Some Temple Music

My good friend Ramesh visited a temple on my say so, and I found myself commenting on his blog on some aspects of one of the temples. I was inspired to write this.

The wind was picking up, and clouds darkened the sky, as I stepped into the Nanguneri Temple. The entrance into the temple is via a long corridor. The ceiling is covered by mats knitted and installed there by a philanthropic business family who claim ancestry from the area. As you exit the corridor,  the temple’s entrance beckons. I turn right following the tour leader V Sriram. He points out to me what parts of the temple Gopuram are relatively modern and which date back to the Nayaka era some 450 years prior.  We make our way to the temple tank to the side. It takes my breath away. We walk to a pavilion of sorts designed to provide access to the tank. Sriram says that it is probably a later addition and asks us to notice its distinctly Islamic aspects. The water body is dry, but even so, its huge. About three-quarters of a kilometre away is a small mandapam which was supposed to be the centre of the tank. The rain starts to spatter about us, and then the skies open up.

Sriram wonders whether we should make a run for the temple but the intensity of the downpour kills that thought dead. Instead we decide to hunker down in the pavilion and Amritha is persuaded to sing. She starts the shruti on her tablet, with that very modern of accessories. No accompaniments, no amplification. Music Unplugged. In the middle of a quickening downpour, as we look out towards the vast and empty temple tank, every one is aware of how much of a benediction this rain it to this parched land, just as Amrita’s voice penetrates the sound of the raindrops. 

What could be better than this, I wonder?

A visit to a South Indian temple is always a blissful experience for me. Whether it’s a small, roadside Pillaiyar Koil, or a big affair like Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, there are so many small things that you notice that are in common. The semiotics are comfortingly the same – the kolam drawn on soil wetted with a mixture of cowdung and mud; the stems of banana trees tied at the gates; the passageway to the sanctum sanctorum in a bigger temple lined with pillars; the dhwajastambham (the flagmast); the nandi bull which is big or small depending on the size of the temple and the wealth of its benefactors; the shrines to ancillary deities on the sides, with a priest in attendance ready to do an aarti and collect offerings on the plate; and then the main temple with its garba-griha. The smells of ghee, burning oil, bananas and flowers waft to your nostrils – along with the smell of bats in older and larger temples.   

My personal fascination with the Hindu temple began in December 1984. I had been recruited by a large foreign bank as an officer trainee out of business school. Within a week I got turfed out on medical grounds, and after I secured alternate employment I spent a week in Tamil Nadu literally bumming around. One December day I walked into the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and was hooked. It was the first time I was going to a temple all by myself. I found that my solitude afforded me the sensation of looking at the architecture, the structures, the idols and the people anew.

My previous religious experiences had all been under the tutelage of my family.  I come from a very religious household where my very strict and domineering father managed to convert the house into a puritanical monument to Hinduism, leavened only by his fondness for scotch whisky, mutton curry and Wills Filters.  Religion was always a duty. Failure to observe duty was punishable. Carnatic music was good because it was devotional. Through two years in business school, away from home for the first time, I rebelled against all that. And just a year after, the visit to Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple re-introduced me to the world of temples. Luckily enough, some years later I met my wife and married her. One day, I was whistling something and she asked me “Hey that is Karahara Priya!”. I told her I had heard it at home, being played by Nadaswara Vidwan Karaikurichi Arunachalam on Diwali days before the ritual oil bath. She smiled with delight and began my education into Carnatic music which continues to this day, 30 years later. And we both enjoy temples, together.

I am never sure what to ask for or how to pray. I gaze at the idol fiercely hoping that somehow the idol can look through me and understand what it is I am looking for. After all, God is supposed to be omniscient, isn’t He? He knows I want the best for my two girls – Ramya and Daya. That I want my extended family to be well. That I struggle with my company and my business. That I feel like I have underwhelmed the world in the last few years and feel seriously inadequate as a result. I am unable to articulate these feelings. Instead I gaze fervently and hope that I am understood.

I do like the monasticity and quiet of Nanguneri, but equally, I understand why the faithful crowd places like Nellaippar in Tirunelveli, or Madurai Meenakshi Amman in Madurai. Our temples were not intended to be cathedrals. The fact that the temple heaves is a sign of how relevant it is. They were centres of temporal, financial, political, cultural and religious lives. The tall gopurams held records and special chambers held grain stock and seed. Marriages were finalised and conducted there, children prayed for, their first birthdays celebrated there, and every occasion in a person’s life observed there. It was where you went to meet people and if possible to fix a suitable alliance for your son or daughter. You sat in the courtyard and ate a small meal, washing in the temple tank after. You came there and prayed when things went well. It was where you wept at the feet of the Lord when fate treated you unkindly. Kings prayed there in their grandeur, as did the common man in his poverty. It was where life happened. Historians have written eloquently about the relationship between the temple and the king, its role as a banker and a land owner, and as a keeper of records[1].  

The transformation of the temple space from curiosity to community centre  is evident in the case of the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. The temple was in a rundown state by the early 1990s when the Archaeological Survey of India took it over. Over fifteen years, their skilful restoration brought the temple back to life. The reconstructed walls of the temple enclosed a green space large enough to isolate the temple and yet make it accessible. In a visit in March 2018, I sat there of an evening and watched the crowds stream in, some visiting the temple and some just sitting in the vast spaces, enjoying the breeze and celebrating life.

The closest I have come to a spiritual experience in a temple was in December 2008. We flew to India from Paris and we bundled our one year old little girl into a guest house in Tirupati. We had booked for a darshan at 230am the next day. So we dressed our little one in her pattu pavadai before she went to sleep. We woke up at 145am, bathed and changed.  She was fast asleep – I did a diaper check, and I put her on my shoulder. She woke briefly and settled back with a long sigh. As we entered the temple’s inner sanctum, the priests and the few bhaktas there began to recite the Suprabhatam. The tones were solemn and sonorous, the air cold and peaceful and all was quiet except for the sounds of the Suprabhatam that filled the space. I could feel my little girl’s short hair tickle my ears as she or I moved and she slept blissfully, breathing deep and easy and occasionally making a sound with her little mouth. And so it was for the next two hours. I felt uniquely blessed as my daughter slept peacefully all through, until we came back to the guest house. Still unaware and at peace with herself. She was in the moment, close to her inner self, utterly unconscious of all that happened around her. I remember every second of that morning and consider that my divine benediction.


[1] Do read R Champakalakshmi “Religion, Tradition and Ideology in Pre-Colonial South India” and Burton Stein “South Indian Temples – An Analytical Reconsideration”.

The Somnath Idol

The process of rejecting western notions about India has acquired speed, pushing aside anyone who dares to question the intellectual rigour of the new interpretations. This is particularly so in the case of Indian science and how advanced it was in the days before the Islamic conquest began.

Lets take the case of the idol at Somnath. As we know, Mahmud of Ghazni is supposed to have destroyed the famous temple in 1025 CE. He is supposed to have decamped with tons of gold and jewels and put 50,000 people to death.

A friend of mine, known to be a high IQ physics buff and deeply involved in emerging technologies like Internet of Things, sent me a quote that indicated a very deep knowledge of magnetism in ancient India and specifically about the idol at the Somnath temple before it was smashed to pieces allegedly by Mahmud.

When the temple fell, said my friend, “the king directed a person to go and feel all around and above it with a spear, which he did but met with no obstacle. One of the attendants then stated his opinion that the canopy was made of loadstone [a magnetized rock], and that the idol was iron and that the ingenious builder had skillfully contrived that the magnet should not exercise a greater force on any one side — hence the idol was suspended in the middle. When two stones were removed from the summit the idol swerved on one side, when more were taken away it inclined still further, until it rested on the ground.”

This quote has been doing the rounds amongst the Hindu faithful. I asked my friend for attribution. I was surprised to get a response from him that said he did not need some white man to provide validation for knowledge about India, and that there are facts and there are facts. So I did some digging around of my own and this is what I found.

The quote in italics is taken from an obscure work on history by Sir H M Elliott and Prof John Dowson published in London in 1869[1]. The two English gents were Persian and Arabic scholars, and they compiled a reference work of histories of India written by others, especially Arabic and Persian writers. They have translated many Arab writers and compiled it into two volumes. Serious historians know of this work but it is largely unknown to the common man.

The passage cited is taken from Abu Yahya Zakariya’ ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, an Arab geographer and astronomer. He was born sometime in around 1230 CE or so. He was not a traveller but compiled his work from the works of others. He is mainly known for “ʿAjā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt” (The Wonders of Creation).  This is a book on cosmography and was apparently immensely popular the Arab world. In the work under reference,  This quote is from a book called Asaru Al Bilad wa Akhbaru-l Ibad (“Monuments of Countries and Memories of Men”) . Qazwini apparently quotes from another work by an earlier Arab writer called Misar Bin Mulalhil in this work.

Everything stated by Qazwini may be true.  And then again not. Since he never actually saw any of this, as Ghazni destroyed Somnath in 1025 CE and Qizwani wrote his book in 1263. It is indeed true that the Susruta Samhita does show the ancients knew all about magnetism, and therefore it is entirely possible that the suspension of the idol with magnets may have been done.

I thought about this and wondered how the Somnath phenomenon could be possible.  For a huge iron idol to be suspended in mid air would need industrial magnets. A loadstone (which is a naturally occurring weak magnet that was used in compasses of old) would not do the job (unless these loadstones were huge and very powerful). Does it mean our ancients knew how to build industrial magnets,  for which they would need access to electrical engineering technology.

Not satisfied, I wrote to Prof Subhash Kak, who is an Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering at Oklahoma State University and a member of the Indian Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. He is also an expert in matters relating to ancient Indian science, and has written extensively about the mathematical knowledge contained in ancient Indian scriptures.

He replied saying the iron idol and its suspension by magnets does not seem likely, but persistent reports of such suspension in Hindu temples in Java could lead us to conclude that perhaps dark ropes were involved. Which I can accept.

My larger point is this – why do we suspend our scientific faculties just because we wish to reject the unfair characterization of India as a land that did not know science until the white man arrived? The foremost scientific tool we have is Occam’s razor. Unless otherwise proved, reject something fanciful as the explanation for a hypothesis. In this case, clearly Qazwini was making it up.

Is our inferiority complex so deep-rooted that we have to reject in entirety anything Western?

[1] History of India By Its Own Historians Vol I & II. Edited from the posthumous papers of Sir H M Elliott by Prof John Dowson. London, Trubner & Co. 1869

Reunion

Note: I had to edit this post. Some of the content was found to be deeply offensive to a dear friend. My generic commentary on the unambitious nature of the student community there was followed by my delight at discovering there were pearls in their midst. My regret that this discovery took place 40 years after the college experience did not seem to have convinced this person, nor would my friend accept my thesis that there are exceptions to the generalization as I subsequently discovered. I came across to her as snobbish and conceited. Were you the only person to go to this college unwillingly, she asks. Did you think you were the only person who liked to read and improve themselves? Life’s too short. So here goes with edits.

Meeting people who were part of your life when you were very young, after a very long time, is like watching a movie of yourself made on Super 8mm film that’s been dug from the mud and replayed. The film has not been preserved well but it runs. The images are jerky and grainy, the colour has not held true, and the cuts are abrupt wherever faulty film had to be cut out and spliced. Large portions are just grayed out.

And yet a picture emerges of yourself as you once were, perhaps as others saw you, and the self-awareness (if any) that you had at that time comes flooding back into memory. You wonder how that person then became the person you are now and how much of that person remains today.

Last week I attended the reunion of my undergraduate class. My undergraduate college was an unknown government institution in a small town. It was most unremarkable in every way. Admissions were not selective, so pretty much anyone who had scraped through the rather easy State Matriculation exams could get a place. There was no hoary academic history attached to the place or the institution, and that lack of history perpetuated itself into the present that I encountered. Rather, it appeared to be the kind of place to spend the minimum amount of time needed to acquire a BA degree which would make you eligible to take a government job as a clerk. Or, if you were a female student, until you got married. It was not a place for the academically ambitious.

I had rather imagined myself to be exactly that. I did not want to go to this college – I wanted to study at a prestigious engineering college with a tough entrance exam. Without much of the rigorous preparation that is needed for such exams, I went ahead and attempted the entrance test, with predictable results. My father told me he was not willing to countenance another attempt and I was told to go do this degree.

I was angry and resentful the moment I came into class the first day. I found myself in a class with some of the worst behaved youth I had ever come across. I felt as though none of them would share any of my interests in reading and such-like. It appeared as though most students did not aspire to anything more than doing the bare minimum to get a degree – I am sure exceptions existed, and invariably, these were amongst the poorest of students who were often the first to go to college in their families. Attendance in classes was an optional extra. The teachers for the most part reflected this approach to life – do the minimum, and check out for the rest of the day. And I would not blame them for adopting this strategy for one had to be a very brave person to insist on academic discipline.

The situation was not helped by the fact that my sister was in the same college. She happened to have been born in the United States and was a resident alien in India. That and the fact that she was quite good looking meant she was a target for abuse from the very first day. She was also quite aloof and that did not help. She was the subject of catcalls and abuse almost on a daily basis. Some of my classmates were participants.

I was unable to stop the abuse. Something that rankles to this day. A lot of girls in the college stoically withstood the abuse but my sister took it very hard. Some of my nicer classmates used to congregate around two of the culprits. My die was cast. I never associated with any of them socially. It did appear that there were aspirational students. I used to talk to people and interact in class but never outside. This pattern that I set in the very first year, combined with the resentment I felt at being in this place, meant that I had a very lonely three years. Since I had closed my mind to any form of experience I did not ask myself if there were other people there with similar feelings to mine. I mitigated that loneliness by learning to live within myself, by developing an inner life that has ended up so rich that sometimes I thank my stars for those years. When I finished my three year sentence I did not as much as stop to say goodbye to anyone. There were no farewells. I just moved on.

So how did I end up at this reunion nearly 40 years later? One of the two guys who used to catcall my sister became my classmate in business school. Apologies took place and we ended up friends. Over the years he visited us and we visited him. A year or so ago he put me in touch with all these people again and the culmination was what I attended this last weekend.

I met some amazing people. One girl was indeed someone who got a degree so that she could marry. But the marriage became a very difficult one because of the family she married into. So she walked out with her husband in tow, qualified in law and built a legal practice that is thriving. She looked after her husband during final stages of cancer. Another guy married the woman of his dreams but waited six years for her to get round to leaving her home for him. Another went to France, joined the army, toughed it out and made a life for himself there. Supremely happy man. Everyone seemed to have encountered adversity and overcome it.

Did I judge them too harshly then on their behavior? May be I did. All of us were unformed human beings then. If I was immature in passing out harsh judgements, then may be they were immature in their behavior. I think my judgement was the right one – there are lines that cannot be crossed. And yet they were kids too. Clearly most of them also had no choice in terms of which college to attend. They were either too poor, or not very well informed, or came from conservative families. I tested them all on my lofty standards and found all of them wanting.

The reunion was great. All of them were very kind and very nice to me. Despite the gulf of forty years we all connected and the years rolled away. I regret very much that I could not enrich my life in those years with the kind of thrills and escapades that young people have. At the same time I do not regret the reasons why I would not partake. But something was lost.

The picture I saw of myself over the weekend was this studious, bookish person who is a little uncomfortable with the ordinary. That I may actually be snobbish and elitist in my tastes. But then, that’s me. Everyone was affectionate, some more so than others. It was just a short reunion, and hence I do not think I got close to anyone but everyone knew me better than they did 40 years ago. And the stage is set for renewal and refreshment of old relationships. I can only wish all of them well and be a friend to them.

I saw that the anger and resentment I felt at that time was ultimately channeled into making something of myself – a steely determination that this was not what I was intended for. My lack of self confidence arose from other factors, mainly a domineering father. The anger mixed with genuine helplessness and a lack of self-confidence made me a very lonely person.

The years since have been very kind to me. Lots of friends, the opportunity to do interesting work, live in several countries, marry a good woman and have a lovely daughter. And I am known among friends as good company, a raconteur and entertainer. I have tried to be a good man.

I am very happy in my own skin. I learnt to be like that in order to deal with loneliness. I think its a huge gift from those years but I would not want to pay such a price again.

Things Fall Apart

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

The requiem for the imminent breakup of the United Kingdom could only have been written by William Butler Yeats. For it is largely on the shores of the Emerald Isle that the rabid dreams of the Brexiter Brigade have run aground.  The groans you hear are the sounds of the ship of state as she slides into the choppy waters of the Irish Sea, breaking into pieces, each adrift in an increasingly uncertain world of darkness.

The farce of Brexit carries on. As we speak, on Saturday the 19th of October, Parliament sat on a Saturday – which it very rarely does. The Prime Minister presented his deal. On the order paper for the day was an Amendment proposed by Sir Oliver Letwin, one of the former Conservative MPs expelled by the Tories for voting against it. The Amendment says that unless the enabling legislation required for actually implementing the Deal is passed, the House will withhold approval for the meaningful vote to be cast today – Meaningful vote being the term used to distinguish this vote from a No Confidence vote, and hence a vote the Government can lose without being obligated to resign.

MP after MP made the same set speeches until the Letwin Amendment was first put to vote. It passed 322-306 – anothe defeat for the Government. Seeing this, the Government refused to present the Deal for a meaningful vote. Despite an Act of Parliament obligating the PM to ask for a delay, the Prime Minister left making threatening noises as to how he will disobey the law. Last night he sent a letter to the EU – unsigned! – asking for a delay to comply with the instructions of Parliament. Jean-Claude Juncker testily told the Press immediately that he will not support any further delay.

Brexit as the fantasists wanted it, was always going to be undeliverable. The key was how Northern Ireland was going to be handled. In the end the Unionists in Northern Ireland saw that this bunch of extremists who run HMG were willing to countenance Northern Ireland potentially rejoining the Irish Republic in order to get their deal. They were aghast and will now vote against Brexit. Why it took them three years to come to this realisation, God alone knows.

Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU during the Referendum. The right wing Protestant Democratic Unionist Party took sops worth a billion pounds to prop up the minority Conservative Government, believing that somehow the EU will sacrifice the Republic of Ireland and allow Northern Ireland to keep its status quo while remaining part of the UK. They made the mistake of trusting Boris Johnson to do this – and he has just shafted them. They will vote against the Government. Sinn Fein have welcomed this deal as have the Irish – it is very clear that the only way ahead is to rejoin the Republic of Ireland – close to a hundred years after the Island was partitioned after the Irish War of Independence.

Meanwhile about 300,000 people marched in Trafalgar Square in favour of staying in the EU. Such marches have taken place at least half a dozen times. While the Remain marches have been peaceful, the marches led by the Leave side have been thuggish and xenophobic.

The new deal is disastrous – worse than the one Theresa May presented. It has made the wooden Theresa May appear like a stateswoman in contrast.

As part of the Agreement, Britain will leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. This is a disastrous, self-inflicted wound. It means tariffs will apply on all British goods entering the EU. And vice versa of course, but EU absorbs a very large part of British manufacture and services.

Since Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, and since the Good Friday Agreement hinges on an open border between the Catholic south and the Protestant north, the deal guarantees that Northern Ireland will be part of the Single Market and the Customs Union.  However, the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union border will now lie in the Irish Sea.

Think about it. How would we react if – say – Arunachal Pradesh stays a part of India but it functions as a unit of the Chinese economy, such that any goods moving from Guwahati to Tezu (and vice versa) are subject to the Trade Agreements between India and China?

British businesses have already warned the Government that losing market access means they will have to relocate to the continent. Among the most upset are the Japanese. In the early 1980s the then Japanese Prime Minister met Mrs Thatcher who encouraged Japanese investment in the UK as the British were driving the creation of the Single Market and hence would facilitate easy export of Japanese goods into Europe.  The Japanese consider this a long term commitment that served the national interests of both countries and do not understand how Britain can sacrifice its own national interest.

The biggest casualty will be Scotland. The Leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party in Westminster, Ian Blackford, spoke with passion and emotion, to urge Parliament not to vote in a deal that cuts Scotland off from the EU. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. He said “If this deal passes there is only way for Scotland – independence. I would ask the EU to leave a light on for Scotland”.  It is very likely that Scotland will call a new referendum – whether or not it has sanction in Westminster – and will leave the UK. After all the Union of 1707 was voluntary. Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party have taken Scotland for granted and the UK will pay the price.

Even tiny Wales, which desperately wants to stay in the EU, now has a strong independence movement. Wales disappeared into the United Kingdom 700 years ago!

If the Deal passes, in a very short while, the United Kingdom will cease to exist. We will go back to the days prior to 1707. This is what the Conservative and Unionist Party – the party of Empire, economic good sense and values – would have accomplished, aided and abetted by a Marxist Labour Party, assisted by a strange sense of Constitutional reticence by the Queen as Head of State who helplessly watches her beloved United Kingdom implode under the weight of contradictions created by Brexit.

Brexiters have successfully labelled a badly designed advisory Referendum, that was narrowly won by the Leave Campaign,  as an overwhelming mandate from the people. The mistake was to leave such an important question to the public without laying out the options or spelling out the consequences.  The second mistake was, once the Referendum was won by the Leave side, the tin-eared successor to David Cameron, Theresa May, made no attempt to genuinely explain what the options were and to try and generate a cross-party consensus to present some options to the EU before triggering the letter (under Article 50 of the EU Constitution) to leave the EU. Instead she put out four Red Lines before the negotiations even began, thereby painting herself into a negotiating position she was never going to be able to achieve.

If you thought that the Leader of the Opposition should have been able to stop it, think again. The Labour Party have wasted their time indulging in puerile debates about Marxism, anti Semitism, nationalising state industries and some repetitive, dull wittering about “Jobs First Brexit” – whatever that means. The Left and the Right are united in one thing – they dislike the EU for different reasons. The Leader of the Opposition could have pinned the Tories to the mat. But he has been ineffective and is unelectable.

Even if the vote does take place and the Prime Minister wins, it is not the end of the story. Britain has to negotiate a new Free Trade Agreement with the EU in an attempt to gain access to the market – having just voluntarily given it up. If they fail to get such an agreement in one year – an unrealistically short period of time – then Britain leaves without an FTA. Most members of the hard-line European Research Group (of which Jacob Rees Mogg is the leader) want this deal because this is the desired endgame.

The EU is sick of Britain, sick of the Conservatives, and they just want the UK to go. The older and wiser Angela Merkel is more emollient and would like to give the UK more time but the French President Francois Macron is very clear – the UK leaves on October 31 if this vote is won.

The deal will be presented again and it is, however, very likely it will get passed – even though it leaves Britain worse off than in the case of all other proposals.

The deal when it is passed, will be by a fearful bunch of MPs more worried about getting re-elected from their constituencies in the General Election that is imminent, despite their personal beliefs and convictions to the contrary. 

It will be passed by a set of very wealthy MPs who sit on estates both in and outside the United Kingdom, who see this disastrous deal as nothing more than the buying opportunity of a century while they place their bets to short the Pound.

The warriors for the cause are MPs who fervently believe that Britain is exactly where it was in 1939, alone and vulnerable, battling the world alone while the fearsome Hun threaten our shores.

The buglers are a few members who believe in an ultra-libertarian world bereft of international obligations and treaties, that will return England to those heady days of 1599, when Thomas Smythe created the East India Company and Britannia ruled the waves.

And there are those wish nothing more than a return to the Enid Blyton world of a white England without all these black, brown and foreign people chattering in our buses and polluting our clean English air with the smell of their curries and pirozhkis.

The General leading the charge? Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. A serial liar, a man bereft of convictions, fired from three previous jobs on ethics charges, father of two illegitimate children, a man who months before the Referendum passionately declared his belief in the EU only to change sides, elected by Conservative Party members who are about 70,000 people above the age of 70, who has consistently behaved on the principle that what would be best for Boris is best for Britain.

There is no blood-dimmed tide yet. But all the other warnings that Yeats sounded in “The Second Coming” are coming true. Britain today is run by politicians of little character, little conviction and no vision.

William Dalrymple says that the British have never – to paraphrase Robert Burns – “seen ourselves as others see us”.  Ideas of British exceptionalism have been fed by hagiographies of Empire which portray the British as an adventurous, highly moral race who fought long odds and brought civilisation and modernity to the heaving masses of India and Africa. This has created a class of people who are hugely ignorant of their own history. This is the creation of an education system that seems to pander to low level skill creation, and to cultivating the cult of the individual, rewarding elegant expression over integrity of thought.

Only elder statesmen like John Major, Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke and Tony Blair point to the fact that Britain is looking to give up a place at the top table of politics – an inexcusable political act. But no one is listening to them.

The country’s belief in Brexit is like a panacea to solve all its problems. For many, this is the Second Coming. Perhaps I should leave you with the concluding lines from Yeats.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Freefall

The United Kingdom is in freefall, and only the Queen can stop it.

Every system of government is governed by rules. Most modern states have written Constitutions that lay down the powers, boundaries and rules for people in government – elected or not. Even China has a written Constitution. However the character of the individual occupying constitutional office redeems or devalues the office. Where the individual falls below ethical or other standards constitutions have rules to take care of such cases.

Britain, blessed with a continuous political history going back a thousand years, where the last foreign invader was the Normans in 1066 CE, has never written a Constitution. It has operated on the basis of precedents and rules observed over the years that have evolved into a code of practice.

The system relies on a monarch who is the Head of State and in whose name the Prime Minister rules.  The monarch wields no political power and is a figurehead. The Prime Ministers over the last three years have taken the country to a point where a “hard Brexit” stares us in the face. It will ruin the country and reduce the United Kingdom to a rump.

If the Prime Minister and his band of extremists have their way, we will see an immediate and precipitous decline in British living standards. It is highly probable Scotland will unilaterally declare Independence while staying subjects of the Queen – a la Australia, Canada and New Zealand. During the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales in 1998, and when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the membership of the EU was taken as a given.  A hard Brexit – or indeed any Brexit – will see Northern Ireland rejoin Ireland.

Things are moving quickly and there may not be much of the United Kingdom to save. The Queen has enormous political goodwill in the country. She is in her 90s. She should not have to see the United Kingdom she so carefully nurtured from Empire to Nation fall to pieces because of unscrupulous politicians in her lifetime.  Her son the heir, Prince Charles, does not carry the same moral authority.

The state of affairs is appalling.  Here’s a brief summary:

  • The simplistic referendum of 2016 asked a simple question – Yes to Leave, No to Remain. A small majority voted for Yes to Leave. How this was to be operationalised was never defined. Instead a new Prime Minister (Theresa May) drew up needlessly rigid negotiating positions without consulting opinion in the country.
  • No one in the Conservative Party, when campaigning for Brexit, had even bothered to read the Good Friday Agreement with Ireland that brought peace to Northern Ireland – in particular how dependent it was on NOT having a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
  • Since the red lines involved leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, it requires a hard border with the EU at the Northern Ireland frontier.
  • Scotland was the first to protest these red lines. Scotland does not suffer from the scourge of anti-Europeanism. Being part of the EU was very much part of the attraction of being with the UK. Almost immediately the SNP raised the bogey of Independence. Of late even Wales, which has been part of the United Kingdom since the 14th century, has started to talk of Independence.
  • A hard border in Northern Ireland  invalidates the GFA. To square this circle a complicated Withdrawal Agreement was drawn up which preserves the Customs Union and Single Market until such time as the Irish (both Republic of Ireland and their Northern cousins) agree on a solution. Effectively kicking the can down the road.
  • But this does not meet with the extremist views of the English Right Wing, who hanker for the days of Empire and think British membership of the EU is a surrender of sovereignty. It is not. Its a voluntary pooling of sovereignty on common economic matters. Its regulatory heft sets global standards, its economic heft gives it a huge advantage in trade negotiations. None of them seem to be aware of critical Britain is to the EU and how valued the UK is to the EU. Instead the less read and the well read among them, lead by poisonous papers like the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, have propagated this myth.
  • The Withdrawal Agreement was accepted by all members of the Theresa May cabinet.  The British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the British Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab were part and parcel of the negotiating team. Under the principle of Collective Responsibility all Cabinet Ministers signed on to it.
  • The next day both Ministers resigned disavowing the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Agreement was put to vote in Parliament three times, and defeated three times. Members of the Conservative Right Wing voted en masse against it.
  • The Prime Minister stepped down. The EU, recognizing the mess, extended the deadline for leaving to October 31st, accompanied by a stern warning from the EU President Donald Tusk not to waste this time.
  • Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister by 76,000 people in the UK who are members of the Party. He promptly put together a Cabinet of all the right wingers who had voted against the previous Prime Minister. And of course, spent most of July and August wasting time.
  • He first disavowed the Withdrawal Agreement and asked the EU to drop the Irish “backstop”.  He asked the Irish to merge with the UK, then denied it, then told the Irish to tell the EU to drop the backstop.
  • He met the German Chancellor. In an idiotic display he misunderstood what Angela Merkel told him – that if a solution can be found in 30 days when it could not be found in 2 years (to the Irish backstop) then of course the EU will reopen. His spin doctors duly told the Press that we had 30 days. After much ridicule from the German press this piece of spin was quietly retired.
  • He then shifted to telling the EU and the British public that the 2016 vote was actually about leaving without an Agreement. This means Britain will instantly lose access to the Common Market, lose all preferential access, be cut off from all European supply chains, lose the benefit of highly advantageous Free Trade Agreements the EU has concluded, and make all UK citizens living in the EU foreigners, and vice versa for EU citizens living in the UK. Further a Government Assessment drawn up in August 2019 documents that this would be an economic disaster. Knowing all this, the PM has staked his political future on crashing out.
  • Shortly after that, after denying strenuously that he will not close Parliament down before October 31, he did. Parliament is prorogued for about a month from the middle of September to the middle of October. Proroguing the Parliament is a device for the Prime Minister to close the Parliament with the view to asking the Queen to re-open it with a new legislative program. Johnson told the Queen there is a new program. But actually he was doing this to stop Parliament having the time to debate his Brexit plans and instead, be able to simply force an exit on October 31.
  • The uproar caused by this move galvanized the Opposition to quickly put together a Bill to delay Brexit. Aided by the Speaker who bent procedural rules here and there, the Queen provided her assent to an Opposition Bill obligating the Prime Minister to ask the EU for a delay upto January 31 2020. The bill came into effect on September 7.
  • The Conservatives broke ranks and 22 MPs – including the Father of the House Kenneth Clarke – voted with the Opposition. All of them were expelled from the Party. The PM’s brother and another Cabinet Minister also quit the Party. Jo Johnson, the Prime Minister’s brother said he could not put family loyalty above the national interest.
  • The PM then made speeches stating he will disregard this law. Immediately the legal fraternity warned the PM that he will go to jail if he does that, and risk immediate disqualification from the House. He is being egged on by the extremists and indeed may do just this.
  • A few minutes ago, an exasperated EU warned the UK that they see no seriousness, no proposals and no intent – and to avoid a moral hazard of  rewarding this lack of purpose they may just not grant an extension. And the PM’s men tell every channel that while they intend to obey the law, they also intend to break it.

The United Kingdom is in grave danger from its own political class. Until galvanized by the twin threats of a No Deal Brexit and a prorogued Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition was countenancing a disastrous Brexit cooked up by the Conservatives while pretending to oppose it, and all the time floating schemes to return to the leftist politics of the 70s.  The PM on the other hand, is behaving like a charlatan, a spoilt child, intent on ruining the credit of the United Kingdom in all respects.

The choice between the British is between two futures – the Central African Republic of the United Kingdom, and the Socialist People’s Democratic Republic of the United Kingdom. If there is a United Kingdom left.

On October 19th the PM is under compulsion to ask the EU for an extension. If he refuses and resigns, another Conservative PM could be elected to ask for such an extension. It is quite likely that the EU will grant this extension. Even then if the EU provides some changes to the May Withdrawal Agreement (highly unlikely) the PM can put this to vote in Westminster.  The chances of this  WA passing with the backstop intact are remote.

Of course the Political Declaration that accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement (that sets out the future relationship between the EU and the UK but is not binding in nature) has also been amended as part of the recent Bill and that may enable some Labour MPs to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement. It is also possible that the backstop only covers Northern Ireland – hence putting the Customs Border in the Irish Sea. Doing so will ensure a much closer embrace between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and in that case Irish reunification is not far away.

No one knows the sense of the country. It is clear that any form of Brexit will divide the United Kingdom, and yet Brexit has become the poster-child of English nationalism. As Tony Blair puts it so passionately, there are only two forms of Brexit – a pointless one and a disastrous one. The pointless one – as exemplified by the Withdrawal Agreement – binds us to the EU for a period of time without any influence on the rules. The disastrous one is to leave severing all links to the biggest trading and political bloc in the world which Britain did so much to shape.

There is no way to satisfy all these partisan demands that have arisen on the basis of one flawed Referendum.

Only the Queen can tell the nation to pause Brexit, and think it over. The nation can hold a second referendum detailing the terms of each Brexit option, its pros and cons, and then act on it. She can either convey this to the PM in her weekly audience with him, or choose some other way  of talking directly to the people. It is her right to do so. After all she is also British, and a highly respected fellow citizen.

It is also possible for the Queen to ask the PM to make way for a respected leader from the House to lead a Government of National Unity to guide the country.  She can suggest to the Leader of the Opposition to participate in such a move. It has been done before – in the Second World War.

What is the point of the Queen obeying constitutional propriety when a gang of unscrupulous politicians are flouting them? She is the only adult left in the United Kingdom who can potentially stop the free fall. She has one chance to stop the madness.

Your move Your Majesty!

 

A country wearing its decline on its sleeve

Discussing the British Television Mini Series “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” recently on the 40th anniversary of its screening,  a columnist for the Guardian newspaper remarked “It depicts a country wearing its decline on its sleeve.” The world of George Smiley and the Circus in the 1970s is so redolent of a tired Britain and its ruling class.  Empire gone, wealth gone, influence diminished. All they have are imperial memories and a reputation for getting things done in the past. Weariness  pervades the atmosphere. “A country wearing decline on its sleeve”. How beautiful, I thought.

The world that John Le Carre inhabited ended with the fall of the Soviet Union. Until then, in language so sublime, he depicted the Manichaean world of the struggle between the West and the Soviet Union without the reader ever being sure of who was right and who was wrong.  He saw corruption in the morality tale of a Christian West led by the brash new power of the United States, championing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while doing so much to stifle that individuality and refusing to admit grey areas,. He documents the Cold War struggle among spies to battle the awesome power of the ideology of the Soviet Union backed by its totalitarian insistence on the suppression of the individual. He sees morality in immorality, evil in nobility.   And above all his superb description of Britain in the 60s and 70s –  Great no longer, bereft of imperial power, the Pound no longer the dominant currency –   but heavy with all the knowledge and background of having once run a global empire, trying to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans.

I came across Le Carre in the public library of the small town I grew up in. The publishing sensation of that time, according to TIME magazine, was “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by a writer with an exotic name. – John Le Carre. Almost by accident I found a copy of “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”.  I took it home and started on it right after lunch. I put it down four hours later, shaking with excitement. I remember the last scene where Alec Leamas  – a British spy, world weary, cynical, unsure of the rightness of his cause – is trying to cross the Berlin Wall with his lover Liz whom he has rescued as part of the mission. He climbs and reaches for her – when the East German Volkspolizei shoot her dead. Unsure of stepping back into the free world without Liz to give him the ability to be free of himself, he climbs down from the Wall and stands over her lifeless body. After a brief hesitation, they gun him down as “he stood glaring around him like a blinded bull in the arena”.  The romance of it all!

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – the title derived from a children’s skipping rope rhyme – chronicles the search for a Soviet mole within the British Secret Service. The search is led by George Smiley, short, podgy, bespectacled, fond of wiping his glasses on his tie end, husband to the lovely Ann, devotee of Goethe and German poetry, a most unlikely spymaster.   In musty backrooms, in dank University libraries, the search goes on to find the trail of an insider who has frustrated the service, by looking at operations that have inexplicably failed. The trail of treachery and betrayal gradually uncovered in the service is complicated by the slow realization on the part of Smiley that his own marriage is being betrayed by infidelity.

As the threads weave themselves into a fabric of treachery,  Smiley is dismayed to find that his wife is in fact in the arms of a fellow member of the service –  a friend. In the upper class world that he inhabits, an academic cat and mouse game is played out amidst the shambles of the Service that Smiley loves, and his own personal life.  The action is slow, practically  non-existent; but like the slow coiling of a python around its victim, the vast intellect of Smiley and the persistence of his acolytes – Peter Guillam, Toby Esterhaze, Jim Prideaux, George Mendel – tightens its holds on the traitor. It is fascinating to watch; you lose yourself in the maze of a Service in denial of its betrayal by one of England’s very own, someone from the dreaming spires of its aristocratic echelons. The book was written at a time when Anthony Blunt was unmasked as a Soviet Spy for 40 years. He was Curator of the Queen’s Art Gallery no less. And he found it so easy – as does Smiley’s prey – to be comfortable in the English world of Court, Tradition and Duty and at the same time owe loyalty to the Communist cause. A dichotomy never fully understood by the Americans.

The tragic life of the Hon Jerry Westerby illuminates the dark world of “The Honourable Schoolboy”.  A floppy haired public schoolboy with a moral code, he is recalled from a bucolic semi-retirement in Tuscany to London to execute an assignment in Hong Kong. The traitor, in “Tinker Tailor” has been found – a high level upper class English aristocrat. But the Service is in the doghouse in the eyes of the Cousins (the Service slang for the CIA).  A rich Chinese businessman is suspected of being a spy for the Russians. Smiley wants to get him as a coup to recover the lost prestige of the Service.  The battle – fought in a Whitehall conference room! – between the Service, the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office responsible for Hong Kong for the right to go after a wealthy colonial subject is memorable. It is one of my favourite parts of the book – an excerpt:

The conference table was covered in a ripped green baize like a billiards table in a youth club. The Foreign Office sat one end, the Colonial Office at the other. The separation was visceral rather than legal. For six years the two departments had been formally married under the grandiose awnings of the Diplomatic Service, but no one in his right mind took the union seriously. Guillam and Smiley sat at the centre, shoulder to shoulder, each with empty chairs to the other side of him. Examining the cast, Guillam was absurdly aware of costume. The Foreign Office had come sharply dressed in charcoal suits and the secret plumage of privilege: both Enderby and Martindale wore Old Etonian ties. The Colonialists had the homeweave look of country people come to town, and the best they could offer in the way of ties was one Royal Artillery-man: honest Wilbraham.

The other memorable character in the book is Craw – the crusty, foul-mouthed Australian journalist, and British spy. The character is based on a real-life Australian journalist Richard Hughes who lived and worked in Hong Kong for years. Craw specialises in using the language of Catholic priests to talk to people. It is true that Hughes held court in a corner of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel coffee shop, and it is widely rumoured Hughes was a British spy.  The story goes into the detail of this Chinese businessman and his payments from a Russian slush fund, tracing the travels of Westerby through Thailand, Laos and Hong Kong. Betrayal looms large. Westerby cannot countenance the betrayal that the businessman is about to connive in. And the last minute the British are themselves betrayed to the Americans by one of their own.

It is a book you can read again and again, and still be moved. One of the finest novels of the 20th Century.

The other Le Carre book that I absolutely loved was “A Perfect Spy”. Written around the time of perestroika and glasnost, the story is based largely on Le Carre’s own background. His father was a bit of con artist and part time impressario, who insisted on his son going to public school even if he could not always pay the fees on time! And like the author, Magnus Pym becomes an upper class Englishman clad in pin stripes, fluent in German, but constantly aware of his hidden side based on trickery and deceit.  He joins the British Secret Service due to his fluency in German – just like the real life Le Carre did. And then, unsure of his own beliefs, Magnus is recruited as a spy by the East German Secret Service.  His existence as a double agent is easy at first but increasingly more intense. His East German case officer, conscience keeper, interlocutor and friend is Axel.  He describes Magnus in the following passage.

Then Axel began speaking, kindly and gently without irony or bitterness, and it seems to me that he spoke for about thirty years because his words are as loud in my ear now as they ever were in Pym’s then, never mind the din of the cicadas and the cheeping of the bats.

‘Sir Magnus, you have in the past betrayed me but, more important, you have betrayed yourself. Even when you are telling the truth, you lie. You have loyalty and you have affection. But to what? To whom? I don’t know all the reasons for this. Your great father. Your aristocratic mother. One day maybe you will tell me. And maybe you have put your love in some bad places now and then.’ He leaned forward and there was a kindly, true affection in his face and a warm long-suffering smile in his eyes. ‘Yet you also have morality. You search. What I am saying is, Sir Magnus: for once nature has produced a perfect match. You are a perfect spy. All you need is a cause. I have it. I know that our revolution is young and that sometimes the wrong people are running it. In the pursuit of peace we are making too much war. In the pursuit of freedom we are building too many prisons. But in the long run I don’t mind. Because I know this. All the junk that made you what you are: the privileges, the snobbery, the hypocrisy, the churches, the schools, the fathers, the class systems, the historical lies, the little lords of the countryside, the little lords of big business, and all the greedy wars that result from them, we are sweeping that away for ever. For your sake. Because we are making a society that will never produce such sad little fellows as Sir Magnus.’ He held out his hand. ‘So. I’ve said it. You are a good man and I love you.’

And I remember that touch always. I can see it any time by looking into my own palm: dry and decent and forgiving. And the laughter: from the heart as it always was, once he had ceased to be tactical and become my friend again.

I found this passage very moving. It describes a part of all of us, doesn’t it?

The Bible tells the story of Simeon, who was a devout Jew, who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to Jerusalem, Simeon sees the baby and utters words of gratitude that form the beautiful Nunc Dimittis. The translation in the Book of Common Prayer is as follows:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Is there redemption in life? Are there any moral or ideological certainties that we can all aspire to be guided by? Smiley is not so sure. His own Messiah is his intellect and the pursuit of reason, guided by an understanding of his and everyone’s own imperfect humanity. I first read Le Carre when I was seventeen, and forty years on, I think I am just beginning to understand.  So when the day is done and the task accomplished, is it not fair to ask the Lord to let his servant depart in peace? Even if there is no Messiah to witness?

Here are the closing titles of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” with a beautiful rendition of Nunc Dimittis.  I hope you like it.

 

Article 370

It’s now almost four weeks since the Government of India took a hatchet to Article 370 of the Constitution of India, through a simple Presidential Order. Parliament then passed an Act to bifurcate the State into two Union Territories.

Jammu and Kashmir demands something be done about it. The fact that it is a Muslim-majority State is totemic to our secular constitution; the fact that three wars (four, if you include Kargil) have been fought over it is a symbol of our heroism and resolve; the fact that since 1990 some 45,000 people have died or been displaced in ongoing violence is a festering sore; the fact that the Indian Union let Kashmiri Hindus be chased out of their homes in 1990 by Kashmiri Jihadis is a disgrace.

Is it all Nehru’s fault?

During the Parliamentary debate – or what passes for it – allegations were freely made that it was all the fault of Nehru.

Nehru is not the culprit here – that’s for sure. If anything, the true believers in an independent Kashmir blame Nehru for ensuring Kashmir did not end up choosing its own destiny and have nothing but contempt for him. Pakistan was in that category until very recently, when Imran Khan suddenly seems to have developed a touching faith in India’s Founding Fathers.

Nor is it the case that Patel had nothing to do with it. The formulation of India’s Constitutional structure had all the hallmarks of Patel’s astute thinking, and he very much was involved in formulating Article 370 as a reviewer if not as the creator.

Nor is it the case that Ambedkar washed his hands of the whole affair. An article by a Central Minister in the Indian Express said as much recently, but if the Hon Minister had taken two minutes to check his facts, he would have discovered that Ambedkar actually was very much in favour of partitioning Kashmir.

The Events of 1947 up to the Cease Fire of January 1949

In 1947 the State of Jammu and Kashmir signed a Standstill Agreement under the Indian Independence Act delaying the Accession decision in favour of either India or Pakistan. The State was one of two major princely states trying to negotiate their entry into the two new Dominions – the other was Hyderabad.  Sardar Patel was very keen on Hyderabad’s accession. In fact until after Independence Patel was relatively indifferent to Kashmir, and more keen on resolving the situation in Junagadh. Junagadh was a Hindu majority state with a Muslim ruler, who signed the Instrument of Accession to Pakistan. When the Hindus in the State protested, the Nawab fled the State when armed forces were positioned at his border.

It is worthwhile noting here, that things had been tense in the Valley for some time. By August 1947 the Poonch area – which was full of discharged soldiers – was in rebellion. The Maharaja’s reaction was very harsh – it is estimated his Dogra killed Muslim men and women in their thousands. The situation was such that Pakistan was now keenly interested in forcing the Maharaja’s hand to accede to Pakistan. The Prime Minister of Kashmir State was Ram Chandra Kak, who was sure the State was going to accede to Pakistan and he was absolutely against the Congress. Sensing this, the Maharaja dismissed Kak.

Maharaja Hari Singh has been described as a weak and vacillating man, who personally did not want Kashmir to go Pakistan but was not sure of acceding to India as well. He was being wooed by both sides.  As tensions escalated, Patel and Nehru too were concerned about the situation in the State.

In September 1947 the Sardar pressed Justice Meher Chand Mahajan, a Justice of the Punjab High Court, to accept the Kashmir Maharaja’s invitation to become the new Prime Minister of the Kashmir State. The Maharaja’s great foe was Sheikh Abdullah, the leader of the Muslim Conference, who had a history of fighting for the rights of Muslims in the Hindu State.  Abdullah was then in prison. The Indian Government took the precaution of laying telephone and telegraph lines between Jammu and Pathankot.

By end September the Indian Government received intelligence reports of Pakistani forces dressed as irregulars making preparations to infiltrate Kashmir. Patel made moves to induce a rapprochement between Sheikh Abdullah and the Maharaja. Before any concrete moves could take place, on October 22 1947, about 12,000 Pashtun tribesmen, armed and supplied by the Pakistan Army and lead by former officers of the Indian National Army attacked Kashmir. Elements of the regular Pakistan Army, like the 7th Infantry Division and the Prince Albert Victor’s Own Cavalry participated in the attacks but leaving the tribesmen to take the credit. In two days they routed the State Forces – of whose Muslim members many deserted to the other side – and stood at Baramulla, 40 miles from the capital. A panic-stricken Maharaja pleaded with the Government of India for help.

On October 25, VP Menon was despatched by the Defence Committee of the Indian Cabinet to Srinagar to assess the situation. He saw a state of chaos and confusion. He flew back on October 26th with Mahajan to Delhi. A meeting took place on October 26th at Nehru’s house with Abdullah, Mountbatten, Patel, Mahajan and Menon. Mountbatten demurred from involving the Army but Patel and Nehru were keen to provide military assistance. In deference to Mountbatten – and also because most of the senior serving officers in the Indian Army were British – they agreed to obtaining the Maharaja’s accession first. Patel also agreed with Nehru that Abdullah should rightfully lead any Kashmiri Government because only he could inspire loyalty among the State’s Muslims.

On October 26, V P Menon met the Maharaja in Jammu and presented their demands. The Maharaja agreed at once, and signed the Instrument. Immediately, the Indian Army and a team led by H M Patel (the Defence Secretary) set about getting an infantry battalion together. They assembled an armada of more than a 100 planes from the army and from private sources.

On October 27 morning, 329 men of the 1st Battalion, 1st Sikh Regiment, led by Lt Col Ranjit Rai, landed at Srinagar and secured the airport, and immediately deployed to the battlefield, – Col Rai was to be tragically killed in action hours after landing and was replaced by Lt Col Lionel “Bogey” Sen.  Plane after plane landed bring arms and men to the campaign. Jinnah had been waiting in Lahore for the news to arrive that the “tribesmen” had captured Srinagar, so that he could make a triumphal entry there. As soon as he heard that the Indian Army had landed, he was disappointed. He asked the Pakistani Army to formally intervene. As more Indian reinforcements arrived, the enemy was first checked, and then pushed back until Srinagar was no longer in danger.

Even at this stage, it appears that Patel (more so) and Nehru (less so) were anxious to settle Kashmir with Pakistan, since for Patel, the main prize was still Hyderabad. Discussions on Hyderabad were ongoing with the Nizam, his interlocutors (Laik Ali and Sir Monckton) and Mountbatten (for whom Hyderabad mattered thanks to his royal connections). Well after the Indian Army was engaged in Kashmir, he was open to accession to Pakistan if the Pakistanis would help with Hyderabad. To quote Srinath Raghavan:

“Until late 1947, he was open to allowing Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan if the Pakistanis would tell the Nizam of Hyderabad to fall in line and join India. As he told Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, “Why do you compare Junagadh with Kashmir? Talk of Hyderabad and Kashmir and we could reach an agreement”.  Patel even stated this publicly after the occupation of Junagadh on 11 November 1947: “Our reply was that one could agree on Kashmir if they could agree on Hyderabad”. At another meeting with Liaquat on 28 November, Patel offered to pull Indian troops out of Poonch if it would help pave the way for a diplomatic settlement. But Nehru opposed this course.

Let us also address here the question of the famous rift that people allege took place after which Patel stayed out of the Kashmir issue.

Nehru and Patel had a close personal equation. There was not a day when, if both of them were in Delhi, that Nehru did not walk over to Patel’s house on York Road or Patel to Nehru’s on Aurangzeb Road. It was not uncommon for them them to disagree. Abdullah was back as a de facto Premier, intent on making life difficult for Mahajan, the actual Premier. And he and the Maharaja did not get along. Nehru, however, saw Abdullah as critical to the Kashmir story. To be fair to Nehru, he believed Patel was close to the Maharaja in sympathies. Correctly assessing that Abdullah was more important to resolving Kashmir than an increasingly marginal Maharaja, he took over the handling of Kashmir and insisted to the Maharaja that Abdullah become the formal Premier of the State. Nehru also appointed Sir Gopalaswamy Ayyangar as the interlocutor between Srinagar and Delhi, bypassing Patel. Ayyangar had great credentials – he was a Civil Service officer, was awarded the Diwan Bahadur title and further, made a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire. He had moreover served as Diwan of Jammu and Kashmir. But this annoyed Patel, and lead to an exchange of angry notes between the two men on Christmas Eve 1947, with Patel actually sending in his resignation. Nehru apologised and returned it but insisted he would deal with Kashmir, and Patel agreed to support Nehru to the hilt. There is no record of any further discord over Kashmir between the two.

In January 1948 Nehru took the Kashmir issue to the new United Nations. It was winter, and the fighting had died down.  In response to the Indian Army entering the war on the side of the Maharaja, Pakistan had also entered the war formally.   It was difficult terrain, and both were well-trained armies fresh from the Second World War. Gilgit-Baltistan, under the command of its British officers, had already been taken by Pakistan in August 1947 itself. What was left was the Valley’s western portion in Pakistan’s hands and the rest of the kingdom in India’s control.

Finding a resolution to the military and political stalemate was the most important task before the new Government. Politically, Mountbatten was keen the two new Dominions not go to war especially since British officers were still largely in command of units in both forces, and both commanders of the Indian and Pakistani Armies were British. Mountbatten, Nehru and Patel openly discussed the idea of a partition of Kashmir, an idea that Ambedkar seems to have been in agreement with, There were plans to discuss this formally with the Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali, but the meeting never took place. A Ceasefire was finally agreed and went into force in January 1949.

Once the Ceasefire went into effect, the UN Security Council passed a Resolution requiring the following actions to be performed in sequence and to the satisfaction of the UN:

  1. Pakistan to withdraw all forces back to the line existing on August 15 1947 including in Gilgit-Baltistan.
  2. India was to withdraw all forces keeping in place only those men needed to police the state and maintain law and order
  3. A plebiscite was then to be held to allow the Kashmiris to decide to accede to Pakistan or to India.

Since the first condition was never fulfilled, the other two conditions have also not been executed.

The Creation of Article 370

We should note that J&K and India were entering into an agreement as two independent States. India was willing to consider special provisions for obtaining accession to India – in fact the provisions extended to Hyderabad (before the Nizam foolishly rejected them) would have surprised today’s nationalists.

The first major meeting on the terms of Kashmir’s Accession to India took place at the residence of Sardar Patel on May 15-16 1949.  The meeting was attended by Sheikh Abdullah, Sardar Patel, Nehru, V P Menon, Gopalaswami Ayyangar and Baldev Singh at the very least.  The discussion was memorialized in the form of a letter from Nehru to Abdullah, drafted by Ayyangar and approved by Patel. You can find this correspondence in the Collected Letters of both Nehru and Patel. The contents are key:

  1. Both Patel and Nehru concede that J&K will have its own Constituent Assembly to form its own Constitution under the Instrument of Accession
  2. That the accession of J&K to India into the Indian Union is final.
  3. That the Constituent Assembly of J&K will decide what subjects the State will exclusively legislate on and what the Union will have jurisdiction over.
  4. That the J&K State Forces are now under full operational and budgetary control of the Indian Army.

This is a key document and a key meeting, and this letter essentially lays the foundation for what was eventually to become Article 370. It first saw light of day as Article 306A. There is no way Sardar Patel did not know of the impending “special status” of the new State of Jammu and Kashmir. 

In May 1949 representatives of the State of J&K became members of the Indian Constituent Assembly. In his remarks to the Constituent Assembly, Ayyangar said “Now the correct position is this. The accession is complete. No doubt, we have offered to have a plebiscite when the conditions are created for the holding of a proper, fair and impartial plebiscite. But that plebiscite is merely for the purpose of giving the people of the State to….ratify the accession that has already taken place….but if the plebiscite produces a verdict which is against the … accession…then we shall not stand in the way of Kashmir separating herself away from India”.  Clear as day.  The spirit in which the Constituent Assembly was approaching the accession was in the nature of an agreement between two states.

By this time, a draft Article (then called 306A) was in circulation. A proposal from the State of J&K was with the Indian Ministry of States, who put the draft into circulation. The draft was explained before the Constituent Assembly by Ayyangar:

  1. The State of J&K is deemed to have acceded to the Indian Union.
  2. Article 211A of the Constitution – which applies the Constitution to all the Indian States – shall not apply to J&K.
  3. The Instrument of Accession had other items, other than the three major items (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Communications) on which the Union had jurisdiction. This list could be extended by the President in consultation with the Government of the State of J&K.
  4. If any other provisions need to be extended, the concurrence of the State of J&K was needed.
  5. The concurrence was strictly provisional and had to be ratified by the Constituent Assembly of the State of J&K.
  6. But even this was provisional, until the Constituent Assembly of the State met and agreed on a final list of what powers were to be retained by the State and what was to be done at the Union. Once this is done the President’s powers would cease.
  7. The President can abrogate or amend this Article but only with the concurrence of the State Government via its  Constituent Assembly.

The Assembly adopted Article 306A (now known as Article 370) without a vote on October 17 1949. Soon after the vote was taken, a visibly shaken Abdullah and other members of the Constituent Assembly of the J&K State had a heated discussion with Ayyangar in the lobby of the House.  Ayyangar changed one crucial part of the draft agreed with the J&K representatives and got it passed by the Constituent Assembly. This change was made after consultations with Sardar Patel and others.  Instead of the words “Council of Ministers appointed under the Maharaja’s Proclamation dated March 5 1948”, Ayyangar substituted the phrase “Council of Ministers for the time being in office under the Maharaja’s Proclamation dated March 5 1948”.  An incensed Abdullah accused Ayyangar of bad faith in writing and threatened to resign from the Constituent Assembly.

Patel, Nehru, Ayyangar and Abdullah were wily men and they knew the implication of this innocuous modification. Under the original wording, only those who were in office on March 5 1948 could advise on applicability of the Indian Constitution to the President. The “trivial change” as Ayyangar termed it, made it possible for anyone in office at a particular time to advise the President.  It did not enshrine a permanent role for Abdullah in the process.  It caused a lot of bad blood, but the door was now open for the Indian Union to take control of the J&K Constitutional process through a small chink. It is what lead to the dismissal of Abdullah and his incarceration in 1953.

The renamed Article 370 was then incorporated into the Constitution, and the Constitution was adopted in November 1949.  The new Constitution was then adopted by the new Maharaja Karan Singh on November 25 1949. When India became a Republic, the very first Order passed by President Rajendra Prasad was under Article 370 applying the Constitution to the new State of J&K. The First Schedule was the Union List and the Second Schedule other items of the new Constitution.

In 1951 the J&K Constituent Assembly was formed. While it began its deliberations, the J&K leadership and the Indian Government agreed on a set of principles to govern how the two entities would work. This is the 1952 Delhi Agreement.  You can read it for historical value, but the key parts are that the Government of India allowed residuary powers of decision making to rest with the State, allowed the Head of the State to be appointed by the President only after it was recommended by the State, and to give effect to Maharaja-era rules on who can settle in the State.

But disquiet had begun to creep into the relationship.  Abdullah was keen to include Pakistan in the future of the State, whereas Nehru’s wish was to make the State take steps closer to integration with India. Nehru was keen to use Article 370 to further extend the new provisions of the Constitution to J&K State. The President had his doubts on the legality of doing so and wrote to Nehru as such. Nevertheless he yielded to Nehru’s pressure and made an Order on November 15 1952 extending the Constitution. Matters came to a head, and in 1953 Sheikh Abdullah was arrested and his deputy Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed became the Prime Minister of J&K State.  The J&K Constituent Assembly continued to debate its own constitution and never addressed the link between India and Kashmir other than acknowledge the accession and applicability of the Indian Constitution. In 1954 the President made another Order under 370. 

The J&K Constituent Assembly adopted the State Constitution and adjourned in 1956.  The Preamble to the State Constitution affirms the State’s accession to India. Article 370, intended to be a temporary provision, was left unchanged and intact.

And so the situation stood from then until August 5 2019. 

The State suffered misgovernment right from the time Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed took over, until in 1963 he was censured by the Rajagopala Ayyangar Commission on charges of corruption. After the 1971 War, Mrs Gandhi released Sheikh Abdullah and he took charge of J&K after an accord between India and the National Congress. He was by now an old man, and he died in 1982. His son Farooq Abdullah took over his political mantle but he was clearly not cut from the same cloth as his father.

The Source of the Recent Troubles

Jammu and Kashmir continued to be a flashpoint between Pakistan and India but that was not because of Article 370. Pakistan continued to and continues to this day, to regard Kashmir as the unfinished agenda of Partition. It is natural for them to say so, because the Pakistani State has chosen to define itself in terms of India.  In 1965, 1971 and 1999 Pakistan tried to change the facts on the ground through armed force, and failed.

The present troubles date from 1990. In 1987, the National Conference in cahoots with the Congress shamelessly rigged the elections to stop the Muslim United Front from winning. In some constituencies, votes were counted and recounted until the MUF candidate lost. The government of Farooq Abdullah therefore lacked legitimacy – he was more showman and not at all a good administrator. Riots broke out over electricity tariffs, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front set off some bomb blasts, and by 1990 Central Rule had been imposed. As violent Islamic jihadis took control of the street, the Kashmiri Hindu Pandits were cleansed out of the place by mobs with the State Government powerless to do anything. A shameful episode in our history.

Since then the Valley has been through various governments alternating with Central Rule, and close to half a million armed men battle jihadists and so-called freedom fighters. Pakistan, of course, was delighted when this insurgency began. With the help of its own home-grown jihadists and Taliban fighters, it has given India a massive headache. Its Kargil adventure was a good example of the thinking that asymmetric warfare will make the Indian Army bleed. A series of IEDs, bombings, shootings and terrorist action have forced strong responses from the Army. Some of the responses have been over the top and clearly excessive. All of the above have kept a whole generation of Kashmiris angry and resentful.

Article 370 is not the issue, and neither is Nehru

Was Article 370 and the special status of Jammu & Kashmir the real issue? The nationalist loathing for Article 370 is not new. The newly minted Minister for Industry in the Nehru Government, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, chose to resign and leave the Congress over this. He founded the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1952 over the issue. The BJS is the forefather of the BJP, and erasing Article 370 has been part of their manifesto for a long time.

In 1947, an independent State of Jammu & Kashmir negotiated its accession to the Indian Union. The basis for such accession is enshrined in Article 370 and the State of J&K Constitution. The State was very much a part of India, and since there is no way Pakistan can ask for a plebiscite under the UN Resolution, there is no way the State can vote on its accession to India.

As a nation we need to respect and recognise that diversity in the way regions establish their relationship with the Union at large is perfectly acceptable. Indeed, the Indian Union was a legal entity that evolved from the transfer of British power to India and the accession of independent princely states to the Union under a formal legal process. It is what gives the Constitution its legal aura and its sanctity. In the last 70 years the Union has not had a problem with negotiating with States who wanted to renegotiate their relationships. We have had accords with Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Given the finality of J&K’s accession, there was no need to tamper with this.

The mess in J&K is as much a creation of the BJP as it is of the Congress, the PDP and the NC. And the present situation dates from 1990 to be very precise. It is a complete failure of law and order, and of administration. In the meantime the defiance in the State has morphed from being an independence struggle to a case for an Islamic Jihadic State a la ISIS.  All these are huge problems but these have nothing to do with Article 370. And you can certainly not blame Nehru for it.

Regarding  the plebiscite,  Nehru gets a lot of stick  for double-dealing. Writers like  H V Hodson and A G Noorani allege that Nehru was not entirely straight with the Kashmiris on this. Hodson further taped an interview with VP Menon in 1964 where Menon said that “As for plebiscite, we were absolutely, absolutely dishonest.” Nehru overrode Babu Rajendra Prasad’s objections and asked him to issue not one but several Presidential Orders under Article 370.  If anything the nationalists today who abuse Nehru should applaud him if the allegation of double-dealing is indeed accurate. I am strongly inclined to think this is the case. By the time Parliament debated abrogation in 1964 so much of the Constitution had been extended to Kashmir that Gulzari Lal Nanda (then the Union Home Minister) described Article 370 as a tunnel that joins India to Kashmir, referring to how much this temporary article had been hollowed out by none other than Nehru.  If we wish to hold Nehru and Patel to account, we should also accept that Nehru and Patel can be excused on the basis that they were battling with taking over from the British, setting up a new administration, the aftermath of Partition – and may be they just wanted to get the job done.

What is needed now?

The longer the clampdown in Kashmir exists, the more the impression being created is that India has somehow captured the State. This is clearly absurd. The accession of J&K is a matter of fact and Kashmiris are fellow citizens. 

The clampdown needs to be lifted and the formation of a civil society needs to be encouraged.  There is bound to be an aftermath.  I just hope more thought has gone into how to deal with the fallout.

The Prime Minister has promised to make the new Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir a paradise of jobs, peace, tourism and stability.  There are serious doubts about how this will come about in the face of a sullen population. The glee with which the August 5 2019 action was greeted indicates that the public wanted something to be done about this, but equally, it is seen as a victory of the Hindu position. The latter is unfortunate because it threatens the very fabric of the Indian state.  It is not clear if the rumours of  military excesses are true – I suspect they are not. Whatever be the case, the government must move to include the 8 million people of the new Union Territory as citizens of India in the real sense.

I also hope the Prime Minister allays fears that the Valley will be resettled by Hindus.  This would be right from the playbook of Sheldon Adelson and the Israeli extreme right wing in the Palestinian West Bank.  It would be very costly and highly damaging to the nature of the Indian state – and to the very gentle but strong nature of Hinduism.

China gets away with gross abuse of the Muslims in Xinjiang. This can hardly be a model for India to follow.  We will need another generation to match China in economic strength, and until then, good relations with our friends in the Arab world are absolutely key.  The Prime Minister takes pains to be in personal touch with the leaders of the Arab world. Our people who run their institutions are well regarded and respected, and our growing economic clout is recognised and respected. They also value the fact that we do the best we can for our large Muslim minority.  We should not devalue that trust.

Bibliography

  1.   A G Noorani: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir, Oxford University Press, 2011.
  2.   Rajmohan Gandhi: Patel: A Life, Navajivan Press, 1991.
  3.   Lok Sabha: Debates of the Constituent Assembly of India 1949, Web Resource.
  4.   V P Menon: The Transfer of Power in India, Orient Blackswan, 1957
  5.   H V Hodson: The Great Divide, Hutchinson of London, 1969
  6.   Judith M Brown: Nehru, Yale University Press, 2003.
  7.   Srinath Raghavan: BJP wants to revoke Article 370, ironically Sardar Patel was its architect. The Print, June 26 2018

 

 

 

Toward a Five Trillion Dollar Economy – Technology Imperatives

Notes: These are remarks I made at the SKOCH Conference on  5 Trillion Dollar Economy held in  New Delhi on August 29 2019. The focus was on technology. I am tired of people touting a piece of technology to solve the world’s problems – like saying using Blockchain will make us all happier human beings, or whatever. Technologists are guilty of the “If all I have is a hammer, all I see is a nail” approach to problem solving. Please read with this as the context. Thank you.

Five trillion dollars is a big goal – especially seeing as how we are now facing an economic slowdown. Why talk of it? I take inspiration from two great quotations – one from the old world and one from the new.

The first is the great Tamil saint and poet Thiruvalluvar. He wrote these lines sometime in the 4th century BCE.

தெய்வத்தான் ஆகா தெனினும் முயற்சிதன்
மெய்வருத்தக் கூலி தரும்.

deyvaththaan aahaa theninum muyaRchidhan
meyvaruththak kooli tharum

When faced with a huge task, which seems impossible even for the Gods, your selfless effort will produce rewards equal to what you put in.

The second is President John F Kennedy. Speaking about the US Space Program, on September 12 1962, he said:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Inspiring words.

I am glad we are talking of how to get to the 5 trillion magic mark in the next 5-8 years. India is a blessed civilization. Our people are hard-working, they are big savers, they invest in their social networks – and they are big, big risk takers. We constituted ourselves as a democratic republic out of the chaos of colonial rule and partition. For 70 years we have taken this system and made it our own. Except for 1975, there has been no threat to our form of government.

After liberalizing the economy in 1991, we have lifted millions out of poverty and changed the lives of people without doing anything destabilizing. And there has been a sense of gradualism – for example the share of PSU banking in terms of assets has come down from nearly 100% in 1991 to about 65% today without resorting to any Boris Yeltsin style privatizations.  This is a solid foundation on which to build.

If only we could now unleash the animal spirits that lurks in each of us, we will be well on our way towards this goal. To do so, government needs to withdraw from participating in the economy except as a consumer, a lawmaker and regulator, and instead focus on building the social and political equity that leads to the creation of economic equity.

The single most important imperative is to create and strengthen equity. Equity can be seen in three dimensions – Political equity, Social equity and Economic equity. In each area, the role of technology as enabler can be profound.

Bullding Political Equity

We need to build a political consensus that crosses party boundaries around the agenda for reaching this target. It requires bridge building across the country to make sure that politics are aligned towards development. It involves creating systems of government that generate greater trust and greater accountability to the public. The huge majority won by the BJP in 2019 makes me confident that a platform exists to create this Political Equity.

It is so important to harness technology to build the political equity needed to grow the country.  To cite a few examples:

Using  Twitter/Whatsapp/SMS to talk directly to people. The Aadhaar ecosystem can be put to benign use by using it to engage people directly on matters of policy.  They could be local issues or national issues. As India becomes more and more an integrated republic, we can strengthen our democracy this way. A small example – the white elephant that is the Mumbai monorail could have been avoided if they had bothered to engage people directly on their travel patterns. Ten years and billions of dollars later, it is now a visible waste of public resources. China is great for using its ID and phone system for surveillance. Why don’t we use it to bring people into policy making in a direct manner?

Use Twitter/Whatsapp/SMS to engage with civic services: Mumbai Police today encourages people to communicate with it on Twitter. They respond immediately. Why don’t we make this a formal system? It will be impossible to change the Indian Police Act, but we can make police more accountable this way?

Rather than push the BHIM App, I wish the government had made it mandatory for every municipal ward and taluk to build an app in the local vernacular to enable citizens to request for services, register complaints or keep people informed. Sure – everyone does not have a smart phone but that is changing. Civic engagement has to start somewhere.

India talks digital but does not do anything digital. We need to change that so that we can effect lasting change in our political system. So that development and civic virtues do not become a political football.

Bullding Social Equity

This is the most important aspect of equity, and in my opinion, most government expenditure and effort should go into this. Without social equity, unlocking economic equity is restricted to the wealthy, the tax payer and the upper middle class. Health care, primary and secondary education, availability of clean drinking water, good roads, decent civic infrastructure, public transport, law and order, and justice ideally should be available to all.  And at a price level that makes it affordable for the common man, and at a quality level that removes the incentives to make private arrangements. Indians invest in their family networks today not just as a cultural preference but also to make sure they have a social safety net. We need to minimize the economic imperative of protecting the downside to making this the friends and family network that promotes risk taking.

There are so many ways technology can be harnessed to promote social equity. A few examples from healthcare come to mind.

Disease Surveillance: Collection of field data on specific parameters is essential to form a picture of hotspots. This takes place informally today. Formalising this helps concentrate disease control action where needed quickly and expeditiously. It also helps allocate Primary Health Care resources for triaging. As a tropical country India is fecund for vector borne diseases. Creating the mechanism for collecting vector data, consolidating them and creating district and state level alerts would greatly help. Additionally this data could also drive civic action. An example – a malaria outbreak should initiate civic action to unclog drains, remove stagnant water pools and educate the public. If citizens can be reached directly it enables them to take action quickly based on authoritative government inputs than based on rumours.

Specialised medical networks: Industry bodies like, say the Indian Association of Paediatrics, hold events regularly for exchange of information.  Portals and Information Exchanges that doctors can update and consult for tricky cases, linking doctors via Whatsapp and social media to an expert formally rather than informally.

Formalising Primary Health Care for Infant Children:  A uniform Child Book – like the Red Book in the UK – supported by an App or SMS based system – to provide milestone alerts, vaccination alerts and warnings. Such apps can be built by third parties but based upon a set of APIs or Data Sets available from the hospital to national standards. A fully commercial model, where the app is paid for and run by private parties under government supervision.

Edutech: Strengthening delivery in classrooms, supplementing the teacher. Rather than selling iPads or lessons to kids I would prefer to see the government make use of their capabilities in service delivery in addition to the Edutechs evolving business models of their own right.

Assisting in Creating Economic Equity

This is equity in the financial sense. Encouraging domestic capital formation by mobilizing domestic savings is the one of the most important factors in achieving the magic 5 trillion number. Recall that Indians are great savers. But since for most Indians, there is no safety net available to catch them on the downside, we tend to protect our own downside by putting money in liability products of FIs, or in gold, or in land. Money loaned to FIs then goes into equity. The FI gets all the benefits (and the downsides) of equity investment. The saver gets his 6%. Even taking portfolio choices into account, the percentage going into equity investment is quite low. Indians are risk takers. But the willingness to take risks is constrained by the lack of a safety net.\

Government must focus on political and social equity and cut back its role in the economy. The most essential economic role government can play is in ensuring a level playing field, a clear regulatory and legislative environment that is predictable and fair, and act to facilitate private investment than replace it or crowd it out.  Indians can be found building and running businesses in all parts of the world. Why not at home here?

We are subject to two major external economic forces for the time being. One, Global macro conditions like interest rates in the US, which decides how much of private capital flows to India. Two, the price of oil.  We cannot do much about the latter in the short term, since we are net oil consumer. But in the interest of economic and social equity, long term technology planning to reduce and replace oil in the economy is a national priority.

As for the first, US interest rates – it matters because we are net importers of capital. As long as domestic private capital formation lags, we have to rely on either government investment or external capital. The goal of building up economic equity is to promote domestic private investment. A healthy domestic investment thesis makes foreign investments easier. Our goal is to expand the investor base and  increase the propensity of Indian businesses to make investments. Social equity and Technology can play a big role in the former. In the latter, government has a big role in playing the role of a facilitator rather than a market participant.

If we accept that government should focus on Social and Political Equity and restrict its role in the economy to supervision and legislation, then some of their recent policy moves are questionable. Cutting the MDR on debit card payments to zero, for example. Simply hurts certain businesses and does not do anything for the economy. Digital is not a goal, it’s a means to an end. By the same token, the “shock” of demonetization would also not have happened. It failed in all its stated objectives and instead caused a GDP and investment decline that has hurt the economy.

Manufacturing is technology. Revitalising manufacturing and making India a manufacturing powerhouse was part of Make In India. It has not worked because we have not managed the environment in which manufacturing operates. The failure of “Make In India” has received a lot of attention. Much of it has to with economic policy. But let us not forget agriculture.  The fall in agricultural prices combined with reduction in land monetization opportunities has caused severe economic pressure which has resulted in a fall in demand. We should not apply shocks to change this. But we need sustained investment in the sector and in rural areas to create employment.

What can we do in terms of technology for agriculture?

Reducing climate and weather uncertainty – Using satellite and drone technology to map micro-climate patterns, soil characteristics, plant growth, pest and disease monitoring.  This is at incipient stages today – very interesting satellite and drone technology being used to help agriculturists. Tying in satellite weather reports to local climate conditions to help predict local climate conditions. A lot of interesting work was show-cased at the IOT Seminar on Agriculture in Bangalore a few months back. The business model was to get the technologies paid for Financial Institutions providing products as a mechanism to assess and monitor exposure.

Hydroponics and Crop Planning – India has 16% of the world’s population and 4% of the world’s water. We have to change the way we manage water use. Political will is required in ending rice cultivation in dry areas where ground water is used – a non-replenishable resource when used in such quantities as Punjab has found out. We need to move to crops that do not need so much of water. Businesses and governments can help – government in reeducation and businesses in packaging traditional dryland crops to the general public.  Hydroponics requires intelligent measurement, monitoring and dispensing systems. This is not easy. Facing a distressed rural economy we need to be careful with how we go about it.

Fintech in agricultural finance: Easy loan origination, tied in to crop progress, with cash repayment and electronic repayment options. The Fintech ecosystem has not expanded into rural areas. Rural finance requires an assisted approach that marries savings with loans.

I have limited my remarks to the overall objectives that technology should achieve in the context of the overall macro-economic and socio-political framework. We have to work back from the overall goal and make opportunities available for technologists to create applications in these areas. It has to be on a sound commercial model. If we pull together the goal is certainly achievable.

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.