A country wearing its decline on its sleeve

The Master is dead.

Discussing the British Television Mini Series “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”  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 gone except as a dim memory, to be brought out each year at the Last Day of the Proms. 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 not so long ago, 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  having been 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 early Le Carre books are set in an English public school, where a damaged Jim Prideaux has repaired to teach French and stay out of sight like a spy gone underground, and indicate the centrality of the public school to the formation of English character. Manly values built around rugby, cricket, footer; lessons in Latin and the Classics; the external cadence of public school life built around manliness had to be balanced with the tortured inner life of coping with one’s individuality and loves. They were crucibles for instilling loyalty and duty, and yet they managed to breed spies.  The schools bred loyalty to inspiring fellow boarders, retaining those loyalties  through life, woven through service to country and marriage.

One such public schoolboy is Hon Jerry Westerby in “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.

“A Perfect Spy” is semi-autobiographical,  written around the time of perestroika and glasnost. Le Carre’s father in real life was a 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 – unsure of his own sense of who he really is.  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, rolling through a glimpse of the dreaming spires of Oxford, where so much of English duty and English betrayal was seen through the eyes of Le Carre. And I hope you join me in wishing David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre, mystery and adventure in the After Life. Requiscat in Pace!

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.


  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.

Photo Courtesy Daya Ravi

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Courtesy Daya Ravi

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

A prison building in Birkenau….

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

And in Auschwitz

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

The Crematorium in Auschwitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 Point Economic Program….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a warning we all must heed.

Did the Mughals loot India?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before I go ahead and quote these numbers to you, let me state the caveats that need to accompany them.

First, how do you assign a base value for comparison when no method for collection and analysis of GDP growth data existed credibly before the 1930s?  Maddison’s approach is to  assign a value of $400 (in 1990 prices) for GDP per capita per annum in all the countries under consideration for the period before 1000 CE. He assumes this is the minimum subsistence wage level and that this did not grow for a long time until the Industrial Revolution began. He does not say how he came up with this number. For purposes of argument let us accept this number as the base.

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

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

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

Here is what I see.

  • India’s GDP and share of world GDP grew from 1600 to 1700 largely under the hated Moghuls (from $74bn to $91bn, from 22% to 24%).
  • From 1700 to 1820, India’s GDP increases (from $91bn to $114bn) and world share falls (from 24% to 16.4%).
  • At the same time, World GDP increases (from $371bn to $695bn), the figures for Western Europe rises ($81bn to 160bn) and UK in particular (from $11bn to $36bn). China rises from $83bn to $229bn at the same time.
  • Note the grand entry of the United States, which goes from close to zero in 1700 to $13bn in 1820.
  • From 1820 to 1913, world GDP almost quadruples from $695bn to $2723bn. In the same period, the United States surges forward from $13bn to $517bn, the United Kingdom from $36bn to $225bn – a huge jump. India barely doubles – from $114bn to $204bn, and its relative share therefore falling to 7.46%
  • By 1950 – and two world wars later – the United States has jumped from $517bn in 1913 to $1456bn and its share from 19% to 28%. The United Kingdom has increased from $225bn to $304bn – a very slow increase – and its share falls from 8.23% to 6.53%. India goes from $204bn to $222bn – practically stagnant – and its share of world GDP falls to 4.16%.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between 1820 to 1913, the explosive growth of the world economy can be directly attributed to the Industrial Revolution, feeding on capital captured from colonial rule, and creating great wealth. While India’s GDP grew, we were now a colonial economy that existed for the enjoyment of our colonial ruler.  By this time India had lost all her manufacturing capability. It would not come back in full measure until 1941, when the Americans forced the British to enable Indian industrialists to set up plants to make planes, jeeps, railway equipment etc to feed the war effort.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orwellian Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering June 3 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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