New on my other blogs

Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?


29 March, 2016

From buffer state to bridge

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

In the age of imperialism, the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal retained its independence by becoming a buffer state between the expanding British power and the declining Chinese. A landlocked country with fewer than 30 million people, it is now seeking a new role as a bridge between its giant neighbours.

When India became a democratic republic and China came under Communist rule, Nepal maintained its status as the world’s only Hindu kingdom with power in the hands of the Ranas, who were the prime ministers. In the 1950s, anti-Rana forces overthrew the Ranas, ushering in an era of constitutional monarchy with a multi-party political system. Centuries-old cultural ties helped India to develop a special relationship with it.

In 2008, even as the divided polity was grappling with the problem of drawing up a new democratic constitution, an elected assembly put an end to monarchy. The constitution, which came into force last year, declared Nepal a secular republic.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which was busy expanding its Hindu base at home, was not happy with the development.

The Madhesis, an ethnic group which has ties with people across the Indian border, sought changes in the constitution to safeguard their interests. With the tacit approval of New Delhi, they blocked movement of goods from India, which lasted five months, causing serious shortage of oil, for which the country relied entirely on India.

The Madhesi agitation prompted the ruling Communist Party of India-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) to turn to China for assistance. China was ready to help but transport and communication bottlenecks restricted its ability to render quick assistance.

A constitutional amendment which addressed the Madhesi concerns partially led to lifting of the blockade and easing of tension. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli took an early opportunity to make his first visit to India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the constitutional amendment but asked for more changes. Oli’s visit ended without the customary joint statement.

Last week Oli visited China, hailing it as an “all-weather friend” that had helped Nepal at times of distress. The two countries signed 10 agreements and issued a joint communiqué which, according to Nepalese commentators, has significant implications for the country’s economic development, democratisation and relations with India.

When the Oli visit was being planned there were reports that the two countries would also sign a deal which would provide for Nepal buying one-third of its fuel requirements from China. This was dropped later and Oli faced criticism at home for yielding to Indian pressure.

The joint communiqué indicated that the fuel trade deal is still on the cards.

One of the agreements envisages feasibility studies on Chinese assistance for exploration of oil and natural gas resources in Nepal.

The most important agreements are those relating to transit facilities through China and road and rail access to its ports. They hold out the prospects of ending Nepal’s near-total dependence on India for contacts with the rest of the world.

The long distance to the Chinese ports may inhibit their wide use. However, when the contemplated road and rail access becomes a reality, Nepal will be able to use ports in Bangladesh, which are not more distant than Kolkata on which it now depends.

One agreement provides for Chinese assistance for the construction of an international airport at Pokhara.

Nepalese journalist Kanak Mani Dixit suggested it was the long blockade by India that emboldened the country’s political class to sign the deal in Beijing. Without the public opinion created as a result of that thoughtless adventurism, no leader, including Oli, would have gone the distance in inking the 10 agreements, he said, adding: “It has suddenly become possible to talk to China as Nepal does with India after decades of running scared.”

Dixit said there was no reason for India to panic as the development of trans-Himalayan linkages would benefit it too. He also felt there was no need for Nepal to be too beholden to Beijing as China, particularly its Tibet region, will also benefit from the agreements.

During Oli’s visit, China expressed full support for Nepal’s new Constitution, over which India still has some reservations. But the possibility of India’s sympathy for Madhesi aspirations emerging as a point of conflict has somewhat lessened with the leadership of that ethnic group establishing direct communications with China too.

Nepal’s hopes of becoming a bridge can only succeed if its big neighbours are able to rise above the strategic concepts of the imperial phase. There have been suggestions from some quarters that Nepal should restore monarchy and become a Hindu kingdom again to check the growth of Chinese influence. That will be a case of the cure being worse than the disease.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 29, 2016.

22 March, 2016

Ways of looking at the economy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s star shines bright amid global economic challenges, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said in New Delhi earlier this month. It now has the fastest growing economy and the largest and youngest workforce and is in the process of reforming the system, she noted.

The reform process began in 1991. A quarter century later, it still faces many obstacles. The first Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government could not go ahead with some proposals due to strong opposition from the Left parties which sustained it in office. When UPA II came up with a constitutional amendment to provide for a uniform pattern of tax on goods and services across the country the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was in the opposition, did not cooperate. Now, as the ruling party, the BJP is eager to take the measure forward but the Congress stands in the way.

The BJP and the Congress agree on steps to make it easy to acquire land for industries but the people who stand to lose their farmlands and homesteads are up in arms against them. Changes of the kind the International Monetary Fund is pressing for may not, therefore, come easily. However, India is well set to retain its status as the fastest growing economy as no credible challenger is in sight.

According to World Bank data, China’s growth rate stood at 9.5 per cent in 2011 and India’s at 6.6 per cent. Since then China’s growth has fallen continuously and India’s has risen except in one year. In the process, they levelled at 7.3 per cent last year. The projection for India in the current financial year is 7.5 per cent against China’s 7.1 per cent.

On the strength of the growth rate, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley claimed that the economy had recovered from the effects of the global slowdown. But former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who, as Finance Minister, had initiated the economic reform process in 1991, termed the recovery very fragile. Touched to the quick, Jaitley said, “In a global slowdown situation, to have the fastest growth rate in the world certainly does not make the Indian economy fragile.”

Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian sought credit for the government for the fast growth rate. He said the manufacturing and service sectors, which were under the government’s control, had done well while the farm and export sectors, which were not under its control, had not done so well.

The steep fall in oil prices in the international market helped India, which imports 70 per cent of its crude requirements, to contain inflation and the current account deficit. But it also hurt to some extent by reducing foreign demand for its products.

Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a testimony before a Congressional committee urged the US to “elevate support for India’s growth to the highest bilateral priority” and to “work more comprehensively to integrate India in the global economic institutions”.

She mentioned in particular the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which has not acted upon India’s application for membership for two decades, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where India has the status of “key partner”, and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

China, which is watching the US moves, is of the view that unrealistic praise and forecasts for India are painting a false picture. “There is no possibility of India surpassing China,” the Communist Party’s English tabloid, Global Times, said in an article last week.

Growth rate is not a reliable measure of the robustness of the economy. A developed economy cannot be expected to chalk up a high growth rate. The US growth rate in the last four years, for instance, ranged between 2.9 per cent and 4.1 per cent. Assessment of the economy entirely on the basis of the growth rate will, therefore, be misleading.

“It is inescapably clear that India won’t easily outgrow China as predicted by the West,” the Global Times article said. “From a macro perspective, China’s GDP in 2015 was nearly $10.42 trillion, which is around five times as much as India’s $2.18 trillion.”

IMF data of GDP shows that vast gaps separate India from China, and China from the US. In per capita terms, China’s GDP is 25 per cent of the US’s and India’s 11 per cent. Until India is able to carry with it the vast excluded sections of its population, the high growth rate will be of little avail. - Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 22, 2016.

15 March, 2016

BJP bid to extend footprint

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India has six political organisations which the Election Commission has recognised as national parties. They are, in the order of their appearance on the political scene, the Congress, the Communist Party of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the CPI-Marxist, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the National Congress Party.

They owe their national status to the easy terms set by the Commission. When the CPI was about to lose its national status a few years ago, the Commission lowered the norms to help it remain a national party.

The Congress party has declined since the days of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nationally, it has been pushed to the second place by the BJP. In the big states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu it is in the third, fourth or even still lower place.

For several decades, the influence of the two Communist parties has been limited to the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Five years ago the regional Trinamool Congress brought to an end three decades of Left rule in West Bengal.

The Bahujan Samaj Party of former UP Chief Minister Mayawati and the National Congress Party of former Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar are essentially one-state parties with just enough presence elsewhere to qualify for national status.

The BJP is the only national party which has recorded growth in the recent past. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi led it to a spectacular victory, and it became the first party to secure an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha in three decades.

While it swept several states in the north and the west, it could not make much headway in the east and the south.

Two eastern states, West Bengal and Assam, and two southern states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, are going to the polls in May to elect new Assemblies. Assam has been under Congress rule for 15 years. In Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Front is seeking an unprecedented second successive term. West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are ruled by regional parties.

These states, which together account for 113 Lok Sabha seats, had contributed only 10 seats to the BJP’s tally of 281 in 2014. The party is hoping to use the opportunity provided by the Assembly elections to extend its footprint in these regions.

In the Lok Sabha elections the BJP had done well in Assam, winning seven of its 14 seats with the help of regional parties aligned with it. In West Bengal it got only two out of 42 seats and in Tamil Nadu just one out of 39.

Assam is the only one of the four states where the BJP is represented in the Assembly at present. It has five members in the 126-member house. It has no members in the outgoing Assemblies of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

Kerala has been inhospitable to Hindutva politics all along. Neither the BJP nor its predecessor, the Jana Sangh, ever won a Lok Sabha or Assembly seat in the state. However, in last year’s local bodies elections the BJP did well in some urban centres, including the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, where it emerged as the second largest party in the City Corporation after the CPI-M.

This has led to high hopes in the BJP camp, and the party’s national leadership and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are directly plotting the party’s campaign in the state to take advantage of what they view as a favourable situation.

A key element of their strategy is attracting sections of the backward castes and Dalits who are disillusioned with both the CPI-M and the Congress for one reason or another. Traditionally, the bulk of these sections have voted for the Left. The BJP has succeeded in enlisting the support of a couple of organisations of backward communities but the ability of their leaders to influence electoral conduct remains to be proved.

While the Congress and the CPI-M are engaged in a bitter power struggle in Kerala, their West Bengal units have come to a tacit understanding with the blessings of their national leaderships to take on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.

The Trinamool Congress and a few regional parties of Tamil Nadu, including Chief Minister J Jayalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, were constituents of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. These parties have shown no interest in aligning with Modi’s BJP. The party as well as the RSS must introspect on why its ability to win friends has diminished. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 15, 2016.

08 March, 2016

Perilous polarisation

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Sixty-six years ago the fathers of the Constitution brought forth upon this subcontinent a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are equal. Now we are engaged in a great battle, testing whether a nation so conceived and dedicated can long endure in a land which has experienced centuries of graded inequality, established and sustained through violence by a minority which arrogated to itself the authority of the dominant religion.

The echoes of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in the above lines are intentional. For, although the battle is fought mainly on the political plane and in constitutional forums, the nation stands polarised perilously and the calculated use of force by one side, which also makes strident calls to arms, has created an air of civil strife.

As of now the outcome of the campaign launched by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh through its students’ organisation, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, remains open. Even before the backlash of the tragic end of Rohith Vemula, Dalit research scholar of the Hyderabad University, subsided, the Sangh Parivar opened a new front in the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Judicial intervention has checkmated it there.

Some worrisome flip-flops preceded the Delhi High Court’s grant of conditional bail to JNU Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, whom the police arrested on sedition charges following complaints filed by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party MP Maheish Girri and ABVP members. His arrest had angered and united the political opposition at home and invited sharp criticism from academics in different lands.

On February 15, pro-Parivar lawyers assaulted Kanhaiya Kumar and JNU students and teachers who had turned up to demonstrate solidarity with him and media persons in the trial court premises, dubbing them anti-nationals. The police merely looked on.

Two days later, the lawyers did it again, contemptuously ignoring the presence of the Registrar of the High Court, who was deputed by the Supreme Court to watch the situation, they also stoned and chased away senior lawyers who too were sent by the apex court.

In view of the unprecedented developments on the lower court premises, Kanhaiya Kumar’s lawyers moved the Supreme Court directly for bail, and his application was scheduled for consideration the next day. However, when the matter came up, the bench headed by Justice GS Khehar backed off. It asked him to go to the High Court, saying its entertaining the bail application directly would create a new precedent.

The High Court took 12 days to grant the student leader bail. In her judgment, Justice Pratibha Rani went beyond the requirements of law and virtually endorsed the prosecution case against him, using terms lifted from the vocabulary of the current political Establishment which dubs its critics anti-national.

In a channel debate, former Supreme Court judge AK Ganguly said Justice Pratibha Rani’s comments were “an act of judicial cowardice.” Alluding to her directive to Kanhaiya Kumar not to actively or passively participate in anti-national activities, former Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising said, “There can be no anticipatory restraint on free speech.”

Three weeks after pro-Parivar lawyers created mayhem on the court premises there has been no sign of effective action against them by either the police or the judiciary, although there is in the public dominion a video in which some of them brag about their criminal act.

The Bar Council of India, which initially said it would take strong action against erring lawyers, is now providing them cover by describing their conduct as a response to provocative slogans by JNU teachers and students.

There are other disquieting developments too. The Delhi High Court has permitted a Parivar-affiliated lawyers’ organisation to hold an International Women’s Day function on its premises and Chief Justice G. Rohini is to be the chief guest. Indira Jaising criticised the move as indicative of the court throwing its weight behind the Parivar body.

Meanwhile, Hindutva elements continue to exacerbate the situation with hate speeches. One organisation offered a cash award for harming Kanhaiya Kumar. One leader exhorted his followers to prepare for a last battle against Muslims.

Sixteen eminent citizens, in a letter to Chief Justice TH Thakur and other judges of the Supreme Court drew their attention to the alarming and threatening statements of persons in power. They said these statements, which seemed to be part of a pattern, had caused fear and insecurity among the citizens, particularly minorities, Dalits and Adivasis and solicited suo motu constitutional action.

Along with it, they sent with recordings and press reports of a score of hate speeches by different leaders, including RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and members of the government.

The signatories to the letter included former judges PB Sawant, Rajinder Sachar, BG Kolse Patil and Hosbet Suresh, former police officers Julio Ribeiro and SM Mushrif and well-known scientist PM Bhargava. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 8, 2016.

01 March, 2016

Echoes of ancient battles

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s attempt to silence alternative voices and establish a single Hindutva narrative has unwittingly revived memories of battles fought in the distant past which have remained buried in myths and folk tales.

One of the events cited by Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani as evidence of anti-national activity in the Jawaharlal Nehru University was the observance of Mahishasura’s martyrdom anniversary on the campus by the All India Backward Students Forum.

In Hindu mythology, Mahishasura is an asura (demon) whom Goddess Durga killed in a nine-day battle. In tribal lore, he is a hero who died valiantly resisting enslavement of his people.

Durga is a very popular and powerful goddess. Smriti Irani, who described herself as an ardent Durga devotee, read out in Parliament extracts from what she said was an AIBSF pamphlet eulogising Mahishasura.

AIBSF said those passages were taken not from its pamphlet but from one produced by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student body, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, to malign it.

Mahishasura is a revered icon of many marginalised communities, including the Santhal tribes spread across the states of West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand. There is a small tribal community known as Asur, whose members worship Mahishasura.

A newspaper quoted the head of the Santhals, 80-year-old Nityananda Hembram, who, incidentally, is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and a retired Chief Architect of the Defence Ministry, as saying Mahishasura was not a mythical character but an historical figure who had repeatedly beaten back the Aryans before a woman sent by them defeated him through deception.

According to local tradition, the southern city of Mysuru got its name from Mahishasura, who once ruled over the region. He provided a good administration but was killed by Goddess Chamundi at the instance of those who were envious of his popularity.

Both Durga and Chamundi are equated with Shiva’s consort, Parvati.

In his book “Riddles of Hinduism,” BR Ambedkar observes “the Brahmins do not seem to have realised that by making Durga the heroine who alone was capable of destroying the Asuras, they were making their own gods a set of miserable cowards.”

Functions to commemorate Mahishasura’s martyrdom have been taking place in different parts of the country without facing any serious hostility from the Hindu mainstream until the RSS launched its nationalism project.

Near the Chamundeswari temple on the Chamundi Hills outside Mysuru city stands a statue of Mahishasura. Speaking at a function held there last year to honour the slain ruler’s memory, Mahesh Chandra Guru, Professor of Journalism at the University of Mysore, said Mahisha was a Buddhist king, who respected human values but was depicted by the priestly class as a demon.

Like Mahishasura, Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, whom Rama kills in the epic Ramayana, and Duryodhana and his brother and sister, who are on the losing side in the other great epic, the Mahabharata, too have many devotees.

Five Ravana temples exist, four of them in the Hindi heartland. One of them, located in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, was constructed only about 125 years ago. It opens only once in a year.

There are Duryodhana temples in Uttarakhand in the north and Kerala in the south.     

Unlike in other parts of the world, where the gods of victorious tribes ousted those of the vanquished, in India the gods of both winners and losers were accommodated in the pantheon.

An interesting fact that emerges from a study of the ancient texts is that the Vedic community gave up most of the gods to whom they had paid homage in their early days and adopted the gods of the other communities. They readily accepted all gods in exchange for the right to officiate as their priests.

As the process of assimilation of the belief systems of the different communities progressed, a host of religious texts like the Puranas were produced to integrate all of them into what came to be known as Hinduism.

Many scholars now interpret the battles and killings described in the Puranas as records of the conflicts between the Aryan and non-Aryan communities. However, there is reason to believe that some of the events happened before the arrival of the Aryans.

Mrinal Pande, author and journalist, has pointed out that Durga’s historical origins, like Mahishasura’s, are embedded firmly among the pre-Aryan cultures of India.

However, it needs to be noted that in the process of gathering and retelling the tales, the authors of the Puranas fashioned them in such a manner as to serve the needs of the casteist society that was established in India after the decline of Buddhism. -- Gulf Today, March 1, 2016.