - An Assasination of the Hallowed Concept of Secularism

Benazir dead is a greater threat to Gen. Mushraff than Benazir alive.
One does not know what the outcome of the elections would have been had this assasination not taken place - what with the recent hasty marathon constitution amendments , an ineffective election commission ad a controlled judiciary. But then Pakistan was never ready for democracy. Democratically elected governments never lasted long enough for anyone to vouch that Pakinstan is of the material that democracy is made of. There are many wno make loud and appropriate noises about democracy but who secretly believe that Pakistan without a strongman dictatorship would destabilise the subcontinent.
One wonders - how is this region, which was once very much part of the subcontinent known as the Indian subcontinent, so different from India?
Guess this is too complex a question for a simple answer. But one thing is clear - fundamentalism and democracy cannot survive under the same roof.
The bashers of Indian democracy and secularism had better learn a lesson from the predicament of our neighbouring country.
We cannot allow democracy to be sacrificed at the altar of extreme nationalism. Yes. The choice before us Indians is between democracy and nationalism ; and only democracy built on the rock foundation of secularism has any chance of survival.
Secularism does not become a pseudo value simply because it is so branded in a certain rhetoric. It's a fundamental human value for the survival of the race called homo sapiens. Let's make no mistakes about it.
Benazir's assasination was the assasination of the secular aspirations of a large section ofthe people of Pakistan.
Secular aspirations of India survived for over 6 decades in india on account of the fact that secularism is an integral part of the Hindu system of thought.
Let not the self-styled custodians of Hinduism make the mistake of driving out democracy from India in the name of some mistaken notions of patriotism.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Narendra Modi's victory

Narendra Modi's victory in Gujarat reminds me of Dryden's observation:
Nor is the people's judgment always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few.

Modi's victory is more than the victory of one party over the other.

it is the victory of Fundamentalism in Indian politics.

it is an emphatic vindication of the 2002 carnage.

it asserts that good roads, electricity and industrial growth are infinitely more important than human beings' right to life.

it exposes the tragic flaw in democracy.

the ceremony of innocence is dead!

Friday, December 14, 2007

It's a larger issue than Modi versus Congress

i find that my blogs on modi have generated a lot of interest and response. what comes below is my response to one of the comments:

@ -----don't get me wrong. am no great congress fan. all i am saying is when human lives and dignity are sacrificed at the altar of ideology and politics, all thinking citizens should pause and do some soul searching - and speak thru the ballots. only then democracy becomes a salutory, effective mode of governance and of ensuring have suggested the lesser of the two evils(modi and congress). no. that's not the answer. we should be thinking of options. like a fractured majority which will put brakes on such decisions that caused the post genocide killings. no government can justify that. godra is the mesdeed of miscreants. what followed is state engineered.
for a lesson from history, kerala was spared the atrocities of the emergency 'cos a coalition govt. was in place during that period. so much so, to a large extent, the state enjoyed only the benefits of the emergency. no wonder congress govt. was re-elected, and stray incidents (like the rajan case) were seriously taken up.we citizens should rise above political affiliations and ideologies (be it those of congress,left or extreme right) so that our ancient indian value of respecting life will be perpetuated in this nation.
hard core pragmatism sometimes blinds us to fundamental, indispesable human values.
by the way, i still havent got that definition for the term 'integrity' when used with reference to modi.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Gujarat Election - A Referendum on Moditva?

I watched the Big Fight on NDTV on the coming Gujarat elections – moditva or hindutva, I think was the issue. What appalled and distressed me absolutely was the open support given to Modi by a section of Gujaratis, apparently well educated and affluent.

They seemed to be enamoured of the man, his personality. But - - the values that a person represents – isn’t that a part of his personaliy? is this admiration for Modi extended to the pogrom he engineered? or is it precisely on account of it?

They seemed content that there is a congenial atmosphere for industrial investment and activity. But wasn’t that always there in Gujarat? Is it something new brought in by Modi?

They seemed blissfully happy about the Peace Modi has brought into Gujarat. Peace for whom? all sections of the population? peace at what cost? – at the cost of blatant violation and supression of human rights of a certain community? peace violently brought into the state by politics of exclusion?

They are either hoodwinked or pretend to be hoodwinked by the development card played so cleverly by their CM to hang on to power to complete the job begun during post Godra riots. Surely no one can be so blind that they cannot to see that Modi only uses development as a cover for communal politics?

Barkha Dutts said aloud what we fear - that the coming elections in Gujarat is a referendum on Moditva and that a favourable outcome could signal Modi’s yatra to Delhi. Are we Indians going to hand over the charge of this nation to a person who pooh poohs democratic values? who has loudly dedcalred that India belongs to one community alone? and has shown himself to be a ruthless ethnic cleanser? Will this nation dociley succumb to the slaughter of civilized politics?

Narendra Modi's Integrity

i was watching a discussion on Narendra Modi on NDTV. The participants were Kapil Sibal and Arun Jaitly.

Jaitly kept harping on Narendra Modi's integrity!! His concluding statement also was an emphatic assertion of his admiration for the greatest quality that Modi has - Integrity.

Will some one explain this claim? Has the term 'integrity' undergone a sea change?

Or does admission of the belief that you have the right to murder if you belong to a certain commuity earn you the label "man of integrity"?

Looks like we are headed back to the barbaric age!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Burden of my Name

Till recently, I couldn’t forgive my father for naming me ‘Kochuthresiamma’(kochu=little/small; thresiamma=tresa; ‘little tresa’ to distinguish from the great philosopher saint tresa of avila). It was ok so long I was in kerala where it was a common name. But in tamilnadu where I did my high school and part of college education, it was too much of a tongue twister for the teachers . The most embarrassing episode related to my name was on the first day of my pre university education in a college in coimbatore. The roll call was common for all PUC students. There were more than five hundred students from all streams. Since I didn’t do my previous years of study in coimbatore, I had no friends on that first day, and being by nature a shy person, desired a very innocuous existence, at least on that day.

But it was not to be.

Not with such a huge baggage of a name. In fact, I was dreading the moment when a non keralite would confront my name on the rolls. Well, the event proved to be, to my horror, much more dramatic than I expected.

The teacher’s name was Dharmambal. She was a gigantic person. Those were days when people described me as a puny little person , and I did feel quite intimidated by Miss Dharmambal who seemed quite visibly hassled by the task of taking the attendance of a new PUC batch. She started calling out the names in the alphabetical order, snapping now and then at students calling out attendance softly and snarling at the whole class when it got noisy.

I sat there terrified at the prospect of her irritated eyes falling on my name. The “K” names began. My heart started pounding in my ears and then the moment came. She stared at the page, blinked her eyes several times and then started her valiant attempts to get her tongue around my name. KO—pause—KOKU—pause—kokut –he –ra, she said ---and couldn’t proceed. She lifted her tortured face from the attendance register with waat is that eh?? By now there was pin drop silence in the class. The girls too got curious about the name she was struggling with and were gleefully looking around for the owner of the name that had stumped Miss Dharmaambal.

‘Get up whoever it is’, she said. How I wished mother earth would open up and swallow me or a violent earthquake would bring the building crashing down on me and the girls and Dhrmaambal !!!! But no such disaster came to my rescue and I stood up sheepishly.

Waat ees your name? she barked. Kochuthresiama, I said slowly , sofly. ‘loud’, screamed Dharmaambal. I repeated as loud as I could. But that was not loud enough for Dharmaambal. ‘You come here’, she snapped and I walked up awkwardly, intensely conscious of the giggling excitement that was going on in the classroom . I went up to her and stood at the foot of the platform on which he gigantic Dharmaambal stood. She bent almost double, thrusting her diamond studded ear close to my trembling lips. Must have been a very comical sight, judging fro the strange sounds emanating from the class room. I repeated my name. She repeated after me but it did not sound anything like my name. By now the class was in fits but Dharmaambal soldiered on. She would learn that name to perfection, the determined expression on her face seemed to say. I coached her part by part and finally, she managed kochuthresiamma fairly decently.

The next day, I sat in the common attendance class, very tense. I called upon all the saints to come to Dharmambal’s assistance when she reached my name. Roll call started and my tension rose. I could feel dharmaamal’s rising tension too. The class was in high excitement and waiting expectantly for her to call out my name. And finally she came to my name. KO she said. KO she said again. Then paused for minute and with infinite determination burst out KOCHUTHRESIAMBAAL !!!!!!!!!! The class dissolved into laughter at her making an ‘ambal’ out of the ‘amma’ in my name – to rhyme with her name, some of the girls said.

The same scene repeated itself, day after day. Soon the students lost interest in this name fiasco but to the last day, both Dharmaambal and I continued to stiffen when the roll call reached “K”; I would continue to hold my breath and Dharmaambal would go ahead with a determined look on her face till she exploded into a KOCHUTHRESIAMBAAL. Then we would both relax and Dharmaambal would go ahead with her task while I experienced the bliss of released tension and the students talked and yelled, capitalizing on the bonding of electric tension between Dharmaambal and me which kept us temporarily oblivious to the immediate surroundings.

Tehelka Apocalypse

was reading tehelka, the issue on the sting operation on Gujarat riots. Feel numb with horror. Am horrified that humans can be so blood thirsty. Am horrified that human beings can gloat over their active role in genocide, and smack heir lips in glee at the memories of the gruesome details of mutilating and burning alive men, women and children.

On our part, othering the perpetrators of the horror in Gujarat reflects a misconceived complacency about ourselves having progresed from that predatory stage. have we, as humans, really left such primordial instincts behind us? are all of us potential predators? Surely the Gujarat rioters are not made of different clay. can all human beings be moulded into bloodthirsty human hunters?

are there dark regions in me lying dormant under the cover of civilization, regions that can be resurrected by a combination congenial factors?

The answer, I guess, is yes.

Scary thought!

How Amma made Appams

It never ceased to astonish my mother that I could make appam and stew twice or even thrice a week. I told her that mixies and shortcut methods have made this once considered delicacy a routine and common item on the normal menu of even a busy working housewife.

But, I asked her, are my appams anything like what u used to make, amma? Yours were incredibly delicious! Amma was not one for gloating over her culinary competence, and so replied that they were all the same.

But they were not the same. Starting from the process to the method to the final product, it was a very very different ball game.

In her days, making appams was an event. It was usually a breakfast item, though once in a way, it was served for lunch too. The event would start the day before with her announcement that the next day’s breakfast would be appam. Her helpers’ faces would fall and they would look at each other meaningfully. She would then take raw rice, measure the required quantity, put it in a muram (large bamboo tray) and give it to the youngest help in the kitchen – ‘cos her eyesight was the best - for cleaning. Amma would hover around her to see if she is doing a neat(literally!) job of it. Once the cleaning is done, amma would take the muram from her for inspection, and with her inferior eye sight would pick out small stones and black rice and put them one by one into the girl’s extended palm. Then it would be handed back to her to be washed thoroughly and soaked for 30 minutes and then drained. ‘Wash it well’ she would say several times while the maid would nod with a long suffering look.

Then the preparation would start for pounding the rice. The oral (stone with a hollow, used for pounding) cleaning would be ordered and amma would be around to see it was done properly. After the maid was done with cleaning, she would look at amma who would nod in approval but nevertheless take a clean towel and run it into the hollow of the oral – just for her satisfaction. The maid dared not snigger or make any remarks.

And then the pounding would start. Amma refused to leave the work area where this activity took lace. She’d hang around with a hawk’s eye to make sure the maid did not scratch her head or put her finger into her ear. The maids knew her well enough to grin and bear any itching or discomfort in those parts of their anatomy while she was around. When the first round(trip, as the maids call it) of pounding was over, amma sat on her low stool and would herelf sift the rice flour through a fine sieve. She didn’t like entrusting that to anyone else, cos none had her immaculate hands. I remember, as a small child, I once ran up to her asking if I cold sift the flower. She told me my hands were not clean enough. Promised to allow me the next time after she’d cleaned my hands to her satisfaction!!!!! I didn’t ask her the next time. Didn’t quite fancy the idea of getting my skin scrubbed off.

Once the pounding and sifting were over, amma would take over completely. She would make a porridge out of the rough rice flour left over after sifting, make a soft dough with it and the fine rice flour after heating the latter mildly, mix yeast and keep the dough overnight.

Next day, early morning, she would extract coconut milk from grated coconut, add it to the dough to make a thin lose appam mix, add sugar and salt to taste and keep it aside for an hour or so.

Then the preparation would start for the actual appam making. She had a quiet corner which she always used for the purpose. The kerosene stove was placed on the flor in that corner and she would sit besides it on her low stool, after she had taken care of details like the big steel tray to keep the hot appams, the lidded vessel to keep the appams after they cooled etc. The area was cordoned off with make shift objects to prevent people(particularly childrem) from coming too close to the stove. The appam manufacture would start – one ladleful of the mix poured into the paalappachatti(wok meant for making appam) giving out a hissing sound, the wok taken up, twisted round so as to spread the mix into complete circle and then replaced over the fire and closed with a lid to trap the steam inside the pan. After a minute, the lid is removed and, lo and behold! There lay the appam ready to be eaten with crisp lacy edges and spongy centre. The production was fast and soon appams would start piling up inside the lidded vessel ,on being transferred from the steel tray. And we children would help ourselves generously to them. How yummy they were! They simply crumble and melt in your mouth leaving behind a delicious aftertaste of coconut milk. I've never ever eaten such delicious appams after she stopped making them. I think, the best appams I ever ate were made by amma.