Witold Pilecki

Nothing prepares you for the shock of visiting Birkenau and Auschwitz – even 75 years later, and after movies like “Schindler’s List” and hundreds of books on the subject have documented the Holocaust for all of us to learn from.

The killing of Jews by the Germans is extremely well documented today. They started in 1941 and continued until November 1944, by which time the war was well and truly lost. Yet for most of the War, the Allies were not aware of what was happening, and when they finally did, the conquest of German-occupied Europe received a much higher priority than the rescue of Jews. Nothing much could be done in practical terms until that happened.

Yet one Polish Army officer realised the importance of getting the word out to the British and Americans that something barbaric was happening at Auschwitz, and decided that only an inside view could provide the necessary documentation for the Allied High Command to realise the civilisational importance of what the Germans were doing. That man was Witold Pilecki.

On September 1 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The Polish Army was hopelessly outgunned. A few days before, the German Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov had met in Moscow and agreed to the carve up of Poland between the two. On September 17 the USSR invaded Poland and occupied the eastern third while the Germans occupied the Western two-thirds.

Witold Pilecki was a farmer and forestry officer. He volunteered for service and was assigned to the Polish 19th Infantry Division. The fighting was hopelessly one-sided despite the bravery of the Polish Army. When the fighting ended Pilecki shed his army uniform, and became part of the Polish Underground. In 1940, hearing of a new prison camp in Auschwitz (Ozwiecim in Polish) that was torturing and killing Poles, he volunteered to come out of cover, get arrested so that he could be imprisoned in Auschwitz to see what was happening.

A few pictures below to show what he must have seen and experienced.

Birkenau
Photo Courtesy Daya Ravi

Railway trains brought carriages to these sidings, where at the gates, SS and Wehrmacht officers inspected the recent arrivals. Armed guards patrolled the area with German Shepherd dogs at the ready. Orders were shouted as the engines wheezed, releasing steam and smoke.

Railway Carriage used to transport prisoners to Birkenau
Photo Courtesy Daya Ravi

And scores of Jews disembarked from each carriage, squinting into the light, clutching sparse belongings in one hand and holding on desperately to loved ones with the other. They had not eaten well, had not been able to use a proper latrine, and believed they were being re-settled.

Hungarian Jews at the ramp in Birkenau, May/June 1944

The guards separated the obviously infirm, the women and children from the men. The men were inspected by German doctors, and some of the men asked to join the women and children. The old, women and children were marched off towards the “showers” where they were immediately gassed to death. The men were put into work camps for hard labour, draining swamps and clearing land to grow crops for the Reich, working in the new I G Farben factory close by, digging earth for buildings.

Photo Courtesy Daya Ravi

Life in camp was unremittingly hard. At first the camp was intended to be for Poles and other lesser human beings, including Jews. But the real killing started after the German leadership agreed on the Final Solution, sometime in January 1942 at the infamous Wannsee Conference.

A prison building in Birkenau….

Auschwitz and Birkenau were sister camps, and when we talk of Auschwitz we usually include the other camps close by – such as Monowitz, Plaszow (where the events depicted in “Schindler’s List” took place), and nearly forty other sites. Some at farms and some at industrial sites where the inmates were used as slave labour.

And in Auschwitz

The extermination of the lesser mortals started slowly and then increased on an industrial scale. The statistics are astonishing. Of the estimated 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, at least 1.1 million died, around 90 percent of them Jews. Approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. To accelerate the rate of extermination the Germans used their legendary efficiency to create an assembly line of killing. Birkenau saw most of the exterminations.

The Crematorium in Auschwitz

The German Army dynamited most of these killing facilities in late 1944 shortly before the Soviet Army arrived.

The Wehrmacht demolished the infamous “showers” in Birkenau in 1944 but enough remains to tell the tale.\
The crematoria in Auschwitz survived the War.

And so he spent three years in conditions of extreme brutality in Auschwitz, organizing an underground there, documenting conditions, assisting in escapes and trying to get the horrors taking place known to the British and Americans. He and other prisoners managed to build a radio. They even managed to carry on the war – by inserting live typhus lice into the pockets of Wehrmacht uniforms so that the wearer would suffer the bite and die of typhus! He made prisoners looking to escape to recite a careful oral history of the camp. However there were no air raids, no commando attacks or any acknowledgement that Pilecki was being heard.

Finally, when he realised the Germans were likely to eliminate him, he himself escaped and resumed being part of the Warsaw Underground in 1944. The German Army was in retreat in Russia. Shortly after, the Soviets pushed the Germans right to the Vistula. The Warsaw Underground saw their chance, and staged an uprising against the Germans. Pilecki fought with great bravery in the uprising and the Underground managed to hold the Germans for 57 days before surrendering. He was again arrested and sent to a camp in Germany.

When the War finally ended the Soviets installed a Communist dictatorship. The Communists began to systematically marginalize and eliminate those members of the Underground who had no Communist sympathies. Witold returned to Poland. There he was arrested by the Communist dictatorship and accused of being a Nazi collaborator. In 1948 he was shot to death after a show trial. His body was thrown into an unknown grave.

When Communist rule in Poland ended in 1991, his heroic story came to light. He was rehabilitated in Polish history.

When describing the trial of Adolf Eichmann – kidnapped from Argentina by the Mossad in 1960 and made to stand trial in Israel – the historian Hannah Arendt remarked that there was nothing sinister about Eichmann – he was not a monster and did not seem fired up with zeal. He was an ordinary man who did some horrible things. She described him as a symbol of “the banality of evil”. She was criticised in Israel for saying this, as it somehow implied evil was ordinary. But she was absolutely right. Survivors of Auschwitz would often say there was no depth that man could not descend to in the right circumstances.

Yet this remarkable man transcended himself and all the limitations of our human condition to try and do something so noble and so self-less. He was 47 when he died.

20 Point Economic Program….

1976. It was an inter-school debating competition, and I was speaking for my school. Since it was a prestigious event, my Social Studies teacher was keen on listening to my arguments for the motion. I cannot recall the subject of the debate, but I do recall it was to do with contemporary India. In my youthful enthusiasm and desire to change the world, I presented reasoned arguments why the world was going to hell in a hand-basket unless….(I told you, I forgot what it was about). My teacher told me cut one of my points out and make room for 30 seconds on a new argument so that I could stay within the mandatory 3 minutes. He said “Write that now that we have the Prime Minister’s 20 Point Economic Program in place, things are going to be better provided we work hard and talk less”. It took me a little while to digest this and was wondering how it was relevant. At this point my teacher told me – “The judges have told the schools that mention of the 20 Point Economic Program in all the speeches is a must. So include it in the speech”.

To a young reader like my daughter, this incident would seem surreal and strange. Most people today will not even remember the 20 Point Economic Program. Perhaps they should get their hands on Prof Gyan Prakash’s excellent “Emergency Chronicles:”. It is a recounting of the Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed on the country in June 1975 soon after the Allahabad High Court unseated her on charges of violating the Electoral Code of Conduct in the 1971 General Election. It’s a book that will anger you and make you sad. It was so easy to capture the State for a person determined to do so. And had she not called a General Election in 1977 which she lost, who knows how much longer the state would have continued and what further abuses might have resulted?

I was old enough to remember the disappearance of Rajan, the engineering student from REC Calicut. From Delhi we had heard of the happenings in Turkman Gate, and seen the pictures of Rukhsana Sultana which used to adorn the front pages. Prof Prakash’s recounting brought all these characters back to life. Remember DGP PS Bhinder, the servile Sikh police officer who would do anything for Sanjay Gandhi? Or the other servile IAS Officer Navin Chawla, who today has whitewashed his entire sordid role in the Emergency thanks to his devotion to Mother Theresa? What is interesting about people like Chawla is that they were the elite. State capture was a matter of right.

The question Prof Prakash addresses brilliantly is how was this possible barely 30 years after the same Congress had fought to rid India of the British. After all, we gave ourselves a Constitution that was supposed to prevent our people being abused under a dictatorship, and to ensure social justice and development for all. You should read the book but here is a summary of some of the main points he makes:

  1. A Strong Central State: Much has been written about the motives of our founding fathers in crafting a democratic constitution, but central to that vision was the desire to establish a strong, central state – with a powerful army, a strong central government and centralised finances. The reason was simple – with the British withdrawing completely, the country was undergoing communal strife and some of the princely states were prepared to strike for independence on their own. This feeling was shared by Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar.
  2. Dominance without hegemony“: The transfer of power to an Indian elite was a peaceful revolution that was not accompanied any social changes. The nationalist elite exercised “dominance without hegemony” (to borrow the words of Ranajit Guha). This compelled the elite to rule with a heavy dose of coercion.
  3. “Fundamental Rights from the Point of View of a Police Constable”: The words used by Somnath Lahiri, the lone Communist member of the Constituent Assembly, when Patel presented proposals on Fundamental Rights with restrictions on personal liberty in April 1947. The Constitution was based on the Government of India Act 1935, which the British Parliament passed to provide limited self-government to India while retaining vast powers with the colonial administration.

    The 1935 Act had powers for preventive detention and detention without trial. The new government retained these provisions as well as other colonial era laws – like the Indian Penal Code 1860, and the Defence of India Rules.

    Introducing Fundamental Rights along the lines of the US Constitution would contravene some of these colonial laws. But the drafters felt strongly about introducing American-style fundamental rights. Proscriptions and limitations were introduced. K M Munshi argued strongly against limiting the rights of the State – for example, to examine private correspondence. In the heated debates that followed, the final wording of Article 21 of the Constitution read “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according the procedure established by law”. The final wording “procedure established by law” was critical – it meant that where the legislative enacted laws that endangered personal liberty, the Courts could not query them since they were “established by law”. How spectacularly this proviso has been used since is something all of us are aware of.
  4. Emergency Powers: The nationalist elite – despite having suffered under colonial era laws that used exceptional conditions to limit personal liberties – were keen to retain these powers in the new Constitution. This caused rightful consternation. But in the eyes of Sardar Patel and BR Ambedkar, they wanted the new State to take away individual liberties in times of emergencies to ensure that people were protected – or so the logic goes. They were reminded that the abuse of emergency powers contained in the Weimar Constitution by the National Socialists brought Hitler to power not so long ago. Laws enabling the President to suspend rights were built into the Constitution on the basis that the American President had similar rights at that time, and that Abraham Lincoln himself had suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War.

    The authority of Patel and Ambedkar won the day. But shortly after India became a Republic, the provisional Parliament passed the Preventive Detention Act. The Act was designed as a weapon to combat incipient Communist insurgencies in Bengal, and was the model for the infamous Maintenance of Internal Security Act (or MISA). This bill had the full backing of Sardar Patel. The consequential part of this law (and its successors) was that it forebade courts from questioning the necessity of any detention under the Preventive Detention Act. The Act was supposed to sunset in 1951. It never did.
  5. “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil that is deeply undemocratic”: Ambedkar’s lament then is relevant today as well. He was worried about the ability of this deeply divided, backward society to absorb and internalise the lofty principles on which the State was founded. He believed that along with political democracy, India needed to focus on social democracy to remove the divisions within us. He wanted India to abandon the Gandhian methods of civil disobedience on the argument that you cannot disobey laws you have given yourself, and demanded that they be specifically outlawed. The main reason Ambedkar inserted so many parts of the 1935 Act into the Constitution was he did not trust lawmakers to not make laws that were essentially undemocratic in the name of popular sovereignty.

The sequence of events that ultimately lead to the Emergency Proclamation and the actual steps taken after the Prime Minister lost her court case are well known. Everyone is guilty – Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, etc. The nature of our society at that time, riven with tensions thanks to the inability of the State to deliver social justice, and the provisions contained in our Constitution and the capture of levers of power by the elite – lead to this infamous episode in our history.

Ambedkar had warned that Indians were susceptible to authoritarianism. This is a warning we must listen to. He quoted the liberal thinker, John Stuart Mill, who had said that the citizens of a democracy must never “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or …trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions”.

Ambedkar remarked that “there is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no women can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty”. Then he continued: “This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

It’s a warning we all must heed.

Did the Mughals loot India?

There have been a spate of tweets and posts pointing out that the decline in India’s share of world GDP from 1700 onwards is proof that the Moghuls looted India.

The term “Moghul” is a code word for Muslims. The allegation is that Muslims took Hindu wealth and women and exported them out to Central Asia, and that is the reason India is so poor.

This allegation is wrong and illogical on so many counts – but it is proof of our times that perfectly intelligent people give credence to this allegation and let it fuel their Hindu anger against the Muslim.

I am no economist but I used whatever knowledge I learnt in business school all those years ago with some facts and analysis in the hope that I can convince a few people how wrong this view is.

GDP – or Gross Domestic Product – is the sum of Consumer Spending, Investment, and Government Spending in a year. Or GDP = C + I + G.  To track these figures, you need a systematic mechanism to collect and collate data. Assuming you have such a mechanism, you need to make sure the data is collected properly, that you remove any double counting etc. Statisticians use sampling methods, secondary data (for example annual reports of companies, etc) to try and find the right values for C and I.  Even so, the process is fraught with controversy. Methodology changes have huge political implications – as we have seen in India’s own case.

There was no such mechanism available until a hundred years ago in most economies. Prior to that, zero.

However economic historians have been studying how to measure the growth of the world economy using secondary and tertiary methods. The doyen in this field was the late Prof Angus Maddison, who researched and wrote on the subject of historical GDP growth at the University of Groningen. His curiosity on the subject arose from an inquiry into why poor countries are poor. His work on the subject is now a reference, and it is from his work that these GDP numbers are quoted.

I culled out some of these figures and they are in the table below. My apologies that the figures are hard to see.

The GDP numbers are quoted in Purchasing Power Parity terms, in Simplistically, this approach takes into account how much it costs to buy the same basket of goods in a country, in that country’s currency. It is indicative of living standards and purchasing power. Given that there were no formal currencies in, say, 1500 CE that were tradable worldwide, this is the most reliable mechanism rather than Nominal GDP.

Scholars have shot holes in Maddison’s thesis. While that is not the subject of this article, it is worth recounting some of them.

First, Maddison assigns a value of $400 (in 1990 prices) for GDP per capita per annum in all the countries under consideration for the period before 1000 CE. He assumes this is the minimum subsistence wage level and that this did not grow for a long time until the Industrial Revolution began. He does not say how he came up with this number. 

He has also been criticised for how he got these numbers in the first place. It is never clearly explained. “Fictive” is the word used by one of his critics.  From 1820 onwards, when there is more data available, there is economic growth. From here on one can track the Industrial Revolution and other modern factors that affect  GDP. There is a detailed criticism available of Maddison’s methods which is cited below in references.

Back to the main subject. Let us take this table as representative of relative reality than absolute truth. Here is what I see.

1 India’s GDP and share of world GDP grew from 1600 to 1700 largely under the hated Moghuls (from $74bn to $91bn, from 22% to 24%).

2 From 1700 to 1820, India’s GDP increases (from $91bn to $114bn) and share falls (from 24% to 16.4%). At the same time, World GDP increases (from $371bn to $695bn), the figures for Western Europe rises ($81bn to 160bn) and UK in particular (from $11bn to $36bn). China rises from $83bn to $229bn at the same time.

Let us pause and ponder what happened at this time, in India and elsewhere

The Mughal dynasty effectively collapsed in 1707 with the death of Aurangzeb. Years of fratricidal war and the pernicious actions of the Sayyid brothers took their toll.

In 1737, Nadir Shah mounted his first disastrous raid on Delhi.  There were other raids, by Ahmed Shah Abdali. In one of these raids, 28,000 camels accompanied Abdali to Kabul filled with jewels and precious stones from Delhi.

The Marathas, taking advantage of the power vacuum, quickly created their confederacy. The confederacy could never settle down to build a stable state due to being in a constant state of war.

The British East India Company, also taking advantage of the power vacuum, and having on their side access to money from trade and from the London markets, and a superbly trained military,  decided to become landowners instead of merely mediating in disputes between princes. By 1820, Maratha power was destroyed and the British were in control.

The United States, having shaken off  the British, were starting to industrialise, expand and grow.

The capital from India and elsewhere fuelled the Industrial Revolution in England by the end of the century, laying grounds for the growth of incomes and wealth.

China – the way to make sense of it is that it continued to be a unitary trading state growing wealthy thanks to European trade, but it did not modernise.

And yet India’s GDP continued to grow.

3 From 1820 to 1913 (the eve of the First World War), the world economy exploded. The United States, despite a costly Civil War, expanded over the continent, and industrialised. Its share of world GDP grew from 1.8% to 19%. At the same time the world economy tripled from $695bn to $2722bn. The UK went from $36bn to $225bn. India grew from $114bn to $204bn (while share of world GDP went down from 16.4% to 7.4%).

This is easy to explain. The explosive growth of the world economy can be directly attributed to the Industrial Revolution, feeding on capital captured from colonial rule, and creating great wealth. While India’s GDP grew, we were now a colonial economy that existed for the enjoyment of our colonial ruler.  By this time India had lost all her manufacturing capability. It would not come back in full measure until 1941, when the Americans forced the British to enable Indian industrialists to set up plants to make planes, jeeps, railway equipment etc to feed the war effort.

This is the analysis relevant to us. When I read it, it seems perfectly obvious to me and I cannot understand what leads people to believe that the disastrous slide into poverty and dependency was due to the Moghuls.  Or that the share of world GDP fell not just because of our enslavement by the British, but that we missed out on the Industrial Revolution (also thanks to colonial rule!). Any efforts at proto-industrialisation that seems to have begun under the last stages of Mughal rule were ended by colonial rule.

The Mughal Empire was the richest entity of its like in the world between the 16th and 18th centuries.  This was why the British came – because the country was wealthy. Trade was largely done and controlled by the Hindu merchant class who took advantage of a relatively well-developed economic environment to make money. The rulers built roads, there was a system of exchange, there were no internal tolls and tariffs. In fact the first British Ambassador to the Moghul court, Sir Thomas Roe, remarked on the insistence of Hindu merchants to take only gold for payment with the words “Europe bleedeth to enrich Asia”. The systematic destruction of the administrative apparatus that existed during Mughal times to facilitate a colonial command-and-control economy suited for exploitation has been very well documented.

Why promote this absolutely daft assertion that the Mughals looted India? The Kohinoor did not leave India until British rule. The systematic looting of Delhi by the Afghans is well known. Every British chancer who came to India left with huge amount of money and gold, so much so that each such man “was amazed at his own modesty”.

History is being rewritten in the service of a pernicious political narrative that is currently making the rounds. That the Muslim is not Indian and that the greatest Indian dynasty before the British were not Indian – just a bunch of thieves.  I make no excuse for the Mughals and their many excesses and extravagances. Such as the need to build a huge and expensive tomb for one of Shah Jehan’s queens, the money for which must obviously have come out of taxes. Or Aurangzeb’s puritanical ways.

But they did not loot India and send our wealth abroad.

References:

1) “Contours of the World Economy 1-2030AD” by Angus Maddison

2) A review of the above available here: faculty.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gclark/Book_Reviews/Maddison.pdf

3) Rana Safvi: “No, The Mughals did not loot India” available here:https://www.dailyo.in/politics/mughals-contribution-indian-economy-rich-culture-tourism-british/story/1/19549.html

4) “India Conquered” – Jon Wilson, Simon & Schuster 2016.

1931

A new book I got hold of feeds my fascination for pre-1945 European History. The book is “1931:Debt, Crisis and the Rise of Hitler” by Tobias Straumann, an economic historian at the University of Zurich. It is well known that after the Armistice and the Peace of Versailles, Weimar Germany and the new Austrian Republic struggled with the huge load of war reparations imposed by the victors. The fledgling democracies also had to contend with new right-wing pressures that talked darkly of the betrayal by suing for peace, and the rise of communism in Europe. And then the world slid into the Great Depression after the crash of the Stock Market in October 1929.

The reactions of most countries to the Depression were bewildering, largely because nothing in any economic orthodoxy of the day gave them any understanding of the forces at play. The War had wrecked the finances of the European powers, all of whom had been on the Gold Standard. The huge expansion in costs resulted in all powers except the United States to abandon the Gold Standard. In order to rein in post-war inflation all countries went back on the Gold Standard, including Germany.

As the Depression took hold, countries found it impossible to maintain confidence in the currency on the basis of gold and to expand credit to the economy. Germany, reeling from the punitive load of reparations, saw its economy collapse. An outflow of gold resulted from the economy thanks to the gold standard leading to a further collapse in confidence. By 1931 Germany was in full economic collapse as businesses failed, jobs were lost and credit dried up. The collapse of banks followed. At this point the Chancellor Heinrich Bruning closed the German banking system.

The collapse played into the hands of the Nazi Party. They had been at the periphery of power since the early 1920s with their position that Germany had been betrayed in 1918. Since the Jewish community had always been involved in banking and financial services, it was easy to allege that international Jewish bankers had conspired to engineer the collapse of the German economy. The narrative around the “Betrayal of 1918” was reinforced by this commentary. The facts, of course, were irrelevant. The Hundred Days Offensive by the Allies from June 1918 onwards pushed German forces way back from their positions. On October 8 1918, British First and Third Armies breached the formidable German mainland defences on the Hindenburg Line at the Second Battle of Cambrai. A mutiny of the German Navy followed which spread as riots throughout the country. At this point the German High Command sued for peace. All these facts were dressed up in the language of Jewish Conspiracy to a distressed German public. That the Jewish German Emissary to the Peace Conference, Otto Landsberg, found the terms so humiliating that he committed suicide, was irrelevant to the narrative. As was the fact that the the German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, also Jewish, was assassinated in 1922.

Or the fact that the German officer who recommended that Private Adolf Hitler be awarded the Iron Cross for bravery in combat, was Hugo Gutmann – a Jew.

There is nothing inevitable about history, but sadly, the paths available for better outcomes are not known at the time events take place. The years from 1929 onwards was a time that required the best and the brightest to be in charge. Nationalism and parochialism are easy forces to give in to. Keynes had the great insight that falling demand is the reason why these economies were not recovering from the sudden collapse in wealth due to the crash. He knew that the Gold Standard was a mistake, and repeatedly warned the Bank of England to abandon the standard. There were sane voices asking that the reparations also be made further easy for Germany. These voices fell on deaf ears. In the case of Germany, Bruning effectively stopped observing the Constitution by resorting to rule by decree. The failure of the German Left to come together to stop the Nazi Party from taking power meant that by January 1933 Adolf Hitler was Chancellor of Germany, and the rest is history.

Is there an economics lesson in all this? May be better people than I can answer this question but here is my take. Economic orthodoxy must always take second place to the need to make sure individuals, communities and businesses are able to work and earn a decent return on their investment (labour in the case of individuals, capital in the case of businesses). Reduced to its basics, I believe this must lie at the heart of any political dispensation. I am not competent to try and simplify the dismal science, and neither do I believe that the giant forces that sweep through the world of finance are fictitious or less powerful than they are. But think of the suffering German, who sees his world collapse. Or more from today – think of the rural resident in West Virginia who has seen coal mining collapse and does not understand the forces in play that have taken away his source of employment. All he sees are Jews (in 1931) and foreigners (in 2016), responsible for his sad state of affairs.

The role of communities and societies in economics is often ignored by policy makers and governments. The results can be disastrous.

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister?

For the first time in a very long time, members of the Conservative Party in Britain are talking of proroguing Parliament to ensure that they are able to force an exit from the European Union without any form of withdrawal agreement. Yes, you heard right. This is the natural party of power, that has set a number of democratic traditions around the world, that now talks openly of ignoring Parliament. They know what they are going to do will be hugely damaging to the United Kingdom, and yet they will risk anarchy in order to get their way. Had this happened in India, the British Prime Minister would have intoned solemnly about the sanctity of democratic institutions, and the Foreign Secretary would have been dispatched to talk sense to the natives.

What does proroguing mean? It simply means, ending this session of Parliament by the Queen on advice of the Prime Minister. Theoretically, the Prime Minister could ask the Queen to prorogue the Parliament until November. Then all unfinished and pending business will expire. The new PM can then negotiate an agreement or simply drive Britain off the Brexit cliff without Parliament to stop him or delay him. It would not be unconstitutional, but it would create the biggest possible uproar in the country.

How alarmist is this scenario? First – we have to separate out the personalities and ask how much of this fear is because of the individuals involved. Then we have to look at the probabilities that this would indeed happen. And lastly, if a No-Deal Brexit did happen, how damaging would it be.

A No-Deal Brexit is a total disaster. Britain leaves its comfortable trading and political arrangements secured through 40 years of being a member of the European Union and starts at Point Zero. Enough and more has been written about how much of social and economic damage this will do. And yet the number of responsible politicians advocating this option, based on the utmost ignorance of how the real world does business, is absolutely astonishing. Any other normal country would shy away from No-Deal.

As I write, the man likely to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is Alexander Boris de Pleffel Johnson – Boris for short. He is a liar, a dissembler, incapable of serious administrative work, known for bad judgement, who relies on his quick wit to score the kind of Etonian quip that very often gets confused for intelligence. He now advocates a No-Deal Brexit, the reneging of Britain’s financial commitments to the EU, and harbours fantasies of how the EU will suddenly roll over and ask for their stomachs to be scratched the moment Boris shows up in Brussels. The rest of the field – with the sterling exception of Rory Stewart – are lightweights who only see the opportunity to climb to high office without a General Election. Rory Stewart, on the other hand, is an Oxonian, who served in the Secret Service, spent four years walking across Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq,. speaks fluent Dari, Pushtu and Urdu, has written four book, and taught at Harvard. Rory has some thoughts about how to square the circle of Brexit, to find a balance between various choices and options. Of course, he has no chance of being elected by the Conservative Party, consisting of 300 MPs and about 120,000 geriatrics. Quite simply, he is not Boris.

Boris Johnson has plied the Conservative base with the red meat of populist, anti European, anti immigrant politics secured with Churchillian prose and huge sweeps of rhetoric of how we fought the Boche on beaches. But he does not believe in any of this. In fact, before the 2016 Referendum, he had two articles ready – one for and one against. He opted to play the Leave card at the very last minute. No one believes anything that Boris would say.

So why elect him at all? The Tory Party knows that a General Election is inevitable. Despite all the bluster of re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU is now adamant that they will do no such thing. Further, Boris himself is deeply distrusted by the EU. He does not even have the ability to evoke sympathy – something that the wooden but stolid Theresa May used to evoke and which caused people like Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel to go out of their way to help her. Boris will get no such assistance.

The Tories are gambling on a crowd-puller to head up their campaign, someone who can add some razzmatazz to sex up their otherwise dodgy record in government. Even if he prorogues Parliament and forces a no-deal Brexit, a General Election will take place after Britain has crashed out. Boris is considered reckless in his private and public lives, and this is why the Tories are electing him. They need a charming scoundrel, not a serious politician.

The best Britain can hope for is that Boris occupies No 10 long enough to either crash out of the EU or call a General Election without crashing out. What a bad set of choices of a great nation. The New Statesman’s cover this week is savage. Take a look.

Orwellian Thoughts

A good friend and economist reminded me this morning that today is the 70th anniversary of the publication of “1984” by George Orwell. The book was written in 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War. A war which saw two totalitarian regimes and one set of democratic allies fight each other, killing millions. Orwell wrote the first draft in 1944 – at a time when it was clear that the Allies were winning, and the Western democratic world lead by Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to a division of the spoils with the Communist dictatorship lead by Joseph Stalin.

Orwell envisioned a dystopian, totalitarian world where an unknown global power tells us what to think, what to feel and who to love and hate. It is a follow on from his other analysis of how authoritarian societies behave – the pig farm in “Animal Farm”. Both these books arose from his fear of authoritarianism sweeping through the world, a communist menace replacing the fascist monster.

So many of the terms coined by Orwell have made it to general usage without us thinking of its origins: “Double-Speak”. “Double-Think”, “Big Brother Is Watching You”. And many more. The propaganda and manipulation techniques described in the book are part of any dictator’s playbook to this day. It is astonishing how prescient the book was, and why it is still so relevant today.

Orwell was not the first to imagine this kind of dystopian world. The prophesy of doom was also echoed by Arthur Koestler in his masterpiece “Darkness At Noon”, which largely describes the Stalinist purges of 1939. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” was written in the aftermath of the Great Depression. It was a cry for stability that generates a response in the form of an over-engineered world of genetic modifications and thought control. The origins are different but the implications are the same. A messy world that will be controlled by a greater power that uses technology to control how people think, behave, reproduce and live, to reduce the entropy to a point where all we have is dull uniformity.

And who can blame them for thinking so? The first half of the 20th century, for Europe, was one long period of instability and disorder, punctuated by a very brief period of wild prosperity and creativity. The forces of fascism and communism had reared their heads in response to the destruction of the existing political order in WW1. Fascism blamed the lack of racial uniformity for the ills of society. Communism put the blame on the dialectic between capital and labour. At least Communism had a body of thought behind it. Fascism was prejudice, pure and simple. Yet both of them used the tools of history to diagnose the ills of society and to promise a brighter future if the correct historical path was followed. In the case of Communism – a complete and total dictatorship of the working classes, and in the case of fascism, a continuous war on racial and ethnic impurity.

These historical pathways for the future – or historicism – was notably attacked by Karl Popper in his masterpiece “The Open Society and its enemies”. Popper opens the book with an attack on the forces of historicism.  When we look at society not from the ground level view of the ordinary man, but rather as an interplay of great forces and great actors that determine human progress. This view implies that there is a historical destiny that needs to be fulfilled. The doctrine of historicism states that “history is controlled by specific historical or evolutionary laws whose discovery would enable us to prophesy the destiny of man”.

One of the oldest forms of historicism is the doctrine of the chosen people – that God has chosen one set of people to function as the instrument of his will and these people will hence inherit the earth.  Popper says this grew out of tribalism. Tribalism sometimes becomes collectivism – in which the individual is smaller than the society – this being something it shares with tribalism. The path for the chosen people is going to be long and hard, with twists and turns. But to believers there is certainty of outcome.

Popper classifies both fascism and communism as modern forms of historicism. Fascism uses race as the mechanism to select the chosen people, Marxism uses class. Both forms of historicism interpret history to derive a law of development that guides the evolution of the chosen people. In the case of Racialism it is biological superiority of a race. In the case of Marxism it is an economic law of struggle for economic supremacy of a particular class.

The forces we have to fear are the forces of fascism. Fascist forces live. As the world lurches towards majoritarianism as a reaction to the liberal values that have prevailed over the last 70 years since the War, it is entirely possible that this self-correction may give shelter those who believe in concepts such as manifest destiny of a people – which is the basis for most historicist thinking. This is not to say that all majoritarianism is fascism – fascists are majoritarians by definition.

Is this a conflation? We do see identity politics now given full flow all over the world, using democratic means to gain power. We do see a certain narrow, thin-skinned view of the world that sees everyone in terms of their affiliation than their intentions. Citizenship is undergoing a re-definition. What kind of “Brave New World” awaits our children – the Huxleyan or the Shakespearean?

Remembering June 3 1989

Mumbai June 3 1989. I had just come in on the night train from Ahmedabad, and was going to Pune for a few days of down time.  Work was tough, and I had a lot going on in my life, not least of which was the fact that I had not seemingly settled down to domesticity like a number of my friends. I was not yet past my twenties but getting closer to the big hump. One of my closest friends who was the most bohemian of them all, had found love and a home. I was not sure where I was headed. My life had not changed that much, ever since I got out of business school. My job did not pay well. What I thought was the love of my life had ended up a bust. What did my future hold? Around me was a country that seemed frozen in time – the noise, the bustle, the vast numbers of people, the ramshackle infrastructure – all of them seemed to indicate that I was in a static world slowly gathering mould, as was my own existence.

I looked around me at ordinary people in the bus with that sense of discombobulation that young people have. My friendly Sony Multiband Radio was in my backpack with headphones to my ears. My favourite station, BBC World Service, was on. It was morning. And what I heard astonished me.

Through the ether came the voices of radio broadcasters telling the world that young men and women in China were doing an incredibly courageous thing. They were asking for the right to live fully free lives, free to say what they want, live where they want and be who they want. They wanted the Party to butt out of their lives. They were willing to fight for these rights, and if needed, to die for these rights.

It’s easy to dismiss these as mere clichés. But on the radio, the sounds of the passion and intensity of protest were loud and strident and very, very real. As was the gunfire and the shouts of kids dying as the State finally decided on a bloody end.

Today, images of Tien An Men crowd the media, especially that of the young man in front of the tanks.  Sitting on the bus, headphones stuck to my ears, the words that I heard seemed to convey the sense of a brand new beginning taking place in one of the oldest countries in the world.

Tensions had been building up since the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989. China was then experimenting with letting economic freedom develop while trying to keep strict political control under the Communist Party.  Scarce eight years before, Deng Xiao Ping had enabled Chinese people to break free of the economic shackles of the Party.

The students had been in occupation of Tien An Men for a few weeks, demanding liberty and political freedom. When the crackdown came, it came on the orders of Deng Xiao Ping, who took the opportunity to side-line (and later exile internally) his great rival Zhao Ziyang who appeared sympathetic.  People’s Liberation Army soldiers in tanks and armoured cars poured into the Square, firing into the crowd and killing and wounding thousands.  As we all know, the State never fell and the revenge of the Chinese state was swift.

I did not realize then, that a scarce three years later, I would find myself standing on Tien An Men Square. All traces of those events three years ago were wiped clean. However, not all the scars. The big buildings surrounding the Square, on what is Chang’An (Long March) Avenue, still carried bullet holes from the machine guns that day,  These were pointed out to me by the young Chinese computer programmers I was hiring for my company to work on automation.  I asked them what really happened.  They would go silent, shake their heads and tell me “Many people died”.  Nothing more was said.  The book shop at the Shangri La Hotel had a Chinese Government publication on sale that went by the title of “The Truth About June 3 1989”.  I still have a copy. It had pictures of dead and dying youth, all labelled as Party activists and unarmed soldiers, who had been brutally massacred by the counter-revolutionaries.  All said with a straight face.

Anyone who has spent some time in China will tell you that they are the nicest people, very friendly and eager to learn and make something of themselves. They are also fiercely proud of being Chinese. They have had the most horrible transition from an ancient Empire to a modern State.

And yet it is amazing that these kids still trust and believe in the idea of a strong Chinese state to get them back to the great nation they once were. The State has become more and more authoritarian as the Chinese Republic rapidly becomes wealthier and more powerful by the day. The Party knows it has the people with it as long as they keep delivering wealth and stability and a tiny bit of freedom,  but is not taking any chances. Every June 3,  the old men at Zhongnanhai remember how close the state came to collapse and prepare to head off any more threats to the State. Preventive arrests, a further clampdown on the press, threats to foreign media – the usual formula. Like this year.

In his book “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, Milan Kundera talks of how the Communist State would make an “un-person” of a person in order to remove him from public memory.  June 3 1989 will not be forgotten.  At some point the Chinese State will come to terms with what happened. But not any time soon.

Listening to archives of some of those broadcasts brings those memories back. It was heady to listen to those events, and also incredibly sad. At the same time, so empowering that young people always want to change the world for the better.  The BBC was right in front.   In China – and to me – shortwave radio was indeed the window to the world,. Listen to this broadcast from Radio Beijing, dated June 3 1989. The announcer later spent several years in a Re-education Camp.  And to this.

I have to ask myself if India should have had it’s own Tien An Men moment. When young people came out to ask for change, to ask for the status quo to be demolished. For the State to be more responsive. Beneath the garb of democracy the Indian state can be just as venal. Are our youth too compliant, too passive, too accepting of the many ways used by politicians to make them blind to what would be blindingly obvious – the lack of jobs, of prospects, of real change?

I remember that day on the bus so vividly. Full of hope, and sadness.

 

 

 

 

Making sense of India 2019 – A Review

The scale and depth of the BJP-lead National Democratic Alliance’s victory in the 2019 General Election has taken everyone by surprise.  A few outliers (like my own friend Salil Shetty) predicted a narrow defeat, but most observers put the BJP in the 250-seat range, placing their Alliance within touching distance of a majority. No one was prepared for the actual results.

I believe these elections mark a sea-change in the political landscape of India.  Very clearly, it appears that the liberal-secular agenda is under threat. But is it really case? I have been doing some reading on this.

First, lets examine the Muslim position. The Indian Muslim elite do not say much. That is perhaps not a good thing in itself.  Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) said that the Hindu mind had been rigged against Muslims by the BJP, but that as an Indian and a Muslim, he accepted the verdict and would oppose the government on issues of policy. That’s a fair position given the tone of the campaign from the BJP.  But a more informed comment came from across the border in Bangladesh.

Writing in the Dhaka Chronicle, Shafiqur Rehman asks the profound question:

If and when modern humanism and liberalism crashes and burns, will future historians look back and say that Islam was the rock on which it first and decisively broke?

He actually asked this question two years ago in a blog post that I admire for its honesty.  He further argues:

By obdurate refusal to accept the fundamental assumptions of post-enlightenment worldview, by obstinate resistance to assimilate with the mainstream when in the minority and by dogged persistence in recreating antediluvian theocracies when in majority, Muslims not only undermined the universal validity of the whole liberal project, but also sowed deep doubts about the liberal project among its previously most faithful adherents.

Is this an issue innate to the religion itself, or is it a failure of Muslims everywhere to adapt? It is true that a right-wing nationalist juggernaut swept everything in its wake away, but is it true that this is a recent phenomenon? Could we say that all of this began in 1991 when the Babri Masjid was destroyed?  Again, a different point of view from Vinay Sitaram (who wrote the must-read biography of P V Narasimha Rao).

 

Hindu nationalism was born exactly 100 years ago. The colonial Government of India’s Act of 1919 allowed for direct (though limited) elections, a first in Indian history. Never before had Indians, as Indians, been able to choose their leaders. In a society composed of individuals with interests, this would have resulted in the ideal of western-style democracy. But in a society composed of groups with identities, the logic of democracy began to be seen through the prism of demographics. For the first time in Indian history, numbers could translate into power.

A remarkable insight, and one that was hidden in plain sight. Universal elections exposed the Hindu faith for what it really was – a majority.  Subjugated by Islamic rulers, and then by the British who also demonized their religion as being pagan, backward, worthless and backward – it now had the power to look at itself very differently.  It required politicians to unlock that self-image in very different forms.  Gandhiji took the soft approach –  he took the elite Indian National Congress by the scruff of its posh neck and dragged it into rural India, asking Congressmen to imbibe the spirit of India and infusing in it a basic concern with the reform of Hinduism, and invoking the mythical spirit of Ram Rajya.  He sought a modus vivendi with all people of India while retaining his religious affiliation in the most obvious way possible. It was “Vaishnav Jana To” on one hand, and his deep endorsement of the Khilafat movement on the other.

The birth of the Hindu Mahasabha, around the same time, raised the Hindu question but in a wholly different way. It was a response to the aborted Bengal Partition on communal lines in 1905, the Minto-Morley Reforms in 1906 and the formation of the Muslim League. Veer Savarkar raised the question of whether or not Hindus and Muslims could ever co-exist in a single geographical entity. It gave birth to Hindu movements that sat uncomfortably with the secular Independence Movement. The demand for Pakistan in 1940 and Partition gave impetus to the movement, leading ultimately to the assassination of the Mahatma in 1948.

The Hindu project never really died in the aftermath of Partition and the assassination of the Mahatma. It just lay low. So what happened that shifted the momentum towards the BJP? After all, did they not win just two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984? Here’s Shekhar Gupta:

We are marking the end of the Mandal-Mandir politics and the unfolding of the Modi epoch…In 1989 ..the BJP, reduced to two in Lok Sabha by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, had begun to see a chance for a comeback in the last year of his prime ministership. Rajiv confidant and defence minister V.P. Singh had rebelled, and looked the natural leader for an alliance to replace Rajiv….(L K Advani) wanted the BJP to win power on its own. For this, the BJP needed an agenda going beyond the day’s flavour: Defeating “corrupt” Rajiv. He picked up Ayodhya, combining aggressive nationalism with Hindu revival. This was his Mandir doctrine.

The 1989 VP Singh Government was propped up by the BJP. In a desire to create his own vote bank, V P Singh revived and implemented the Mandal Commission Report, expanding reservations to castes not previously included. It sparked off a caste war that continues to this day, while at the same time, Advani opened a fissure between Hindu and Muslim by getting a mob to knock down the Babri Masjid while he toured the interiors of India spreading the message of the temple.

It is Shekhar Gupta’s view that the Mandir vs Mandal war has been settled now.

The 2019 verdict has ended that. To say that Mandir has triumphed Mandal will miss the point. It is more like Mandir, under Modi and Amit Shah, has subsumed Mandal. Helped along by Modi’s rise as India’s first full-term, full-majority OBC prime minister winning a second term, the Mandalite vote-banks are broken. Modi has taken the mantle from both Mandal and Mandir.

In terms of political geology, this isn’t just a tectonic shift, it is a continental collision. How has it come about? What are its consequences? What will it take going ahead to contest it, and invent a new pole in Indian politics?

Caste never really disappears from Indian politics, its roots are too deep and loyalties are too tribal.  For now, caste has lost. Here’s Shekhar Gupta again:

Modi and Shah have dared to take the BJP where Advani and his generation had not dreamed. Their Mandir polarisation was read by the heartland voters with their evident sympathy with the upper caste anti-Mandal suicide-burners. Modi and Shah have actively reached out to the OBCs and Dalits. In Uttar Pradesh, they’ve been breaching both Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s vote-banks, diminishing them essentially to single-caste leaders — Jatavs and Yadavs respectively.

The rest are gravitating towards the BJP. Since it already has a Hindu nationalist upper caste vote-bank, these additional numbers give it devastating power. Bihar has been handed over to a non-BJP OBC leader (Nitish Kumar); the leader of a large and powerful Dalit group, Ram Vilas Paswan, has been accommodated. The challenge of Mandal, which kept BJP out of power for almost two of the past three decades, was put to flames in 2019.

What about the man himself? Clearly a force of nature, indefatigable, energetic, imperious and most of all, carries the image of being clean and incorruptible. Listen to Pratap Bhanu Mehta:

Modi deserves his victory. But this is also a moment of dread for Indian democracy. Let us be clear. This is the greatest concentration of power in modern Indian history. Never has a force emerged, not even the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, where a leader had such unchallenged power in the party, a party organisation this energised, complete control over capital, and a vast set of civil society organisations that are poised for dominance in every institution in every corner of the country. India’s fate is now truly in his hands. This victory puts an imprimatur on the idea that India has given up on the central tenets of its politics. In both its institutional and aesthetic form, this is a victory for electoral Caesarism pure and simple, where the power of every institution, from business to religious institutions, will revolve around one man. In ideological terms, it is a victory for majoritarianism, a desire to openly marginalise minorities and assert the cultural hegemony of Hindutva. In sociological terms, this is yet another blow to those who peddle illusions about the power of caste and regional politics. Those identities are breaking down, and ripe for appropriation for the larger project of Hindutva. It is probably also the case that despite the cult of toxic masculinity that characterises BJP’s ideological discourse, Modi upended the politics of gender in new and creative ways. There are now no barriers to the Hindutva project that we take for granted that emanate from social structure. This is a victory for the politics of unreality. The Modi government has several successes to its credit. It certainly managed to create a sense that some of its schemes touched the lives of more people than ever before. But let us be clear: Modi has not won because of his economic success; he has won despite his economic failures. The economy is tottering at a growth rate that feels closer to four or four-and-a-half per cent. That this election was almost entirely bereft of a serious economic narrative of hope does not portend well. To be fair, the Opposition did not have any eye-catching ideas either. Indian elites are now compensating for a faltering India story, a make believe world where our explanation of our failures is the fragmentation of power. If only we gave one man more power, he would do wonders: Nationalism became a refuge for us, because participating in it seems to vicariously lift us, even though it does not do anything to secure India’s future. This is also, finally, a victory of the politics of fear and hate. In 2014, Modi struck a hopeful chord; perhaps it was easier as an outsider. But this campaign was a relentlessly negative one, full of mendacity and hate. This is not a poison that is easy to roll back.

Perhaps the most telling comment Mehta makes is this:

(Modi) has fully grasped the potential of a dangerous idea in democracy: That even evil that has a whiff of a larger cause about it has the power to move more than civility that is tainted with pettiness.

So that does this mean for Indian politics?  Sitapati again:

This creation of a Hindu vote-bank has been a hundred-year project. In order to achieve this, it has been necessary to play up (and in many cases invent) what Hindus have in common. This ranges from common cultural grammar (a taboo against beef, the uniform worship of Lord Ram and now, a common reaction to Pulwama) as well as common loathing of Muslims as the “other”.

And does it mean Indian politics has now been frozen for a period of time?  Shekhar Gupta:

Under the BJP’s 303 and 52 of the Congress, are two important numbers. The BJP’s votes have risen to 22.6 crore now from 17.1 crore in 2014. The Congress vote has also risen to 11.86 crore from 10.69 crore. The combined 2014 tally of 27.79 crore between them has now risen to 34.46 crore. In percentage terms, this is 57 per cent of the total vote compared to 50.3 in 2014. The vote Mandalite and other regional forces took away, is gravitating back to national parties. That’s why, you may take the Congress lightly, Modi and Shah won’t.

A new chapter has begun. Hindu Rashtra is here, delivered by the ballot box.  Time will tell what it means.

Songbirds…

April 17 2013

There is something wonderful about the black American songstress of the days gone by.  They were usually big, with voices to match.  I can always tell a black singer from her voice, because of a certain something, a je ne sais quoi in their voices, in particular, in the voices of the great jazz singers of the 50s and later.   I venture an extreme opinion here when I say that singers of that era invariably were less schooled and less adept in the use of technology than their soul sisters of later decades.  For one – they had to graduate to the recording studio by singing in clubs and speakeasies, in smoky and noisy conditions where they had to make themselves heard. Second, recording technology was not as advanced as it is in these days, so a less than perfect voice could not be digitally tampered with.  As a result their voices sounded more authentic – a naturally lower timbre and the ability to hit high notes with great ease.

Last week I received my long lost consignment of LPs from France and among them was the treasured “At Last” by Etta James.  Etta was born during the Depression to a single mother who had an unsettled life – many jobs, many men, and no money.  No one knows for sure who her father was.  She was brought up in a foster home and discovered singing in a club.   Recording contracts followed. After she was relatively successful with a couple of big hits, the Argo label signed her and released this song and the eponymous LP in 1960.  The song itself was moderately successful initially, but over the years has acquired a sheen. Just listen to the voice here, filled with longing for the loved one who is finally with her.

Music reflects the times, and it is very difficult to separate the performance from the context. This brings to mind the incomparable Queen of Soul, the one and only Aretha Franklin.  One of most beautiful songs from the 60s is “I never loved a man (the way I loved you)”.  And here is a story behind it.  Atlantic Records (founded by the Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun) signed Aretha from another label.  She was then flown to Atlanta to meet the backing band.  This was during the 60s, civil rights, black power etc.  The story goes that she met the band – all of whom were white and of course, all enamoured of this young lady who had already shown her talent.  So they sat down, Aretha on the piano, and they banged out this song in two hours flat. It is very hard to not discern the natural desire of a newbie to showcase her talents even if it was to an admiring bunch of musicians who had not an ounce of prejudice. But this was the sixties in the South, and one can almost hear Aretha say – listen to this, boys, you ain’t heard nothing like this.

Love songs are normally about longing and absence – at least that was how they were. Therefore it is quite rare to come across this gem of a song that combines the longing of love with the pure lust of union, no matter how wrong it is or how messy the whole aspect of a man and a woman in love can get in life. Bessie Smith was another great black musician, who lived between 1895 or so until he tragic death in a car accident in 1937. She started life as a busker and lived a hard life.  The story goes that when she was taken to hospital after the accident the hospital refused to admit her because she was black. The original recording by Bessie Smith is here. However – no disrespect to Bessie – I prefer the version by Nina Simone.  Nina was a regal singer with a strong voice. She took Bessie’s original song and lyrics and modified it in 1968.  I prefer it to Bessie’s – probably because the permissive 60s allowed Nina to include the lust in love into the song.  Here it is – it really catches you by the throat.

And how can one not talk of the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald.  She lived a long and honored life, culminating in the Congressional Medal of Freedom awarded by Bush 41.  Born in 1917, she had a difficult and unhappy childhood but soon began singing on stage until her first recording contract.  She sang scat and bebop, but really became the darling of the American people when Verve Records (a label created around her!)  got her to record the Cole Porter Songbook.  This became the first of a series of records that focused on a single composer and helped establish them in the pantheon as serious musical works.  She also performed a subtle service to America – here was a black woman singing the songs that were predominantly composed by, sung by and listened to by the white American public.  There are many songs by Ella to choose from but my personal favourite is from the Rodgers and Hart songbook, “Manhattan”.  So evocative of that wonderful city, and so full of the simple joys of love between an ordinary guy and an ordinary girl.  What could be more democratic than that?

Let’s conclude with my personal favourite from Billie Holiday.  Another big black lady, with a voice that was made for wit and play with a beautiful vibrato.  Her childhood was anything but happy.  Born in 1915 to a teenage single mother, she spent her childhood with a relative for the most part since her mother worked on the railroads.  Billie (born Eleanora Fagan) played truant from school at the age of 10 and was sent to reform school. At the age of 11 her neighbour raped her.  Her mother moved to Harlem, and both mother and daughter became prostitutes.   She was arrested and released at the age of 14.  She then started singing in bars and clubs in Harlem. Talent will out, and she made her first record at the age of 18.  Towards the end of her life (she died in 1959) she made an album for Verve whose title song “Day In Day Out”  showcases her amazing talent. The sheer joy of it belies her incredibly difficult and tragic life.  And when you listen to it you will understand why she is one of the great influences on jazz and pop singers since.

This cannot be an exhaustive list by any means and neither is this anything but a set of purely subjective opinions.  I love these songbirds, and listening to them gives me hours of joy. It is always poignant to remember how unhappy their lives were, and wrought from these tempestuous beginnings were a musical gift we must treasure. Do explore these singers.  Switch on the music. Take your favorite senor or senorita by the hand to the dance floor.  On commence!

 

Reaction from a friend to my post

My brother in law, who is also a close friend, sent this reaction to my two posts on secularism and what Congress should do.

“Regarding your blog, I have a fundamental question. Why should congress change in all those ways to win power? It is what it is and let it run its course. Why can’t BJP be the party to do it all and be in power? Why should we have two national parties? Why can’t we have sound regional parties to be a check on BJP the national party? Why should BJP be seen as a Hindu party, and if it is so, why is it always in a pejorative sense? I am not so sure that it is so. Why should we not push for an inclusive, humane, pluralistic party which is Hindu because hinduism is all that? Other than Godhra, which was in retaliation, where did it act with impunity in majority hegemony? Beef ban makes humanitarian, health and environment sense. The world will get rid of much of animal meat over time for other reasons even if BJP doesn’t do it for religious reasons. BJP stands for plurality too but on terms that also respects the will of the majority. What it does not stand for is a plurality that appeases the minority and runs roughshod over the concerns of the majority. Look at the nonsense in the Sabarimala issue. The judicial overreach is atrocious. The legislative ought to have peritioned the executive to moderate the judiciary. BJP didn’t have the guts to do it in an election year. Society must be dealt with by people on the merits of things as they are in time and not only as how they ought to be in theory, as per the constitution. For too long now, it has been fashionable to be left-of center as a position of moral and intellectual superiority. Nationalism has a bad rap because it is conflated with jingoism and denigrated. Look at the US too, where the Silicon Valley social liberals denigrate nationalism, lobby govt and park their profits & esops overseas while waxing eloquent about liberal values and inclusion. It’s time to call a spade a spade and spare the niceties. I believe we will be better off working to refine BJP to align with true Hindu pacifist, pluralist and tolerant values without succumbing to populism and appeasement.”

I promised him I would reply on the blog. Here goes:

  1. The suggestions I made (on what the Congress should do) can be followed by any party wishing to be a national party.  I proposed Congress only because they try to be national.  There is no need for an avowedly regional party to do any of these on a national scale. But they can try.
  2. You question why there should be another national party other than the BJP and why should we not let the BJP pretty much run things nationally.  I am quite surprised at this. Do you wish to change the Constitution, and mandate that only the BJP can function as the governing party? Such a thing is possible – look at China. Or do you wish the Singapore model where even though it is a pluralist democracy on paper, in practice only the PAP wins. I assume you do not want this to be the case.
  3. India’s regional parties run states. Running a State is a local affair. For a check on the BJP (the winner of the 2019) election, you need to be present in Parliament at the Centre. Now this can be a coalition of regional parties that are represented at the centre via the Lok Sabha elections. However someone needs to challenge the ruling party on national issues. If a regional party is able to do that, fine. But the track record is dismal.

The BJP IS a Hindutva Party, not a Hindu party. Hinduism stands for a number of universal values – just as any religion does. But if these religions gain political power the result is pernicious because the power is wielded by human beings and not by the lofty concepts that drive the religion. Romila Thapar (that much hated and reviled historian – reviled by those who have not read a word she wrote) makes a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. Hindutva is a political philosophy based on bringing in tenets and concepts dear to the majority. Most of these are difficult to disagree with. Even cow slaughter – but more on that in a while. The tricky bits have to do with how the proponents of Hindutva deal with people who are not Hindu.

The real question here is how is your citizenship defined. Do you need to be a Hindu to be a citizen? Or are you a premier-grade citizen if you are Hindu but children of a lesser God if you are not? Or does citizenship have nothing do with religion but based on your adherence to the expectations of the State (based on which you get certain rights that are no different from those of anyone else)?  My friend – if your answer is the last because it appeals to your natural sense of fairness (which I know you possess), you have selected Secularism as the basis of the state.

Two points in your post will be answered below in points:

  • Cow Slaughter:  Many Hindus eat beef. There are poorer people in Tamil Nadu who eat beef. It is not just a Muslim or Christian practice. Meat eating is responsible for livestock-originated methane emissions. At some point the entire human race has to give up eating meat. The reason the BJP took a position on this is not because of concern for the environment – entirely to do with Hindutva politics. It is laughable to think otherwise.
  • Godhra and Gujata 2002: It was so monstrous – this retaliation you admit – that I do not think any other example is needed. By the way the man who slept at the switch, called the refugee camps “Baby Making Camps” – is running the shop now. We can now cue “did not Congress do so” etc – but that is not what is being discussed

Everything else – well, we are not perfect and I am too old to think that a potential majoritarian government by the BJP ruling as the sole national party is going to be benevolent, benign entity.

I think you saw my blog on Congress and simply saw Red. You probably thought I held a candle for the Congress and was teaching them methods of combating this rightful, benign set of saffron-clad Hindus. Nothing is further from the truth. The BJP needs an Opposition. Someone will provide it.

In my blog on secularism  I have clearly stated that India has and had no choice but be secular, and explained why. But that does not excuse the monstrous and mala fide misuse of secularism. I cannot change the past but fully acknowledge that this should not happen again.

India has a surprisingly mature polity. Even if the BJP wins 400 seats, they will not be able to convert this into a Saffron Strong State as some people wish. The best that I can hope for is that they show future national parties what happens if the secular credo is misused or misinterpreted. You open the door for the Orbans, the Trumps and the Modis.