governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Hinduism’

Owning India

Javed Akhtar’s response to the “Bharat Mata ki Jai” controversy stoked by Asaduddin Owaisi — the member of Parliament from Hyderabad — was just what was needed to pour oil on the dangerously choppy course our politics has taken. And there is no joy to be had in justifying this trend by pointing to the US, where politics has become similarly divisive, courtesy Donald Trump, who wears both his heart and his head on his sleeve.

The right to own India

Javed Akhtar

Glamour and Guts: Shabana Azmi & Javed Akhtar. photo credit: saveondish.com

Javed Akhtar was, till last week, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. In his farewell speech on March 16, he put the controversy to rest by simply stating that it is irrelevant to figure out whether or not it is constitutionally mandated to shout “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. He views this as his right not his obligation.

What exactly may he have meant by that? The uncharitable would say that it is not unusual for those ending their term in Parliament to curry favour with the incumbent government in the hope of re-engagement or promotion to a higher office. Whilst anything is possible, what Mr Akhtar said is so aligned with his frequently espoused idea of a syncretic India, that it being merely a self-seeking posture is unlikely.

But, even if Mr Akhtar’s intention was partly self-serving, it would not be a bad idea to have Mr Akhtar and his vivacious spouse — actor and activist Shabana Azmi — occupy a high-profile sarkari position which requires balance, a mindset uncluttered by bias and international stature.

Mr Akhtar and Ms Azmi fill this criterion to the brim. What could be better than having them in the Rashtrapati Bhavan — which has languished for many years as a resting place for politicians — save for a brief period during the tenure of the unforgettable A.P.J. Abdul Kalam?

More importantly, Mr Akhtar brought to the fore, in his characteristic and effortlessly chaste Hindustani, an issue that troubles many. What is “Bharat” and “Bharatiyata” (Indian-ness) all about? And, as a corollary, who owns India?

A new top down Idea of India

Tomes have been written on the “idea of India” and the dilution of consensus around its “syncretic” nature.. But it does not help to merely point a finger at majoritarian reflux against vote bank-based pandering to minority interests as the key factor disrupting an ancient tradition. If a muscular version of Hindutva is being fanned, there is also a reciprocal fundamentalism in the type of Islam being advocated. It is akin to the Khalistan movement during the late 1980s.

The notion that the “idea of India” is something which we have inherited from the distant past is ludicrous because colonialism ensured it never took root. The freedom fighters and members of the Constituent Assembly, amongst whom Jawaharlal Nehru remained the key executive fulcrum for over a decade, first created the idea of a new India. Thereafter, we have struggled to give a permanent and concrete form to the social and economic transformation, which underpins the idea of owning India. The continued dominance of traditional identities, including religion and caste, as a defining classification for people is a significant barrier to evolving consensus over what being Indian means to people.

The best option for resolving this vexed issue is, if traditional identities themselves evolve and become more inclusive — like an open access class structure. Growth, prosperity and education were expected to dilute traditional identities as a social consequence of enhanced economic equality. But this hope is fading. As we see in the US, traditional identity — in their case race — is the trump card politicians play when times are hard. The Indian state needs to do more, albeit in a soft-handed manner, to foster the ownership of India.

The notion that Indian-ness can be induced from above is not fanciful because of the long arms of the state in India. A complete divorce between religion and the state seems unachievable in a deeply religious country like India. But meticulously even handed treatment across all religions is a reasonable option for rationalising our affirmative action policy, reservations, for public sector jobs; access to publicly-funded education and bank finance. For this purpose, adding economic eligibility criteria to the existing framework built around traditional identities, makes fiscal sense given the need to target subsidies tightly.

Creating Bharatiyata requires even handed sacrifices by all citizens

But unless “Bharatiyata” is based on equitable sacrifices by all Indians and offers equal stakes to all, this objective will be stillborn. The biggest real divide today is not religious. It is the one between the poor, irrespective of religion and caste and others who have used the available opportunities to improve their living standards. An efficient and effective policy of positive affirmations has to be dynamic and must evolve to target those who are left behind because the composition of the have-nots has changed. Whilst this is a social and indeed a moral obligation, it also serves a societies self-interest well to intervene with targeted social protection and human development measures. After all, aggregate domestic demand can only increase if incomes grow across the spectrum. Economies, where wealth is unduly concentrated at the top – as are some dictatorships with very high GDP date (think Russia)- are neither happy (unlike Bhutan which is), nor prosperous (unlike Scandinavia which is)  and definitely not sustainable (unlike the US which is).

Reform the political architecture

Reforms to our political architecture are key. Ensuring that election tickets for political office are given to nominees in a manner matching the religious and caste profile of the relevant political entity (national, state or local) is a powerful and somewhat obvious tool. It is not for nothing that Justin Trudeau, the rockstar Canadian Prime Minister, remarked recently, “There are more Sikhs in my Cabinet than in Modi’s”.

Other key advances in representational democracy would be making 50 per cent-plus-one of the votes cast as the threshold for being elected instead of the first-past-the-post system we follow. This single change can drive inclusive politics given the new imperative it will create — to gather a larger critical mass of voters to get elected. Introducing minimum educational qualifications for members of all elected bodies is another very important instrument to encourage more nuanced debate and legislative action. Mandating a minimum 50 per cent representation for women in the legislature and in the civil service is another game changer.

It is commonly understood that growing the divisible pie enhances the value derived from ownership. It is illustrative that roots of the current political disarray and lumpenisation of political debate in the US and in parts of Europe are attributed to the tapering-off of the good times they enjoyed since World War II ended in 1945. In contrast, the value of being Indian has grown significantly post 1994, when the benefits from economic reforms, liberalisation and globalisation started kicking in.

Young india

President APJ Abdul Kalam- science buff and mentor, inspired the young to dream big and act resolutely. photo credit: thehindu.com

What we lack is a critical mass of meritocratic, Indian elite who put the nation first. But a new elite is growing – based on education and opportunity; charged with the spirit of entrepreneurship and unhindered by chips on their shoulders, left over from colonialism or faux  socialism. Also an increasingly demanding electorate may yet be the catalyst for change in political accountability. The next 50 years present India an even better opportunity for economic growth led domestic, social and economic convergence in owning India. The opportunity is only ours to lose.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age March 22, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/owning-india-331

Stop being a bully State

beef

Does the proposed national “beef ban” and the rabid intolerance for “beef-eaters” illustrate a new and disturbing trend in Indian politics? Are we squandering away our “secularism”?

India has been a “secular” state in practice all along. All the bells and whistles to ensure equal rights for all citizens, irrespective of religion, have existed in the Indian Constitution. But via the infamous Constitution (Forty-second amendment) Act, 1976, the term “secular” was inserted into the Preamble somewhat superfluously.

This attempt to put a “face” to the “fact”, should have been the first signal that our commitment to treating all Indians as one, was doomed to be only skin deep. Thereafter, it has been open season for most political parties to play strategically with the sentiments of both, the majority Hindus and minorities — Muslims being the largest — for periodic political benefit.

inter faith

photo credit: http://www.jainsamaj.org

Religion and community feeling matters

At an individual level, Indians from all faiths accept the basic proposition that culture and religion, which are closely interwoven, are personally important. They also, generally, accept that the individual has to bow down to community norms. This acceptance of religious and community dominance is not without legal precedent.

Our Constitution via Article 48A of the Directive Principles of State Policy requires that the state take steps to “prohibit the slaughter of cows”. Admittedly, the Directive Principles are not justiciable in a court of law. They are more in the nature of guidance for future action. But, consider that cow protection is clubbed with protecting worker rights; the educational rights of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes; improving nutrition levels, protecting the environment and promotion of international peace and security!

The Constitution has been amended one hundred times till now. But the primacy for cow protection in our constitutional vision, as enshrined in the Directive Principles, still stands.

calf

photo credit: http://www.pinterest.com

Democracy without development remains backward looking

What this illustrates, is that democracy is a blunt instrument for social inclusion. The incentive to pander to majority votes is too intense. Second, things become worse when the political architecture assumes, like ours does, that all religions have similar social and economic demographics and, hence, proportional representation is not needed for minorities to protect their voting power. Ironically, this is exactly what we are urging Nepal not to do under their new Constitution and to instead protect the voting power of the “minority”, coincidentally Indian-origin, Madhesis and Tharus, who live in the Terai adjoining Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The romantic hope of the “Macaulay generation” in 1947 was that as India became richer, it would resemble the West, where churches are empty but the bars are full. India is richer today. But religion and tradition remain deeply embedded. We are unlikely to lose our religious identities any time soon.

Decentralisation: the still born option for enhancing inclusion

Another route to manage a heterogeneous society, like ours, could be to decentralise deeply. This was tentatively envisaged under the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act and Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992. These amendments sought to transfer the management of local affairs to village panchayats and urban municipalities. But the attempt was stillborn. We remain a fairly centralised polity. State governments get seduced to toe the “Imperial line”, dished out from Delhi along with Central funds, rather than go their own way, which is so much more effort intensive.

Our recent experience with the reorganisation of state governments shows that decentralisation can take the steam out of corrosive identity politics. The creation of five new states out of Assam in the 1960s and ’70s is a good example. The proliferation of state governments in India, since Independence (from 16 to 29) lends further credence to this strategy for dampening identity politics.

To cater to our cultural and religious mosaic, India needs either many more homogenous states or more powers delegated to local governments, particularly large cities. Consider that if Mumbai was a city-state, it was unlikely to have opted for a “beef ban”. But as part of the state of Maharashtra, it has no choice.

Isn’t it time to come clean? Our secularism is limited to being a benign, quasi-Hindu state, where minority religious rights are constitutionally protected. This is very similar to enlightened Muslim-majority states like Jordan or Egypt both of which have significant Christian populations.

Secularism is not a State without religion

Our brand of secularism is too passive for anything but harmful politicking. It is time to make it proactive and more effective. Here are three suggestions.

First, minority rights must be explicitly recognised, but subordinated to the common law rights of workers, children and the differently-abled. These, and the principle of gender parity, should be “core values” cutting across all religious rights.

Second, if we are to ban beef, despite the significant adverse economic impact on those who trade in it, how about being even-handed and also banning pork — meat considered impure in Islam? This removes, at one stroke, the perceived discrimination against Muslims and Christians, both of whom eat beef. After all, India has more Muslims that any other Islamic country, except Indonesia; enough Christians to be notionally the 22nd most populous Christian country in the world — just ahead of Australia — and the second largest in Asia after the Philippines.

In any case there are sound environmental and health grounds for banning both beef and pork. We can live, quite happily, on goat meat, fish and seafood. Breeding pigs is a flourishing micro-business today for Hindu dalits, but there is no gain without some pain.

Third, our Constitution is explicit about helping SCs and STs, all of whom are assumed to be the poor and underprivileged, within the broad umbrella of Hinduism. Isn’t it fair then to also extend specific, targeted facilities to poor Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains who are as helpless as the poor Hindus? Selective benefits for “underprivileged” Hindus look awfully like pandering to the majority community.

A benign and forward-looking ruler must be even-handed. That is raj dharma. Religious appeasement must be uniform not selective. This is difficult since at the root of appeasement is arbitrariness.

But there is a fourth option, if the first three are not practical. Stop being a bully state. We have done very well thus far as a “soft” state, wary of displeasing anyone — except perhaps our neighbours.

Becoming a bully state is the worst option, especially because we have the institutions and the skills to become an inclusive, rational, developmental state. Perception is everything in today’s social media-powered world. Let’s not squander our common future for petty temporal gain.

“Insaaf ki ghanti” is ringing. It must be heard.

jehangir

Adapted from the authors article in the Asian Age October 13, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/stop-being-bully-state-375

The glue of cross-religious Kar Seva

multifaith

(photo credit: http://www.en.wikipdia.com)

By polishing shoes at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, in New Delhi, as “Kar Seva,” the refreshingly ordinary Lt. Governor, Najeeb Jung and his wife, have raised the bar for people in high public office.

A “Kar Sevak” is one who volunteers to provide pro-bono service for a religious cause. That a deeply religious Muslim couple should choose to do so in a Sikh gurudwara, showcases the best practice role model for our plural society.

Critics will dismiss it as mere tokenism. But in a country starved of demonstrated public consciousness amongst the high and mighty, even tokenism is helpful in building bridges across our social divides.

In a similar vein, PM Modi launched his Swachh Bharat campaign by sweeping a poor colony of the kind that the Mahatma used to prefer to live in on his travels, to show solidarity with the Dalits; again tokenism of course but of the right kind.

Pseudo secularists of course would prefer to build a more religiously sanitized society where religion becomes purely a personal affair and the State keeps away consciously from religious events.

To expect this to happen in the near future is “pie in the sky”. Indians of all denominations are a deeply religious people. Even those, like the “Dalits” who were once doomed to be the dregs of society, under the orthodox Hindu caste system, rebelled not by abandoning religion altogether but instead chose to became Christian in earlier times, inspired by the egalitarian society of the Christian faith. More recently they choose to become Buddhists, led by Bhenji (Sister) Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh.

Religion is here with us to stay, just like man’s selfish nature or inequality. The real issue is how the downside of a deeply religious society can be minimized. As in matters economic, a vibrant society requires the push and pull of competing religions for people to choose from. Reform and change is often sparked by enough people “voting with their feet” to cross over to an alternative group or religion, whose sentiment resonates better with their current aspirations. If this was not so, religions would atrophy and become preserves of elites preying on the ordinary people. This, in fact, is the problem with theocratic states. There is little room or opportunity, for reforming the State religion. The only real choice is to exit the country.

Clearly a plural, traditional country like India cannot offer such blunt choices to its citizens. Hinduism is a fairly elastic religion and can fit all manner of beliefs. This is why, despite 700 years of Theocratic State rule, till 1947, by non-Hindu, monarchic or colonial governments, Hinduism has flourished even in the North and the East where these theocratic rulers were most firmly in power. This is also illustrative of the essentially extractive objectives of these theocratic government. So long as people paid their taxes and did not expect to share in political power, their religion mattered not a whit to the non-Hindu rulers.

It is odd, therefore, that in modern, democratic India, Hinduism should be perceived to be under threat. The real truth is that being the dominant religion in India, Hindu leaders have not felt the bite of competition to keep them on their toes.

If Christian missionaries could expand their fold by providing public services (education, health and social equality) what has stopped Hindu religious leaders from being similarly socially active? If Madrassas can attract poor Muslim kids with the promise of a free education and care why are Hindu institutions not able to compete and retain their market share of adherents?

An areligious State is not anti-Hindu. Similarly a State which does not recognize the deep reverence of Indians for religion can only be blind. Till now we have sought to covertly protect one religion or the other whilst pretending that in State matters religion does not exist. This is hypocritical. Let us confront the issue frontally.

Most Indians would want a State which deals with religions in an even handed manner. Here are five  ground rules we could establish to illustrate that the State has no religion.

First, establishment of new religious shrines should require the consent of the entire community resident around an area and must not be undertaken on public land. If people want a new Temple, Gurudwara, Mosque or Church, they must find the land for it privately and do so in a manner which does not create opposition.

Second, all those entitled to fly the India flag officially, must be required to participate in religious occasions in their local areas to give visible proof that the State respects all religions. Whilst in such high public office, officials must eschew public demonstration of their private religious faith. People judge intentions by how a leader behaves not by the rhetoric. Leaders have to be areligious whilst in public office if the State is to be benign to all religions. Being areligious means being accessible to all religions, including for their key events.

Third, the State must intervene forcefully to protect and facilitate inter-faith marriages, so long as they are legal, including being based on choice. The current trend is highly regressive where the Police act illegally to dissuade such marriages. Choice is the corner stone of liberty so long as it is exercised within the boundaries of the rule of law. By subverting this ideal we are subverting the very basis of democracy.

Four, affirmative action by the State (reservations) must be available to all religions on a common economic and social basis. So long as the basis of affirmative action is based on belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Castes or Other Backward Castes, they must not face the prospect of losing the benefits of affirmative action on opting for an alternative religion.

Five, the convention of rotating the positions of formal power (President, Governors, nominated members of Parliament) across all the religions is a fine, albeit symbolic gesture. Similarly, maintaining proportionate representation of all religions in such formal positions is an excellent convention which should be upheld.

No one knows better than PM Modi the power of symbolism. He is the symbol of New India: aspirational, confident, eager for change and enabled to compete in the World. In our race to “catch-up” with the World we must not repeat the mistake that China made of a black and white choice between tradition and modernity.

The “Big Mac index” only works if there is sufficient diversity in the World. If all countries were clones of each other it would not be needed. Innovation is the preserve of alternative minds and evolution the consequence of differentiated genes.  Let us preserve and grow both in India. More power to the elbows of “cross-religious Kar Sevaks”.

Netaji-Mulayam’s 30/30 India (U) Vision

Image

Blame it on Nehru. If it had not been for him, India (U-ndivided) would comprise Pakistan, Azad Kashmir and Bangladesh, though regrettably still not Sri Lanka (Galle and Kandulama are so beautiful!).

Now why couldn’t the man have just made Jinnah the PM, who would have been gone soon enough, anyway. Nehru would have been back in the saddle and the rest of history would have unwound as it did, except:

(1) We would have won more hockey matches.

(2) Our cricket and football teams would be stronger.

(3) Our movie stars would be taller and better looking and Imran Khan would be ours.

(4) Indians (U) would no longer feel compelled to cheer cricket teams on the basis of religion.

(5) The delights of Lahore would still be available to the average Punjabi

(6) We would not have the absurd feet stomping, yelling, in-your-face antics between border guards, every day at Attari.

(7) The refined Dilli culture would not have been overwhelmed by exuberant Punjabi refugees.

(8) Bengali would have been a dominant Indian language spoken by 15% and Urdu would never have declined and be spoken by more than 25% of U-Indians.

(9) India (U)’s river water potential would have been better harnessed

(10) Hydro power would still be a major energy source

(11) Cheap gas, piped from Turkmenistan would fuel household energy needs, industry and electricity in the North

(12) Our forest cover ratio would be much worse but our freshwater availability would increase significantly.

(13) The Soviets would still be there in Afghanistan because we would never have given the US a toehold in Karachi, the Panjab or the NW Frontier areas

(14) The Taliban would never have been born, nor would have Bhindranwale.

(15) India (U) would not be a favourite tourist destination for Israeli backpackers.

(16) We would still get cheap Sardas (a juicy, sugary sweet Afghanistan/NW Frontier melon) and exquisite dry fruit.

(17) We would still have to deal with “Afghani” money lenders and their wayward ways of dealing with defaulters rather than having them live here as pliant refugees.

(18) We would be able to visit Kashmir without bullet proof vests and enjoy its cuisine and natural beauty.

(19) Kashmiris would still opt for business, horticulture, hospitality, handicrafts, poetry and cricket rather than AK 47s and football.

(20) North and East India (U) would have remained competitive versus the West and the South with easy access to the sea via Karachi; undiluted Punjabi prowess in agriculture; Sindhi excellence in trade; Bengali competitiveness in “Kolture”, arts, law and the social sciences.

(21) We would have fathered micro credit and Muhammad Yunus would be ours.

(22) With one third of the electorate and dominance in the North, Muslims would no longer feel like a minority

(23) Under competition from a significant Islamic presence, Hinduism would have tended to consolidate, rather than splinter along caste cleavages, as it has today.

(24) The BJP would have been a dominant party of the right from the 1950s and Zardari and Sheikh Hasina would have been its Muslim leaders today instead of Shahnawaz Hussain.

(25) Nawaz Sharif and Khaleeda Zia would be the Muslim leaders of the Congress party, rather than Khurshid, Kidwai and Rasheed Alvi.(26) We would not spend 20% of our fiscal resources on the army.

(27) It is unlikely, Sikkim would ever have resolved to join the Republic, just as Nepal’s main regret is that it borders tumultuous India, rather than placid Sweden.

(28) China would be even more worried and hence more of an existential threat.

(29) The US would have been become friendlier much earlier.

(30) Najeeb Jung would still be Lt. Governor of Delhi

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